"Everyone else in this league has pros"
- Brad Underwood
With three seconds left in the first half and Illinois clinging to a 36-35 lead against Penn State, Brad Underwood called a timeout to set up a a play for the final shot. The result: a Mark Alstork turnover gave the ball back to the Nittany Lions who promptly scored on their inbounds play to take a 37-36 halftime lead. Those two points ended up being a part of a 17-0 run stretching into the second half which ultimately decided the game - eventually won by Penn State 74-52. Illinois scored only 16 points in the second half - hamstrung by a starting lineup that included two players who combined for exactly zero points.
Penn State's superior athleticism was on full display - shooting, running, and dunking their way straight into Underwood's heart. He effusively praised the Nittany Lions following the game, and one got the sense that their long, strong, and fast-twitchy roster is the stuff of his basketball dreams
So in what has become a depressing February tradition for Illini fans - all eyes now turn to next season. At least this year we'll be spared the tedious drama of Coach Speculation Theater. Still, with the end of the season potentially just 16 days from now (Illinois could be done playing basketball in FEBURARY!) the balance of this season is now being viewed through the lens of "WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN FOR NEXT YEAR?" Everyone is wondering what translates and what doesn't. Who will leap and who will stagnate. Who will be here and who won't.
One thing that's not likely to change next year is the system - and I'm not even going to use this space to challenge that today. Underwood has a plan, and he's going to work to assemble a roster complementary to that plan. I give plenty of credit to him for sticking to his guns, but it's clear to me that this season long exercise in culture establishment must conclude with him figuring out which of his pieces are round pegs for his round holes. It's also plainly evident that this roster is in desperate need of a talent infusion. In assessing the talent I see on the roster today (not RSCI rankings mind you - but current eye test rankings) this is one of the two or three least talented rosters in the conference and one of the least skilled Illini basketball teams I've watched over the past 30 years. I guess maybe I've realized that it's probably going to take more than a couple of sophomore leaps to get this thing back on track. And it appears Underwood has arrived at the same conclusion - noting his quote above from the post-game press conference.
So yeah, he has some shopping to do. What pieces does he need to make this team better at basketball next season? Let's help him with his list...
This should probably be the first three items on the list. You've got five regular rotation guys shooting under 28% from the arc in conference play. It's easily the worst shooting Illinois team I can remember. It's comical how much teams are sagging off the perimeter to clog up post-entry passing lanes and dare the Illini to beat them from deep. Underwood's frustration with the lack of shot-makers on this roster has become visibly apparent in recent press conferences. Basketball is just plain hard when you can't shoot the ball.
As noted above, this Illini team is in desperate need of some bounce. Trent Frazier is Dee Brown fast, but even he struggled mightily against Penn State's length and quickness. We've also seen how a lack of athleticism has limited the effectiveness of guys like Mike Finke, Mark Smith, Aaron Jordan, and Da'Monte Williams against high major opponents. If Underwood wants to continue to try to win the shot volume game by playing high pressure defense and stealing extra shots on the offensive glass he's going to need more run and jump guys.
3. Rim Protection
Penn State funneled dribble penetration all game right into the gigantic Mike Watkins. Brad Underwood needs a Mike Watkins. Unfortunately so does everyone else in college basketball, and as such this might the most elusive item on the list. Still, Underwood's defense screams for a guy to stay home and be a deterrent at the rim. The scheme will always be susceptible to "five out" dribble penetration and back door cuts, but a shot-blocking presence would at least mitigate that issue. It would be assumed, of course, that said rim protector would also help address this team's defensive rebounding woes as well.
4. Shooters (just in case you forgot).
So, to make this wish list a reality, some serious roster volatility is in the offing this Spring - even with only one senior leaving and the 2018 recruiting class consisting currently of just Ayo Dosunmu. I think it highly likely that we'll see some transfers out, and that Illinois will also take another spin or two at the grad transfer roulette wheel. Whatever the mechanism, I believe Underwood will bring in at least four new guys (Ayo plus 3) for next season, and I wouldn't even be THAT surprised if there were five new faces on the team come next October.
So maybe this just seems like a lot of words to make the simple point that Illinois has to recruit better to get better, but at the very least I needed to write it all out in front of me - if nothing more than to serve as a coping mechanism because man I'm not sure the rest of this season is going to be very pretty.