Mike Cagley's Heat Checks and Hail Marys - The Great Kentucky Raid of 2021

Mike Cagley, IlliniGuys Co-Founder

The loss of Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman to Kentucky reverberated throughout Illini Nation. Particularly hard hit are the fans who pay closest attention or those who donate heavily to Illini athletic causes. Its not surprising to see these two constituencies having the strongest feelings in response to the Great Kentucky Raid of 2021. Those invested the most - either emotionally, financially, or both - are going to feel the effects of this transition most acutely.

The best analogy I can think of is imagining that your child comes home with a report card that doesn't meet your standards or doesn't live up to expectations. A parent will be much more upset about their own child - with all the time and effort that has been invested in their well being - as opposed to hearing that the child down the street didn't live up to the standards of his/her own parents.

The personal investment into the situation is critical - and it's hard to look at a situation involving one's favorite team with the calm detachment that one has while surfing through channels looking for a good television show to watch. The deeper the fandom the hotter the meltdown will be for some fans.

I guess there is truly a silver lining in this current Illini Nation frustration. The Great Kentucky Raid of 2021 has struck a nerve of a fanbase that cares more than enough to freak out, bigly.

Heat Check #1 - The Shoe is on the Other Foot

On April 22, it was reported that two Kentucky assistant coaches would be leaving the program. Joel Justus was existing to take the top assistant job at Arizona State and Tony Barbee was leaving to be the head coach at Central Michigan. Missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013 tends to force staff changes when you're a part of the staff working for the bluest of college basketball's Bluebloods.

Justus found out the hard way that past accomplishments can't save you when your head coach has his back against the wall. Justus is credited for being the lead recruiter for past signees including such names as Bam Adebayo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Immanuel Quickley, Keldon Johnson, Juzang and others - since he was elevated to an assistant coaching role in 2016.

The old cliché "what have you done for me lately" wasn't enough to help Justus. This year, he was also the lead recruiter for Skyy Clark, the number 13th ranked player overall in the 2022 class. And yet he was still sacrificed by Calipari in order to "improve recruiting" - ironically, there was no mention of improving the head coaching.

Kentucky fans had to survive from April 22 through May 6 with only 1 assistant on the Kentucky staff. Imagine their angst as the Big Blue Nation had to bravely march through a B1G team counteroffer of Kentucky's deals with a shockingly competitive offer. Finally, after three weeks in the coaching wilderness, Kentucky had a full staff signed - and the world's proper balance was restored.

Currently, the Illini have been a little more than a week formally without a full staff - but they have replaced one coach with an impressive hire, Chester Frazier, the former Illini PG. There is a rumored third coach, Stephen Gentry, who may be returning to Gonzaga. If he leaves, the current rumor mill has him being replaced by Geoff Alexander.

In the end, the Illini look to be down one coach with a week and a half to go to meet Kentucky's three week odyssey. Will the Illini land "their guy" in a quicker fashion than Kentucky and John Calipari did? Only time will tell.

Heat Check #2 - What About the Roster

Since Antigua and Chin left, the Illini have been hit by a decommitment from 2022 verbal commit AJ Storr. To make things worse, the Illini have discovered that tragic events in the life of a prospective player has allowed the rest of the pack of suitor schools to close the gap behind the Illini in their quest to land super-transfer Tre Mitchell.

Adding insult to injury, fast-rising 5-star 2021 recruit Ty Ty Washington selected Kentucky for his one year stay prior to going to the NBA. Many assigned this recruiting success to the efforts of Chin Coleman. This may be true, though it seems fair to point out that Coleman was the lead recruiter on Ty Ty when he was at Illinois. Everyone remembers that Ty Ty eliminated the Illini from contention for his services quite a while ago. Chin Coleman couldn't prevent that from happening.

One might say the difference maker in the Ty Ty situation appears to be the school logo on Coleman's coat, not Coleman himself. Apparently, his recruiting ability has improved mightily since the "good old days" at Illinois, only three weeks ago. If it was all the Chin Coleman recruiting effect, wouldn't Ty Ty have already committed to Illinois? Following that assumption, Ty Ty would've then been forced to switch his selection to Kentucky (from Illinois) once the assistant coaching dust settled?

Chester Frazier has been darn near a "one man gang" as he has worked to keep the current players and committed players on board. As if that wasn't enough, he's also working on transfer portal opportunities and going after 2022s. Frazier has a sterling resume that he brings to the Illini basketball program, but he has a massive challenge in holding a team together, grabbing a transfer or two from the portal, and maybe getting a couple of key 2022 recruits. Apologies to Geoff Alexander and Brad Underwood who are also doing their best to make sure the Illini roster stays intact.

The difference between many fans and the coaches and players they cheer for is the way the coaches and players deal with challenges. Many fans look at the challenges facing the Illini staff as huge obstacles and assume failure is the most highly predictable outcome. To be fair, Illini history makes that point of view easy to understand.

Coaches and players can't afford to think that way. Obstacles have to be overcome. My suspicion is Chester Frazier looks at this as just another set of problems to deal with and he is determined to do so successfully. In the mind of a coach, there's no point in worrying about what might've happened yesterday, just focus on what you have to do to get better results today and tomorrow.

A sizable segment of fans will tend to focus on threats and risks and then be frustrated mightily (many times legitimately) by failures. Of course, almost everyone likes to vociferously let others know about their ability to identify problems early - and many take the opportunity do so often.

Successful coaches (and players, too) will view obstacles and risks as opportunities. They worry more about ways to improve performance based on results as opposed to mourning defeats. Coaches and players certainly care about losing - but losing serves a different function to them than it does to fans. Coaches and players are the ones who have to win. To win, you have to figure out how and that takes discipline.

It is critical for coaches to evaluate performance and figure out ways to do things better to get the results they want. Even in a situation that is so rare that it almost never happens - like a #1 seed potentially losing all three assistant coaches - Brad Underwood has to do a post mortem to see what could be done differently in the future to ensure better results.

I'm not certain if that's the case here, because the Illini can't control Kentucky's record or the Calipari's responses to losing. Maybe nothing could've prevented this off season shake up, but an analysis still needs to be done to determine if anything could've been done to prevent or alleviate this type of situation.

Are there any other lessons to be learned? As hard as it might be to do, logical and methodical analysis has to be done, even if its painful or forces changes that take staff members out of their comfort zone. Should recruiting roles be analyzed? Should Underwood be more involved in the process? Should Underwood be involved earlier in the process or be more involved in the process from start to finish? Or both?

This is what makes the coaches who are successful different from the vast majority of fans and coaches. The great ones don't have the luxury to spend much time shaking their fist at fate. They have to formulate a plan to do better starting later today, or tomorrow at the latest. Or they get fired.

Heat Check #3 - Who is the next hire?

It looks like Brad Underwood has learned a valuable lesson from Josh Whitman. Hire quietly. Don't make a lot of noise. Now, if only the assistant coaches Underwood talks to would be so kind as to return the favor. The leaks keep coming from those around the contacted coaches. Then again, that might be a good thing, otherwise, we'd have no idea what was going on.

It's hard to know who will be the next Illini assistant coach, so I'm not even going to hazard a guess.

Personally, this writer isn't as caught up in this decision as someone might expect me to be as one of the IlliniGuys. It comes down to the fact that I don't really know what assistant coaches are the best at their job - and I'm willing to admit it. So, I have little basis to get upset or excited.

It's so difficult to know which coaches are truly influential in the recruiting process. Is it the head coach who closes the deal that is most responsible for the commitment? Or, was it the assistant coach who was the key player in getting the LOI signed?

We've all seen that at the time, John Groce received most of the credit for many of the key recruits during Thad Matta's successful run at Ohio State. In retrospect, most of these commits have now been attributed to Matta himself.

How am I to know which of the coaches that Underwood is interviewing fits into the Groce category? I don't. So I have to trust Underwood's judgment. He's already built a strong staff once. He should be able to do it again.

The key factor for this hire is Underwood getting someone that he believes can do the job at the highest level. Antigua has left big shoes to fill. Underwood also must select a coach that will be a good fit to work with the rest of the staff. At this point, all I can do is hope Underwood can find the right guy. I'd also prefer that he do it sooner rather than later, but identifying and landing the right guy is more important than speed.

Once completed, evaluating the hire will be much easier. Stick with IlliniGuys and we'll know which coach deserves credit for landing any future recruit. We'll also know how well the staff works as a cohesive unit. And certainly, we'll all know how the W's and L's work out. At that point you can trust me - I'll have an opinion on how this hiring worked out. Guaranteed.

Thank God for the fact that folks care again. Fans now care enough about the Illini to be angry and frustrated with the off season curve balls thrown at the Illinois basketball program. I'm excited by the fact that Illini fans care again. To me, it is worth it's weight in gold to be relevant again.

Whitman and Underwood returned Illini Nation back to life. Let's see how good they are at keeping the program on an upward trend. With a little bit of luck, the Great Kentucky Raid of 2021 will be remembered as the tipping point that let to a National Title for the Illini in basketball.






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