The Long Road Back
When you lose it, it's lost. Can't really be found. It's not one of those "now where did I leave that?" situations - it's gone and you have to start over. That's my general feeling watching basketball this season - it's completely gone and we're not even trying to find it. We're simply starting over.
Because everything seems so different. The offense is different, the way we use the returning players is different, the sideline demeanor is different - 2012-13 felt like a new coach taking an experienced team and tweaking some things; 2017-18 feels like a complete and total overhaul.
I didn't think this would be the case. I balked at the Big Ten media picking us 12th in the conference and suggested that two redshirt juniors + a fifth-year transfer senior + two sophomores who played a lot last year would = a surprise team that could make its way towards the bubble. I tossed that out the window moments after the EIU exhibition loss and now, 16 games into the season, I still feel like this thing is still in its infancy. Every player who returned has seen his game overhauled (some with good results, like Leron or AJ, some with bad like Kipper and to some extent Finke) and all of the freshmen are being pushed to their limits.
The result? Something that's... ugly yet somehow promising? I mean, we're 16 games into the season, and we've seen a lot of ugly (to be expected after 7 players departed), but each time we see ugly we get a comeback. We'll consistently fall behind by double digits yet later cut it to one possession (although I'm not sure this game got to one possession tonight - I think four points was the closest we got in the second half after being down 19). We've lost six games yet somehow have been right there at the end of all six. In fact, I think this was the first loss that wasn't a one-possession game with 3:00 to go. Leron cut it to five points with that three pointer with 3:54 to go but that was the closest we got the rest of the way.
Make no mistake - we have a long way to go. When we fell behind 17-2 I started to question if we'd even win four conference games. This teams downfall, clearly, will be it's lack of shooters. Hit just a few of these threes tonight and we might have come all the way back. We came into the game shooting .333 from three and shot 25% in this one, so we might finish in the bottom 20% nationally in shooting statistics. I mean, when we were down five and Da'Monte had the three and then Trent had that three - if either of those falls we're right there down two. But we just can't seem to get those shots to fall this year, and I don't think it's changing anytime soon.
Which means this will be a long, slow grind back to respectability. 2012-13 was this immediate turnaround (won Maui, ranked #10 that December). This season isn't anything like that. This season is showing us the length of the road to get back. And right now, we're just in first gear, slowly and methodically overhauling everything. Hope you brought a pillow because this is going to be a long trip.
+ I love Da'Monte Williams tonight. Yes, there were the three turnovers (turnovers will fade with experience), and yes, there was that blocked shot as the shot click was winding down (a long two). But 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 4 steals to go with his 6 points (that one big put-back plus 4-4 from the line)? I'm so excited for his future. He made me think of Roger Powell tonight - ALL the little things.
Let's get Da'Monte in Sports Illustrated holding a basketball with glue on his fingers before his career is over.
+ With the performance of these starters in falling behind tonight (and other games like Maryland), at what point do we shake up the starting lineup? At what point does Trent start over Te'Jon, or Da'Monte over Mark Smith?
The minutes ended up that way. Trent 25 minutes, Te'Jon 11 minutes; Da'Monte 28 minutes, Smith 20. If those are the guys getting the majority of the minutes, at what point are those the guys who are starting?
+ Jordan Murphy looked like an All American tonight. 17 points and 17 boards, a double-double in every game this season - he has to be in the discussion for Big Ten Player of the Year. Richard Pitino was probably headed for a firing and then Shaka Smart left VCU for Texas, Murphy decommitted from VCU, and Murphy fell into Pitino's lap.
And it wasn't just Murphy - the seven blocks from Reggie Lynch just destroyed us. 10 blocks in all for Minnesota (1 for Illinois). We can talk about the foul discrepancy (Illinois 24 fouls, Minnesota 14) and the free throw discrepancy (34-14), but really, the big difference in the game, our ten shots that didn't go in because Minnesota swatted them away. Can't wait until we recruit a rim protector in Champaign.
+ I really do hate when a referee adds emotion to his job. That ref who called the two fouls on Alstork - the second time leaning in with some "I'm in charge here, pal" emphasis? HATE.
If I'm monitoring officials, that's the one thing I'd single out. I'd test and test and test my officials to make sure they can remain calm and emotionless in all situation. It's 80% of the job. If they can't? If they start making calls based on emotion and "oh yeah well how do you like THIS call"? Time for a new job.
+ Overall, it still feels like everything is on track. I'm still ready for Maui to get here in November. Still ready for Ayo to take the court with a team that has had a full year to learn this new system. Right now it's ugly, and there's a long road ahead, but just keep showing fight like tonight and we're good.
Also, recruit a Jordan Murphy.