On Fumes

Feb 26, 2021

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Brad Underwood looked tired. Near the end of his postgame press conference, he noted that he didn't sleep on Tuesday night after the Michigan State game and will probably not sleep tonight. I just received an email that there will be an Underwood press conference tomorrow morning to preview the Wisconsin game, and he probably won't have slept between now and then.

Why so exhausted? Well, several reasons, I'd imagine:

  • Three games in five days. Please note that this is three games in five days because of Michigan not feeling ready to play on February 11th. At the time, this Nebraska game was set for March 2nd, 3rd, or 4th. Instead, the Michigan game was rescheduled for March 2nd and Nebraska was crammed in between Michigan State on the 23rd and Wisconsin on the 27th.
  • His All American has a broken nose caused by a Flagrant-2 foul. Take all of the who and what and why out of it and just look at that fact: Brad Underwood has a player in contention for National Player of the Year and he's not available right now because an opponent injured him and the refs ejected the player because they believe it was intentional.
  • His team has to go on the road for three games in eight days - at Wisconsin, at Michigan, at Ohio State. It's possible, perhaps likely, that he has to coach those games without his star.

Why "likely"? It's just a guess - Underwood refused to give out any injury information - but the way he mentioned tests and MRI's and the multiple doctors Ayo was seeing all day yesterday, it sounds like this is much more complicated than just a "broken nose". People are going to speculate what that means, and I don't think we're going to get an answer until we see Ayo on the court again, but my gut feel after attending this press conference is that we won't see Ayo until the Big Ten Tournament (or perhaps the NCAA Tournament). I'm refusing to believe it might mean "or at all this season", clinging tightly to the video he posted on Twitter with a plastic mask to protect his nose while playing. But it feels like we're going to play Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State without him.

Now, I said this last year after his knee injury and he missed one game. Maybe this is all a smokescreen. But just going by that press conference, my guess is that at least three more Ayo-less games are coming.

Which probably means three consecutive losses are coming. Yes, we can beat Nebraska without Ayo, but I doubt we can win on the road at any of those three locations without Ayo. We were probably looking at something like 1-2 as it was. Take away the All American, and I'm not sure I can see any wins.

Maybe I'm way off here. Maybe this was just a smokescreen. Maybe we play without him, lose at Wisconsin, and then turn around and SURPRISE - there's Ayo in his mask at Michigan on Tuesday. I'd love to see it play out like that - two big tests before the BTT and then the NCAA Tournament.

But it's also possible that we don't see Ayo again until the BTT (if not the NCAA Tournament). Which means I've completely switched my brain from "what needs to happen to get a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament?" to "what seed will we be in the BTT if we lose the next three?" We'd be 13-7, so I start looking for other teams to get to 8 losses (or 7 losses if we have the tiebreaker. It looks like things will take care of themselves (the Purdue-Wisconsin loser would be out of it; the Iowa-Ohio State loser would have seven losses), but we're not necessarily home free just yet. Purdue only has six conference losses and they play Penn State, Wisconsin, and Indiana. So if we lose out and Purdue wins out, we finish behind Purdue in this year's Big Ten standings.

And that's possible if Ayo is out for the next 10 days. Well, it's not likely that Purdue runs the table, but it's possible we lose out if we don't have Ayo. It was possible we'd lose out if we did have Ayo. I'm rambling now. All I'm saying is that from the moment Ayo was announced as out, I've switched to damage control mode. Just get a top-4 seed in the BTT, get Ayo back, and then start our NCAA Tournament run with our masked hero out in front.

For now, though, it seems like Brad Underwood (and his team) are running on fumes.

+ Any other night I'd go on and on about Andre Curbelo here, but I'm running on fumes as well. I was up until 5:30 Tuesday night and 3:45 last night, so I can tell I'm about ready to crash. So let's maybe make a quick list of solid things from tonight:

  • Curbelo was two assists (or, technically, five turnovers) away from a triple-double. He finished with 10 points, 12 rebounds (!!), and 8 assists.
  • Adam Miller showed the scorer he's going to become. Foul trouble limited him in the second half - he eventually fouled out - but his 16 in the first half made us all a lot more comfortable with our "where will the scoring come from?" questions.
  • Hack-a-Kofi backfired on Nebraska. He made 8-10 free throws, several of them and-one free throws where they tried to hack-a-Kofi but he scored anyway.
  • Jacob Grandison was really good. 14 points and 7 rebounds in 22 minutes.
  • Was this our worst 3-point shooting night of the season? 4 for 23. We were 26 of 39 from two and 4 of 23 from three. It's only Nebraska, but still - impressive to win going away when you shoot 4 of 23 from deep.

+ Overall, it feels like we were watching next year's team at times. There was this stretch where the lineup was Curbelo, Miller, Grandison, Hawkins, Giorgi. If neither Trent nor Da'Monte return, we're going to see that lineup a lot next season. Curbelo and Miller will be the focal point.

Maybe Trent or Da'Monte do decide to return. Maybe Kofi even decides to stay - who knows? But for now, if we do lose Kofi, Ayo, Trent, and Da'Monte, that lineup above might even be the starting lineup all season.

+ OK, my eyes are really heavy so I need to go to sleep. Makes me realize that somewhere, Brad Underwood is feeling the same way. Yet he's going to force himself to stay awake all night preparing for Wisconsin.

And he's likely preparing for them without Ayo. :(


Lou-a-villini on February 26, 2021 @ 06:28 AM

Meanwhile, last night’s MSU-OSU box score indicates Sissoko was able to rack up 2 personal fouls in 0 minutes of play. Sounds about right.

Nabor568 on February 26, 2021 @ 08:54 AM

I came away feeling pretty optimistic. The bench was unimpressive past Grandison, but it was still nice to see Miller and Curbelo both drive with ‘intent to score.’ (As noted by a commenter earlier.) This was a team that hung with us earlier in the season and instead the core of next year’s team built a lead, held it, and then ‘slowly eased them to the ground.’ Good stuff.

illini_dave34 on February 26, 2021 @ 09:00 AM

At this point, I just want a 2 or 3 seed in the NCAAs with a healthy Ayo in the first round game.

AGig21 on February 26, 2021 @ 09:49 AM

for Trent and DW it goes without saying, but Grandison and Miller (except for a couple of lapses) played some darn good D last night. Also, Badger game is very winnable.

mmyers74 on February 26, 2021 @ 09:57 AM

THAT - Guard(s), other than Ayo, driving with the intent to score, is the single biggest thing keeping this team from actually being, in my estimation, a National Title Contender.

We're a Top 5 team, without it, if we play teams that don't eliminate Ayo's Right Hand... if they do eliminate his RH, we're a Top 18 team. Top 18 teams find a game in the dance where either the opposition game plans well or the team just doesn't shoot well, and they are eventually defeated.

But If you have 3 guys that can drive with intent to score, and you have a team that overloads Ayo and eliminates his right hand drive... you can, 1, eliminate the long scoring droughts... and 2, eventually soften up that Ayo overload.

Tonight was a glimpse of what, if blended when Ayo plays, can make this team an actual title contender.

THAT is exciting.

purcy51 on February 26, 2021 @ 12:18 PM

I agree with this. Was so nice to see them step up. The trick now is to keep that mentality when Ayo comes back.

IlliniJedi on February 26, 2021 @ 01:29 PM

I choose to believe the Illini have a real shot to win 6 games in the tourney if Ayo has recovered and he can earn his top ten draft status with full national attention. I also believe that Underwood has built this roster to win road games and that with Kofi we have a shot to beat all three and if we do, we will pass OSU for the 4th 1 seed.

I liked the roster preview last night for next season so while there will be a slight drop-off, I still think we can contend.

twilson77@comcast.net on February 26, 2021 @ 02:38 PM

Unfortunately, I'm in Robert's "damage control" camp right now: We really haven't learned anything just yet, as beating Nebraska at State Farm should have happened, and don't point to the first NU game with Ayo, as nearly the entire Illini team failed to show-up that game, and I seem to recall the TV announcer saying last night that Nebraska was playing its 10th game in 20 days?? How's that for "heavy legs"!?! We should have won as we did.....in my view, Michigan and OSU are both losses without Ayo, so, it comes down to tomorrow's game, and Wisky played us much closer than the final score indicated at SFC, and they have the "Bigs" to implement the "Hack-A-Cofi" strategy that Sparty successfully used.......here's hoping Ayo can make-it back to safely play in the BTT and we can solidify a 2nd Seed for the Big Dance!

JimmyTheLayup on February 27, 2021 @ 09:54 PM


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