Editor's Introduction: Although we're not too far into the 2018-19 season, it has been a hot minute since we've heard from the duo of Tommy Craggs and Will Leitch, together as one. Leitch started things off this season with his Power Rankings column for this upcoming season, and now we're joined by Craggs for their first installment in this year's Illini Basketball season.

Here's their first session, enjoy. — Patrick Singer

From: Will Leitch

To: Tommy Craggs

You and I typically text during these games, and our conversations about Illinois basketball aren’t all that different from our conversations about everything: I am perhaps irrationally optimistic that it’s all going to work out, and you see peril and death around every corner. For what it’s worth, over the last couple of years or so, you have been proven far more correct, both in Illinois basketball and the world at large. This is not an era where optimism ages well.
 
But I will nevertheless find much positivity in a 2-4 (ugh, 2-4!) start. I know everyone’s gnashing their teeth right now, but this schedule really has been downright brutal: All four of their losses have been to tournament teams. (And it’s gonna keep getting tougher.) 2-4 is the worst case, but there is no Tennessee State loss here. Here in Athens, Georgia just lost by 30 points to Georgia State. Nothing Illinois has done so far is close to that bad.
 
So, some positives:
  1. Giorgi B. Remember, opposing coaches were actively mocking Underwood for even recruiting this guy who was on no recruiting ranking boards and almost no one had heard of. He sort of looks like he’s going to be a four-year starter for this team? I think I'm most impressed by his footwork: Some of those shot-fakes and drives in the Gonzaga game are old-man basketball at its best. I know there are a lot of Underwood skeptics out there, but if he can keep digging up guys like this out of nowhere, this is gonna work.  
  2. You can dream on those three guards. The beauty of the two State Farm Center games, and why the fans were going so nuts, was the three-guard Ayo/Trent/Feliz conjuring up all those old Dee/Deron/Luther memories. Obviously they’re not that. But when the press is working, and they’re hitting shots or, even better, finding Jordan or Griffin open in transition, you see how this is all supposed to function. And more to the point: It’s a gas to watch. I know the results haven’t been there yet, but man, this sure is so much more fun than John Groce gritting his teeth about toughness and togetherness.
  3. Gonzaga. That was the most fun Illini loss ever. And there’s a non-zero chance they go undefeated this year, and they talk all season about how their toughest game was Illinois.
Now. There is badness. There is much to be unhappy about. They’re 2-4! The defense is a nightmare — and may just structurally be that way, rather than something that can be fixed — they have even less on the interior than I thought and Kipper Nichols may be broken. But I am just trying to get us off on the right foot here, Craggs.

From: Tommy Craggs

To: Will Leitch

Wait, hang on. Can we talk about Chief Illiniwek for a second? I was at the State Farm Center for the Georgetown game, and during the "Three-in-One" at halftime I saw white dudes in the stands doing the folded-arms bit from the end of the Chief's fancy dance, only there was of course no Chief; as you know, the mascot was retired more than a decade ago. The whole thing was like some mass Lazarus reflex. I'd forgotten just how weird the Chief deadenders were. They looked so silly, but they had an air about them of grave self-possession, as if they were discharging history's most solemn duty — a bathos most commonly found among vice principals and dachshunds. Watching this scene, I felt confirmed in my thesis that nothing that's happened in American politics over the past three years should surprise anyone who has followed the Chief debate over the past 20. Threaten the racial hierarchy in any way and white folks will go nuts in defending it, even if it means rallying around some painted cartoonish icon in an absurd ornamental headdress, or around Chief Illiniwek.

I'm writing this in the aftermath of Illinois' 86-67 victory over Mississippi Valley State. We did some nice things — the court seemed to crack open for Ayo Dosunmu in a way that it hadn't in the first five games — and I liked to see a little stunting, at long last. After the Xavier loss, Ken Pomeroy reckoned the Illini the unluckiest team in college ball. They needed to beat up on a patsy, if just to remember what it's like to win. But then came this:

Which reminded me of this, from last season:

Brad Underwood had just scored his first career Big Ten victory. Lighten up, Francis.

I very much want to believe in Underwood, but is it possible our coach is, shall we say, a bit of a dick? Leave aside the screamy sideline stuff. There was something hinky in the business with Mark Smith's transfer. Illinois (and Underwood in particular) supported his petition for immediate eligibility, which was odd and which made me think the waiver was more akin to hazard pay. The attrition in general has gone well beyond what's normal for a rebuilding program. While the team doesn't bear any outward marks of laboring under an Asshole Coach — constipated basketball, anxious glances toward the bench after mistakes, a pervasive surliness of the kind that characterized most of the Weber era — it's still early. Asshole Coaches wear their players down like wind erosion. Remember that little moment with Alan Griffin when we're here next year, lamenting his transfer to Binghamton.

I'm with you on your positives. Giorgi is the multifaceted threat at the elbow that Michael Finke turned out not to be. He reads the floor very well, and at some point, I hope, he'll get a little more daring with his passes out of the high post and a little less daring with the threes. And that Gonzaga game tells me there's a real team somewhere in here. They're trying things they weren't bothering with last year, and sometimes they're even succeeding. (Notice that they're working in a little more of the back-cutting that Underwood basically abandoned last season?) Above all else, the Illini are fun. It's been a long time since they were fun. It's just that right now their greatest talent is for making the other guys funner for a night.