Illini basketball

When Two Tribes Go to War & One Shows Up

The morning after, everyone is surveying the wreckage and wondering whether it’s worth rebuilding.

Two Hurricanes blew through town last night. Now we have to see whether the damage is superficial, if the foundation is solid.

First it was Chris Lykes, who outscored the Illini 13-11 through the first quarter of the game.

When the Illini defense noticed him, the Hurricanes found DJ Vasiljevic on the arc. He connected for 6-of-9 threes.

Bo Ryan shrugged off the Pick-n-Pop Massacre of 2010, when Mike Tisdale and Demetri McCamey took turns lobbing bombs over a principled Wisconsin defensive system. Should we feel the same way about last night’s debacle? Sometimes the ball goes in and there’s nothing you can do about it?

Well, here’s the thing: Chris Lykes didn’t hit a single three-pointer in that first half. He found weak spots in the Illini defense, and exploited them. He drove 1-on-4 against the host team, and it worked.

Vasiljevic had enough time to eat a sandwich and finish his homework before launching most of his shots.

When Ayo Dosunmu guarded Vasiljevic, the Illini earned a five-count turnover.

DJ Vasiljevic responded poorly when defended.

Lykes is 5’5″ at most. Could it be that Illini defenders simply weren’t prepared for someone so tiny? They likely haven’t seen his size since 8th grade, and might never have encountered such quickness.

Brad Underwood’s crafty tactical response was siccing Da’Monte Williams on Lykes, to get in his head. And it worked! Lykes immediately picked up two fouls (one technical, for jawing with Alan Griffin).

But it was too late. The Illini didn’t have time to dig themselves out of the 27-point hole. If it were a 48 minute game, the Illini win. It’s not. They didn’t.

I already wrote about ending the Star-Spangled Banner in favor of a reading from the U.S. Constitution (assuming the goal of this ritual, which began in the era of execrable Espionage & Sedition Acts, is to remind people that they’re in America, and why that matters).

I think this team needs to halt the pre-game light show altogether. They’re clearly enamored of their own (unoriginal) hand-slapping, biceps-flexing pre-game pageantry. But then they crawl to a 14-2 point deficit against the pride of Romeoville (Lewis), score six points in the first 10 minutes (Hawai’i) or let a football school run up a football score on their home court.

Guys like Williams and Andres Feliz don’t need to be told. Maybe that’s true of Trent Frazier as well.

The rest of them are, perhaps, too genteel in their dispositions (or satisfied being an Instagram darling). It’s a wonderful personality trait, but contrary to the competitive instinct.

Eventually, Underwood figured things out. Eventually, the Illini began “playing with a sense of urgency.” But by that point, Underwood was out of time outs. So when it came time to remind Ayo that 1-on-3 means somebody’s open, there was nothing Underwood could do about it.

It’s great that Giorgi executed a perfect backscreen. It was great that Feliz read it correctly. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the go-ahead bucket. It brought them within one.

It’s also great that Feliz has learned not to get too deep, and has become Illinois’ go-to, gut-check guy. It’s great that Trent has his groove back, offensively. It’s great that Giorgi loves creating for other guys as much as scoring buckets.

None of those guys took the last shot.

Worse, when Illinois found itself within a point, its best offensive option — the guy around whom this team was built — was on the bench, one clock-stoppage from a well-drawn, game-winning play.

Unfortunately, this didn’t happen with 2.7 seconds remaining.

Watching Kofi dunk is fun. But Underwood needs to produce wins.

The DIA cleverly abandoned #WeWillWin after three years of steady losing produced the obvious retort We Will? When?

The new slogan is #JoinThe Fight, and after an embarrassing weekend in the revenue sports, a new retort is becoming clear: What fight?

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