A Machine

Jan 23, 2018

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We used to be a machine. 21 NCAA Tournaments in 25 years, a couple Final Fours, nearly a title. This won't be a post where I lament that we're not there anymore; it's a post where I discuss how impressive it is to see an actual machine in operation.

I caught part of a Virginia game recently. A machine. They don't even have all that impressive of athletes on their roster, but they know what they're supposed to do and they know how to execute it. Purdue, as much as I hate to say it, is a bit machine-y right now. They plug in players and keep going. And Michigan State - this program (and team) is just a machine. They have insane athletes - Bridges and Jackson have to be two of the more impressive players to play in the State Farm Center in the last 10 years - and they know exactly what they're supposed to be doing. Such a machine.

I remember our machines. In the 80's, 2-seed, 3-seed, 4-seed, 3-seed, 3-seed, 1-seed, 5-seed from 1984 to 1990. In the early 2000's, 4-seed, 1-seed, 4-seed, 4-seed, 5-seed, 1-seed, 4-seed from 2000 to 2006. Players would come and go, we'd have great athletes and get a 1-seed and then we'd drop down a peg athletically and "drop" down to a 4-seed. Safely in the tournament every year, freshmen being brought along slowly and then unleashed, the players change every year but the basketball doesn't - a machine.

I don't really need to go over how we got away from that. Weber broke the machine, Groce slapped it back together real quick but it was never truly repaired and eventually fell apart. Now we're trying to put it together piece by piece.

And honestly? I felt OK about the repairs tonight. Probably the #1 fan complaint I received during the Groce era was "toughness and togetherness? where is the toughness that Groce talks about all the time?". Well, tonight, for whatever it's worth, I think there was toughness. There was fight. There was effort. They were completely and totally outclassed, but they fought and fought. I'm a body language guy, and the body language was great tonight. I mean, Miles Bridges was elevating above their heads and dunking all over them, but they fought and fought and fought.

Which, to me, is a step towards building another machine in Champaign. We'll have to get better athletes - good Lord were we overmatched tonight - and we'll have to do something about this layup-line defense (it eventually comes around, right?), but the mental stuff that seemed to be lacking recently is coming around. I was exhausted watching this game, which isn't something I said a lot the last few years.

(As I'm typing this, Ayo Dosunmu just walked out to the basket at the north end and reached up to touch the net. Yes, help is on the way. And we need a lot more just like that.)

I know that many might suggest we walk before we run. Here I am talking about building a top-4-seed-every-year machine again, and many might respond "let's just make the Tournament again" or perhaps "let's win a conference game first". I get that. 0-8 is 0-8. But I don't want to become an Iowa who just wants to maybe make the Tournament here and there. I want to get back to being Illinois Basketball. I want a machine again.

And, honestly, signing Ayo was a great first step towards that. Starting with a consensus five-star is not going the Iowa way - it's attempting to build something huge. Josh Whitman gave that "the champ is here" speech when he fired Groce and I still believe him. This isn't an attempt to get back to good - we need to reclaim our spot at the top.

Which is going to take a lot of work. We're, uh, we're the worst team in the Big Ten right now. We lost at home to Iowa. We're officially eliminated from the NCAA Tournament and it's January 22nd. We're in a crater.

But Body Language Man felt pretty good about what he saw tonight. Like, we beat Michigan State here last year and I might feel better about this game? This Michigan State team, with all the sophomore leaps + Jackson, would beat last year's Illini team by 25. Not sure why I feel like that, but I feel like that.

There are still issues. People much smarter than me can't stop talking about the defense, and when I see Michigan State shoot 68% for the game, I have to acknowledge that it must be a mess. (I promise to learn how basketball defense works soon so I stop using this crutch.) This (likely Final Four) team just took the Illini defense apart. Pretty sure they had 26 dunks.

And we must acknowledge that a last-place finish in the Big Ten is a serious momentum-slower for a first-year coach. He's going to head out this summer looking for the most important recruiting class at Illinois in a decade and he might have a 2-16 conference record to sell. Construction of the machine might hit several roadblocks soon.

Still, after Friday's debacle, I'm a bit more upbeat tonight. "Fight-wise", I feel like that was one of our better performances in the last few years. Even the late 9-0 run to cut it to 7, led by Kipper's crazy offensive burst, showed that they just wouldn't quit. We were fairly relentless against our best opponent this season.

And that's something we can build from. First step: no Big Ten basement. Next step - is it too much to ask for a little run in the Big Ten Tournament? Third step - land a top 10 class.

The 39th step? A rebuilt Illini basketball machine.


steveinseattle on January 23, 2018 @ 12:11 AM

Underwood is playing this defensive scheme for the future, not for now.

He can point to every dunk and tell Okoro, “You’re quick enough to rotate over and stop that guy.” His targets all see playing time and loads of it.

He’s also teaching the guys he has how to be tough and play through extreme adversity. When Da’Monte is fully healthy, when Mark Smith’s light goes on, when Trent has another year in this system and when you add Ayo to that it’s a hell of a collection of guards.

Sure, getting dunked on 50 times a night sucks. But this season is toast anyway. Think of it Lovie terms.

Bear8287 on January 23, 2018 @ 01:12 AM

Probably the #1 fan complaint I received during the Groce era was "toughness and togetherness? where is the toughness that Groce talks about all the time?".

Oh come on, who would've said that? ;-D

Sweetchuck13 on January 23, 2018 @ 09:23 AM

I agree they're showing a lot of fight, but part of toughness has to be not giving up so many easy layups and dunks. The FG% we're giving up is ridiculous, and I'd be frightened to see the shot chart for MSU last night.

Here is our opponent's FG% in conference games:

  • at NU 39%
  • vs MD 59%
  • at MN 46%
  • at MI 51%
  • vs IA 50%
  • at NE 41%
  • at WI 53%
  • vs MSU 68% (obliterated the previous State Farm Center record for opponent's FG%)

Something's gotta give. Our rotations and off-the-ball defense are embarrassingly bad. That's not just a talent issue - they can play better defense and hopefully the coaching staff will figure it out soon. 4 of the next 5 games are at home and all of those are "winnable" if we play well.

O&B4life on January 23, 2018 @ 12:18 PM

agree completely. I understand wanting to pressure the ball and passing lanes, but at some point there has to be a balance between that and giving up easy lay-ups. It seems like just a small tweak or two recognizing some of this team's strengths/weaknesses could make a big difference in those numbers.

I'd love to see us go 4-1 or 3-2 and build some positive momentum through February.

Lou-a-villini on January 23, 2018 @ 09:59 AM

Did ya notice how MSU rushed the ball down the court and got a shot off before the defense could get set? I think I’ve heard about that offensive scheme somewhere..... Much different than coming out of timeouts and heaving a 3 to beat the shot clock.

To the future!

1970 John on January 23, 2018 @ 12:57 PM

Speaking of body language, when we had that stretch near the end when we were steadily gaining on MSU, despite all their dunks and and shooting 70 percent from the field, while we were racking up 25 (25!) takeaways for the game and somehow managing to find points, this crappy subbasement Illinois team, what I saw was body language that reminds me of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Who are those guys! Didn't we just have a 25+ point lead on them? And they now down to 10, and we're still playing our first string, and yeah, they're tired but so are we, and they lost to Wisconsin by 25 a few days ago. Who are those guys?

Click here for clips from BC&tSDK

Yeah, I don't know a lot about basketball either, but that's what I saw in Sparty's body language.

HailToTheOrange on January 23, 2018 @ 08:52 PM

Like, we beat Michigan State here last year and I might feel better about this game?


ktcesw on January 24, 2018 @ 05:46 AM

I loved how we hung in there against MSU! They dunk on everyone so, that is not unique. You take some things away with a given D but, there is always something that you give up. We felt we could pressure the ball but, Winston sees the floor extremely well and they dunked on us. MSU is my favorite for the National Championship. Of course we all know that how the refs call the game can impact that. On another note, it's funny that not much was made of Greg E and Winston being high school teammates by most of the media. They were on a team that destroyed Chicago Morgan Park 2 and 3 years ago (please don't point to the final scores as there were 20+ point leads until the last couple of minutes). Love what you said here, Robert! Keep it up!

IlliNYC on January 24, 2018 @ 08:58 AM

That was some crazy defense and it's starting to become clear what we're trying to do, and what's working & not working. Forcing 25 turnovers on that team is impressive and got us 21 more shots than MSU--but not being able to secure the defensive rebound and giving up so many dunks/layups is obviously a problem.

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