The Illinois basketball teams first two games reveal a duality that has more to do with the competition than it does with this Illini team.
The first two games of the season were not about two different Illinois basketball teams; rather it was about the two different teams the Illini played. There was a considerable leap in experience from Southern to UT-Martin that the Illini weren’t prepared to face.
Southern is a relatively young team with one solid player – Jared Sam – amongst an otherwise lackluster roster. UT-Martin has much more experience, albeit in the form of junior college transfers. But that is something the Skyhawks had in common with another team that gave the Illini a hard time recently, the Panthers of Eastern Illinois University. The Skyhawks have seven JUCO transfers, while Eastern returned four starters from last year’s team that included three such transfers.
The Illini struggled mightily against EIU, losing by 13 points. So it’s no surprise that the Illini struggled down the stretch against a group of experienced players from UT-Martin.
I think many fans were a little confused after seeing the Illini blowout Southern because they expected a similar result against another mid-major team. But not all mid-majors are made the same. Additionally, there was much elation over the Illini scoring 102 points against Southern, and assumptions that we’d see much more of that in Underwood’s offense.
In November 2014, the Illini notched two back-to-back wins scoring over 100 points in early season games against Division I competition (114-56 over Coppin State and 107-66 over Austin Peay). Illinois ended up 19-13 that year, landing an NIT bid. So let’s not get too excited quite yet.
Coach Underwood has repeatedly said this Illinois team on the court now is not the same as the team we’ll see on the court in January. And the January team is not the team we’ll see in March. I get it. His offense takes time for players to get comfortable with. Underwood’s offense is unusual and has proven to be very effective. The Illini will certainly improve over time.
But, the competition will improve as well. Obviously each team the Illini play will also continue to benefit from time playing together and figuring out their respective coaching schemes. And then comes the Big Ten regular season play, which will see the level of competition increase much more overall.
Don’t get me wrong, “a win is a win” and whether the Illini squeak them out or win in blowouts, I am happy. It is absolutely critical that the Illini win these early season games against “lesser” competition if they want to be on the right side of the NCAA bubble come March. How they win doesn’t matter to me. But I think it is clear early on that there will be no margin of error this year that allows for a bad loss.
The quest continues this Friday against a good DePaul team. As I indicated in my preview of the first five games here, DePaul (and UT-Martin, for that matter) are good teams that have potential to do better than expected. DePaul is 1-1 so far. I watched the loss to Notre Dame. What struck me about the Blue Demons was that they were good but very sloppy. Some bad decisions and missed layups, and the fact that Notre Dame is a damn good team, resulted in a 72-58 loss. But with a mix of good young players, upperclassmen, and transfers, and an 81-57 rout of Delaware State on Monday, this is a team steaming into Champaign ready to play.
On Sunday the Illini face Marshall. Marshall is 2-0 with a 102-91 season opener win over UT-Martin. If that sounds a little concerning, it should be. Marshall also runs a “7-second” offense as I touched on in my preview and can obviously put up some points.
Let’s hope the Illini’s learning curve isn’t too steep and that they gain the summit of it quickly because the competition is coming, and they are improving too.