Illinois basketball fans are some of the most loyal and passion fans of any team in any sport. For many years, I thought it was just myself that over-reacted to the big wins and paced the floors for hours after the disappointing losses. The world of social media has brought all of those emotions from this passionate fanbase to the palm of my hand during and after every game. As I’ve gotten older, I try to separate myself from those fans that take to social media every time something has gone well, or even worse, when things are not going well.
At 2-2, with disappointing losses to Marquette and Cincinnati, things are definitely not going well for the Illini. The collapse down the stretch at Marquette was so shocking that it was hard for most people to even comprehend and summarize. The blame fell onto one player, and the social media buzzards were losing their minds and shamelessly letting young kids feel their wrath, but sanity was going to be restored after a week of practice and the return of our All-American center.
For the first eight minutes of the game Monday night, it looked like all was right in the world again and that Illinois was going to use their stifling defense and dominant force on offense to run away with an easy victory. Then after using his second timeout, Wes Miller devised a scheme, a blueprint, that the Illini are going to have to adjust to or leave their fans disappointed all year. The blueprint displayed by Wes Miller was pretty simple. When Kofi gets the ball in the post, swarm!
While Cockburn spent most of his summer working on expanding his shooting range and defensive foot-speed, the biggest limitation to his offensive game at the college level still showed its ugly head on Monday night. When Kofi touches the ball, there is a high likelihood that one of two things are going to happen: it will be fumbled and ripped away by the defense or he is going up with a shot. To his credit, you want a center that is as physically imposing as Kofi to always have that scorer’s mentally and bulldog mindset when he gets his post touches, but we’ve seen over the years that sometimes that works against the Illinois offense at times. In his first action of year three in Champaign, Kofi still doesn’t seem to have a feel for when and where double teams are coming from and the ability to exit the ball from the post to set up his teammates for better looks.
Now, that is not to place the blame for the Illini’s troubles on Kofi. In fact, it is nightmarish to think about what that game would have looked like offensively without him on the low block in the first half. The first few games against high level Division-1 competition has exposed a number of flaws and questions with this Illinois team that should have us all prepared to accept that this team is still going to be pretty good, but maybe it’s not nearly as good as we thought they were going to be. It’s always easy to feel that way after a really bad loss, but there are some concerns that true basketball fans need to observe with an open mind.
The biggest concern with this team as currently constructed is that Ayo is gone. Anytime you lose a true star your program is likely to take a step back. Unlike the true blue-bloods, guys like that don’t typically stack up after each other at Illinois. It’s why we adore and cherish players like him. It is a big part of the recruiting pitch, especially with in-state kids, come here and win, and you’ll be treated like a hero the rest of your life. Well, unfortunately for this season, Ayo, or nobody like him is walking through those locker room doors and suiting up for the Illini.
Where that causes the biggest issues is with the Illinois offense as it is currently constructed. The last two seasons prior to this one, Illinois often times had three guards with lead guard skills on the floor at the same time. Whether it was Feliz, Frazier, and Dosunmu two years ago, or Frazier, Curbelo, and Dosunmu last year, the Illini could space the floor with their dribble weave action with three guys that could put a lot of pressure on the defense by getting downhill. While Frazier isn’t the greatest finisher at the rim, he can do enough to create some offense for himself and others. This year’s team does not have that third lead guard, and it is hard to see anyone on the current roster growing into one of those roles. When Frazier or Curbelo are not in the game, the Illinois offense looks even more out of sync than it does during the uneven times when they are both out there. The wings that Illinois has are capable of spacing the floor and knocking down shots, but right now they don’t have a wing that plays a slashing style of basketball that is getting significant minutes. DaMonte Williams does a lot of really positive things on the basketball court, but everyone holds their breath when he starts to attack the basket. And unfortunately for Williams, he is no longer sneaking up on teams this year as a guy you can leave open on the perimeter, so he has been forced to create his offense or take contested shots early this season.
Coming into this season, we all were really excited to see a lot of high level shooters in this offense. On paper, it looked like this was going to be the best shooting team of the Underwood era in Champaign, and while it still could be, it’s been pretty ugly out of the gates. Underwood and his staff are going to have to find ways to generate some better looks for their shooters. While Illinois hasn’t shot the ball extremely well, a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that they don’t seem to be getting many great looks. Early in the season against good competition, most of the three point attempts seem to be forced late in the shot clock or contested with minimal offensive movements before the shot is taken. Quite simply, the offensive scheme that was so effective the last couple of years does not seem to be creating the same amount of opportunities for the players as it did the last couple of years. Is that due to lack of continuity in practice as Underwood suggested, or is due to not having all of the pieces this offense needs to really click at a high level? Only time will answer those questions.
The other thing not to overlook with this team, especially on the offensive end, is the upheaval of the coaching staff during the offseason. I don’t think Stephen Gentry got enough credit while he was on staff for innovating the Illinois offense. The first couple of years in Underwood’s tenure, whether it was due to personnel or scheme, were not things of beauty in the half-court. Gentry brought his dribble action concepts to Champaign, and the Illinois half-court offense really got going. Now you have Underwood and two new assistants figuring each other out. It seems that Underwood is still trying to utilize the same offensive concepts as the previous staff, but the question is how familiar are the assistants with the offensive actions, and more importantly, how comfortable are they relaying information to the players during the games? I’m sure coach Frazier and Anderson are still learning about what guys can do in game action and what schemes should be drawn up for certain players, while still trying to digest everything themselves, so I expect there to be a learning curve and some ugly stretches like we have seen.
I wouldn’t be surprised, and I think it would be very beneficial, to see Illinois use some more of Underwood’s spread offense in the coming games. It is hard not to envision how effective Coleman Hawkins could be with his passing, driving, and shooting skills in the pinch-post. Leron Black had an All-Big Ten type season playing out of that spot during Underwood’s first season, and he had a very similar skill set to Hawkins, minus Hawkins’ ability to drive and see over the top of defenses. Kofi in the pinch-post could also help develop some of his passing skills that might serve him well when he is getting swarmed in the post. The pinch-post could help Illinois guards get the ball into attacking areas more under control to set up kick outs and reversals for open looks which have not been there early in the season. It might also reduce some of the hero ball we’ve seen in stretches early on from Curbelo. Instead of having to create from a stagnant offensive look late in the shot clock, allow him to come off some curl actions that naturally put the defense in a spot where they have to make a decision on how to defend him.
As a lifetime Illinois fan of over forty years, I’ve been through the highs and lows. I know when to stay off social media, and how we can anoint a player as the next big thing after one game or a good stretch at the end of a season. These past two losses have been really aggravating, and quite honestly the lack of effort against Cincinnati looked alarming. Yet, it is hard to think of a time during the Underwood era at Illinois when his teams really clicked during the non-conference schedule. The non-sensical fans will talk about adjustments, or lack thereof, but Underwood’s greatest adjustments are what he does over the course of a season in practices. His teams always seem to be playing their best basketball late in the season, and that is the part of the season most people seem to care about the most. These last two losses have exposed some real flaws on this current team, but the defense has been pretty darn good. This current Illinois squad might not light up the scoreboard quite like the others have in recent years, but their defense will keep them at a high level as the offensive pieces come together. I have confidence that this coaching staff will figure things out offensively, but it still might take a few games. The sad reality for Illinois basketball fans is that this team might end up being very good, but not nearly as good as most of us had hoped for, and in Champaign that often times tends to be the narrative for some of the most passionate fans out there.