Heat Checks and Hail Marys - A Bad Night for All Against Indiana

Mike Cagley, Co-Host IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular

January 22, 2023

It’s been a tumultuous ten days or so for Illini basketball fans. From the high of easily defeating Michigan State 75-66 at home on Friday the 13th, to taking care of business on the road by beating Nebraska 78-60, and then plummeting to the ground in a brutal 80-65 beating at the hands of Indiana at the State Farm Center – fans, players and coaches must be reeling from the inability to predict which Illini team will show up on any given night.

Heat Check #1 – Fans Challenged by the Tired Narrative

At the post-game press conference, Brad Underwood referenced 19 days straight of practice and games and that his team’s legs were dead. In today’s world, many in the media almost habitually try to make every situation an either/or situation. Either the team is dead dog tired or it’s a lame excuse. If other teams aren’t tired, then this Illini team cannot be tired. That’s just not how life works. There are times when there are many reasons for a loss, and all can be happening at once. Either/or scenarios don't fit this situation.

No rest in 19 days is an interesting situation. Let’s apply that to the everyday working world that most of us are either stuck in right now or were stuck in before retirement.

If you’re reading this on Sunday, consider that you’ve worked every single day since Monday January 2. No day(s) off. No Saturday or Sunday “fun days” and now today (on January 22nd), you’re facing a big challenge. Consider in your profession what would be the equivalent to playing the pre-season conference favorite who knows they have to get things back on track to meet their season goals – and it has to start today. Once you mentally frame up this hypothetical challenge at work, you may wish you were feeling 100% to take on that challenge. It seems like the Illini wish they had possessed more energy on Thursday night.

As a former AAU coach, I saw a lot of things that were indicative of a tired team with tired legs. I don't think Coach Underwood was being dishonest or trying to make excuses for the team. Here is what I saw:

  • Free throws – the team couldn’t hit them, finishing 9-23. This isn’t a great free throw shooting team, but 39.1% simply stinks, especially when compared to their team average of 65.3%.
  • Blocked shots – the team is ranked #3 in the country at blocking shots, and they only had 2 in the Indiana game. Tired legs don’t get you airborne for the blocked shots. This is a team that averages 6.1 blocks per game. Against the Hoosiers, this was a particularly bad showing when it comes to rejections.
  • Rebounds – the Hoosiers out rebounded the Illini 39-27. A tired team doesn’t block out, they don’t get up in the air quickly for the boards in the first place and dead legs definitely don’t get that second jump when the ball is still up for grabs. The Illini average almost 39 rebounds a game. Thirty-nine didn't happen Thursday night.
  • Other indicators - 50/50 balls – when there was a loose ball, the Hoosiers were there first, and lay-ups were missed by the Illini like it was going out of style.

The team appears to have been tired. Case closed.

Heat Check #2 – The Coaching Staff had a Bad Night, Too

Tracye Jackson-Davis courtesy Indiana Athletics

There are a couple areas in which I think the coaching staff had as bad of a night as the players did. In my mind, the team displayed symptoms of fatigue. The coaches are around their team every day and know what the team is thinking and feeling better than any fan or media member. I will take them at their word.

As many times as we heard about fatigue, one has to wonder if the game day preparation needs to be dialed down in intensity if the coaching staff thinks the team is tired. Who better to make that decision rather than the coaching staff?

It was also a horrible night to watch the Illini destroyed continuously by Trayce Jackson-Davis, who is an All-Big Ten player – but he’s a player with limitations as well. He has an incredibly fast first step. It may be good enough to allow him to stick in the NBA. He also has a very limited ability to hit shots from further than six to eight feet from the basket.

To allow Jackson-Davis to go one-on-one repeatedly with only a lone defender in the lane was inexcusable. The Hoosiers shoot 37% from the three-point line. Taking a chance with Indiana 3-point shooting seems to be a better alternative than letting Jackson-Davis go 15 for 19 from the field and creating new poster shots with his dunks every five minutes or so.

Fans wonder why the coaches didn’t allow another Illini player to help from the weakside. Why didn’t the Illini try a 2-3 zone and force Indiana to shoot the Illini out of the zone from the 3-point line? Clearly, Coach Underwood feared the possibility of facing an Indiana 3-point barrage more than Jackson-Davis going off.

Since I’m in the midst of playing armchair coach, I respectfully disagree with Coach Underwood's decision to guard Jackson-Davis 1-on-1. And I disagreed as the game went on. Then again, if I were the head coach, Indiana might've hit 17 of 21 from the three-point line. Such is the nature of armchair coaching.

Fans should be aware that just because they have a different idea of how the team should've played, this doesn't mean their plan would work better than what actually happened, no matter how much one might believe this to be true.

I do wonder why - after repeated Jackson-Davis plays, each worthy of being on a highlight reel – did the Illini staff not try something (or anything) different defensively to get better results on the court?

It’s easy to ask these questions when you’re not the coach under the pressure to win. Thursday night is over and done. But we will get answers to these questions when the Illini meet the Hoosiers again. Will they force Indiana to shoot from outside or will they let Jackson-Davis go crazy in the lane?

Heat Check #3 – Summarizing the Case

I submit that Thursday night was an example of an Illini team that was tired. It was also an Illini team that just didn’t play well. And it was also the night the Illini coaching staff had a bad night, too. It can be more than just an either/or situation. Unfortunately, the Hoosier game was a horrible combination of all three combined.

In an NCAA basketball season that is most known for the parity across the country (ask Kansas about parity), the Illini aren’t “dead” or a “failure”. Still, the staff and players do need to own this and must figure out how to make sure Thursday night doesn’t happen again.

  • How does the staff hold the players accountable for their results on the court?
  • How does the staff hold themselves accountable to make sure these game results aren’t repeated?
  • The defense needed in-game adjustments, how does the staff implement changes more effectively and quicker when the initial gameplan stalls?
  • The offense looks bad, how do the players get to point where they run the offense properly? It doesn't look like the offense of past Illini seasons.
  • How do the players look to one another and expect everyone to give 100% effort?
  • How do the players make sure they understand where to be on the floor on both offense and defense?

There are a lot of questions for this team to answer. Please remember, it is a huge positive for the Illini to be led by a staff that has the best record in the Big Ten over the last three years and the team has more talent and length than an Illini team has had in a long time.

To become great, one has to push themselves outside of their comfort zone to push for better results than they’ve gotten in the past. If the staff and players can do that, they’ll be very happy with the results of this season.

The rest of the season starts on Tuesday night against the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Buckeyes will be more than happy to extend the pain of Illini Nation. The ball is in the Illini’s court. What will they do with it?

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