I could get so much writing done if I was on an airplane all the time. Maybe it's the fact that there's nothing else to do besides sit in this seat and stare ahead, but I feel like I can write 2,000 words an hour when I'm on an airplane. This won't be 2,000 words, but... I'll just start writing and we'll see where we end up.
Oh, where am I going? Somewhere warm. Not in the lower 48. Or the upper 49 or the island 50. But in the United States. Riddles!
Tyler will be covering the Maryland game on Friday night. I.. might be able to watch? Probably not. I doubt they'll have FS1 where I'm at. But maybe a good enough wifi signal to watch online or on my phone? TBD...
Eight Is Enough
Back during the non-conference portion of the schedule, I wrote about how we'd normally be playing 9-10-11 guys in December but we'd already dropped to a firm rotation of eight with maybe a few minutes from Jermaine Hamlin here and there. I was concerned about depth for the most part. What happens with foul trouble? Overtime games?
Watching the Iowa game on Sunday, I realized that I'm perfectly happy with this rotation. Tyler Underwood is the emergency guard (when Trent had two early fouls against Minnesota, with Griffin still suspended at the time, Underwood basically had to play), Tevian Jones is the emergency wing (wish he'd develop into more than that, but that's where he's at right now), and Jermaine Hamlin is the emergency big (and he's been needed when Kofi, Giorgi, or Kipper have early foul trouble).
But beyond that, it's a firm rotation of eight. I have full confidence in all eight and then I'm scared of any crunch time contributions from anyone else.
I don't think I'm making this point very well. Let's make up some numbers. Here's my confidence in the players when they enter the game. This is not a skill rating - I'm confident in Da'Monte Williams fulfilling his role and not screwing up, but I'm not "confident" when he shoots. I'm talking "is this player ready for a rough-and-tumble Big Ten game?"
My confidence in some random Illini team in the past, on a scale of 1-10:
Starters between 9.6 and 8.1, sixth man 6.6, seventh guy 6.1, eighth man 4.8, ninth guy off the bench 4,2, tenth guy 3.9.
My confidence in this team:
Starters beteen 9.8 and 9.2, Feliz 9.1, Griffin 8.2, Kipper 8.0.... everyone else 3.5 or lower.
That's not a perfect way to put it - it scares me when Giorgi is trying to thread needles (hands are quick in the Big Ten, Giorgi), and I get a little nervous when Alan Griffin is bringing the ball up on the break and some defender is closing fast behind him - but overall, there's eight players I absolutely trust and five players I just don't trust at all.
And contrary to my earlier concerns... I think eight is enough. I think I was wrong.
The very first post on the old blog (A Lion Eye) was a signing day breakdown in February 2009. So I'm now at 11 years of doing this. And for my anniversary post this year... I have nothing to write about.
With Jadon Thompson not getting past admissions, it looks like there's not a single signing tomorrow? Thompson's scholarship being open moves the number from six to seven, and it appears they plan to use all seven on transfers and not high school recruits. There were six transfers announced between February signing day and the first game last season (Wole Betiku, Trevon Sidney, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Brandon Peters, Chase Brown, and Derrick Smith), and when combined with the two transfers who enrolled in January (Richie Petitbon and Luke Ford), it made for eight transfers "joining" the 2019 recruiting class (scholarships going to a transfer and not a freshman, I mean). So it's not crazy to expect those seven scholarships to be filled with seven transfers between now and August.
But it's still weird to see a January recruiting period go by with absolutely nothing happening. This used to be the most sleepless night of the year for me ("will Corey Liuget stick with Illinois? Is Ke'Shawn Vaughn going to pick the Illini?"), and now it's nothing. Less than nothing. It doesn't even exist.
I guess that's a good thing for this vacation. If my wife asks to go to the beach tomorrow I don't have to say "uh, I need to monitor faxes arriving at the football office I'll join you at 4:00 pm." I can ignore the day (with Tyler covering the basketball game on Friday, I can kind of ignore everything until Sunday) and just head to the swim-up bar.
Still weird though. We've traded January lock-down visit weekends for transfer portal watch parties. I can't get used to it.
Checking In On The Gang
After the Michigan State game (where we were 3-28 from three) I wrote that "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight" post talking about how the shooting was going to be the Achilles heel of this team all season. If you can't shoot, I don't care how solid you are on defense, you're not going to win many games.
We then won seven in a row. Mostly because of defense, but also because we started to shoot well. Well, not "well". But we started to shoot it... better? We've moved from 331st in 3-point percentage to #300 (I'm using the KenPom data there, and I believe that excludes the Lindenwood game). We're still not an outside shooting team, but we've become a better scoring team. We have a closer in Ayo, we have a "can get to the line and score" guy in Feliz, and Trent has started heating up from three (plus Griffin has made threes at a higher rate).
That's all encouraging. That's why I'm no longer looking at this season as "how do we get into the Tournament?" and have instead started talking about seed. We can score, and so we can hang with anyone, and so we can start talking about 13 or 14 conference wins.
The shooting struggles are still out there, though. And it's keeping me grounded during the 8-3 start in the Big Ten. It's preventing me from dreaming really big.
Because if there was ever a season to dream big, this is that season. Look anywhere you can find words written about college basketball and you'll see it: this is the most wide-open season in a very long time. There's no dominant team. The record for most teams at #1 in the AP Poll was tied in January. This isn't one of those "it's hard to not just go with the four #1 seeds" seasons where you fill out a chalk bracket. Feels like this is the kind of year where the Final Four is something like one-seed, three-seed, seven-seed, ten-seed.
The thing that keeps me from WHY NOT ILLINOIS - or at least dreaming of something crazy like the Elite Eight - is the shooting. Since I have KenPom open, guess where we land in the Big Ten in Efg% (I KNOW this one now - that's Effective Field Goal Percentage, meaning combine your threes, which count more, and your twos and see what your "effective" FG% would be), We are 12th out of 14 Big Ten teams. 2nd in the conference in defensive Efg%, 12th in offensive eFG%.
I'm not really complaining. This season has been amazing and I can't wait to see where it goes. I mentioned losing sleep earlier - no chance I'll be able to sleep before Selection Sunday. It's been a long seven years.
It's just that I think we know how we bow out of the Tournament. There's going to be a game where nothing will fall. And we won't have any levers left to pull. We'll keep it close with defense and rebounding, but the shooting is going to get us. It just is. (And I'm OK with that! So excited about these next two months.)
OK, we're not far from the airport now, so I'm gonna cut this off. The beach is calling. See you Sunday.
(Or maybe in a few days when I have more Illini thoughts rattling around in my head.)