I Don't Know
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With 15 seconds left to play, Illinois trailed Ohio State 83-81. After snoozing through yet another first half during which they trailed by as many as 18 points, the Illini had cut the Buckeye lead down to a single possession after an Adam Miller three pointer. On the ensuing inbounds play, Ohio State's Duane Washington appeared to step out of bounds on the baseline while attempting to receive the inbounds pass. The entire Illini bench contingent - like every single player and coach - jumped up and pointed in unison at the baseline. Referee Rob Riley wasn't having it though - calling a foul on Trent Frazier instead. Washington would go on to make both free throws, and that was pretty much the end of the Illinois rally in what ended as an 87-81 OSU victory. That frustrating play was a symbolic end to an extremely frustrating day from all Illini perspectives.
For the Illinois players, their collective body language was a clear window into their frustration. Early in the first half, Brad Underwood challenged Da'Monte Williams on the Illinois bench - asking him rhetorically: "Do you want to play today?". Williams responded with an irritated shrug. In the second half, after his fourth consecutive miss at the foul line, I thought Kofi Cockburn might walk the entire length of the court and back before his second FT attempt.
It was an equally frustrating day for Illinois coach Brad Underwood. Here is a sampling of his post game press conference quotes:
"It's frustrating. I wish I had the exact answer."
"It's really getting frustrating to figure out the chemistry."
"I see the potential, and how we haven't taken that next step is really frustrating."
You get the idea.
Today's game also served up another helping of frustration for fans of a team ranked #8 to start the season and now in danger of falling completely out of the top 25. And to think these first ten conference games were supposed to be the equity building part of the schedule. Illini Twitter was an angry place this afternoon.
It's also frustrating for me as a pseudo-journalist trying to analyze this Illinois team. Almost halfway through the conference schedule and I'm at a loss to figure them out. I don't know what to expect anymore.
We've played eight Big Ten games to date - and have allowed a double digit run by the opponent in seven of those games. And these aren't "up 25 points and give up a 14-3 run in garbage time" scenarios. These lapses are coming during crucial times with games still in the balance. Sometimes early (Penn State, Northwestern, Ohio State), sometimes in the middle (Purdue), and sometimes late (Rutgers, Maryland). I cannot recall an Illinois team more prone to extreme swings in competency during games.
Yet we've all seen that this team is capable of playing at a high level on both offense and defense for extended stretches - periods when everything is firing on all cylinders - so we know the offense and defense are not fundamentally broken. Then why the inconsistency? Something seems off with this team right now - something intangible - that for the life of me I just cannot pinpoint.
Let's list a few of everyone's favorite intangibles.
Chemistry? Are we failing chemistry this season? Every year is a new chemistry experiment, and as you saw above, Underwood himself used that word in the post game press conference - lamenting that it has been difficult to find it so far.
Energy? Underwood used the term "blase' " to describe his team's play in the first half. That seemed apparent to everyone watching both in the building and at home on TV. Yet, would anyone describe what they saw in the second half today as blase'? Or in the second half at Penn State? Or the second half at Northwestern? But then why does a veteran team like this one need to keep being reminded to play hard?
Toughness? Toughness certainly wasn't an issue last season. If anything, last year's team was defined by its toughness and resiliency. Did Andres Feliz mean that much to this group? When posed a question after the game today about this team lacking toughness, Underwood answered with a simple and curt "Yup."
Intensity? Do they miss the edginess of an Alan Griffin? I'm not saying they need anyone stomping on dudes, but Griffin certainly played with an edge that was at times contagious - to say nothing about his three point shooting and offensive rebounding prowess. This Illinois team does not really have a guy willing to mix it up - although I think Adam Miller might eventually get there.
Or is all of the above just narrative nonsense? It all sounds very "TNT-ish". Shouldn't I be sticking to the metrics to break down this little skid? Isn't it odd that a team who sports such shiny efficiency metrics (second in the conference in offense and third in defense) is so maddeningly temperamental. I don't know.
Well, wait, one thing I do know - or at least I think I know - is that we aren't getting what we need from our two superstars during some of these "naps" as @alioneye likes to call them. Especially early in games. To wit, here are today's first half/second half splits for Ayo and Kofi:
Ayo: 4 points/1 rebound/2 assists -- Kofi: 4 points/4 rebounds
Ayo: 18 points/3 rebounds/3 assists -- Kofi: 11 points/7 rebounds
Wait - where have I seen these numbers before? Oh that's right - Northwestern - where we also found ourselves down 43-28 at the half...
Ayo 4 points/2 rebounds/1 assist -- Kofi: 5 points/2 rebounds
Ayo: 11 points/3 rebounds/5 assists -- Kofi: 13 points/10 rebounds
There has been much talk about tinkering with the starting lineup in an attempt to avoid the slow starts which have plagued this team, but I would submit a less drastic suggestion. People keep saying that basketball is an easy game. Seems to me the easiest thing to do at the start of games is to have your two best players set the tone. I don't know.
Yet I still find comfort in the numbers. Water finds its level and all that. If we maintain our strong overall efficiency numbers on offense and defense for the balance of the season, it is likely that wins will follow. (Although it is worth noting that we are ranked almost 300th in KenPom's luck factor - so either we have a correction coming due in our favor...or maybe this is just one of those years.)
It's also possible that our blowout wins are skewing our efficiency stats and that some of our shaky peripheral metrics such as free throw shooting and turnover percentage are preventing this team from fully hitting its stride.
Regardless, it is far too early to write off this team. The remaining schedule is quite the gauntlet, but it also represents a huge opportunity. A strong performance through the second half of the league schedule would go a long way in scrubbing the memories of this week from existence.
So ultimately do I believe that will happen? That this team will find some consistency, start stacking wins, and climb back up toward the top of the Big Ten?
I just don't know.
+Duane Washington stepped out of bounds.
+That was a flagrant 1 on Justice Sueing