Back & Forth - 0-4
I felt surprisingly good after the Michigan loss, and that was weird, so I enlisted Tyler's help (does one "enlist" help? oh well I'm leaving it.) I needed to talk through the season so far and what it meant for our future. So we did. These are those emails.
Starting with my email to Tyler which went a little something like this:
Ok, maybe you can talk me down.
For whatever reason, this Michigan game left me wildly optimistic for the future. I felt like I could see what it is supposed to look like, and once all of the pieces are in place (and are all experienced enough), I feel like we're going to really have something.
It wasn't just the first half. I really do think we win this one if Michigan doesn't shoot lights out in the second half. It felt like they missed all of their open looks in the first half and none of their open looks in the second half. Yes, we have to stop giving up open looks, but I really do think that will come with experience.
So, talk me down. (Or don't.)
So yeah, I'm going to talk you down. A little bit.
I was encouraged against Minny and Michigan by the progress I've seen with the offense. The cutters are finding openings, the ball is reversing, and the off the ball movement actually has a purpose. It's an offense with a visibly improved comfort zone compared to a month ago.
Still we all know how it goes in conference play. Teams catch on to your stuff sooner than later, and options that were available become not so available later in the year (or later in the game as we saw against Michigan).
So although the offensive scheme is starting to bear fruit, that scheme is just about all we have. We simply don't have the shooters or shot makers to overcome a bad possession, or to find points when a defense is having success against the scheme.
In fact, this is a historically bad shooting Illini team. The current clip of 31.6% from the arc would be the second worst percentage in the last 17 seasons. In conference play it's an impossibly bad 24.7%. Like literally impossible - the worst three point shooting team in the country over the past three seasons still shot 26%.
The hope is that Ayo + sophomore leaps will make up for that, but I would caution that those leaps aren't nearly as dramatic coming from guys getting heavy minutes already as freshmen. You'll probably see fewer mistakes, but I'm just not confident that we're going to suddenly see a bunch of sophomore sharp shooters.
So basically my hedge is that this roster still desperately needs shooters. Like three of them.
See now this knocked me pretty far off my pedestal. I mean, we don't have the shooters now, we don't have any shooters in the next class (Ayo is a scorer but isn't a "shooter" per se), and the 2019 class will be this big emphasis on tall people since Leron, Finke, and AJ will be graduating. So now I'm getting this sense that "no shooters" will be carrying all the way through the 2020/21 season.
Which means I'm going to have to settle on "these three freshmen guards will figure it out". They are currently shooting .192 (Da'Monte), .257 (Mark Smith), and .277 (Trent). Here, I'll call my shot. In the first 17 games those freshmen have made 35 of 136 threes. In the final 15 games they will shoot +/- 120 threes.. and make 45 of them (37.5%). And then I will feel fine about this issue going into next year. Because I have to.
I also have #goals for us to go 6-5 our next 11 games. Something like:
Iowa, at Nebraska, at Wisconsin: 2-1
Michigan State, Indiana, Rutgers all at home: 2-1
at Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State at home: 1-2
at Indiana, Nebraska: 1-1
Safe, reasonable, things-are-still-on-track #goals, right?
Yes - absolutely safe and absolutely reasonable. However, if I'm making the leap to "things still on track", then I would go a step further and say absolutely necessary.
Of course I want to believe that we are moving in the right direction, but the last decade is always lurking right there behind me to mock my optimism. I'll admit to regressing into full-on grizzle mode during the first half of the Minny game. At one point I turned to my viewing companion (the dog) and asked out loud: "And we think adding Ayo makes this a tournament team?"
Asking that same hypothetical this evening brings me to a happier conclusion (Yes, I do still think this is a tournament team next year), but man it's no sure thing. While it's fun to say that we're only a couple of in-bounds plays from being in the bubble conversation this year, I would also remind that we were in one-possession games late at home against Austin Peay and Grand Canyon.
We've been a mostly entertaining and thoroughly competitive team to this point, but we've also been just what the record shows - objectively mediocre.
To that end, if we don't finish with at least 6 or 7 conference wins, it's going to be awfully tough for me to be giddy with optimism going into next season.
I still need to see some tangible evidence (wins) to help my mind validate the progression and growth I envisioned from this team before this season started. Otherwise if I'm being honest with myself, I'm just wish-casting. Again.
Yeah, I had a bit of a reality check the other day. Someone mentioned Tony Bennett (the Virginia coach, not the singer), and I was all "remember when we were speculating whether we could double Tony Bennett's salary to bring him to Champaign?", and then I wondered aloud how long it took him to get things going at UVA. So I looked up his record there:
09/10: 15-16 (5-11)
10/11: 16-15 (7-9)
11/12: 22-10 (9-7), 10 seed
12/13: 23-12 (11-7), NIT
13/14: 30-7 (16-2), Sweet 16
That one made me press pause in my brain. Bennett is undoubtedly a great coach. But even for him it was one 10-seed and one NIT in his first four years before it really took off.
And then, since we just played Michigan and got Beilein'd in the second half, I looked up Beilein at Michigan:
07/08: 10-22 (5-13)
08/09: 21-14 (9-9) 10 seed
09/10: 15-17 (7-11)
10/11: 21-14 (9-9) 8 seed
11/12: 24-10 (13-5) 4-seed, lost to this guy named John Groce and his 13th-seeded Ohio Bobcats
(Had Michigan won that game - is Groce our head coach three weeks later?)
Anyway, a bit depressing. This summer I was all "Underwood has never not made the Tournament!" and midway through the second half of the EIU exhibition I was slapped in the face with "oh yeah, ten years of crap takes a long time to climb out of". I'm guessing our climb back might be more Bennett-y than I was previously willing to admit.
So yeah I think you helped me find my way back to a much healthier perspective on this team - one that comes with some needed patience. Before the season started, I envisioned an ideal timeline for the Underwood rebuild that looked something like this:
17/18: The Foundation. Young team takes its lumps, but remains competitive throughout and is clearly better in March than December. A new culture is firmly established.
18/19 and 19/20: Return to Relevance. The freshmen leap. Ayo arrives. Underwood secures a strong 2019 recruiting class. NCAA Tournament appearances become the expectation again in these two seasons.
20/21: Swagger Regained. We all witness the firepower of our fully armed and operational Death Star. High level talent permeates the rotation, recruiting momentum is established to help minimize the impact of roster attrition, and this program returns to upper division Big Ten status.
I have to remind myself that my most optimistic outlook involved a four season plan. Patience man.
So even though this season has been exceptionally frustrating at times, and my confidence has wavered on occasion, the desired future remains well within reach. In-bounds disasters, OT losses, and freshmen inconsistency aside, we're right about where I thought we'd be at this juncture. I'll still admit to a little anxiety regarding the balance of the season because I believe the next six weeks are critical for the growth of this group, but going back to this sentence from your first post above...
"I felt like I could see what it is supposed to look like, and once all of the pieces are in place (and are all experienced enough), I feel like we're going to really have something."
...it turns out I'm right there with you after all.
Good talk man.