Heat Checks and Hail Marys - 4 Lessons Learned from the 2022-23 Season

Mike Cagley, Co-Host IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular

March 19, 2023

The Illini's basketball season has ended and with a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament, fans are starting to get restless with the performance in the tourney. The Illini have failed to make it to the second weekend for the third consecutive year and this season, they didn't make it to the round of 32.

Maybe expectations weren't met this year, but the era of "will the Illini make the Tourney" or "the season is over after we lose in the Big Ten Tournament" are over. In order to make a tournament run, a team has to be in the tournament year after year. The Illini are on three tourneys in a row streak - and should be at four if not for COVID. That means something.

Even in a season that didn't produce the desired results, there are a few "lessons" that can be learned. At least if I've learned them, they're not "rocket science".

Heat Check/Lesson #1 - Every Roster Needs an Experienced Point Guard

Coach Underwood made the decision to go with Skyy Clark as the Illini point guard, despite Clark coming off of knee surgery and questions about his lift and quickness having been fully recovered. In retrospect, Illini fans look at Courtney Ramey and would rather have his 10.5 points and 3.6 assists (posted at Arizona after transfer portaling in from Texas) running the show for the Illini. Clark didn't come close to those numbers averaging 7.0 points and 2.1 assists before abruptly leaving the team after 13 games.

This decision clearly did not pan out for the Illini as the lack of an any point guard, let alone an experienced one, forced off-guards Jayden Epps and Sencire Harris along with forwards Coleman Hawkins and Ty Rodgers to handle the ball often. This resulted in more turnovers than would be expected from an experienced point guard and the Illini had hard time establishing a flow to their offense that would've been there with a polished distributor.

It is fair to consider timing as to when the point guards were willing to commit to Illinois. Clark was willing to commit earlier than other point guards. Were the Illini in a position to say "no" to Clark and then patiently wait on a commitment that might never come, or happen much later in the process? What would have happened if no other point guard said "yes", and Clark committed somewhere else? So often the theorem that hindsight is 20/20 ignores the complexities of the situation. This might be one of those times.

Lesson learned, in the portal this year, the Illini will do their best to attract an established point guard.

Heat Check/Lesson #2 - Make Sure the Roster Contains an Elite Three-Point Shooter

The Illini were led in three-point shooting this season by Luke Goode.

Due to a pre-season broken bone in his foot, Goode was only able to play in ten games. He shot 42.1% on a limited 19 attempts. The Illini clearly missed Goode's three-point accuracy. The year might've looked much different with Goode stretching defenses and raining down threes on the opposition. Unfortunately, the injury didn't allow the season to unfurl in that fashion.

The real disaster for the Illini is the precipitous drop down to the second place three-point shooter on the Illini roster. Matt Mayer was tied for second place with none other than Skyy Clark. If that fact wasn't disturbing enough, they were tied for 2nd place at a paltry 33% (with Clark actually slightly higher by rounding).

When a team's second best three-point threat is a player who left the team or a player shooting 33%, that team is going to struggle to beat good teams. When the Illini had players go on heaters - like Terrence Shannon's 8 for 9 against UCLA or Mayer going 5 for 5 against Texas, the Illini could beat anyone in the country. But percentages and results showed that this type of offensive output didn't occur very often.

In the portal, the Illini need to find a wing or a guard who can knock down the open three-point shot. Another shooter will give Luke Goode and the third place three-point shooter on the Illini roster, Terrence Shannon, Jr some much needed support at hitting three-point shots.

With an experienced point guard, they also might find themselves shooting more uncontested threes, which would help to move the needle on improving shooting percentages in the right direction.

Lesson learned, get better three-point shooters.

Heat Check/Lesson #3 - Having a Press and a Zone to Change Pace is a Huge Plus

The Illini pressed off and on during the non-conference schedule. Their length and quickness made the press a nasty weapon for Coach Underwood to spring upon other teams. After Skyy Clark left and with Luke Goode already hurt, the lineup was not deep enough to effectively press very often.

Getting players with length and athleticism in portal would allow the Illini to have a roster deep enough to press when they need to or when the staff spots and opportunity to swing momentum towards the Illini.

Additionally, assuming the players are willing to learn a zone and actually execute it when the defense is called, it would be nice to have a reliable 2-3, or 3-2, or even a 1-2-2 to throw on teams that are establishing an offensive rhythm. Take away the initiative and use the roster's length and agility in a different fashion. Syracuse has proven that a 2-3 played by a team with length and with aggression can be a nice defensive tool to have in a coach's toolbox, even in the three-point era.

It would've been fascinating to see the Illini try a zone as a way to stop (or even slow down) Pickett from Penn State or Jackson-Davis from Indiana. Man-t0-man is the Illini's bread and butter, but surprise is an effective weapon. If nothing else, you force opponents to spend practice time on a zone defense and a press that might not even be used by the Illini. Make your opponents work mentally as well as physically.

Lesson learned, keep finding players in the portal that are a good fit for the Illini athletically. The better they are from an athletic standpoint, the more strategies that Coach Underwood can employ on both ends of the court.

Heat Check/Lesson #4 - Illini Basketball - Know Thyself

The Illini coaching staff has to know what they want to be next year prior to landing anyone from the portal.

This is a vague sentence so let me illustrate what I mean. Before Bill Belichick dips into free agency signing, he knows the "measurables" of every position. He knows how big, strong, fast and quick of a player he needs to be an effective defensive tackle in his system. Same for defensive end, linebacker, etc.

After applying a "measurables filter", he can gather intelligence on prospective players to see if he thinks they have the personality that he's looking for in a Patriot and he can interview those he wants in order to confirm his thoughts. Belichick can do this because he's working with a target profile that is consistent. This means when he signs a free agent, most times fans say, "that's a Belichick guy". For this to work, Belichick has to know, without a doubt what he wants the Patriots to be.

The Illini staff has to get to this point. They need to be able to clearly understand what the staff wants out of a portal player. Knowing what the team is going to be overall and what each position's role is now will make signing transfers much easier while increasing the chances any one of them will be successful with the Illini.

In hiring, the individual candidate's fit to both the role being hired for and the organization as a whole is incredibly important. The coaches need to make sure the player has what is necessary to be successful in their potential on-the-court Illini role and how they will fit into the Illini team culture as a whole.

If the fit isn't good on both ends, on-the-court and off-the-court, try to find another player. Missing on one or the other is hard to overcome. This process is also a key for high school recruits in order for them to have the best chance of having a successful career at the University of Illinois.

Lesson learned, recruiting and signing the wrong guy can be extremely painful. Do the planning and organizing of next year's team first and work towards those goals when filling the roster.




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