Smile Politely

Miscues cost Illini in conference clash

At least the Illini football team had the decency not to throw away a late lead this year.

Though the Illinois men’s basketball team never led Maryland by much, the team blew a 2-point lead with 4 seconds left in regulation and then fouled with less than 1 second left in a tied game in overtime, leading to a Terps win, 92-91. The loss was the second consecutive overtime loss for Illinois, and the second consecutive game in which the Illini were underdogs but had several opportunities to win.

The loss against Northwestern on Friday and the meltdown versus Maryland on Sunday provide fans with their own “love and lost” no-win quandary. Is it worse to have forced 4 consecutive turnovers at the end of regulation and score zero points from them to then lose in overtime (Northwestern), or is it worse to overcome a 22-point deficit and then blow it on a silly foul that costs the game in overtime (Maryland)?

If you think you have a correct answer, congratulations, but all you win is a bad taste in your mouth.

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Illinois even making it a game seemed far-fetched in the first half. The hosts started miserably, falling behind 10-0 before Brad Underwood became so enraged he called timeout and snapped his clipboard in half to make a point. The more worthwhile point he made, though, was done by subbing all 5 starters out. The second string put in the effort the first string didn’t and pulled within 13-10.

Even with better energy on the floor, the Illini defense struggled to cope with an other-worldly Anthony Cowan (27 points, 6 assists) and Maryland’s versatile bigs, like Justin Jackson (20 points). When Illinois would concentrate its defense in the lane, Cowan would find a man wide open on the wing; when the Illini drifted wide to prevent the three, Cowan would drive the lane like Moses through the Red Sea.

Down 19 at half, Underwood hit the hard reset button.

He sent his team out with 7 minutes left in the break for a full pregame warmup. No half-ass shooting drill, but full-on baseline running and shooting with strength coach Adam Fletcher yelling at the team. It worked.

The Illini turned 32.4% (12/37) shooting in the first half into 67.9% (19/28) in the second half, with Trent Frazier taking control of the point (11 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds), Aaron Jordan (15 points, 3/5 from three, 3 steals) going Super Saiyan once again and draining everything, including heat check threes, and Mark Alstork (17 points, 2 steals) putting a clamp down on Cowan. It came together beautifully and was perhaps the most exciting basketball the Illini have played all year.

Down 52-30 just two-and-a-half minutes into the second half, the Illini turned the tables and found themselves with a lead for the first time with 1:51 left in the game. As the clock ticked down, Illinois held Maryland’s scorers in check and the game looked in the bag for Illinois. Then the youth and inexperience of the team peaked through the cracks and the Illini crumbled.

Three things happened late in the game that more experienced players would not done. First, Te’Jon Lucas threw an alley-oop pass with a 1-point lead and 38 seconds left on the clock, his own team wasn’t ready for it and it was an unforced turnover. Second, Da’Monte Williams threw a hail mary inbounds with 4 seconds left, with Alstork open near him, allowing Maryland to inbound from their end and tie the game to force overtime. Finally, Alstork fouled Cowan on the final shot of the game to give him a chance to ice the victory for Maryland.

The sum of those three plays is more damaging than anything else that happened Sunday. Worse than the sluggish start or 16 turnovers or losing rebounding 35-24. But, for these young Illini, they are learning moments. They have to be, or else these players might not find many more opportunities to make mistake.

But fans should make no mistake: Underwood has been here before.

Last year, his Oklahoma State team began the year 6-2, like the Illini before this evening, eventually improving to 10-2. Then conference play started and the Cowboys dropped six in a row. Underwood’s Cowboys looked even worse against Big 12 opponents than Illinois has against its first two Big Ten foes.

Underwood’s former team faced West Virginia (#11 at the time) and Texas in its first conference games, better teams but not entirely dissimilar to the teams Illinois has clashed with (7 and 70 in KenPom’s final 2017 rankings, respectively, compared to 58 for Northwestern and 33 for Maryland). Against West Virginia, OSU lost 92-75, allowing .550 shooting while being outrebounded 30-28 and running a 0.83 assist-to-turnover ratio. Against Texas the Cowboys played a closer match, losing just 82-79 while limiting turnovers (assist-to-turnover ratio = 1.09) but losing rebounds (31-33) and shooting (.426 vs. .439).

After losing those two, and then four more, Underwood found a system that worked for OSU. For Illinois, things are already looking more positive.

For instance, Illinois had no interior presence against Wake Forest, but Lucas (against Northwestern) and Frazier (against Maryland) then took it upon themselves to slash into the lane and create baskets with impressive Euro-step layups. Likewise, the Illini are applying pressure on defense and forcing turnovers (17 vs. Northwestern, 25 vs. Maryland).

However, the issues in Illinois’s play go beyond those that sunk the team against the Terps. The high-pressure defense that Wake Forest exploited with big men and Cowan sliced apart on Sunday simply isn’t working. Likewise, Michael Finke has gone missing [Finke’s scoring (offensive rating) last 5: 175, 20 (155), 22 (133), 2 (49), 2 (60), 8 (121)], assists have to be numerous (Illinois tallied 8 against Northwestern and 13 against Maryland), and the pace needs to pick up (75.6 against Maryland was an improvement, but not like the 80.9 vs. Marshall). Some of these are long-term plays, but others can be immediately addressed to great effect.

The optimistic spin on this week for Illinois is that there is no more conference play until the new year. Underwood has time to work his magic on the players without banging against the toughest competition on the schedule. By the time the Illini head to Minnesota, Jan. 3, they may be ready for the challenge. And after Sunday, when the State Farm Center had the longest sustained high-volume atmosphere it’s had since John Groce’s first year, the players will be yearning for that to return.

Of course, fans would always do well to remember how many games Underwood’s former team lost consecutively last year, just in case.

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