Back & Forth - Wisconsin

Jan 20, 2018

I needed Tyler's help. I could tell that defense was the issue, and I'm still not there yet in determining just what is going wrong, so I sent Tyler an email and started a Back & Forth. This game - this was a really bad game of basketball. So we discussed it.

Here's how I began:

So it's halftime and I'm a bit BOGGLE. Wisconsin is bad but we're making them good. I can tell they're bad - it's right there on my TV - but they look good. Why are we making them look good?

As Wisconsin gets three point blank looks to start the second half...I'm going to try to avoid continuing wailing on this deceased horse - but I'm not sure what else to say about this defense.

The fundamental concern is now and has always been that even when the defense does what it supposed to (force turnovers), teams with even replacement level guard play will eventually find open shots. It's been a lousy trade off.

It's been a rather predictable pattern. We spaz teams out at the beginning of games, they adjust (meaning they realize that one simple pass often opens up everything) and the lay-up line is open. If nothing else we know Wisconsin knows how to pass the ball so even though the shots are coming at the end of the shot clock - they're still getting rhythm looks.

I mean, at this point, my whole "just wait until Maui next November" thing is just fading and fading. We'll still have Leron doing Leron things, and Trent will probably take a step forward, but nothing else looks right. What happened to Aaron Jordan? Did November Mark Smith break? Was the Finke thing on Monday a one-time thing? WHY IS NOTHING WORKING?

With this second half - throw all the X's/O's out the window. I told you in our last B/F that I felt the balance of the schedule was crucial to the development and growth of this group. I think it's so very important for them to experience some success this year. It's intangible as hell, but losing can become a thing - quick. Tonight was Exhibit A of that. The frustration was visible and palpable. It was the first time we saw the fight fail to show up - and that's a dangerous thing with more than half the conference schedule left to be played. Thankfully we get a break with Michigan State coming to town next.

It's over now, mercifully, so I can expand on some of my thoughts a little bit.

1. Agree that it was palpable. You could see it on everyone's faces. That's a broken team. Which, honestly, might be a good thing. The season is lost (officially now, I think - even if we win out in the Big Ten we still don't dance), so he can take a broken team and start building around some players who provide the mentality he desires (Leron, Trent, probably Eboi, too.)

2. We don't know what Te'Jon did, but I wonder how much that suspension plays into this as well. Not that Underwood is simply making an example of him, but that Underwood is dressing a guard he could clearly use, playing in his home state, and sitting him there with his warmup on. There seems to be a lot of "let that be a lesson to the rest of you" going on.

3. I hate to harp on the mental stuff but it's how I see sports so I'll keep going. Finke has this breakout game at Nebraska. Confidently shooting the ball. Aggressive, even on the boards. He starts this game trying to match that aggression, it doesn't go well, he gets beat on defense a couple times, and it's like he went back into his shell.

4. Which brings me to the main thing on my mind: consistency. Leron is fairly consistent game to game, but it doesn't seem like we get consistency from anyone else. Kipper was great against Michigan and then seemingly lost tonight. DePaul game Aaron Jordan is completely gone. The Marks. I just want to get into a groove where everyone knows their role and gives the same type of performance game to game. You know, like the years 1983 through 2006.

I think you hit on my frustration with the season to this point - the lack of anything resembling consistency or growth. And yes it's a young team - I get it, but this was supposed to be the "Build the Foundation" season. Instead we're getting regression. And sure they've been snakebit as hell, and maybe tonight was an outlier with respect to the effort thing, but I'm worried man. And yes, maybe I'm massively overreacting to what was just another standard issue Madison ass-kicking, but I feel as if the future is on the line here. Or at the very least - the immediate future. The idea that what I thought was a two year project may end up being a considerably longer endeavor.

Back in November I told myself I was more than happy to watch this young team take its lumps as they established a culture for the future. You know - be better in March than in November. Instead we're stuck in reverse, and as such it's turned this season into one my least favorite to watch in recent memory.

I mean we've sucked for a decade so I'm used to the losing. It's that this season was supposed to represent hope - and all I've gotten from it so far is angst.

Yeah, the down Big Ten had given me hope. Indiana has a new coach, Ohio State has a new coach, many teams are rebuilding - nobody really knew anything outside of Michigan State, Purdue, and Minnesota being good (and then Minnesota lost two players and fell apart). This was maybe an opportunity to surprise some people. Wouldn't be a tournament season, but hey, maybe a few fun wins here and there.

And we're the worst team in a bad conference. Two months after football finished 0-9 in the Big Ten West. It's just so hard to take in.

So now it feels like the Indiana game is everything. We'll lose to Michigan State (my God will we lose to Michigan State) and then it's Indiana coming to town on Wednesday. An Indiana team who lost to Michigan State by 28 tonight. They're just like us - young, inexperienced, and trying to figure things out under a new coach.

Lose that one? It would feel like 0-18 is seriously in play. It wouldn't be, but it would certainly feel like it.

We won't go 0-18. Wait - we won't go 0-18 will we? (We won't.)

I probably should take a step back and remind myself of something Coach Henson once told me. He had a theory in which he believed that over any season there were four games each year that as a coach he had no control over. Two on the winning side and two on the losing side. There were going to be a couple of nights where everything went right and a couple where everything went wrong. Tonight may have just been one of those on the wrong side of the ledger.

As frustrating as this season has been, tonight was the first real clunker and it's quite possible this was more exception than rule. Heck, I could easily talk myself into us playing tough against MSU (they should have lost at home to Rutgers you know).

Regardless, Brad Underwood has some heavy lifting to do over the next six weeks in order to dispel the gloomy perception that has clouded over this program. If the losing continues unchecked this season, that weight becomes heavier still. Fix it Brad.


illiniranger on January 20 @ 04:44 PM CST

Probably worth noting that Brad is 0-13 in P5 conference play running his defense.

Illiniiniowa on January 20 @ 05:53 PM CST

This was our first garbage performance, which happens to almost every team occasionally. Other than last night, this team has been enjoyable to watch and fought hard. I'm still much happier than I was last year with this team.

Bear8287 on January 20 @ 06:17 PM CST

“It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future”
-Yogi Berra

Something I generally refrain from doing with regards to Illini sports (and my last prediction shows why :-D).

Well, on the bright side, the Illini have played 7 B1G games with 5 of those games on the road and 2 OT losses at home. Add in a third OT loss and a last second buzzer beater by 1 (both on the road) and the Illini are 0-7 in B1G play. Catch a couple of breaks and this team has at least two wins. Get really lucky and they could've been 4-3 and everything looks completely different.

You often have your best chance to see what people are really made of when they have to face adversity. We're going to learn something in the remaining games of this season.

This is a team that is clearly hurting right now, but if they start feeling sorry for themselves, it's really going to be all over. Can't see BU letting them sit in that state.

Their confidence clearly seems shaken (except maybe for Leron and Trent (freshman!)). So much of the game is based on confidence and believing.

Five of the next 6 B1G games are at home. Hopefully the fans will show up to help support this team, because this team really could use a win. Like a shooter in a slump seeing that first ball go through the hoop, a "W" would likely go a long way towards this Illini team getting back on track...

Sweetchuck13 on January 22 @ 08:19 AM CST

That was one disgusting performance. In addition, to the obvious defense issues (we let Brad Davison score 18 points including 10-10 on FTs!), our offense wasn't crisp or efficient at all. Leron, Finke, and Eboi were a combined 13-17 for 28 points, while everyone else was 10-40 from the field.

Also, for all of our emphasis on the pressure defense, why didn't we pressure Happ more when he had the ball? He was practically playing point guard, and while he's a decent ball handler for a big guy, there's no way we couldn't have forced some turnovers if we really went after him.

This team needs a win - gotta find some confidence back. Hopefully it starts on Wednesday.

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