You Play To (Not Lose) The Game

Dec 03, 2017

I would be a horrific coach. Just horrific. Mostly because I would, at every moment, play not to lose. It's just how I approach everything. I'm way to cautious for my own good. I'd be constantly looking for ways to not lose. Which would have helped tonight.

With 42 seconds left, Te'Jon Lucas gets a steal. We can now run the clock down to around 15 seconds (with the lead) and hopefully put ourselves up 3 or 4. Te'Jon Lucas tries to throw an alley-oop pass. It goes out of bounds. Maryland ball.

Then, with 18 seconds left, Maryland misses a jumper down one. We get the rebound. My immediate thought is "get the ball to one of the free throw shooters". We get it to Te'Jon Lucas who is 8th on the team in free throw percentage. He's fouled. He only makes one of two.

Maryland comes down and misses a shot, with Cowan just tossing it up hoping to draw the foul. Ball goes out of bounds to Illinois. The officials review. We huddle. All we have to do is inbound the ball to one of our free throw shooters and we win the game. I tweet the free throw percentages because I hope we're designing something to just toss it to one of those guys. The Illini win percentage at this point has to be 97%. Even if the guy misses the free throws, he's fouled with maybe 2.8 seconds on the clock and the Maryland has to take that rebound, go the length of the court, and score. The game is over.

And then we call our last timeout after we see how Maryland set up the defense for the inbounds. Inside, every ounce of play-to-not-lose-the-game me is NO NO NO NO NO. We just did something that increased Maryland's chances of winning. We now don't have any timeouts so the inbounds guy has to throw it in.

And then we design a play where the bailout is to toss it deep. In that timeout all I'd be doing is getting in DaMonte's ear: the only way Maryland wins is if you can't get it in or if you throw it in and no one touches it. Throw a sky ball if you have to - by the time Maryland grabs it they'd have to heave a half court shot. I'm not even instructing players on what to do at that point - all I'm doing is instructing them what not to do. We've won the game. Here are the only ways Maryland can win.

Remember the win over Nebraska in football in 2015? Where Nebraska could have run it down to 15 seconds before punting it out of our endzone yet they threw the ball, incomplete, stopping the clock and giving Illinois 50 seconds after the punt (Illinois was out of timeouts) instead of 12-15 seconds? I was recording my From The Stands at the time and I had already worked out the math. Nebraska had won. Run around and then take a knee on that third down if they have to. The only way Illinois wins at that point is if Nebraska attempts a pass. They attempted a pass. AND, they had a timeout before that third down play to simply tell their QB "the only way we lose is if you throw it - simply run around and fall down and we win".

That's how I'd coach. At the end of games, since I have 18-22 year-old kids out there, I'd use late-game timeouts to simply describe all of the things to not do. As I'm sitting here typing this out I hear Brad Underwood talk about the inbounds play as something he's "used for 30 years", which, I'm guessing, means he simply instructed his players what to do. DaMonte didn't know what not to do. DaMonte threw a full-court pass to Kipper. It went out of bounds and Maryland got the ball under their basket. They missed a three and got the tip-in. The game went to overtime. Illinois lost.

To me, Illinois lost simply because we Herm Edwardsded. We played to win the game instead of playing to not lose the game. We put DaMonte Williams - a freshman - in a position where there are no timeouts and an official counting him down and an odd design with only one player charging the ball (double-teamed, in the corner) and his bailout deep ball was too deep. As Alstork charged the corner, DaMonte already had the deep ball cocked. I'm watching it and that part of me is saying NO NO NO NO NO.

For me, a 97% winning percentage (or whatever it was) isn't enough. When the game is in hand (and this game was in hand), all I do is instruct my players on what not to do. Mike Riley said he told his QB not to throw it - his QB threw it so I say Mike Riley didn't tell him. Riley put him in a position where he was running a play (the instructions should have been "take the snap, run over here, take a knee when they close in"), and Nebraska lost.

In tonight's presser, Underwood said that the design was to inbound to Alstork in the corner. I say the same thing as above - DaMonte threw it out of bounds which means he likely wasn't instructed to not throw it out of bounds. Again, in that timeout, my only words are "here's the only way Maryland wins - don't do these two things". He did one of those things.

Now, this is the reason Brad Underwood has a $3-million-per-year contract and I'm sitting here typing these things for my hobby. The other, oh, 422 things that happened in this game to bring Illinois back from a 22-point deficit with 17 minutes remaining and somehow take the lead were because Underwood plays to win the game. My way sucks. My way accomplishes nothing.

Besides, you know, winning the game when the chances of Maryland winning are somewhere around 1-in-40.

+ Overall, things are pointing in a very positive direction, three-straight-excruciating-losses-in-games-we-could-have-absolutely-won notwithstanding. This is the preparation, learn-the-system year. I ran through the schedule the other day and came away with 14-18 (5-13) for this season. After the meltdown at EIU (and the way the players looked scared), I made a massive adjustment to my expectations for the season. The media picked Illinois 12th in a 14 team Big Ten, I thought that was crazy, then I saw the product on the court and said "oh, right - because of that". 12th seems right. 5 or 6 Big Ten wins seems right. 7 players left after last season, Underwood is trying to change the entire culture, it will take some time.

So take this team, make them learn every possible lesson they can learn this year, then replace Alstork with Ayo and go win a lot of games next year. I feel like things are still on schedule for that. The way we played in the second half and in overtime, perhaps ahead of schedule. It's just going to take some time.

+ Mark Smith points per game: 9-13-21-13-13-3-5-5-0. That's... a bit unexpected. Hope he can snap out of it - we need him.

Also - is his starting spot safe? Seems to me that DaMonte might be pushing for that starting spot. And while we're at it, Te'Jon better be looking over his shoulder for Trent Frazier. Lucas tonight: 14 minutes, 2 assists, 2 turnovers. Frazier tonight: 28 minutes, 7 assists, 1 turnover.

+ I have to say, that second half comeback was a lot of fun. I spend so much time talking about the good ol' days. "Remember the last time we played Wake Forest?" and "that reminds me of the 1999-2000 team" and such. So to hear the place so deafeningly loud during the comeback - that was so great. When Jordan hit that three from Mahomet and Maryland took a timeout, this place went bonkers. Like 1999-2000 bonkers.

Which means that by the time I get home, I'll feel pretty good about this one. We're close, and this is just the beginning. In four years, I really do believe this thing will be absolutely rolling and a bonkers SFC will become the norm again.

Just try not to lose when the game is won, OK?


Bear8287 on December 04 @ 01:59 AM CST

Hey Robert, I know it was a long night for you, so thanks for getting this post out in a timely fashion after the game.

Anytime you lose a game in overtime by 1 point, you can point to any number of plays that could've changed the outcome of the game. I agree though, that overall, there were some good things to take away. In what looks like a down year for the B1G every loss hurts, but it's still just possible that in the long run this will actually help this team.

I'll reference your comment on experience about football players and use it for basketball. In a game of one-and-dones, the talent that younger players bring in general can be more impactful. The fact that there are only 10 players in play at any given time compared to 22 also makes a difference. Especially in close games though, experience makes a lot of difference.

Look at the 3 plays that you referenced, an alley-oop pass, free throws and an inbound pass. They have something in common. All 3 involved true freshmen playing a conference game in early December. If I had to bet, by February, those plays may go very differently with the same players in those same game situations.

The lesson that I think (and hope) that the players are taking away from this is to listen to the coach. If he says to inbound the ball into the corner then inbound the ball into the corner. If Alstork catches that inbound pass with less than 5 seconds left he can just stand there and run out the clock. Maryland has to foul him. Time off the clock, free throws and the ball goes down to the opposite end of the court. EoG.

This team is being taught how to fight, scrap and never say die. Coming back from 22 down? At that point, I was thinking that if they could just get a final score that was only a single digit point spread, that would be a major accomplishment.

Overall, there was a lot to be encouraged about the way the two freshmen mentioned above played during this game. Coach Underwood benching the starters and putting 5 new players on the floor after Maryland jumps out to a 10-0 start? Freakin' brilliant. Starters are out at 15:57, by the time Finke comes back in at 11:04, the score is 14-9 and then the Illini score the next basket to make it 14-11 at 10:37. The Iliini got 45 of their 91 points off of the bench tonight. That's amazing.

It was nice to see Alstork supplement Aaron Jordan's being Aaron Jordan from 3 point range tonight, but the rest of the team was still an awful 2 for 15 (and those two 3's were made by Nichols and Black!). Just think how big one more made three in regulation would've been the last two games... If Te'Jon Trent and Da'Monte can start knocking down 3's, look out. This team will look substantially better.

As has been (and I'm sure will be many more times) pointed out here, Coach Underwood's OSU team last season started out 0-6 in conference play. They ended up doing okay, wouldn't you say? This team doesn't seem to have any quit in them and that makes them a very easy team to root for every game.

Go Illini!

Lou-a-villini on December 04 @ 06:53 AM CST

Best not to regularly try to type the same amount of words per post as Robert. You’re gonna get called for three seconds in the lane. Post up, don’t camp out. :)

Pithily yours, and Go Illini!

Bear8287 on December 04 @ 01:51 PM CST

Oh there's an easy fix for that. Robert just needs to type more words. :-D

All joking aside though, I really appreciate Robert getting this post out when he did.

Sweetchuck13 on December 04 @ 08:35 AM CST

Good comments here Bear, I agree with just about everything.

Bear8287 on December 04 @ 02:08 AM CST

Oh, one more thing. Robert, if you're looking for win probability percentages you can check out here:

Just select the Win Probability tab on the [Game Flow | Win Probability].

With 4 seconds left they said 92.8% Maybe we should consult with Mr. Spock. ;-D

NC_OrangeKrush on December 04 @ 05:49 AM CST

If you imagine 2 previous coaches coaching this team, you would bemoan the talent level required to compete, or size, or experience.... and no way we lose by less than 10, let alone have the opportunity to give away the game. Coach Underwood coached them back and this team was capable of winning the last 3 games, by expectations of hustle, tenacity, and hard work alone. I am frustrated, but that was a good Maryland team, and I am excited to think about these guys knowing what they are doing shortly and what's ahead as these guys mature in the system.

ATOillini on December 04 @ 08:17 AM CST

I couldn't possibly imagine having a game end like it did last night and yet I actually fell asleep in short order. Why? NC_OrangeKrush already beat me to the punch. There is simply no way in the last 10 years that an Illini basketball team would be down 22 in the second half and ever be in a position to win the game. We're on our way back.

2 other random thoughts:

1) We play 5 guards regularly. The best of those 5 (Alstork) is shooting .290 from 3 point land. The other 4 are all below .200. I refuse to believe they are that bad.

2) Still the best.......uniforms.........ever (especially when we actually live up to the word just above the player's number).

HiggsBoson on December 05 @ 05:38 PM CST

So what is Aaron Jordan then?

Sweetchuck13 on December 04 @ 08:33 AM CST

Man that's a tough loss. All Damonte had to do was make sure it hit someone in the front court, but oh well. I guess you could probably chalk it up to karma for the bad no-call on Alstork (let's be honest - it was clearly a foul).

For the second half and OT, our offense really looked good. Lots of movement, guys creating good shots (lots of decent 3 looks but more importantly, lots of shots inside 8 feet or so). Jordan continues to be such a pleasant surprise and Leron's soft touch was on last night. But our defense is still pretty rough - no ability to stop penetration or send effective help. Cowan ate us up.

It's obviously bitter with the loss, but coming back from 22 down is pretty insane. For context, the classic 2000 Seton Hall game was a 21 point comeback (and it was 17 at half). Granted, that was a much higher touted game between 2 ranked teams, but still you don't see that kind of comeback very often against a solid team. Good sign of Underwood's tenacity and mindset starting to break through. If this was Groce, I'm guessing we coast to a 24 point loss.

I'm backing off my NCAA prediction for now, but I still think with Underwood's coaching we'll see more than 5 conference wins. A tourney bid could be tough though - as I'm guessing we'll be around the 8-10 or 9-9 mark, and we just missed some good chances for decent wins.

Bear8287 on December 04 @ 01:56 PM CST

I guess you could probably chalk it up to karma for the bad no-call on Alstork (let's be honest - it was clearly a foul).

Oh, and here I was thinking that was just karma due to the blown goaltending call after the Maryland player clearly swatted the ball away after it had already hit the backboard. (We could do this all day.) ;-)

Good comments. Cowan was definitely a handful, but it was good experience for the team.

...and since you mentioned it first ;-), the Menace of Akron already has his first 20+ point loss of the season @Marshall 86-64. Really, I wish him the best, but he probably could've benefitted from taking some time off to develop some perspective. Oh well, not our issue any more...

illiniranger on December 04 @ 12:04 PM CST

this team looks like a team that has a new HC and plays a ton of underclassmen. i expected a lot of losses that would look a lot like this one.

it's the old "Year 1 lose close, Year 2 win close, Year 3 win big" strategy. i'm perfectly fine with it.

Joe Edge on December 04 @ 02:28 PM CST

I have to say that I really enjoyed the post game presser by Underwood. He was clearly PO'ed. He was even angry that the players showed up while he was still in opening remarks. It was such a volcanic shift from the previous two coaching staffs, that I found it delightful, even refreshing.

Here's a guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve... for everyone to see. It's open, it's honest, and it's real... I love it.

I am flying my Chinese family into Vegas for the UNLV game on Friday, so they can experience a college game in the United States. They have never been to an event of this nature, and I really hope they enjoy this trip. It will also probably be my final chance to see the Illini play live.

This team is going to be good, perhaps even great. I'm not saying it'll happen this year, this season... But it going to happen soon. NOTE: I also wanted the football team to have a winning season also, but alas that rebuild will take too long.

Go Illini....

iluvrt on December 04 @ 03:59 PM CST

Hexed by Mike Thomas and Mike Freaking Hogan. I hate Mikes

NC_OrangeKrush on December 04 @ 04:45 PM CST

I love the last 20 seconds of this video of Mark Turgeon.. I L L

track on December 04 @ 05:38 PM CST

I said this in another forum. I'm reserving Judgement until January. After the Dec 16th game, there is a week of practice before Mizzou. Then another week before the next game. Lots of practice time, no classes, the offense and defense can be fined tuned. This stretch hasn't had much time between games to work on execution. Anyway, I'm optimistic after what I've seen, also the Illini are more fun to watch than the teams the past 4 years.

LosAngellini on December 04 @ 11:28 PM CST

This is where losing JCL stings. We could use his three point shooting and experience.

Still very exciting brand of basketball BU has brought. Team showing lots of guts. So excited to get see them live in Vegas. Rare event for us in the West Coast diaspora.

Bear8287 on December 05 @ 11:23 AM CST

Unfortunately, we're going to miss it this year. It falls on the same day as an annual club awards dinner party and my wife is a club board member so it would sort of be bad form to miss it.

We went to the Thanksgiving Las Vegas Invitational Tournament that the Illini won back in 2014 by beating Indiana State and Baylor. We had a great time. Went to see Penn & Teller while we were there too.

There had been talk about setting up a home and away pair of games with Stanford in basketball a few years ago and I wish that they would reconsider it. I think that they would be amazed at how many Illini fans would show up for that game. There are a lot of Illini in the Bay Area.

Brad Underwood has said that the Illini need to toughen up their nonconference schedule and adding another Power 5 team to the schedule would help. We need the B1G to get a PAC12 challenge series going now too. At least that way there'd be a good chance of the Illini fans getting a game out West every other year. The Oregon fans were really surprised by how many Illini fans were at the game in Portland in 2013 and the I-L-L, I-N-I chants back and forth were great too.

Have a good time at the game.

Go Illini!

NC_OrangeKrush on December 06 @ 09:24 AM CST

I have never questioned or concerned myself with those who left or leave. There is a mental and physical toughness and tenacity required for the type of ball we will play with BU... It is not for everyone, and you have to be bought in to handle it and execute it. Good luck to them and glad for the guys who bought in....

HiggsBoson on December 06 @ 09:36 PM CST

Had they simply been able to inbound the ball with four seconds left, that game would have gone down in Illini lore as an instant classic. But they didn't.

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