Mike Cagley, IlliniGuy
October 31, 2021
Coach Underwood warned that Indiana (PA) was going to be a tougher cookie than most fans would like to believe. The cynic in me said he's trying to sell tickets or he's trying to work on a new variation of coach speak that will also help sell tickets. I guess I owe coach an apology. Coach Underwood was correct. The smaller but scrappy IUP team fought hard but eventually wore down when faced with the bigger, stronger and faster Fighting Illini. It was easy to see why the last season this team played together they finished 28-2. They have talent and heart.
We also were treated to an Ayo Dosunmu appearance. As he came to celebrate the raising of the B1G Tourney Championship banner, it was nice to see him back. Ayo will always have a fond place in my Illini sports heart as he was the star who came to play for Coach Underwood and the U of I when it wasn't cool to do so. Once he got here, he exceeded his high expectations and returned the Illini to national relevance while building his own basketball skill sets to land him a roster position with the Chicago Bulls. There's not much to say about Ayo beyond thanking him for his contributions to the program and recognizing that he shortened the path to becoming a winning program significantly. Don't forget that he also carried the team on his shoulders at the same time.
The Illini came into the game with Da'Monte Williams nursing a sore back and Austin Hutcherson with an injured tailbone. One hoped those players were sitting out for precautionary reasons only. When Trent Frazier went down with the apparent shoulder injury, the situation got suddenly more serious. Frazier and Williams have proven their value to the Illini basketball program repetitively over the last four years. Hutcherson is one who has been able to tangle with Ayo in practice - and even come out on top every once in a while. Expectations were high for him. Both Frazier and Hutchinson are needed. Their absence will test the actual depth of the roster.
With Kofi sitting under the gaze of the NCAA, he also could miss a few games. The roster is a deep one. That's a good thing, as it might need to be very deep much earlier in the season to get through a stretch of injuries and missing minutes that weren't in the plan.
The Illini have been relatively healthy the last few years. They're going to need to find the "next man up" to fill the gap when players go down. Alfonso Plummer and Coleman Hawkins did exactly that tonight. Others will doubtless get the same opportunity in the coming weeks.
Andre Curbelo played with his usual sense of high flair and high drama. He dished some beautiful assists and set up his teammates for easy points. He also managed to turn the ball over in a variety of ways. Many were unforced errors. With 14 points, 12 assists and 10 turnovers this is the first time I've ever had to write about a triple double that a player didn't want to have committed.
Turnovers were a challenge for much of the season last year. He adjusted as his freshman year progressed and by the end of the season was limiting his turnovers and controlling the pace of the game like very few point guards can do. It's clear that a bit of discretion needs to come back into his game. He needs to be willing to take what the defense gives him.
On Thursday night in Phoenix, we saw Aaron Rodgers lead the injured Packers to a win by doing the very same thing. He made the Cardinals defense pay for their choices by taking what the defense chose to allow Rodgers to do. The sports are very different but this example is appropriate. The defense has to make choices when guarding a player as dynamic as Curbelo. Use those decisions against the defense. Curbelo doesn't have to force everything. Read the defense and attack what they cannot defend - because against a team this talented, defenses can't defend everything.
Coleman Hawkins had a nice offensive game again IUP. He had 16 points and a couple of three pointers, as well. He hustled up and down the court giving him chances for alley oop dunks and put back rebounds. He is looking to score much more often when he has the ball when compared to last year. The work he has done in the off season - both in the weight room and on the court is clearly paying off for him. As he gradually asserts himself, he may allow the Illini offense to be much more explosive with another 6'10" player that is a threat to score. The next few games should give him many more opportunities to assert himself on the court.
Another assignment Curbelo and Hawkins share is needing to eliminate the chirping at referees, the opposing team and the opposing bench. Two technical fouls (one for each) in a game like this ends up being more of a trivial pursuit answer than anything else. Two technical fouls in a B1G conference game can be the difference between a 2 point win and 4 point loss. The Illini have a strong team and a deep roster, but they're not good enough to give away points and possessions like they did on Friday night. Something tells me Coach Underwood will deal with this issue right away.
Kofi did the little things that will help him in the B1G season and in matchups with talented non-conference teams. He was throwing nice passes out of double teams instead of forcing shots in the lane that were low percentage (even for a force like Kofi) due to double team defenses. He also took the ball from the elbow to the box. That was a move we didn't see often last year. He looked more comfortable at the free throw line. He also challenged shots at the three point arc on defense. With 21 points, Kofi played well.
Omar Payne played tentative tonight. Defensively, he loves to challenge shots and that's fun to watch. Offensively, he's not playing with confidence. As a player new to the system, it's obvious that he still doesn't feel comfortable or confident in what he's doing on that end of the court. The staff has over a week of practices to help Payne feel more confident in his play and to get the repetitions to make sure that he has his basketball reflexes ready to go when he's on the court.
After upsetting #7 Penn State on the road in an instant classic, record setting 9 OTs, Illini fans were hoping the confidence gained in the victory would carry over to the Rutgers game yesterday. Sadly, it didn't happen that way. The Illini found themselves in a situation where the Scarlet Knights sold out to stop the Illini running game that shattered the Nittany Lions last week. Rutgers was successful and held the Illini to 14 points in their 20-14 defeat of the Illini.
The staff needs to think about what their goals are for the offense. The team has struggled scoring points since the first two weeks of the season when the team put up 30 against both Nebraska and UTSA. Then the metaphorical brakes were applied to the Illini offense. They have scored only 14, 17, 9, 24, 0, 20 (in 9 OT), and now 14 points in the games since UTSA. Football is the "teamiest" of all team sports, but its fair to look at the games against Maryland, Purdue and Rutgers and wonder what it would be like with just a bit more offensive competence. One could easily imagine the team sitting at 6-3, bowl eligible and looking at making a run at a potential (though unlikely) 9 win debut season for the Illini.
That scenario didn't happen and the Illini will be forced to win a brutal 3 game stretch to become bowl eligible. Missing on this chance to make it to a bowl handicaps the program's development both in the long term and the short term. The gate receipts for the Northwestern game will be dismal. The were be no extra bowl money for winning at least 6 games. The fans, boosters and recruits will have less enthusiasm without a bowl to attend, watch and publicize. The team won't get an additional allotment of bowl practices that will carry over to spring ball and even to next year's August camp.
There are a lot of reasons to fix the offense. It's probably not possible to wave a magic wand and make everything better in time for the Minnesota game. But clearly, its worth a try.
It's hard to know what the issue is with the Illini offense. There are a few questions that can be asked:
It's evident that the issues with the offense are too complex to lay at the feet of just one symptom or one person. That may not be true of the solution, though. This is Bret Bielema's football program. He makes the decisions on the direction that the team makes. We will see what kind of leader Coach Bielema is at the end of the season. What will be his diagnosis of the offense's ills? What will he do to cure what ails the Illini offense?
I want to know what is Bielema's end goal when making changes to the Illini offense? Is it to mold the offense into a current day version of the Bielema Wisconsin offense of a decade ago? Is the goal to win more games? Is the goal to have an offense that is comfortable for the head coach to run? Understanding this is a key to figuring out what the next move will be.
Personally, I've never understood the coach who only does things one way and that is the only way. The era of the Bobby Knight style coach who only plays man-to-man defense is long gone. Players are talented today, limiting them to one strategy exclusively seems like a way to make coaching against your team easier and more predictable. Fitting a scheme to the unique combinations of a team's abilities is much more valuable than it might've been thought of in the 70's or 80's.
This new reality ultimately sank it for me when Nick Saban started spreading his offense out in response to changes in the collegiate football landscape. The legendary coach who has outperformed even the immortal Bear Bryant actually abandoned the power running game for the crazy collegiate offenses that rule the collegiate landscape. He has the choice between fitting his strategies into a box constructed of his personal preferences or he could focus his efforts towards winning more national titles?
I don't expect the Illini to compete for national titles, at least not for a while. I do expect them to challenge for the B1G West title on the regular basis. There is a natural progression to building a program. We don't have 50 years of history to create a foundation for upward mobility. Coach Bielema is going to have to build the program himself. If Coach Bielema can construct a program that competes for B1G West titles, the next step is to begin to climb the mountain that is the B1G championship. After that, we can talk about national titles.
What will it take to do that? We will see what Coach Bielema's thoughts are based on the actions that he takes to fix the offense. Stay tuned.
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