Mar 15, 2019

I waited to write this post until now - the morning after the Illinois season ended following a 83-62 loss to Iowa. The ending - as most all season finales are - was as sudden as it was disappointing.

The story today, though, is not really in the details of last night's game but more so about what the last four months did to set the foundation for the next twelve months - a year which will almost certainly define Brad Underwood's tenure at Illinois.

To effectively explore that I needed a 12 hour cooling off period. I'm first and foremost a fan, and as all Illinois fans were after the game last night, I was angry. Angry posts are sometimes a necessary outlet during a season, but not at the end of one.

I often caution against recency bias when analyzing a season and had I posted my thoughts last night - it would have likely been a jumbled and incoherent rant. It's why I wrote in our Back and Forth during the February win streak that I didn't want be a windsock for the balance of the year. Our perspective is too often shaped by the most recent game - and sometimes even the most recent play.

So this morning as BTT Friday gets ready to tip off here at the United Center, I'd like to look at the last four months with a healthy dose of perspective. The primary question I think which needs addressed is "Did this team improve this season?" That answer again depends on your perspective. Do you come at the question from this season or next?

The conference record was certainly an improvement. Over the last two months of the season, Illinois racked up five top 50 wins - as many as they've amassed in an entire season since 2013. By comparison they had exactly one last year.

I do believe the offense improved - although I'll admit to squinting a bit as I write those words. Like any team we were often subject to the vagaries of shotmaking, but by season's end this was a more efficient offense. The offensive struggles were often tied to a difficulty with converting at the rim for anyone not named Ayo or Giorgi and with inconsistent three point shooting, but I certainly saw more flashes of the action Underwood wants as the season progressed.

But it's hard to say that the defense got better - especially considering the two of the worst defensive efforts of the season came in the last week of the season. We didn't force very many turnovers late in the year and often paid dearly for it.

This roster obviously needs size in the post to help with rim protection and rebounding and it needs more athleticism and length on the wing if it's going to take that next step.

But most importantly it needs to stay together. I wrote about the importance of continuity a couple of weeks ago, and that it remains by far the most essential component to a successful 2019-2020 campaign. If this roster stays together next year, every statistical trend would predict a significant jump in performance next year. If we have to play roster roulette again, this thing will likely be over before it starts.

After the game last night, Underwood reaffirmed multiple times that this season was successful in his primary goal: establishing the culture which he felt was so sorely lacking last year.

"I'm not concerned about the record" he said in the post game press-conference. "This year was about establishing an identity and a culture and that's the way I approached it."

He also did a little politicking- saying that from his perspective that this season was "really year one" despite his contract saying otherwise. With those words I feel like he's basically set the parameters for next season. I'm willing to accept him at face value if we can all agree that next year (and every one after that) IS all about the record. Assuming the core of the roster returns, I have little doubt that this team will be better next season - I'm just not sure if better will be good enough. An NCAA Tournament bid is the expectation - full stop. No more culture talk - just start with the winning.

I have plenty more thoughts, but I'll put them on hold for now as Robert and I will continue to look back at this season and forward to the next in an upcoming year end Back and Forth.


+ Iowa is the template for Illinois' success next season. Both Iowa and Illinois finished with identical 4-14 records in the conference last season. Iowa is a solid NCAA tournament team this year. The difference? We turned over our entire roster while Iowa took their same guys and got better. Continuity.

+ Whither Ayo? By all accounts he needs more experience, more strength, and more development before he succeeds at the next level. He will get there one way or another - the only question is whether he does it as a sophomore for us or if an NBA team is willing to pay him first round money to develop under their supervision.

+ There was a lot of emotion from the Illini players as the game wound to its close yesterday. Tears were flowing up and down the bench. Losing carries with it such a heavy weight for these kids. Sometimes we forget that.

+ Happy trails Aaron Jordan. You wore it well.


ATOillini on March 15 @ 02:21 PM CDT

The ebb and flow of this season was interesting. Early on hope with an entertaining loss to Georgetown and hanging with Gonzaga, but then a "never really in it" loss in the Big 10 opener at Nebraska which started a rather horrible stretch. Somehow we turn things around with 5 out of 6 against decent to very good competition, only to end seemingly right back where we started. Personally I think our record accurately reflects the talent on the roster as of this season. Pointing out what are obvious multiple deficiencies is most likely just piling on.

Since Robert likes to occasionally throw out these little what I call "futility" stats (seasons without bowl game, seasons since NCAA tourney, lowest interception totals in last 10 years, etc.), it occurred to me this morning we had one for the ages that encompasses this academic school year. That is we played long time Big 10 foe Iowa a total of 3 times this year in the 2 major sports. They outscored us by an incredible 108 points in those 3 games (63, 24 and 21). A mind numbing fact which hopefully will never be repeated.

Decadeoftears on March 15 @ 05:07 PM CDT

Robert, love what u do. Couldnt read past the first 2 paragraphs. Im still angry, problem is im moving on to FB and afraid football will be a similar team as last year...4-5 wins....wake me up when its over.

Robert on March 16 @ 11:04 AM CDT

I’ll use this moment as a reminder to check that byline: this article was Walkon (Tyler), not me.

Joe Edge on March 16 @ 08:18 PM CDT

I'm just curious what you're angry at - specifically ? I'm curious why Robert was mad also... I mean, Iowa is a really BAD matchup for us, and they can rain the three's if the defense is lax (Yet Michigan smothered them - they were 0-fer well into the 2nd half - I didn't watch the finish)... Are you angry because we played poor defense ? OK, I understand. Are you mad at the coach? Are you just mad cause we lost ? ... If you are, you're mad at the Effect... IMHO

I'm mad... But I'm mad because the program has been allowed to fall into a canyon that it probably won't climb out of in the time I have left on this planet... I'm mad because we hired a AD that was such a disaster that the coaches he hired drove all of our revenue sports programs into that canyon - and frankly it seemed to me to be on purpose...... So, YES I'm very angry... but I'm mad at the Cause.... JMHO....

Altgeld88 on March 17 @ 07:04 PM CDT

I understand disappointment. The costs, however, of losing are sunk. No use dwelling on them. Yes, MT as AD was an unmitigated disaster for FB and BB. Done. Over. We have a solid BB coach in BU. He had little to work with and managed in season 2 to get starters comprising 2 frosh, one soph, a JC transfer, and a senior, two of whom were playing completely out of place, and four of whom were completely undersized for their positions, to perform passably. Guards: 6'1", 6'2", 6'5". AJ: 6'5". GB: 6'9". That was our size. Are you kidding? When they took the floor against Maryland in the Garden I gasped at how small they were in comparison. With help from ADLR and deciding to play some defense after ~15 mins and falling behind by 11, they won.

They did fairly well in my book given their substantial size and experience disadvantages, and the playing out of position. BU needs, first and foremost, starters made for their positions. He'll get there moving GB to the four and acquiring Kofi, from whom, as a frosh, we can't expect miracles. Need more length on wings, as others have noted, and better shooters. More bulk in the paint. And more seasoning.

Agreed that if there's turnover off-season then that's a big problem. I'm skeptical there will be. One thing that was clear from the single game I saw in person this season (Maryland in NYC) is that this group enjoys each other. He can build from that and is doing so.

I don't know why anyone would think that he can get this built in fewer than four seasons. I remember watching Purdue & Michigan ~ 2005 or so. Just hideous teams. The coach is key. And he needs to bring in his players. If we're not making substantial progress in two years, then real problems exist. But it's way too early to get uptight about the situation.

I've suffered along with everyone else for most of 12-13 seasons now. But I recall the early '80s onward. We'll get back there and better. Enough with the wailing and rending of garments.

Joe Edge on March 17 @ 11:36 PM CDT

I think you've misunderstood my post... I'm sorry

Altgeld88 on March 19 @ 07:03 PM CDT

No; it was my mistake. I didn't intend to reply to your post but to the top of the thread. I wasn't paying attention to where it was nested. I agree with your observations in your comment.

illinisludge on March 16 @ 01:52 PM CDT

Thanks for the coverage. Continuity next year would be better if Tevian and Griffin played more this year. Any idea why they played so little? Poor practice habits or in Brad's doghouse? Couldn't agree more that we also need to get bigger. Even with everyone returning, it will still be Giorgi and a bunch of 6'4" or 6'5" guards.

HiggsBoson on March 16 @ 02:43 PM CDT

The primary indicator this spring will be how many of the players return. If everyone eligible to return, including Ayo, does, then we get an excellent reading on the Optimism Meter. Still solid if Ayo goes in the NBA draft, but declining with each additional player that departs thereafter. If it's half the team like each of the past two years, the chances of Brad Underwood having success at Illinois decline to somewhere in the vicin ity of slim and none.

Keep everybody and add Kofi, January, and maybe somebody else and things are looking up.

mwb27 on March 16 @ 10:41 PM CDT

My opinion is that Underwood’s program is the type that takes 3-4 year players and succeeds. These are the guys that want to be coached up, have something to prove, and are willing to work hard to get better. With underwood, ILL will ultimately be successful with the jones, griffin, Frazier, Giorgi type players. Ayo has been great because I think he’s got a great work ethic. But if underwood finds his recruits in the 75-125 range rankings, he will eventually have this program rolling again. It will be a bonus to mix in a 5 star recruit here and there.

Again, the key is for guys to stick around and BU will get the job done, he needs but in. If everyone stays we will be in the tournament next year, no doubt.

Speak Your Mind

Please login or register to post comments on the IlliniBoard.