In And Out
It got that far down and then popped back out.
Look, this game isn't going to mean anything. It's not like the Georgetown loss and the Notre Dame loss are going to mean anything at the end of the year. It's not like one of these losses is preventing us from making the Tournament or anything. From the moment we dropped to four returning players, this season was "over". I've been over this too much. Indiana when Crean took over, Pitt under Stallings, Missouri after Kim Anderson's second year.... when a team doesn't even have five players when they're trying to practice in May, that team is going to be sub-.500 the following fall. I know you're tired of hearing that, but that's the truth.
I should also note before I move on - the roster we have is much more talented than what Stallings had at Pitt when he only had three returning players, and what Anderson had at Missouri with three returning players, and even what Crean had at Indiana (I think he had only two returning players the year he went 6-25). No, I don't see Kevin Stallings' 8-24 (0-18) season upcoming. I said that the stretch goal is 15 wins, I'm hoping for 13 or 14, but KenPom probably has it correct with a 12 win season. After losing several 50/50 games (Georgetown, Xavier, Notre Dame), getting to 12 is going to be a real test, but 12 is probably the true expectation.
So, as I've written, each time I turn on the TV or sit down in my seat at SFC, that's my expectation. 15-16 would be a "great" season with this many newcomers. 12-19 would be acceptable. No, 12-19 is not "acceptable" for Illinois basketball (like, ever), but given the roster + the schedule, with a cold, hard, fan-less look at things, 12-19 is acceptable as long as it's followed by 18-13 and then 23-8. Hmmmm... I feel like I've written a bunch of words on this rebuilding method before, maybe for a sport played with an oblong ball??
With that established (we're starting over, and that's just the way it is), we can talk about last night's game.
Man, that was disappointing. Another halftime lead, followed by a long second-half lull as the game gets away from us. Lulls are a staple of teams like ours (young, inexperienced), because inconsistency is the main thing that plagues a young team (Football Correlation #7 in this post already and we're only like 400 words in). But the lulls are still so painful to watch. Especially on the road while Notre Dame fans celebrate.
But then, another furious rally. This one was nearly identical to the Gonzaga game. A furious rally and we cut it from 13 to 2. Then they make a push with two minutes left and it's back up to 7 (I think it was 10 against Gonzaga). And somehow, we make a second push and have a three pointer in the air to win the game. Against Gonzaga, airball. Against Notre Dame, around-and-out. All of that effort, all of that emotion, and then it rims out.
I quite literally fell to the ground when it rimmed out. I was standing for the final four minutes, did that thing where I move closer and closer to the TV as Trent's three is in the air (so that my face is near the hoop if it goes in, I guess), and then fall to the ground as it rims out. You know the drill. The dog comes over like "why are you down here with me?", your brain is thinking things like "wait maybe Kipper was fouled going for the rebound or something?" before just accepting your fate.
And then it seemed silly that I was down there. This game didn't really mean anything. As I said above, this just means we'll go 11-20 instead of 12-19. Big picture, I should still be watching for the rebuilding pieces, not the wins and losses.
But man, it's just so hard to keep losing like this. I don't want to talk about it anymore. Let's just make a list of "things that bode well for 2019/20".
(OK before I make the list just one more point. I've emphasized this before but I need to do it again - September 2019 to March 2020 is SO IMPORTANT FOR ILLINI ATHLETICS". Both football and basketball will be trying to catch the one boat off the island and if we miss it, it's probably four more years until the next boat. SO IMPORTANT.)
OK, the list.
- Giorgi. Giorgi Giorgi Giorgi. I honestly feel like we're watching a top-50 recruit. How is it possible for a completely unranked player (who played at one of the top HS programs on the East Coast last year) to come in and have this many polished post moves? Yes, he's going to foul out of maybe 15 games this year (he's a freshman and he has to learn), and yes, he's going to have bursts of offense and then long stretches where he looks lost (he's a freshman and he has to learn). But this rebuild looks so different because of Giorgi. We have a known in Trent + Ayo, and it looks like we might have another known in Giorgi? How insane is that?
- Aaron Jordan is such a great example of how to build a program. Getting Aaron Jordans to their senior year is the key to everything. Once we have three Jordans graduating every year, we'll be back. He barely played as a freshman and sophomore, and after he only averaged 6 minutes per game and 1.0 ppg his sophomore season, many suggested a transfer would happen. He stuck it out, has learned the new system, and is now perhaps our most dependable player. Read that again - other players are more talented, but Jordan is our most dependable. Not only because he shoots 50% from three, but because he's pulling down five rebounds per game for a team with very little frontcourt help. How do you win college basketball games? Dependable upperclassmen. Unfortunately, we need six and we only have one right now.
- Since I'm already focused on next year, as I referenced above, I believe there are now three "knowns". Ayo creates (and is a much better shooter than we thought), Trent can score in bunches, and Giorgi has post moves. Those are the three knowns, and lock those three into the starting lineup. We need about four or five more "knowns" if we're going to make a push, so that's what I'm watching for. Candidates:?
+ Da'Monte glue guy. He's close to that right now (7 boards, 5 assists, 4 steals last night), but he has to be a scoring threat if he wants to be a "known". Getting blocked as much as he did last night does not = "scoring threat".
+ Alan Griffin three point threat. He's shooting 43% so far, and I love that stroke, and he's shown a few hustle plays, but he's currently a turnover machine (11 in the last three games). He's a freshman, so that's fine, but we need a leap next year.
+ Samba shot blocker. He's skinnier than Mike Tisdale right now, so he probably needs a 9,000 calorie diet, and he's really raw, so I'm stretching here. But we need a shot blocker, and he's the only candidate.
+ Feliz senior leader. After a great first two games, Andres Feliz has kind of disappeared a bit. Would really like to see a breakout game soon. And then next year, we need an Aaron Jordan senior leadership year from him. A pretty big ask.
+ Kipper senior light bulb. OK, now I'm really stretching. As the world's biggest Kipper fan, it pains me to see how lost he's been. But I want to make a jump next season, and nothing could help us get closer to that more than a Kipper light bulb.
Yes, with this 2-5 start, all of that is looking more and more like a longshot for next year (FOOTBALL CORRELATION #22). But it's all we can cling to right now (FOOTBALL CORRELATION #23). There are three pieces now (up from two a month ago!), so I'll keep scanning the horizon for piece #4 and piece #5 (and #6 and #7). This just has to work. It has to.
Because man, if this doesn't work...