Column | Bloomington, Ind. is no fun anyways…


Jacob Slabosz

Guard Jayden Epps faces off against Indiana guard Jalen Hood on Jan. 19. The Illini suffered another defeat by the Hoosiers on Saturday.

By Theo Gary, Staff Writer

Just a mess.

We have our own Bloomington here. It’s sort of northwest on I-74, also has a university and is connected to a town called “Normal” that, suspiciously, produces strange people. The school there is Illinois Wesleyan, and next time Illinois men’s basketball has to play the Indiana version of the team from Bloomington, I propose that they do a little switch and go to Bloomington, Ill., instead of Bloomington, Ind., and play the Wesleyan Titans instead.

Think of the money that the University would save! And the hassle the Illini could avoid! Trayce Jackson-Davis? Forget him. Imagine Dain Dainja going pound-for-pound in the paint with high-octane scorer Cody Mitchell. Remember NBA-bound guard Jalen Hood-Schifino? Uninterested. I would much rather see Terrence Shannon Jr. go 94-feet with Lucas Heflen.

The point is that Illinois lost on Saturday, and also on Wednesday, in two games that the Illini needed to, at minimum, split. Both losses were disappointing. Each for their own reasons, but also just because they are losses, and all losses are disappointments. 

Illinois played well against Indiana, they really did. Jackson-Davis looked really good instead of unstoppable. The Hoosiers weren’t putting down their threes, and the Illini were. Watching with someone who actually played and who knows much more about organized basketball than me; she kept saying, over and over, that Indiana “wasn’t playing defense.”

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And, well, that’s all great, but Illinois lost; that’s not great. I’m beginning to realize, despite all my optimism and gushing, this team just might not be it. They’re good, for sure, and talented — my God they are — but there’s something missing: a hole where a heart should be. 

Against Penn State, in that big empty gym of theirs, when Jalen Pickett lost his mind and scored 41, Illinois just didn’t have it. Nobody, not Zion Williamson, not Kemba Walker, not Zach Edey should ever go for more than 40 against you. No one. Most teams score about 65-70 a game. 40 is two-thirds of that and a ridiculous number. His game reminded me of Tony Perkins and Chase Audige and AJ Hoggard, and that Illinois really struggles to defend large guards. They get into the lane, Dainja switches and then that’s that — the same spot each time.  

It’s the architecture of the defense that facilitates this, I think. Because Dainja doesn’t have the quickest feet comparatively, and Jayden Epps is sorta small, Illinois has trouble defending ball screens. Epps can’t contest when they don’t switch, and when they do, a good guard will turn Dainja in circles. The solution seems to be putting Hawkins at the five; however, for whatever reason, that’s something head coach Brad Underwood seems unwilling to do.

Brad probably isn’t wrong, by the way! At times, when the Illini must, Coleman Hawkins has looked strained at the five, somewhat unwilling to just float around the paint. There’s a reason they don’t put him on Jackson-Davis, despite his height and length. All that to say, and to be less euphemistic than usual, Brad is not a bad coach, and this is not a bad team. This team is structurally flawed and massively talented, a mess and a catastrophe, beautiful at times and frustrating at others.

Them being like this is not a doom, not a travesty and not, for some reason, an indictment of Brad. It’s just an average to above-average team in a very-average Big Ten — a team that with the right matchups could make the second weekend of the tournament, and with the wrong ones, miss the big dance all together. It’s fine, and I was frustrated on Saturday; and I was frustrated on Wednesday, but it’s fine. This late in the year, that’s what this team is. It’s impossible for them to be otherwise.

So, I think if the athletic department took my advice, diverted the team bus down I-74 and into the heart of Bloomington-Normal, the result would be the same. Mitchell would bamboozle Dainja with his post moves; Heflen would curl off screens and bury threes. It would all be the same, because this team is inevitable: a mess now, golden later. That’s why we all care about this, right? If we knew what was going to happen, would anyone care?  


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