The Long Road Back


Robert
Jan 04, 2018
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9 Comments

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.

Comments

NC_OrangeKrush on January 04 @ 06:27 AM CST

It just shows in these games how small of a team we are, height, and ovaerall size... We need another big that can score right now.... We haven't had a go to scoring big since when? Leonard didnt stay long enough to be one... it is back to 06?

Still, I love the fight on this team, I love the offense to get easy buckets as well as 3s.. Consistent and trustworthy 3 pt scorers is lacking, this I think will be less an issue with experience... and Aaron needs to find some mojo and he will help.

Ayo and experience will bring mojo next year... but still hope they stay together through B1G schedule and surprise next month with more home games and experience.

We can't keep starting 1 for 19, that is the consistency on this team that must end. But comparing teams each B1G game, we are way beyond under sized... if we didn't play as hard as we do, you would see the blowouts of our recent past....

I am confident in our direction, just not our outcomes in these January's games..

ATOillini on January 04 @ 08:13 AM CST

Glass half full - We (once again) could have rolled over, given up, mailed it in, etc. and settled with a 20-30 point loss, but instead we fought back.

Glass half empty - We are small, unathletic and not particularly good at shooting.

And another lesson that I've learned many years ago is that players who look great in practice or vs. tomato cans early on the schedule don't necessarily translate the same against better competition.

We need to recruit a good big man in the worst way.

Sweetchuck13 on January 04 @ 09:17 AM CST

I really like how this team plays at times, but they can't seem to put a full game together. I still think we have the ability to sneak up and beat a couple of really good teams that last year we had no chance against, but I really hope this entire year isn't just super close losses where we come up just short.

Also, agree with you on Frazier - can't believe he's not starting yet. Da'Monte I'm not as shocked about - as much as I love watching him play, it doesn't bother me that he's not a starter. Underwood seems to like bringing him off the bench, and I haven't given up on Smith yet.

Southernillini on January 04 @ 11:48 AM CST

Is it weird the more I watch this team lose, the more faith I have in what Underwood is doing here?

I mean, they play...hard. All the time. And they're involved. No hero ball. No laziness. They try. And he's recruiting well.

Mr. Underwood, count me as completely on board. You got this.

orangejulius on January 04 @ 03:36 PM CST

Mark Smith and Ayo were great recruits (although Smith has been disappointing this far), but I'm reserving judgment until he lands some decent bigs. So far losing Tilmon and taking a couple bigs no one else wanted, one who isn't playing and the other who rarely gets off the bench, that's why we're NIT bound this season (if we're lucky). If he can't get bigs, Underwood will fare no better than Groce did.

Bear8287 on January 04 @ 12:02 PM CST

Call me an optimist, but I still haven't given up on this team's chances of making the tourney. A lot of work to do certainly but the trajectory is still going in the right direction.

Glass half full - 16 games into the season and this was this team's first double-digit loss and it was just barely. (For comparison purposes, Capt. TNT has already had losses by 22 and 31 points this season.)

The Illini were actually down by 20 points at one point (8-28) and then went on a (12-4) mini-run over the next four minutes, capped by an Eboigbodin dunk to cut the lead to 12 points at 20-32 with 4 minutes left in the half.

Glass half full - Eboigbodin showed some real promise in this game playing against some good competition. It looks like he's got the potential to add some valuable minutes yet this season.

The Illini cut the deficit to 4 points with 10:14 left in the second half at 51-55. At that point, they were totally back in the ball game.

At 8:18 the Illini got back to within 5 (55-60) on a pair of Alstork free throws, but weren't able to get any closer than that the rest of the way. Coach Underwood pulled Alstork at that point to get him a break with the under 8 media timeout coming up and that worked well with Alstork coming back in with 07:23 left and the score still 55-60. Unfortunately, he also committed 3 fouls over the next 1:32 and that was disappointing. The team really needs better leadership from the grad-transfer than that.

Overall, as has been pointed out, the team is still lacking consistency. This game felt a bit like the Missouri game, just being on the opposite side this time. One team comes out flat and gets punched hard early and then the other team holds on for the victory.

This is a pretty good Minnesota team. On the upside, it's unlikely that the Illini will have to face Murphy again next season as it looks like he'll be in the NBA by then. Minnesota may be the 3rd best team in the conference and the Illini have shown real grit so far this season. There's some Fight in these Fighting Illini. If the team can figure out how to consistently put together a full game, they're going to be okay. After 4 [edit from 5] B1G games, this team is still going to have 8 home games on the schedule. If they can hold court and win a couple of road games, this could still be quite interesting.

Go Illini!

Schlepper on January 04 @ 01:21 PM CST

Love the fight in this team. Games like this and there have been several so far this season would have been bad blowouts the last couple of seasons. I am tremendously encouraged about the future.

Coach may like Frazier coming in off the bench but we need that energy from the start.

Hoping that the bigs we're recruiting are seeing what's happening in these game and not just the results. The opportunities will be there and they can make a huge difference.

Norcal Illini on January 04 @ 02:20 PM CST

I have to believe we could be undefeated now if Tilmon hadn't flipped to Missouri. He has exactly the kind of body we're sorely missing now.

It wouldn't surprise me if the starting lineup changes next game or the game after. Underwood has been subbing before the first media timeout , and maybe that's his way of changing the starting lineup without actually changing it.

Kipper is clearly in the doghouse now. Only 7 minutes this game and all in the first half. At the pressers, someone always seems to ask about Kipper, and BU isn't shy about his disappointment. Looks like Eboigbodin is starting to get Kipper's minutes.

I agree with your comment about the refs adding their emotion. That's one reason Bob Knight never liked Ted Valentine. It felt like Wymer and Szelc were ticked that they had to look at the replay on Finke's shot that hit the rim. I haven't noticed the third guy (Kimble) doing Illini games before, but in the replay he was staring straight up at the basket and should have been able to see the ball hit the rim. BU almost had to get a technical to force them to look at the replay, and then it turned out he was right. Those things are hard to forget and probably had something to do with calling Alstork for those two fouls.

HailToTheOrange on January 04 @ 10:04 PM CST

Ditto on the Eboigbodin observation...was pleasantly surprised at his fearless athleticism, especially against the twin towers. And while the Tilmon lamentations are probably spot on it was hard not to feel slightly (barely) vindicated by his piss-poor performance in the Braggin' Rights game.

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