"I'm standing at the crossroads - believe I'm sinking down"
- Eric Clapton
So that was dreadful.
Illinois fell in OT 73-71 to a Florida Atlantic team that came in ranked #215 in KenPom and was missing two of its best players. The Illini bricked, stumbled, and fouled its way to the program's worst loss in eight years, and they looked every bit as bad as the final outcome would indicate. There were zero positives to take away from this fiasco. Even Brad Underwood would grade this one an F-.
As much as I was rooting for that Da'Monte Williams' game winning three point attempt in OT to fall, I'm not sure it would have mattered all that much in the grand scheme. I doubt the trajectory of this season would have been dramatically altered had that shot found its mark. The damage seems already irreparable.
The end of the pre-conference schedule - the symbolic midpoint of the season - is usually a good time to take stock of the season to date. By any metric it ain't pretty. The Illini sit at 4-9 through the first 13 games - victims of an overly ambitious schedule some might say, but that's a convenient excuse. They sit at 4-9 because this is an objectively terrible basketball team right now.
After today's festivities, the Illini find themselves at #114 in the up to the moment KenPom rankings - officially last in the Big Ten, three spots behind Rutgers. Oh and hey look who else Illinois is looking up at - it's the John Groce coached Akron Zips! Welcome to our new reality.
So what's gone wrong to this point? Well, almost everything.
+ This team cannot handle prosperity. The Illini have blown second half leads in seven of their nine losses.
+ The defense continues to foul with epic propensity and allow offensive rebounds with stunning regularity. This defense continues to demonstrate that forcing turnovers at a high rate does not correlate with winning basketball.
+ Along the same line of thought, as much as Illinois sends teams to the foul line, they are almost as bad at getting to the line themselves. Illinois has been outscored at the free throw line 238-149 so far on the season.
+ The two best Illini players are to this point incompatible. We are all still waiting for Trent Frazier and Ayo Dosunmu to each play well on the same night. They have rarely been on the same page this season.
+ The offense has fully stagnated. Possessions often degenerate into 25 seconds of purposeless passing followed by a long three or a hero ball drive. Over the past two games I have counted exactly two baskets from basket cuts - which is supposed to be the bread and butter of this offense.
+ All of the newcomers have hit a wall. The five freshmen plus transfers Andres Feliz and Adonis De La Rosa had combined to average over 40 points per game over the first eight games, but averaged just 27 points combined over the four games prior to today.
+ Production from the wing has been spotty at best with Aaron Jordan struggling everywhere except from the three point line and Kipper Nichols suddenly unable to make anything.
So after an exceptionally disappointing November and December, today's loss sure feels like it carries with it a lot of extra weight. Today feels to me like a crossroads of sorts for Brad Underwood. I'm not here to imply that he is coaching for his job over the next 18-20 games, but if tangible improvement is not demonstrated both on the court and in recruiting over the next several months, it's really difficult to see a successful pathway for him moving forward.
As things stand today Illinois will be favored in just 1 of 18 Big Ten conference games, so even the most optimistic of observers would struggle to envision more than four or five wins remaining on the schedule. If that number ends up at five or less, it would be the first time since Gene Bartow was prowling the sidelines over 40 years ago that an Illinois basketball team failed to reach double figure wins for a season.
The cloud of malaise which would threaten to envelop the program following such a historically bad year would be nigh impossible to overcome. The program is on the precipice of moving from a state of perpetual dormancy to a state of full on decay.
Roster attrition would again become an immediate concern, but even if the roster remains fully intact, Underwood would need a major comeback on the recruiting trail this Spring - after going 0 for last November - to bring in the kind of talent to get this thing fully around the corner. Underwood has talked on several occasions about his desire not to build a single team - but to build a program. Thing is, programs aren't typically built in the spring. In addition, questions regarding job security of the coaching staff would almost assuredly become a shadow over recruiting efforts.
So here lies this program at a crossroads. Are we once again past the point of no return or can forward momentum be established? Simply put - progress must be made over the next three months if the narrative is to be changed. The apparently mystical culture which Underwood is fond of referencing must be established and hard wired by March. This team has to win some damn games, and it's also going to need an influx of talent on which to build for the future, or I'm afraid next season is likely to become a mere formality.
+ An immediate opportunity is present on the recruiting front. There is a giant human on campus this very minute named Kofi Cockburn who would probably start at center for Illinois next week against Indiana if he didn't have to go back to high school after this weekend.
+ Illinois went almost 30 minutes of basketball today before shooting a single foul shot. After the Mizzou loss Brad Underwood insisted the offense was going to work inside out through Giorgi B, but 38 three point attempts later, I'm not sure that message got through.
+ Kipper Nichols needs a shot doctor stat. He is cork-screwing that thing up there right now and isn't coming close on his long distance attempts. Conversely, I have no idea how DMW is not a better shooter - his stroke looks so pure to me.
+ The Free Alan Griffin movement appears to have been successful! He entered the game early in the first half and immediately grabbed four rebounds. He struggles with foot speed on defense and remains loose with the ball, but he will earn more minutes moving forward if he continues to rebound like he did this afternoon.
+ Three rebounds in 23 combined minutes from Giorgi and Samba Kane. Not. Good. Enough.