"We are light years ahead of last year"
-- Brad Underwood
Rebuilding a basketball program is a journey. Along the way a team will encounter many different types of games over the course of things. There will be a few surprise wins here and there, some demoralizing beat downs, and some games in which a young team competes throughout, but ultimately falls victim to a superior opponent. And then there are games like today - games you simply have to win. No moral victories allowed.
A depleted Nebraska squad skidding through January on a five game losing streak comes into your house? You win that game. Yet these were games that Brad Underwood's first Illinois team lost with alarming regularity. Four teams who finished .500 or worse last season in the conference left the State Farm Center victorious. We were far too often a soothing tonic for ailing teams. Want to get well quick? Play Illinois. Well if you want to rebuild your program - that perception needs to be killed dead.
Brad Underwood has preached about building a culture since the day he arrived at Illinois. A big part of that is re-establishing home court dominance and today was a step in the right direction. I probably shouldn't minimize what was only the 7th win for Illinois in its last 30 conference games, but on the other hand beating a wheezing Nebraska team shouldn't really be viewed as a major accomplishment. It should be commonplace. I don't expect Illinois to beat Michigan State on Tuesday (thanks for making them angry Indiana), but a week from today against Rutgers? You win that game as well.
Today Illinois took control in the first half with a 23-7 run that turned an 18-13 deficit into a 36-25 lead, and then were able to keep the Huskers at bay throughout the second half. Some flukey bad free throw shooting made the end a little more interesting than it needed to be, but ultimately Nebraska never got the game below a three possession lead in the second half and Illinois cruised to a 71-64 win.
Nothing pretty - but essential nonetheless.
Today may have been the best defensive game we've seen this year's Illinois team play. James Palmer kept Nebraska in the game with a 14 point first half, but Illinois clamped down on him in the second half - holding him to just 6 more points on 2/10 shooting. Noted Illini haunters Isaiah Roby and Glynn Watson were held to just 15 points on 6/23 combined from the floor.
Yeah, some dude named Tanner Borchardt had like 100 offensive rebounds, but you can live with Tanner Borchardt being the second leading scorer.
Illinois is 3-3 over it's last six games. In the three wins they've had six different players reach double digit scoring. Tevian Jones had his coming out party in the Garden against Maryland a week ago today while Kipper Nichols was slowly dissolving from view. A week later, Jones is a relative non-factor while Kipper remerges with a vengeance. That's balance. Good teams have balance. Good teams can get contributions from anywhere on the roster on any given night.
This team is demonstrably better than it was a month ago - after we all left it for dead after the Florida Atlantic debacle. It's eye test better and it's statistically better. You've heard ad infinitum about KenPom rankings, but there is another really great site I would recommend you check out to help further satisfy your basketball statgeek needs - the Bart Torvik T-Rank site: http:/www.barttorvik.com
It's way fun. His rankings are similar to KenPom's with a few high level statistical tweaks cooked in, but the coolest part of the T-Rank site is the ability to slice a team's data into any sample size you want.
To wit - if you take only games played since January 1, Illinois' T-Ranking sits at #44 in the country - that's 8th best among Big Ten teams. This is not to say that Illinois is the 44th best team in the country since January 1st, but I think it does help quantify the improvement that we all THINK we are seeing. Maybe the FAU game really was that bottom from which we've been looking to bounce for going on six years now.
After that game I wondered in this space if the Brad Underwood era was at a crossroads. I worried that if we didn't see tangible improvement both on the court and on the recruiting trail then it was difficult to see a successful path for him moving forward. Well consider both of those boxes checked over the past month.
I think you can look at the remaining schedule and rationally visualize four or five more wins without necessarily straining your hope muscles. If this team could somehow get to 8 conference wins - that would double last season's total and serve as a solid foundation moving into next season. Now please just don't go about messing things up by losing to Rutgers next week.
+ Don't stress about the free throws. Illinois shot an abysmal 9/23 (39%) from the line today. While that number is certainly cringeworthy, it's an anomaly. Just like shooting 20/22 (91%) against Maryland was also an anomaly. It all comes out in the wash. This is a decent free throw shooting team - coming into today at right about 70% on the season. I'd guess you'll likely see them shoot right around that percentage most nights.
+ Since we've been so hypersensitive about it, I should note that Ayo and Trent both played well today. In fact - the entire guard rotation (including Andres Feliz) was solid. The individual numbers for each don't jump off the page but the three had a relatively efficient 32 points/6 assists/7 rebounds and only 4 turnovers combined.
+ Happy trails Glynn Watson. Barring a Big Ten Tournament matchup, Illinois faced Watson for the last time today. He struggled mightily today, but the normally rock solid PG from Chicago was a twice yearly reminder of John Groce's inability to recruit a Big Ten caliber point guard. One of the all time great hauntings.
+ It may very well be happy trails for Nebraska head coach Tim Miles as well. Miles was only given a one year extension at the end of last year, and his seat has certainly not cooled much since then. If he is sacked, then the conference will lose one of it's best personalities. He is by far the most respectful and genuine coaches in his interactions with the media, and his sideline demeanor is a riot. In my rankings of "Big Ten Coaches I'd Like To Have A Beer With" - he'd easily be number one. And since you asked - #2 would be little Ricky Pitino. #14? - Greg Gard. Snoozefest.