2023 NCAAT III: Fly By Wire

Mar 17, 2023

Every time we're in the NCAA Tournament I go back to my blogger-in-the-basement days where I number every post with a Roman numeral. And for this trip I got to THREE. An article to kick us off once I got to Des Moines yesterday, an evaluation of Nico Moretti after the afternoon shootaround, and now this article on our sudden departure from the NCAA Tournament (not even 30 hours after I got to town).

It's just all so abrupt. I got back to my hotel and had to change my checkout date. For the second week in a row, there's a suitcase over there with six changes of clothes and I only needed two of them. My "I love the NCAA Tournament right up until the moment we lose and then I ignore it like it's an eclipse I'm not supposed to look at" thing kicked into gear eight games into the first round. The next three weeks are ruined.

It's now a few hours after the game, and my main emotion is "what else did you expect?". The UCLA and Texas wins had us fooled all season, and even this morning I thought we might be capable of another performance like that. How is it that I can so easily convince myself that it's possible?

I guess I do view this first-weekend exit differently than the last two years. 2021 was complete disbelief. 2022 was epic disappointment. 2023 still has me trying to figure out why it didn't all come together. The confusion of the Penn State game in December ("didn't we just beat #2 Texas last week?") carried through for the next three months.

I've spent a lot of time trying to put my confusion into words. Just last week, after our Big Ten Tournament loss, I used an Italian phrase which means "great story, but I know it isn't true" to analyze the season-long disconnect. Tonight, as I put the season under a microscope one final time, I want to discuss it in terms of... airplanes. As always, stay with me. I promise this goes somewhere.

In the next few paragraphs I'm going to talk about airplane construction. I'm certain to get some things wrong. I'm going to discuss the basics, and it's all eventually going to point back to Illinois Basketball, so if I get a few tiny details wrong and you want to WELL ACTUALLY me, please don't. That's not the point here. I'm pointing to something, then pointing to Illinois Basketball, and saying "see, it's like that."

There are two ways to control an airplane. Scratch that. You'll get confused if I say that. Let me start over.

When you climb on your next flight and you see the pilots entering the cockpit, the system they'll use to control that airplane will utilize one of two methods:

  1. Mechanical flight controls
  2. Fly By Wire

All airplanes used to be mechanical flight controls. It was usually a hydraulic system where long hydraulic cables connected the thing the pilot was moving in the cockpit to the thing on the airplane that she wanted to move. If she wanted to move the rudder, she stepped on the pedal and the pressure from her foot moved a hydraulic cable that ran all the way through the airplane up to the tail and thing would move.

Same with the control column (the "yoke"). The pilot is coming in for a landing, she's fighting a bit of a crosswind, and she's constantly moving the yoke to react to the wind. Those movements move the cables and the cables are directly connected to the things. The plane lands perfectly because the hydraulic cable was manipulated perfectly

Many modern airplanes are Fly By Wire. I might say this wrong, but I believe Boeing is mostly "mechanical systems 4ever" and Airbus is all "nope, gonna train pilots to fly by wire." I guess it doesn't matter if that's true or not. I need to get to my point.

Fly By Wire means that there aren't cables. When you pull this lever over here, it's not moving some hydraulic cable connected to the thing. It's sending an electronic signal to the thing. Many old school pilots, I'm told, were quite worried about Fly By Wire when it first was introduced. "What if the electronic signal isn't detected? With cables, I manipulate the thing to activate the ailerons on the left wing and the cable connected to the ailerons moves. If my control column movement is only sending an electronic signal to the ailerons and something gets screwed up, how am I supposed to fly the airplane?"

Fly By Wire allows for "smart" airplanes. If everything is operating on an electronic signal, then certain pilot inputs can be optimized. The pilot doesn't care what all goes into making the airplane climb. She just wants to pull back on the yoke and watch it rise. If that's some optimized system where the airplane is constantly monitoring its own stability and changing the signals ever so slightly, that's fine by her. Just like when you're driving your car, all you care is that when you turn the wheel left, the car goes left.

I'm digging deep on the nuances here because I believe it's important for the point I'm trying to make. If I was a pilot (I'm not), I'd probably be a little wary of Fly By Wire. It's safer, and how many jets crashed in the 70's and 80's because some frayed hydraulic cable in the belly of the airplane meant that the pilot could no longer move the horizontal stabilizer, but I'd still be hesitant with "the thing is no longer connected to the thing - it just receives an electronic signal telling it to move."

When I turn a door handle, I want the mechanism inside to move the latchbolt. I twist the handle, that twisting is directly connected to the latchbolt and my twist moves the thing and opens the door. I don't want some electronic door handle where my twisting activates some electronic signal telling the motor on the latchbolt to slide it to the open position. I want A connected to B.

The 2021 and 2022 seasons felt like an airplane with mechanical flight controls. Brad Underwood would move the lever and the cable would stretch and Jacob Grandison would fully understand what he was supposed to do. There was a very direct connection between the players and the coach. There were still disconnected cables (Miller and Curbelo are the first two names that come to mind), but the airplane still operated in a very direct way. The pilot would make an input - might not have been the correct input, but it was an input - and the team would immediately respond.

The 2023 season felt like Fly By Wire. That doesn't mean the players didn't like the coach, and it doesn't mean there was drama in the locker room. It doesn't even mean "the coach would make an input but then nothing would happen." It means that, for whatever reason, there never felt like there was a direct connection.

I'm gonna say all of that again because you still think I'm saying "Brad Underwood and Matt Mayer didn't get along and Mayer stopped listening."

For whatever reason, there wasn't a direct connection. Trent Frazier was a hydraulic cable attached directly to Brad Underwood's yoke. Underwood would make the slightest input and Trent would move. There was a solid connection between coach and team. Not every flight was super smooth, of course, but no flight ever is. My point here is that for two full seasons, it felt like the team was connected directly to the coach.

This season felt different. And I don't think it's some simple "couldn't get everyone on the same page" thing. There were flight computers attempting to optimize each signal. "The pilot wants the plane to turn left, but because of X, Y, and Z, we'll do that with less rudder and a little more thrust from the right engine" (or whatever). There was an extra layer in there, and that extra layer is what was so frustrating all season.

Some pilots wouldn't care, but I feel like Brad Underwood would be one of those old school pilots who would return the airplane back to the hangar and say "I'll only fly one with mechanical flight controls." He wants the thing connected to the thing. It just feels safer that way.

This might have been a better roster for college basketball in 2023. We might have had the length Underwood has always been wanting in Champaign. We were probably set up to be the best defensive team in Champaign in more than a decade. This roster was fully optimized.

But it never felt like a team that responded to pilot input without another layer of interpretation. The players were optimized, sure, but there just wasn't a cable running from coach to team. There was something else in there between "I want the airplane to turn left" and {airplane turns left}.

That's not to let Underwood off the hook. We'll get to that in a bit. But my #1 takeaway from the 2023 season is very simple. For whatever reason, Underwood stopped flying a Boeing airplane and switched to Airbus.

And his lack of familiarity with the controls threw everything off.

+ I think we need to start this section by discussing Underwood's NCAA Tournament problem. We just need to put it out there.

We have the most Big Ten wins of any Big Ten team in the 2020's. 55-25 is an incredible conference run. After a decade wandering in the wilderness, we have a coach who knows how to assemble (and coach) a Big Ten roster. He's done it better than any other Big Ten coach the last four seasons.

But his NCAA resume looks like this:

  • Lost to 8-seed Loyola in the 2nd round.
  • Lost to 5-seed Houston in the 2nd round.
  • Lost to 8-seed Arkansas in the 1st round.

Combine that with his one year at Oklahoma State (lost to 7-seed Michigan in the 1st round), and he officially has an NCAA Tournament problem. What was promising at Stephen F. Austin (beat 5-seed VCU in the first round in 2014 and beat 3-seed West Virginia in the first round in 2016) hasn't translated to NCAA Tournament success once he was coaching at a high major.

Granted, he hasn't exactly had seeds that point to a second-weekend appearance. If we include his time at Stephen F. Austin, his NCAA seeds go 12, 12, 14, 10, 1, 4, 9. From those numbers, you'd hope to see two, maybe three Sweet 16's. The 1-seed, the 4-seed, and one of the others (the 9, 10, 12, 12, or 14). He has zero Sweet Sixteens, and that's now officially a problem.

+ When looking at plus-minus from today, uh, it's quite ugly for the upperclassmen. I'll just list it like that.

Terrence Shannon Jr.: -12
Matthew Mayer: -16
Coleman Hawkins: -14

Dain Dainja: -2
RJ Melendez: -3
Luke Goode: -5
Ty Rodgers: 0
Sencire Harris: +5
Jayden Epps: -3

A lot of this comes from that run we made when Underwood put the three upperclassmen on the bench in the second half. We were down 17, Underwood went with next year's lineup, and after the Ty Rodgers layup with 7:15 to go, we had cut it to 9. We would later cut it to 5 (thanks to mostly RJ and Sencire), but that was as close as we got.

And what happened after we cut it to 5 is probably the moment I'll remember from this game. We trail 62-57, we have the ball on a fast break, a layup cuts it to 3 and a three cuts it to 2... and Coleman Hawkins got the ball stripped from behind. Finish on that drive and we might be talking about something completely different but... we couldn't finish.

+ I'll link on tweet here that you might not have seen and then I'll talk about it a little bit.

That's the main thing I've been thinking since the game ended. Immediately after the game I tweeted our point total from the last three NCAA Tournament losses - 58 points, 53 points, 63 points - and pointed to our offensive woes. And that led to this discussion of offensive identity.

Who are we? What do we do on offense? Underwood came here selling what I'll call the "pinch post offense", but then we went away from that (for good reason) with Ayo and Kofi. We went back to that a little this season, but... who are we on the offensive end? What do we do? What do teams have to prepare for when they're playing Illinois?

Shooting can be fixed. We shot .309 from three in 2020 and then improved to .373 in 2021 (with mostly the same players). Build an offensive machine and the threes get easier.

But what's the offensive machine we're building? We know what kind of offense we had with Ayo, and we're all aware of our "everything works through Kofi" offense from last year (with Jacob Grandison as the "maestro"). This year was, uh, "let Terrence and Matt do a bunch of stuff"?

So now next year - what's our offense? If the goal is to score, say, 75 points in an NCAA Tournament game (we've averaged 58 ppg the last three years), how do we get there? What's our plan? What type of roster do we need to establish an offensive identity?

This is where Brad Underwood will earn his money in the next few weeks. Which players stay, which players leave, and what can he find in the portal? By the time summer workouts begin, we need to know that the 2024 team is on its way to fixing our offensive woes.

Hopefully with hydraulic cables connected directly from coach to player.


rfowler on March 17, 2023 @ 05:54 AM

Great analysis! I think losing Coach Gentry to Gonzaga has contributed to our offensive woes in recent seasons. I love our current assistants, but I am not seeing any kind of offensive maestros among the bunch. Coach Underwood has done great things since he arrived, but I keep thinking about the Chicago Bulls situation where Doug Collins did great things, but the Bulls needed Phil Jackson to become truly elite.

ATOillini on March 17, 2023 @ 07:07 AM

Winning without a competent point guard who sets the tone for the entire offense is a lot to ask. Actually, it’s basically impossible. I, for one, underestimated the loss of Skyy. Watching the various unsuccessful attempts yesterday (felt like Dainja was the only Illini who didn’t give it a try) drove that point home.

The post game videos of the orange escalator waterfall in Vegas will always be the highlight of this season for me. The fan base was giddy at that moment. Me too.

Illiniboat on March 17, 2023 @ 07:17 AM

I think Skyy was correlation not causation. He was getting targeted on D, he couldn't make a shot, couldn't get by anyone and was being significantly outplayed by Epps and Harris. For the record, I don't think his knee was right, but I'm not sure he does much better at Louisville. They're a mess.

gordyhulten on March 17, 2023 @ 06:29 PM

Per KenPom, Clark was our second best 3FG%, we'll behind Goode and better than Mayer and Shannon. Shooting wasn't his problem, IMO. Defense and TOs were his issue (and his unwillingness to play through adversity).

Shemp89 on March 17, 2023 @ 09:44 AM

The orange waterfall was unquestionably the highlight of the season. My wife called it her best in-person sports moment ever.

sirrah1912 on March 17, 2023 @ 08:14 AM

A big problem I noticed, was we didn't have "The Man". We had some guys who wanted or thought they were "The Man" but couldn't consistently be that guy. When TSJ found "The Man", we were pretty difficult to stop. When Mayer had his "The Man" moments, we were competitive. But too many times they tried to put on "The Man" boots and failed miserably. It seemed like Hawkins never really wanted to be "The Man" but showed maybe he should have been. Hopefully Hawk returns and assumes the role of "The Man". Otherwise, I'm not sure who we have that can step up big when we need a shot.

Not having a PG was painful too. Many times we would get the defensive rebound and it seemed like the rebounder never really knew who to throw the ball to causing us to sputter before we even crossed half court.

Monster failed Mayer. He definitely seemed like he needed one or two of them these last two games.

ditkanate on March 17, 2023 @ 08:43 AM

I think maybe the cable was disconnected but Brad just kept yanking on it anyway in the hopes that it would somehow work. Mayyyybe if I pull it just one more time. crosses fingers Nope.
My worry with Underwood is that he doesn't seem to have a system or principles he truly believes in, other than indefinable toughness and grit / intensity. He came here with the press everything defense / shoot quick offense. It didn't work at all so he scrapped it. Then, as you described, we had the Ayo / Kofi years and those teams worked but flamed out in the tourney. But it kind of felt like we weren't actually playing the type of ball Brad wanted to, we played that way by necessity based on our roster.
Then going into this year, Brad supposedly builds a team more to his liking with interchangeable parts so we can switch everything on D and play five out offense. And then THAT gets scrapped midseason after it doesn't work. I just don't know what kind of basketball Brad actually believes in and wants to play. Does he? Is that even important in today's game, or is it better to collect talent and try to mold your style to whatever your roster ends up looking like?

I'm rambling. Anyway, let's see how this offseason goes. Sigh.

purcy51 on March 18, 2023 @ 03:23 PM

If you heard Hawkins' and TSJ's post game pressers I think it becomes pretty apparent as to what happened to our offense this year. Both said the team didn't run the plays BU called. I'm not sure when/where it started and who specifically on the team wasn't listening. I inferred from these comments that these two in particular were frustrated by it. However, I think that explains our lack of offensive identity. Brad tried to go back to the "pinch post offense" but certain players had other ideas.

jdl on March 17, 2023 @ 09:32 AM

I didn't like this analogy at first but you were right and you did get there. Yes, this seems to be Brad trying to "fix the NCAA problem" with a new team that he didn't know how to truly coach. Another mid season "reboot" for a number of reasons and it sure looks like another "reload" from the portal in the offseason. Like I responded on twitter, he needs to figure out what his base is and build to that instead of flying by the seat of his pants again.

1978fan on March 17, 2023 @ 10:05 AM

6-22 from beyond the arc, 17-26 free throw….absolutely unacceptable and if you think about unbelievable. DIi shooting from a DI team.

RonSwanson on March 17, 2023 @ 10:07 AM

Dear Coach Underwood and Staff,

I know you're not going to read this but I want to put it out in the Universe nonetheless. Please recruit a real point guard - not a combo guard who can play point, but a real point guard who runs the offense and looks for others to shoot before he does.

Lastly, please don't ever recruit a veteran transfer as apathetic (and selfish and lazy) as Mayer in the future. My only positive I took away from yesterday is that I won't ever have to watch him play hoops again.

pbillini70 on March 17, 2023 @ 10:49 AM

Robert hit the nail on the head with "what is the Illinois offense." I've watched every game this season and I'm still scratching my head trying to figure that out. That's what leads to 15-20 point deficits and trying to get back into the game with mad scrambles on defense which almost always fall short. First job next year: get a true point guard who can shoot and pass or next season will be more of the same.

IlliniJoe81 on March 17, 2023 @ 11:23 AM

That’s a lot of words to say we don’t have a point guard.

GilThorpe on March 17, 2023 @ 01:09 PM

I hate to say it, but I'm a little relieved the season is over. There was just no way we were advancing to the SS even if we did win yesterday.
We did so many things poorly, we were difficult to watch. Not sure why we seem to be so poor in executing sound fundamental basketball. Stuff young players should learn in middle school.

At some point, if it never changes , its the coaches' fault

danny on March 17, 2023 @ 03:11 PM

My favorite time of year as an Illini fans starts today n goes until Labor Day weekend (start of football season). Time to relax n hope.

AGig21 on March 17, 2023 @ 05:03 PM

I checked the following a couple of times and if I'm wrong it can't be by much. First weekend winning teams combined 3 point shooting was 122-330 for 37%. The highest being PSU at 59% (yikes). These numbers include 5 winning teams that shot under 30% but still managed to win. Here they are and with the opponent they defeated:

Houston 25% beat N. Kentucky 15%

Princeton 16% beat AZ 19%

SD State 25% beat Charleston 21%

Tenn 25% beat Louisiana 33%

Arkansas 27% US 27%

If you remove the 5 winning teams which shot under 30%, the remaining 11 winning teams shot 103-246 for 42%.

Shooters, shooters, shooters.

iluvrt on March 18, 2023 @ 04:15 PM

After a 7-2 January, this team was a slog. Unwatchable. I don't believe it's all "They didn't run the plays Underwood wanted". How the hell is that allowed all season? The players schlepped because there was no plan for offense.

Robert on March 18, 2023 @ 05:14 PM

What are you referencing with the quotes here? It's not something I wrote...

HailToTheOrange on March 19, 2023 @ 01:01 AM

this was referencing purcy51's comments above...

purcy51 on March 19, 2023 @ 11:38 AM

I don't know how it's allowed to happen. I'm just going by what the players said. There was a lot more going on behind the scenes than we were allowed to know. Melendez even said they didn't follow the game plan. Not sure if that was only in reference to Thursdays game, but it sounded more like he was talking about the season in it's entirety.

on July 3, 2023 @ 03:59 PM


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