Christmas Back & Forth
Merry Christmas everyone. Santa got me a bowl game. Best gift since 2014.
Running opposite to all of my bowl game excitement: the fact that we lost all of our important non-conference basketball games. Which means it's time for another back and forth with Tyler. Not exactly spreading Christmas cheer but... there are some things we needed to talk out. Starting with this email I sent Tyler:
So here's where I'm at.
Trent can be a scoring machine.
Feliz can be a steady rock in the backcourt.
Ayo has the potential to be a first-round pick.
Giorgi has proven that he can take over a game in the paint.
Kofi is the favorite for Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
And none of those things looked like the things they're supposed to be on Saturday (except maybe Ayo). I'm having a "sum of its parts" crisis and I need your help. I just don't understand how those five (potential) things lost every meaningful non-conference game.
It's been disheartening. I excused the end of the Arizona game - justifying the late collapse as a team just running out of gas down the stretch. I rationalized the Miami first half as an important lesson learned. I ascribed the unlikely sequence of events that resulted in the Maryland loss to bad luck and took away more positives than negatives. Now with a chance to finish the non-conference season strong and head into conference play on a four game win streak I was fully expecting this team to take care of business in St. Louis. Instead I got the most disappointing loss of the Brad Underwood era. Seems pretty clear I've been kidding myself to this point.
For two years, all we've asked for was a replacement level defense. A base system which could hold its own and allow the vaunted Underwood offense to put up points without giving them all back. So now, of course, we have a more than acceptable defense, and the offense can't get out of its own way.
Part of that is being the 315th ranked team in the country in three point shooting (28.5%), but fundamentally this team has shown itself to be woefully short on shot makers and shot creators. We can talk about scheme all day, but more often than not, games turn on those crucial possessions when the offense breaks down and you need someone to make a winning play under duress.
Making a contested shot. Breaking down a defense and finding an open shooter. Grabbing a tough offensive rebound to create another possession. We have been woefully short of those types of winning plays over the past month.
Look no further than the end of clock situations over the past four high major games against ("The 4 M's": Miami/Maryland/Michigan/Mizzou). Illinois had six end of half or end of game possessions in these four games. They ended like this:
1H Miami: Blocked shot
2H Miami: Turnover
1H Maryland: Feliz lay-up
2H Maryland: Turnover
1H Michigan: Possession ended with a Kofi Cockburn three point attempt (WTF?)
1H Mizzou: Turnover
One out of six with three turnovers. A 1-3 record in these games. For the love of James Naismith can someone please make a play?
As I said in my text to you on Saturday, this is really reminding me of my football mood post-Eastern Michigan. I guess that would be "for the love of Walter Camp", but everything else is the same: How can this team, with these players, do that? For me when it came to the football season, after the Minnesota loss, I felt like I was going crazy. I stood by everything I saw at Training Camp... yet those improved players, boosted by the transfers, were 2-4 (0-2) and had just been blown out at Minnesota. Howwww?
I guess that's my hope here - that there's a "second half of the Michigan football game" coming. Everyone snaps out of their trance and realizes the potential of their team (including the coaches). Maybe Ohio State moves to #1 and we beat them in Columbus when we go there in March or something and that's our Wisconsin moment.
BUT THAT'S THE THING. "Maybe Ohio State moves to #1" is the thing. Holtmann and Underwood were hired the same offseason. Yes, Holtmann had a head start roster-wise, and recent history suggests Ohio State was in a much better position to rebuild much quicker than Illinois (similar to how Minnesota football, coming off five straight bowl games, was in a better position to rebuild than Illinois football), but still, I just wrote "maybe Ohio State moves to #1" and nobody laughed. There's an example right over there of a coach putting all the right pieces together and climbing into the top ten. And here we are, even with all of our history, continuing to spin our wheels.
So let's start with Underwood. He had the #1 offense in the country at Oklahoma State, he now has a team of the guys he wants, and his offense isn't working. Whyyyy?
It's baffling to say the least. Underwood received well deserved praise for his successful defensive overhaul, but I'll admit to being somewhat perplexed by his eagerness to also scrap his spread offense so quickly. I mean that was his bread and butter, and we were all hypnotized by the prospect of scoring in seven seconds, first cutter layups, and multiple ball reversals.
"Scrap" might be too heavy a word as we are still running spread on occasion, but we've seen much more high ball screen/weave and high-low sets than we have traditional spread. The simplest rationale is that we've been trying to create opportunities for Kofi Cockburn in the low post, but as good as Cockburn has been - and he's been nothing short of fantastic - the offensive changes have come at a cost.
Giorgi Bezhanishvili has been an enigma. On one hand he is shooting and rebounding the ball better than he did last season, and he's getting to the foul line with greater frequency. On the other, he is turning the ball over on an eye-watering 28.6% of his possessions. That is borderline egregious for a ball handler. For a big guy - it's basketball malpractice. He turned the ball over six times on Saturday in 25 minutes. That just can't happen.
There is also the Damonte Williams paradox. DMW is sixth on the team in minutes, and while he can definitely impact the game defensively and on the glass, it's no secret that he's an offensive liability. Far too many possessions die on the vine when he's on the floor. Underwood is going to have to decide from game to game which side of the coin is more valuable.
That's just it, right? "Underwood is going to have to decide". This is the first season in a long time where I'm pretty much completely at "the coach needs to figure this out".
I'm the king of urging patience while we're rebuilding. I understand the task and am willing to wait for the payoff. But this season, man, just put the puzzle together, would you? I really think we have all the pieces.
Like Trent. We've texted about Trent. Here's where you should finish this back and forth with a bunch of words about Trent.
Yes, the biggest issue has been the relative absence of Trent Frazier. "Usage" is a fascinating metric. It's a way to quantify the degree to which a player is involved on offense. The stat used to measure this is "Percentage of Possessions Used" (%Poss) - which is simply the percentage of possessions "used" by a player when on the floor.
Here are Frazier's usage stats over his 2.5 years:
Freshman Trent: 25.3%
Sophomore Trent: 22.3%
Junior Trent: 13.8% (!!)
What do those numbers mean? KenPom frames usage as follows: "25% indicates a go-to guy, 20% is average, and 15% is a player with a limited role in the offense." Through the first 12 games, Trent Frazier has LESS THAN a limited role in the offense. What in the actual what?
In the D-1 games this season, Trent has taken just 72 shots from the field. For comparison, Alan Griffin has taken 66 - in less than half the number of minutes. More perspective - this offense uses Kipper Nichols more when he is on the floor. Imagine that.
Frazier is by far the team's best three point shooter, he's probably the best "bucket getter" on the team - and he's been forgotten on offense. I think it's worth noting that he was not involved in any of the six "end of clock" possessions we discussed earlier. For my money, if you want to fix the offense - it starts with Trent Frazier.