Can a good coach be this bad at something important? That's what I keep coming back to in thinking about this year's Illini team, and it's not for a lack of other stories. Illinois was bad last season, finishing at 14-18 (4-14 in conference play), but the team has been mired in mediocrity for quite some time. Over the past five seasons, Illinois stands at a combined 88-81. Over that same span, Nebraska is 82-79. This is the same Nebraska that is the only power conference school without an NCAA Tournament win. Tim Miles has done a remarkable job with that program, but the offer sheets for the typical Nebraska recruit are not the same as those for Illinois recruits.
And yet, the results are about the same.
Former coach John Groce reached the NCAA Tournament just once in his 5 seasons at the helm, so he was let go. Understandably, many saw this past season as a "rebuilding season," and that's a fair label given the state of the roster. Brad Underwood brought in six new players to start the process anew. They would take their lumps early, but ultimately would form the core of a winning basketball team.
The problem is that you could say the same thing about this season. Illinois lost seven players this past offseason, and most of those were not according to plan. The Illini lost a top contributor in Leron Black, but also freshmen that were supposed to be integral in the rebuild, such as Mark Smith. All in all, there's just four players returning, with enough new faces that it's probably a good idea to put names on the practice jerseys.
That might not be a bad thing, of course. Illinois was bad last year, there's a certain kind of insanity to the plan of bringing back the same group and hoping for better results. A talent upgrade is never a bad thing, of course. But is that what's really happening? One would assume that five star guard Ayo Dosunmu fits that bill, but Illinois also welcomed recruits that chose the Illini over the likes of Hofstra, Illinois-Chicago, Fordham, and La Salle. That does not define whether or not these players are any good—underrated players exist—but the likelihood that Underwood has found so many hidden gems is low, particularly where last year's potential hidden gems turned out to be just properly rated rocks.
So, storylines abound with this team, but the one I find most interesting is whether Underwood has any idea how to construct an effective defense in a major conference setting. While he enjoyed a successful season at Oklahoma State, that success was largely driven by a dynamic offense led by point guard Jawun Evans. On the defensive end, however, the Cowboys were awful, with the worst defense in the Big XII. That performance is entirely traceable to the team's league-worst two-point defense (conference opponents made 56 percent of them), which was the same story this year in the Big Ten (an eye-watering 60 percent, also league worst). Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that the three-pointer's importance to offenses has never been greater, but it would be an overstatement to regard them as the centerpiece to all but a handful of teams. The vast majority of teams still devote a little under two-thirds of their shots to 2s, and it goes without saying that if your average opponent makes twos with the same accuracy as a center who rarely shoots outside of 5 feet, that's a problem.
I've gone on at length in identifying some of the philosophical differences I have with Underwood's defense. All of those complaints still stand, but now Underwood has lost a significant amount of length from last year's team (Black, Michael Finke, Greg Eboigbodin) to boot. While he does bring in at least a couple of players that are tall enough to man the 5, they come from the group with the aforementioned lackluster offer lists. Also, let's not forget they are true freshmen who are mostly replacing upperclassmen minutes. In short, it's not hard to view this year's Illini as an experiment into what the theoretical upper limit for conference opponent two-point percentage is.
You can talk all you want about Illinois' dynamic backcourt or the scoring prowess of Kipper Nichols. But put me on record that none of that matters, if you cannot solve the two-point defensive problem.
Just so you can refer to it later, and I suspect you might, the Tempo Free Era record for a power conference team in league play is 60.1, set by Baylor in 2005.