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NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State
One of four turnovers by Illinois in the last four minutes. Soft.
Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

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Illinois can’t seem to win the big games

The Illini are 5-17 in Quad 1 games the past two years.

Happy Sunday, Illinois Land!

Selection Sunday for the 2024 NCAA Tournament is exactly 35 days away.

In some ways, this season of Illinois basketball with head coach Brad Underwood has been a blur. In other ways, it’s been three seasons in one.

Not only has the team itself gone through many different iterations due to the factors listed below, but it also has a pattern of that we will discuss in a minute.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State
Underwood yelling indiscriminately onto the court. These rotations are perplexing.
Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

Before we get into the specifics of how Underwood’s team collapsed and folded in East Lansing, here’s The One and Only Pleas with a great reaction to the proceedings.

As I often do on Sundays, let’s break down the overall profile for Illinois and see where the team stands locally in the Big Ten, and nationally in KenPom and NCAAT metrics.

  • Overall: 17-6, No. 10 in the current AP Poll (will likely drop to 15 or 16 this week). The team is 3-5 against Quad 1 teams, and Illinois is just 7-5 against Quad 1 and Quad 2 combined. For context, Purdue is 15-2 in Q1/Q2 and UCONN is 13-2. Those are clear No. 1 seeds. I mention this for context to see where these Illini stand nationally.
NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State
Domask was largely ineffective against Michigan State and their physicality. He looks slow and methodical against bigger players, not deliberate and decisive.
Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports
  • Big Ten: 8-4, 2nd Place (two full games behind Purdue). The home loss to Maryland gives Illinois essentially no chance to win the regular season crown. I wrote as much the day after it happened.
  • KenPom: No. 11 (6th in OER, 41st in DER). 5th in DER in B1G games. The overall defensive metrics have plummeted as the Big Ten season progresses. They are getting torched on straight-line drives by every team. I’ll have a nice image gallery of this from the Michigan State game. Look forward to that!
  • NET: No. 14 (previously No. 13). This is the NCAA metric that measures expected tournament performance. Expect the bracketologists to start lowering Illinois a seed line or two. The Illini will stack wins the next 15 days, but that will not impact their seeding projection much. The teams they play are objectively not good the next few weeks.
NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State
Terrence Shannon Jr. scored 28 points against Michigan State, but he took 19 shots. He made a whole bunch of free throws, but just 2-9 from three. 7-19 overall from the floor.
Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

How Illinois got to this point is somewhat of a mystery. Somewhat. Look a little closer and you can see it.

As is often the case, when a team is “close” and “can’t quite get over the hump,” it’s a difficult concept to grasp. Tough to put a finger on the issue that disallows teams to reach their full potential and grab the proverbial brass ring.

With Underwood, it’s pretty obvious to me.

If you look closely and discernibly, the very thing that gives Underwood joy and comfort is the very thing that has given him just enough rope to hang himself.

The X-factor is age.

Underwood trusts old players, without equivocation — and without consequence.

In this instance the latter is potentially backbreaking. When an absolute — such as “get old and stay old” — is the only goal, the end always justifies the means.

I’ll polish off this topic at the end. Let’s look back to look ahead.

Here are a few considerations when looking back at the Illini season so far in 2024. Don’t expect high-profile victories any time soon.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Illinois
Hawkins has been the Illini’s most consistent performer in 2023-24. He’s been terrific.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
  • Injury to Coleman Hawkins in the first 10ish games of the season. Hawkins played in the early season loss to Marquette at home, but was clearly hampered with an injury. Hawkins sat out for about three weeks to get the injury healthy for Big Ten play.
  • Suspension of Terrence Shannon, Jr. (ongoing sexual assault charges). TSJ’s suspension forced the Illini to have an identity crisis on offense, and Underwood changed the concepts on that end of the floor. A dominant and beautiful performance against Northwestern (30-point beatdown) at home has proven to be fool’s gold. The team is chasing that perfect performance and Domask is in the high post letting the clock melt away.
  • Lack of wins to anyone that seemingly has a pulse in the AP Poll — or KenPom for that matter. I mentioned the 7-5 record against Q1/Q2 earlier. Dating back to last season with some of the same players and the same coach, that group is now 5-17 in Quad 1 games the last two years and is 32-2 against Q1/Q2/Q3 combined. If that’s not eye-popping, I’m not sure what would be.
NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State
After whining about every call when his team shot 34 free throws, Izzo celebrates the team’s second Q2 win of the entire year.
Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

I want to double click on that last sentence in that last bullet point. I want to break that down even further. In the last two seasons here are winning percentages against each quadrant.

The last two seasons combined is after the semicolon.

  • Quad 1: 3-5 (.375); 5-17 (.227)
  • Quad 2: 4-0 (1.000); 11-1 (.917)
  • Quad 3: 5-1 (.833); 9-1 (.900)
  • Quad 4: 5-0 (1.000); 12-0 (1.000)
  • Overall: 14-1 against non-Q1 teams in 2023-24; 32-2 (.941) over the last two years.

Here are the 2023 and 2024 team sheets for Illinois to show my work on the math.

I realize that last year is now over and it doesn’t matter. I’m putting all of these numbers out there for context. Illinois losing games to good teams is not a new concept.

The fans have gone from “let’s just make the tournament” to “you can’t criticize a coach who has the most Big Ten wins over four plus years.” It’s a wild transition, but here we are.

We have now morphed into a new iteration of Underwood’s seventh Illini team.

Illinois basketball is sawft. S-A-W-F-T. And, you can’t teach that.

Here’s the image gallery that I promised earlier. This is all from the last four minutes, when Illinois was outscored 24-6, and turned an eight-point lead into an eight-point loss.

Hawkins is in many of these due to help as a secondary defender. Justin Harmon turned into a traffic cone the last four minutes of the game. However, he is old so there are no consequences.

Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn and Amani Hansberry are essential afterthoughts, with no chance of playing in a game like this when the game is undecided. No chance.

I’m not criticizing the players personally for not caring. The team plays hard, they follow the scouting report most times.

Underwood is a great coach and has an excellent staff.

What got you HERE can’t get you THERE.

Illinois has great players and they are extremely connected and seem to legitimately and authentically play for each other.

I’m calling them soft because when the chips are down and the game or situation matters, they do not perform. It is a performance thing, not an effort thing.

It’s not an efficiency thing. It’s not a scheme thing. It’s not a want-to thing.

Go back to when I was talking about age, and how that’s Underwood’s kryptonite.

Here’s the last five games for two players.

  • Player A: 22.4 minutes, 8.6 points, 62.1% FG (18-29), 7.6 rebounds, 10 assists
  • Player B: 24.4 mins, 5.6 points, 30.3% FG (10-33), 3.2 rebounds, 9 assists, 2-13 (15.4%) from three

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Player A is starting point guard Ty Rodgers and Player B is the backup shooting guard, Justin Harmon.

Quincy Guerrier is old, and a starter. This one is mega perplexing. He is averaging 22.6 minutes per game the last five. QG is averaging only 5.8 rebounds per game in that same time period. Hard to rebound from the bench.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State
Here’s one of Guerrier’s “fouls” yesterday.
Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

To make matters worse, Luke Goode can’t make an open three all of a sudden. He’s just 8-25 (32%) the last five games, and 2-11 (18.2%) the last two. All 11 of those attempts are feet set, wide open.

How can a guy shooting 30% from the floor and half that good from behind the arc play more than two starters that are bigger, stronger and more athletic? And both are objectively better defenders and rebounders.

The mind boggles.

I haven’t even mentioned how great Hawkins has been playing, and without him on the court yesterday, Illinois loses by 25 points. He was the lone facilitator and good decision maker.

Hawkins against Michigan State: 14 points, 7 assists, 2 turns and 2 steals in 33 minutes.

Illinois got five more shots than Michigan State, more offensive rebounds and more rebounds overall.

Frees and threes: Illinois won that battle 50-40 (+10).

When it came down to winning time, State made plays and Illinois didn’t.

It should not be a shocker.

Please take The Scientific Poll.

Poll

Which of these worries you the most about Illinois basketball?

This poll is closed

  • 29%
    Not beating good teams (5-20 last two seasons in Quad 1 games)
    (148 votes)
  • 21%
    Player rotations
    (111 votes)
  • 34%
    Being outscored 35-7 the last two games after the final media timeout
    (175 votes)
  • 14%
    Overall softness as a group
    (74 votes)
508 votes total Vote Now

This is another loss. This is being soft. This is a carbon copy of last year.

This is Illinois basketball.