Apocalyptic title? Maybe a bit. Three reasons Brad Underwood’s reign at Illinois may be a short one, as the 2017-18 season gets worse and worse.
1: Ayo Dosunmu Is Not Enough To Save Next Year’s Team
The principal issue here is revealed by answering two questions: what makes this year’s team so unfathomably bad? What can be done to mitigate these issues?
A major factor is that virtually every Big Ten team has a center, and Illinois does not. Jeremiah Tilmon hung the Illini out to dry when he flipped to Missouri after signing day, and stretch-4 Michael Finke has struggled mightily to try to play the 5 spot. Maverick Morgan and a hobbled Mike Thorne were the only two centers on last year’s roster and have both graduated.
You can see the impact plain as day: if teams want to feed their big guy in the paint, there’s not much Illinois can do to stop them. This is a big reason for the defensive pressure you see out of the Illini; the best available strategy is to stop the other team from getting the ball to that point. But since it can’t work every play, a series of spectacular dunks have been made against Illinois. The problem also exists at the other end, where the offense struggles to finish at the rim and racks up fouls trying to rebound.
With two months to go until the April signing day, there’s no help in sight. The 2018 class consists solely of point guard Ayo Dosunmu, who will be an upgrade to Mark Alstork and will alleviate some of the shooting woes, but the team will look very similar. With many of his top targets signing elsewhere, Underwood is likely to reach again, and the result could be a raw prospect with high upside like Greg Eboigbodin. The result could also be whatever Matic Vesel is doing. Either way, it’s difficult to envision an immediate-impact center on the roster at this stage.
2: The Team Has Yet To Show The Expected Improvement
In my preseason prediction, I laid out a scenario where Illinois only won 11 games, but came on right at the end of the year to score a few upsets and make a run in the Big Ten Tournament. They did better than I expected in the non-conference slate, but are still two wins short of my prediction of a 4-14 conference record. The last two games showed that Illinois has yet to turn the corner. In fact, they are currently coming off the worst half of basketball they’ve played all year.
Writers constantly mentioned the fact that Underwood’s Oklahoma State team lost their first six Big 12 games before getting hot and making a run to the Big Dance. With 11 conference losses, that ship has sailed for his Fighting Illini, and after being swept by the worst Wisconsin team in recent memory, Illinois can’t even see that ship on the horizon anymore.
This season was always going to be difficult, but this particular stretch of games was where improvement was expected to show. That hasn’t been the case at all.
3: But Really, It Comes Back To The First Issue
Underwood inherited a messy situation at Illinois with five players graduating, including several major contributors. However, this is Big Ten basketball and Underwood was supposed to be a splash hire. Splash hires don’t carry open scholarships for consecutive years, and he bears some responsibility for this situation. It’s hard to know if Tilmon could have been retained without John Groce, although assistant coach Jamall Walker was retained from Groce’s staff largely for that premise. Without centers, Illinois was going to need depth at forward and three point shooters.
Jalen Coleman-Lands was on the roster Underwood inherited, and for whatever reason the all-time leader in made 3-pointers by an Illinois freshman chose to transfer to DePaul. Athletic forward DJ Williams also left the program, and forward Javon Pickett decomitted. Roster turnover is fine so long as it’s productive, but surely Underwood knew from the moment these transfers were announced (especially if they were his decision) that the 2018 class would be of monumental importance.
The one player he has is an excellent pickup at a position that’s stocked fairly well. The lack of size and athleticism on this roster cannot be fixed with Ayo Dosunmu alone, and if Brad Underwood fails to improve those aspects of the team after one of the worst seasons in Illinois basketball history, it’s entirely possible that his tenure will be over sooner than anyone expected.
#illini Underwood: Talent's the biggest part of it. We're at the high-major level. There's pros. Everyone else in the Big Ten has pros. Yet, character is a huge part of what we're trying to build. Not doing what we did today is bothersome.— Jeremy Werner (@JWerner247) February 12, 2018
Two months until signing day.