You Can See What We Will Be

Feb 22, 2018

Let's be honest. We were only in that one because Da'Monte Williams and Te'Jon Lucas - a combined 8 for 49 from three this season (16.3%) - were 5-5 from three. Those 15 points kept us in a game we had no business being in. Not when Carson Edwards is going off for 40 points.

But in the game we were. Leron Black still in beastmode, Trent with a 20-point second half, Da'Monte's best game as an Illini - we hung right with Purdue during their first 40 point game since Big Dog. As in, I think we win without Carsen Edwards' career game. (Yes, Carsen Edwards had 40 because we didn't have anyone who could guard him, but don't stop me now I'm on roll.)

It just felt like I "got it" tonight. My football leaning brain is usually confused when watching basketball, but against the #9 team, with us hanging right there, I felt like I understood. Once the players are in place (and the experience is there), this is what this team will do. This is how we'll score. This is what it will look like.

The defense has a long way to go - as Tyler has convinced me, that has a lot to do with getting a lot more athletic - but on offense, when we get shooters making shots, this is what it will be. The effort has been there all season, and tonight, against a top-10 team, we saw the shots fall, a second-half lead, a four point game at the under-4:00 timeout... and then, unfortunately, a few freshman mistakes and Purdue ran away to a seven point win.

But this final drive back to St. Louis, after Sunday's win, the first half at Michigan State, and the full Purdue game, I'm feeling so much better than I was ten days ago. I think I can really see it now.

I mean, tonight even looked a lot like the future. Only 14 minutes for Mark Alstork and 19 for Da'Monte Williams. Less Aaron Jordan, more Mark Smith. Less Finke (as he eases back into the lineup after his concussion), more Greg Eboigbodin. Scoring by class tonight:

Seniors: 0 points
Juniors: 33 points (28 from Leron)
Sophomores: 14 points
Freshmen: 39 points

Leron And The Kids.

And Leron And The Kids stayed right there with Purdue. Sharing the ball (19 assists). Taking care of the ball (only 6 turnovers). Stealing the ball (five steals for Trent - does he lead the Big Ten at this point?).

Now, there are other categories where we'll need to recruit the players we need. These last few games showed us how badly we need someone who can block shots. Greg will be OK in that department, but when Greg was trying to post up Haas you realized that Greg might need five more inches in height to be a rim protector (I swear it felt like he was a foot shorter). We need to rebound better (rebounds: 33-20 Purdue). We need to play defense without fouling (free throws 31-10 Purdue). We need athletes and shooters and athletes. Six more Ayos please.

But even with all of that, I felt like I could see what we will be. Like, I pictured next year, late February, senior night, Ayo taking Alstork's minutes and then some, everyone knowing what they're doing on both ends of the court, better shooting percentages for us and worse for our opponents (at least they better be), a more complete team continuing to get better.

Now, yes, we'll probably go to Rutgers on Sunday, lose, then lose next Wednesday to see our season end in February, and I'll be right back to where I was ten days ago. But for tonight, I felt it click. This was a program starting to look like the program it will eventually be.

+ I was honestly typing a "Trent just doesn't have it tonight - needs to find ways to get his teammates involved" tweet when Trent hit a three with around 15 minutes to go (his first FG of the game after a scoreless first half). So I held off. He hit another three 30 seconds later, so I laid on the backspace button. And then Trent finished with 20 points in the second half.

I won't doubt you again, Trent.

+ Leron continues to climb into the all-conference race. We're only talking sneaking onto the third team, but still, it seems like he's averaging 23 points per game in February.

It makes me wonder where he can take this next year. More low post moves and less jumpers? Better rebounding numbers? Better rebounding numbers for sure. Get to the line more? That too.

+ I want a Carsen Edwards. And by "a Carsen Edwards" I mean "a recruit outside the top-100 who turns out to be a superstar". Edwards was ranked somewhere in the 110-120 range coming out of high school. And tonight, at the end of his sophomore year, his coach is touting him as the best guard in the Big Ten (can't say I disagree after that).

As a recruiting ranking junkie, I love those Kendall Gill recruits. Your Cory Bradfords. Not really supposed to be the star of the recruiting class, but should have been a top-35 player in high school. It's mostly luck, and we are due for some LUCK.

(I know what you're thinking - is Trent that guy? Maybe. I don't think Trent has Edwards' athleticism - I can't see Trent throwing down those two ridiculous dunks next year as a sophomore - but he's certainly out-performing his very-similar-to-Edwards ranking. Maybe I need to keep the faith that Trent can take an even bigger leap next season. He certainly has the leadership personality and the alpha-dog game.)

But still - we're due for our next Kendall Gill. Let's go find him on the scrap heap this spring.

+ Thinking about it that way, Purdue was #rostergoals for us tonight. We HAVE to find a shooter like Mathias. We don't necessarily need a 7'-2" Haas, but we need a five man who can block shots and protect the lane. We need an athletic guard like Edwards.

OK this feels gross let's move on to the next point.

+ As I said above, I think I'll feel good driving home tonight. I have some pep in my step. Which is crazy to say when we're 3-14 in an awful Big Ten, but I feel like we keep getting peeks at the future. Once we get the players and once we get the experience and once we have the culture established, this is what it can look like.

I'm on board.


Sweetchuck13 on February 22 @ 10:16 PM CST

The offense is certainly much easier to see than the defense. I love how much cutting and off-the-ball movement we're finally seeing. Seems like there's a real plan to attack, with a number of different options as they work through the offense. Love what we're doing there, and if we get some shooters watch out. Seems like we miss 5-6 really good 3 looks per game.

I think Leron's offensive surge could use a column by itself. I had no idea he had it in him. His first couple of years he had that mid-range jumper, but most anyone talked about was his rebounding ability and tenacity (remember the 30 rebounds in a game quote?). I don't even know how many rebounds he's getting these days, but wow his offensive game has taken a leap. His soft touch combined with much better shot selection (and staying out of foul trouble - better at least) has really opened up his game. The Underwood offense definitely fits him well, and it's pretty exciting to think about his potential next year.

AHSIllini32 on February 23 @ 12:40 PM CST

Great article, Robert. One minor thing about Trent and your almost-tweeted tweet, he had a handful of assists in the first half even though he wasn’t scoring.

This program is going to really fun in another year or two.

neale stoner on February 23 @ 03:36 PM CST

All those in attendance seem optimistic. Sitting 1000 miles away, I saw us lose a conference game at home to a team missing an all conference starter. All I see is a steep recruiting hill ahead. If we do not overcome that, we’re not going anywhere.

AHSIllini32 on February 24 @ 04:08 PM CST


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