The intensity of Illinois’ defensive effort in the first half of Braggin’ Rights 2017 reminded beleaguered Illini fans of the reason Josh Whitman flew to Oklahoma one morning this spring.
Brad Underwood didn’t look like John Groce 2.0 Saturday. His team didn’t seem emotionally resigned to losing.
Mark Alstork played arrowhead to the Illini spear (spearheaded the Illini arrow?), demonstrating yet again the reason Underwood continues to give him starters minutes. And he tied Leron Black with a team high seven rebounds.
Mark Smith got his swagger back in front of a crowd that seemed to be about 20% Smith Family. He reprised the role he played against UNLV, flexing his muscles at the Illini bench after draining a three.
Either Mark is a good example of Underwood’s theory of psychology management.
Cuonzo Martin said after the game that Braggin’ Rights, if not everything he’d imagined “will be. It will be.” And yet 2017 was probably his best chance to win it.
Martin’s career has always been about potential rather than on-court success. Tennessee fans were ready to run him out of Knoxville before he stumbled into the Sweet Sixteen. Plenty aware of that sentiment, he bolted for Berkeley, where he recruited well and performed poorly, consistent with his M.O.
Jeremiah Tilmon won’t be around for long, and Martin is unlikely to get his money’s worth from the Porter family. On Saturday, Martin showed his most important recruit why Illinois would be a great choice.
EJ Liddell sat behind the Mizzou bench. So did his parents. They all wore neutral colors. On the court, Black — the player EJ is most often compared to — dominated the game.
Black dominated the postgame as well, persuading Sheila Segura to be his wife.