Illinois basketball fans have had lots of opportunities to read interviews & watch video of Mark Smith and Trent Frazier. People in east central Illinois actually saw Da’Monte Williams play basketball, frequently.
But after Brad Underwood took the big office at Ubben, the Illini suddenly had two freshmen bigs nobody had ever heard of. Greg Eboigbodin has been in America for four years, playing high school ball in Detroit. So there’s at least some documentation of his history, online and in English.
Matic Vesel had been in America exactly one time before he arrived at the start of the fall semester: his Official Visit to Illinois. He’s not a complete unknown. They have the Internet in Ljubljana, his hometown. You can watch a highlight video where he dunks a lot.
Orlando Antigua was coaching the Dominican National team when he discovered Vesel, playing for Slovenia, on the Greek island of Crete. A whirlwind recruitment ensued, and now Matic is an American college student.
He’s a big soccer fan, and an Arsenal supporter “because the Champions League is the best soccer in the world … for now.” But Vesel only played indoor soccer (goalkeeper), and that lasted only a little more than a year. At that point, he had to decide between basketball and …
… wait for it …
Vesel decided to focus his energies on basketball because he realized he was going to be unusually tall. Smart kid.
Adapting to American culture, American food and American college life all during the same month was probably not easy. He seems to enjoy hanging around his freshman teammates, and especially likes the eternal optimism & high-energy of Trent Frazier.
That was September.
Now he’s got a drill sergeant whipping his ass on a daily basis, and it hasn’t been easy. Vesel gets a lot of praise for his offensive skills, but he also hears a lot of flak about defense & deportment (which seems a little unfair considering he’s from an entirely different culture).
It would conceivably be too much, given all the other stressful adjustments he’s had to make over a few short weeks. But Matic recognizes that he’ll have to work “systematically, day-per-day” and make a lot of sacrifices, including “many times you have to say ‘no’ to the people who … you love them. That’s a big decision to make.”
Leaving Slovenia for a corn field might seem like an obvious choice for the those of us who love flat & boring, but it’s got to be hard when you’re accustomed to this:
So if you see Matic around campus, please welcome him and tell him that there’s more here than just soybeans.
Someone could teach him, for example, about good pizza and good Mexican food, both available in Champaign-Urbana. So far he’s had only Pizza Hut and Chipotle.
And thank him for choosing to resurrect your favorite basketball program. Like Damir Krupalija, he’s a young Balkan who’s found himself in middle America, right when Illinois decided to be relevant again.
Monday’s basketball practice was held at the State Farm Center. Returning to the scene of the crime, if you will.
Losing to Indiana State in Sunday’s “secret scrimmage” will likely be remembered as the first milestone on the road to recovery. The phrase “change the culture” is 2017’s version of “it is what it is,” 2012’s favorite cliché among young ballers. But there’s no better phrase for describing Brad Underwood’s current mission. He took over a club that was accustomed to losing. He thinks they’ve just accepted it. He won’t.
Underwood’s staff learned a lot about their team Sunday. Most of it is intangible, and can’t be translated into data. Sure, they kept track of missed shots. They tracked rebounding. They even know how many times the lads missed an opportunity to set a screen.
But mostly, they learned about posture, effort and mindset. Fundamentally, this team is inexperienced. Most of these guys have never played college basketball. None of them has played for Underwood.
If it seems preposterous to keep mentioning a walk-on in these reports, I say pshaw. Until there’s a practice where Tyler Underwood doesn’t do something exceptional, I’ll keep mentioning him. It’s like his dad vis-à-vis Thomas Walkup. I have not once been in the same room with Brad Underwood when he didn’t mention Thomas Walkup. Monday’s practice was no exception, in both cases. Tyler Underwood directed his teammates through drills, and his dad told a story about Thomas Walkup. I hadn’t heard this particular Walkup story before. It was harrowing. I wonder whether he’ll ever tell it in front of cameras.
Cameras were rolling throughout Monday’s practice. Jason Marry & Zach Altfillisch of Fighting Illini Productions were on hand, and Coach Underwood was mic’d up. You should hope that you’ll be allowed to hear his speech about the secret scrimmage. It was gripping.
Marry also recorded the post-practice huddle at center court, which seemed to last about fifteen minutes.
It’s possible that these moments will be shared with the public. On the other hand, maybe not. Talking to Underwood off-camera last Thursday in New York, I learned he’s not eager to share everything about his practices. He wants to maintain a teaching atmosphere, which is something John Groce said, too. Fighting Illini Productions publishes only those segments of video which the program wants published. So just hope that Underwood isn’t too humble to allow those moments to see daylight.
Apart from Tyler Underwood, the top coach-on-the-floor was Cameron Liss, also a walk-on. On more than one occasion, Liss heeded a coach’s call to help a teammate into the proper positioning & posture during defensive drills. He’s one of only three fourth-year Illini, so his senior leadership is a dire necessity to the team.
These guys are never going to see a whole lot of tick, so I’d like to highlight their contributions to making this team better.
The other two senior leaders are Michael Finke and Leron Black. (Like Liss, they’re technically R-Jr.’s.) The coaching staff doesn’t spend a whole lot of time instructing either of them, which is a good sign. It makes one suspect they’re fundamentally sound.
The other fundamentally sound player is Da’Monte Williams.
Brad Underwood continually draws attention to Da’Monte’s defensive stance, positioning or effort as an example to the rest of the team. This might come as a surprise to people who’d assume Da’Monte is a carbon copy of his father.
You’ll recall Lon Kruger and Bill Self inevitably calling Frank out in the media. You’ll remember Billy Packer’s infamous slight.
Also surprising are Da’Monte’s decision-making and the mechanical precision of his jump shot. He squares up and delivers like a coach’s son, not a street baller. Defensively, he deflects a lot of passes, a stat Underwood celebrates as much as John Groce did (i.e. Underwood seems to regard an opponent’s pass no differently than a launched shot, or indeed a jump ball — it’s an opportunity for possession).
But Underwood’s defensive philosophy recalls Bruce Weber more than John Groce. It’s about denial, a word that meant something completely different for Weber during his Illini heyday.
There were two times when Weber completely lost his shit while I was in attendance at practice. One featured a lecture about over-emphasising on-ball defense. Weber was apoplectic about the selfish attitude a player implicitly demonstrates when bragging “I shut my man down” or “my man didn’t score.”
“BUT OUR TEAM LOST!” Weber screamed louder than I ever heard him before or later. Underwood feels the same way.
If this year’s Illini squad has trouble with weak-side help defense, blame inexperience rather than misdirected playground swagger. The newcomers will need a while before they shift defensively without thinking about it. That’s why Underwood said “we’ll be a different team on January First. We’ll be different from that January First team when we get to March.” It will be a long slog before Underwood sees something resembling his offense.
It’s worth the wait. Underwood’s option offense should lead to some highly entertaining playmaking. As players learn their reads, you’ll see nifty interior passing, lob dunks when the defense reacts, open jumpers when it refrains.
And then there’s defense, which is harder.
If things go perfectly, Underwood might not need to revert to a familiar pack line defense, as his OK State team forced him to do after an 0-6 conference start last season. But when have things gone perfectly with a team of newcomers?
The difference between Underwood and his predecessors is that Underwood seems less likely to lose his team, mentally. In different ways, Weber and Groce were caricatures susceptible for ridicule. You could attribute respect to them, but they didn’t command it. That’s not the case with Underwood.
Will the newcomers “get it” before the team finds itself buried in the B1G standings?
Matic Vesel is back at full go, after spraining an ankle last week. His quickness to the rim cannot be overstated. It’s hard to believe, and impresses even his teammates, who’ve seen it again and again. He’ll cause a lot of headaches for opponents if his defense reaches a level of competence that affords Underwood the confidence to play him.
Greg Eboigbodin might also be an opponent’s nightmare in the future, but his menace will be seen on the defensive end, where he’ll force shooters to alter shot-trajectory. His instinct for defense is typically African, i.e. you see his footwork, you notice he’s responding to the whole-court flow of the game, and you think “this guy played a lot of soccer.”
It will take time for the lessons to sink in for these freshmen, before they can defend instinctively. Maybe January First. Maybe by March.
The coaching staff realizes they’ll have to be patient.
At the scorer’s table, a shiny silver man-purse overflowed with packs of Extra chewing gum, in at least four flavors. Coaches and players reached in throughout practice to retrieve a stick. “We chew a lot of gum,” said Jamall Walker. “It stops us from yelling so much.”
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.)
Drew Cayce (10) was the only player sent to the treadmill during the two hours I watched. I guess he didn’t cut sharply enough on a three man drill. So he had to run for a minute. And yes, they turned the speed to high. He was sprinting for that minute. Underwood didn’t yell, by the way. He just said “Drew – treadmill.”
There was one angry outburst from the coach, but it was directed at the entire team. A couple hours into practice, the body language had, perhaps, lagged a bit. Underwood lit a fire under them with a few choice words. Suddenly, the drills looked crisp again. Amazing how that works.
Brad Underwood says Greg OingoBoingo is that fastest guy on the team. Faster than Trent Frazier, even. And that proved true this afternoon. In single-trip wind sprints, Greg paced the team twice. I didn’t see any of the 2x up-and-back sprints, in which Mark Alstork separated himself from the team during September 30 practice. So we don’t know about Greg’s endurance, but his initial burst is unlike any 6’9″ dude I can recall.
Tyler Underwood will be a huge asset to this team. He talks and points constantly, whether it’s a route to run or an open man deserving a pass. In one drill, he grabbed Trent Frazier by the torso as Trent ran a curl route. Tyler flipped Trent 180° and pushed him toward the correct corner.
Some other players may be “vocal,” but Tyler’s at another level. That’s how it should be for point guards, of course. And perhaps Te’Jon Lucas has some of that quality. But Lucas was sitting out again, still abiding the concussion protocol. His right eye remains bloodshot from the blow that felled him.
Auto-Matic Vesel’s footwork will be a niche source of joy for basketball nerds. He moves like a gazelle. It’s the same as his shooting stroke. These motions seem so effortless, you wouldn’t even notice them if it weren’t for the ten other less poetically balletic dudes nearby.
You could see it when Orlando Antigua ran a pick-n-roll drill with the bigs. I was so mesmerized that I almost didn’t catch the odd thing that happened at the finish of each rep. At first I thought everyone had a crazy high release point. Then I realized what they were hoping to accomplish. i.e. using angles to evade rim protectors. The Underwood Administration has very particular opinions about angles.
In a later drill, Antigua instructed the bigs to employ a power bounce to gain position in the low post. Matic excelled here as well, because while he’s slight up top, his legs are solid and muscular. His core may be lacking, but his base is not. Matic does need to add some upper-body weight. That’s the challenge for Fletch, because Matic does not like American pizza.
Brad Underwood’s theory of rebounding is finely honed. It’s a departure from the traditional, but borne of statistical analysis. The rebounding drill he ran was unlike any rebounding drill I’ve ever seen, especially because it had nothing to do with putting a body on somebody.
Again, it was about geometry.
Underwood told the team that 76-80% of shots from a particular area will land on the weak side, somewhere between the low block and the short corner. You couldn’t possibly know that from just playing basketball.* You’d need a lot of data and a long-term analysis, plus some fancy computers, to determine that sort of thing.
But that’s where we are now. All this stuff is quantified and qualified by software companies, who get lotsa money to provide the analytics to deep-pocketed basketball programs
Official Visitor Elias Valtonen watched practice from the sidelines, with a beautiful woman who could very well have been his mother. Scandinavian women … wrowl.
*Maybe Dennis Rodman knew it instinctively, but more likely he learned it from playing basketball for years upon years, aided by an unusual memory for details.
A couple weeks ago, Lovie Smith asked me (and the Illini media pool) to declare our opinions about Charlottesville, Trump and The Star-Spangled Banner.
I decided this week would be an appropriate time to make that declaration. This week, Ayo Dosunmu will Officially Visit Illinois Basketball.
Everyone’s thinking about Ayo Dosunmu. I want Ayo Dosunmu to think about Lovie’s challenge.
I met Ayo once, with his dad, Quamdeen. I thought he said “Kwame,” a name I’ve heard before. If you’re descended from Europeans, you might not guess that their family name is pronounced Doh-SOO-moo.
Paris Parham was showing them around at a football game. I asked Quamdeen (or “Coach Q” as he’s called by the pronunciation-challenged) “can I catch up with you guys at halftime?”
“Sure,” he said, “cool.”
It didn’t work out. Like a lot of football games of the John Groce era, there wasn’t a whole lot of excitement on the field. The Dosunmus were gone by halftime.
At some point after his Official Visit this weekend, Ayo will choose between the University of Illinois and Danny Manning’s Demon Deacons of Wake Forest.
It just happens that I was scouting Wake Forest yesterday. That is, I was StreetViewing Winston-Salem, its hometown. Illini basketball will travel there in a few weeks, and I was looking at hotels, etc.
If I were coaching at Wake-Forest, I’d sell a kid on the beauty of that town.
But then I realized something. Winston-Salem is tobacco country. Their Kimpton Hotel (The Cardinal) is in the old RJ Reynolds building. Their town is named for two packs of cigarettes!
It’s the deep south.
This is Trump territory. These are the people who cheer every time Trump lambastes a conscientious objector. Their gorgeous centreville, old-timey and historic, is where slaves worked the fields. Those fields have been preserved.
There aren’t as many historic slave quarters in Winston-Salem as there are in some towns, partly because the Moravian Church didn’t allow white locals to own slaves.
I don’t know whether one can tour slave quarters anywhere near Wake Forest University. I toured them in Savannah, GA. They didn’t look very comfortable.
Savannah, perhaps because it’s so strongly associated with ante-bellum southern history, might avoid the anti-Confederate protests that toppled statues in Charlottesville and New Orleans.
I thought Savannah’s memorial to Confederate General Lafayette McLaws was an outstanding example of late 19th Century landscape architecture.
I don’t have any particular respect for the man memorialized here. But as art, I thought it was pretty cool. Then again, I’m a middle-aged white man. I’ve never been shot at. I’ve never even been billy-clubbed. That’s what the NFL protests are about, in case anyone forgot. Brutality.
I have been in Charlottesville, though. Two of my sisters lived there. Dave Matthews was their bartender at Miller’s. It seemed like a pleasant if humid place.
Except for this one time.
I was in the Food Lion, just before Thanksgiving 1993. I had a fancy Marantz tape recorder, which I got from the Quartermaster in NPR’s basement. I had the job of asking shoppers which one food item simply had to be on the table to make or break Thanksgiving.
I approached an old black woman in the frozen foods section. Her son was helping her shop. I introduced myself and posed my question.
The old woman did not look me in the eye. She didn’t look up at all. Then her son leaned close to her ear, and whispered “it’s okay.”
And then she answered me.
I don’t remember what her favorite Thanksgiving item was. Her answer probably made the cut for the Morning Edition special that ran the following Thursday. It was an authentic American voice.
But I’ll never forget that she was afraid of me, that she needed permission to talk to me.
I saw her everywhere as I continued my StreetView tour of Winston-Salem. I imagined her bent over in the tobacco drying barn, just like she leaned over the freezer in that Food Lion. I have no doubt she worked hard all her life.
It was great that North Carolina voted for Barack Obama in 2008. It seemed like progress for a state that foisted Jesse Helms on us for three decades. But then in 2012, the state reverted to red. And last year, it swung the presidency to Donald Trump.
But this column is about Ayo Dosunmu, not Colin Kaepernick. This week, Ayo will choose between the state that gave the world Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama, and the state that gave us Donald Trump.
I want Ayo to think about that before he makes his decision.
I don’t know if the rest of the Illini media pool will follow Lovie’s directive to voice an opinion on Trump v. NFL Players. But before Lovie arrived that day, we were already talking about the issue. So whether any of my colleagues declares a stance on the issue, it’s important to recognize that they’re an informed, engaged group of people.
Loren Tate spent the lunch hour Googling the history of The Star-Spangled Banner as a sports tradition. He announced, shortly before the presser began, that Woodrow Wilson had ordered the anthem to be performed during military ceremonies in 1916.
“Loren, you do realize Woodrow Wilson was the worst president in U.S. history,” I observed.
I believe this to be true. The usual suspects can’t hold a candle to Wilson’s malfeasance because they were incompetent.
“I think Buchanan’s got that one wrapped up,” Jeremy Werner retorted.
Wilson was the worst because he wasn’t incompetent. He was extremely intelligent, and used his power to suppress freedoms we take for granted today.
Shannon Ryan perked up at the Wilson criticism, reminding the group of Wilson’s fanatical white supremacism. “And he resegregated the civil service,” I responded.
“What about Andrew Jackson?” asked Scott Beatty.
“He killed a lot of Indians,” I answered. “So there’s that. But you have to understand the time …” I finished, weakly, not quite sure why that rationalization would exonerate any military leader.
Scott Richey asked about the Trail of Tears, having not heard other Scott’s question.
Turning back to Jeremy, wanting to make a point, I outed myself as a Buchanan apologist. “I disagree with 99% of U.S historian, including my father, about Buchanan,” I told them. “I think there’s strong Constitutional argument against keeping states that don’t want to be a part of the union.”
Abraham Lincoln disagreed with me, of course. A few hundred thousand people died, and we still haven’t really won back the south. In fact, they seem to be running the show.
I don’t know whether any of these considerations will factor into Ayo’s decision. Our state is bankrupt, for sure. It’s because we provided health care for all children, and codified pension rights in our constitution. Whatever we’ve built here in Illinois, the workers got paid to build it. In North Carolina, the labor was “free.”
And now that white nationalists feel emboldened by their president to rally in public, we know that a lot of those unreconstructed southerners wish to return to those “good ole days.”
My defense of James Buchanan is theoretical. As a matter of principle, Lincoln won the argument.
I hope Ayo gets a chance to meet with the football staff during his Official Visit. In these difficult times, it’s reassuring to have Lovie Smith, Hardy Nickerson and Garrick McGee representing the state of Illinois. For the country, it’s never been more urgent to have capable, talented, erudite black men who aren’t afraid to speak their minds intelligently and compassionately about the importance of free speech, peaceful protest, and fundamental rights.
For the record, I agree with them. That’s my opinion.
As long as Brad Underwood allows media access to his practices, I’ll try to figure out something interesting to say about them. If I can’t think of anything interesting to write, I won’t waste your time. (This is the advantage of running a website rather than a daily newspaper.)
The most obvious difference between Underwood and John Groce is that Groce wore a headset microphone in practice. Underwood doesn’t even have a whistle. But despite his smooth, soft speaking voice, he does yell like the angry badass you were expecting. He’s the coach you remember from the good old days before political correctness, who told you when your effort/execution wasn’t going to cut it, and indeed exactly how your opponent would carve your ass up.
Orlando Antigua does use a whistle, which shows that Underwood doesn’t impose his style on his colleagues. And “colleague” is an apt term for describing this staff. At various moments, Antigua was the only person speaking. At a different moment, it was Chin Coleman conducting the lesson.
Practice began with a short speech from Mannie Jackson. He told the team “It’s not about you. It’s about the guys around you.”
That was followed by Jerry Colangelo, who asked the team which among them came from Chicago. (Cameron Liss sort of raised his hand.) If Colangelo was flustered by the dearth of Windy talent, he didn’t flinch. He said of the city “the further north you go, the more money you have. Well, I’m from about 25 miles south of Chicago.”
The thing that stood out most, in observing individual players, was Mark Alstork’s speed and conditioning. The team ran a set of wind sprints (full court, up and back twice) and by the third leg, Alstork had a five yard lead on the next closest guy.
There were no laggers, and no other leaders. Everyone else was more or less grouped together. But Alstork was way, way ahead.
The last time I saw such a distinct speed differential, it was D.J. Richardson leaving Alex Legion in the dust, also during wind sprints. That was before everyone realized that Legion was a bust.
If Dee Brown didn’t teach you how important speed can be in this game, Kalin Lucas probably did — the hard way.
The other intriguing individual performance was Matic Vesel. He can shoot. It might seem like a necessary faculty for a basketballer, yet so many are are no better than you are, just taller.
Matic is taller than you are, and he can shoot better than you can.
American kids evidently don’t know about the mid-range jumper. In Slovenia, I guess they’re still teaching it. Matic does not miss.
(Illini Sports Information Director Derrick Burson, right, is fascinated by Da’Monte Williams’s hands. They do indeed look just like Frank’s hands.)
I had a conversation with Brad Sturdy in the Memorial Stadium press box Friday night. We agreed that Matic was not built for boxing out. He won’t play with his back to the basket.
But Brad says Vesel can play the four in Underwood’s offense, stretching the floor.
Lukas Kisunas, on the other hand, would flatten anyone guarding him in the paint. He watched this morning’s practice, too, as part of his official visit.
Why was the media allowed inside a practice featuring an official visitor? Probably because Brad Underwood has a less-than-chickenshit response to NCAA rules. The Illini basketball program never promoted Kisunas’s presence. The University of Illinois made no mention of Lukas Kisunas.
Lukas Kisunas was not made available for interviews (and neither was Mark Smith). Hence, the U of I did not violate NCAA rules. John Groce and Bruce Weber would have convulsed in fear at the notion of inviting the media during an official visit.
Kisunas was present even as Underwood spoke to the media. You might be able to see it here, assuming I panned my device accurately.
The most memorable lesson from Underwood during this morning’s session concerned fast break defense.
Brad championed his recent Oklahoma State team for its ability to force turnovers. He choreographed a fairly simple set of stances taken by offensive and defensive players in a particular fast break situation.
But he also spoke of the psychological state of the actors in these situations — what one might expect and what one must expect in a defensive posture, and what the driving offensive player is reading.
It seemed like an obvious lesson. But then it occurred to me that, like a lot of obvious lessons, no one ever mentioned it before. There was nuance, mostly to do with geometry (i.e. angles) but that didn’t impede its comprehensibility.
I understood, from the catwalk, how to read an offense in that situation. I knew what Underwood was getting at. I think the players did, too.
It was at this moment that Derrick Burson mentioned that voices are more easily understood on the court than on the catwalk. This was an important point, historically. Bruce Weber and John Groce were often, to a catwalk audience, incomprehensible.
But Underwood is easier to understand than Weber or Groce. His voice, and his way of communicating, are more clear.
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