I like finding common threads. If there was a game show called Common Thread, I'd win. "Find the common thread between Serena Williams and Ricky Gervais". Both vegans, I win. The common thread between Lovie Smith & Brad Underwood? They love turnovers.
Like, LOVE turnovers. Are willing to sacrifice other important parts of the game just for the chance at those sweet, sweet turnovers. We've been over this before, but for a quick refresher...
In basketball, Illinois' defense last year could best be described as a layup line. Opponent's field goal percentage? 47.2%, good for 313th out of 351 Division I teams (with Marquette being the only major conference team lower than Illinois on the list). Why were the numbers so bad? Because Underwood's defense pressures the ball up top. When done correctly, there are turnovers and fast breaks. When it goes wrong, there's a layup line. So while the Illini were 313th nationally in field goal percentage defense, we were 5th nationally in turnovers forced (and the highest rated major conference team in the turnover category). The concept: put up 15 more shots than your opponent because you turned them over so much. Then, even if they shoot 45% and you shoot 38%, you win because your opponent had so many empty possessions.
In football, Illinois' defense this year could best be described as a layup line. Yards given up so far? 507.8 per game, good for 122nd place out of 129 FBS teams. So how is it that we won our first two games and then were right there (leading by 12 in one, trailing by 4 in the other) at the beginning of the fourth quarter of our last two games? Turnovers. It's the thing Lovie's defense was built to do. Turnovers gained so far? We're tied for 12th nationally. Interceptions? We're tied for 2nd nationally. (Yes, tied for second. In the country. Illinois. Interceptions.) The concept: keep everything in front of you, don't give up any big plays (oops), bend but don't break, and as you're making your opponent put together a 13 play drive, take the ball away on several of those drives (and if you don't take it away, give up 3 and not 7). Then, even if they put up 510 yards to your 380, you have a chance to win because you won the turnover battle and turned those turnovers into free points. If yards are even or you're ahead? You win easily.
So the plan in Champaign, I guess, is Turnover U. The ball? It's ours. I can see t-shirts for our road trips: We're Going To Take Our Ball And Go Home.
The fear? We'll, pretty much exactly what we've seen on the football field for 28 games and on the basketball court for 32. We don't force the turnovers, the game is over. Or, worse yet, we do force the turnovers but our opponent just laughs and scores more points.
Remember the Michigan State basketball game last year? We forced 25 turnovers (twenty five!). And we only had ten turnovers ourselves, which meant that we put up 65 shots to Michigan State's 44. We win, right?
Nope. Michigan State shot 68.2% FOR THE GAME and won by 13. We put up 65 shots and made 28. They put up 44 shots and made 30 (!!). And because we spent so much time reaching for the ball (you know, to force the 25 turnovers), we put them on the free throw line 28 times (we only shot 14 free throws). We played our game, we took the ball away, and we lost by 13 because of so many easy baskets at the rim while our team was out pressuring the ball at the top of the key.
Hey, that kinda sounds like the football game on Friday night. We stop two drives with turnovers - one with an interception, one with a forced fumble - and at the end of the third quarter, even though Penn State has 438 yards to our 299, the score is 28-24 mostly because of those turnovers. The system is working. We're in a game we have no business being in because we're winning the turnover battle. ...And then Penn State puts up 35 points on our hapless defense in the fourth quarter and we all realize that a defense that bends AND breaks is rather useless.
So it's risky, this Turnover U thing. If you don't force the turnover in basketball, it might mean a dozen free layups and a 20 point loss. If you don't force the turnover in football (and ESPECIALLY if you give up big plays in a defense designed to prevent big plays), it means 63-24. When it's working, it's suffocating for opponents. South Florida was clearly frustrated by the Illinois defensive scheme. Especially when Del'Shawn Phillips picked off the pass and nearly returned it to the house just before halftime. USF had all these yards at halftime and only one touchdown to show for it. We can totally be annoying when it's working. But we can totally be a sieve when it's not. See: the 2017/18 school year.
Now, to be fair, player type comes into play here. To make his defense work, Brad Underwood needs long athletes (like Ayo Dosunmu and Tevian Jones) and rim protectors (the theory, at least, of what Samba Kane can be, although he's certainly a project). Which is why you'll see eight newcomers on the court this winter. In his second year, it's his first chance to put the kind of athletes on the court that he wants. They'll just be wildly young.
Hey, speaking of wildly young, Illini football! Same thing over there, just a year further down the road. In HIS second year, Lovie did what Brad Underwood is doing right now - a bunch of new players and they're all going to play. We saw how that looked last fall (and has looked so far this September), and I think that's what basketball will look like this winter. Year two will see barely any junior or seniors on the court/field. And a whole bunch of freshmen.
Will it work? Well, I've always been a "five full years for football, but that's cut to maybe 2.5 for basketball before you know" guy, so that's January 2020 for Underwood and November 2020 for Lovie. The plan is for football to be good in 2019 and great in 2020, and the plan for basketball (I think) is to have a youth year this year and then a "wow, what a huge step forward" year in 2019/20 (hopefully with some of these visitors from last weekend in uniform).
At that point, the plan is to see Turnover U in action. The basketball team is dominating the "shots attempted" chart by forcing so many turnovers and the football team is dominating the field position numbers because they keep grabbing interceptions at the 36 yard line. Short fields on the football field, easy breakaways on the basketball court, all because we force so many turnovers. (And if it doesn't work, well, we'll just see more layup lines and "will Penn State get to 750 yards of offense?" games until Lovie and Underwood head on out of town.)
So for now, I cling to Turnover U. That's the plan. That's how we get back.
Please, I want to get back.