Illini basketball

When Two Tribes Go to War & One Shows Up

The morning after, everyone is surveying the wreckage and wondering whether it’s worth rebuilding.

Two Hurricanes blew through town last night. Now we have to see whether the damage is superficial, if the foundation is solid.

First it was Chris Lykes, who outscored the Illini 13-11 through the first quarter of the game.

When the Illini defense noticed him, the Hurricanes found DJ Vasiljevic on the arc. He connected for 6-of-9 threes.

Bo Ryan shrugged off the Pick-n-Pop Massacre of 2010, when Mike Tisdale and Demetri McCamey took turns lobbing bombs over a principled Wisconsin defensive system. Should we feel the same way about last night’s debacle? Sometimes the ball goes in and there’s nothing you can do about it?

Well, here’s the thing: Chris Lykes didn’t hit a single three-pointer in that first half. He found weak spots in the Illini defense, and exploited them. He drove 1-on-4 against the host team, and it worked.

Vasiljevic had enough time to eat a sandwich and finish his homework before launching most of his shots.

When Ayo Dosunmu guarded Vasiljevic, the Illini earned a five-count turnover.

DJ Vasiljevic responded poorly when defended.

Lykes is 5’5″ at most. Could it be that Illini defenders simply weren’t prepared for someone so tiny? They likely haven’t seen his size since 8th grade, and might never have encountered such quickness.

Brad Underwood’s crafty tactical response was siccing Da’Monte Williams on Lykes, to get in his head. And it worked! Lykes immediately picked up two fouls (one technical, for jawing with Alan Griffin).

But it was too late. The Illini didn’t have time to dig themselves out of the 27-point hole. If it were a 48 minute game, the Illini win. It’s not. They didn’t.

I already wrote about ending the Star-Spangled Banner in favor of a reading from the U.S. Constitution (assuming the goal of this ritual, which began in the era of execrable Espionage & Sedition Acts, is to remind people that they’re in America, and why that matters).

I think this team needs to halt the pre-game light show altogether. They’re clearly enamored of their own (unoriginal) hand-slapping, biceps-flexing pre-game pageantry. But then they crawl to a 14-2 point deficit against the pride of Romeoville (Lewis), score six points in the first 10 minutes (Hawai’i) or let a football school run up a football score on their home court.

Guys like Williams and Andres Feliz don’t need to be told. Maybe that’s true of Trent Frazier as well.

The rest of them are, perhaps, too genteel in their dispositions (or satisfied being an Instagram darling). It’s a wonderful personality trait, but contrary to the competitive instinct.

Eventually, Underwood figured things out. Eventually, the Illini began “playing with a sense of urgency.” But by that point, Underwood was out of time outs. So when it came time to remind Ayo that 1-on-3 means somebody’s open, there was nothing Underwood could do about it.

It’s great that Giorgi executed a perfect backscreen. It was great that Feliz read it correctly. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the go-ahead bucket. It brought them within one.

It’s also great that Feliz has learned not to get too deep, and has become Illinois’ go-to, gut-check guy. It’s great that Trent has his groove back, offensively. It’s great that Giorgi loves creating for other guys as much as scoring buckets.

None of those guys took the last shot.

Worse, when Illinois found itself within a point, its best offensive option — the guy around whom this team was built — was on the bench, one clock-stoppage from a well-drawn, game-winning play.

Unfortunately, this didn’t happen with 2.7 seconds remaining.

Watching Kofi dunk is fun. But Underwood needs to produce wins.

The DIA cleverly abandoned #WeWillWin after three years of steady losing produced the obvious retort We Will? When?

The new slogan is #JoinThe Fight, and after an embarrassing weekend in the revenue sports, a new retort is becoming clear: What fight?

Illini basketball

The Rock

You might have a favorite Illini player. I don’t. I’m averse to the concept of favorites. I like variety.

Moreover, favorite means different things to different people. Is it an alpha or an underdog? Do you love the personality or the skill set?

This article is about The Rock of this 2020 Illini basketball team.

Giorgi is one of those once-per-generation personalities, and his skill set is so fundamental that it appeals to all ages of hoops aficionado.

Kofi is an effortless, nearly flawless once-per-generation bucket+rebound machine. His earnestness is a story in itself.

Lali Bezhanishvili attended her fourth consecutive game on Tuesday. She’s now on a plane back to Wien.

Last night, Da’Monte Williams burst forward for a career-high 18 points, and earned a moment in the spotlight. He even smiled when this reporter asked his teammates to aver that he sometimes smiles (in the absence of cameras) and, in fact, cracks jokes.

None of these guys, all indispensable to the team, is The Rock.

Da’Monte Williams

Trent Frazier hews precipitously toward rockishness. He’s got that game, and that personality. Brad Underwood, as hard-ass old school as any current Power 5 head coach, cannot find enough time to heap praise for Trent’s toughness, defensive dominance, and playmaking capabilities.

Trent Frazier is not the subject of this article.

Ayo Dosunmu finally enjoyed a night’s romp through defenses, driving to the bucket, assisting others, connecting on jumpers from the arc.

No, I’m not talking about Alan Griffin either.

To me, it’s obvious that Andres Feliz is, and has been, the foundation of this team since the moment he arrived on campus. It’s not because he keeps the team loose in the locker room. It’s not because his stature imposes Laws of Physics on opponents. It’s because his sheer determination imposes itself on everyone lucky/unfortunate enough to cross his path.

Giorgi is everything to all people, and one of the best freshmen Illini basketball has seen since freshman eligibility. Kofi, Ayo and Trent continue to be focal points for media and opponents.

Andres Feliz remains the lone Illini whose focus, effort & intensity demonstrate a ruthlessness that — for better, or very much likely worse — can’t be taught. It’s borne of a determination that Americans can’t fake and don’t experience. Not in this generation, anyhow. Andres fought his way off that island.

Since arriving in Champaign, Andres has demonstrated a sense of humor to fans. In moments when he thought he might have been unobserved, he’s taken his teammates aside for words of encouragement, hugs, and laughs. But also tough talk.

For those who might have opinions about Tyler Underwood, it might be useful to know that both Andres Feliz and Trent Frazier have intensely close relationships with Tyler Underwood.

Sports fans and sports psychologists have an understanding about toughness & determination. Maybe casual fans understand too. Maybe not. If you’re an Illini fan and reading this column, understand & appreciate this point: Andres Feliz is the first among equals on this team. He’s the terminator who absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

The best part of the Andres Feliz story, for those of us benefiting from all his determination and hard work, is that we can expect to enjoy his labors, for free, through March.

He’s married to an American woman, and has an American kid. Maybe he’ll be able to stay even after that.

Illini basketball


The Big Man On Campus was decidedly demure Friday morning. You might even say glum.

Was Kofi Cockburn depressed? No, just reflective. Erich Fisher asked a typical freshman question, of the what do you need to work on variety. And Kofi had a lot to say, because he sees a lot of weaknesses in his game, especially on defense.

Strikingly, Kofi was not shy about sharing his deficiencies. “I like constructive criticism,” he declared.

There were at least four instances where Kofi screwed up during The Citadel game. These mental errors would likely have gone unreported except for Kofi’s eagerness for feedback and analysis of his weak spots. Perhaps it goes without saying, but this is a remarkably mature outlook for a person who’s not considered, by the laws of his current domicile, old enough to make decisions about wine.

Brad Underwood addressed one of these mistakes in this morning’s press conference. He said Kofi’s fatigue allowed a lay-up for The Citadel.

There was a second lay-up that a better team would have scored when Kofi jogged down the floor, amused by his own performance on the offensive end, and oblivious to his responsibility as defensive safety. (The Citadel’s ball-handler didn’t recognize how easy it would be to dribble right past Kofi .)

Kofi over-hedged, pretty dramatically, on a defensive possession. He went out almost to the arc closest to the home bench. Conveniently, that’s the corner of the court where it’s easiest to hear the screams of the coaching staff. One assumes he wanted to intimidate, and possibly block a jump-shooter. His coaches wanted him to anchor the defense.

The fourth mistake was the fun one, because it involved Kofi’s teammates in an encouraging role. The Illini offense had an opportunity to get set and run a play. They had a lead, it was the second half, and the coaching staff wanted to run an action. But Kofi had forgotten the play, or didn’t hear the call.

Trent Frazier, standing at the free-throw line with his back to the basket, looked over his right shoulder, and stage-whispered “Kofi, up here!” Kofi moved to the far-side elbow, and Ayo, seeing everybody set, initiated the action.

There were almost certainly other times when Kofi was out of position, but we don’t need to dwell on them. These descriptions are provided only as context, to demonstrate the moments that this young man dwells on while determinedly focusing on his own improvement.

Illini basketball


Did you enjoy the Wolf Mask Reveal? Was it Worth The Wait?

Good. Now, let’s get back to regularly scheduled programming. The fifth game of Kofi’s Epoch produced, sadly, only his fourth double-double.

This Jamaican manchild is already imperfect in His Domination, His Resurrection of The Program. HE’S ONLY 80% ON DOUBLE-DOUBLES!

Fortunately for him, Kofi has not yet been told that he is Our Savior.

His naïveté is charming.

Two days ago, Kofi became “available” to the media. [DIA policy changes without notice, and it’s hard to keep up. For example, Mark Smith was “not available” until his dad had already thrown in the towel on Illinois’ failure to promote Mark Smith. Ayo was available immediately, perhaps because of the Mark Smith fiasco.]

In his first postgame press-conference, Kofi explained to the Illini media corps that he’s seven feet tall. It was as though, in his mind, he needed to introduce himself, as if we didn’t know about him.

One of Kofi’s record-setting 17 rebounds

After his record-setting performance, Kofi apologized for stealing a double-double from his good friend Giorgi.

He explained that he’d tried, to no avail, to convince Brad Underwood that Giorgi should stay in the ballgame, to get that double-double.

It’s as if Kofi has no handlers to tell him he’s god’s gift to basketball.

Despite having the words king and alpha in his Twitter handle, you almost get the feeling that he’s a humble kid (certainly not a @HumbleKid).

Giorgi scored 16 points, and grabbed NINE NOT TEN rebounds

It was a good night for frankness. Brad Underwood took a question from former Illini Tyler Cottingham (Walkon) in the postgame, and tacitly admitted that Everything Has Changed and everything is subject to change.

Mostly this question/answer concerned defensive concepts & strategy. But it can be extrapolated to all facets of the game. The point is that Underwood is not announcing major renovations, he’s simply implementing them as soon as data demands. It’s the reason you want Brad Underwood rather than an ideological dinosaur who’s incapable of changing his ways (ooh, Bruce Weber comes to mind).

Underwood tacitly admitted that Ayo has struggled, for an NBA first-round draftee value of “struggled.” If the actual words were reprinted here, you would not find “struggled” among them.

Underwood is deft at parrying, better at messaging. He was glad to see Ayo score a goodly amount of points against The Citadel.

In a separate moment, he praised Da’Monte Williams for being an integral and necessary part of this Illini team, while also demanding a whole lot more from Da’Monte without mentioning “points” or “scoring,” plausibly because that’s not what he meant.

What did he mean?

Side note: I rarely see the TV versions of Illini games, so I don’t know how many of you saw Da’Monte crash through three folding chairs Wednesday night.

At least two people were concerned

Final observation: While we were waiting for the participants to arrive in the media room, I asked Kent Brown if he recalled the date of Deon Thomas’s 16 rebound performance.

He did.

It elicited a good story.

Illini basketball

The Press

Normally, an Illini Report column assumes you watched the game, got your factsy news from a reputable source, and came here for some verbal panache and pictures.

For the Nicholls State write-up, I’m going to assume you didn’t see the game, and need to know why Illinois choked away a late lead. I’ll even go to the extraordinary length of divulging the final score: Illini 78, Nicholls State 70 (OT)

Illinois’ 3-guard line-up couldn’t handle a trapping press. That’s the story of the game. It wouldn’t have been close if Trent Frazier could buy a shot, or Giorgi a rebound. But that’s the way the ball bounced for those two, and suddenly a comfortable 64-50 with five minutes remaining was a tense 66-64, in favor of the visitors. And there was the seven-foot freshman, trying to bring the ball up the court.

Trent didn’t score until hitting the free-throws that sent the game to overtime. Giorgi finished with only 4 rebounds, three of which came at the offensive end. But in crunch time, he just couldn’t get to the ball when it really mattered.

Ayo had five turnovers, and landed in a crumpled pile as often as usual, which is too often. It hurts to watch

Inevitably, it was Andres Feliz who willed the team to victory. Why is it that Andres Feliz was forgotten when everyone crafted his pre-season starting five? When will you people learn?

Giorgi hit a pair of threes, and he worked to give Kofi space in the paint. In the latter respect, his energy was not focused on putting a ball directly through a hoop.

But because those efforts garnered a double-double for Kofi, and 11 points for Giorgi … well, there was reason for optimism. But yes, Giorgi isn’t getting those same low-post isolation opportunities that launched Frank Kaminski into the NBA.

More significantly, Dre’s nose for rebounds provided an unflattering comparison for Giorgi. Certainly, it seemed that the ball bounced where Giorgi wasn’t. But when you compare Giorgi’s bad luck with guys like Dennis Rodman, or Dre (and Chester Frazier before him) you have to question whether it’s luck.

Either way, it doesn’t show that Giorgi is terrible. Rebounding is a rare skill. Most guys can grab a ball that comes toward them. Andres Feliz is one of those guys who always seems to be where the ball lands.

If you want reason for optimism, think of it this way: Almost everything that could go wrong for Illinois went wrong, and yet they won.

Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk followed his debut perfection with an 0-fer performance. Ayo couldn’t keep the ball in his own hands and Trent went 0-for-9 from the field.

The night’s loudest crowd reaction came on a rebound dunk that Alan Griffin missed. Come Monday, we’ll have a much better idea of how worried everyone should be.

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.

Illini Basketball

Varese, Day 3 – Gazzada

First, the good news. Alan Griffin is “playing above the rim,” as they say.

Has anyone compared him to Kendall Gill yet? No? Well, they will. He’s bigger and stronger and still bouncy and suddenly recognizing that, despite a non-hyped recruiting experience; he can play with these guys.

Italy has been good for Tevian Jones, too. Like Griffin, he’s displaying a good balance of triple-threat capabilities. In Gazzada, Jones scored 18 points, in various ways.

Last year, people didn’t get to know Tevian as well as they might, were it not for 1933’s cult classic Reefer Madness, and the McCarthyism it engendered among Americans. Fortunately, a violation of team rules is now legal in Illinois, and the NCAA should adapt to the new legal landscape within a quarter-century, judging by their previous progressive acumen.

Tevian spent a lot of his downtime in long talks with his mentors. These sessions were observable from afar, so I did. He spent a lot of time after practice, before games, etc. in deep. It happened again last night, when Coach O spent his pizzatime offering wisdom.

Everyone seems to be having a good time, although this reporter suspects they aren’t getting enough sleep. Dragged out of bed for a bus ride through thunderstorms to a boat ride through thunderstorms is not what I would have done (and, in fact, didn’t). But later that night the lads pwn3d another local team, which included a few elements of the previous night’s local team.

The families were glad to have the opportunity, although they too would have liked to have known the games weren’t in pricey Milan but instead small towns where the rooms are dirt cheap. Lali Bezhanishvili paid only $80 for a round trip from Wien, but stayed in Milan rather than Varese. She had to go back to work today.

The Dosunmu posse has been touring northern Italy for ten days already, led by experienced traveler and recovering attorney Jamenda McCoy. They’re having a good time either way. Meanwhile, Ayo has attained cult status. Middle-aged Italian men swarmed him after the Gazzada game, to ask about his NBA plans.

People paid to get in at Gazzada (despite all pre-game information to the contrary), and at least 3/4 of the crowd was rooting for the home team, although not antagonistically. They appreciated the artistry & athleticism of our American lads.

Afterward, they all asked for (and got) pictures with the Illini.

This poster hung at the front door to the Gazzada gym

Jamall Walker also didn’t sleep yesterday, despite arriving at 9 a.m. on an overseas flight. He said he got in a little work-out and walked around town a bit, adding that naps are for *******.

It’s too bad that he had to walk around Milan. Milan is, as civic engineering goes, as close to Soviet central planning as Italians get. Lifeless apartment blocks stretch for miles from the city center. The next Rudy Guede cycles aimlessly through the tourist zones, harassing local women in a way that would floor #MeToo activists (which is his goal, but not metaphorically).

That brings us to the bad news.

The Italian Trip will provide lifelong memories for the individuals. It’s a disaster for the program. This was meant to be the testing ground for new players. To get Kofi Cockburn integrated in the system, while Giorgi adapts to the four-spot.

Instead, the flagship campus continues a years long tradition of asking its willing joiners to play out-of-position, because it’s incapable of getting its own roster on the court.

The reaction from the DIA, when asked for comment on the “visa situation” from a reliable spokesperson (such as the Athletics Director, the coaching staff, its overseeing Faculty Representative; all of whom were within 25 yards) was to ridicule the suggestion that this blunder merits any ink.

That’s always a sign. When PR people tell you there’s no story here, there’s always a really interesting story.

Speaking of non-stories, and the lengths PR people go to stop them, here’s a picture of the beer truck outside the Gazzada venue. After last nights win, Brad Underwood and the entire coaching staff lined up to patronize these guys. It’s just their way of showing thanks. I didn’t stick around to take any pictures. I had a train to catch. And although Brad loves to tell stories about beer (and even Zima) with cameras rolling, sometimes it’s best to allow people to be themselves off-camera.

Livorno is a significantly more Italian city. I’m here now. The team probably won’t see it, except for the inside of its gym. We’ll find out tomorrow,