Not There Yet
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Yeah it was asking a lot. The second of back-to-back road games with just a 48 hour turnaround in another really tough gym - and this time against a top 20 (maybe top 10) caliber opponent in Arizona. It just wasn't likely.
Yet after getting off to a hot start and trailing by just one after a thoroughly entertaining first half, you thought maybe - just maybe - everything really was going to come up Illini this weekend.
Alas, Illinois wilted in the second half and ended up getting run off the McKale Center floor 90-69. After falling behind early in the second half and then scratching back to within one at 53-52, the Illini gave up a five point possession after a particularly exasperating sequence (made three - foul in the lane while the shot was in the air - made free throw - offensive rebound - foul - made free throw) and the Wildcats never looked back.
Arizona was paced by a trio of fantastic freshmen - highlighted by guard Nico Mannion who was the best player on the floor - outplaying Ayo Dosunmu in a battle of potential 2020 NBA first rounders.
Despite the low probability of a win going into this game, watching this game unravel in the final 10 minutes was disappointing. Not disheartening, as a 2-1 record was always the most likely outcome of this first week, but yeah, disappointing.
Disappointing that a veteran group is turning the ball over with such alarming regularity (27% turnover rate through three games). The passing has been equally atrocious on the perimeter and on post feed attempts.
Disappointing that even with a retooled defensive approach, the Illini have given up an average of 44 points in the second half of the three games so far. The defense is different - but is it better?
Disappointing that the offense is not getting much from the primary looks of the spread - with minimal production from first cuts and pinch post action. The offense sputtered and wheezed in the second half - clearly bothered by the athleticism of Arizona. They've been able to flow into secondary options such as the high-low, but too often possessions are ending up in isolation situations.
Disappointing that Giorgi Bezhanishvili has yet to make much of an impact. One of the burning questions as we entered this season was how well he would be able to share the load with Kofi Cockburn. So far it's been a struggle. His usage is way down as he's had difficulty staying on the floor - fouling out of both games this weekend.
Fortunately, though, none of these issues are deal breakers. Many of the errors that allowed the game to get away in the second half were of the self-inflicted variety. These are coachable points - and I'm quite sure Brad Underwood is thrilled at the prospect of a full week of practice before the next game against Hawaii at the State Farm Center next Monday. It's going to be a one week boot camp I suspect.
The one area of concern I fear may not be fixable is the bench. Through the first three games, 85% of the scoring has come from the Illini starters. If you add in Alan Griffin's 24 points, then 96% of the Illini scoring has come from just six players. It's been especially tough whenever Kipper Nichols and DMW are in the lineup at the same time - averaging just 3.3 points per game between them.
Unless Underwood tweaks the starting lineup to "cheat" his way into getting some contribution from the bench he has to hope that either BBV finds a comfort zone, Tevian Jones is able to come back and be a productive member of the team, or Nichols can regain something resembling his sophomore level production. Otherwise the starters are going to have to continue to tow an exceptionally heavy weight, and I'm not sure that's sustainable for a full season.
The thing is, though, the bench thing needs to get sorted out preferably sooner than later as the next ten games on the schedule are crucial. The Big Ten as a whole is doing itself no favors so far, and it looks like we might not be able to rely on the strength of the conference schedule to help inflate the tournament resume. As it looks right now, you need to win eight of the next ten - unless you feel good about getting to at least 12 conference wins. Life comes at you pretty fast.
Hey did anyone catch that football game on Saturday? It was awesome.