Back & Forth - 2-6
So, uh, this basketball season hasn't been great so far. Which means I needed to email Tyler and have him explain it to me. For our first Back & Forth of the season, I decided to email him with a single-word email. Because it's all I could type after the Nebraska game:
Yeah - I was waiting for this. Indulge me a rather long reply here as I've got two weeks of basketball thoughts spilling out of me.
First some context. So I was literally on a mountain in Argentina over Thanksgiving and as such was unable to watch any of the Maui games live. Although I left for vacation with a bad taste in my mouth after the Georgetown game, I reviewed the Maui game results with some optimism. Any team that could take soon to be #1 Gonzaga to the brink is surely not the worst in the Big Ten right? I could even forgive the Iowa State (the most predictable haunting ever) and Xavier (inevitable letdown from a really young team) games.
So after seeing that we had dispatched MVSU in rather expected fashion, I found myself looking forward to a potential bounce back against a very beatable Notre Dame team. One of those early "find out a lot about my team" games. I landed back in the US during the game, and went right from airport to car to home to couch to fire up the DVR for the game. Didn't unpack a thing. And...what a let down. Yeah the comeback was nice, but that was not a game we deserved to win. It's as if the basketball Gods decreed as such and prevented Trent's game winner from spinning in instead of out. Once again - the same old things. Long scoring droughts. Too many fouls. Too many layups allowed.
Still... maybe some positives. Three point shooting is on the upswing, Giorgi is a revelation, and hey, we've had second half leads in every game save Gonzaga.
But now this Nebraska game was exceptionally deflating. Although not quite a blowout - we barely threatened them after the first five minutes. Now to be fair, Nebraska is damn good, but things do not appear to be trending in the right direction.
What concerns me most are the early returns on the Frazier/Ayo backcourt. Those two just haven't meshed well at all to this point. And if tonight in Lincoln was any indication - they are growing even further apart. Ayo just 3-12 with 5 turnovers. Trent with just seven shots in 35 minutes and only a single assist. Is it mere coincidence that Ayo's best game by far came when Trent didn't play?
Fortunately the schedule offers a bit of a break after the OSU game (hey look Chris Holtmann has the Buckeyes at #16 in his "rebuilding" second year!), because this team needs some positive mojo. Brad Underwood has to find a way to keep this team afloat because right now this thing has the feel of something that could death spiral quickly.
As a football guy, it's amazing how much this season is continuing to remind me of Lovie's second year.
+ Football preseason 2017? After watching practices, I probably wrote 12 posts about "holy crap people we might play 17 true freshmen" (we played 22). Basketball preseason 2018? After watching two practices, I wrote about how 4 returnees and 8 newcomers made for an Illini team nobody is even going to recognize. Like, when was the last time you had to buy a program just to learn the player's names?
+ The games start and nobody knows what they're supposed to be doing. Yes, the 2017 Western Kentucky win was fun (led by freshmen). Yes, the 2018 Evansville win was fun (led by freshmen). But then it was Groundhog Day: the offense goes flat, we lose. The offense goes flat again, we lose. And there's no bench to turn to because you're already playing the first recruiting class as much as you can.
+ After originally preaching "but in year three...", you look at the future and begin to ponder when it turns around. Football was 2-10 in 2017 - will 2018 be anything better than 4-8? (It wasn't.) Basketball might be 9-22 this season - will it be anything better than 16-15 in 2019/20?
I get the concept - program is a mess, clean house and start over - but how much damage are we doing by clearing out everyone and then finishing last in the Big Ten? How do you come back from that?
You've touched on my greatest fear. What if we can't come back from this and have to do this all over again next year? I've said before that I don't find much difference between 10-11 wins and 15-16 wins. I mean last is last. But 9 wins? 8 even? Right now I don't think it gets that bad - but yeah it could.
I believe the nucleus of this roster has potential. I think you can accomplish some things with Trent/Ayo/Giorgi/Griffin/Jones. Even better if Antwan January is added to the mix. Get this group bigger and stronger, let them, grow, mature, and mesh together, and I think you've got something, but if this thing does go WAY south who knows what guys might do.
Last year's roster makeover was largely Underwood's doing. But what if a truly miserable season leads to player generated attrition? Kipper does the grad transfer thing, Giorgi goes back overseas - stuff like that. I'm not speculating mind you - just throwing out a worst case scenario. If we end up with more turnover this Spring, then this party is over before it ever started.
I don't even want to think about that. We knew we'd be pretty bad last year. We were certain we'd be bad this year. I can't be certain that we'll be bad next year - I just can't.
In researching something else today, I looked up the KenPom defense numbers. I guess I didn't realize just how bad it's been when compared to the rest of the conference. Here's the current numbers:
Penn State #8
Ohio State #23
Michigan State #27
Nine Big Ten teams in the top 30 nationally. No one higher than #67. And then Illinois nearly doubling Iowa's ranking of 67th.
I can accept young. We knew we'd be crazy young, and we knew that would mean that the young players will be completely lost on defense. We knew we only had four players returning from last year, with only one senior and one junior, so we knew that Brad Underwood would basically be starting over teaching his defense. So I'm already allowing for a lot.
And as I wrote in my last post, after tomorrow night, we'll have played six teams in the top-57 of KenPom's ratings, four in the top-25, and it's December 4th. That's an insane start to the schedule.
But does it have to be this bad? Do we have to watch so many flatline performances? I always think I'm prepared for 12-21 and then I'm nowhere close to being prepared for 12-21.
(At least I hope it's 12-21.)
My sense is yes, on many a day it's going to be THAT BAD. There are likely some serious beatdowns coming for us in conference play.
But mind you there will also be flashes of promise - a little spark here and there to remind us all of the potential at hand. We're going to play some good teams down to the final minute, and probably even come away with some unexpected wins on occasion. Just how competitive this team is on a given night I think will hinge on a couple of factors:
We have to stop sending guys to the foul line. We're going to give up layups - we just are - but we can't compound that with "and ones" on dumb recovery fouls or on even dumber "cylinder" fouls 35 feet from the basket. We were -17 in free throw scoring against Nebraska and we lost by 15 - do the math.
Limit the turnovers. Our turnover margin over the last five games is less than one. That essentially cancels out the primary strength of the defense! It's certainly nowhere near enough "equity" for a team that gives up two point baskets as generously as we do.
I believe that we can see improvement in both of these areas as our young guys mature into smarter players. Our youth is not Duke or Kentucky youth. It's developmental youth, and with that comes growing pains which will be severe at times. The question I have is whether or not the strain of losing breaks this group or binds them together.
Part of my brain - I'm not sure I should listen to this part yet - says that we should move all-in on the youth then. Griffin gets AJ's minutes, AJ gets Griffin's minutes. Samba gets more minutes than De La Rosa. Jones gets more minutes than Kipper. If this season doesn't matter, then max out the freshmen and sophomores. Just dive in face first.
But then I realize that's probably even more of a disaster. Just like football, the season can be at least somewhat held together by an AJ Bush and a Del'Shawn Phillips. Use the older guys to guide it along until the young guys are ready.
And then, hopefully, everyone makes a leap next year.