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Illini Basketball

Talking Points

It’s Finals Weeks. Braggin’ Rights looms. One fourth of the way through the season, where does this Illini team stand?

Great teams don’t rest on their laurels. They analyze their mistakes, and their successes. They seek to improve every aspect of performance. There’s plenty of good and bad to think about on the way to Saint Louis. A few key match-ups should provide the best talking points, and might decide the game.

Da’Monte Williams

Is there a more polarizing Illini player? Almost certainly. But it’s worth noting that if you do have an opinion about Da’Monte Williams, you either think he’s the guy who holds it all together, or you’re calling for his benching.

You don’t have to like Clarence Thomas to be impressed by the effect he had on the US Supreme Court from day one. Da’Monte is like that.

Thomas arrived when the court was split 4-4 on a particular case. His vote would determine the outcome. Yet at the end of debate, Thomas found himself in the minority. Whatever happened in that conference room, he made an impression on his colleagues.

Likewise, Williams sat out his first summer as his ACL healed. On the first day he joined practice, according to Brad Underwood, he changed the team “because of his basketball IQ.”

Da’Monte’s intelligence would be useless if he didn’t have a lot of dog in him. But he’s from Peoria. Wimps don’t make it out of Peoria.

Da’Monte rips the ball from Mark Smith, last year

Williams will be the player to watch Saturday at the Checkerdome (or whatever it’s called these days). He probably won’t score much. That’s not the question.

The question is how will Mark Smith fare? Da’Monte hopes to answer with his defensive performance: not very well.

Last year, Smith scored 5 points in 35 minutes in his first game against his old team. It was pretty clear that Da’Monte enjoyed his part in that futility.

He enjoyed taking Smith’s ball

The other guy in all Sunday’s pictures of Smith will be Andres Feliz, who wouldn’t be here if Mark Smith chose to stay. In hindsight, Illini fans are probably okay with that trade. Feliz will want to prove it to them, nonetheless.

If you don’t think Andres Feliz plays with a chip on his shoulder, you haven’t met Andres Feliz.

It’s not a bad thing. He plays with pride, and as if his life depends on it, which it kind of does. That goes for his wife and kid, too.

Kofi Cockburn is a machine, and should be treated like one. His underuse might be this team’s most obvious problem. Watching from the bench during two heartbreaking losses was remedied by a dominant performance over ranked (overrated?) Michigan.

Against Old Dominion, Kofi attempted six shots. He finished with three field goals. Maybe he didn’t need the extra practice, but it would be nice to see the team go to that well continuously, until it becomes second-nature. He converts 59% of his shots. If you fould him, he’ll make his free-throws.

Maybe Kofi doesn’t know it, and maybe it’s not fair; but his match-up with Jeremiah Tilmon will be the talking point of Braggin’ Rights. Tilmon abandoned the Illini when Underwood came aboard. Instead, the Illini have Kofi and Giorgi Bezhanishvili.

Tilmon is averaging 9.7 points and 4.7 rebounds in 22.6 minutes/game on the season. Contrast Giorgi with 9.6 points and 5.7 boards in 25.9 minutes.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili rebounds

Kofi also gets 25.9 minutes, is averaging 15.4 points and 10.5 rebounds in those minutes. Foul trouble can limit minutes for any of them. Tilmon leads the way with 2.8 per game. Giorgi and Kofi accrue less than 2.5/game.

(Watch for Mizzou’s transfer guard Dru Smith to foul out. He averages 3.3 fouls per game.)

Alan Griffin

When Brad Underwood says “I don’t remember anyone stripping my ball” in college, he’s talking about Alan Griffin.

To Alan’s credit, Giorgi got his ball stripped a bunch of times in the Michigan game. It doesn’t mean you’re terrible. It means you haven’t played against the very best, and your habits are not attuned to playing the very best. It also means you’ve been distracted.

Alan is, by far, the most yelled at player of the Underwood tenure. Number 2 is Kipper Nichols, whom Underwood yelled at a lot during last Saturday’s game against Old Dominion. When the dust settled, Kipper was sitting in the media room, in front of a microphone. That’s always a sign that the coach thinks you done good.

Underwood doesn’t yell at you unless he thinks you’re worth yelling at. With Alan Griffin, the athletic ability is obvious. The talent is there. It’s the processing that frustrates Underwood. Alan is more cerebral than most, which sometimes slows him a step. Being too smart and being too thoughtful are enviable problems. In sports, it’s described as “spacy.”

Alan’s game translates well to the Mizzou defense, which is also spacy.

BTW: Underwood also spent a good amount of energy yelling at Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk during his moment of PT last Saturday, which suggests BBV might be worth the time & effort.

Note: Inquiries to the B1G office yielded no update on the health of Lewis Garrison. The ODU game was refereed by Brandon Cruz, I don’t know that Brandon Cruz had ever refereed an Illini game previously.

Categories
Illini basketball

A Happy Blood Bath

Just what the doctor ordered; a rampage through a hapless patsy.

Things had been going pretty well for the Illini, especially if his name were Kofi Cockburn. But as the team’s focus shifted, appropriately, to feeding its Monster in the Middle, individual stats suffered.

Saturday night, everybody got a chance.

Was it more important for Alan Griffin or Ayo Dosunmu? That’s the sort of question sports people ask, because sports people are incessantly looking for any available over/under. For better or worse, and it’s arguably for worse, sports is about winners & losers.

The answer is that it was better for Ayo Dosunmu and Alan Griffin. The answer is that Illinois basketball got a shot in the arm by allowing everybody to bask in the glory of a slaughter.

Scoring 20 and 19 points respectively, Ayo and Alan almost visibly swelled with confidence. And they got their points quickly enough to allow plenty of minutes for the guys who don’t usually get to play.


Brad Underwood name-checked both Ayo and Alan in his postgame comments, and didn’t say they’d been struggling.

Ayo enjoyed the opportunity to run an open (or at least disorganized) floor against the Pirates. Alan got open looks, converted 3-of-7 from the arc, and made one spectacular tip-in which is almost certainly susceptible to Search, now that everything is recorded.

Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of it. (It happened at the other end from me, as did Da’Monte’s alley-oop dunk.) But I did get a good picture of Alan.

Ben Bosmans-Verdonk dished four assists during his ten minutes of PT. He also grabbed two rebounds and two steals, and scored four points (and committed three fouls). Tevian Jones watched from the bench, and seemed to enjoy the performance despite the obvious point that he could have enjoyed those minutes himself.

Tevian Jones watches BBV getting all his minutes

Jermaine Hamlin got nine minutes of tick, and converted a pair of FGAs. The first was a left-handed hook shot. The second was a dunk that kept going and going and going.

No-nonsense referee Keith Kimble, who has never smiled, finally grew bored with watching Hamlin hanging from the rim, and assessed a T.

Categories
Illini Basketball

In with the old, In with the new

It seemed like old times when Illini basketball fell behind Lewis 14-2 Friday night. After all, my first-ever write up of an Illini basketball contest was titled Illinois almost Lewis-es.

Then there was Chaos and Lewis.

The new.

Friday’s exhibition featured new faces prompting new story lines. The youngsters deserve the spotlight. They performed.

Kofi Cockburn tallied a double-double. His footwork seemed natural. He looked comfortable on the floor. He didn’t panic under pressure, but instead found Da’Monte Williams for an open three.

Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk converted three of three attempts from three. He converted two of two attempts from one.

Eleven points in eight minutes. Three rebounds. No fouls. And Brad Underwood was even more impressed by his defense than his O.

That last point is significant for two reasons. As Underwood pointed out, BBV has been fully cleared to practice for a total of five days in his career. And more importantly, what freshman big man was ever praised for his defense in a first-ever appearance?

Cockburn was so reliable in the paint, he was almost boring to watch. The hi-lo didn’t work right away because, as Underwood reported, Giorgi was a little too excited to get it going. i.e. Giorgi forced things. i.e. Giorgi was enthusiastic about passing to another guy so the other guy could score. It’s an excellent problem to have.

But Kofi didn’t show nerves. He merely executed.

Kofi Cockburn celebrates a forced three-second turnover against Lewis.

Eventually the hi-lo worked. Giorgi and Kofi both finished with points, and Giorgi and Kofi both finished with assists. Kofi had 16 & 3. Giorgi had 12 & 2.

Kipper Nichols played the hi-lo as well. He threw two dimes, called out defenses, and rebounded/converted a missed Alan Griffin lay-up, despite much harassment.

Fellow old man Da’Monte Williams was up to his old man tricks. Even older Underwood mentioned these two in his postgame comments, and he probably wasn’t simply throwing a bone to the Groce recruits, who’ve been bypassed in the starting line-up.

Underwood can count on Williams in the same way that he counts on his son Tyler. And he did on Friday, when flashier players’ turnovers mounted.

Brad Underwood likes turnovers as much as the average basketball coach. Possibly less. He also enjoys watching his players shift out of position, reach in, foul jumpshooters, etc. just as much as the average coach.

When Alan Griffin had another Alan Griffin Moment, Underwood gave Griffin another Alan Griffin Brad Underwood Moment.

If Underwood is as hard on any other single player as he is on Alan Griffin, it hasn’t happened in public moments. It’s therefore almost impossible to avoid assuming that Underwood wouldn’t be so hard on Griffin if

  1. Underwood didn’t see enormous potential waiting to be tapped
  2. Griffin’s dad were not also a hard-nosed coach

Contrast Underwood’s praise for Jermaine Hamlin, whose performance was statistically the worst of any Illini. Five minutes, two rebounds – one of which was immediately stripped by a tiny D-II guard.

Underwood said he didn’t know how Hamlin could help the team this year, which should get Redshirt talk churning. But Underwood said he’d like Hamlin to be involved this year. Does that mean in games, or just practice?

The oldest guy in the house was Aaron Jordan.

He was present for the last Illini game at State Farm Center, of course. But that seems like ages ago, for a lot of reasons.

Aaron was working for money on Friday, not just for your enjoyment. He was part of the DIA marketing team. More fundamentally, Aaron attended his first Illini game where Rob Jordan wasn’t also in attendance.

People who didn’t know Rob Jordan might assume that his attendance streak would have ended with Aaron’s eligibility. People who knew Rob Jordan understand that he would have been there Friday night, not just to cheer Aaron’s new job, but only about 85% to cheer Aaron’s new job.

Had Rob Jordan not died suddenly this year, he would have continued to attend Illini games even after Aaron moved on and up in the world. Fundamentally, Rob was put on earth to yell at referees, to buy Cracker Jack (and tip the hawkers who brought it to his seat) and to socialize and enlighten people through networking. He was, after all, the Fiber Guru.

Rob Jordan was more important to Illini basketball than almost anyone understands, so it was especially nice to see his scion in attendance Friday. If you’re bored with reading about him, don’t check back next week. It’ll only get worse for you.