Te’Jon Lucas returned to practice today for the first time since taking a Mark Smith elbow to the eye socket. His vision may still be a bit blurry. In the team’s first drill, he dropped a pass on the wing, one of “two fumbles in the first 30 seconds!” which is what Brad Underwood roared moments later. It was like that for much of the afternoon. Underwood used more four-letter words today than John Groce did in five years at Illinois. It’s tough love, and sometimes the love is hard to glean. The tough comes across clearly. Underwood is old school. He reminds me of the best coach I ever had, Urbana’s Wayne Mammen. You’ll recall Groce borrowing the Tony Dungy phrase “we want to be demanding without demeaning.” Well, Underwood doesn’t worry about demeaning. Or demanding. Mammen was my football coach, but his best prospect was younger son Kirk, who won two state wrestling titles at 189 lbs. before an All-American career at Oklahoma State. When Tyler Underwood followed his dad from Oklahoma State, no one might have guessed how important his role would be. Coach Underwood is just as hard on Tyler as everyone else. Maybe that’s the reason Tyler’s on the roster: To demonstrate that Brad Underwood still loves you even while he’s tearing you a new asshole. Underwood does what Groce didn’t do and Bruce Weber couldn’t do. He puts the fear of god into his players. Or at least the fear of hell. Whether it’s effort or execution, Underwood does not allow lapses. When the Illini practiced zone offense, Trent Frazier skipped a pass to a verboten area of the court and Underwood stopped play to explain why that particular angle will never work. Underwood had previously, expressly forbidden this kind of pass in that particular situation. This was a teaching moment, reminding the youngsters why they’re taught what they’re taught. The pack line is gone. Since Dick Bennett’s Green Bay teams unleashed it on unsuspecting mid-major offenses, the pack line lost its element of surprise. Disorienting a team’s screening actions is part of Underwood’s plan, and according to his theory, that requires defenses to disrupt traditional passing lanes. Expect defensive intensity to extend beyond the pack line’s imaginary boundary. The Groce administration changed its high-hands philosophy midstream, so the overall look of that scheme changed over the years. But Underwood will challenge ball-handlers deep in the back court, and before the first pass. And then, of course, it gets harder. Big man coach Orlando Antigua chimed in: “Defensively you don’t have a man after the first pass. You’ve got to work harder because of that.” Underwood continued on that theme: “When I was at Kansas State, Jacob Pullen scored 46 straight points in this drill. Defense can’t stop, ever.” “This is unbelievable. I’m used to Rodney McGruder,” he finished, name-dropping another K-State protégé who, evidently, also tried hard and listened. Chin Coleman helped position the defensive perimeter players at the lane’s elbows, and Underwood made sure Greg Eboigbodin knew exactly how to align his feet vis-à-vis his man. Underwood stressed that “height doesn’t matter” when defending the low post, so long as the perimeter help is doing its job. “Our post defense is great because our perimeter defense is good.” It wasn’t enough. You’ve heard about a player “in the doghouse” but you know that doghouse is simply a phrase. Not with Underwood. His doghouse sits in the southwest corner the the Corzine Gym. When an Illini screws up, he runs the treadmill. Today’s treadmill, in quick succession: AJ, Finke, Greg, Matic, Da’Monte, Kipper & Smith. “Holy #### are you going to look good waving that towel on the sidelines,” Underwood called to a player who seemed a bit too enthusiastic about successive execution failures. “Starched uniform and everything!” And that’s one of the greatest aspects of Brad Underwood. You can’t be a hardass coach all the time without a good sense of sarcasm, irony, even cynicism. A sense of humor is a relatable quality. It lets people know you’re human, that you see life for what it is. The freshmen bigs had the worst of it today. If things go well for Matic Vesel, he may never again turn as red as he did when Underwood stopped a drill to single-out the Slovenian newcomer. “These guys didn’t come here to see you lollygagging in the corner,” yelled the coach, only he didn’t use the word “lollygagging.” These guys were a small group of NBA scouts who watched the entire practice. Matic spent the last hour of practice with his right foot elevated, in a compression boot. He’d landed awkwardly, with an entire Michael Finke on top of him. After practice, he limped to the locker room unaided, but slowly. Don’t expect him to be too active for the rest of the week. Matic and Greg are both way, way too gentle & kind to kick ass and take names the way Underwood demands. Matic is still adjusting to America, which he regards as remarkably laid back. So maybe he’s just trying to fit in. Greg is just super, duper polite. Greg’s bad day began when he attempted a spin move on the baseline. First of all, he stepped out of bounds, but nobody saw that. Then, he pivoted to dunk. That’s when he encountered Leron Black, whose one-handed rejection made a clapping sound like thunder, but more expressive. NO YOU AIN’T it seemed to say. Perhaps chastened, Greg’s next offensive move saw him spin away from the basket, to launch an 8-foot fadeaway that barely grazed the rim. Underwood stopped the drill again. “You left that move at Jesuit High School.” Antigua chastised the move as well. “You take it in there strong and pick up a foul,” he admonished. Where were these guys when Nnanna Egwu was playing here? If Greg and Matic aren’t ready for B1G level ball by December, well, they’re freshmen. It’s not an indictment of their character or potential. So who will guard those spots? Leron wears a big brace on his shooting arm. He’s still recovering from the elbow surgery which fixed what Underwood described as “imagine you got hit in the funny bone, but it feels like that all the time.” His rebounding hasn’t changed. It’s fantastic. But his three-point shooting has not improved. It’s probably worse than the 29.7% he accomplished last year. Underwood likes stats, and he heeds them. He’s also not afraid (so he says) to tell his players which among them can shoot from where, when, and in what circumstances. That leads us to the next undersized big man. Kipper Nichols seems to spend most of his time on the wing, but he’s usually in the fight for a rebound, and he’s got a post-up game which Leron frankly does not have. You can see Kipper defending the 4 while creating an offensive mismatch at the other end. Does that mean you should pencil Leron Black in at the five spot? It worked okay for Daryl Thomas, whose physique and skill set were similar. But things worked even better for Thomas when he had Dean Garrett by his side. So Illini fans should hope someone becomes Dean Garrett. But more likely, Illini fans should hope Underwood finds a Dean Garrett for next year. CLOSING THOUGHTS It’s especially stupid to project starters given all the recovering injuries, newcomers, dearth of returning talent. Furthermore, Illini fans should hope that “starting” means little in the scheme Brad Underwood conjures. But if we can take him at his word, Underwood has decided on one starter for Sunday’s “secret scrimmage.” It’s Da’Monte Williams. After a spectacularly aggressive rebound in traffic, Underwood stopped play again. “Do you know who’s leading this team in rebounds through all these practices?” He pointed to the quietest guy on the team. “It’s him. That’s why he’s starting on Sunday.” Practice finished with a lay-up drill in which players could approach the basket only from the left-hand side, and a final half-court five-on-zero passing drill. The team missed a lot of free-throws today — including Tyler, Te’Jon and Finke — the guys everyone is counting on to keep them from extra wind sprints. So they ran a lot. Kipper, AJ, Te’Jon, Tyler, Samson Oladimeji and Mark Alstork hung around for extra shooting while staff socialized. Don’t be upset that Alstork wasn’t mentioned previously in this post. It means he avoided the coach’s ire. He again paced the team in wind sprints.
It’s getting harder to produce worthwhile comedy featuring Illini basketball players. There are only so many irrelevant questions one can ask them, and I feel as though I’ve asked all those questions
The first IlliniReport video from Media Day 2017 will make you feel old: No one on the team remembers Frank Williams. Oh, youth. Where have you gone? (It made me feel fat & bald, as well.)
Given a brief window of opportunity every first week of October, I’ve always struggled to get a moment with each player. It never works. The newspapers and TV stations get first dibs, and a roving pack of reporters feeds on the chum.
Sports PR, at the the college and professional levels, is still geared toward newspapers & TV. It’s kind of charming. One dying medium takes pictures destined for use in stories of late night arrests. The other records 12 seconds of banter for an elderly audience anxious to hear the weather report.
As cameras roll, the walk-ons sit, ignored. Everyone else responds to the same three questions, posed by 30 different people over a 45 minute period.
There’s usually a huge problem with audio, because the interviews take place in a gym with reverberating walls and lots of bouncing basketballs. I’m thrilled to know that some people could understand what was said here:
You never know how a guy will respond if you’ve never met him before. And that was the case with Leron Black. The apprehension on his face when I asked about neck bone preparation is a great moment of comedy. But at the time, I was worried that I’d made him really uncomfortable.
Most newcomers are guys I’ve met before, as recruits. But if a recruit comes from far away, like Leron, or if he’s a transfer; it’s likely that Media Day is the first time I’ll meet him.
That was the case with Sam McLaurin. I had no idea what to expect when I went in with a script parodying Sam’s notorious announcement Tweet.
I explained the idea to him for ten seconds, tops. Then we rolled camera.
It’s still amazing to me how well he picked up on it. On top of that, he ad-libbed too. This remains my favorite Media Day performance.
With the advantage of hindsight, I’m not as surprised as I was that day. Sam is really smart, which is a big reason Illinois won Maui and made the NCAA Tourney during his year here.
For example, if he hadn’t hedged from Cody Zeller to Victor Oladipo in exactly the way he’d been coached to do, this would never have happened.
After Illinois, Sam lived in Austin, Boston, Chicago (working for Robert Archibald) and now he’s in China. We remain friends. He’s a really good guy to know.
His Media Day 2012 interview required less than five minutes. I don’t remember whether I tried to record anything else that day.
It makes sense that I wouldn’t have tried to record anything else. The focus has always been newcomers.
I need to remind myself that newcomers don’t even know who Frank Williams is and was, and won’t mind if I ask them the same stupid questions I’ve asked on Media Days past. Food, sleep, weird habits, video games.
Would that bore you? Maybe it would. But I expect the answers would be different, and that’s the important thing. It’s really about what the players say, right?
I’ll be editing a couple more videos from Media Day 2017. I hope they’ll be amusing & informative. I hope they’ll give people some feeling for the newcomers. Matic Vesel and Greg Eboigbodin (holy shit, I just typed that from memory and spell-check verified it as accurate … whew) were really lovely. You can be proud, as Illini fans, to have youngsters so eager & polite on your team.
In the future, maybe I’ll ignore the artist’s credo to never retrace one’s steps. I can see the Word Association questions working just about every year.
Today was Media Day, so you’ll find your first interviews with Auto-Matic Vesel & Greg OingoBoingo on your favorite East Central Illinois news channel. I’ll be cutting and pasting my version for a few days, because I’m slow.
I interviewed barely half the players because, unlike years past, media had to get off the floor so the team could practice. Also unlike years past, we didn’t have to leave when the team started practicing.
Thus, here’s your practice update.
The team ran five man drills in various groupings. The grouping of Smith-Alstork-Jordan-Vesel-Black underlined the concept of positionless basketball. Yes, you could argue that those names match a typical 1-through-5 line-up, except that Vesel was mostly on the high post and the wing. Smith does seem to handle the ball at the beginning of a possession more than Alstork. If Leron Black really is going to play “center,” it will prove that Underwood has the imagination that Bruce Weber and John Groce lacked. i.e. he’ll seek to create mismatches rather than trying to compensate for them. (Can you imagine how many additional games Weber might have won if he played Mike Tisdale at small forward, and hid him in a zone? If not, go back and watch the 2010 game at Wisconsin.)
Yeah, Illini football got walloped by a basketball school. Let it pass. Saturday was magical.
A lot of the attendees had never before seen a full Memorial Stadium. They weren’t alive when Mike White and John Mackovic’s teams were forced to build temporary bleachers to accommodate 76,000+ fans.
No Illinois undergrad was alive the last time a packed Tailgreat (look it up) celebrated perfect weather buttressed by unfettered optimism for the program’s future. The 80s Belonged to the Illini (look it up).
You might even blame excitement for the team’s mistake-prone performance. They were just that hyped up. Thirteen penalties and six fumbles might, if we’re lucky, stand as all-time records for the Lovie Administration.
Scroll down a bit and you’ll find Vashoune Russell’s pictures from the evening. This one captures Center Joe Spencer’s once in a lifetime 9 yard rush. It would have been the play of the game except that Gabe Megginson severely twisted his ankle just as Spencer was scooping the ball from the turf.
But let’s stick to happy thoughts.
It wasn’t just a vibrant atmosphere among long-suffering tailgaters. The north end zone was packed with unofficial visitors, potential football recruits who’ve taken note of the NFL pedigree now running the Champaign show.
Garrick McGee continued to look like a 1940s leading man as he introduced priority target student-athletes to one-another. It’s the mustache, but it’s also the demeanor.
At the northeast corner of Zuppke Field, John Groce entertained FOUR Official Visitors and their families. Yes, three of these Visitors have already verballed to Illinois. But that doesn’t answer the question: Has any D-1 basketball program ever hosted FOUR Official Visitors on the same weekend?
Maybe this is the year John Groce turns things around. Even Jalen Coleman-Lands looked pumped as the team convened in the north end zone, and he’d had hand surgery just a day earlier.
So, yeah. Larry Fedora’s Flash In The Pan put a hurt on your orange for the second time in as many seasons.
Next year, he’ll be coaching somewhere else. UNC will be on probation. Lovie et al will have signed the most widely discussed recruiting class since Dwight Beverly (look it up).
T.J. Logan eludes Illini Chris James (Vashoune Russell)
Posterity may remember Saturday’s contest with the Coyotes of South Dakota. More likely, posterity will forget it.
Illinois ran out to a 14-0 lead thanks to four USD turnovers, including steals from Jaylon Tate and Malcolm Hill. From that point forward, the Coyotes outscored the Illini by two.
The player of the game might have been Khalid Lewis, who consistently put his teammates in good position to score. Or it might have been Michael Finke, who continues to be super entertaining to watch.
But Malcolm Hill scored a career-high 34 to go with 11 rebounds and five assists. So there’s really no argument.
Frank Williams’s son Da’Monte watched from the first row with his mother, Tanejah Branson. Paris Parham pointed them out to Dee Brown, who duly sauntered over to welcome Williams to the Illini family.
Lots of people used the F word, and Illinois improved to 7-and-5 on the year. It went like this.