The intensity of Illinois’ defensive effort in the first half of Braggin’ Rights 2017 reminded beleaguered Illini fans of the reason Josh Whitman flew to Oklahoma one morning this spring.
Brad Underwood didn’t look like John Groce 2.0 Saturday. His team didn’t seem emotionally resigned to losing.
Mark Alstork played arrowhead to the Illini spear (spearheaded the Illini arrow?), demonstrating yet again the reason Underwood continues to give him starters minutes. And he tied Leron Black with a team high seven rebounds.
Mark Smith got his swagger back in front of a crowd that seemed to be about 20% Smith Family. He reprised the role he played against UNLV, flexing his muscles at the Illini bench after draining a three.
Either Mark is a good example of Underwood’s theory of psychology management.
Cuonzo Martin said after the game that Braggin’ Rights, if not everything he’d imagined “will be. It will be.” And yet 2017 was probably his best chance to win it.
Martin’s career has always been about potential rather than on-court success. Tennessee fans were ready to run him out of Knoxville before he stumbled into the Sweet Sixteen. Plenty aware of that sentiment, he bolted for Berkeley, where he recruited well and performed poorly, consistent with his M.O.
Jeremiah Tilmon won’t be around for long, and Martin is unlikely to get his money’s worth from the Porter family. On Saturday, Martin showed his most important recruit why Illinois would be a great choice.
EJ Liddell sat behind the Mizzou bench. So did his parents. They all wore neutral colors. On the court, Black — the player EJ is most often compared to — dominated the game.
Black dominated the postgame as well, persuading Sheila Segura to be his wife.
It took me an extra long time to collect my thoughts this week, largely because I still can’t believe my eyes. I waited to meet with the participants, to ask if I really saw what I think I saw.
They said yes.
Tuesday afternoon, Brad Underwood emerged from the film session and told a small group of reporters that his team had just watched Te’Jon’s oop over and over.
He ran us (the reporters) through a number of hypothetical situations. What to do with the ball if you have 10 seconds left and a two-point lead. When to foul. How do those situations change with each additional 5 seconds, or each additional point in your favor. These are things he coaches.
At no point was a 40-foot oop mentioned.
Then, as Fletch finished the team’s stretching, Underwood got back to coaching. You’ll never believe what the team focused on Tuesday.
Oh, did you say inbounding plays? How did you guess?
Maryland was probably the most exciting Illini game I’ve seen in my life, for better and worse.
I watched @Indiana with my dad in 1989, and we both leaped into the air when Nick hit The Shot
I was in the last row of C section when Frank beat Michael Redd’s Buckeyes
I attended a 1987 game in which Illinois led Iowa 61-39 at the half. I met Dick Vitale that night. I said he should have a “Windex Award” for the guy who best cleaned the glass each game. He liked the idea. I never got paid for that.
Anyway, Iowa’s victory may have been more impressive than the 22-point comeback Sunday. I just don’t remember it that way. I think I was annoyed by Jeff Moe.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Sunday was hearing a referee say “we screwed up.”
That’s never happened before, to my knowledge.
Terry Oglesby & Kelly Pfeifer were the two stripes closest to the goaltending that wasn’t. Pfeifer has always been a chummy guy, which is unusual for the stripes. Few interact with others.
Oglesby always seems solid to me. I will say that he was the first game participant whose performance really stood out on Sunday, even before Anthony Cowan.
I watched Oglesby swallow his whistle on a number of plays where heavy contact, audible contact, occurred. “Wow, they’re really letting them play,” I observed to a pair of fellow camerapersons.
Sure, they called fouls. But they let a lot of stuff go.
Whistle-swallowing is okay with me. For one thing, it allowed Leron Black to be Leron Black. He needed some time to adjust, but by the second half, Leron recognized the parameters, and exploited them effectively.
Apart from the fact that Tom Eades-Pfiefer-Oglesby cost Illinois the game by missing one seemingly obvious call, it was a well-officiated game.
How did 12,735 people see Trent Frazier’s lay-in swatted away while three professional observers didn’t? It’s unfathomable.
But it’s also not reviewable according to current NCAA rules. Terry Oglesby felt bad about that. So he did the unthinkable. He apologized to the heckling fan.
Here’s Jeff Butler, yelling at the refs.
Jeff and his son Connor both told me that Terry Oglesby apologized to them for screwing up, and said he’d make up for it. That’s astonishing, and discomfiting. I spent the rest of the game watching for Oglesby to retaliate.
Jeff Butler is a member of Dave Downey’s Club 53. Butler paid enough to get his name affixed to a plaque, which itself is affixed to a wall in the bowels of the State Farm Center. There’s a lounge, snacks, booze. You won’t get to see it, sorry.
The New Aaron Jordan is actually The New Brad Underwood
Brad Underwood might be the most intellectually nimble Illini basketball coach of my lifetime. He seems predisposed to conservatism, with a progressive demon perched on his shoulder, constantly reminding him that he needs to adapt, to keep up with new trends.
Conservatism and liberalism are not at odds, despite what you’ve heard. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But when you realize it’s not working anymore, be open to new ideas.
Underwood is stodgy and open to new ideas. He proved that at OKState, when he abandoned his defensive principles and adjusted to what works for this group.
You could see that intellectual progression this week. At Northwestern, the nation’s leading three-point shooter attempted one three-point shot.
Days earlier, Aaron scored 20 on 4-of-6 from the arc. But he also opted against shooting in a number of situations where he seemed open-ish, or open enough.
I asked Brad whether Aaron was too hesitant (here at 2:30). Brad said AJ is the best three-point shooter for a reason. That’s not a cop-out. It’s a logical response.
But Illinois lost.
When AJ launched a single three versus the NUrds, Illinois lost again.
And then, Brad Underwood evolved. He stopped defending AJ’s caution, and took the responsibility upon himself to see that Aaron gets more shots, more minutes, more open looks.
It began Monday night in the first installment of The Brad Underwood Show, at BW3 in Savoy. It continued in his Tuesday presser.
Underwood shared another personal moment with the media, after Tuesday’s presser, and before the Te’Jon-centric film session. He spoke (again) about the culture of losing, and how he’s never been around a group of guys who just seemed to accept it the way this group accepts it.
I don’t think John Groce enjoyed losing. Groce prepared his teams for life lessons, and part of life lessons is failure.
Underwood is not unsympathetic. But he’s a lot more aggressive, basketball and otherwise. He’s more human, less robotic, and a lot funnier than Groce.
You can already see that dynamism within this team. It was Groce’s team, but it’s becoming Underwood’s team.
Maryland beat Illinois 92-91, the same score that ended Underwood’s season in Stillwater. A week before that NCAA Tournament game, the Illini folded against the same Michigan team that beat Underwood. That score was 75-55.
Look for a pattern here. The Illini are likely, during Underwood’s tenure, to give up more points than they did under Bruce Weber, or any other coach of Boring Basketball That Hurts To Watch.
If this were Weber’s team, that lob would never have been thrown. In fact, nothing exciting would have happened.
The future should look like the Lon Kruger era. His teams were so exciting that we hardly noticed how great a coach we had.
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