"Any time my team only has 8 assists - that's a problem"
- Brad Underwood.
After a second game in a row in which Illinois wasted a substantial first half lead - losing in overtime tonight to Northwestern 72-68 in the Big Ten Conference opener for both teams - Brad Underwood suddenly finds himself with quite a few problems actually. Most notable being that his team is playing a game counter-intuitive to his grand design.
In the final three minutes of regulation, Illinois forced Northwestern into turnovers on FOUR consecutive possessions, but converted those turnovers into exactly zero points. Prior iterations of Brad Underwood teams would have used such opportunities as coffin nails.
To be fair, sometimes a team just has to shoot its way to a win, but with a roster thin on reliable shot makers, that's going to remain a challenge for this Illinois team. The hope for this season was that they could "out-system" opponents - overwhelming them with a relentless onslaught of pressure on both ends of the floor.
However, in its first two real tests of the season, Illinois frustratingly reverted back to the same bad habits which plagued last season. To wit: just eight assists on 22 made field goals. A mere five offensive rebounds. 19 turnovers. An offense devoid of the ball movement and cutting which Underwood so desires. His offense is predicated on getting the easiest of shot opportunities, but over these past two games, Underwood has watched his team labor mechanically just to get difficult ones.
He implores his offense to try to find shots within the first seven seconds of the shot clock when at all possible, but this team is slamming on the breaks instead. Illinois had only eight fast break points against Northwestern, and only 19% of the offense this season so far has come in transition. By contrast, in his single season at Oklahoma State, Underwood's Cowboys were 24th in the nation in percentage of shots taken in transition (27%).
Compared with other Big Ten teams, our 19% number is better than only OSU, Northwestern, and Wisconsin. Rutgers is running more than we are. RUTGERS !
We've seen a lot of "anti-Underwood" basketball quite honestly.
From a purely objective sense, this first week of December is crucial to Illinois' tournament hopes. Yet two extremely winnable road games have already slipped away, and a very good Maryland team looms on Sunday. Finish this week 0-3 and all of a sudden you are facing a mountainous climb to an NCAA berth.
However, I don't think you can view this season in a binary (Wins = WE ARE BACK!!/Losses = "OH NO WE SUCK AGAIN") fashion. I don't dare to be so presumptuous so as to tell people how to consume their basketball entertainment, but a healthy dose of perspective is likely going to be required for this season. I'm willing to let this season breathe a little bit, I remain excited about watching this team evolve.
And to be sure there have been positive signs. Intermittent bursts of the kind of basketball Underwood is preaching. We saw that in the first ten minutes of both games this week. Plus the defense was excellent tonight - completely unnerving a Northwestern team purported to be loaded with seasoned veterans.
This team isn't played scared mind you - just tentative. The hesitancy has been tangible in crucial moments in each of the past two games. They have shown a lot of fight - just not much trust. They don't yet trust the system, and they don't yet trust themselves.
Mike Finke had only six shot attempts in the last two games. Leron Black turned it over four times against Wake and five more times tonight. Te'Jon Lucas - who played an otherwise great game last night - attempted to go one on five with the game on the line. This kind of stuff gets better when players begin to consistently demonstrate trust in the system.
To fully turn the corner this team needs a baptism by fire, and success borne out of trust. They aren't going to get there beating up on Longwood and Austin Peay. That comes too easy. They need to experience that success (wins) in tough games against quality opponents. Ernest Hemingway said: "The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them". I suppose that holds true for basketball as well.
With renovations ongoing at Welsh-Ryan Arena, Northwestern will be playing its home games this season here in Rosemont at the Allstate Arena. The last time I was in this building prior to tonight was -- Saturday, March 26, 2005. All things equal - I had a much better time that night. That said it was enjoyable to see at least a 2:1 ratio of Orange to Purple in the building. ILLINOIS: ROSEMONT's BIG TEN TEAM.
Minutes for the Illini freshmen are suddenly at a premium. Mark Smith started but only played 8 minutes. Trent Frazier only 10. Greg Eboigbodin and Matic Vesel were DNPs. The one exception - Da'Monte Williams (DMW) who played an energetic 20 minutes. Because defense.
Opening conference play on December 1 is indeed kind of weird, but I actually kind of like it. And I think we should all probably get used to it, because when the league moves to a 20 game schedule starting next season - I'd bet on more December conference matchups.