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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Consider Ricky Blanton

You’re having a sad, and that’s okay. Your team just lost to a 1-and-5 Maryland squad whose point guard sat out, and whose best veteran played with half a face. You then thought you’d take your frustrations out on the former Mayor of Ames, Iowa; but your guaranteed win got cancelled.

Andy Wenstrand – Illini Athletics

My job this season seems — if I’m reading me correctly — to consist of regurgitating two themes:

  • Tempering your enthusiasm
  • Encouraging you to be encouraged

Remember, the 2020 Illini were getting better, but they weren’t great. Then you lost Andres Feliz and Alan Griffin, the fighter and the shooter. Nobody will replace Griffin’s shooting and rebounding. Maybe Adam Miller can replace his shooting. He got a little of that mojo back the other night.

No one has filled — and perhaps no one can fill — the Feliz-shaped hole left in the team’s je ne sais quoi. Intangibles are hard to tangib.

Michael Glasgow / Illinois Athletics

This 2021 team remains a work in progress, and the individual parts aren’t currently symbiosing toward a greater whole. So when a team like Maryland holds Kofi to 10 FG attempts — and Ayo misses 14 of his own 23 — well, yes, this group becomes susceptible to mischief.

Maryland had the intellectual advantage in that its scouting report came from former Marist and James Madison head coach Matt Brady, who had an opportunity to expose Illini newcomers in a way that Duke’s staff didn’t. More games = more video clips.

Where Baylor’s Alvin Brooks III exploited weaknesses from known players, Brady was able to focus on Andre Curbelo, and take note of Belo’s tricky kick-outs.

Mark Turgeon might be underrated by Maryland fans, but he’s not underrated by his colleagues. You may recall that UMD beat Illinois twice last year, en route to a B1G Championship. Adding a veteran tactician like Matt Brady, first as a non-recruiting-but-definitely-hands-on assistant* before Brady’s elevation to an unrestricted role, should be seen as an obvious move. It’s the same with Phil Martelli at Michigan, and Ed Conroy at Minnesota. You get these guys on staff when you can.

Brady had an opportunity to talk about his Illini scouting report because the Terps had this week off, and won’t face the Illini again during the regular season.

ON CURBELO

“He’s a marvelous player and I think he’s got a chance to be one of the best point guards in this league, in time. He is elite at driving and getting into the lane and making shots at the rim, and making other players better with his penetration — but that pre-supposes that he’s going to get in the lane.

“We started with ‘we gotta keep him in front of us, and out of the lane.’ And if it meant helping off of him, and giving up a couple of shots, then we were willing to live with a couple of his made shots. But we had to keep him in front.

“He still got to the lane. In fact, he got one on a turnover where he beat everybody on the court — he just missed the shot.

Some of that, we were fortunate. He didn’t play as well as he normally has … but it was a big deal that we stayed in front of him, no doubt.

ON DEFENDING AYO

“We have an elite on-ball defender in Darryl Morsell. He probably hasn’t made an all-defensive team here, in his four years, But when there’s a perimeter guy who can really score, Darryl is as close as a “closer” in this league … he doesn’t have the length of some other guys in this league that are elite defensively, he’s only 6’4″ but he is an outstanding defensive perimeter guard, and he loves the challenge of taking on the best players in this league.”

Darryl Morsell guards Ayo during simpler times.

Brady reflected on a pair of games between Maryland and Purdue, when Carsen Edwards was still in the league (dropping 40 on Illinois, for example). Edwards got his points against Maryland, but it took him a boatload of shots to do it. In a December 2018 match-up at Mackey, Morsell harassed Edwards into 4-of-15 shooting. Edwards was 9-of-9 from the free-throw line, but Morsell finished the game with only two fouls.

“We decided not to switch at all. Darryl wanted him and Darryl guarded him. Darryl’s been able to do that in his time.”

Purdue won the first of those two match-ups when Anthony Cowan’s game-winner was blocked as time expired.

It was the closest Purdue — eventual B1G champions that season — came to losing at home. The Terrapins converted all those missed Edwards attempts into a 39-29 rebound advantage.

Two months later, in College Park, they repeated that formula to great success. Edwards got his points, but his 8-of-27 shooting (3-for-13 from the arc) was ridiculously inefficient, and cost Purdue better opportunities. Maryland won 70-56.

It worked against Illinois, too.

Forcing Ayo and ‘Belo into bad shots didn’t just result in them hitting 4-of-12 and 9-of-23 respectively. It meant Kofi got fewer opportunities.

ON SLOWING KOFI

“A lot of it was the mentality of our group, that we were going to fight him for space,” said Brady, “and not let him get deep post touches.

“We have a grad-transfer in Galin Smith who’s not an excellent offensive player, but like Darryl Morsell he’s very prideful. I grabbed him before the game and said ‘we’re going to need an extraordinary effort, defensively … and it can’t be after the catch.’ It’s kind of like turf warfare. He’s going to have to fight for low-post position. And Galin did an extraordinary job of just fighting with him on every possession, particularly in the second half.

“Most of the baskets Kofi had in the first half — I think he was 6-for-8 — were against Chol Marial, who’s not built for that kind of hand-to-hand combat. But Galin Smith was really up to the challenge. He knew that we couldn’t be in the game unless he brought it defensively.

“After the game, each of us coaches had something to say to the team. The only thing I said to the team in the locker room was ‘there’s no way we win that game without Galin’s extraordinary effort.’

“I was glad Galin was able to take a bow for our group, because he’s a really unsung player for us.”

It feels unlikely that any squad which continually bares its soft underbelly would, could … might put together a stretch run, or a March Maddening. But then again, you never thought a loosely organized brood of underemployed motorcycle mechanics and fulfillment clerks would overrun the United States government, didya?

Michael Glasgow – Illinois Athletics

It would be best if Brad Underwood’s fifth Illini team just put it all together, and won out. But it’s more likely that they’ll grow gradually, both individually and as a unit, and be pretty good on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Is that enough to win four games in four days? (Or, knock on wood, three?) Can this team play consistently six times in a row?

Of course it can. Weird things happen in March.

This crossroads, where a rising Illini team was felled by a Maryland squad that’s past its due date, but still has some capable veterans, reminded me of another Illini team on the rise.

I don’t remember the above game, but I’ll never forget Ricky Blanton’s name, especially because he was so ugly and inspirational.

We were all Ricky Blanton fans in March of 1986, when 11th-seeded Louisiana State made an historic and unlikely run to the Final Four. They kept getting the right breaks. The ball dropped when they needed it to drop.

Contrast Blanton’s Cinderella slipper with his pummeling, at the hands of your Flyin’ Illini — who came, saw & conquered Le Baton Rouge in December of 1988.

By that point, LSU had added the artist formerly known as Chris Jackson, but not the Illini recruit Shaquille O’Neal. Jackson’s passes were too quick for Blanton and his teammates. They hadn’t gelled as a unit. Illinois, on the other hand, was the best team in college basketball. That was especially true because they’d already played together for a full season.

Give it time. They’re young.

When March of 1989 finally arrived, a recovered Kendall Gill (greenstick fracture, foot) had rejoined an Illini team that went undefeated with him, and had lost four games without him. But then Kenny Battle slipped on a patch of water from the leaky Humphreydome roof, and sprained his knee. What might have been?

The Illini had vanquished both Indiana (Big Ten champs) and Michigan (national champs) during the regular season. But by the last weekend, the Wolverines had come together. Without Battle at 100%, Michigan did to Illini dreams what Illinois did to Ricky Blanton’s.

Michael Glasgow / Illinois Athletics

It left a bad taste in your mouth at the time, but it should give you hope in 2021, especially if Trent’s shoulder and Da’Monte’s ankle aren’t as consequential as the publicity-squelched Battle hobbling.

Darryl Morsell should have played for a national title last year. He deserves it, given all the hard work he’s put in. But COVID wiped his only chance. Anthony Cowan ran out of eligibility, and Jalen Smith decided to go pro. The best laid plans fell apart.

Curbelo is not yet Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and he’s not even Chris Jackson. But let’s enjoy seeing who he becomes once he’s adjusted to B1G scouting adjusting to him. After all, Jackson — exciting as he was in that December ’88 game — fouled out even before Illinois crossed the century mark.

You should always have been emotionally prepared for these early losses. This team is not like the 1989 Illini, nor 2005. Too many new parts are coming together. You can fret about that if you like to fret. But as Ayo said, it’s just a step in the journey.

Temper your enthusiasm. Be encouraged.

*Brady served a six-game paid suspension at the start of the 2019 season because, like a lot of Illinois “non-coaching” assistants, he was coaching.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Second Dimension

Listening to outsiders — basketball fans who aren’t Illini fans, sports media that’s not Illini sports media — you’d know the common wisdom about this 2021 Illini basketball team.

It’s the Ayo Show, featuring Kofi.

For the first time since forever, Illinois has a dominant hi-lo combo. If we can’t kill you from the inside, we’ll kill you from the outside. It’s a treat to have both weapons, but probably not enough to win a championship.

That’s why Saturday’s win over Purdue was the third significant game of the season, and the first significant game Illinois won this season.

It signifies because Ayo was normal. Not normal for Ayo, but normal for mortals. While the Boxing Day win over Indiana led to the obvious conclusion this team is screwed without Ayo, the Purdue win showed that, yes, Illinois has other options. It’s an important building block.

The 2005 team needed Jack Ingram to win at Wisconsin. It needed Roger Powell to beat Louisville. The Deron-Dee-Luther three-headed dragon was enough for 25 wins. The team needed other weapons to reach 37. It’s important that Da’Monte Williams and Andre Curbelo were the guys in that postgame presser.

The best part about this block is that Illinois notched a victory while building it. The two previous significant games were Baylor — in which the lads witnessed a near-flawless team defense — and Rutgers, where Coach Underwood showed them that ungoverned individual effort (Paul Mulcahy) can be the difference in a game (and not necessarily because it scores a lot).

Matt Painter put it this way after Saturday’s game: “You want to learn from the games that you lose, and you’ve got to be able to earn that right.”

Painter’s press conferences are always an elucidation in basketball philosophy. It almost doesn’t make sense that he can be so professorial within minutes of being so … well, angry.

Ayo’s getting out of the way allowed Belo and Da’Monte to embrace a challenge they wouldn’t face if Ayo carried the team on his back. They played lead roles in a contested game, with consequences.

Da’Monte’s sharp-shooting is a story in itself. His rebounding is what you’d expect. But he does both quietly. He’s the perfect foil for Belo, who’s entertainingly out-of-control.

The Belo/Kofi oop game has potential to develop a Douglas-Winters mythos (ask your dad).

The coaching staff will need to decide if reining Belo is worth the risk of ruining him. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate their coaching chops. But any (perceived) negative outcome will be talked about. You like your chances in this scenario, as an Illini fan. For all the brilliance its shown in landing Cokburn, Belo, Feliz (Orlando Antigua) and Ayo and Adam (Chin Coleman); this staff has plenty to prove.

Chin Coleman, masked appropriately

Antigua took the dangerous step that a lot of comfortably compensated assistants don’t dare: After his Kentucky success, he stepped out on his own. It didn’t work at South Florida. If you’re a religious Illini fan, thank god for that. His suffering is your redemption.

Chin finally worked his way into the P5 coaching ranks with the Promise of Ayo. He delivered, thus sealing Paris Parham’s demise at Illinois. (Jamall Walker was kept on for the same reason that Parham wasn’t — to secure recruits from his territory.)

The next chapter in the Chin story is his to write. Wrangling this group together, to execute as a disciplined unit, is how this author would write it (given a choice).

It’s early January, and Brad Underwood has already bestowed sophomore status on his freshman guards. But that’s premature. They’re playing like freshmen.

That’s okay. It’s expected.

You get the idea that Ayo is willing to wait in the corner, ready to take over if needed. That’s an amazing quality, but it fits with his big brother viewpoint.

The development of this team will be entertaining no matter what. It will be especially fun to watch if they win games while they’re developing.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Arch Support

What a great day to be a basketball fan. You can hardly wait to see Matt Painter’s gang bludgeoned at the RAC, right? And what if Northwestern beats a top 10 Iowa team at Carver?

May we live in Interesting Times.

B1G standings – December 29, 2020

Yes, MSU is the worst team in the Big Ten. Yes, Northwestern is alone in first place. The times they are a-changin’.

Beilein and Bo, the best coaches in the conference, are gone. Tom Izzo turns 66 in a month. Juwan Howard has proved he can recruit, but can he coach a team to consistency? Steve Pikiell revived a program last relevant in the Ford Administration. He’ll be getting job offers in three months. If Chris Collins keeps it rolling in Evanston … well, Mike Krzyzewski turns 74 in February.

In simpler times, people crowded around Chris Collins in person

Fran McCaffery will never have a batter team unless he can land every single white kid in America.

Painter continues to churn away with a system that’s worked for four decades. But starters Nojel Eastern & Matt Haarms had enough of it. When your senior leaders bail, people start to whisper & mutter.

So to be specific, it’s a great day to be an Illini basketball fan. Last week was a great example of where we stand, and where the conference is headed. Pikiell rallied his team to execute. Penn State is falling apart. And Indiana is drowning in a swamp of angry fans.

Justin Smith had enough of Indiana. Same with Nojel Eastern and Purdue.

Looking back at four years of Illinois-Indiana, you could make an argument for which school hired the better coach in 2017. And assuredly, cynical fans of each program will tell you: They did.

The teams split their 2017-18 games. Looking back at that Hoosiers roster, you’ll think “oh yeah – him.” They finished 16-15 which is no better than Illinois, which finished 14-18. Good seasons end with single-digit losses. If your coach leads you to enough 12-loss seasons, and their accompanying 8-ish seed berths in the tournament, you’ll be anxious for the next coach.

In 2019, Illinois was full rebuild, and Indiana crushed any promising signs of life with March 7’s 92-74 drubbing at SFC. It was one of the most depressing games in recent memory, which is why you’ve forgotten it. The Hoosiers won both games that year, but haven’t beaten the Illini since.

Saturday’s game buttressed all the arguments against Archie. The offense stalled for two significant stretches. His substitution patterns and line-ups created mismatches and weak spots for his team. He benched his star player for a fourth of the game because Trayce Jackson-Davis committed a second foul, and subsequent to that, a third foul. Trayce Jackson-Davis finished the game with three fouls.

Tyler, Edgar and Ayo were thrilled with Archie’s strategic decisions

Hoosier fans comfort themselves with Beckmanesque rationalizations. These two teams would be equal, but Romeo left and Ayo stayed. The loudest critics are FREAKING OUT because all of Archie’s top recruiting targets went elsewhere. So did Brad’s of course. But Brad has a pair of touted freshmen who will also be freshmen next year.

Can Archie win enough games to fend off the clamoring Banners Pointers? Lots of summertoothed holler-dwellers still believe Indiana is a blue blood. They’re unparalleled at running coaches out of town on a rail. Meanwhile, Purdue hasn’t fired a basketball coach in over forty years. Maybe fifty. Nobody’s really sure.

Purdue tried to Guenther Lee Rose after his 1980 Final Four run. It didn’t work then, either.

Illini fans still haunted by nightmares of Weberball don’t ever again want to watch a well-coached defensive team that hasn’t really worked on offense yet and auto-benches its best player after two fouls. Benching one’s best player is the epitome of inflexible coaching, a hallmark of the Weber philosophy. Indiana fans might accept stodgy inflexibility for old time’s sake, but not of it finishes 9-11 in conference.

Underwood critics say he doesn’t have a system. That he keeps changing his defense. That he keeps trying new things. You know, as if that’s a problem.

THE LONE WOLF

Adam Miller started the Indiana game, as usual. He scored zero points and grabbed zero rebounds, with two turnovers and no assists in 17:38. Afterward, Brad Underwood said he’d keep starting Miller. Underwood said Miller’s been great.

We’re seeing sports psychology in action.

Miller was practically invisible against Indiana while his roommate was everywhere, all the time. Andre Curbelo again ignited the team, turning a scoreless start into a thrilling rally. The Illini raced through the first eighth of the game without converting a field goal. Belo came in, and the team converted three of them within about 15 seconds of whirling dervish.

Underwood has coached for a few minutes, though. He knows that benching Adam might break a delicate psyche that’s undergoing some painful adjustments and a whole lotta learning process. So Underwood will keep saying that Adam is great. He’ll keep Adam in the starting five. Curbelo played 29:41 — thirdmost court time after Ayo and Trent.

The dynamics of the Miller-Curbelo-Underwood relationship are one of the underrated storylines of the season. And the supporting cast is important, too. Orlando Antigua, Chin Coleman, Da’Monte Williams and Ayo Dosunmu play key roles. Even Edgar Padilla Jr. can’t be ignored in telling the story.

It’s one of the great reasons to look forward to 2021.

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Illini Basketball

Snowy Centre

Jim Ferry made an interesting point in his postgame Q&A session. Illinois has two NBA players, he said. Which is nice, he said.

But that’s not the reason his team lost.

Ayo and Kofi combined for 53 points, and did it pretty efficiently — Kofi on 11-of-13 shots in the paint, and Ayo on 50% shooting from farther away.

But it was laziness, he didn’t quite say, that lost the game for his interim Lions. Little Things, he said, as if talking about Da’Monte Williams, were the difference. But big things (guarding your man, rebounding) and not fouling left and right were also the difference.

Ferry pointed out that the stats were fairly even, and everybody performed well offensively.

But Illinois attempted 28 FTs while the home team attempted SEVEN.

TOTAL.

It’s almost as if Brad Underwood got angry after the Rutgers game, and Mentioned It to his team. Yes, the game at Penn State was the complete Bizarro 180° reversal of the game at Rutgers. Just like last year!

But let’s get back to that initial observation: Ayo & Kofi combine for 53 points, and that wasn’t the difference in the game, according to the guy who lost it.

It’s an important point to keep in mind. If opposing teams are willing to let Ayo get his 30, and Kofi his 23 while they focus on Mulcahying the rest of the team into submission, Illinois should be worried.

So yeah, that’s why all of you and all of us knew Jake Grandison would be the guy proffered as postgame spokesman last night. And oh my those offensive rebounds.

The supporting cast of this Tale of 2021 has yet to be written into the script. We know the leads. We know the ensemble. We don’t know who’s going to provide the comic relief, as it were.

No, sorry, that’s obviously Curbelo.

We don’t know who the Ervin Small is going to be. The guy who disrupts the other team, because they weren’t expecting him, nor the fight he brought to the contest.

Good on Jake for being that guy last night. It will be Adam Miller in February. It might be Coleman Hawkins playing the (taller) P.J Bowman role in a crucial March game. Last night it was Jake, and you should feel good about that, because Jake is a good guy.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Mausoleum

Brad Underwood says the new Nittany Lions (Jim Ferry’s squad) press their opponents more than the old Nittany Lions (Pat Chambers’ squad) and that does not bode well for this Illini team in its second B1G road adventure. So far, Penn State has beaten VMI, VCU and VT. Non-Virgina Schools fared better. Seton Hall and Michigan aren’t as great as they were in 1989, but they had enough to manhandle this year’s Lions.

Jim Ferry was an assistant last year, now he’s the interim head coach

Bright siding tonight’s game, Underwood likes fake crowd noise. Penn State invented fake noise.

The Bryce Jordan Center was sold out when Lucas Johnson, or maybe it was Brian Johnson, and his Big Ten Champion teammates rolled into University Park, PA.

As far as I know, that was the last BJC sellout. Or at least, that was the last time the upper deck was filled with actual people.

Apart from the piped lion, it’s sedate.

The media workroom sits across the hall. In past years, you’d find Steven Bardo serving himself from the steamtable buffet. But recently, PSU stopped catering to its guests, choosing to follow Iowa’s lead by providing $10 food vouchers for use at BJC concessions stands. Or maybe it’s “stand.” I’ve seen only the one.

No, I’m not complaining about free food. A ten dollar voucher got me a ten dollar hamburger, and it was okay.

The BJC sits on the edge of town, like the State Farm Center. A massive football stadium is nearby, and then there’s pasture, also like the SFC, but without all the people that you’d find at an SFC basketball game. It feels like a glacier. Serene, and slightly windblown.

PSU’s Materials Science Building is cool lookin’

It’s not that PSU fans don’t care about sports, of course. Across the street, on the campus side (as opposed to the pasture side) an ice hockey rink bustles with fans. When the team isn’t playing, it bustles with community skaters (in non-Covid times). The Nittany Lacrosse Team practices nearby. Its stadium reminds B1G visitors that PSU has an athletics program.

Just look at all their sports!

But they don’t care about basketball.

State College is arguably my favorite place to cover B1G basketball. But it’s not because of the crowd, the team or the game.

I know how to get & stay there, cheap. I thrive on reports of its inaccessibility and cost. I’m usually the only Illini reporter, which affords me more interaction with the team and coaches. The Hotel State College has three restaurants and two bars in the building, and I can walk to the arena. Vicky Lumpkin hooks me up with my favorite room. Dave Staab awaits in the basement, and draws fresh ideas from the Zeno’s tap when I need inspiration.

The Hotel State College

To me, State College is about individual people I can get to know, with whom I work.

Most importantly, since the Sandusky scandal, PSU hired PR staff who connect with people on a human level. That sounds like corporate speak, but it’s not.

A lot of SIDs are self-satisfied assholes. They think/know that you need them more than they need you. It heightens one’s appreciation for guys like Patrick Herb (Wisconsin) and Tom Wyrot (Michigan) who remain down-to-earth and accessible, despite their teams’ enormous success.

When the old PSU staff bailed (tired of scandal) PSU brought in the relatable Alissa Clendenen, who wore Chuck Taylors at the end of her black hose. Punk rock, not business casual. When she left for Pitt, the boisterous Rose Carter took over. She’s a force of nature, passionate and compassionate. That’s her voice encouraging John Harrar when he says he wants “peace” for Christmas.

When the News-Gazette scrambled to locate a photographer a couple of years ago, Rose found me in the media lounge, and asked if I’d like to help them. I emailed a couple of pics to Matt Daniels, for the Sunday Sports Section. Everybody wins!

She’s not a pushover, though. When Myreon Jones struggled with “illness” last season, Rose made it clear that undisclosed would not be disclosed.

I thought I might play it cool. “Do we know the nature of this Myles Dread ‘illness?'” I asked, having gleaned from the TV commentary that “illness” was the company line.

“Illness!” she answered, smiling brightly.

Rose Pietrzak Carter, emphasis on the Pietrzak

BJC is an intimate setting. A couple of old guys wait at the media door, just off the loading dock. There’s another pair of guys down the hallway, sitting outside the visitor’s locker room. Last year, erstwhile Champaign County Sheriff candidate Allen Jones was also there, having been hired as Underwood’s body man.

Yes, there’s a student section. Yes, there’s a mascot. Yes, four thousand people show up to watch. There’s nothing like it anywhere in the B1G.

So tonight’s game will feel just like a Penn State home game. The fake lion growl will be no more audible. Unfortunately, it will be no less audible. The fake crowd noise might not sound like the usual fake enthusiasm of the student section, but its insincerity will come across. And Brad Underwood will enjoy it.

Tune in at 5:30 on the BTN.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

My Opponent’s Youth & Inexperience

Sunday’s Piscatawegian misadventure serves as the fourth installment in this season’s ongoing reality play Experienced Teams Will Beat Young Teams. Yes, four. You’re forgetting the Cameron Indoor episode, because you’re depressed and agitated.

As a basketball fan, you should be delighted by Sunday’s game. You should cherish everything about it excepting the crucial fact that your team lost.

Steve Pikiell’s reinvention of the Rutgers program is One Of The Great Basketball Stories. With Beilein and Bo gone, the mantle of Big Ten’s Best Coach was there for the grabbing. Pikiell’s in the running. If he maintains his current mojo, he’ll be in the conversation about Who Should Replace K?

You should also be impressed by the other coach in Sunday’s game, for his leadership. Brad Underwood Is A Human Person I wrote upon meeting the brooding heavy from KState. He looked like a 40s movie villain and GoEmaw regarded him as a badass, so I was surprised as anybody.

The humanity came across again yesterday, as youthful reporters pressed him with questions such as why does your team suck and the more invidious have you determined why your team sucks so hard? That’s not the precise phrasing, but you could see that these eager youngsters were channeling hard lessons from JOUR 210, and holding Underwood’s feet to the fire.

Because Brad’s job is to redirect youthful energy toward constructive pathways, he patiently parried these insinuations with only a hint of disdain. By the time his defense of Adam Miller (the ball is round and the basket is ten feet high, but that’s the only similarity to high-school BB) arrived, Brad was rolling. His build up/tear down of Andre Curbelo (best player on the floor/ too bad he couldn’t stay there) was great too.

Miller told the media on Saturday that he gets yelled at. It doesn’t faze him. He embraces the lessons, and likes the learning. He’ll enjoy this week

Eight games into their freshman season, the Illini freshmen are playing like freshmen. Yesterday in Piscataway, a talented group of veterans made them look like freshmen. Until this Illini team gels as a unit, such outcomes are inevitable.

This time, Giorgi was unable to distract Myles Johnson

Illini veterans weren’t perfect, either. Ayo not helping when Da’Monte got screened at the top of the key — that was a key defensive error in Illinois’ snowballing failure to finger the dike. But the veterans’ mistakes weren’t insurmountable & can’t be blamed for the outcome (whatever Da’Monte did to Paul Mulcahy was most assuredly deserved, and as far as I could tell, he didn’t do anything).

Illinois will drop to #18 in a few hours. Or maybe #22. Or perhaps only #15. Who knows? AP voters saw a three-point loss on the road against a Top 20 opponent. Unless they’ve paid attention to the season’s minutiae, they won’t know what we know: that this team really shouldn’t be ranked at all until February, assuming it’s grown together as a unit and proved something by then.

Yesterday demonstrated that Brad Underwood has the capacity to lead, and understands that these things take time.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Better Part of Valor

When I asked Marcus Carr about Illini guards and the trouble they caused him, I employed the second person singular, “you.” Unfortunately, in the English language, the same word addresses second person plurals. Or is it second persons plural?

His response made clear that he interpreted “you” as his team. He said that while the guards were very quick, it was really Kofi who caused the problems. His tone made clear that he’d rather be anywhere else.

I pivoted. I decided against clarifying. I didn’t say “no, no I’m talking about how Trent took you out of the game.” I didn’t see the point. Instead, I asked a bland question about Ayo, the kind of boring workaday tripe that you hear in most boring Q&As with athletes.

The trouble I’m having now, as I attempt to conjure a meaningful, relevant set of paragraphs capturing the zeitgeist of Illini Basketball circa December 2020; I need to know whether Marcus Carr felt thoroughly dominated by Trent Frazier.

Also, I need to know whether Carr felt confined by the help defense provided by Trent’s teammates. Did the bigs step up to fill the gaps? Did everyone rotate in sync? How has Ayo improved defensively since last year?

Nope, I just copped out entirely.

Michael Glasgow / Illinois Athletics

Gabe Kalscheur seemed sunnier. So I asked him how all the new parts were coming together for his team. He said everything was great and everybody super, or something along those lines.

“But you (plural) just completely fell apart and got plowed, ” I didn’t follow-up, again thinking that discretion is the better part of something. And so is not insulting people.

I took the same (easy way) out a day earlier, when Kofi offered a breezy reply to my question about his own rotations on defense. Kalscheur and Kofi were both easy on themselves.

But on the bright side — or, more accurately, the extremely gloomy side — you don’t have to worry about Kofi not worrying. It’s really amazing how openly self-critical he is. If he were an American, raised on Big Boys Don’t Cry and similar idioms; you’d never see this side of him. Presumably, you’d never see the real him.

Hunter Dyke/Mizzou Athletics

Josh Whitman and Randy Ballard keep talking about the mental health aspect of student-athlete well being, and they couldn’t ask for a better face/spokesperson/poster child. By evincing physical dominance and a childlike curiosity, laughing with his teammates while also confessing his angst and obstacles; Kofi demonstrates a truth that pastors, therapists and 12-step sponsors have counseled for decades: You can be successful and generally happy and yet never completely overcome your continual struggles, whatever they may be.

It’s damn noble for Kofi to air it all out as he does. Some kid is listening, worshipping his idol, and feeling relieved that he’s not alone in his moments of darkness and doubt.

So when Kofi spoke confidently about quarterbacking the defense, reading and rotating; I didn’t push him with the third variable of my original question: Where does he have room for improvement?

It’s an open-ended question, not as confrontational as “why do you suck so badly” or even “you’ve been struggling lately, how come?” Kofi’s defensive rotations were not perfect. It’s okay. He’ll continue to improve in that area.

Just look at his improvement on offense! His low post moves had been few and of limited efficacy. He rewrote that narrative in just one night, and it was awesome.

He was, nevertheless, reflective in his postgame remarks. Especially the ones that weren’t asked by sports dudes.

I’m glad I was on the other line, as it were, when that Q&A unrolled. Sometimes it’s best just to listen.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Read & React

There’s a moment from Saturday’s Embarrassment in Columbia which will likely stick with me for a while, as dozens (hundreds?) of Illini basketball moments have stuck over the last … Jesus … forty years. (Holy shit.)

Mitchell Smith doesn’t know and doesn’t care. You’ve been removed from this set.

You know some of them, too.

  • Harper’s three* over Randy Breuer et al, to clinch a tourney berth.
  • Douglas ooping Winters
  • Nick’s The Shot
  • Frank over Scoonie
  • Efrem’s Windmill
  • (DJ’s undersung 8 points that led to) Tyler’s lay-up (on Brandon’s underappreciated feed).
  • That fat guy from Austin Peay burying ANOTHER THREE

Some are obscure. Jim Rowinski setting a screen endures. Craig Tucker connecting from the left elbow. Eddie Johnson hitting from the short corner (but against Indiana State, not Michigan State — I only saw that on highlight reels).

On Saturday, Adam Miller took a pass on the right wing and dribbled toward the middle of the lane. Three Nameless Facelesses rotated in what should be called a Mini-Pac — i.e. a pack-line that bursts forth from the No Charge arc rather than the other, better advertised arc.

This is not a picture of that moment. But because Andy Katz fucked up the coin toss, this is the photo you get. Thank Mike Slive.

It was fantastic defense, perfectly timed. People called it “man with zone principles” ten years ago, but there’s probably a fancier, tech-ier name for it now. My good friend Brad Sturdy is the guy to read if you want these sets dissected into contemporary lingo.

Whatevs. The name is unimportant. Tracy Abrams reduced man-help-_Bob_Knight\lL0pht/ rush-hold read & react to a single word: “Trust.”

This is not the drive you’re reading about, obviously.

You’ve got to believe that your teammates know how to read the offense, micro-second by micro-second. You’ve got to believe that they’ll react appropriately when you hold your stance -or- continue to pursue an active offensive threat whether/not he controls the ball. Then you rotate, renewing your stance and seeking/adopting a new primary assignment, while maintaining a vigilant outlook for any penetration toward your zone.

Tracy Abrams disapproves

Adam Miller saw that defense, read it correctly, and did nothing. His Attempt at Bucket was foiled, over before it began. He looked for an available teammate, and returned the ball to zero-threat position.

This is the sequence which will remain with me: Nothing happened (statistically speaking).

I don’t blame Adam for avoiding those Nameless Facelesses. He’s been coached. He knows what not to do.

His team lost.

By the same token, and for the same reason, his team won at Duke. The reason Adam’s team won, then lost, is Experience. Illinois had more experience playing together than Duke. Missouri had more experience, as a unit, than Illinois.

The Missouri defense rotated effectively, forcing Illinois to move the ball away from the basket.

The Illini looked crap in Columbia because Mizzou got old together. As John Groce told you, every time you add a new member to the team, it changes the entire team. Illinois of December ’20 is nothing like Illinois of February ’20. Furthermore, the Illini of February ’20 were just learning to put it together. They’d been a reliably unreliable team to that point. Cf. Braggin’ Rights 2019.

I never understood why people thought/expected the Illini to make a deep tourney run in March. On the other hand, the Illini continually surprised, impressed and — here’s the key — improved as the 2019-20 season unfolded.

The subject of this photo is Andres Feliz, who won.

The reason Illinois is favored to beat Minnesota tonight is unknown to me. I’ve never understood or researched gambling. The reason Illinois should beat Minnesota tonight is that same reason they beat Duke and lost to Mizzou and Baylor. The Gophers haven’t played together, as a unit, for more than a scant few covidy months. They don’t have the instincts that Missouri displayed Saturday, and Illinois grew into last year.

*It was an experimental, conference-based rule that year. The ACC had it too, but their three-point arc didn’t even stretch to the top of the key because they are pussies.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Braggin’ & Hatin’

Watching Cuonzo Martin’s pre-Braggin’ Zoom, I felt a familiar bonhomie. Here I go again, I thought to myself. I can’t help myself, I thought.

I like Cuonzo Martin.

That’s great! Right? I like Brad Underwood too. Isn’t it great to like things?

Listening to the pre-game hoopla surrounding Braggin’ Rights 2020, I was struck by the prompting: How much do you hate Cuonzo? Or Mark, Jeremiah, Javon?

How much does Xavier Pinson hate Illinois?

I think I wrote about tribal hate during my Smile Politely tenure. It still bothers me. Yes, there are people in college basketball who hate other people in college basketball. But it’s way less common than the hatred among tribal fans.

Mark Smith committed to Missouri before he committed to Illinois. Jeremiah Tilmon’s dad wanted Jeremiah to go with Cuonzo. Cuonzo knew Javon Pickett’s family since forever.

It’s great that all three of those guys found a home in Columbia. Mark had already been beaten out of the starting spot he’d been given on the basis of reputation. Jeremiah & Javon might compete for minutes on this year’s Illini team, but only because the rotation is so limited. Last year, you’d be hard pressed to play either one over Kofi and Alan Griffin.

It makes sense that those guys played with a chip on their shoulder. The self-doubt was enough. Sports fans should approve that that chip propelled Mizzou to victory last year (along with Mitchell & Dru Smith playing out of their minds).

(not) The Smiths

Mark’s dad Anthony had seen enough after that Maryland game where Da’Monte supplanted Mark, then threw the ball away. Both Smiths are now happier.

Da’Monte seemed to relish the renewed opportunity to compete with post-transfer Mark. From an individual standpoint, you could say Da’Monte won.

But because Monte is way more more old school than the dazzling hoopster who sired him, Monte doesn’t care about individual battles. He wants the W.

Last year, Mizzou wanted the W. Does that mean the team with the most floor burns will win 2020’s Braggin’ Rights game? Well, it is 2020. That means people must suffer.

It’s conceivable that Mizzou will out-dog the Illini again tonight. Andres Feliz is not walking through that door. But it also seems likely that Ayo & Co. will bring their A-game.

The bright side is that Missouri can claim victory even if they score fewer points. It’s all the rage these days, especially in SEC country.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Cameron Streak

It doesn’t matter that this year’s Duke team is overrated because its name is Duke. It doesn’t matter that it’s inexperienced and young.

Illinois is in the middle of a win streak at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and that streak is heading into its 26th year. That’s the important thing.

Whether it’s Chris Collins or Shaun Livingston or even John Scheyer; some Illinoisans need to be reminded that there’s only one team that’s undefeated in a quarter-century at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It’s the Illinois Fighting Illini.*

Also important is that any uncertainty following the Baylor loss is now forgotten by the people whose haunted memories matter most: Illini players.

Yes, it’s also nice that AP Top 25 voters will regard the Triumph at Cameron as proving something something undeniable pedigree.

A week after Baylor’s pre-game prep and in-game execution pantsed the Illini for 89 consecutive seconds, Illinois pounded Duke for about 37 minutes, while still committing enough boneheaded errors to provide the coaching staff with talking points, and keep practice interesting.

At most, two or three of those AP voters will remember that Kofi was inconsistent around the rim. Some of them know who Andre Curbelo is, but as long as the Illini narrative begins and ends with Ayo; Belo won’t be praised for igniting the offense, nor blamed for his wild rampages through Duke’s press.

Brad Underwood said Belo’s never faced a press. By the same token, Kofi and Giorgi have rarely battled defenders who combine freakish height with freakish athleticism.

Duke was a great lesson in that sense. The Illini bigs learned they can’t rely on low-post moves that lesser opponents were physically incapable of stopping.

Can one declare a coming out party for a chap as taciturn as Da’Monte Williams? Before a crowd of dozens, with millions more watching on TV, Monte continued his recent Arc Odyssey, swatted & recovered an alley-oop, and perpetrated Little Things on unsuspecting Dukies.

People should start comparing Monte to Lucas Johnson. He gets in people’s heads. And armpits.

Ayo won praise for an all-around effort, and he wasn’t humble about it. He blew off the notion that beating Duke means something, but accepted the suggestion that he played a complete game.

If you’ve seen any references to Bryant Notree, Matt Heldman or Chris Gandy over the last ten days, you can rest assured that Tuesday’s game at Cameron has already cemented itself a place in Illini lore.

It doesn’t matter whether it was a good game. It was A Great Game.

*Even if this statistic is not true, it’s true anyway. You know it in your heart.