Shaken Confidence

Nov 6, 2019

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I'll be honest. I was so confident in this game tonight that I did something I've never done before. I pre-wrote this post. Well - not the whole post, but a solid outline of the post. I mean this game itself wasn't going to be the story. This game was just a sidebar. A necessary conclusion to the celebration of Opening Night, and an appetizer for the crucial road trip through Arizona looming this weekend.

I was going to have this gamer done before I walked out of the State Farm Center, and I was going to drive home happy and listen to my audiobook and be in bed by midnight. Then a 20 point second half lead was suddenly a 2 point deficit with under a minute to play, and OMIGOD WHAT IS HAPPENING?? Now it's 2:00 AM and I just got home and I've only written these three paragraphs. What do you write about whatever that was? Nicholls State was the 273rd ranked team in KenPom (THEY AREN'T EVEN A REAL STATE!), and we were a triple bounce free throw by Trent Frazier from losing. But that free throw bounced in, we (Frazier) defended the hell out of Nicholls State's last possession in regulation, and the defense woke up enough in OT to allow us to escape with a 78-70 win.

Taking into account the expectations and hype surrounding this season, a case could have been made that a loss tonight (last night) would have been the worst in program history. All of the question marks with this team that I either chose to de-emphasize or willfully ignore were on full display tonight. Concerns about free throw shooting, a lack of scoring punch off the bench, and worries that Ayo and Giorgi were too good as freshman to reasonably expect significant leaps as sophomores. All of these things were swimming through my brain when we were tied with 29.8 seconds left in regulation and Nicholls State had the ball with a chance to walk us off.

Yes, it was the first game, and momentum is a fickle thing. It's still well within the realm of possibility that we go to the desert win both games this weekend (Grand Canyon lost to a DII team tonight). If that happens, what could have been a complete disaster flips back to best case scenario within 48 hours. But this game was a problem. I wrote in the preview that I was bullish on this team, but instead my confidence is now wavering. This team, which was supposed to be so full of swagger played flat scared down the stretch, and that's what had me fretting the entire drive home tonight.

We know that scoring margin against bad teams is a reliable characteristic of good teams, but even good teams have one or two clunkers. Maybe (hopefully) this was our clunker. Better to get it out of the way now I guess. However, I've also seen far too many Illini teams of recent vintage struggle their way through the low and mid-major games on the non-conference schedule before struggling to a middling record. I hope this team is better than that. Afterward, they all said the right things, and they seem like a resilient bunch, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.

Besides, despite all the angst and teeth gnashing, tonight's game really doesn't change a thing. Despite my somewhat dimmed optimism, the expectations are still firmly in place. I concur with Robert's "It Has to Happen Now" segment from our basketball season preview. Three is the magic number. Sure it can take a minute for coaches to get the train rolling (Tony Bennett and John Beilein come to mind immediately), but if it hasn't happened by year three then it's probably never going to happen.

Take a loss tonight, and you are already behind the eight ball with a Quadrant 4 loss on the first day of this critical third season. But Trent's free throw bounced in and now it's on to Arizona to see how this team responds.

Opening Night Nuggets:

+Trent Frazier struggled all night - missing every single one of shot attempts from the field, but he saved this team in the final minute. It takes a lot of courage to knock down two foul shots in that situation after you missed everything else all night. And again, his on ball defense on that final play was textbook. Got over the top of the main ball screen to save the defense from having to rotate, and then walled his guy off all the way to the baseline.

+Giorgi was bizarro Giorgi. Missed most of his layups (2/7) but knocked down both of his three point attempts.

+Nicholls State played an "up the line on the line" style defense very similar to what we've seen from the Illini defense these past two seasons - and they wrought all kinds of havoc. Their athleticism and length were an issue. One might think that the Illini offense would have some experience going up against that style, but 23 turnovers says otherwise.

+By contrast Illinois was not as aggressive on the ball and in the passing lanes tonight as we have been accustomed to seeing. Underwood even made a point to mention this in the postgame press conference.

+The bench was a problem. Alan Griffin was really good in the first half scoring all seven of his points and grabbing four of his five rebounds. But Underwood didn't get much from the rest of his subs - with the only other bench scoring coming on a DMW bucket on which he blatantly travelled. The five starters averaged 35 minutes as Underwood shortened the leash on his bench in the second half.

+A nice opener for Kofi Cockburn with an 11/10 double-double (the first Illini freshman to record one in his debut since since Efrem Winters) and a couple of highlight blocks. However, 32 minutes might be a little much for him as he was gassed on several occasions in the second half and OT. That said, he looks like he's going to be a double double machine.

+Andres Feliz is a rock. I love watching that dude play.

+Despite only shooting 55% from the foul line in the first 39 minutes, in the final minute and overtime Illinois converted 8 out of 9 free throws. That's your ball game right there.

+53 total rebounds? 20 offensive rebounds? A 54% offensive rebounding percentage? Those are staggering numbers. It's rather amazing that the game ended up so close with such a rebounding disparity.


NC_OrangeKrush on November 6, 2019 @ 05:11 AM

I laughed more than despaired... If you want reality to slap you in the face, earlier the better if you want time to fix it. They gutted it out which also says something.. FELIZ!

This Georgi at 4 to play Kofi is going to take some games to figure out. A now a heavily relied on freshman, and 2 big men in new roles in this scheme that hasn't done that - isn't going to be smooth to start.

It did nothing to shake my confidence in this team by mid December, even if a rough week ahead. And if you want the team to know what a huge first round NCAA upset feels like with a hot shooter, a good start there too...

Glass still half full... Or more...

orangeandblue on November 6, 2019 @ 08:07 AM

Had struggles against Lewis and Nicholls State. That's bad. No way to sugar coat it. We will know Sunday what we've got. It's their first real test. Maybe they have just played down to their competition so far. That can be fixed. Maybe they believed the hype. If so, the first two games should prove that you actually have to go play the games and earn the hype. Regardless, they need to beat GC and at least be competitive against Arizona. I think they will, but the fact that we are even having the discussion is disturbing. Looking forward to a fun weekend of basketball and football. Let's go Illini!

PeppehJack on November 6, 2019 @ 09:24 AM

My concern is that this team still doesn't look fluid at all offensively. Yes, the players clearly haven't mastered the offense, but the scheme itself seems counterproductive at times. Too often we have two guys making the same down-cut, players aimlessly holding the ball waiting for some action from off-ball players, guys dribbling around the top of the key without any real purpose. I know this offense has been effective at SFA and OKST, but in year three, I haven't seen much to be impressed by.

Groundhogday on November 6, 2019 @ 10:32 AM

The five starters averaged 35 minutes as Underwood shortened the leash on his bench in the second half.

This is fantastically concerning for the first game of the season against a lower-level foe. And probably contributed to our late collapse. Let's keep in mind that we built up a big lead largely playing the starters. Underwood's system requires a deep bench, and he doesn't have a bench?

  • Griffin needs to play starter minutes off the bench, 20-25 mpg. If he isn't good enough, we don't have a wing. We are in trouble.
  • BBV is our only stretch 4. Really need him to give us 20+ mpg as he gets up to speed.
  • Right now we have 2 good bigs, 3 good guards, and not a single wing even good enough to considered a quality reserve. This has to change as the season progresses. Player development will be essential for Williams, Griffin, and BBV.

Groundhogday on November 6, 2019 @ 10:35 AM

Follow up note: we don't have many bodies overall. Hamlin far from ready for college basketball. Jones suspended. Two transfers sitting out. So that leaves us with just 9 scholarship players, one coming of a stress fracture (BBV) and another has been a 3-year enigma (Nichols).

PeppehJack on November 6, 2019 @ 10:55 AM

Agree 100% on BBV. We need to give him minutes early to get him up to speed. Nichols has been absolutely shocking in this first two games. He looks like a lost Freshman as a Senior.

Groundhogday on November 6, 2019 @ 01:29 PM

It was surprising for me to hear the coaches talk up BBV so much over the summer - particularly after the rehab took him out for an extended period.

Now I'm thinking they were talking him up because they really NEEDED him to contribute this year, ready or not.

Walkon on November 7, 2019 @ 12:02 AM

This might be closest to the truth. They do need him - but he’s not ready for 20 mpg yet. Besides that early turnover, the offense stalled when he was in because he wasn’t sure where to go on the floor. At one point Giorgi had to physically direct him to his spot.

IlliNYC on November 6, 2019 @ 10:46 AM

My take is that this team/program still needs to learn how to win--and the glass half full take is they lose this game last year (Florida Atlantic).

They had a 20 point lead and didn't know how to finish, then got tight down the stretch.

Hopefully this is a learning moment.

orangejulius on November 6, 2019 @ 01:33 PM

It's not too early to see that we will still struggle to make the tournament.

*Disadvantaged athletically, especially with no Tevian.

*We only added one guy (KC) to a bad team who is going to significantly contribute. Missing on TJ Holyfield really hurts.

*No improvement so far from Kipper or Williams.

*Recruiting failures. Too many guys with very few or no power 5 offers. Glad BU seems to be getting this corrected.

Groundhogday on November 6, 2019 @ 02:55 PM

Holyfield would have made a HUGE impact on this team. Hard to overstate how much that hurt. But maybe BBV comes along faster than expected to fill the gap?

orangejulius on November 6, 2019 @ 04:03 PM

I sure hope so but yesterday wasn't very encouraging!

Groundhogday on November 6, 2019 @ 06:27 PM

Faster than expected for BBV means he is playing 20 mpg by the conference season.

HiggsBoson on November 6, 2019 @ 08:40 PM

I watched both games on BTN+ and my general conclusion was that there is some talent but no team play. Four of the starters played with each other last year, but they don't act like they did. They have seemed both disorganized and disinterested a good portion of the time. Kofi is a big guy with a lot of upside, but seems like he's kind of in the way in the offense and they don't quite seem to know what to do with Giorgi when they both are in. Feliz is a gamer. Ayo seems like he's mostly playing for himself a good bit of the time. Your mileage may vary, but not an encouraging start to the season.

LosAngellini on November 6, 2019 @ 10:05 PM

Seems like we’ve been at an athleticism disadvantage for a decade. Body by Fletch looks nice in photos, but is it effective to create explosive and fast basketball players? Kipper is bulkier but slower and less jumpy. Same with other guys who have been in strength program. Hill lost fluidity (but gained bruising ability). Just wonder if Fletch is striking the right balance. Note, I don’t know anything about working out.

Groundhogday on November 7, 2019 @ 12:45 PM

Giving this some thought, listening to others, and I'd guess that as the season progresses we'll probably see the rotation with:

  • Giorgi and Feliz as super subs giving offensive punch with starter minutes off the bench
  • Griffin and BBV are primary 4 rotation. Giorgi is chance of pace. Go small at the 4 like last year, with Griffin taking Jordan's role, take advantage of his rebounding, ability to stretch the floor. Play to his strengths. Maybe not the best ball handler at the 3.
  • Kofi + Griffin + Williams + Ayo + Frazier gives size and rebounding, offense, etc... Don't mind a smallish 4 when you have a post defender like Kofi to help.

Groundhogday on November 8, 2019 @ 11:31 PM

Welp... Giorgi and Kofi didn't look good together against GCU. Team looked better overall with Williams and/or Griffin on the court, playing a smaller 4. Just wish Williams could provide SOME offense.

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