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.
- 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?)