Heat Checks and Hail Marys - Much Needed Win Against Wisconsin

Mike Cagley, Co-Host IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular

Cover Photo Credit: Joe Clark, IlliniGuys

January 8, 2023

The Illini came into yesterday’s game versus Wisconsin feeling like it they were in a must win game. Going 0-3 to start the Big Ten conference schedule is a great way to set up that very circumstance. To add to the stress of the ugly Big Ten standings, the Illini also had to deal with freshman PG Skyy Clark taking a break from basketball. That’s a lot of pressure for one of the youngest teams in college basketball to deal with.

The Badgers came to town only looking to make things worse for the Illini. The Badgers wouldn’t have their leading scorer, Tyler Wahl. Wisconsin Coach Greg Gard described Wahl’s ankle injury, “He’s improving, but not ready yet.”

The Illini took care of business by adding much more player and ball movement to their offense, hitting open looks from the 3-point line (Coleman Hawkins hit a career high 6 of 9 from the 3-point line), and cutting down on turnovers. The 79-69 victory was sorely needed by the Illini.

Heat Check #1 – What’s Meant by a “High Ceiling, Low Floor” Team

Jayden Epps courtesy Joe Clark, IlliniGuys

Kofi Cockburn decided to not return to the collegiate ranks this season, choosing instead to turn professional. Due to his success over the last three seasons, it is natural to compare this team to last year’s Kofi-centric team. Kofi was a guaranteed 20 points and 10 rebounds per game contributor. In fairness, there were things Kofi had challenges doing – like guarding in space or shooting from outside. This meant there were teams that were not good match ups for the Illini, but regardless of the opponent, Kofi would get his points and rebounds. Kofi’s consistency almost guaranteed the Illini would win 20 or more games.

This year’s team is much more flexible in their ability to matchup with teams of varying styles of matching up with the Illini. This year’s Illini team is much longer and more athletic than last year. While they don’t have a dominant big man, they have multiple players who can guard multiple positions on the floor. This means the Illini can switch most picks or choose to not switch in pick situations. If they can figure out how to consistently execute the “switch everything” strategy, it makes them much more difficult for opponents to anticipate how the Illini are going to defend on a play-by-play basis. This gives the Illini a huge advantage on defense.

The Illini have not yet figured out how to effectively implement that strategy on a half-by-half basis – let alone from game-to-game. The Illini also have a massive variance in how well they knock down 3-point shots from game to game. As the whole basketball world know, there also is no Kofi on this roster to guarantee the team 20 points and 10 rebounds along with drawing multiple opponent fouls per game.

If the Illini execute at a high level, they can beat anyone – they’ve already gotten two Top Ten wins. When the Illini don’t play well, they can lose to Northwestern. The ceiling is high when they execute as a team. The floor is low when they do not. Consistent performance is the holy grail the coaching staff is looking for from their players. That's a big ask, but the Illini have one of the most talented rosters to go along with one of the youngest.

Heat Check #2 – Who is Going to Lead this Team

Terrence Shannon, Jr. courtesy of Joe Clark, IlliniGuys

A coaching adage in college basketball is “to get old and stay old”. The transfer portal makes that a bit harder as teams might have a class of five players in their freshman year. Maybe two of those five possess leadership personalities. By the time they’re juniors, the class may be down to two remaining players, neither of whom are strong leaders.

Even getting to the point where your team is considered “old” isn’t as easy as it used to be. The coaches who manage to recruit well and keep their classes largely intact may find that to be a bigger advantage than it used to be in the past. That’s saying something as we’re talking about an adage. An adage is an old saying that describes a universal truth.

The Illini need an alpha dog to lead the team. No one on the team has assumed the role of being the on-court leader during their collegiate career. It’s not easy. Most weren’t their team’s alpha dogs in high school.

The Illini find themselves in an interesting situation. With the effects of graduation and the transfer portal, there are a limited number of upperclassmen, and none appears to be a true “born leader”. There’s nothing wrong with not displaying skills that one does not possess.

Let’s review the possible team leaders:

  • Terrence Shannon, Jr – he appears to be the lead-by-example player. He plays intense defense. He’s not a vocal guy.
  • Matthew Mayer – he almost fits the role of the guy who’s the slightly-too-cool-rebel who constantly pushes back on authority.
  • RJ Melendez – RJ must build confidence in himself before he’s considered a leader. He also needs to iron out his own consistency in performance to build credibility with his teammates to effectively lead.
  • Coleman Hawkins – has tried to lead, but his skill set is underdeveloped in this area. Yelling too much at the freshmen and struggling to be consistent in his own performance is a challenge. To his credit, he is willing to move out of his comfort zone and he’s tried to lead. With more consistency on the court and more leadership attempts, maybe he could be the team’s leader.
  • Luke Goode – Luke has been described as a leader by the staff and he certainly has the personality to do so. He’s been injured – and it’s hard to lead from the bench – unless you’re a coach. When Luke returns, he may be needed as a leader as much or even more than he is needed as three-point shooter. Not to put pressure on Goode, but I’ll gladly sign up to watch him excel at both.

Freshmen weren’t included in that group because it’s so rare to have a freshman lead a team. We’ve seen Ayo do that – and yet when he had a bad game now and then some fans wondered if he was in over his head.

When I looked at Illini greats of the last 40 years, my respect for Ayo grows even bigger. Did Eddie Johnson, Derek Harper, Bruce Douglas, Kendall Gill, Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Chester Frazier, or Malcolm Hill have to step up and lead their teams on a regular basis? It appears freshman leadership is a rare occurrence.

Fair or not, freshmen don’t need to have that burden placed on them. One of the upperclassmen will have to fill that role. Who will it be? I don’t know. If I had to guess, I’d say Goode, Hawkins, or Shannon, Jr.

As IlliniGuy Brad Sturdy is so famous for saying, “LIPO”. For those who don’t know Brad, that means:

  • Let
  • It
  • Play
  • Out

We will see if the team gets more consistency and if a leader on the court emerges. It’s all LIPO for the fans now.

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