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Illini basketball

The Cheerful

Everybody associated with Illini basketball seems pretty happy these days. Was it the long road trip where they increased their conference losing streak to four games, puked a lot, and shuttled around in temperatures that hovered around 0° the entire time?

Maybe.

Is it that they competed with the four teams picked  3-through-6 in the pre-season? Probably not. Like a lot of athletes, they prefer to win.

Something about the new coach, the new system, the improvement they see in themselves and each other — all of that seems to buck them up. Wednesday afternoon, after prepping for Iowa, everybody seemed pretty enthusiastic.

The coach is sanguine, too.  After Saturday’s loss, Bret Beherns asked whether Brad Underwood planned to make major changes, like he did after an 0-6 start in the Big 12 last year.

Nope.

Maybe we should all be glad that Brad has this team loose after an 0-4 conference start. He’ll need to keep these players committed. He’ll need them emotionally available. He’ll need their attention.

Underwood talks about “listening” a lot. He knows when guys are doing it (Williams, always) and when they’re not (Kipper, sometimes).

Underwood is not so Old School that he can’t see the value in a guy like Kipper, whose basketball “faults” are aspects of a genial personality.

You could reduce Kipper to a cold-blooded killer via techniques employed by the 20th century’s most ruthless armies, but your end goal wouldn’t be worth the sacrifice.

Kipper is a warm, smart, funny guy. We need more of those, not fewer.

Brad’s challenge is to bring out the killer in Kipper while he’s on the court, without damaging Kipper’s inner Smoove B.

After losing a game that didn’t seem competitive in the second half, Kipper boarded the team bus with a hot, fresh pizza box in his hand. He got to choose his toppings, chicken & peppers.

Kipper was in a good mood. His mom & grandma were there, which is not unusual. They travel a lot.  But Kipper had just tallied game highs in points and rebounds, and that hadn’t happened much lately.

Underwood had a pizza as well, but he didn’t know what was on it. “Whatever Joey (Biggs) got me. I’ll eat anything, Rob.”

The post-game feed is as much of a tradition as the shootaround, or the halftime speech. Fortunately, it seems more susceptible to evolution than those two strictures. Thus, when Greg Eboigbodin decided he didn’t want pizza, he was allowed to choose a pasta dish instead.

Progress.

Of course, Greg had plenty of reasons to be cheerful. He’d just shattered all expectations for his college career by playing two straight games of  … is dominant too strong a word?

Chin Coleman bridled, in his introductory interview, at the notion that he’d be recruiting a different level of player to UIUC than he’d been recruiting to UIC. Chin might be right. Greg appears ready for prime time.

Greg still makes a lot of common Big Man mistakes, usually the consequence of being hit in the hands by a pass.

But he recovers so quickly from his mistakes that they sometimes don’t have a chance to be charted. Underwood mentions his speed and quickness every time someone asks about Greg.

But the other factor, the thing that allows him to play, is his mindset.  Greg is either oblivious to the millions of people watching him, or he’s built of iron and nails. I think it’s the former, and hope it’s both. (Contrast Matic Vesel, who’s way too aware that he’s landed at a Big Time basketball program.)

For the record, it’s not fair to use Greg as an example of athletes who are cheerful despite …

Greg might experience moments of gloom, bad moods, even severe depression. If so, he hides it well.  He seems, perhaps more so than any major college athlete I’ve met, to be Living The Dream. (He’s also the only Illini I’ve known who rides a bicycle to practice, as do I. So I’m biased.)

’tis the season for PT constriction. This time of year, coaches are generally slashing minutes, tightening the rotation. The youngsters don’t see much floor time. Experimental big men return to project status.

Not here in east central Illinois. The minutes were damn near socialist Saturday. Everybody got the same. Da’Monte Williams tallied a near-bourgeois 27 segments of tick while nobody else exceeded 22.

The veterans aren’t completely washed up, though. Leron Black and Mark Alstork were felled by a Norovirus. Michael Finke had to leave the team for a day because his grampa died.

There are no column-inch restrictions here at Illini Report, so let’s take a moment to remember David Langendorf.

Michael Finke, David Langendorf, Tim Finke

 

His name was David Langendorf, born in Highland, Illinois and was married to my mom’s mom, Barbara. His birthday was March 30, 1953. He died on December 24, 2017. He served in Vietnam and then was a police officer in Champaign for a number of years. He was currently “retired” but he was always staying busy. Loved doing yard work for people. Mowed all of his neighbors yards and was always lending a helping hand to whoever needed it. He loved fishing and was always wanting to take me and my siblings out to fish. He and Mike Thorne actually got really close over the couple of years Mike was here. They went fishing all the time, just the two of them. He was a guy that cared about others. Put other people before himself all the time. A really selfless guy.

So while you’re steaming about the 0-for-2 road trip, keep in mind that these young men have Things Going On that you may not have considered.

And despite all that, they played pretty well (for stretches).

If you’ve been frustrated by Illini basketball lately, whether you’re throwing your remote at your screen, or throwing your screen remotely, you’ll be delighted, possibly stunned to know that Michael Finke is averaging about the same number of rebounds-per-game as Leron Black (5.4 to 5.7).

You might also be delighted to know that Black is smoking Finke on threes,  .444 to .317, because it bodes well for Leron’s future as a long-distance shooter.

Aaron Jordan has cooled to a near-normal 53% from the arc, and it’s just about time for Brad Underwood to talk with AJ about mechanics. Where Underwood fixed Trent Frazier’s FT tendencies, he might be able to straighten AJ’s Spinning Globe.

Old School by nature, Brad will probably wait until Aaron’s percentage drops below 50 before interceding. That’s fine. But Brad is also a long-holdout-cum-believer in Analytics. At his disposal, he’s got the best proprietary analytics money can buy. Those data, plus the video collected, incessantly & tirelessly by DIA staff, will determine whether AJ’s shot has changed during these last weeks.

An Argument for Cheerfulness Re: Illini basketball

Basketball will need to change if it hopes to keep the attention of people who are now 30 and under.  The fact that Brad Underwood is the Illini coach, and Bruce Weber is not, should demonstrate that someone has recognized a tectonic shift in the human attention span. We can’t stand to watch methodical basketball. Like our social media addiction, we need basketball to enhance our experience at an ultra high refresh rate.

Bruce Weber didn’t compete for offensive rebounds, nor did John Groce. Brad Underwood wants to compete all the time.  Hence, every moment of Illini basketball is suddenly more interesting to watch.  If the NCAA eliminated the Alternate Possession rule, you can imagine an Underwood team gaining a win per year, simply because he wants to contest everything.

Overall, Underwood’s relaxed demeanor throughout the Michigan game and afterword reminded this Illini observer that Michigan Curbstomping Illinois is not a tradition to him. Brad doesn’t know that Michigan surpassed Illinois in 2009, after a lovely pair of decades in which the Wolverines simply couldn’t solve Illini riddles.

We’ll concede football to them. Irksomely, Michigan also holds the title deed to Illini basketball. It’s less egregious than Ed DeChellis’s ownership of your favorite team.  Michigan is a storied program, with a banner. (Grrr.)

John Beilein beat Brad by four points last year, if you exclude that last second prayer (as I do). As far as Brad knows, he’s competitive with Michigan. But for both coaches, there’s another significant factor responsible for their sanguinity: After years of toil, they Made It.

Like Beilein, Brad’s peace-of-mind is age-based. After years of getting by, and more recently making money that could put his kids through college, Brad Underwood is a multi-millionaire.

You can imagine him at 43, having enjoyed greater success as a JUCO coach in Florida than he had as a JUCO coach in Kansas, thinking I might be able to make ends meet.

The weather is better too you can also imagine him thinking.

If Bob Huggins hadn’t called, he might still be in Florida. Brad said as much. One phone call changed everything.

If Huggins hadn’t called, Brad’s mortgage situation would be different. He’d be driving a car that he owns, and it would have significantly more miles than the late model he’s driving now. His daughter’s cracked iPhone screen would be something he perhaps couldn’t afford to replace, rather than a teachable moment.

You can see why Brad Underwood isn’t at his wits’ end.  Everything has come together for him.

For the young people, this is only the beginning. There’s no reason to think it’s not the beginning of something good.