Smile Politely

Craggs & Leitch talk Illini Hoops thus far: Is this a tournament team or not?

From: Will Leitch

To: Tommy Craggs

In my preview piece here for Smile Politely, I noted that despite all the expectations on this team, probably the most talented of the Underwood and Groce eras, and despite some high profile love from Dick Vitale and Lanny Davis’ son, the general consensus outside our little desperate bubble here is that this team was hardly a lock for the NCAA Tournament. That was a problem, because so much has been poured into this team, and so much faith and trust put into a coach who frankly hasn’t shown much of anything so far, that if they missed the Tournament, this fanbase was going to tear itself apart. It would be like if Lovie Smith had gone 2-10 again this season, except people actually care about basketball. We’d all be that angry old farmer from Trilla calling into the WDWS postgame show. This team had a presumed NBA lottery pick, veterans in the backcourt, a coup recruit who’s massive and exactly what we all claimed was the only thing missing in 2018-19 and of course Georgi B, an Instagram influencer with light feet and a butter touch at the rim. This is what we sat through the last six years for. This was why we stomached all of it. A failure this year would mean the whole garden was diseased. 
And now, after that Miami game… it might be?
I’d love to say that Miami just got hot, that Illinois started out groggy (which we’ve seen several times now) but was talented enough to nearly come all the way back, and that it means something that they never gave up. But I’ve spent the last 10 years dancing that jig as fast as I could. None of that means anything anymore. The only thing that matters is that Illinois just lost at home to a team that’ll be lucky to make the NIT right before they open the Big Ten season against two top five teams. That they’re not going to be on anyone’s Bracketology mockups. That they have to turn the whole thing around entirely just to have a chance to be considered for the tournament. This is the same old shit.
There are lots of culprits here, from the supposed superstar who doesn’t look to me like he has any business in the first round let alone the lottery (living in Athens and seeing Anthony Edwards gives one a clear look at what an ACTUAL lottery pick looks like) to Georgi B still not feeling comfortable having Kofi (who’s the real deal) around, to a rotation that seems to have… six players? But I can’t help but think this all comes down to the coach. Much was made of Underwood switching his defense and style up this year because of Kofi, no longer pressuring constantly on defense and setting all those high-screens and reversals on offense because he has the two studs underneath. He was praised for this, being “flexible” in going away from the only style he’d ever played that had found success and the one that got him hired in the first place. But it’s starting to look like he’s just flailing. He switches to zone at odd intervals, he doesn’t press when it was clear Miami couldn’t handle it and he generally appears lost and befuddled by the mysteries unfolding before him. The recruiting is going well, for now, but we all know that falls apart when the wins don’t come. No one wants to come to a school that never makes the tournament. And right now: This is a team that isn’t making the tournament. That would be seven years. At that point: This is just what Illinois is. Only old shits like us remember anything different. Or care.
Cheer me up, Craggs. You were there Monday night. Is there hope? Or are they going to get smoked by Maryland and Michigan (and Missouri?), and this whole thing falls apart? (Again.)

From: Tommy Craggs

To: Will Leitch

There was a funny moment in the dispiriting first half of the Miami loss, right around where the Hurricanes finished off their 22-2 run. Fans at the State Farm Center so clearly wanted to start booing. You could hear it — not boos, but that sound I associate strongly with Illini home games, that anxious rustling of overalls and old satin varsity jackets in the gray quiet of a mostly filled stadium, just before the band starts murdering that one Chicago song. But people also seemed to understand that there’d be something indecorous about booing eight games into the first promising Illini season since Kendrick Nunn got arrested. And so everyone decided to scream at the refs instead.

A few days later, that’s basically where I stand on the Illini as a whole: There’s a lot not to like right now, but what kind of miserable keening asshole besides you starts rending his garments over a 6-2 start that should’ve been 7-1? (All my garments are pre-rent anyway.) I believe there’s a genuine tournament team somewhere in here. I believe the second half of the Miami game showed it, the way the Illini narrowed themselves to whatever was working well (the high-low with Giorgi and Kofi, the weave action). We are the best offensive rebounding team in the country at the moment, and all those extra possessions will start to count for something once we stop throwing the ball to the other guys. Kofi is the real thing. With Ayo Dosunmu in a funk and Trent Frazier having too readily accepted his tertiary role, Kofi is the only Illini right now who can warp opposing defenses around him. Even when he doesn’t have the ball he creates opportunities for everyone else just by being a large and mobile presence. He made some nice reads in that Miami game, and I’m still a little mystified as to why he spent so much of crunch time on the bench. The defense is a work in progress, but he’s too big and too smart to be a liability on that end for long.

And the coach? I’m generally pretty sick of Brad Underwood’s shit. He was screaming on the sideline when we were up 50 against Lindenwood — psycho behavior that I wish sports culture would condemn as hotly as it goes after players who do funny things after scoring touchdowns. I do think we’re seeing at least some willingness on his part to adapt to his talent. Or maybe you’re right and he’s simply flailing. Whatever the case, the key for me is Ayo and Kofi realizing this team belongs to them and not to the shrieking pink-faced Rotarian on the sideline. Lose well to Maryland, upend Michigan at home, and we’re well on our way to disappointing everyone in the tournament.

Illinois Men’s Basketball faces off against Maryland on Saturday, December 7th at 4 p.m.

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