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Illinois Basketball: 3 Observations after Arkansas



Well, here we are again. Illinois lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Arkansas 73-63. The Illini struggled out of the gate, digging a hole they never got out of in the first half. While they clawed within 5 a couple times down the stretch, it was too little too late.

1. Blueprint

I talked about how both of these teams were built similarly in the preview. Both mixed big time transfer talent with young highly rated recruits. It’s not a secret that teams that look like these two do well in March usually. It was Arkansas that executed the gameplan that was envisioned for this Illini team. Illinois made more threes and more free throws (until they had to intentionally foul at the end), but Arkansas got 11 offensive rebounds and turned the Illini over 17 times.

Arkansas has ridden that formula to two straight Elite Eights, and while they face 1 seed Kansas on the weekend that formula will likely keep them in that game as well. That was what it was supposed to look like and while one can say it wasn’t the easiest matchup especially for this team, it doesn’t get them playing on Saturday.

2. Bench

Brad Underwood has set a high standard. You’ve probably heard the headlines, Big Ten championships and tournament championships, most wins in the last four years, gaudy win loss against top 15 competition. With the Illini’s third straight year missing the second weekend, that high standard is what he is measured against. Illinois fans are not kind to long rebuilds, and Underwood has consistently put out tournament teams after getting the program out of the mud.

The autopsy of this years team has to start with the lack of cohesion. While there was always flashes of brilliance, the pieces never really clicked together. Either due to injury or players leaving the team, the final form was never reached. To meet the standard he set, Underwood took risks with this roster. He went out and got some of the biggest names, and assembled a team full of talent. However, talent enough wasn’t enough to reach the goal.

The reset was unavoidable, with so many seniors and Kofi Cockburn moving on, as well as a coaching staff full of guys uninvolved in their initial recruitment. However, there cannot be a great reset every year to get to the second round. If nothing else than to put yourself in a position not to play a team like Arkansas in the first round. Underwood has more than earned a leash about as long as the one he gave the players this year, but the second weekend continues to evade him.

3. To Be

While it is certainly easy to get wrapped up in the loss, the dance does go on. The transfer portal opened on Sunday, and with Illinois losing some of their best players, Underwood will likely be involved. The AAU circuit will begin, and while Illinois seems settled on their 2023s, the 2024 class will be taking shape. There are rumblings of large turnover again from this year to next year on the roster. Jayden Epps only played six minutes today, and spent the entire second half on the bench.

In the perfect world, everyone would be back, and they would continue to grow together. If the last few Marches haven’t reminded you, we are not in a perfect world. Guys will leave, expected and unexpected. Clearly there were issues with this years’ team coming together completely. Maintaining as many guys as possible should help avoid such problems next year.

Illinois finishes the season 20-13. Today was the first time Illinois Basketball had lost three games in a row since they lost their fourth in a row against Rutgers, as sophomore Ayo Dosunmu missed after turning his knee against Michigan State a couple nights before. We’ll be back.

Brian is a former sports writer for the Daily Illini who has been covering Illinois Basketball for over 5 years. Brian is now the lead basketball reporter for Armchair Illini, the go-to source for Illinois athletics news. He has had work published on Bleacher Report, Verbal Commits, USA Today and more.