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Illini Basketball

Everybody’s Talkin’

It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter.

Not January 2020, but Illini basketball. We’ve forgotten what it’s like to be the pretty girl at the party. For too many years, Illini hoops was not merely vincible, but easily vinced.

But this midwinter weekend, Illinois basketball noticed that everyone wants to be its friend. Everyone wants our phone number. Everyone who isn’t talking to us is talking about us. Right now, they’re complimenting us on our dress & poise. They like our fresh face.

credit: Vashoune Russell

They’ll turn catty later, but right now, Giorgi is the media darling. Kofi is the freshman sensation. Ayo is the assassin.

It struck me on Friday night, when one of the guys from The Journey walked into the bar at Pacific Rim, where @VashouneRussell and I had just ordered our bevs. He was by himself, so he joined in and we talked about camera specs & B1G basketball. I realized he was in town because of Illinois.

He takes pictures of EVERYTHING.

Sure enough, the next noon, I found myself sitting with two of his colleagues, the videographer & the Holder of The Boom Mic. They were positioned in the corner, at the end of the Illini bench. No similar crew sat at the Michigan end. The Journey was not interested in Wolverines.

Meanwhile, in the dungeon where media eat bacon and photogs edit, Tayshaun Prince somberly texted. We don’t know how many NBA scouts were there, but Tayshaun stood out. And his credential said SCOUT, so we knew what was up.

Vashoune spotted him, too. And because Vashoune photographs everything, he selfiebombed the former Kentucky star. (If Kentucky is not on TV, Vashoune will watch the Illini.)

“I’m sorry to do this to you,” he began, realizing just how much sorrier he was for saying it, and already feeling stupid for doing it, “but can I take a picture with you?”

Vashoune Russell & Tayshaun Prince

NBA scouts are not allowed to speak with working media at NCAA sites, and Tayshaun didn’t.

Maybe Tayshaun was there to see Jon Teske. But, you know, probably not.

Team Dosunmu knows what’s up, too.

Brendan Quinn, the former MSU/Michigan beat writer now at The Athletic, held his audio recorder over my shoulder during Ayo’s postgame interview. I told him he could rest his arm there when all the blood had gone. He laughed.

Upstairs, the Michigan media (and my other Android, on a tripod) were waiting for Juwan Howard to arrive for his Q&A.

Guys who usually cover Michigan usually cover Michigan. But not this time. Not now.

Illinois basketball is the life of the party. So after Ayo’s press scrum broke, Brendan did not hustle up the stairs to hear Juwan’s analysis. He sat down for a longer interview with Ayo — a privilege reserved for the important media, none of whom cover Illini basketball … until now!

We’ve completely forgotten what it’s like to be the center of attention. Illini basketball has performed the Washington Generals role for globetrotting tourney regulars like Wisconsin, Purdue & Michigan since Steve Jobs was pitching iPads. The last time you felt this excited about your team, you whipped out your BlackBerry to text your buddy. Then you remembered: he can’t work that feature on his dumbphone.

credit: Vashoune Russell

As you explore success, and rediscover its merits, please remember us little guys, too.

We’re lucky to have an extremely collegial media pool at a moment when Illini basketball has, stunningly & electrically, launched itself to a place of national prominence. At Michigan, you got coverage from Joey, Scott, Jeremy & Derek, Marlee, Gavin Good and that new guy Matt. These people work every day to keep you up-to-date.

It’s great to have the perspective of an outsider, too. Outsiders see things we miss for being right in front of us. Case in point: You should read Marcus Fuller this week, at StarTribune.com both before & after the Gophers come to town. You’ll learn something.

And yes, when SportsCenter features Illini basketball, when Dickie V & Pat Forde & Pete Thamel & Dan Wetzel spend an entire column on your team; enjoy the hell out of it.

It’s fun to be the pretty girl at the party. For one thing, you might get asked to dance.

Help a brother, yes?
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Illini Basketball

Bad Day for Bigs

It’s hard to miss seven feet worth of human stretched out on the floor in front of you. When I stepped on to the Crisler Center court yesterday morning, Kofi Cockburn was lying on his stomach at the Illinois bench. Fletch might have been stretching the big man’s hamstring. The expression on his face conveyed mild nausea.

credit: Vashoune Russell

It wouldn’t be the first time Kofi played through the pain. Twenty days earlier, he sprained an ankle in shootaround. He grimaced, and hopped on one foot to the sidelines before collapsing on a folding chair.

Paul Schmidt got him up and running in time for tip-off, and apart from an extra layer of orange tape peeking from his right sock, you wouldn’t have known Kofi was hurting. (If you missed Giorgi’s shout-out to Paul Schmidt in the Northwestern postgame presser, it’s worth watching again, just for the Giorgi Entertainment Value.)

Yesterday in Ann Arbor, Kofi looked pained. His default facial expression conveys monstrosity when, in fact, he’s a soft-spoken, gentle person.

So it’s hard to be sure. When your star freshman has a touch of the flu, it’s not divulged to the outside world. If Kofi was slowed by a virus, our only indication is that he looked gassed — pretty much from the opening tip.

2-of-9 field goals, 1-of-3 FTs and fouling out with only three rebounds in 30 minutes indicates something amiss.

Giorgi also had a bad shooting day, and also got in foul trouble. But he was a Little Things guy, which has become his new role lately. He should get a lot of credit for screening Ayo’s path to 27 points.

Five rebounds in 25 minutes is fewer than you’d want; but Jon Teske, Isaiah Livers, Franz Wagner & Austin Davis seemed pretty motivated to change the narrative about Illini bigs after what happened in Champaign last month.

You’re an Illini fan. Therefore, you have your own Robert Archibald story.

You probably met Arch, and you probably felt personally touched by his ingratiating style. If you spent more than 30 seconds with him, you probably got a taste of his sardonic wit.

A remarkable fact about Robert Archibald is that he grew his company of friends far beyond his 1998-2002 cohort. I mentioned in 2013 that Archibald spent the Reunion of Old Soldiers with Richard Semrau, whose recruitment and (limited) career were far removed from Archibald’s era. After that, Arch befriended and hired Sam McLaurin, whose Texan construction gigs were taking a toll on his body.

The last time I saw Arch, I queried “where’s my friend Sam McLaurin?” His Architypical response: “Working … I hope.”

When Brad Underwood stepped toward the microphone for yesterday’s postgame Q&A, he didn’t need to muster any affectation to convey the somber sense of loss he felt in delivering the news to those who hadn’t heard. Robert Archibald was not simply a member of the Illini family. He was a focal point, and a rallying force of the Illini family.

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Illini Basketball

Lou Henson Sits for a Portrait

Just when you were feeling good about Illini basketball, here’s a feel-good story about Illini basketball.

Lou Henson didn’t want to attend last weekend’s reunion/birthday party. He didn’t want to be seen in a wheelchair.

But friends & family cajoled him into going. An inevitably, he exposed himself to 15,000 live viewers, a torrent of love & LOOOOOOU!

Before rolling out to the center of Lou Henson Court, to sit for a portrait with his players and their families, Lou sat dumbfounded as Danvillian speed painter John Jansky pollocked colorful acrylics on a big canvas.

As Jansky smeared and flicked, he also danced to the music, air-drumming to the beat. He was having a great time.

But his painting didn’t sharpen into a discernible image. Some of us began wondering: Is this going anywhere?

In the crowd, I spotted Brooks Taylor. I wanted to introduce myself. I’ve never met him. We’re about the age, and I missed most of that era while away at college.

CJ Jackson, who didn’t play for Lou (and didn’t really play for Bruce Weber, either) was also there. I really wanted to say hello, and congratulate him on his outstanding grad-transfer season at Hawai’i Pacific. I guess I ran out of time.

You can see all the people who came, and their kids, toward the end of the video.

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Illini Basketball

The Lo-Hi

Something changed about the Illini offense last night.

Instead of trying to feed the low post from the top of the key, Illini guards & wings drove to the basket and then reversed the ball to the top.

I wish I had more cleverly annotated pictures of these actions. The few I have don’t begin to describe the number of times Illinois faked Purdue out of its collective jock.

There are plenty of pictures of Bill Ek’s ass, and Terry Wymer’s ass, which were captured when Illini penetrators (mostly Ayo) drew the defense inward before passing the ball outward. All baseline photographers capture many pictures of “ref butt.”

The actions differed so dramatically from previous Illini games, one is forced to wonder whether Brad Underwood is holding back sets for deployment in particular games, as if he’s figured out how this “scouting” thing works, and seeks to eliminate its efficacy.

Every once in a while, I dream that a coach draws out a scheme for an entire season. Do You? It’s what Bill Cubit was meant to do as Tim Beckman’s OC. It never seems to happen.

It’s crazy to even think that someone could be so longviewed in his scheming, right? But what if you’re a genius who’s spent your entire career toiling as an assistant & JC coach. Do you start drawing your grand plan on the off-chance that you might, some day, get the kind of chance you’ve always dreamed of?

The following is fact: Underwood drives a constantly expanding, conceptually evolving offense. And he’s done it while elevating the Illini defense to the top of the league. As he said last night after learning Purdue’s players said Illinois out-toughed its hosts: “There’s no greater compliment.”

When was the last time Illinois basketball was fun to watch?

Math nerds liked the Weber Motion. Results nerds liked Self’s hi-lo. Neither provided as much explosive entertainment as Lon Kruger’s teams. But Kruger never had the dynamic athletes that this 2020 team provides.

You’d probably have to go back to the 1980s to find a comparably entertaining Illini offense.

This team isn’t on par with the Flyin’ Illini. It’s too early for that. But if you remember 1982, when Bruce Douglas initiated his lob connection with Efrem Winters, you can start to appreciate where this team might be heading.

It’s a good place.

Kofi was 6-of-6 from the line. Paint Crew puked.

That said, there are still problems this team needs to fix moving forward. The obvious one is that Alan Griffin needs to consult with some professionals. His on-court demeanor needs addressed.

We’ve talked about it a lot, and he’s acknowledged that he’s completely different off-court. He needs to be different on court. He’ll be Kendrick Nunned from this Illini squad if he can’t stop kicking opponents in the nuts.

Kofi is. like many youngsters, a sponge for learning. It’s exciting to watch him develop good habits, and eliminate bad ones.

He got played Tuesday night, when that Morrissey lookin’ Dutchman lollygagged down the floor, thus coaxing Kofi to doddle as well. Nojel Eastern slipped behind the defense which Kofi was expected to anchor.

You can imagine he’ll hear about it, and that you won’t see this sort of thing happen again.

This team is developing so fast, it thrills us Olds. I can’t remember seeing this kind of gelling, and individual development, within the course of a single season.

Isn’t it fun?

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Illini Basketball

In Praise of Doormat

There’s little reason to complain about Saturday’s win over the (ostensibly? mathematically?) worst team in the B1G.

Everyone agreed it was closer than expected. But everyone hadn’t watched Northwestern’s game at Indiana. They obviously didn’t see NU-MSU. Northwestern has lost most of their games. But they’ve lost most of their games by a handful of points.

As Chris Collins & Brad Underwood said separately, this Northwestern team is last year’s Illini team. As of January, they’ve challenged people. They haven’t learned how to finish.

That’s not to say their execution was bad on Saturday. Collins identified a couple of key moments that probably cost them the game.

But in general, Northwestern was disciplined. They came in with surprisingly (?) great field-goal percentages among their top minutes guys, and then (not surprisingly) shot well.

But because ball don’t lie, it’s necessary to say that NU shot 45% from the field while Illinois made 50%. The Wildcats made 42% of their threes, but Illinois made nine threes (in 24 attempts = 37.5%) while the Cats made only eight.

Northwestern grabbed 30 rebounds. But the Illini grabbed 32, including a key Giorgi O-bound in crunch time.

Northwestern was close to perfect with ball-handling. Five turnovers. But the Illini held themselves to eight.

Both numbers are remarkable, and more remarkable (i.e. worthy of remarking upon, so I will) because three of those Illini TO’s were Kofi Cockburn freshman mistakes.

In fact, the only mild criticism Brad Underwood offered about his team’s execution concerned Kofi’s problems with lob passes.

I’m nitpickin’ he said, acknowledging that asking more than 12 & 7 from a freshman is a lot; and thereby implying that expecting more than 12 & 7 from a freshman is a luxury.

As of January 18, 2020 it’s important to note that Illinois won a Big Ten game Saturday against the longtime patsy of the Big Ten.

The game was exciting & close.

And yet, you felt fairly comfortable in the closing minutes, as the lead fluctuated from a high of nine points to a minimum of 2 + ball.

When the Illini needed players to make big plays, Illini players made big plays. Giorgi’s offensive rebound was huge. Ayo & Dre converted their free-throws.

If you’re as old (fat, bald) as I am; you remember the last era when Illinois won games this way.

Yes, it was close. Yes, the opponent appeared skilled.

Lots of those Illini were on hand for this game, with their increasingly old coach.

In those years, Illinois was ranked. Being ranked was not contemplated. It wasn’t assumed. It was ingrained.

Those Illini featured an exciting mixture of mature performers & frosh stars. Recruiting hummed. And in that era, the Illini won more games than they lost versus extremely capable Big Ten opponents.

Visiting with some of the 80’s Belong to the Illini era players after today’s game, I realized that a lot of us are experiencing a similar prickling sensation: Today felt like then.

That doesn’t mean a safe 8-seed and easily scouted Bruce Weber management style. It’s more like a Lon Kruger oh shit, you did what? because Brad Underwood is smart enough to recognize & adapt.

Illinois basketball returned to national attention last week, for the first time since Michelle Obama’s brother was coaching Ahmad Starks.

It’s the best ranking (qualitatively speaking) they’ve had since 1998, when a coach with ideas and a sense of strategic flexibility put together a contender, and stunned everyone.

We’re back.

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Illini Basketball

A Moment in Madison

I was surprised that no one watched Ayo’s Biggest Moment when I first uploaded it, moments after it happened.

Were Illini fans asleep? It was 10-ish of the clock in the Midwest, so you never know. But this was a BIG DEAL

No.

Illini fans, like all fans, are somewhat interested in what happens & what happened. They pay money to read fantasy fiction about Glory That Might Happen.

There are fewer views of Rayvonte Rice’s Braggin’ Rights game-winner than Francis Okoro’s minute-nineteen of yeah, I like Illinois; no I haven’t made any decisions yet.

None of that was the problem.

When I got back to Illinois, I realized what had happened. YouTube had blocked Ayo’s Magic Moment worldwide because a popular song was playing over the Kohl Center public address system.

I’d deleted the raw file from my phone before I got to the Wisconsin media room. I needed the space for postgame interviews.

Unfortunately, while YouTube offers Creators the ability to download videos of their own making, only a compressed version is available. So I grabbed the 69MB version, silenced the pop song, slo-mo’ed the key moments, and re-uploaded.

It’s fuzzy. But it captures Ayo’s two buckets. Way at the other end of the court, you can barely see the rebound he ripped from all contenders — an underappreciated moment of this incredible finish.

Giorgi’s 14-foot free-throw is there. Alan’s threes are not. Frankly, before he hit them, it didn’t seem likely that Illinois might win. Like DJ Richardson’s 8-point spree in the closing moments against #1 Indiana, Alan’s contribution to Illinois’ Proclamation of Return will likely get overlooked as time goes by.

The best part, in my opinion, is the joy and relief on the faces of Jamarra and Quam. They’ve traveled the globe following their sun (sic). Italy and Maui had some scenery. B1G towns all hold some form of charm.*

But until this Moment in Madison, Ayo hadn’t slain Goliath in a consequential game. Yes, the 2019 Illini beat MSU. They won at Columbus. They showed promise of things to come. But 12-21 impresses zero scouts.

The NBA wants winners. That’s why all five starters from 2005 got an NBA contract. Madison was Ayo’s entrée as consequential performer on the national stage.

Anyway, here’s a crappy video of A Moment Which Will Live In Your Memory. You will enjoy it, probably more than once.

*except West Lafayette.**

** It has an XXX-rated burger joint, though.

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Illini Basketball

Giorgi the Sniffer

In keeping with the new IlliniReport format announced in 2020 Vision, my first stab at chronicling today’s squeaker over Rutgers will focus on one particular moment.

Surely Ayo’s clutch performance will be remembered for some time. Andres Feliz’s second-half grit must not go unmentioned.

These aspects will be analyzed & discussed, all over the interwebs, for days to come.

Instead, I’m going to report a detail that might not get covered anywhere else.

Exclusives are like gold in the media biz, but I hope Jim Mattson, Nico Haeflinger and/or Marlee Wierda also deliver some footage of this moment. They had essentially the same angle as I did. Fighting Illini Productions’s Zach Altfillisch might have had a clear shot too.

It happened at 9:37 of the second half as Kofi Cockburn prepared to shoot a pair of free-throws. Giorgi Bezhanishvili leaned into Myles Johnson’s left elbow, and sniffed it.

Spotting this unusual behavior, I twisted my lens clockwise for a closer look.

Had I imagined it? Was Giorgi simply positioning himself and focusing his mind on rebounding? Well, maybe.

But then he sniffed again. This time, a little way down the forearm.

Giorgi is the Illini’s Chief Practitioner of Mindgames. His low-post moves are not the end of his craftiness.

Was this a devised distraction?

Was Giorgi angling to confound Myles Johnson just at the moment when Johnson might most effectively be befuddled?

I thought Giorgi was moving in for the kiss when he suddenly looked up, straight into the lens.

I hope I didn’t ruin it.

On the other hand, Kofi made both free-throws, so perhaps it’s for the best that Giorgi kept that particular arrow in his quiver. It may come in handy later this year, when another rival rebounder requires some rattling.

Check back tomorrow for a more conventional write-up of the game. (Maybe.)

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Illini Basketball

Hi-Lo

It’s been an ongoing quest this season: How to get the ball to Kofi Cockburn in the low post.

You’ve seen a lot of bounce-passes from the top of the key. Unfortunately, so have the advance scouts and assistant coaches from opposing teams. Consequently, you’ve recently seen a lot of interceptions.

Wednesday at Wisconsin, the Hi-Lo was a mixed bag of effective oops, overhead passes and pick-offs.

In the first half, the Wisconsin bench called out Illini plays to their defenders. It was mostly effective with the significant exception of the lob dunk which Brad Underwood drew up during a timeout. I’d like to go back and compare the set up for that play to other lob dunks successfully executed by the Illini, because the Badgers bench didn’t recognize it. Underwood is as devious as John Groce was guileless. Presumably he knows that lining up his five in a particular pattern will tell opponents which actions are likely to ensue.

In the second half, Micah Potter tried to explain how to recognize a forthcoming alley-oop. But his teammates didn’t seem to understand. Or maybe they thought it was obvious and unnecessary. If they’re both at the elbow, it’s a lob.

This morning at the SFC, Kofi said the coaches haven’t done anything to hone the hi-lo. Underwood said his team isn’t running it as much, preferring other actions rather than a two-day game between the bigs.

Certainly none of that is entirely true, and there’s probably an amount of truth in both statements.

Watching hi-lo actions has always been painful, because there’s a necessary amount of cliffhanger drama. Will he get the ball is the obvious question. Will he keep it high, or bring it down to chest level is another.

Run properly, it’s hard to defend. But there’s just so much room for error, and recently, up until the second half at Kohl, error has prevailed.

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Illini Basketball

Yep. This is What a Rebuild Looks Like.

The AP reporter who addressed Trent as “Ayo” can be forgiven. Illini basketball has been irrelevant for a dozen years, and non-217s couldn’t care less who plays for this ex-newsworthy program.

But she also raised a great (if not original) point, in a different question to Alan Griffin: This team is young.

They don’t know they’re young, because they’re young. They take umbrage at being told they’re young because they’re young.

Last night’s Wisconsin game was, objectively, pretty bad. Dumb fouls. Execution failures. On the bright side, it reminded us again about the value of executing the plan. It’s the difference between winning and losing.

Illinois didn’t execute on Wednesday. Not until the end. And then they did, and then they won.

Because the Dick Bennett/Bo Ryan standard has not yet been undermined by its own fans; it felt especially impressive.

Brad Underwood dismissed the idea that a team’s defense is aided when its entire bench is calling out actions from the bench, as the Badgers did Wednesday. But he also acknowledged a massive improvement in field goal percentage, and 3FG% in the second half (62% and 71%). Perhaps the Illini got better looks because there weren’t as many Badgers waiting in their spots?

Certainly being alone on the court allowed the visitors to communicate among themselves. The Illini broke huddle before the hosts, just about every time. In the second half, that left them alone on the court’s south end. Alan and Ayo communicated about the play Underwood had just drawn. A moment later, Alan drained the tying three.

After the next huddle break, Ayo spotted Kofi Cockburn out of place. He directed Kofi to the correct spot, then lobbed the ball there a few seconds later.

Kofi is frequently in the wrong spot, and if you listen closely, you’ll likely hear Underwood yelling as much.

It’s not because Kofi’s stupid. It’s because he’s young and inexperienced. Get old and stay old is Matt Painter’s mantra for running a successful program.

A few days ago, Ayo rejected the notion that Illini execution problems were a symptom of youth. He doesn’t know, because he’s young.

The good news here is that last night at Kohl, Illini fans saw (finally!) what Brad Underwood’s program can look like when things start clicking.

Will it all come together by March, like it did for Kentucky’s recent 9-seed champions? Will you have to wait for next year before the team seems to be consistently moving downhill?

Right now, you’re pretty psyched that there’s another game in a couple of days. So maybe it doesn’t matter. Just enjoy the ride.

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Illini Basketball

Trent Transformation

Discussion of Trent Frazier’s defense is all the rage these days. It’s all anyone’s talking about. But who knew Trent would be offended if one asked about his offensive outburst against Purdue.

I suppose it makes sense. Offense is offensive.

Cuonzo Martin was exasperated by Illini freshman Trent Frazier (Vashoune Russell)

Erich Fisher and I asked different versions of did coach tell you to be more aggressive with the ball after that game. Trent dismissed the notion.

Then Derek Piper posed the same question to Brad Underwood. He said yes.

It seemed pretty obvious. But whatever the case, thank goodness it’s happening. The Complete Trent is much better than Defensive Specialist Trent. The Illini need those buckets. In a handful of losses this year, an extra 10 to 15 points from Frazier would have dramatically changed circumstances.

Cuonzo Martin made it clear in his 2019 postgame observations that taking the ball from Trent changed the whole nature of the Illini offense.

When Brad gave the ball back, Illinois walloped the Boilermakers. Cause and effect can be pretty simple sometimes.