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Illini basketball

So Close, Part Deux

I do not hate Adonis de la Rosa.

I do not dislike Adonis de la Rosa.

I want good things for Adonis de la Rosa.

Illinois loses basketball games for two reasons. One of them is Adonis de la Rosa. On Tuesday night in South Bend, Adonis scored a -12 point impact on the game. He played for four minutes, and in those four minutes, Notre Dame outscored Illinois by a dozen points.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who manned the pivot for 33 minutes, was +12.

Brad Underwood is finally coming around on the painful economic concept of Adonis Costs.  He ditched his talking point about ACL recovery, and recognized that Adonis is rushing his shots. Underwood says Adonis doesn’t do that in practice.

Adonis is shooting 2-of-10 over the last three games.

The other reason is that Illini guards continue to misapprehend the danger imposed by Tall People. 

Underwood addressed that Tuesday night, as well. He didn’t know how many more Elite Rim Protectors his team would face this year, but he hinted that the problem has now crossed his radar.

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Illini basketball

Re-Boot

Trent is fine. Da’Monte is fine. AJ is Brad Underwood’s favorite & nominal MVP.

Illini fans need only worry about everyone else.

Last time around, I wrote about Adonis, Ayo and Andres. The Triple-A would be the key to success, I said.

In Maui, Adonis corrected his errors of judgment & execution. Against Gonzaga, he converted 2-of-4 shots, which is nearly good enough for a 7-footer with negative quickness. Slightly alarming was the fact that he attempted those shots in five minutes of PT.

Against Iowa State, he equaled the 2-of-4, converted both of his free throws, and stretched his shooting over a 14-minute span. Even better.

Then, against Xavier, Bizarro Adonis returned, reviving his Mike Thorne impression with 1-of-5 flung from the field.

His reversion worsened against awful Mississippi Valley State. He was 1-of-3 from the field, and managed a -3 point impact against the 345th best team in the college basketball. His team won by 19 points, but lost when Adonis was on the floor.

Brad Underwood says Adonis is working his way back into shape, and that’s the reason for his poor shooting. Perhaps he’s building Adonis in the media while taking a different tone behind closed doors. That’s Underwood’s way.

Or maybe the coach has so much on his mind that he doesn’t see the huge problem here. Adonis, right now, is killing his team. He’s a turnover on offense. The numbers paint a bleak picture. It needs fixed immediately.

Andres Feliz is struggling at the rim, and — to a surprising degree recently — in the backcourt.

Underwood says he doesn’t want to dampen Dre’s instincts completely.  It’s refreshing to know that the coach sees a fine line here. His predecessors were hidebound in their philosophy of player freedom.

But Underwood also says Andres needs to recognize, when he gets too deep and the Tall Hands are blocking his view of the hoop, that it’s time to pass the ball.

Illini shooters have been pretty effective on wide-open threes.

But AJ, Alan and the gang can’t shoot if the ball is being batted out-of-bounds, or into the hands of an opponent.

Even Ayo, the Heralded Savior, has been slow in adjusting to the height and quickness of major college defenders. Consequently, he spends more than an advantageous amount of time crumpled in a heap on the baseline.

Kipper’s been broken since that little shit Mac McClung outhustled him for a loose ball, and reverse jammed it on Lou Henson Court.

Perhaps it’s not fair to expect him to guard power forwards and centers for 30 minutes per game while also running a fast-paced offense, but that’s the lot he’s drawn.

It’s especially sad to watch Kipper unravel because he’s the Illini who might have been the dominant upperclassman. And if he’s not, that’s another reason this season could go quickly down the drain.

Perhaps scoring 14 against MVSU will give Kipper his groove back. He’s done it against high-major opponents. but perhaps not while manning the low-post.

These are just the offensive problems. The defense should get better as the newcomers convert knowledge & experience into habits. But unless these offensive tendencies get fixed, it’ll be a loooong season.

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Illini basketball

Underneath

Everything seemed so great when Illinois faced short, Division III opponents. The question lingered, though: “How will they perform against tall people?”

The sound of a basketball batted by shot-blockers, banging the side of the backboard, bounding away as time ran expired, will stick with me for a while. 

Giorgi Bezhanishvili, with three Georgetown defenders looming, was unlikely to score the needed 7 points in those final five seconds.  But the futility of that moment was punctuated by the unusual sound. It was something you’d hear in an automotive repair shop. Air-pressure versus rubber. It sounded like a tennis ball caught in a ceiling fan.

That sound represents the end of our disillusion re: this Illini team. The lack of height was always going to be a problem. Is it insurmountable?

To overcome the interior deficit, Illini guards must be nearly perfect, and Adonis de la Rosa must NOT be Mike Thorne.

Thorne is a smart, kind, gentle and funny. De la Rosa is smart, funny, conversational and pedagogical. Neither of them deserves to be insulted by any Illini watcher. But it’s important to know that Thorne’s relativism about field-goal percentage is the reason John Groce lives in Akron, Ohio.

When Thorne took the ball on the low-post, he should have converted 60% of his FG attempts, or passed to a wing. He did neither. He’d usually fling the ball toward the basket and hope for the best. That’s unacceptable.

One game into his Illini career, Adonis is following the Thorne blueprint.

De la Rosa got the ball in the low-post during the first half of Tuesday’s game against Georgetown. He lumbered around for a while, moving slowly, feeling out the defense. The defense collapsed.

One sensed an intake of breath from the crowd. No one knew what to expect, and hoped for the best.

The best didn’t happen. 

Instead, an errant 12-footer sailed within three feet of its intended target, the Hoyas grabbed the rebound, and a possession ended without a basket. Statisticians tally one missed FG in these situations. It feels like a turnover. Not getting a good look from the low post is bad basketball. 

In the second half, Adonis got the ball at the usual pinch-post position that Brad Underwood prefers, took another shot at lumbering, plowed and hooked his man simultaneously, fell to the floor, dropped the ball, never attempted a shot AND drew a charging call.

Illinois led the game at that point. But Georgetown gained a lot of confidence from that possession. The Hoyas went on a 20-8 run from that point, and that was that.

Adonis can do good things with his big body. Just a simple back screen with that big ole butt can open a pathway from the wing

In practice, he connects on a high percentage of jumpers from the elbow. That should be his bread and butter, if Illini guards can learn the pick n’ pop. 

Creating space for Illini ball-handlers should be Priority One for the bigs.

Illinois’ three-headed monster was down a head against Georgetown, and maybe that was the difference. Without Trent Frazier’s minutes, Andres Feliz and Ayo Dosunmu got tired. Before we knew it, Tyler Underwood was running the point.

Feliz rallied the troops in the second half, but ran out of gas. He tugged his shirt to signal the bench that he needed out.

Overall, Andres was great in one way, and disappointing in two ways. He demonstrated a fearless disregard for defenders. But he air-balled his threes, and he took bad angles on lay-ups.

For Illinois to be successful this season, Feliz will need to fix those two problems. At Ubben, his three-point shooting is solid. Can we assume he’s still adjusting to the depth-perception of a 15,000-seat arena? Does that man he’ll be automatic at Lahaina’s high school gym-sized Civic Center?

The bad angles were outnumbered by the good. Still pictures from the Georgetown game recall Tracy Abrams from the time of Illinois’s last Maui trip.

Abrams was cutting angles back then. He had not yet developed the tendency to go right at opposing defenses. Feliz did both against the Hoyas. The latter is a remnant of his successes against JUCO and Dominican competition. It won’t work against seven-footers.

Feliz is a guy you should trust in the closing minutes. You can put the ball in his hands, but you need him out there because he’s a pain in the ass on defense. The Illini need him to be flawless, superhuman, to compensate for interior shortcomings.

Ayo’s the guy you really want to have the ball in crunchtime. But for all the celebration of his 25-point performance, for all the glowing media coverage; one guy, Ayo, knew that he let his team down.

Ayo’s owning the loss impressed Brad Underwood, who also seemed to think it ridiculous that Ayo blamed himself. But if nothing else, it’s important to acknowledge that Ayo acknowledged it.

Blocked

You want your team leader to feel unsatisfied by his performance in a loss. You want him to recognize his mistakes in a win, too. You want him to keep learning.

Ayo and Andres might adjust. They have time.

Adonis doesn’t have time. If he hasn’t learned by now, he’s unlikely to learn. So the question is whether Brad Underwood wants to rein him in. So far, the Underwood leash seems long.

On the other hand, we know that Underwood chose to hire an officiating crew for every 2018-19 Illini practice specifically because he knows specific players need to overcome specific bad habits.

Illini fans should consider whether they want another coach who restricts his players’ freedom. it didn’t work for Weber or Groce. Discouraging Brandon Paul from driving, or yanking Aaron Jordan after a missed shot, had obvious negative psychological affects on Brandon Paul and Aaron Jordan. It took a lot of undoing to revert their learned behaviors.

But you’d think that a fifth-year senior, hired for a specific role, might be different.

Adonis de la Rosa should never again dribble the ball twice in a single possession. He certainly shouldn’t dribble the ball around the lane, looking for something to open up.

Maybe this problem won’t find a fix before the Gonzaga game on Monday, but Brad Underwood had better fix it if he wants the season to end well.

The rest of the team has flaws, but it’s the execution by these three guys that turned the spotlight on Illinois’ Achilles Heel.

AJ was a ghost against the Hoyas, but as a decoy, he was pretty effective in the first half. Kipper made great plays against Georgetown, perhaps offset by his play in crunchtime. Fans complained about his execution, but Kipper was among the best at taking the pinch-post hand-off. His strength and height make him a tough cover from the wing.

That Underwood continues to build Kipper, rather than tear him down, gives us an insight on Underwood’s psychological methods.

Da’Monte Williams was solid, and Giorgi looked better than most freshmen. You got what you expected from those guys. The daunting thing for Illinio players and fans is the thin margin for error. If you don’t get what you expect from those guys, Illinois loses. No one can have an off-night.

The good news is that Gonzaga is up next, and as everyone knows, Gonzaga rarely features annoying white guys.

Categories
Illini football

The New Model Army

Maybe the 2019 Illini will finish 13th in the B1G, just as all the Detroit and Philadelphia sportswriters predicted.

Thing is, all those busy professionals are too consumed with writing about pro sports, local sports and their own college teams. To the extent that they contemplate conference bottom-dwellers at all, it’s usually a quick study of someone else’s analysis. 

Nobody really knows.

A few thousand people have seen Ayo, Giorgi and Andres perform on the same team. A few dozen have seen them play more than twice. But even if this squad wins the next ten games, we won’t know what they’ll be like in March.

Here’s what we do know after two public contests: This team must have an unflappable Andres Feliz’s  if it’s going to succeed. Feliz had been the model of consistency. He was the rock. You could trust Andres Feliz to do the right thing. Like Dominicans in baseball, his fundamentals are not merely sound. They define him.

But not Thursday.

Feliz led the Illini in turnovers, with five. He offset that number with three assists and two steals, but it’s hard to believe he didn’t go straight home to flagellate himself with some torturous handcrafted weapon, known only to Gullahphones.

Feliz led all Illini with a +33 point-differential. The team is inarguably more successful when he’s on the floor.

Tevian Jones made the biggest single-game leap in this observer’s experience, and it makes total sense. Tevian was all over the place during the Wesleyan scrimmage. Last night, he was in the right spots.

Real game experience (competing against other teams, in front of spectators) is a big deal.  It’s not just a matter of trying harder “when the lights come on.”

Neuroscience calls it “chunking.” People whose brains have already separated learned information into “chunks” don’t need to process familiar visual experiences with the same thoroughness as people who’ve never experienced those visuals.

Instead, they can concentrate on the visual information that is actually  unique. If they’ve seen fifty games from the floor of the State Farm Center, they can concentrate entirely on the opponent’s offensive scheme.

It’s why seniors are better than freshmen. It’s why home teams beat visiting teams.

Tevian’s major freshman mistakes on Thursday took the traditional form of The Personal Foul. In 18:12 of tick, Tevian garnered a team-high four of them.

Contrast his senior counterpart, Aaron Jordan. AJ led the team in PT with 26:33. He fouled once.

Andres Feliz has a lot more experience than the Illini freshmen, but they’ll all get better with more experience playing together, and on the same court.

Even Ayo, despite gushing overnight plaudits, has lots of room for improvement. His most obvious mistake last night was fouling a jump-shooter after getting beat off the dribble.

He might have recovered from the initial mistake, but because it flustered him, he made the worse mistake.

Cherish these images. You might not get many chances to see Ayo making mistakes. His flashes of brilliance might overload the system.

It’s too bad that he can’t watch himself himself. He’s exciting.

Not surprisingly, some of Ayo’s best plays do not end in buckets. He’s too fast, and his teammates haven’t caught up yet. That’s another thing that might develop over time.

In the future, this might become an assist.

The Giorgi Show will be entertaining whether Illinois wins or not. But Giorgi is not indifferent to the score. Apart from being hilarious, he’s competitive.  This combination brings confusing outcomes: Bo Boroski assessed an official warning for Giorgi’s taunting, yet came away laughing.

Every observer that I’ve polled expects Giorgi’s technical-per-game ratio to continue unabated. Let’s hope nobody gets hurt.

Tal Brody was in the house.
Categories
Illini basketball

46 Turnovers

For people who’ve never seen these fresh-faced Illini cagers, the newcomers were certainly the most interesting thing about Friday’s Wesleyan exhibition. Now you know why Andres Feliz will be a starter, and why Giorgi Bezhanishvili will be a fighter.

For those of us who’ve seen them a few times, the box score was the eye-opener.

After years, perhaps decades of following a same-old formula, the official stat sheet has added new concepts. That’s why we know that Feliz not only committed zero fouls, but drew five from the Titans. Same stat for Trent Frazier.

We also know the plus/minus points tally for each individual’s playing time. And the playing time is more exact. For example:

That’s also a great example of how the +/- might mislead a person who reads box scores instead of watching games. Da’Monte’s impact on the game must be described as positive.

Three assists to zero turnovers, four rebounds and solid defense. He also made the play of the game (as judged by crowd reaction) with a dramatic shot rejection.

Still, it’s a metric. Da’Monte was -3. So was Alan Griffin. So was Tyler Underwood.

Yes, Tyler Underwood played 8 minutes and 44 seconds. Trent Frazier was +25 in 25:34 at the same position. Absolutely no one is shocked by this contrast, I presume. 

Feliz was +15. Like Griffin, he’s considered a superior on-ball defender. Like Griffin, he was posterized by a group of amateur Methodists, none of whom earned an athletic scholarship.

These things happen. Brad Underwood’s job is to make sure they don’t happen again.

Only Ayo Dosunmu played more minutes than Frazier, totaling 28:49. Ayo was the primary ball-handler for some of that time, but not much. So it’s not surprising that he managed a solitary assist. It’s more surprising that he booted the ball five times. The 1-to-5 turnover ratio might be explained by his inexperience at the college level. Frazier’s ATO was 5-to-4.

Seventeen turns is more than any college coach will accept, but on the other hand, Ayo garnered four steals. That evens things out. Likewise Aaron Jordan. His turnover was countered by two steals and two assists, plus a game-high seven rebounds. Dude was clearly feeling possessive about ball security.

Those numbers will keep him on the court. His 3-of-7 shooting is less than ideal, but AJ was +18 in his 21:10. It’s hard to argue with numbers.

Obviously this “contest” was not, in Brad Underwood’s mind, a proving ground for his eventual 200 minute distribution. Other than the two cripples, everybody played.

Samba Kane showed fans why he was recruited (height, mobility) and why they won’t see him again for quite some time (everything else). Drew Cayce and Samson Olademeji played. Team manager-cum-forward Zach Griffith got floor time.

The only omen one might read in the PT tea leaves is that Tevian Jones earned less tick than Kid Underwood. And, during that tick, one could see why.

Jones was the best example of freshman inexperience. The game was waaaaay too fast for him. He performed well when standing still (3-for-3 FTs), but needs the Team Underwood concepts to settle into instincts rather than second-guessings.

Why was Brad Underwood so generous with his PT? Probably because he wants the freshmen and walk-ons to feel rewarded for all the work they’ve put in since June. And also because he knows the newcomers can’t be hurried. They’re going to keep playing like freshmen until everything clicks for them. 

Finally, he’s probably realized, after having major parts of his body removed and replaced, that life is short, and must be lived in the present.

Perhaps he also wanted to show visiting Class of 2019 PF Chris Payton that everyone gets a chance here at Illinois.

Categories
Illini basketball

Ready or not, here we go …

Welp, the 2019 Illini basketball season is here. I have an unwarranted hunch that it might turn out better than The Experts predict. That’s because I’ve seen Andres Feliz and Giorgi Bezhanishvili in action.

Sportswriters know what Illinois will  get from its veterans. Most basketball professionals have seen Ayo Dosunmu play at some level. But most of these analysts don’t hang out at Ubben, and haven’t seen Andres or Giorgi. If Illinois surpasses its low expectations this year, these two newcomers will bear significant responsibility.

So far, the only thing Illini fans know about Giorgi is that he’s weird.
His unusual (in fact, foreign) personality contrasts sharply with his reserved American teammates. Case in point: Giorgi kissed me when I arrived at practice this morning. I don’t recall being kissed by any previous Illini. I’m pretty sure it’s a first. 

The Lovers

The smiley faced singing & dancing act works to camouflage a vital point about Giorgi: He is a vicious competitor. By vicious, I mean angry, devious, even spiteful. There will be altercations this season. Giorgi will provoke them.

This Mr. Hyde side appears, as far as I know, only on court. Genial Giorgi, the off-court Dr. Jekyll, seems real.

First time observers will also be stunned by Giorgi’s passing, and the all-encompassing court vision that enables it. In a recent practice, Georgi whipped a two-handed no-look pass from the near side low-post to Feliz, in the far corner. As his defender closed in, Andres returned a similarly impressive bullet, right back to Georgi, who immediately swung the ball to the near arc for a wide-open Trent Frazier three-pointer, again with two hands and no eyes. Did an entire second elapse before the ball had crossed the court twice? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Adonis de la Rosa is ready.  Today, after practice, he stuck around to tutor Samba Kane on low-post moves. After that additional work out, he said his knee feels great and that he’d like to play tomorrow night.

Kane is perhaps the most polite human to wear an Illini uniform. After the the tutorial, he asked de la Rosa if they could have an extra session every day.  Adonis said yes.


The lesson featured advice every big man knows. You’ve got to move your defender with your lower body, never your arms. Once you land on the blue line (the exact middle of the lane, where the Underwood Administration affixes blue duct tape to the floor), you’re in the money zone, where only good things can happen. Samba Kane would know these things because he’s not a basketball player, yet.

Adonis taught Samba how his hips should rotate through a series of low-post maneuvers. Where his feet should be in relation to those hips. When to bring the ball down for the single dribble.

After Samba reached the Money Zone, he clanged a lay-up off the side of the rim. “I want to see you dunk that every time,” admonished his teacher.

You’ve heard that Da’Monte Williams morphed into a jump-shooter. It’s true. His mechanics are perfect. Even in transition, he manages to square himself to the basket, and fast.

Aaron Jordan talks about this newfound marksmanship more than anyone. Jordan’s praise for Williams is completely undeterred by the obvious threat that a sharpshooting, ball-handling, rebounding Williams poses to Jordan’s PT.

The ball-handling is key. Williams didn’t commit any head-scratching turnovers in the last scrimmage this reporter watched.

The Fistfighting Fours

It’s unfortunate that sports requires us to convert warm, thoughtful people like Kipper Nichols into cold-blooded killing machines.

On the other hand, as one Illini assistant observed after the recent Fistfight at the Fourspot, “he’s from inner-city Cleveland. He’s got some dog in him.”

You probably read about the scrum between Kipper  and Tevian Jones. Brian Binz did a fine job reporting the facts. He and Derek Piper were standing on the floor when the fight broke out, so I’m not sure that either of their accounts could accurately capture the the ferocity of the fight, because it occurred at the opposite end of the court. The fact is that Kipper threw a sincere right cross at Tevian, and missed only because a teammate was already pulling Tevian away. Tevian did not doubt the sincerity of that punch. He saw red.

At least six people held Tevian against the far wall, for a not insignificant amount of time, to keep him away from Kipper. Orlando Antigua’s belly featured prominently in the defense. He pinned Tevian to that wall.

Yes, at the end of practice, Kipper put his arm around Tevian in the huddle. Then as the huddle broke, Kipper hit Tevian, playfully, on the back of the head. Total Alpha move.

Point is, Kipper is being pushed by a younger, more athletic, and similarly debonair whippersnapper. It’s an explosive rivalry. Ideally it will make them both better. Kipper has already acknowledged Tevian’s talent. At today’s practice, he praised Tevian’s enthusiasm and potential.

It’s possible that the three best players on the team are Feliz, Ayo and Trent Frazier. But there’s no reason to speculate about that. The season begins in 25 hours. We’ll find out soon enough.