I Don't Know

Jan 17, 2021

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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:

1st half:

Ayo: 4 points/1 rebound/2 assists -- Kofi: 4 points/4 rebounds

2nd half:

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...

1st half:

Ayo 4 points/2 rebounds/1 assist -- Kofi: 5 points/2 rebounds

2nd half

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


orangejulius on January 17, 2021 @ 12:51 AM

You mentioned the luck factor. OSU shot 20 percent higher than their season average on 3's (52 percent) and it was still a game at the end. We shot 7 percent lower than our average. In a season where the talent level is very even throughout the conference sometimes the difference between winning and losing is just that simple.

ktcesw on January 17, 2021 @ 04:21 AM

Agree 100%!!!

Nick-Chainsaw-Smith on January 17, 2021 @ 07:46 AM

Do you think there is any jealousy in the team for the way coach treats Ayo? Seems like hes always talking about how hes the best player in the league and can flip the switch whenever...

Pugz3305 on January 17, 2021 @ 07:46 AM

To add to other stuff... don’t forget the four step uncalled travel before the OSU player threw the ball off Damonte out of bounds. This season seems like the other stuff adds up and becomes insurmountable and that probably also boils down to luck.

ditkanate on January 18, 2021 @ 09:15 AM

Seriously, though. That was one of the worst / most obvious travels I think I've ever seen. When they didn't call it I thought I must have seen it wrong? Then they show the replay and, nope, it was just as egregious as I thought it was live. Unbelievable. Not excusing the loss AT ALL, but this stuff is so frustrating.

IBFan on January 17, 2021 @ 09:00 AM

Ayo is not a baby mj. Ayo is a good college player. As of now his handles are suspect, dribbles way too high, and is not a facilitator. Does Ayo make his teammates better? Where is Ayos leadership? His so so attitude on losses? Good college player, love him being at Illinois, thankful for what he brings, but he isn’t at that DW, Battle, Frankie level. Regardless of points or him peacocking with his “Ive got Ice in my veins” he isn’t leading this team. Next time he wants or anyone else on this team wants to talk about championships maybe they should try showing up and be prepared to practice, beat your rivals, protect home court, and try playing with effort for an entire game. This arena empty bs is not a problem for competitive players with pride. Do you think MJ would roll over because there weren’t people watching? Thank you Ayo for coming back. Thank you for some great highlights. Your time at Illinois is judged on actual team results. Good luck in the NBA or wherever your head is at right now. Too harsh? Maybe needed to motivate a good player to become a great player?

skibdaddy on January 18, 2021 @ 11:56 AM

Unfortunately, I agree. Ayo disappears all too often and the other team has been able to take advantage.

This team just doesn't know how to win yet.

skibdaddy on January 18, 2021 @ 11:57 AM

Unfortunately, I agree. Ayo disappears all too often and the other team has been able to take advantage.

This team just doesn't know how to win yet.

NC_OrangeKrush on January 17, 2021 @ 10:01 AM

I agree with IBFan's comments on Ayo... he IS GOOD but facilitating AND leading AND scoring when needed (i.e. first half) IS ALSO part of being great.

As for BU, still a great coach... but those who say the Phil Jackson won championships because he had the best players... well.. you can see talent and performance together on the court is not automatic. Wish him luck making it happen...

Where he can start is defense.. because if teams are shooting greater than their average against you, once it happens multiple times, well - that isn't luck....

AGig21 on January 17, 2021 @ 10:08 AM

for a bit I thought there might be a concerted effort for Ayo to back off early hoping to get others involved and avoid the "standing and watching Ayo", whether that's true or not Ayo needs to go full from tip to buzzer. Andres is going to be a great PG but a D1 player needs to knock down wide open 3's or they won't guard you and they'll wait until you drive and try to make a difficult pass; it's a learning thing (maybe less tennis balls dribbling?). Miller is coming around, he's starting to get it. We lack length on the wing, hoping Granderson fills that void. Kofi learning to kick out is good but only becomes great when players knock down the open 3 they get due to the kick out. I'm tied of yelling "all right here we go!" as we pull 3 Defensive stops in a row and then return the favor or miss 3 open shots in a row. I'm hoping in other games where a fan's team is upset and the other team shoots lights out and a player from nowhere goes off, all fans scream, why does this always happen to us?

orangejulius on January 17, 2021 @ 05:36 PM

Agree that Andres' poor shooting is a big problem. 17 percent is almost Jaylon Tate level.

22 on January 17, 2021 @ 01:02 PM

Excellent article -Bryce

Brave Illini on January 17, 2021 @ 04:19 PM

Have the players hang with our wrestlers for awhile.

Robert on January 18, 2021 @ 03:09 PM

I deleted the entire subthread centered around the word "WuFlu". Please go discuss such "no one will change anyone's mind but there will certainly be a lot of yelling" things ~motions to entire internet~ anywhere else but here.

And no, that's not a stance for or against or anything else. It's a stance against stance-offs. I don't think it's very hard to just discuss the topic of the article in the comments.

MuckFichigan92 on February 13, 2021 @ 04:47 AM

Redaction is most certainly a stance. Is there a reference to unacceptable terminology or should Twitter guidelines be assumed? More speech has been eliminated as a remedy.

MuckFichigan92 on February 13, 2021 @ 04:47 AM

Redaction is most certainly a stance. Is there a reference to unacceptable terminology or should Twitter guidelines be assumed? More speech has been eliminated as a remedy.

HNLINI on January 18, 2021 @ 03:54 PM

We need to remember that these are relatively young people who are going on their sixth month of near total physical isolation from their (non-basketball) support groups -- and most of these individuals are traditionally the focal points of their family's dynamics. It is difficult to maintain mental focus, self-enthusiasm and commitment for that period of time without normal/traditional support functions - the B1G season is a grind in normal times, and as evidenced in the article, the team currently lacks the ability to stay focused/"up" and perform at a high level for entire games. We simply aren't talented enough to overcome this lack of focus. I'm confident that as we get through the dog days of January and into February in March the players will begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel -- and sharper performances will result. In fact, I think that the current COVID-related cancellations may end up being a blessing in disguise. BU's "Everyday guys" approach is being tested, and may need to be adapted given the current circumstances. Of course, every team is suffering from this same challenge: other than the top handful of teams talent wise (e.g. Gonzaga, Baylor), nearly every team in the top 25 has had its ups and downs. We seem to have more than others, though.

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