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.