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Illini basketball

Thundering Heard

The Dan D’Antoni Show overshadowed a non-competitive basketball game Sunday evening, and rightly so. Spectator sports are, for most people in the building, an entertainment rather than a pursuit or a professional concern. D’Antoni is an entertainer. If he seemed familiar, it’s because you’ve seen his act before. Last season, his analytics rant went viral.

But his repartee is not merely for your amusement. It’s a tool.  D’Antoni’s acerbic wit surfaced in the first half when Kipper Nichols barreled through the free-throw lane, knocking point guard Jon Elmore to the floor. Referee Owen Short assessed a blocking foul against Elmore.

D’Antoni turned to the baseline photog pool.

D’Antoni: Did you guys get a shot of that? We may need it as evidence in the criminal investigation.

Owen Short:  Move on.

D’Antoni: I’m just kidding. You’ll know when I’m being serious.

Short is not a humorless man. He suppressed a smile when courtside Illini fans got an especially clever dig at Marshall. But he also awarded a loose ball to the home team, on a play that appeared to favor the Herd.

It’s not absurd to observe that referees can be emotionally swayed by their interactions with coaches. And it’s not crazy to say that a coach’s machinations might backfire.

Friday night, Dave Leitao persistently reminded the officiating crew that DePaul had racked up three times as many fouls as the Illini. By the end of the half, the tally had evened somewhat, at 16 to 9. In the second half, the crew assessed more fouls against the Illini than the Blue Demons.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes you get steamrolled by a team that knows how to drive the ball to the bucket.

When was the last time an Illini shot chart looked like this?

It’s apropos that at least one team involved in Sunday’s game is named after cattle on the move.  With Brad Underwood’s new offense in town, there’s a stampede toward the basket.

You’d hardly notice that Illinois can’t shoot a lick. They finished the night at 44%, which isn’t terrible but doesn’t suggest that a team finished with 91 points.

It’s because the Illini are taking a whole lotta high-percentage shots, which makes up for missing 73% of their three-pointers (which is up from 23% after the team connected on 7-of-15 Sunday).

As Underwood acknowledged, that compensation would be even more impressive if the Illini had actually converted all those bunnies. If there was a downside to his team’s offensive performance, the shot chart shows that as well. They missed a lot from point blank range.

Underwood’s remark came while he was loving on the assist-to-turnover ratio of 19:6. He wondered out loud how those numbers might have looked if his team converted near the basket.

Underwood said Marshall was difficult to scout because their offense eschews sets in favor of reads (like the 2005 Illini). The Herd read Illinois especially well in the first half, when Jarrod West connected on 4-of-4 three-pointers.

Underwood shared a few choice words with his team. Kipper Nichols said you probably wouldn’t want to hear those particular words.

In the second half, the Illinois defense tightened. Through increased effort, they held West to 1-of-2 from the arc. At mid-court, foxy Aaron Jordan raided West’s chicken coop, and then took his lunch money.

D’Antoni said his team’s mental problems were of their own creation, and not a product of Illini aggression.  He’s welcome to that opinion. But people who play against Leron Black rarely come away unchanged.

We don’t know how many need counseling afterward, but even Leron’s teammates have consistently said he’s painful. It’s one of the first things they noticed about him.

Da’Monte Williams might not hurt as much, but he’s surely getting inside some opponents’ heads, too.

And then there’s Kipper.

Though charming and debonair in person, Kipper Nichols seems to have a mean streak when he’s between the lines. You saw it Friday when he earned a T defending Williams from DePaul’s Blue Meanies.

You kinda wonder whether Kipper’s Mr. Hyde is the monster Brad Underwood has been trying to provoke. The “hugging Kipper” meme sounds touchy-feely, but the hug itself is a final punctuation. It’s the denouement that resolves a persisting agitation. Underwood is the antagonist.

 

It almost seemed unfair.