THIS IS ALL GONNA COME BACK TO RECRUITING, LIKE IT ALWAYS DOES FOR ILLINOIS
From: Will Leitch
To: Tommy Craggs
- Mark Alstork, a guy who was second-team all-Horizon league (at least as chosen by the coaches) and who was a worse 3-pointer shooter last year than Tracy Abrams and — and this is kind of important! — is only 6-foot-5, which makes him a smallish swingman on most teams but essentially classifies him as a front court guy on the Illini as currently constituted. We are so desperate for warm bodies — and good news — that we celebrated that we beat out LSU (LSU!) in his recruitment, though only because we could close the deal by telling him “we have so few players we have no choice but to play you."
- Jeremiah Tilmon, literally MINUTES after our first missive back and forth, which means I assume Kipper Nichols will transfer to UIC within minutes of this posting;
- D.J. Williams, exactly the sort of dude who never worked with Groce but would seemingly be worth a run in an Underwood system;
- Jalen Coleman-Lands, the Indiana product we were so proud we got, the one we thought could be a Corey Bradford but with handle his freshman year, the one who regressed in a way that represented Groce’s worst failures, the one who Underwood was going to make a star… and he might going to DEPAUL?! What decade is this? Does he think Gillian Anderson is still there?
TWO REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
From: Tommy Craggs
To: Will Leitch
I'm bummed about Jalen Coleman-Lands, who had the prettiest jumpshot we'd seen in Champaign since Richard "nothin' but Aquanet" Keene. I suppose there's something grimly perfect about JCL's ending his Illini career on the same clanging unresolved chord as the coach who brought him here. He never quite developed in the way we'd hoped, but don't forget the stress fracture in his leg before his freshman year and the broken hand before his sophomore year. That's the John Groce era in a nutshell for me, give or take a misdemeanor. The bad luck was so relentless that by the end it was impossible to tell apart the chronic conditions from the snakebite.
So now Coleman-Lands is supposedly fetching up with the Lazarists of Lincoln Park, and Jeremiah Tilmon is going to Mizzou, and Mark Smith aside we're looking like a lot of Oskee without the Wow Wow, as you note. We did just land a fellow named Greg Eboigbodin, who pulled out of his UIC commitment and signed with Illinois. An investigation on the internet reveals that he is tall and ambulatory, and our roster needs right now are such that even if it turns out he has joiner's mallets for hands, I'll take it.
Dreary as the recent developments seem, I'm going to try and muster some optimism here. Two points:
First, let's continue to hold out hope we have a real coach on our hands. As I said in our first exchange, Brad Underwood's offense seems well engineered to hide the deficiencies of the roster. And at the very least, his defenses at Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State suggest we can count on the Illini to turn the other team over (or to adapt when the high-pressure stuff isn't working). Coaches need talent more than talent needs coaches, but in college, at least, you still can win a decent pile of games with a system designed to get good shots for so-so players and take the ball away from the other guys.
Second, the Eboigbodin poach, while not terribly exciting news on its own, tells me Underwood has smartly acquiesced to some of the imperatives of coaching at Illinois. The assistant coach who brought Ebo aboard is Ron "Chin" Coleman, late of UIC, who'd initially recruited him to the Flames. Why does Chin matter?
- The basketball community in Chicago so badly wanted to see Brad Underwood hire a "Chicago guy" as the final assistant on his staff, and that wish was granted on Wednesday with the report that Ron "Chin" Coleman will accept the position.
- Coleman was an assistant at UIC, and he has also worked on staffs at Bradley and Colorado State. Prior to that, he was the head coach for the Mac Irvin Fire AAU program in Chicago from 2005-11.
WE'RE OPERATING FROM WEAKNESS
To: Tommy Craggs
PG Te’Jon Lucas/Trent Frazier/Mark SmithSG Mark Smith/Aaron Jordan/DaMonte Williams (who isn’t going to be tip-top until January)SF Mark Alstork/Kipper NicholsPF Leron Black/Kipper Nichols/Greg EboigbodinC Michael Finke/Leron Black
MY MANTRA FOR THE 2017-18 ILLINI
From: Tommy Craggs
To: Will Leitch
I've talked myself into Mark Alstork, who if nothing else will soak up possessions and draw some fouls — useful talents on any team, particularly one whose players will still be learning each other's names come conference play. Only six guys in all of college ball used a higher share of his team's possessions last season, per Ken Pomeroy. If Mark Smith isn't ready to carry the load, I think we'll be happy to have a grad student around who's determined to chuck himself into the second round of next year's NBA draft.
I don't know if we're a tournament team, but for the first time in a long time I can look at our roster, thin though it may be, and feel fairly confident that at worst we will be a lively disappointment. Te'Jon Lucas is a fizzy presence on either end of the court, and Kipper Nichols is an intriguing unknown who has some real bounce in his game. There are different ways to lose in sports. For the past decade we have lost badly. I'm not talking about scoring margins. I'm talking about how we've gone about the business of shitting the bed, about how every season since 2005 has been little more than a surly, undeviating march to a foregone conclusion. We were overcoached and dour under Bruce Weber and we lost, and we were undercoached and dour under John Groce and we also lost, and no one seemed to want to be here except for Tracy Abrams, who was around for so long that I believe his first knee injury was sustained during the Battle of the Somme. We have played unlovely basketball, and we have mostly sucked at it, and we have been too hidebound or terrified to try anything different. Has there been a season since '04 after which you thought, with any conviction, "That's cool, next year will be fun as hell"? Has there been a season since '05 before which you thought, with any conviction, "We may not contend, but damned if we're not gonna be exciting"? I can't think of one. That's losing badly.
All I want out of Brad Underwood's first season is that we improve a little at being shitty — if we have to lose, let's at least lose energetically, ambitiously, with some style. This is the mantra for 2017-18: fail better. Put that on your Orange Krush T-shirt.
We sent this to our editors after Matic Vesel, a Slovenian power forward, committed to Illinois. We know nothing about him, other than nothing that the strategy of “signing guys to four-year scholarships whom no one has ever heard of simply because we have an immediate need for big men” is a curious, untested one that, when it works, will surely make John Groce bash his head into the wall of whatever sad suburban Cleveland gym he happens to be in at the moment.