Tate: Talent-deficient Illini need reinforcements

Tate: Talent-deficient Illini need reinforcements

You're won't want to hear this.

After 25 mostly unacceptable results, it is abundantly clear that Illinois won't be markedly better in men's basketball until the personnel is upgraded. Without an infusion of jump-shooting, rim-defending talent, the normal maturity gains among those present won't be enough to pull Brad Underwood's future squads out of the Big Ten's lower reaches.

We'll likely recognize these needs again tonight when Penn State's elastic Philadelphians invade with vastly more athleticism and scoring balance ... five starters in double figures, headed by 6-5 future pro Tony Carr.

To win today, Illinois must rise from the dead like the Johnnies of St. John's who, despite the loss of Marcus Lovett, shocked Duke and Villanova. Or maybe like the Iowa football team performed against Ohio State.

Same old story

There was a reason why Underwood made that recent jaunt to Los Angeles (6-6 Trevian Jones). There was a reason why the UI coach sped up interest in Louisville decommit Courtney Ramey (6-4) of Webster Groves (Mo.). There are multiple reasons why Underwood ventured to Florida and the East Coast.

You see, beyond Trent Frazier and Leron Black, nobody else showed up in Thursday night's 13th straight loss to Wisconsin (78-69). Those two stalwarts combined for 45 points. The rest of the team, in a recurring nightmare, went 5-for-23 from the field.

That's the ongoing saga ... the story of a 2-10 Big Ten season. Others have shown flashes, but no consistency. And just when Kipper Nichols seemed on the rise, he sat out the last 17 minutes Thursday ... either due to a mentioned sinus infection or a problem that Brad Underwood prefers not to clarify.

"He was all right at 6 a.m. Friday," said the coach, referring to an early-morning grind that, in Underwood's words, had nothing to do with the Wisconsin game. Just a guess, but it sounds like somebody missed a class, and that Underwood's doghouse is big enough for multiple occupancies.

Can't stop them inside

Referring to Frazier's 32-point spree Thursday, Underwood said: "I don't want to play that way but our best option is giving the ball to Frazier and let him make shots. We rode with the hot hand."

Trouble is, Frazier is mostly launching from long range while the UI's foul-prone defense — foulouts by Black and Nichols foiled last Sunday's quest at Ohio State — amounts to (1) giving up baskets in the paint and (2) allowing rival stars to run wild.

By the time the Badgers had extended their lead to 60-52 on Ethan Happ's layin with 6:28 showing, they had 16 baskets (SIXTEEN!) within six feet, of which 14 were dunks and layups. Just as it was in the UI's earlier loss in Madison, it resembled a layup line. No team in the Big Ten has weaker rim protection.

Happ slithered inside for 27 points and pitched out to open teammates for eight assists (five were unguarded treys), making him directly responsible for 48 of Wisconsin's 78 points.

Against Illinois, it's always time for the big dogs to eat. Peaking earlier were Ohio State's Keita Bates-Diop with 35 points, Indiana's Juwan Morgan with 28, Michigan State's Miles Bridges with 31 and Nebraska's James Palmer with 24, not to mention some exceptional backcourt performances by Maryland's Anthony Cowan (28) and Iowa's Jordan Bohannon (29).

Scoring options limited

Underwood has tried to maintain a positive public attitude about his players — "I detest losing but this is part of the process we must go through," he said — but he made a slight slip Thursday night.

Asked what he can do to reverse the trend, short term or long term, the coach replied: "Recruit," before quickly adding, "in the long term. We've won games where I've been because we had players who could make shots from multiple spots. That's the object of the game."

Multiple spots? That means more than two scorers, beyond which we've only seen brief flashes.

Mark Alstork, the lone senior, scored in single digits for 10 straight games before seemingly breaking out against Rutgers (12) and OSU (19), then went 1-for-9 on Thursday.

Mark Smith lost his starting slot with a slump that shows seven field goals in the last eight games.

Michael Finke's three-point shooting has slipped under 30 percent, and his two-year free throw marksmanship has inexplicably dipped under 60 percent.

Aaron Jordan, an early-season sensation from the arc, shows 10 treys in the last 13 games. Te'Jon Lucas has four field goals in five games since returning from suspension. And Da'Monte Williams' slide is so steep that he was removed after one minute Thursday.

Time to go recruit

The success of coaches has forever been directly related to their ability to acquire productive talent. Lou Henson's Big Ten record was 37-53 before he turned it around in the 1980s. Henson won when he had the talent, and didn't do so well when he didn't.

Lou Kruger was 13-3 in the Big Ten one year and 3-13 the next. Do you have any questions as to why?

Bruce Weber took Illinois to the 37-2 heights with Bill Self's leftovers, and could never quite replace them through recruiting. And John Groce, who was a much better coach than most Illini fans believe, finished runner-up in too many recruiting cases to make it work.

What Underwood inherits is a squad minus four of the top five scorers on last year's mediocre (20-15) team. Underwood can push the buttons, but the lights don't always come on. And early-morning sessions after a dismal evening aren't likely to make it any better.

He needs players.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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Moonpie wrote on February 11, 2018 at 9:02 am

Oh, but we do want to hear it, Great Obi-Wan, and should have been hearing it a long time ago from you sportywriters who instead gushed over recruits and the Latest Coaching Installment.

You guys are great at stating the obvious after the train has collided with the car.

We. Will. Win.

Why not us?

Old School wrote on February 13, 2018 at 11:02 pm

Fact is - Illinois programs are terrible.  In fact - so terrible that no recruit worth their salt does not want to come here.  Remodel football field - they will come.  Remodel again - they will come.  Remodel Assembly Hall - they will come.  Neither coaches nor players have came.  Illinois recruits mid-major level talent at best.