Raised expectations make failures hurt just a little bit more. The Illinois basketball program has been the best in Big Ten play over the last three years, but thanks to a pandemic and two second round seeding upsets, the Illini have managed only two NCAA tournament wins during one of the greatest three year stretches in program history. For a tradition-rich program that couldn’t get out of the bottom tier of the Big Ten for most of a decade, it feels like a major swing and a miss coming off back to back seasons with Big Ten Championships and first team All-Americans. However, life goes on, and Illinois basketball will move forward in good hands.
The program rests in the hands of Coach Brad Underwood, who has gone from savior to suddenly possibly being a victim of his own success. A couple of years ago, all Illinois fans wanted was to be back in a position to feel hurt in March, and now that we’re here and we’re hurting, too many people want to blame the coach who got us here. Losses in March always draw more criticism for coach’s teams that don’t quite meet expectations, but I think Illinois fans really need to look at the expectations that were put on this team and if they were realistic.
All season long, this team battled injuries, illness, suspensions, and anything else you can imagine. They had very frustrating losses, and a few games where they were almost able to knock off one of the country’s top teams, but in reality, this team had a number of flaws. Illinois earned a 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, despite only beating one other top 4 NCAA seeded team. This team always felt like they were capable of more if they could get everyone healthy and in rhthym, but by March you are what you are, and this Illinois team was a very good team that struggled to beat really good teams all season long. I don’t think anyone is surprised they lost to Houston, but it doesn’t make the loss any easier. Unfortunately, as the season wore on, the recipe to beat Illinois became more clear, and they were cooked by it again today. The flaws in the roster were too much against really good teams, but it would appear those things are being addressed in recruiting.
Speaking of recruiting, most programs don’t get to set high expectations without having high level talent. However, you could argue that Illinois has gotten more out of its talent under Brad Underwood than most programs. When you look at Illinois primary starting lineup this season, only one of those recruits was a consensus top 100 guy coming out of high school. It is not to diminish the guys Illinois had, it is more of a credit to how Brad Underwood put pieces together and identified guys that could get the program to where it is. Underwood developed a new system to get the most out of the guys he had, but also to make sure that things went through Kofi Cockburn. Now as Kofi seems likely to move on and the two guards that played more games than anyone else in Illinois history are out of eligibility, the program seems like it is at the first crossroads under Underwood. However, Illinois fans should have confidence that as the roster changes, the coaching staff is bringing in the talent to keep getting back to this position and winning championships.
Kofi Cockburn is a once in a generation, maybe a lifetime, type of big man at Illinois. If you’re drafting an all-time Illinois team, it might be tempting to start with him first because of all the great guards to choose from, but there has never been someone like him. However, Kofi does present some limitations to what Illinois can do on both ends of the floor. Offensively, he isn’t a pick and pop threat, so it can often be difficult to lift interior shot blockers to create driving lanes for penetrating guards. We saw teams pack it on on the Illini and dare some of their guys to take wide open shots, but more on that later. Defensively, Illinois chose not to use Kofi to hedge or level off screens. Instead, they routinely played drop coverage on ball screens with Cockburn. I didn’t have a problem with that defensively because I didn’t see much benefit in risking your best player picking up fouls over 20 feet from the basket. Plus, Kofi has shown improvement with his lateral movement, but if he gets caught in a switch he struggles to keep guards from getting downhill. It’s not a knock on Kofi or the coaches, but we saw how that drop coverage led to opposing teams that had big guards killing Illinios in the mid-range game. Modern analytics say that’s the way to try and make teams beat you, but Illinois just didn’t seem to have the personnel or trust in Kofi to try and adjust how teams attacked them in those high pick and roll sets with Cockburn’s man coming out to set the screen.
The other glaring issue for Illinois defensively was the smaller guards. No player may have been tougher than Trent Frazier, but all the quickness and added strength in the world couldn’t help him overcome the size mismatch he oftentimes faced on both ends of the court. Plummer and Curbelo are also very dynamic players, but there are limitations due to their size on the defensive end of the floor. Ultimately though, it was the offensive side of the ball that came back to let them down in March, but those issues seem to be quickly fixable with the type of recruits they are adding.
Offensively, teams oftentimes recognized that Illinois wanted to play through the post at all times. The problem with that was that there were frequently times when Illinois would have 3 guys on the court that shot 30% or less from three on the court at the same time. Illinois best playmaker, Andre Curbelo, is unfortunately their worst three point shooter. When Illinois would get into a half-court game with Kofi on the floor, it would be difficult for Curbelo to find space and driving lanes to attack as teams would sag off him and drop off Kofi. When he was on the court with Damonte Williams and/or Coleman Hawkins, the lane became even more of a traffic jam, which inhibited his game even more. When Andre Curbelo was at his most effective during the season, it was often with Jacob Grandison and Alfonso Plummer on the court. Those two guys spaced the floor, and allowed Kofi to turn and seal when Curbelo would turn a corner.
The one thing that I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about more is the loss of Jacob Grandison. He didn’t play at all in the last game against Iowa, which the Illini were fortunate to survive. Then he didn’t play in the Big Ten tournament, which was a first game loss, and was a shadow of himself in the very limited action he saw in the NCAA tournament. When you have a team that others love to pack it in against to take away Kofi, losing your best shooter in terms of percentage drastically changes the look of the offense. In hindsight, it might have been wiser to get Melendez more opportunities, but he himself was working himself back from an appodectomy. Therefore, the loss of Grandison’s shooting ability really limited what this Illinois team could do offensively.
People that are talking about Underwood and his lack of adjustmests aren’t looking at what Illinois likely had to do to get more offense with this personnel. How would Brad Underwood have been viewed if he sat Kofi for long stretches to create more driving lanes for Melendez and Curbelo to slash to the basket? It would have certainly likely gotten more looks for Frazier and Plummer, but would they have been able to convert them over the lengthy Houston Cougars? Ultimately, Underwood chose to keep staying with the offense and personnel that won him a Big Ten title, and can you blame him? Illinois still had lots of good looks, but they are predictable offensively, as most teams would be with a mountain in the middle. Illinois needed some of the guys that didn’t shoot an incredibly high percentage from three to make jumpshots today, and unfortunately, they couldn’t.
The bright spot for Illinois seems to be that Illinois is stacking recruits and personnel that can make them a much different team in the future. Along with all other Illinois, I personally hope Kofi Cockburn returns, because if he does Illinois will firmly find itself right back in the Top 25 and upper tier of the Big Ten next season. However, there seems to be a lot of pieces that can get Illinois right back in that spot even without Kofi, as early as next season.
Now that Illinois has established itself as a desirable place for top recruits, Brad Underwood and his staff can get a bit more picky with who they recruit. They don’t have to take pieces and transfers that might be limited in one area of their game or slighly undersized. Next year, Illinois will only have one ‘undersized’ guard in Andre Curbelo. And without Kofi clogging up the middle and a full offseason to get stronger and more reps with his shot, I’d expect Curbelo to have a great offensive season. The Illini brought in Omar Payne as a pick and roll type of big man to pair with Curbelo’s skill set. Kofi’s return really seemed to styme Payne, and he never seemed to gain any sort of traction on either end of the court. He seemed very disengaged defensively because he didn’t seem to ever think about having to play extended minutes. The staff also brought in top 100 big man Dain Dainja, who is also a big man that can help space the floor. Coleman Hawkins is already a big with a similar skill set, so attacking guards like Curbelo and Melendez, along with recruits like Jayden Epps, Sincere Harris, and Ty Rodgers could really take advantage of what should be a much more open floor. We saw how good Curbelo was with Ayo Dosunmu as a driving threat, so next year Illinois get back to having multiple guys on the court at the same time that can break down a defense, without having the lane filled with traffic. If Kofi does return, you love the idea of Illinois adding more shooters with length to their lineup, so they aren’t quite as limited at one end of the court as they were at times this year.
The first weekend exits from the tournament are really frustrating, especially for a fanbase that has been frustrated for a really long time. I’d argue that Illinois fans wouldn’t be nearly as disappointed with this loss if last year’s team had made it past the first weekend. We would be upset, but by in large fans would be more open to seeing the limitations of this team. Last year’s NCAA tournament failure put more pressure on an Illinois team that wasn’t nearly as complete as the one before it. It’s not fair to the coaches or the players. Throughout the course of the season, we saw some games that gave Illinois fans of a run past the first weekend, but down the stretch we saw games that indicated the second weekend should have not been a lofty expectation.
The great thing about Illinois basketball fans are their passion, and it’s also at times the worst thing about them. Brad Underwood gets that, and he embraces that. Don’t forget the struggles that Jay Wright went through at Villanova before he broke through to an elite level. Illinois fans would have been beside themselves had Underwood gone back home and taken the Kansas State job, and I hope the ones criticizing him today remember that. This program is in great shape, and the big breakthrough isn’t far away. The roster is steadily adding guys who have next level size and skill-sets, and that coaching staff will continue to develop them into high level players like they did with the guys that weren’t quite as highly recruited.
It’s okay to feel disappointed, Illinois fans, but big things are on the horizon with this program.