Heat Checks and Hail Marys - Illini Nation Not Very Happy Right Now

Mike Cagley, Co-Host IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular

December 27, 2022

Christmas has come and gone, and Illini nation is grumbling on both big revenue sports fronts.

  • On the football side, Ryan Walters former Illini defensive coordinator and current Purdue head coach has emerged as a formidable Illini foe. The Boilermakers have landed former Illini transfer portal target, Hudson Card, the highly-ranked Texas quarterback.
  • On the basketball side, the Illini are coming off the biggest loss ever to a Missouri team in the 2023 Braggin’ Rights game. The Illini have lost three of their last five games and the unexpected nature of the losses to Penn State and Missouri have offset the positivity of wins over UCLA and Texas earlier in the season.

Illini nation is not in a happy place right now.

Hail Mary #1 – Purdue Football Not Missing a Beat

Purdue shocked the collegiate football world by hiring a head coach without head coaching experience. On top of that, the Boilermakers hired a coach from the defensive side of the ball, Ryan Walters.

Long time Boiler fans, who are used to cheering on high powered passing teams, must’ve been happy at the hiring of Graham Harrell as offensive coordinator. He was once the record-setting quarterback of Mike Leach at the height of his Air Raid success at Texas Tech. Harrell spent 2022 as West Virginia’s offensive coordinator. The Mountaineers averaged 30.6 points per game. The prior three years, Harrell was in the same role at USC. The Trojans were ranked in top 20 nationally in passing all three seasons he coached there.

When Hudson Card, Texas quarterback in the transfer portal, announced for Purdue on December 26th, Purdue fans must feel like Walters may not be the "get him on the cheap" hire they were worried he would be. In Boilermaker fan opinion, it's now possible Walters might even a better bet for success than his predecessor Jeff Brohm.

Ryan Walters has developed a stifling defense over the past two seasons at Illinois. Many fans wanted to see if that rugged defense would be as effective with an offense that passes more often than did the Bielema-inspired Illini offense. Under the guidance of Graham Harrell and led under center by Hudson Card, Big Ten fans will see what the Boilers will accomplish in order to answer that question in 2023.

One wonders if the hiring of Drew Brees as an interim assistant football coach had any influence on Card’s decision. Brees is a future NFL Hall of Fame quarterback with a stellar professional career capped by winning Super Bowl XLIV in January of 2010. Rumors of Purdue’s NIL challenges may or may not be true anymore, as Brees has relationships with many at Eli Lilly including the new CEO who is a Purdue graduate. If the Boilers were trying to raise NIL funds, who would be a better person to deliver the sales pitch to influential businesses and alumni than a uber-famous NFL quarterback with Brees’ track record?

Heat Check #1 – Illini Fans Trying to Decipher What the Illini’s 8-4 Hoops Record Really Means

The basketball Illini must find a way to integrate freshmen newcomers and transfer portal players with a few of the Illini from last year’s team. For some fans this doesn’t seem to be a big deal. Let’s breakdown why it is a big deal.

Experienced Illini players (with last season's stats):

  • Coleman Hawkins – 33 games played, 19 minutes per game with 5.9 points scored per game
  • RJ Melendez – 22 games played, 8.5 minutes per game with 3.8 points scored per game
  • Luke Goode – 28 games played, 8.9 minutes per game with 2.0 points scored per game.

Experienced Transfers (with last season's stats):

  • Terrence Shannon, Jr. – 26 games played, 25.0 minutes per game with 10.4 points scored per game (Texas Tech)
  • Matthew Mayer – 33 games played, 22.8 minutes per game with 9.8 points scored per game (Baylor)
  • Dain Dainja – 3 games played, 3.0 minutes per game, 2.0 points scored per game (Baylor – Dainja was a mid-year transfer last season)

Freshmen (with current season stats):

  • Jayden Epps – 12 games played – 24.5 minutes per game with 9.2 points scored per game
  • Skyy Clark – 12 games played – 25.8 minutes per game with 7.3 points scored per game
  • Sencire Harris – 12 games played – 13.8 minutes per game with 4.3 points scored per game
  • Ty Rodgers – 12 games played – 16 minutes per game with 1.8 points scored per game
  • Zacharie Perrin – Current season mid-year transfer – 6’10”, 220 pound forward from France

With the huge number of minutes to fill after the exit of many of last season’s players due to graduation, transfer or attempts to go to the NBA, it’s not hard to explain an 8-4 record. The record isn’t the issue. How the Illini have gotten to 8-4 is the challenge to the minds of Illini fans.

The fact that the Illini have two victories over top ten teams - #8 UCLA and #2 Texas – while losing to Penn State by 16 at home and Missouri by 22 in the annual Braggin’ Rights game has thrown off how to judge this season’s Illini team.

It would be easier to logically understand this team if they had defeated Penn State and Missouri but lost to both Texas and UCLA. It’s not hard to explain how the Illini lose to better teams and beat lesser teams. Ironically, if that would’ve happened, the Illini would be in a much worse position when it comes to NCAA tournament resumes than they are right now.

From my vantage point the Illini need three things to gain greater consistency:

  • An on-court leader to help the team bear down and overcome challenging situations – whether it’s offensively or defensively (think Ayo).
  • A scorer who can prevent the long offensive droughts with no scoring by getting points when the rest of the team is in disarray (think Kofi or Ayo).
  • Play defense with more consistency and intensity.

It would be nice if one person could fit the bill for both roles. Oh yeah, it would also be great if all the players with limited experience would “grow up” on both ends of the court and play like they are stone-cold, experienced upper classmen. Looking at the lack of returning scoring, its easy to see why the offense has been so herky-jerky this season.

Underwood's teams are famous for really peaking during the Big Ten season. There’s time for the inexperienced players to grow up – but there are a lot of them who must improve. All the Illini need is Hawkins, Melendez, Goode (when back from injury), Dainja, Epps, Clark, Harris, Rodgers, and Perrin to elevate their games and quickly. If you took time to count, you counted 9 names. That's a whole lot of improving that needs to happen.

I forgot to add one thing, if Shannon, Jr and Mayer must raise their play to level of alpha dogs instead of the second or third options they have performed in the past, it would be great.

Heat Check #2 – Curious Case of Coleman Hawkins

Coleman Hawkins has aroused the ire of many Illini fans. He’s been inconsistent in his play as he’s tried to step up to fill the leadership void that has been left by the graduation of Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams. Hawkins is finding that it is not easy to be the leader when considered to be “NBA potential” but without a ton of on-the-court success to point to as of now. His triple double proved what he can do, but he cannot ignore the fact that the team needs his scoring and his rebounding, not just his assists.

From the outside looking in, it appears that Hawkins is simply thinking too much. He understands the game and is trying to do the right thing. The challenge is to not think about what the right thing is but to do the right thing by reflex.

Passing up open looks on three-point attempts can be very challenging to watch as a fan. Hawkins appears to be aware of the game situation – there are times one doesn’t want to shoot a three early in the shot clock because of the game situation (the other team is on a roll), he’s not been shooting well, or the Illini haven’t been shooting well. Passing up good shots, even early ones in the shot clock, can lead to a team attempting worse shots later. Trying to do too much can also cause this. If a shot is passed up and Hawkins takes two dribbles and someone must come to get the ball from him, the offense is now forced to get a shot in the approximately 15 seconds left on the shot clock. They’ve effectively put a press on themselves.

Hawkins needs to simplify his game. Shoot the open three if it is there. If not, put the ball on the deck and attack the basket. If a shot isn’t there on the drive, dish the ball to wherever the help defense comes from. Simplified actions are easier to understand, coach, train, and execute.

With a lot of inexperienced players and players who haven’t played together very much, defining player roles, gaining agreement, and focusing on execution is a reliable path to getting to the consistency that the staff needs to win games.

As for the leadership of the team and the alpha role discussed above, the first step is to get the team playing within themselves and with confidence. When that happens, things like on-the-court leadership and even the identification of an alpha dog tend to work themselves out.

A back to the basics approach would be one path to get the Illini back on track. Clearly, Hawkins wants to do the right thing, the trick is how do the coaches find a way for that to happen more often?

Heat Check #3 - Defense Matters

The back to the basics approach would also help on the defensive end. Cut down the number of switches until the team is better at guarding the man in front of them. Once this is achieved, then start making other teams guess what the Illini will do by mixing in switching and even some pressing to keep opponents off balance.

As for the rest of the equation, the Illini should play the five best defenders. This clearly communicates to the players that defensive effort and effectiveness are required to get playing time. If you want to play, you play defense.

The staff needs to live by the old saying: "Only two things happen on the court. The first is what the coaching staff coaches the players to do. The second is what the coaching staff allows the players to do." Don't allow bad defense.

Force the defense to be the new "coin of the realm".

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