It is December 19th, and the Illinois basketball team has seven losses. Seven losses! The Illini’s, oh, aggressive scheduling has been well-documented, but still: Seven losses! That is a ton. From 2002-06, our beloved Illini didn’t lose more than seven games in a season. Now we have seven before the Braggin’ Rights game. It is disorienting.
As a general subscriber to the Brad Underwood Has a Plan and Knows What He’s Doing newsletter, I am doing my best to hang in here. But seven losses before Mizzou can’t help but take a toll. Some of these losses have been close, some of been wipeouts, some have been acceptable Losses Toward Future Maturity, and some have just been How Much More Of This Can You Take? losses. In fact, now that I have you: Illinois’ seven losses, ranked by Quality of Moral Victory.
- Gonzaga 84, Illinois 78. It’s a shame Tennessee beat them, because I wanted Gonzaga to go undefeated and have Mark Few say at the end of the year, “the toughest game we had was Illinois.”
- Notre Dame 76, Illinois 74. Still can’t believe Trent’s shot didn’t fall.
- Georgetown 78, Illinois 70. The Hoyas are 7-3 and aren’t really having the “breakthrough” season we were all hoping this game would launch them toward, but this was still as loud as I had heard State Farm Center in many a moon.
- Ohio State 77, Illinois 67. They were winning at halftime!
- Xavier 83, Illinois 74. This loss doesn’t look so hot now: Xavier is only 7-4.
- Iowa State 84, Illinois 68. Underwood now understands, in the wake of Taylor Horton-Tucker’s explosion on team he wanted to play for but who bolted on him because they wanted Ayo more, just how insane recruiting Chicago really is.
- Nebraska 75, Illinois 60. The worst game of the year by far. I don’t care how many seniors they have, we should never be this far behind Nebraska. Plus, it reminded me of the Meyers Leonard Crying Game, and I thought I had buried that memory.
But! It is Braggin’ Rights week! This is already a lost season, but beating those Miznoz jerks, and Mark Smith, sure would go a long way to improving my mood. Thus, our second edition of the Illinois Basketball Power Rankings. (Here’s the first one, from preseason)
16. Anthony Higgs (Last Ranking: 11)
At this point, it’s clear he’ll be reshirting this year. The only question is whether there’s ever a spot on this team for him. He’s 6-foot-8, so you’d have to think they’d have to at least try.
15. Zach Griffith (Last Ranking: 16)
The walk-on has played 13 minutes, put up one shot (missed), grabbed one rebound and dished out one assist. Does this make him the best Fisher Bunny in college basketball history? By the way, have you ever seen what the actual Fisher Bunny looks like? He’s plenty angry!
14. Drew Cayce. (Last Ranking: 15)
He scored four points last season but is scoreless so far for 2018-19. He’s only a junior. A prediction: He doesn’t play again this season.
13. Samson Oladimeji (Last Ranking: 14)
Underwood put him in during the first half of the Mississippi Valley State, which might have been a favor for him but was sort of disturbing at the time considering Illinois was only up by three at the time. He’s taller than almost every other guard, which is also disturbing.
12. Tevian Jones (Last Ranking: 8)
I was starting to get into Jones a little bit. He can hit some threes, he’s got legit size at 6-foot-7 and he can jump like crazy. Unfortunately, he’s still suspended, on five games now, which implies a more serious violation that just getting caught with a little weed. Underwood says he’s “doing all the right things” to get back playing again, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a little concerning that Underwood suspended three freshmen suspended for the last game. We can all have our discussions about “discipline” and “rules” – which we’re all just forced to speculate on in the wake of actual information – but when the team is 4-7, it sort of feels like those freshmen playing is supposed to the point of this?
11. Adonis De La Rosa (Last Ranking: 9)
Yet another transfer who was supposed to fill a desperate need and appears completely incapable of contributing at this level. To be fair, De La Rosa came back too quickly from his injury and hasn’t looked anything like he did at Kent State. But when your team is 4-7, the last thing anybody wants to see is an out-of-shape guy who can’t dribble and can’t guard. He’s sat the last few games despite being healthy enough to play. I’m just not sure this is going to work out.
10. Tyler Underwood (Last Ranking: 13)
The coach’s kid is starting to get a little bit more spin, in the first half rather regularly now, and how much that bothers you tends to reflect how you feel about Brad Underwood in general. He seems solid enough when he’s in the game, staying out of the way and not making any major mistakes, but not contributing much either. Though if you’re the coach’s son, fouling a shooter on a 3-pointer is a faux pas the message board folks aren’t going to let you again. It is bizarre to see a little Underwood running around the court, isn’t it? He definitely has his father’s skull.
9. Alan Griffin (Last Ranking: 10)
In the initial power rankings, I argued that Griffin’s best-case scenario was Better Aaron Jordan. Considering how Jordan has played, and how Griffin isn’t just off to a slow start but now apparently showing up to practice late with Ayo, that seems a hill to climb, particularly this year. There’s still a lot here: If he’s the trailer on the fast break wide open for a three for the next three years, you can absolutely work with that. He looks like a freshman keeper to me.
8. Samba Kane (Last Ranking: 12)
He was unplayable early, and he’s still a bit unplayable at times now: There are moments when he looks like he has never even seen a basketball, let alone touched one. But I no longer dread when he shows up, and Underwood obviously has seen a light turn on: His minutes have tripled in the last fortnight, and he’s now buried De La Rosa on the depth chart. The blocks are viscerally exciting every time they happen, and we’ve even seen him shoot a couple of times. The post moves look more like a sophomore coed trying to pass a sobriety test for now, but when you squint, you can see how this could turn out. And the crowd already loves him, and these crowds need something, and someone, to love. He’s a rotation piece, right now.
7. Andres Feliz (Last Ranking: 6)
The first few games of the year, we were ready to crown him the Luther Head in the Ayo-Frazier-Feliz triumvirate. That now looks ridiculous – Feliz isn’t much of a shooter and turns the ball over a lot more than the experienced JUCO is supposed to – but he’s settling in as a guy who doesn’t make you panic when he’s dribbling, at least. He’s not Te’Jon Lucas, anyway, which is a start. I’m still not sure he’s going to do anything in the next two years that’s going to make us remember him when he’s gone, though the hair in East Tennessee State gives him a trademark, anyway.
6. Da’Monte Williams (Last Ranking: 4)
He’s not Frank, and the sooner we make our peace with that, the sooner we can start appreciating him for what he is. He’s not the best at anything, but he’s a solid guy to have around: He plays good defense (he leads the team in blocks), he has long arms that cause all sorts of trouble and he’ll occasionally drain a key shot when you need one. He still fouls too much, but at this pace, he’s going to be an awfully handy late-game defensive switch-in for a team in close games. He should spend his offseason shooting nothing but threes, though.
5. Kipper Nichols (Last Ranking: 3, pictured above)
He singlehandedly cost Illinois the Gonzaga game, and he was a nightmare the entire time in Hawaii. He’s recovered over the last three weeks, but his inconsistency is going to give Underwood a stroke at some point. One game this year, he’s going to explode like he did in the Big Ten Tournament last year; I just hope it’s against a team, like, say, Iowa, rather than a Michigan, a team that’s going to beat us anyway. For all the hope we put on Nichols that the light will someday just turn on, he’s a junior already: There aren’t many shopping days left til Christmas.
4. Aaron Jordan (Last Ranking: 7)
A walking advertisement for seniors, Jordan is why all the transfers after last season freaked me out: Recruiting is the Theoretical Lifeblood of a program, but seniors are the dudes who win you games. Jordan is the only player who has stuck around long enough to become a senior, and you’re seeing the results, a guy who rebounds better than you’d think and is steadying without ever being spectacular. He’s shooting 45 percent from 3-point range, which will surely go down in Big Ten play but is exactly what the Illini need out of him. He’ll be underappreciated forever, but this team would be well-served to produce multiple Aaron Jordans over the next four years.
3. Ayo Dosunmu (Last Ranking: 1)
After the Mark Smith debacle, any freshman season that isn’t smooth from start to finish is going to seem scary. So much is riding on Ayo that any bumps in the road, like the suspension before the East Tennessee State game, breaks one out in hives. That said, Ayo handled the suspension in an above-board way, and all seems to be cool now. He hasn’t quite become the disher and driver we were counting on, and it is certainly worrisome how he and Trent Frazier seem to have their best games when the other one isn’t on the court, but yeah, it’s still early. If he wants to make the big step toward Dee-dom, smothering Mark Smith and beating those jerks Saturday would be a terrific start.
2. Giorgi Bezhanishvili (Last Ranking: 5, pictured above)
All hail. Say what you will about Underwood, but man does he deserve credit for plucking Giorgi out of nowhere. He fouls way too much, he thinks he’s a better 3-point shooter than he is and, seriously, he needs to settle the heck down sometimes, but Giorgi B has been a revelation. He has the best post moves we’ve since … Augustine? He’s starting to rebound, particularly offensively. And he’s reached the point that the Krush roars anytime he does anything. And he’s only a freshman. Ideally, Giorgi B, by his senior year, is your Roger Powell, the third-or-fourth best player on an otherwise stacked team. But all we’re trying to do this year is find pieces we can build around. And, somehow, with Giorgi B, we have one. What a world.
1. Trent Frazier (Last Ranking: 2, pictured below)
The once and future King, the guy Underwood trusts with his life and career. I’m still not sure he’s entirely healthy, and he’s still not as efficient as you’d like him to be, and he and Ayo really need to figure out how to be a seamless duo together … but Frazier is still just a delight to watch every night. Though I will be having nightmares about that Notre Dame shot for years to come. At some point in his career, Trent Frazier is going to give us a Nick Anderson-in-Bob-Knight’s-face moment. He might give us several. As long as Trent Frazier is here, I will continue to believe. Even at 4-and-freaking-7.
Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York Magazine, host of “The Will Leitch Show” for Sports Illustrated, national correspondent for MLB.com and the founder of Deadspin. He grew up in Mattoon and graduated from the University of Illinois in 1997. He owns many attractive ties. Subscribe to his newsletter here.
Photos by Edwin Capuli/Illini Athletics