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A predictable Big Ten Tournament flop for Illinois

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Syndication: Journal-Courier
RJ Melendez is life imitating art. Fortunately, this flop was called a charge. The loss is still a win.
Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Happy Saturday, Illini Nation!

Brad Underwood and Illinois basketball turned into appointment television long before the 2023 Big Ten Tournament came to Chicago.

Circumstances that make this a reality are for all the wrong reasons — wild swings of emotions, five airballs on missed threes in the first half alone, the center inadvertently headbutting an opponent for a technical foul ending a huge run and going from down 10 to up six to down 10 to losing by 3 — all happened in one game.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament Second Round - Illinois vs Penn State
Dain Dainja celebrates an “And-1” and accidentally head butts Miles Dread of Penn State. Despite no obvious intent, the officials enforced the rule and called Dainja for a technical foul. Penn State went on an immediate 7-0 run to take the lead.
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

What happened in Chicago on Thursday was not an outlier. This is a typical Illinois basketball game. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Disjointed. Disingenuous. Disappointing.

Watching Illinois Basketball is like watching any other TV program that you’ve seen a million times. You know how it’s going to turn out, but can’t help but watch to see how it happens this time. It feels different with this group and this coaching staff this season.

Illinois basketball is more “Scooby Doo” than “Yellowstone.”

The one show that has made every woman in America want to cozy up to Rip in the bunkhouse and every man drink coffee from a copper mug overlooking the expanse of the Western sky, stars Kevin Costner as John Dutton. The writing is incredible, and the acting is even better.

No one — and literally mean on one — knows what’s going to happen scene to scene, let along show to show. Twists, turns and travesty reveal themself around every corner. The plot is thick and complex. Entertainment at its best.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It sounds like every Illinois basketball game, particularly when Underwood & Co. come out on the losing end.

Here’s the difference. It’s ALWAYS something you don’t see coming on “Yellowstone.”

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament Second Round - Illinois vs Penn State
Underwood temporarily put 6’ 10” Coleman Hawkins on the block, and he scored four-straight buckets. Then, the strategy evaporated into thin air like an ancillary character on Yellowstone.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Briefly, 6-foot-10 Coleman Hawkins went down on the right block and did damage to the smaller Penn State guards defending him.

Hawkins easily scored on an array of simple moves to knock down several shots. Is this the plot twist that Illini nation has craved on this season of “Illinois Basketball?”

Unfortunately, the writers for the Paramount classic left the room, and the staff for the cartoon waltzed in to realign and re-assign the proper familiar narrative.

Everyone knows the plot of every Scooby Doo episode.

A mystery happens in the town square, and the group must figure out whodunnit before the end of the half-hour episode. Clever writing and animation make it seem like a ghost or a spectral figure is the culprit. To the surprise of no one, it never is the Bog Monster or an Ichabod Crane Wannabe.

At the end of the show, the gang pulls off a mask to reveal that’s it’s poor shot selection, low basketball IQ and missed defensive assignments on key players AGAIN.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament Second Round - Illinois vs Penn State
Seth Lundy makes one of Penn State’s eight threes. Lundy had 17 and 10, to go with two assists.
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

My bad. That was actually the plot of the most recent episode of “Illinois Basketball” in 2023. A thrill ride a minute, with shiny objects in the corner only to divert your attention from truthful reality temporarily.

It was Old Man Foster under the mask all along.

The same plot as last week, with different names and faces arising as the evil doer. Luke Goode is pictured above. That is coincidental. I liked the way that photo looked, and it fit well into the column.

“Scooby Doo” is an entertainment show written mostly for kids. The plot is simplistic by design. Make the children feel the danger, but not actually experience it. Harmless fun for the whole family.

It makes sense the wide appeal of that show ranges across all age ranges and demographics. Anyone can figure out the ending before the show reaches its conclusion.

That begs the question: “Why can’t Underwood and his staff figure it out?”

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Illinois
Underwood tells his team to think. Why start now?
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

What the hell is going on over there on the sideline? Underwood always looks confused, glancing back and forth at the court and the gigantic scoreboard hanging overhead.

Is he actually surprised that his team can’t shoot? That cannot be the reality. I’ve heard Underwood talk. He’s an extremely intelligent man.

Underwood led this very Illinois program to a No. 1 Seed in the NCAA Tournament not long ago. The Illini won the Big Ten Conference on their home court almost exactly one year ago.

370 days ago, your Fighting Illini secured a hard-fought home victory over visiting Iowa to win their first Big Ten title in 17 years.

The end is nigh. One last chance for this talented roster to win anything of consequence, other than a few neutral site non-conference wins last calendar year.

Underwood and his program need two more wins to lend any legitimacy to this season.

Maybe Underwood and his staff will take a page out of the “Yellowstone” playbook and utilize some actual tension and mystery in their gameplan. Something has to change, or the NCAA Tournament will look a lot like the Big Ten Tournament.

It will be short lived and nondescript.

Illinois comes into the Tourney winning just seven of its last 14 contests. Nothing inspires confidence that this team can reach the second weekend, or anything beyond that. Hope is the lone, legitimate strategy.

Unless Underwood pulls a rabbit out of his hat in Round 1 and gets his team to go to the rim and get to the line, the next episode will look like half of the last fourteen games.

Old Man Foster under the mask, yet again.

For old time’s sake, and to keep the tradition alive. Let’s look at 2p% and 3p% against Penn State on offense, and the efficiency difference.

  • Two-point FG: 23-43 (53.1%), good for 1.06 points per shot
  • Three-point FG: 6-21 (28.6%), good for 0.86 points per shot
  • Illinois was 23.2% more efficient inside the arc
  • Illinois was 12-19 (63.2%) from the line, and missed a front end of a 1-and-1

What a time to be alive!

This is Illinois basketball.