The Waiting (Is The Hardest Part)

Mar 6, 2023

Editor's Note: The comments aren't working on any of the Tyler posts anymore. There's a whole site design change coming soon which should fix all of the website and subscription issues, but until that goes live, I'll have to publish the Tyler posts if you want to comment down below. So even though the byline says "Robert" here, this was written by Tyler.

He covered the game in West Lafayette today, and here's his write-up:

Sometime after my time in Champaign, I remember hearing Coach Henson talk basketball. I forget the exact circumstances - might have been on the radio with Loren Tate - but something he mentioned kind of offhand has always stuck in my memory bank. He was dishing on the randomness of the college basketball season and how there were always a few games each year during which the game simply takes on a mind of its own. A couple of times each year where everything goes right and couple where everything goes wrong.

As a coach you might just as well throw the scouting report directly in the trash during these games because you have absolutely nothing to do with the outcome and are simply watching like every other fan in the building. It was all the other games in between where you would make your money.

For example, during the 1988-89 season I think of blitzing LSU on the road 127-100 and the 118 we hung on Iowa in Champaign countered by an inexplicable 20 point loss to a terrible Wisconsin team. I'll spare you 30 plus years of examples, but of a more recent vintage, in 2021 you had the Ayo-less dismantling of Michigan in Ann Arbor balanced out by a shocking loss at home to Maryland. Last year we shot 60% from three in hammering eventual NCAA tournament team Rutgers by 35 just two weeks after a bizarre 20 point loss at the hands of Cincinnati.

This year, we've certainly experienced the "other" side of the coin. Blown out by Penn State and Indiana at home while looking helpless in the process and, of course, the Braggin' Rights beatdown at the hands of Mizzou.

Yet, the "everything goes right" game remains elusive. We've seen great individual performances carry us to big wins - Terrence Shannon, Jr. against UCLA, Matthew Mayer against Texas, and Coleman Hawkins against Wisconsin at the SFC come to mind - and we've seen this team play really well in starts and fits, but we've not seen them put it all together for 40 minutes of basketball.

After today, the wait continues. This afternoon against Purdue was a perfect encapsulation of this season so far. The beast and the beauty all rolled up into one.

The Illini were down 11-0 in the time it took for Gene Keady to stand up and sit back down again after being acknowledged on the video board. At the first media timeout we had more turnovers than shot attempts. We even managed to get eventual National Player of the Year Zach Edey in foul trouble - and promptly gave up a 14-2 run with him on the bench. It was a 17 point Purdue lead at the half and Mackey was on full tilt.

That lead would eventually grow to 24, but then, as they have done so frequently this year, this team unplugged from the matrix. Threes started dropping. Coleman Hawkins was smoothly running the point on offense while gamely checking Edey on the other end of the floor. Sencire Harris and Ty Rodgers were turning up the defensive heat. We hung a 40-16 run on Purdue right into the teeth of one of the best atmospheres in all of college basketball. (Seriously, Mackey is fantastic.) For 19 minutes, Illinois was as good as any team in college basketball while pushing a sure fire #1 NCAA tournament seed to the brink in their own building.

So if you want blueprints for this Illinois team - look no further than today's game tape. The recipe for a quick NCAA tournament exit is the first half. 11 first half turnovers, 1-8 from the three point line, and 47 points allowed. Just show a little ball pressure and we turn it over. Pack things into the lane on defense and we'll throw up a bunch of bricks from deep. The first half version of the Illini will gladly hit the snooze button and crawl back under the covers.

On the other hand, the schematic for an improbable Elite 8 run is what you saw in the second half. A balanced scoring attack with both Mayer and TSJ in double figures. Nine assists on fourteen made shots. 43% from three. All while holding Purdue to 29% shooting without a single made three pointer.

You might want to think today's second half could be a springboard into the post-season starting next week with the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago, but this team has struggled to sustain good vibes all season.

They failed to capitalize on the positive mojo coming back from Vegas and from New York City. They righted the ship after the Mizzou embarrassment and an 0-3 start in the Big Ten with four straight conference wins - but got stomped by Indiana at home. Then, hey, three straight wins again...followed by losing three of four. Then the stirring comeback against Northwestern at home followed by maybe the most lackluster effort of the year against Ohio State. This team is absolutely momentum averse.

But man, you watch them play for extended stretches like they did in the second half today and you can't help but dream a little bit. Because when this team is good they are damn good. Borderline erotic, if you will.

Brad Underwood wants to believe - or at least he wants all of us to. He said after today's game that he feels his guys are playing their best basketball of the season right now. At the very least it seems like he has settled on the rotation and style of play that gives his team the most juice on both ends of the floor.

He has mostly pivoted back to the "small-ish" ball/five out look on offense while keeping his defense more straight up compared to the "switch everything" approach of November and December. He has been leaning on a lineup of Hawkins, TSJ, Mayer, RJ Melendez, and Rodgers to do the heavy lifting in recent weeks - especially with Jayden Epps sidelined.

There is no true point guard among those five, but we've been quite effective on offense as a "dribble entry" spread team opposed to a point guard dominated ball screen style. And again that may be as much out of necessity as anything with the status of Epps being as unknown as it is moving forward.

And so, yes I still remain hopeful for that unconsciously good game from this team. A full 40 minutes of such anyway. Of course, one such game does not equate to a sustained post-season run, but if they come out on Thursday and blow the doors off of Penn State maybe that finally builds some genuine momentum. In a season that's been teetering on the edge from start to finish, this team needs to establish some secure footing.

Or even better - Underwood is right about his team and they use next week in Chicago to gain that footing and that unconscious game comes when you need it most in the NCAA tournament.

Or maybe I'm just wishcasting. Maybe the reality is that after 31 games we are exactly what the record says we are - a middling NCAA tournament team that can't shoot the ball on a collision course with an 8/9 seed game and a "one and done" as the best case scenario.

But it's hard not to see the second half performances against Northwestern, Michigan (mostly), and Purdue and hope that some roots are starting to take hold.

So I have no choice but to keep waiting until I can't anymore.


IlliNYC on March 6, 2023 @ 09:40 AM

3 points:

  1. Can't most/all of this season's results and inconsistency be drawn as a direct line to the lack of any point guards on the roster? I mean, college basketball is a guards game and we don't really have any true pg on the roster--and havn't since Clarke left. (Friendly reminder that this team's best wins came with Clarke as a starter).

After those Groce years, I hope BU has learned a lesson about going into a season so thin at the most important position on the court.

  1. My god the athleticism on this team is off the charts. That Shannon chase down block was amazing. And--it may have been the angle--but when Harris broke up that lob it looked like he was reaching above the top of the backboard.

  2. (Throat clearing) Refs didn't lose this game...but they kind of did. That should've been a flagrant for the shove Eddy put on Myers--two hand shoves against a vulnerable player could really cause a bad injury. Shannon was clearly fouled on the drive...and to follow that no call with a soft off-ball call is awful.

Giovantischixstripz on March 6, 2023 @ 01:35 PM

I think the team would certainly be better with a true PG, but I don't think Clark was the answer to that. The team was still inconsistent when he was playing. Yes, they had their best wins, but also some of the ugliest losses, and then went through their most consistent stretch right after he left.

22 on March 7, 2023 @ 12:33 AM

Great piece! - Bryce

Duce20 on March 7, 2023 @ 12:13 PM

Clark was a TO machine and you can see the dramatic decline in TO pg once he left the team. I think he had 9 TOs in our two biggest wins.

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