Tate | Dancing is on ice

Tate | Dancing is on ice

We're just long-faced wallflowers while everybody else seems to be dancing.

Yep, basketballs have been flying in all directions in the week-long onslaught of conference tournaments ... while the Big Ten quietly watches and waits.

Scott Nagy's Wright State celebrants joined Loyola Chicago in the 68-team NCAA shootout. Bill Self's Jayhawks put Bruce Weber's Wildcats back in their place. Notre Dame is hopeful Bonzie Colson's return and a 21-point comeback vs. Virginia Tech will influence Sunday's selection committee.

There's excitement everywhere ... while the Big Ten, seemingly limited to four NCAA participants, quietly watches and waits.

Nineteen conferences enjoyed the spotlight Saturday with semis or finals. After a season of doubts, Kentucky fans are on high alert. Basketball's greatest rivalry found Carolina downing Duke on Friday night. Arizona ducked the FBI sleuths and is back at full strength. Philadelphians are ecstatic over another Villanova powerhouse.

Yes, basketball fever is rampant in the sport where in the words of Jon Rothstein, "the unexpected becomes the ordinary."

While the Big Ten quietly watches and waits.

Long layoff

Just think, if red-hot Michigan plays Thursday, it'll be 11 days since the Wolverines won four games in four days.

What we're seeing is the result of moving the Big Ten tournament up a week in order to play in Madison Square Garden. Sure, if you're going to rattle the New York and D.C. cash boxes by bringing Rutgers and Maryland into a Midwest conference, their fans deserve some favors.

Actually, there were benefits. Last weekend's crowds in New York were strong, as were the TV ratings (the other conferences hadn't started yet).

But as hundreds of games flashed across my TV screen this past week, it's as though the Big Ten doesn't exist. There's this lavish coast-to-coast party attracting celebrants, and somebody forgot to mail our invitation.

Early jump

For all its drawbacks, the early end to the season helped Brad Underwood in the Illini's recruiting quests. He saw Morgan Park signee Ayo Dosunmu one day and Webster Groves' Courtney Ramey on another. He had 6-11 Samba Kane on campus Thursday and received a commitment. And he hosted Californian Tevian Jones this weekend.

Underwood is also scanning the transfer market (Nevada's Jordan Caroline — 17.6 points, 8.7 rebounds — would look good in an Illini uniform). And he'll remain alert to recruiting decommits when the usual rash of postseason coaching changes rev up (U-Conn's Kevin Ollie and Georgia's Mark Fox just bit the dust).

If Underwood's efforts are rewarded, the UI roster of last month will be only partially recognizable in 2018-19.

Meanwhile, some of Underwood's sternest recruiting will be done on campus. Of positive note, Kipper Nichols is firmly in the fold as an upcoming junior. On the other hand, a graduated Leron Black has one season remaining, and he could probably make a nice living overseas. First, it makes sense for him to toss his name into the NBA draft, with the option of pulling it out. Mock drafts don't show him in the first two rounds.

If he remains here, Black would figure to improve his 15.2 scoring average as Underwood's go-to scorer (even with Kane, the more versatile Black would be the prime post-up target). And Black would be projected high into the all-star ranks as more than half the league's Top 15 are either seniors or will turn pro early (Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson Jr., etc.).

Success hinges on Black

As stated in my podcast Wednesday, the 2018-19 season hangs on three issues:

(1) The retention of Black as the team leader, (2) the acquisition of Ramey, a potentially dynamic point guard to team with Trent Frazier and Dosunmu and (3) the ability to sign a center with strong defensive skills.

Kane may fill the third requirement. That remains to be seen.

The UI team can't be successful without defensive improvement. While a pressuring scheme forced turnovers on 22 percent of rival possessions, the Illini permitted more layups and dunks than perhaps any Illini team in history. In a 14-18 season, rivals shot 54 percent inside the arc. Michigan State turned the trip here into a Dunkathon. In consecutive games, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State converted 15 baskets each on layups and jams, and Indiana followed with 19.

No wonder Indiana shot 59 percent from the field. And Penn State made 30 of 55. And in Iowa's sweep of two games, big Hawkeyes Tyler Cook and Luke Garza combined for 79 points and 37 rebounds.

When you add in 721 fouls, second-most in UI history, it's not a pretty defensive picture.

To correct that, Underwood is banking on Kane, while remaining full steam ahead for 6-10 New Jersey standout Giorgi Bezhanishvili.

In case you hadn't noticed, Underwood is bent on reshaping this UI team.

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

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Moonpie wrote on March 11, 2018 at 1:03 pm

Just the usual Tate mishmash lacking much focus. Stating the obvious.

Other programs hire experienced ADs, who hire good coaches, who get good players. Illinois might try that approach.

Illini '73 wrote on March 11, 2018 at 5:03 pm

Watching one of our games late in the season, and one of the announcers said , “Illinois needs to make some shots.”   That really defines our season. Another way to say this is, “Illinois needs (some players who can) make some shots.”  I hope when BU is out recruiting he is looking for players who can legitimately shoot the basketball.  We haven’t had that for several years.