Back & Forth - 4-10

Jan 05, 2019

The last Back & Forth that we did was titled "2-6". And that was meant to be some kind of epic low point, a spot we'd look back on and say "remember when we were 2-6?" Well, we're now 4-10 with no idea when win number five might come, so Tyler and I hash it out in a series of emails back and forth.

Here's my first email to Tyler:

I'm basically in 2017 football mode right now. After the Rutgers loss that fall to move to 2-4, with the offense unable to move the ball on anyone, I just resigned myself to "we're probably going to lose every game so I'm just going to watch the freshmen". What else can you do at that point? You're stuck in Groundhog Day, and you'll go mad if you get your hopes up the tiniest little bit, so you just watch players and not scores.

When I do that, I see two things: Ayo and Giorgi. I'm pretty much watching games to see how Ayo and Giorgi continue to develop. Yes, I want to see more Alan Griffin (just without the turnovers), and I'm ready to see Tevian Jones back, and I'm happy about things like "Da'Monte hit both of his threes last night", but really, Ayo and Giorgi.

On Ayo, I'm haunted by the thing you brought up - that Ayo and Trent haven't had good games together (last night included). So please tell me how we fix that.

On Giorgi, I'm basically convinced he should have been rated as a 4-star and top-50 in his class. 8-for-9 in the paint against Indiana with nine different post moves. That's something you can really build around. Also how do we build around it?

Yeah - actually I thought there was quite a lot to unpack from what might have seemed on the surface as just your every day January road conference loss.

I'm so with you on Ayo and Giorgi. Get those two fully immersed in what it means to be Big Ten players. We saw Trent get there last year and I expect the same from those two. I'm also rooting heavily for Alan Griffin to get the opportunity to make strides as well. I think there is quite a player there - his shot will come, and he has a natural nose for rebounding. On the other hand I get that it's tough for a coach to trust a kid averaging 8 turnovers over 40 minutes.

Of course everything is predicated on whether Ayo and Trent can find a comfort zone together. It's been mechanical for Trent the last two games instead of that effortless fluidity we've come to know. It seems there has been a concerted effort to coach Trent into finding his shots without having to dominate the ball - and I get that. The Underwood offense is predicated on passing, and while Trent-ball is a lot of fun at times, the reality is that we are 10-23 since it became "his" team during the Mizzou game last season. The offense needs to evolve.

The thing is, there are still plenty of shots available for Trent when he is working off the ball. Plus, it's in his best interest for Ayo to develop as a consistent threat, because it keeps Trent's name from being printed in gigantic bold faced font at the top of every scouting report. Of course, Trent will still be the nuclear option at the end of the shot clock or if we need points in a hurry. Ultimately these are smart and coachable players - I have to believe they'll get there.

So then let's talk Giorgi. And I need your help.

When Underwood was hired, Trevor (who used to write for the site) wrote that breakdown of Underwood's offense, and from that, plus those video's he did when he was an assistant at South Carolina, plus the first season, I came to be comfortable with "four out, one in". Meaning, when he builds the roster the way he wants it, Underwood wants his "4" to be a natural wing (Kipper, but taller) and he wants his "5" to be the pinch post handoff guy.

Giorgi is clearly the pinch post handoff guy. But I know you are of the opinion that if we were to land Kofi Cockburn, we'd see a lot of Giorgi plus Kofi. That sounds a lot like a Self high-low to me, with Damir feeding Arch. So... how would this Underwood system work with Giorgi and a big like Kofi on the court at the same time?

Oh man it would be so nice. A traditional big man - be it Kofi Cockburn (please let it be Kofi Cockburn), Antwan January, or whoever, would be a perfect complement to what Giorgi gives you at the pinch post. But hold that thought for just a sec, because there is one other missing piece to the puzzle - an athletic shotmaker/scorer on the wing. So since we're going all in on "ifs" here, "if" you can get those five pieces: Trent/Ayo backcourt; athletic wing (TBD); Giorgi; and gigantic human (TBD) - now things finally start getting real again.

Is that TBD wing Tevian Jones? I hope so. Ideally he comes back from suspension Sunday against Northwestern and works his way back into the rotation, but his availability and his potential impact both remain big question marks. If not Jones, then Underwood must strike gold on the recruiting trail this Spring, because this offense needs a level of production from the wing that quite frankly neither Aaron Jordan nor Kipper Nichols are providing right now.

So now back to our gigantic human dreamscape. A legit presence in the low block presence in conjunction with a pinch post allows you to run high-low as you suggested, but would also help to free up basket cuts with gigantic space eating screens, and most importantly be available to crash the offensive glass.

Essentially Giorgi's role would remain as it is now - facilitating through the pinch post - but matured via natural evolution. Imagine how good he could be if he gets more comfortable as a turn and face guy in the pinch? He would run a two man game along with one of the guards via ball screen or dribble hand-off while the two other perimeter players would be spaced on opposite side of the floor along with the big man on the low block (this is basically what the Bulls called the Triangle) to run secondary cuts or set up for more action off ball reversal.

That sounds fun right?

I guess I just didn't realize that this offense could morph into something like that. I'm still caught up in the whole "score in the first seven seconds of the shot clock" and "we need our bigs to get out and run" and such. Wasn't really expecting a gigantic human. But I could get on board with that quickly if you tell me it's Damir and Arch all over again. Let's see, Ayo can be the Frankie, Trent can be the Cory - can I get an all-everything Sergio please?

I'm being silly. Here we are, 4-10, and I'm comping a future team (with these players) which stands next to 2001. We are so far from 2001 right now it's not even funny. Yes, 2000/01 began as 1998/99, and that was 13 wins, but I don't think we're getting anywhere close to 13 wins this year. Seems like it's probably going to be eight. And the distance between eight wins and 2001 is the Grand Canyon.

So maybe I need some reachable goals. The whole "start by trying to run 200 yards without stopping" before working up to the half marathon. How about...

1. Get Trent and Ayo comfortable playing with each other. Start with one "both were great tonight" game and go from there.
2. Work the offense through Giorgi more and more and more. As much as we can, really.
3. Get out and run more. We still haven't seen this "first seven seconds" thing. I need to see the thing.

Feel free to add your own.

Any lineup that adds a 5-star gigantic human is morphable. I know Underwood is fond of saying "size doesn't matter" to him, but he's not fooling anyone. Coaches only say that when they don't have gigantic humans on their roster. If a gigantic human showed up on his doorstep at Stephen F. Austin, he would have morphed his offense in world record time. Quite simply, if a gigantic human wants to come play for you - you morph. Simple as that.

And to be fair, even though we're not exactly playing slow (54th out of 353 in adjusted tempo), the whole "score in seven seconds" thing was always a bit overplayed. If you remember, Underwood also said this after his hire: "The first seven seconds on the shot clock are the players' time. The next twenty seconds are my time."

Now then - some of my goals to add to your list:

4. Keep the defense trending in the right direction. Ever since Notre Dame, our defense has been shall I say...acceptable. We still foul way too much, and are taking a beating at the foul line as a result, but the bane of my basketball existence last season - opponent two point FG% - is trending better this year, and especially so in our three conference games. That's hardly an adequate sample size, but it's a start.

5. As I noted above - I want to see what we have in Alan Griffin. So I guess my goal is for him to stop turning the ball over so much. If his ball security improves he's going to earn more minutes. You know - this really goes for the whole team. We are committing turnovers at almost the same rate at which we force them. That defensive improvement will be hard to sustain if we're barely breaking even on turnover margin.

6. You want to see us run more - I want to see more layups off of basket cuts. Our own two point shooting percentage is terrible (47%) partly because we aren't getting very many easy looks around the rim. I'm willing to grade on a curve with the tempo, but I was promised that we were going to eviscerate teams with a million basket cuts, and that's not close to happening. That might be one of the biggest differences between the Southland Conference and the Big Ten - cutting lanes that were open for business against the Incarnate Words and Abilene Christians of the world are not quite as available in East Lansing or West Lafayette. Nonetheless, basket cuts remain a core component of the Underwood offense and so some improvement in this area would be nice.

Oh and one more...

7. Beat Northwestern.


Bear8287 on January 05 @ 10:38 AM CST

We still foul way too much, and are taking a beating at the foul line

At some point that has to stop, right? -18 points at the foul line against IU?

We are committing turnovers at almost the same rate at which we force them.

Indiana actually turned over the Illini more than the Illini turned over Indiana. Result: -12 points in points off turnovers. (Has a team ever won a game where they were -30 points in those two categories combined?)

The second one (turnovers) seems to be a bit of an anomaly (the Illini are still +3.4 in turnover margin), but the free throws are a "thing" and when you look at the number of games lost by single digits, it's a killer. The Illini are averaging -7.7 ppg at the free throw line. How does that translate across the schedule? Here are games lost by 8 points or less:

   Georgetown -8 pts (-2)
    Gonzaga    -6 pts (-9)
    Notre Dame -2 pts (-11)
    FAU        -2 pts (-5)
    Indiana    -8 pts (-18)

    Nebraska   -15 pts (-17)

So for 4 of those losses the final differential was less than the FT differential. Would people feel any different about being 8-6 with one B1G win right now? (I threw the Nebraska game up there too because the final differential was also less than the free throw differential. 9-5 with 2 B1G road wins? It's a bit disturbing to see two B1G road games with -17 & -18 point differentials at the free throw line, isn't it?)

One last point: 3-point shooting.

The Illini have shot 25-95 (26.3%) from 3-point range over the last 3 games. For the 11 games prior, the Illini were 104-269 (38.7%). That's a huge drop-off and not surprisingly, the Illini also lost those 3 games. Get back to ~39% from 3 and things will also look better.

NC_OrangeKrush on January 06 @ 10:05 AM CST

On but mostly off topic, but look... a good article from Loren Tate on the BB travails of recent decade...

But hey, I believe IF little roster turnover, (a big IF), this will definitely turn.


OrangeBlazer on January 06 @ 05:49 PM CST

If we’re really talking 2001, isn’t the comp Cook and Griffin?

Groundhogday on January 11 @ 02:41 PM CST

A legit presence in the low block presence in conjunction with a pinch post allows you to run high-low as you suggested, but would also help to free up basket cuts with gigantic space eating screens, and most importantly be available to crash the offensive glass.

In our current offense, there is one big man in the pinch post who can pass, hand off, roll to the basket or face up. Then there are four guys cutting, flaring, passing somewhat interchangeably. So if Giorgi is at the high post, Kofi is cutting, flaring, passing, etc... ???

Deon Thomas suggested Kofi might play 15-20 mpg as a freshman due to conditioning and fouling issues. Maybe Giorgi plays 25 mpg. I don't think we will see the two of them on the court together very often.

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