Welp, the 2019 Illini basketball season is here. I have an unwarranted hunch that it might turn out better than The Experts predict. That’s because I’ve seen Andres Feliz and Giorgi Bezhanishvili in action.
Sportswriters know what Illinois will get from its veterans. Most basketball professionals have seen Ayo Dosunmu play at some level. But most of these analysts don’t hang out at Ubben, and haven’t seen Andres or Giorgi. If Illinois surpasses its low expectations this year, these two newcomers will bear significant responsibility.
So far, the only thing Illini fans know about Giorgi is that he’s weird.
His unusual (in fact, foreign) personality contrasts sharply with his reserved American teammates. Case in point: Giorgi kissed me when I arrived at practice this morning. I don’t recall being kissed by any previous Illini. I’m pretty sure it’s a first.
The smiley faced singing & dancing act works to camouflage a vital point about Giorgi: He is a vicious competitor. By vicious, I mean angry, devious, even spiteful. There will be altercations this season. Giorgi will provoke them.
This Mr. Hyde side appears, as far as I know, only on court. Genial Giorgi, the off-court Dr. Jekyll, seems real.
First time observers will also be stunned by Giorgi’s passing, and the all-encompassing court vision that enables it. In a recent practice, Georgi whipped a two-handed no-look pass from the near side low-post to Feliz, in the far corner. As his defender closed in, Andres returned a similarly impressive bullet, right back to Georgi, who immediately swung the ball to the near arc for a wide-open Trent Frazier three-pointer, again with two hands and no eyes. Did an entire second elapse before the ball had crossed the court twice? I wouldn’t bet on it.
Adonis de la Rosa is ready. Today, after practice, he stuck around to tutor Samba Kane on low-post moves. After that additional work out, he said his knee feels great and that he’d like to play tomorrow night.
Kane is perhaps the most polite human to wear an Illini uniform. After the the tutorial, he asked de la Rosa if they could have an extra session every day. Adonis said yes.
The lesson featured advice every big man knows. You’ve got to move your defender with your lower body, never your arms. Once you land on the blue line (the exact middle of the lane, where the Underwood Administration affixes blue duct tape to the floor), you’re in the money zone, where only good things can happen. Samba Kane would know these things because he’s not a basketball player, yet.
Adonis taught Samba how his hips should rotate through a series of low-post maneuvers. Where his feet should be in relation to those hips. When to bring the ball down for the single dribble.
After Samba reached the Money Zone, he clanged a lay-up off the side of the rim. “I want to see you dunk that every time,” admonished his teacher.
You’ve heard that Da’Monte Williams morphed into a jump-shooter. It’s true. His mechanics are perfect. Even in transition, he manages to square himself to the basket, and fast.
Aaron Jordan talks about this newfound marksmanship more than anyone. Jordan’s praise for Williams is completely undeterred by the obvious threat that a sharpshooting, ball-handling, rebounding Williams poses to Jordan’s PT.
The ball-handling is key. Williams didn’t commit any head-scratching turnovers in the last scrimmage this reporter watched.
The Fistfighting Fours
It’s unfortunate that sports requires us to convert warm, thoughtful people like Kipper Nichols into cold-blooded killing machines.
On the other hand, as one Illini assistant observed after the recent Fistfight at the Fourspot, “he’s from inner-city Cleveland. He’s got some dog in him.”
You probably read about the scrum between Kipper and Tevian Jones. Brian Binz did a fine job reporting the facts. He and Derek Piper were standing on the floor when the fight broke out, so I’m not sure that either of their accounts could accurately capture the the ferocity of the fight, because it occurred at the opposite end of the court. The fact is that Kipper threw a sincere right cross at Tevian, and missed only because a teammate was already pulling Tevian away. Tevian did not doubt the sincerity of that punch. He saw red.
At least six people held Tevian against the far wall, for a not insignificant amount of time, to keep him away from Kipper. Orlando Antigua’s belly featured prominently in the defense. He pinned Tevian to that wall.
Yes, at the end of practice, Kipper put his arm around Tevian in the huddle. Then as the huddle broke, Kipper hit Tevian, playfully, on the back of the head. Total Alpha move.
Point is, Kipper is being pushed by a younger, more athletic, and similarly debonair whippersnapper. It’s an explosive rivalry. Ideally it will make them both better. Kipper has already acknowledged Tevian’s talent. At today’s practice, he praised Tevian’s enthusiasm and potential.
It’s possible that the three best players on the team are Feliz, Ayo and Trent Frazier. But there’s no reason to speculate about that. The season begins in 25 hours. We’ll find out soon enough.