Everything always feels better after a win, and the Illinois men’s basketball team should feel pretty good after their 82-72 win over Notre Dame Monday night. While the Irish are not a very good basketball team, it was Illinois’ best showing against a high major team to this point of the season. Even more importantly than the win, was the culture that seems to be evident from that win.
Last Monday after an embarrassing thrashing from the Cincinnati Bearcats, most Illinois basketball fans were questioning the fight and grit of this team. The Illini seemed to get beat for every loose ball and contested rebound. Quite frankly, it was a bad look for a program that claims to be a bunch of everyday guys. Even Coach Underwood seemed at a loss for what he had witnessed after raving about the culture that the team had seemed to establish. The following night Illinois slugged it’s way to an 8 point victory over a mediocre Kansas St. team that felt like more of a relief than a win worth celebrating. The Illini still looked disjointed and their two primary ballhandlers both finished the game with significant injuries.
Entering last night, I don’t think anyone outside the program had any idea of what to expect on the court. That sentiment might have even included people inside the program. It was hard not to worry about how DaMonte Williams would hold up running the point for nearly 40 minutes against a major D-1 opponent when Curbelo was not dressed and Frazier was not in the starting lineup. While Illinois got off to a solid start offensively, it was crazy to Frazier enter the game so early in the first half. Then in typical Trent Frazier fashion he ignited the crowd and a run with a steal on the defensive end that led to his own layup. He then capped a his gutty and unexpected first half performance with a big step back three in the final minutes of the half, but he wasn’t the only everyday guy to show up last night.
Senior wing Jacob Grandison hadn’t seen his teammates and coaches since returning from Kansas City, but he calmly stepped out against an ACC opponent and knocked down 3 three-pointers, grabbed 4 rebounds, and dished out 4 assists. Turns out he might have been healthier than some of his teammates who had been practicing. After the game it was revealed that DaMonte Williams had been dealing with the same flu bug as most of the team and didn’t start the second half because he was spending a majority of the halftime break puking. Yet that didn’t stop him from grabbing 6 rebounds while dishing out 5 assists while only committing 2 turnovers. That is leadership.
That is the kind of culture that Frazier, Williams, and Grandison are fighting to pass down to the talented underclassmen, and you can already start to see the evidence of that culture on the court. Freshman Luke Goode is likely never going to be a star for Illinois, but he is going to fill that DaMonte Williams role next year. He is always in the right spot defensively, a leader during breaks, and not afraid to take the big shot or make the gritty play. That everyday guy culture showed when he went flying for an offensive rebound and ended up tying up a Notre Dame player for a jump ball. His tenacity and refusal to give up on a possession was a true everyday guy moment. Another freshman, RJ Melendez, got his first career start and made a couple early threes that jumpstarted the Illinois offense. At the time it seemed like a nice moment for the freshman, but it is even more magnified when you find out that he rolled an ankle during shoot-around and his availability for the game was in question. It may be reading a little too much into things, but it seems that the everyday guy culture and tone set by the seniors is impacting the freshman, and future foundation, in a very positive way. We even saw Coleman Hawkins get off to a frustrating start with two quick fouls, but his length, defense, and rebounding down the stretch was key as the Illinois offense started to sputter.
The offensive droughts down the stretch seem to be a reoccurring issue early on for the Illini. That can be attributed to the lack of continuity and Curbelo’s absence, but it cost them a game they had in hand at Marquette, and it nearly put them in serious peril after building a 16 point second half lead against Notre Dame. This team seems like it is going to struggle against teams with athletic length on the perimeter as they lack multiple options that appear to be able to create their own shot. Hutcherson’s inability to see consistent minutes early in the season due to injuries is slowly the development and D-1 game experience of one of the few guys that has some slashing ability on the roster. Melendez has shown the ability to slash and get to the rim, but I don’t think Underwood is comfortable playing the freshman big minutes and asking him to be an offensive creator at this point in his career.
Monday night was a nice preview of what could and should be a very good shooting team. Illinois seemed to have really good floor spacing, which led to a lot of open looks from the perimeter. Early on it seemed like the Illini were trying to force feed to ball in the post to Kofi when the post-entries were being heavily denied and contested. The barrage of early threes seemed to loosen that up. Once Kofi got going, he didn’t become the offensive black hole that he can be at times. He exploited the favorable matchups, but when the double teams came he kicked the ball out which put the defense in scramble mode and often set up great looks for teammates.
For this Illinois team to reach its full potential, the formula for success is going to have to rely on hitting a lot of jumpers until the floor opens up for Kofi. In the late moments of close games when things rely more on playmaking ability than fluent offense, this team seems to have a glaring weakness at the end of November. However, after Monday’s win over Notre Dame, Illinois fans and Brad Underwood should feel really pleased about the everyday guy culture that is a pillar of this program. While I’m not sure who can and will be able to practice today for the team, there seems to be little doubt that there will be a group of gritty players ready to take the floor for the conference opener Friday night. And while this team is going to be a frustrating roller coaster until everyone gets back to being healthy, practicing, and settled into roles, it seems that we won’t have to question this team’s character and everyday guy mentality anymore this season like we did after the Cincinnati loss.