Dec 30, 2018

"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.

Quick Hits:

+ 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.


FlyinIllini22 on December 30 @ 09:34 AM CST

I told Kofi’s guys almost the exact same thing and they agreed. But I also said the same thing to Cliff Alexander’s parents too.

Georgi isn’t ready to shoot at the elbow on the skip pass.

Lou-a-villini on December 30 @ 09:46 AM CST

Free Tevian.

DJillini on December 30 @ 10:00 AM CST

Elephant in the room... I think it's clearly time to clean house of BU and assistants. Now. We're not getting any 4-stars for 2019-20. He's obviously lost them, the aimless perimeter passing under 5:00 demonstrates that. Sometimes in my dark moments when I concoct conspiracy theories, I imagine that the entire coaching staff are agents for a consortium of DIV-1 schools like MI, Duke, and the like that want to ensure we never compete on a national level again. It's just that they are doing EVERY SINGLE FUCKING THING WRONG. I don't think it's impossible, we have too much going for us, we just need the right leadership. This ain't it.

Groundhogday on December 30 @ 02:03 PM CST

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.

You captured my exact feelings. After last season, folks said things can't get worse. Yes, clearly they can. And if they do we become Rutgers. And when we become Rutgers, it will be that much harder to hire a good coach capable of winning at Illinois.

ATOillini on December 30 @ 06:29 PM CST

Fair assessment. The lack of comments after a loss like that is telling. Fans are just tired.

Bear8287 on December 30 @ 07:26 PM CST

It would be so easy to just dive into despair, but I'm not going to do that here. The orange Kool-Aid will remain in packet form for some time though.

I remember specifically reading this article:
2018-2019 Basketball Season Preview
The Schedule

And I point this out not as a criticism, but because I had hoped going into the season that maybe this team would gel and surprise some people. Would it be possible that the 5 year NCAA tourney drought could somehow come to an end? After reading this analysis, which seemed pretty darn good at the time, and then putting on my orangist tinted glasses the best I could see was maybe a 17-win season and that's not good enough. So basically that article knocked any silly notions of this team making the tournament this season out of my head. 6 years straight, here we come.

What did I expect of this season?

First, this is a young team and I expected that as the season progressed that this team would improve faster than other Div 1 teams.

Anyone up for playing Gonzaga on a neutral (heck any) court again? Does anyone think that this team would now fair any better than it did the first time these two teams met?

Remember the Evansville game which led to this article?
What It Should Look Like - The Basketball Edition

Sure Evansville wasn't the toughest team on the schedule, but the Illini were playing the style of basketball that we (or at least some of us) were expecting from a Brad Underwood coached team. (It should also be noted that FAU wasn't the toughest team on the Illini's schedule either. Both were thrown into the "Gimme" category.)

What happened to that Illini team?

Against Evansville the Illini took 28 3's out of a total of 71 shots (39.4% of shots were 3's). Against FAU the Illini took 38 3's out of a total of 76 shots (50% of shots were 3's)

Brad Underwood wants his teams to grab > 30% of the boards on the offensive end? Versus Evansville, the Illini grabbed 10/33 for 30.3% and against FAU the Illini grabbed 12 of 54 for 22.2%. Actually, FAU grabbed 9/35 for 25.7% so were more aggressive on the boards. By the way Evansville grabbed only 8/38 for 21.1%.

This team actually appears to be regressing. Not a good sign heading into B1G play for the rest of the season. Many people were hoping that after a brutal beginning part of the schedule where the Illini played 10 games in 31 days and then would get 3 games in 21, that having the extra prep time would help and what has it yielded? 1 win in the first game and then 2 losses leaving the fans to wonder just exactly what is going on with this program.

The problem in the FAU game clearly wasn't defense. The Illini held Evansville to 60 points in regulation and FAU to 63. The comparison of shots taken is remarkable in the two games. In regulation, FAU took 53 shots and Evansville had 53 shots. FAU 63 points and Evansville 60 points. That looks really similar. On offense, the Illini had 71 shots in regulation against Evansville and 70 shots against FAU, but there was a 36 point difference in points scored!? That's insane.

So do we chalk it up to a bad shooting night, a complete break down of the offense that BU wants the team to run or maybe a combination of both? Either way, that needs to be sorted out fast. (By the way, the Illini had 50 points in the paint against Evansville and 28 for the whole game against FAU, so there may be a clue there.)

Another thing that needs to happen is for BU to hold this team together. I'm not sure that anyone expects to see all of the non-graduating players back for next season, but the key pieces better be back and BU better land some players who can contribute for next season.

Joe Edge on December 31 @ 12:50 PM CST

Congratulations Bear... Great post. I particularly liked the breakdown of the offensive shots taken / points made. I think that is the most telling. You can't miss 17 free throws against Mizzou and 18 layups against FAU and win games... I've been constantly amazed over many years at how Illini teams can have so many players who surprisingly ALL have bad shooting nights AT THE SAME TIME... Through the years since 1949-50, the number of occurrences has been overwhelming....

Groundhogday on December 31 @ 02:54 PM CST

Underwood talks a lot about missed layups, but most of these misses come from very contested layups. These are not, for the most part, easy shots. If we want to improve our efficiency at the rim, we need to recruit more long athletes and powerful front court guys who can finish in traffic at the rim.

Groundhogday on December 31 @ 01:19 PM CST

This team actually appears to be regressing.

Bingo. How can a team this inexperienced get noticeably worse as the season progresses? How can we not run the offense as well after three weeks of practice, mid-season, relative to how we ran the offense at the start of the season?

At guard, we have two 4-star recruits as sophs (Frazier, Williams), a Juco All-American, and a 5-star freshman. This is the one position group that I expected to be "good" by B1G standards and .... well they have disappointed. What the heck is going on?

Joe Edge on December 31 @ 02:15 PM CST

'What the heck is going on? '

The question of the day (week/month)... For sure.

orangejulius on December 31 @ 02:58 PM CST

"Two 4-star recruits as sophs, Juco All-American, and a 5-star freshman." Well the 4-stars weren't RSCI TOP-100, the Juco All American, Feliz, had no other offers, not even from mid majors, according to 247. Rutgers recruited him but didn't even offer him. DMW was ranked 177 according to 247. I'd like to see a comparison of the rankings of our players vs. the rest of the Big Ten. I would guess we'd finish last or close to last, and that's why we stink.

HiggsBoson on January 03 @ 08:50 PM CST

Anyone care to wager how many more transfers out the Illini will have versus B1G wins this season?

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