Happy Monday, Illini Nation!
What in the hell did we just watch during 31 games over the previous 118 days? Literally, we watched the 2022-23 Illinois basketball regular season. Figuratively, we experienced the most entertaining four months that fan could ask for, on or off the court.
Never a dull moment in the life of an Illinois basketball player, coach, fan or columnist.
This is my first full season writing about the Illini. Head Coach Brad Underwood and several of the players on the roster made my job easy, but my health and sanity difficult.
Let’s make an abbreviated list:
- 20 wins (15-2 at home)
- 11 losses (3-7 on the road, 2-2 Neutral)
- 11-9 Big Ten Record (#7 Seed in the Big Ten Tournament)
- Three Gates (Clarkgate, Fartgate, Monstergate)
- Blown leads to lose games
- Huge comebacks to win games
- Blown leads and comebacks in the same game, half or five-minute stretch
Clearly, this list is not short. It cannot be boiled down into a simple bullet point listing, or even in a few cleverly worded snippets. Unpacking this season in a single column would be an impossible task. Going in depth on the Purdue game alone would use up all my space, thought and sanity.
Take a look at the last year in Illini Hoops:
With the regular season in the can and the rearview mirror, let’s look at what this particular edition of Illinois basketball can do in the next two tournaments – the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago this week and the NCAA Tournament that starts next week.
Now isn’t the time for analysis of the first-round matchup with the Penn State Nittany Lions, who have beaten Illinois soundly twice already this season.
This is an exercise at what the team profile allows within reasonable extrapolation and logical interpolation.
What the defense will be expected to do on a game-to-game basis, and what must change to win multiple games.
The metrics consider the Illinois defense elite overall, markedly in the key areas of Defensive Efficiency Rating (DER, 28th), shot blocking (9th) and 2P Defense (13th). Not bad for a team with nine new players that changed their entire philosophy on the fly in December.
OUT: Switching everything. IN: Emergency Switching.
Illinois had climbed into 50s in DER and skyrocketed up the KenPom stats when they went traditional. Despite these great rates and overall gross metrics, a fatal flaw has doomed the Illini in several contests.
It reared its ugly head again in the regular season finale on the road against Purdue.
It’s the season-honored tradition of Illinois getting smoked by a single player that does something that is either worthy of/close to a career high for a standout player (TJD, Hunter Dickinson, Jalen Pickett), or a role player (Tony Perkins, Brandon Newman, Bruce Thornton) going scorched earth on the non-helping and non-adjusting Illinois defense.
On the flip side, Illinois held National Player of the Year lock Zach Edey to a lackluster 17 and 6, with a +/- rating of (-10). Edey was only 6-13 (46.1%) from the floor, well-below his season average of 61.6%.
Junior handyman Coleman Hawkins was the primary defender on Edey.
The above sentence brings me to my next point, and something that you will see in the next section.
Underwood has a bevy of options at multiple defensive positions and/or player groupings. It could easily be argued that Underwood has personnel groupings that provide versatility, not only in terms of style of play, and what the defensive matchups are on a given possession, but also within organic ebbs and flows of the game itself.
The failed “switch everything” experiment made sense on paper with the personnel on the roster. The execution on the floor made it impossible for that method to be effective.
Consistency for 40 minutes is the key for this end of the floor.
Best defensive group of five:
Ty Rodgers, Sencire Harris, Terrence Shannon, Jr., Matthew Mayer and Colman Hawkins
The willingness of Illinois to go to the hoop, and not settle for threes is THE key on offense.
Well, it happened again the last game of the year. The illini went cold behind the arc in the first half, and dug themselves into an insurmountable hole. Mayer seems like he is the only consistent player on the roster shooting threes. He was 1-of-10 against Purdue to end the season.
This is likely an outlier, but something to keep in mind in a one-and-done situation.
Rather than detail the need to shoot less threes and take more twos, I’m going to go at this debate and issue from a different angle. The Illini cannot play too fast.
The majority of the turnovers from Illinois that are catastrophic (live ball) come from half court, methodical around the rim passes. When TSJ, Rodgers and Mayer are going hard to the front of the rim in the open court, it’s nearly impossible to stop. Sencire Harris figures into this equation.
With the success against Michigan in the 2nd half earlier this week getting to the rim, no one can pinpoint the reason that Illinois insists on slowing down to the halfcourt crawl and taking threes and contested twos late in the shot clock.
Why not get out and let the horses run and get some easy hoops to setup your potentially elite defense?
Best Offensive Lineup:
Jayden Epps, Rodgers, Shannon, Jr., Mayer and Hawkins
Please notice that I have Rodgers in the best lineup on both sides of the court.
I’m not disputing he needs to start, but I’m also not against it altogether. He may get two fouls by the first media timeout if his name is announced.
Can Brad Underwood exercise his post season demons from seasons’ past?
Underwood is not a coach that makes adjustments on the fly. He believes in the scouting report and that the execution of that scout will work.
This is why the defense looks all-world one game and putrid the next. It’s also why the Illini take 25+ threes a game and shoot under 30%. The plan does not seem to clear at all times.
Underwood’s willingness to change on the fly will be the key to the length of time the Illini spend in both tournaments. He already has one Big Ten Tournament Championship under his belt. After the first round exit against Indiana as the #1 seed last year in Indianapolis, it would behoove Underwood’s street cred to not get bounced by Penn State on Thursday.
The 800-pound gorilla in the room is the NCAA Tournament. Underwood has to win multiple games this year and reach at least the Sweet 16 if he wants to silence his critics, at least temporarily.
Acknowledging that Illinois has nine new players and lost almost 90% of its scoring from last year is not a fool’s errand. Allowing the man that made and executing that plan to use it as an excuse for not winning games could fall under that same category.
The time of talking about “making them in practice” or talking points of “practicing well’ can be wadded up, set on fire and thrown into the nearest metal trash can.
It’s time for Underwood to make his team peak at the right time and get this team and elite fanbase back into the second weekend of the tournament and beyond.
This is Illinois basketball.