In Like A Lamb

Mar 2, 2023

I'll just start with a list. And maybe I should just start and end with the list. The list will speak for itself. It's March now, we all know what March means for college basketball fans, and this Illinois fan would like to tell you where we stand as we enter March in 2023:

  • Luke Goode broke his foot in October.
  • The flu bug ran through the team in December.
  • Skyy Clark left the team in January.
  • RJ Melendez violated team rules and was suspended.
  • Terrence Shannon suffered a concussion and missed two games.
  • Strep throat ran through the team in February.
  • Matthew Mayer experienced "caffeine poisoning" and missed two days of practice.
  • Jayden Epps suffered a concussion at practice which caused him to be held overnight at a hospital.

And that's not mentioning the result of a single game. Beat Texas? Lose to 11-17 Ohio State. Beat UCLA? Lose to Missouri by 22. Sweep Wisconsin? Swept by Penn State.

It's now March, the month where you're hoping to make a big run, and yesterday gave us "Mayer drank too many Monster energy drinks so he hasn't been at practice and Jayden Epps was in the hospital overnight after a concussion." What is even happening right now? I get that injuries and suspensions happen everywhere (well, not at Alabama), but this borders on the absurd.

Thankfully, the school released a statement at 5:30 pm yesterday saying that Epps "going down at practice", as Brad Underwood had put it, was related to a concussion (with as vague as Brad Underwood was at the press conference, I was in a full panic that he had some cardiac event or something). To clear up what I tweeted at the time, I had quote-tweeted something from Fox Illinois' Dante Furco where he was quoting Mayer, talking about Epps, saying they weren't sure if "he'll play basketball again". Furco then deleted that tweet because he hadn't written out the quote correctly. Here's his correction:

I didn't delete my tweet (even though the quote tweet inside had been deleted) because I feel like the point held. The actual quote: "We don't know if he's going to have to quit basketball". Maybe Mayer is just wildly speculating there, but the way Brad Underwood spoke of the mood at practice after Epps "went down" (and then his overnight at the hospital with his family being called into town), this seems to be a very serious situation. Well beyond just "they tested him after contact to the head and it revealed he had a concussion."

Which means that we enter March in a completely different place than the last two years. I'm not comparing rosters there -- we just had back-to-back 1st Team All Americans, and without those two, we were always going to take a step back -- but in 2021 and 2022 we entered March with most everything put behind us:

+ Rough start to the Big Ten schedule in 2021 and a big drop in the polls after the Maryland and Ohio State home losses but then everything clicked and we rolled into March as the hottest team in the country (climbing all the way to #2 in the polls).

+ Very rough start to 2022 season (Kofi suspension, Curbelo concussion), but then things clicked in February once again. Curbelo returned, Luke and RJ really stepped forward, and we finished February with dagger threes from Trent on back-to-back weekends in the state of Michigan. That led to two home wins in March (and a share of the Big Ten title).

+ 2023 was the third consecutive season where we began 13-5 (it's true - look it up). And, like the two previous seasons, a few of those losses were of the "HOW did we lose that game?" variety. So I think fans were hoping for, maybe expecting, a similar surge. Not a 2021 "climb all the way to #2" surge, but a run through February. After our loss to 11-17 Ohio State on Sunday, however, meaning we're 6-5 since the 13-5 start, the calendar turning to March feels completely different this time.

And when you add in all of the other stuff listed above (no Clark, now no Epps, Mayer hasn't been practicing, etc.), it just feels like we're entering March like a lamb (after back-to-back lions the last two years). And as I type that, I realize that I landed on something here and I now should do what I never do and end the article very abruptly. Ready?

~2021? In like a lion, but went out like a lamb against Loyola.
~2022? In like a lion, but went out like a lamb against Houston.
~2023? In like a lamb, but.........


RonSwanson on March 2, 2023 @ 12:00 PM

Unless these guys learn to share the basketball, play together as a team and not settle for bad shots, the Sweet 16 won't be so sweet for us Illini fans once again.

Competing from the opening tip instead of waiting for the second half to begin would be a refreshing change as well.

Side note: Is the team still pumping iron this late in the season? If so, please stop with the weigh-lifting so these guys can get their shots right. Lifting weights for basketball is meaningless once January rolls around.

jdl on March 2, 2023 @ 01:10 PM

2022 wasn't completely immune to the late season problems. Curbelo never really returned to his form, Melendez missed time with appendicitis, Grandison was pretty much done for the season when he hurt his shoulder late in the PSU game and then came the late season pink eye breakout.

Nothing would really surprise me for the end to this season, but I'm guessing the end will involve falling way behind early in a game, making a rally and then....????

OrangeBlazer on March 2, 2023 @ 02:36 PM

Agreed--the injuries to Grandison and Trent really hurt the team in the Tournament.

And though the late February wins in Michigan last year were fun (and important), that team went 3-3 in the last two weeks of February, alternating wins and losses.

In fact, the notion within our fan base that Underwood is some kind of February wizard doesn't really hold up, outside of 2021. February records under Coach Brad:

2018: 2-6 2019: 4-3 2020: 4-3 2021: 7-1 2022: 5-3 2023: 3-4

You can throw out 2018 and 2021 as the exceptions, but they kind of balance each other out: 25-20 overall in February (or 16-13 without out the two extremes).

(And to be sure, those numbers are taken out of context and don't tell the whole story--2019 felt like a team that had improved dramatically because of the 4-game conference winning streak, for example--but overall the point is that we haven't been world beaters in February other than 2021.)

IlliniJoe81 on March 2, 2023 @ 02:59 PM

The Matt Mayer energy drink story added some context to Brad Underwood being flustered about the inconsistent effort of the team and not having answers. How do you gameplan for something like that?

I was going to advocate for starting Rodgers at PG over Epps (except not wanting to upset his fragile psyche by benching him) so I think in some ways the Epps situation won't hurt us much on the court this week. We do have guard depth issues but at least we won't take as many 3's.

There is a certain "snakebit" vibe we have vis-a-vis NCAA Tournament runs. So many lesser teams have caught fire and made surprise runs in March and it's never Illinois. Winning a 5/4 game or a 9/8 game is our idea of an "upset win."

Our fanbase is still not over the Loyola upset and won't be until we're in the Sweet 16. We were thinking Final Four in 2021 and we can be happy racking up regular season Big Ten wins but once the NCAA Tournament gets close the fanbase gets way too uptight.

I have no idea what to expect for the rest of the month. There's actually a scenario where we lose out and get the 11 seed in the BTT. If we lose to Minnesota in the BTT we could actually still miss the NCAA Tournament altogether. At this point, I'll be happy with anything better than that.

HiggsBoson on March 2, 2023 @ 08:41 PM

I'm so old I can remember when we thought this team was going to be good.

I've thought for awhile that there was something seriously wrong in the locker room and the Mayer caffeine poisoning episode confirms it.

Speak Your Mind

Please login or register to post comments on the IlliniBoard.

Post Preview