A Glimpse

Jan 8, 2023

Ignorance is bliss.

It truly is. I cannot emphasize this point enough. I'm not sure I've experienced a more "ignorance is bliss" week than this past week. I realize now, even more than I did before, that not knowing anything is truly a gift.

Some examples:

  • I returned home from Tampa on Wednesday afternoon completely exhausted. I tweeted that I would probably fall asleep before the end of the Northwestern game and I did. I watched most of the first half on my phone and then drifted off in the second half. I missed the whole 20-2 Northwestern run (or whatever it was - I saw some graphic on Twitter the next day but can't remember the exact run) and so I missed all of the corresponding angst. Tyler covered it, Tyler wrote about it, I didn't really experience any of it.
  • I've seen several references to Underwood and yelling but I'm not sure what recent event it's referencing. Something during the Northwestern game I guess?
  • One of my group texts was discussing the Skyy Clark rumors but I had to ask what everyone was talking about because I don't follow anyone who was referencing Skyy Clark. It was explained to me that he had transferred. Then we find out he's still on the team but taking a leave of absence. I asked my usual "is anyone reporting reporting this, or is it all behind paywalls?" question (and got the typical answer) so I sat this one out.
  • Then everyone is up in arms about some "Matt Mayer broke his foot at practice" rumor. I employ my typical "ignore, ignore, ignore" methodology and it pays off for the 119th time.

So I entered today's game concerned about our 0-3 Big Ten start, and wondering what happened to the team I saw in New York City, but (apparently) nowhere near the complete and total fandom chaos everyone else has been experiencing the last week. I didn't watch much of Northwestern, I haven't taken part in any "did you hear about..." discussions, and, hand up, I've been so focused on football that I still haven't made my full transition to basketball season yet. Your brain might be focused on Skyy Clark, but I'm still thinking through NFL draft decisions.

My emotions can probably best be described as going to the grocery store without knowing the winter weather forecast. You haven't seen the weather for a few days, so you pop by the store to grab a few things and as soon as you enter the store you can sense something is off. It's packed, everyone seems tense, and the milk is gone. You've just been going about your day but everyone else is in a completely different headspace.

That's been how I feel in every group text and casual Illini basketball conversation. Everyone is full panic with this basketball season and I... wasn't even aware there was snow in the forecast. All of you expect me to be informed - this is my job now, after all - but I'm pretty much ignorant. And it's been wonderful.

I need you to know that because what I'm going to say about this game might not ring true for you. I'm writing from a place of "concerning start to conference play but still a lot of games left to play" and you might have been roped into "are we sure Underwood is the guy?" conversations this week. I'm nowhere close to any of that, so please know that if I sound ignorant here, it's because I am.

I feel like today was a really solid glimpse into what this team can be. Even more than the UCLA and Texas wins, this game painted a picture for me of what the next few months could look like when things start to gel. If the Missouri game was "can someone please explain what's happening right now?", this was "OK, I think I can see it."

Here's what I saw:

  • To be his most effective self, Terrence Shannon needs to get to the line. He has the athleticism to get into the lane and either score at the rim or get fouled. More of that please.
  • RJ needs to look for his shot. They ran several plays to get RJ coming off a screen and shooting a three. He had what I'd describe as an Alan Griffin role today, and I think that's where he can really find his groove.
  • Jayden Epps gave me freshman Trent Frazier vibes today. Halfway through his freshman season you realize he's the guy (and he's going to be the guy for four years).
  • Rebounds can't just all come from Dainja and Hawkins. Shannon, Melendez, and Mayer have to be a big part of that. Those late Shannon rebounds were so encouraging.
  • Sencire Harris and Ty Rodgers can provide very specific sparks off the bench. It's likely going to be more defensive than offensive, but they can both provide a certain energy we've been missing. This is one we've known most of the season, but it was really evident today.
  • Four players were in double figures: Shannon, Hawkins, Mayer, Epps. I'm not expecting Sencire Harris or Ty Rodgers to reach double figures, but I would put RJ Melendez and Dain Dainja on that list. So that's my goal for this team. Six main offensive guys, four need to get to double figures every single game. Against Northwestern, 3 players got to double figures. Against Penn State, 2. Missouri? 3. Maryland? 3. Yeah, this is my new thing. Get four players into double figures.

Maybe it's just the ignorance talking (and the fact that I still have football brain), but I really felt like this gave us an idea of what this team will be in February and March. I don't think our struggles are over, especially with a growing depth issue, but it just seemed to all fit together today. If this last month of confusion has been about figuring ourselves out, today felt like an answer.

And now several tests to see if that's true. First a trip to Nebraska, a place where we've struggled each of the last two years. In 2021, Ayo saved us late, both in forcing overtime and then taking over in overtime. Last year, Omar Payne saved us in the last four minutes (yes, really). Would be a great spot to pick up our first road win. Then it's back home for Michigan State. Protect home court there and it's off to Minnesota (where Nebraska won today). All of that before we're back home for Indiana.

So yes, this was a great time to start to put the puzzle together. We'll go as far as Shannon can take us, we need Hawkins to let the game come to him, and the next two months of Epps need to be exactly like the final two months of Trent Frazier's freshman season in 2018. Get Goode (and Skyy?) back, get RJ on track, and by March, we might just see the team we were all hoping to see.

Or maybe I'm just blinded by the fact that I didn't watch the second half of Northwestern. Maybe today was the fluke and we'll go back to "disaster" in Lincoln on Tuesday. Perhaps football brain isn't helping me here. Perhaps I just can't see the impending doom.

(But did you hear that Malik Elzy committed?)


IlliniJoe81 on January 8, 2023 @ 08:08 AM

You are the sane one here. I’ve never seen such an over-the-top meltdown from fans. Did everyone really think the entire team would quit and we’d never win another game?

Shannon went off against UCLA and Mayer went off against Texas. We competed against other teams through talent and athleticism. Then we got scouted and it got tougher. Guys are still learning their roles on and off the court. Mad Underwood came back.

Still, we always thought this team would take some time to gel with all the new faces. The defense has been ahead of the offense.

Fans were seduced by the Skyy Clark hype and didn’t realize he fit into the Mark Smith / Adam Miller mold. I’m sure he’s a nice kid but he is all over the place. Assume he won’t be back and realize that Epps is to Frazier like Clark is to Mark Smith. Harris is better than we thought so the rotation will be ok.

Shaq Dainja is impressive in the post. Mayer is Mayer. Coleman will be great once he focuses on his strengths.

We need to get RJ dialed in and get Goode back to finally live up to our potential. Perrin gives us a little more depth.

I’d love to have a veteran backup PG but we’ll make do with Harris playing earlier than expected.

This could be one of those years where we’re the 10-seed in the Elite Eight. I don’t like our odds of winning the Big Ten right now but I think we will be fine come March.

Duce20 on January 9, 2023 @ 03:48 PM

I love this! Well said.

ktcesw on January 8, 2023 @ 09:20 AM

Love what you said here, Robert. Basically, we have to accept the fact that Illini fandom can be very childish and entitled! We whine over every little thing that doesn't go our way and blow up over stuff that is none of our business (Skyy's mental state). Co-Hawk does fit into our norm for a player and we get ugly about his talents. He may be being asked to do a little too much but, we need to appreciate all that he is doing. He has hit some very big shots over the last two years and very few seem to recognize that. He plays incredible defense and BU may be the one asking him to do many of the things that fans don't like him to do because he is the best that we have to do those things. This team is so much more capable than we want to give them credit for. They are working their way through quite a bit and their careers will benefit from it!!

ktcesw on January 8, 2023 @ 09:25 AM

'Co-Hawk "doesn't" fit into our norm.' Was not able to edit. Sorry.

AGig21 on January 8, 2023 @ 10:09 AM

very happy with the game and how our boys played. That being said, we really need to finish at the basket. Early in the game there must have been at least 4 chances to either finish or draw a foul. Neither happened. Later when we were up 15 we had the chance to bury them. But 4 unforced TO's lead to Badger buckets or free throws and the game got under 10 and I'm betting I wasn't alone in getting nervous. Otherwise, a really solid game for us.

thegoah on January 8, 2023 @ 10:19 AM

I think it was you who first said that Epps was Garris, and that seems like a much better comparison than Frazier. Except I’m talking about style of play and I suppose you’re talking about leadership/team role. I guess I’m mostly saying this because, like, 5 times yesterday, I was like “Woah! That Garris comparison is exactly right.”

ScubaFarms on January 8, 2023 @ 10:33 AM

Who cares? We're a football school!

neale stoner on January 8, 2023 @ 10:52 AM


Illiniboat on January 8, 2023 @ 07:21 PM

I know I was definitely fooled by the UCLA and Texas wins into thinking we were going to skip this part, but it's been 6 years now and this is just how Underwood teams work. They are going to be 9-5 with some appalling losses, frequently to Mizzou, before they get rolling. Maybe we should move that game back to February or something.

LosAngellini on January 9, 2023 @ 11:43 AM

Who is Malik Elzy? Hoping he's a point guard ;).

on July 3, 2023 @ 03:59 PM


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