Nov 27, 2021

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I've been racking my brain on how to describe these first 17 days of the Illinois basketball season, and one word finally hit me - weird.

When I arrived at the State Farm Center tonight and saw the Illinois injury report (Andre Curbelo - OUT; Trent Frazier - OUT; Jacob Grandison - OUT), I rhetorically questioned myself out loud: "Can this get any weirder?"

The game then played out in expectedly weird fashion. Illinois came into this game ranked in the top 5 of KenPom's defensive efficiency rankings, and then proceeded to give up 85 points to a team that future opponent Arizona beat by 54 points. This is how weird this game was: back up center Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk had six assists in 12 minutes and Da'Monte Williams played point guard for 30 minutes without a single turnover before fouling out.

I could not have remotely imagined typing those words just three weeks ago, yet these are the words you type when you essentially have no available lead guards. Now, I could have easily imagined Kofi Cockburn scoring 38 points and 10 rebounds which is why we eventually beat the University of the Alphabet 94-85 - but the fact that we needed just about every one of those points against the 298th ranked team in KenPom underscores the weirdness.

So I'm going to allow some leeway here. Obviously the first six games of this season have been a collective disappointment, but they have also been too weird to extrapolate anything concrete. How does one objectively analyze a game in which Illinois was once again without multiple starters or for that matter a season in which Brad Underwood has been forced to use five different starting lineups in six games?

There are troublesome signs to be sure, but the weird thing is how different those signs have been each night.

Against Marquette, we turned the ball over a million times, but stayed in the game with otherworldly offensive rebounding numbers and a solid defensive effort.

Against Cincinnati we experienced an historic offensive drought, shot 14% from the arc and got punked on the glass.

Against UTRGV we had a frighteningly bad defensive effort, but countered with an offensive performance that featured 62% shooting from the field (including 42% from the arc) and 83% from the foul line.

Forget trying to figure out this team's identity. You can't establish an identity when you have multiple personalities. Bad teams often get labeled as not equaling the sum of its parts, and that's where I see this team at this juncture.

Kofi has been Kofi, but otherwise it's been a weird jumbled mess. Trent Frazier was 8/15 from three in his first two games, and then went 0 for Kansas City before his injury. Conversely, Alfonso Plummer started the season 3/14 (21%) from three before nailing 15 of his next 25 (60%). Jacob Grandison scored in double figures each of his first three games, and then scored 10 points total over the next two.

Curbelo has a 30% turnover rate but his 50% assist rate ranks second best in all of college basketball. DMW is shooting 17% from three after shooting 55% last season. Holy regression to the mean Batman!

Now if all of those parts eventually come together - this is still one of the best 15-20 teams in the country. But it's not likely to happen until this group gets whole.

If we play each game down two or three starters, we're going to lose a bunch of games - which is pretty much what an impartial observer would expect from such a team.

Coaches crave consistency. They will all talk a big game about "next man up" and all that, but every coach would prefer to send the same five dudes out there every single night. Which is what we did last year. We only lost three total games to injury all of last season - the three Ayo sat out after he was concussed against MSU. The rest of the primary rotation played in every game. Frazier, DMW, Kofi, Adam Miller, Giorgi, and Curbelo each played in all 31 games. Grandison played in only 30, but that one was a DNP-CD.

So far this year - through just six games - we've already lost three games to suspension and ten games to injury (Hutcherson - 3, Curbelo - 2, Frazier - 2, Goode - 2, and Grandison - 1)

Consistency is the foundation of success in just about any sport, and it's impossible to develop any consistency when you have a revolving door of players. Coaches in basketball talk about "reps" in the same way football guys do and if those reps aren't happening in practice, it's going to look ugly in games. I guarantee it is driving Underwood nuts that he can't practice the way he wants to with the guys he wants to.

So I'm afraid it's going to continue to look messy until this team is rolling at full capacity. I'll also admit to worrying that if things remain disjointed for a prolonged period, they won't be able to find their way back to a necessary rhythm until it's too late. Additionally, the one game we did play at full strength was the biggest clunker of them all which is disconcerting - and weird.

So I just don't know if we should even try to make sense of what we've seen so far when we're playing games down two or three starters on average. I was bullish on this team as it was constructed on November 1 and I'm going to withhold any final judgment until I see that team play together for an extended stretch of four or five games in a row.

Until then, it's just going to be weird.


+Really liked what I saw from Luke Goode tonight. With most freshmen, it's about establishing a comfort zone at this level, and Goode looked absolutely comfortable in his 17 minutes tonight. He missed a few shots, but the most important thing to me was his willingness to step up and take them "in the guts of the game" as Brad Underwood said afterwards.

+On the other hand, if Omar Payne can only scratch a minute and a half of tick against UTRGV, I'm not sure what that says about his prospects for playing time in this upcoming stretch of four straight games against high major opponents.

+Let's just say that Alfonso Plummer and Underwood have differing opinions on the appropriateness of the "heat check".

+Illinois had 21 assists on 33 made field goals tonight which had Underwood beaming. Then again, it's pretty easy to rack up assists on post feeds when Kofi is making 15 of 19 shots from the floor.

+The recruiting train rolls on for Underwood and staff who hosted two major recruits tonight in potential mid season transfer Dain Dainja and class of 2023 point guard Jeremy Fears. Dainja is an ultra skilled 6'9" post player (kind of in the Trevion Williams mode) who just recently announced he was transferring from Baylor. He was a top 50 recruit out of high school who struggled with injuries and conditioning at Baylor. He sat out last season due to injury and played only sparingly so far this season. He would be immediately eligible next season and an intriguing Kofi replacement. Fears is an electric 6'1" guard from Joliet who is currently at La Lumiere Prep. He's a top 30 level recruit who would slot in quite nicely with recently signed class of 2022 guards Sencire Harris and Jayden Epps.


Dan Allen on November 27, 2021 @ 06:50 AM

Exactly right, Walkon. This is weird. Hoping we get to full strength and in rhythm by January and make a run.

Illiniboat on November 27, 2021 @ 08:05 AM

Every Underwood Illinois team has looked disjointed to start the year. Even last year's team, the best in 16 years, started 9-5. Underwood struggles with rotations and adjustments in the best of circumstances so hopefully they get rolling before it's too late. on November 27, 2021 @ 08:12 AM

A lot of this is driven by the fact that we only have one point guard on the roster. Once Curbelo is out of the game, or playing badly as he had early in the season, we have no back-up to run the offense efficiently. Frazier is our next best hope their but he is a 2 and not point guard. The other problem with no point guard, and it showed yesterday, is that once those two were out of the game, the other guys on the team had no experience guarding a point guard and it showed. It's not easy staying in front of an experienced point guard.

This was a roster construction issue coming into this season and it is biting the Illini right now. I hope Curbelo's health issue is not a season long issue.

JaxIllini on November 28, 2021 @ 08:14 PM

Nice article. Let’s hope we get Curbelo back for tomorrow night or it’s going to be real tough.

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