Even die hard Illinois fans might be surprised that this year was the program’s worst, by overall and conference record, in 19 years. When the team hired Brad Underwood a year ago, hope finally overtook the mediocrity of the Bruce Weber and John Groce years, though festering rumors of a roster overhaul have certainly dimmed that hope, at least in the near-term.
Entering year two, Underwood seems to be lighting a (more or less) controlled burn under the Illini roster. The optics of Mark Smith’s transfer are bad, but the key question remains: can Underwood and the Illini emerge from this managed turmoil a better team? Much of that hinges on the mind of Leron Black. The recently-engaged power forward would be a fifth year senior if he decides to return. Black could also choose to forgo his final year of eligibility and enter the draft, where he would likely end up fighting for a roster spot in the NBA Summer League – though he could parlay that experience into a foreign contract, getting an early start on a professional career and family life. Additional underclassman could be on their way out of Champaign as well, judging from the staff’s aggressive approach to recruiting.
Let’s contextualize the Illini’s future with a look back at the stages of this season.
Entering the season, many expected Illinois’ offense to be led by the two Marks: Alstork and Smith. Alstork was a prolific scorer at Wright State, averaging 19 points per game while shooting 3s at high volume (he made over two per game) and accuracy (making 39%). Smith was Illinois’ most-hyped recruit in years – a versatile offensive player with a Big Ten build.
That prediction proved shockingly off-base, as Alstork contributed mainly on the defensive end while Smith never seemed comfortable and saw his role and production diminish as the year went on.
The Non-Conference season had some positives for the Illini, as they picked up a fifth straight win in the Braggin’ Rights game over Missouri’s best team in years and also beat an up-and-coming program in Grand Canyon University.
They also struggled mightily on defense, often unable to adequately contain opposing big men. Losses to Wake Forest and UNLV foreshadowed the Illini’s struggles away from the State Farm Center as well as their inability to build on second half runs.
In October, I told you that 8-10 in conference would be best case scenario for Illinois. In retrospect, that was about right. With three overtime games (all losses) and one loss at the buzzer, the Illini could have easily gone 6-12 or 7-11, with the a ceiling of about 8-10.
The December conference cameo was hugely unkind to the Illini, as they lost to Northwestern and Maryland, both in overtime. The Maryland game in particular, at home with multiple changes to win, was a crushing defeat. One wonders how a couple of victories in early December would have changed Illinois’ trajectory.
Alas, Illinois continued their skid once the calendar turned to January, losing their first eight conference games before finishing 4-14. Illinois was competitive for most of this stretch, and freshman point guard Trent Frazier emerged as one of the best players in the conference. Frazier was the rare freshman who performed better against higher competition – and a needed bright spot in a rather dismal year.
That a few bounces could have given the Illini a 16-16 or even a 17-15 finish is cold comfort, considering how physically overmatched the Illini looked against even the league’s weaker teams. Two recent commitments, New York wing Alan Griffin and Senegalese center Samba Kane, give the Illini needed shooting and height, respectively, though neither is a blue chip recruit. Few of them remain, of course, and those that do, like Courtney Ramey, are highly coveted by more than a handful of schools.
Mostly, the Illini will count on what they’ve got right now growing into something special. Coach Brad Underwood has been quick to stress the need for the entire roster to add strength in the offseason, though he has singled out the team’s rising sophomores, including Frazier, Matic Vesel and Greg Eboigbodin. In three years, those guys could be the core of an Illinois team beginning a magical March run. Can success come quicker, or will the Illini have to endure more failure before their long-anticipated return to glory? Right now, that very much remains an open question.