Greetings and salutations, Illinois Land!
What a long, strange trip its been.
The previous sentence could describe the entirety of my Illinois fandom experience of the previous four decades, and explicate Brad Underwood’s program after the recent overseas trip to Spain.
Not so much long, as strange, as it were. Not so much strange, as expected. Here’s a better way to put it.
“They are who we thought they were.”
While the first part of that quote continues to be debated, one thing that is not called to question is the second part. There is no way in hell that anyone is letting the Illinois men’s basketball, or its head coach, off the hook for anything…ever.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
Brad Underwood and his program is constantly on the hook. At all times. It could be local media, it could be Twitter, it could be Facebook, it could be a national pundit.
Illinois basketball is officially a thing again. If not at the national level, it certainly is in Illinois Land.
Most Top 25 polls have Illinois in the mix. Some, like good ole’ Dick “Dickie V” Vitale, have Illinois unranked, yet has St. John’s in at No. 25. As ridiculous and disgraceful as that sounds — and is — it makes no difference in the grand scheme of things.
Vitale’s ESPN colleague, Joe Lunardi, has released his initial Bracketology for the upcoming season. Illinois is slated as a No. 5 seed, taking on Arkansas in the theoretical second round, with Kansas (and Bill Self) as the No. 1 seed in the region.
As good as a theoretical No. 5 seed sounds in the NCAA Tournament, it also makes no difference in the grand scheme of things. Polls of any kind do not matter at this this stage of the season.
There is finally “some tape” (an old basketball jargon phrase) on what the pending season entails for Underwood and his on-the-run roster construction as highly-rated players from last year’s roster bolted for what they considered green pastures in Portal Kombat. (ICYMI: Illinois swept its three-game barnstorming tour in Spain, wrapping up with a big win Sunday while you were sleeping.)
As is always the case with Underwood and his program, what can be observed from the tape leads to new questions, rather than providing a deluge of solutions.
We love no other.
I’d love to unpack the tape and what I observed from three different perspectives: pessimist, realist and optimist.
I intentionally put them in that order as a participant in the Illinois fan experience. The optimistic perspective rarely comes to fruition in Illinois Land.
Reasons to be pessimistic about Underwood and men’s basketball after the trip to Spain.
Let’s get the visceral pessimism out of the way earlier, rather than later. It cleanses the soul and pleases the mind.
Before you work yourself into a tizzy of disbelief with the congruent messaging of “Ty Rodgers,” “Dravyn Gibbs Lawhorn” and “pessimistic,” do yourself a favor and read all of the writing. It’s the situation under #1 below, not the participants in that situation.
Here’s three reasons to be pessimistic:
- Dravyn Gibbs-Lawhorn looks like the best fit to play full-time at point guard. He is also an undersized freshman. We have been told by anyone that represents Illinois basketball that Ty Rodgers will be playing point guard. Rodgers acknowledged himself as the true PG. Drama abounds, with equitable solutions nowhere in sight. DGL reminds me of an Andre Curbelo who can shoot. This is equally hopeful and imminently frustrating.
- Illinois basketball players seem to be unable to put the basketball through the hoop behind the three-point arc during a game of any sort. Continued lack of efficacy, dating back to last year.
- Dain Dainja and Rodgers need to start making more free throws. The whole team does, honestly.
Reasons to be realistic about Underwood and men’s basketball after the trip to Spain.
If nothing, Underwood and the Illini have been consistently inconsistent the past few years.
Not typically labeled this way, I have started to subscribe to unfettered realism discussing Underwood’s teams.
Here are three reasons to be realistic:
- Despite the game-to-game melodrama and over-analysis, Underwood will find a way to meet and even slightly exceed the general consensus on his team. This year will be no different. Twelve or 13 Big Ten wins wouldn’t be a shock with the roster depth and lack of depth in the conference. Sounds like a No. 5 seed to me. Underwood has made outright success the standard, not the exception.
- Roster experience levels are at an all-time high in Champaign. With Coleman Hawkins and Terrence Shannon, Jr. coming back into the mix, Underwood will have two high-level leaders with skill to hold the team accountable. More stability than usual.
- They can’t possibly shoot as bad as last season, when the team ranked 360th of 364 teams in catch-and-shoot opportunities. That has to regress to the mean.
Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC about Underwood and men’s basketball after the trip to Spain.
Let’s not quite go off-the-rails prognosticating, but let’s get as close as we possibly can. This team has a higher-ceiling than last year, with a higher floor.
Enjoying the sights in Spain! pic.twitter.com/qxf9chIVIp— Brad Underwood (@CoachUnderwood) August 7, 2023
Here are three reasons to be optimistic. Two of them are in the picture with Underwood in the above Tweet/post:
- TSJ and Hawkins could both not only be on the All-Big Ten First-Team at the end of the year, but Shannon could challenge for another consensus All-American spot for Underwood. When utilized correctly, Shannon is an impossible guard going downhill, and can go scorched earth at times. With Hawkins improving his long-range shooting in the offseason, the pair could average close to 40 PPG.
- Depth. Deep depth. That seems superfluous, but is factual. Some teams have 10 guys who “can play.” This team has five guys who “could start” in the Big Ten for any team not named Purdue or Michigan State. Fresh players equal defensive intensity and runouts on the break, where this team will be all-world finishing in transition.
- The Law of averages is a principle that supposes most future events are likely to balance any past deviation from a presumed average or outcome. In simpler terms, relative frequency of an event should correspond to its probability. It’s been almost 20 year as since Illinois went to the Sweet 16 or beyond. This is season #19 since the last time Illinois made the second weekend. The depth is there. They experience is there. The skill is there.
Pessimism. Realism. Optimism. In order. As promised.
It’s now time to get your take on where Underwood and the Illini stand.
Please take The Scientific Poll.
Where do you stand on Illinois basketball and Brad Underwood after the recent trip to Spain?
This poll is closed
Pessimistic. They’ll be luck to go over .500 in the Big Ten and be on the bubble, at best.
Realistic. They’re safely in the tournament and will win a game. They’ll be in the mix for the Big Ten if the transfers and freshman materialize.
Optimistic. Illinois should win close to 25 games and get a top three seed in The Big Dance. Sweet 16 or bust.
Why can’t anyone make a three or a free throw?
This is the preseason. This is where we are. This is who we thought they were.
This is Illinois basketball.