Illini Basketball

About Rome

There’s no shame in losing to the big, butch Dutchmen. They were older, taller, quicker and they executed their schemes better than the Illini. If not for Ayo, the Illini would have lost by 25.

After the game, the Dutchmen did yoga

Nobody else could buy a basket, and Giogi had a difficult time with the Dutch bigs, and missed a lot of shots he generally makes against mid-level B1G teams. Illinois ran a couple of gorgeous sets, and those schemes would have been effective if the lads hadn’t kept bricking their lay-ups. Three-pointers flew wide of the basket, or clanged off the rim. It was not pretty.

The guy who looked like a more muscular Aaron White, and the guy who looked like a faster Fess Hawkins, were bigger than anyone available for Illinois. The #5 point guard, who looked like Nate Mast in the videos, was probably 6’2″ and would certainly be listed at 6’3″ in American college basketball.

Their wings cut sharply. Team sets, expertly run, got wide-open looks. The Dutchmen displayed excellent shooting form, and their shots didn’t waste any time grazing the rims. It’s surprising that the score was so close. But then again, for most of the game, it wasn’t.

You’ve read that the gym was 90-something degrees. Eventually, from a style perspective, the writer grows weary of typing “the gym was really hot.” I even felt embarrassed asking Kelsea Gartoff, for the fourth consecutive meeting “is it even hotter in here this time?” I always enjoy the banter with Kelsea, so I felt I was letting her down with such predictable dialogue.

Something that’s gone unmentioned, but might be obvious from the videos at is that repeated clock malfunction kept the Illini from developing any kind of flow. At the end of the first half, the local referees decided to ignore the clock altogether.

Rome is a dump.

When I left you last time, I was contemplating the utility of driving back from Livorno to Firenze, arriving around midnight, only to be back on the bus the next morning for a three-hour drive to Roma. The team is still in Roma, of course. And they will be tomorrow. So the utility, I suppose, was learning how to play on short rest, in a hellish environment, against a superior opponent. This experience might come in handy down the road, but only for those members of the 2019-20 Illini who experienced it.

From my current perspective, sitting in Flindt & Ørsted Café in Ørstedsparken, I’m just now fully appreciating the stupidity of playing basketball, in Italy, in August.


It’s 69.8 degrees here, with a light breeze.

Maybe Denmark doesn’t care about basketball. But surely there’s somewhere in northern Europe where the team could have found a worthy opponent?

The downside, perhaps, is that hotels in Scandanavia are expensive. Italy is cheap. And they couldn’t house the team in a charming AirBnB.

My Danish apartment

But of course, cost was not the issue. Heck, they paid for four entire humans to be here, none of whom participated in the games, and three of whom didn’t come at all.

Okay, enough kvetching. The video of the Nederland B game, on its own, is probably worth the cost. Brad Underwood can play it over and over again, showing each guy where he should have cut, why his man eluded him, etc.

After that Roma game, Underwood had a long talk with the team. He wasn’t angry. He probably foresaw those video sessions, despite having seen the live version from a folding chair in the corner (from which he occasionally burst forth to holler).

And he also sat alone with Tevian Jones, in two folding chairs at the far side of the gym, as the rest of the team made its way toward the team bus, in yet another of those Tevian Master Class sessions I wrote about the other day.

Maybe some day we’ll contemplate the Tevian Sessions, and understand what they nurtured.

Illini Basketball

Livorno – The Tevian Jones Show

I don’t know who won the box score, because Derrick hasn’t sent it out yet. But there’s no arguing with the gaggle of ten year-old Italian kids who followed Tevian Jones around and out of the gym after his airbound, rim-rattling performance.

They got his autograph. They got his picture. They swarmed around him as if playing the role of ten year-old kids in a Mack Sennett one-reeler.

Jones won their hearts with a series of break-away dunks. Like Derek Harper in 1982, or Battle/Gill in 1989, Tevian found himself playing the point on defense, facing Italians who’ve never met long-armed defenders before. Repeatedly, Tevian picked their pockets, dribbled four times, and launched. Watching him fly though the air over the free-throw lane, reminiscent of another Illinois transplant, gave everyone the opportunity to imagine what great, exciting things would happen when he finally landed at the rim.

Don’t you hate it when your phone stops recording to prompt a WiFi sign-in?
Can you see the gaggle of kids following Tev after the interview?

This game was close for a few minutes, and the coaching staff wasn’t thrilled about defensive execution. But for guys like Jones, Zach Griffith, and the 30-ish balding guy who wore #20 for Livorno, this was an important step in their basketball journey. Tevian’s confidence got a booster shot. Zach got to play major minutes and executed well in what will probably be his most significant role as an Illini. The old guy balled, and looked smooth doing it. There were lots of Italian women in the gym. I hope he earned something.

Ooh, the box score has just arrived. It seems Tevian was the third-leading scorer. And yet everyone knew who the star was. Jones was the only Illini made available for a postgame chit-chat.

The gym was about 85° at tip-off, and maybe got a little cooler as the sun went down, which it does here around 21:30 on an early August evening. Paul Schmidt does not, it turns out, keep a thermometer for monitoring court temps. “In America, we have this thing called air-conditioning,” he reported, as sweat beaded from every pore on his face.

The entire Illini bottled water allotment

The arena had the same amount of water fountains. Zero. On the other hand, one could get shots of Jagermeister, panini, espresso, Bailey’s Irish Cream and basically whatever booze you want in the small café, which also housed the building’s only electric fan. They even had a meat slicer. And, most importantly (?), foosball.

As predicted, the team didn’t spend any time in Livorno. They rode the hour-and-a-half both ways from Florence. With a 10 a.m. departure for the three-and-a-half-hour bus ride to Rome, and a game that finished at 10 p.m., there’s again not much time for winding down, sleeping, massages and ice baths.

Unlike Milan, there’s little argument that Florence is the city for sites. But they’re not seeing sites tomorrow in Florence. If they’d stayed in Livorno tonight, they’d have had an extra hour of sleep. And the bus ride tomorrow would have been like driving the PCH rather than the 5 (know what I’m sayin’?) They don’t have to change hotels, and there’s something to be said about that.

Livorno is a distinctly Italian coastal town. Walking home from the venue (on Via Salvador Allende for you socialists), I realized that I was the only person around. It was 10:30 p.m., and everything was closed. Finally I found a piazza where table seating suggested a restaurant serving after 22:00. Otherwise, you have to get your cigarettes and Snickers from a vending machine.

Luckily, there’s an Indian convenience store owner just around the corner from my AirBnB apartment. He’s willing to outwork all these lazy Europeans, so I was able to get my baguette, my tomato, my latte fresca and bottle of rosso (€2.50) at 23:00. Rosso makes my reports longer, and a bit winding, like this paragraph. (The rosso in Varese was €1.68, but you gotta pay the Indian for his willingness.)

Illini Basketball

Varese, Day 3 – Gazzada

First, the good news. Alan Griffin is “playing above the rim,” as they say.

Has anyone compared him to Kendall Gill yet? No? Well, they will. He’s bigger and stronger and still bouncy and suddenly recognizing that, despite a non-hyped recruiting experience; he can play with these guys.

Italy has been good for Tevian Jones, too. Like Griffin, he’s displaying a good balance of triple-threat capabilities. In Gazzada, Jones scored 18 points, in various ways.

Last year, people didn’t get to know Tevian as well as they might, were it not for 1933’s cult classic Reefer Madness, and the McCarthyism it engendered among Americans. Fortunately, a violation of team rules is now legal in Illinois, and the NCAA should adapt to the new legal landscape within a quarter-century, judging by their previous progressive acumen.

Tevian spent a lot of his downtime in long talks with his mentors. These sessions were observable from afar, so I did. He spent a lot of time after practice, before games, etc. in deep. It happened again last night, when Coach O spent his pizzatime offering wisdom.

Everyone seems to be having a good time, although this reporter suspects they aren’t getting enough sleep. Dragged out of bed for a bus ride through thunderstorms to a boat ride through thunderstorms is not what I would have done (and, in fact, didn’t). But later that night the lads pwn3d another local team, which included a few elements of the previous night’s local team.

The families were glad to have the opportunity, although they too would have liked to have known the games weren’t in pricey Milan but instead small towns where the rooms are dirt cheap. Lali Bezhanishvili paid only $80 for a round trip from Wien, but stayed in Milan rather than Varese. She had to go back to work today.

The Dosunmu posse has been touring northern Italy for ten days already, led by experienced traveler and recovering attorney Jamenda McCoy. They’re having a good time either way. Meanwhile, Ayo has attained cult status. Middle-aged Italian men swarmed him after the Gazzada game, to ask about his NBA plans.

People paid to get in at Gazzada (despite all pre-game information to the contrary), and at least 3/4 of the crowd was rooting for the home team, although not antagonistically. They appreciated the artistry & athleticism of our American lads.

Afterward, they all asked for (and got) pictures with the Illini.

This poster hung at the front door to the Gazzada gym

Jamall Walker also didn’t sleep yesterday, despite arriving at 9 a.m. on an overseas flight. He said he got in a little work-out and walked around town a bit, adding that naps are for *******.

It’s too bad that he had to walk around Milan. Milan is, as civic engineering goes, as close to Soviet central planning as Italians get. Lifeless apartment blocks stretch for miles from the city center. The next Rudy Guede cycles aimlessly through the tourist zones, harassing local women in a way that would floor #MeToo activists (which is his goal, but not metaphorically).

That brings us to the bad news.

The Italian Trip will provide lifelong memories for the individuals. It’s a disaster for the program. This was meant to be the testing ground for new players. To get Kofi Cockburn integrated in the system, while Giorgi adapts to the four-spot.

Instead, the flagship campus continues a years long tradition of asking its willing joiners to play out-of-position, because it’s incapable of getting its own roster on the court.

The reaction from the DIA, when asked for comment on the “visa situation” from a reliable spokesperson (such as the Athletics Director, the coaching staff, its overseeing Faculty Representative; all of whom were within 25 yards) was to ridicule the suggestion that this blunder merits any ink.

That’s always a sign. When PR people tell you there’s no story here, there’s always a really interesting story.

Speaking of non-stories, and the lengths PR people go to stop them, here’s a picture of the beer truck outside the Gazzada venue. After last nights win, Brad Underwood and the entire coaching staff lined up to patronize these guys. It’s just their way of showing thanks. I didn’t stick around to take any pictures. I had a train to catch. And although Brad loves to tell stories about beer (and even Zima) with cameras rolling, sometimes it’s best to allow people to be themselves off-camera.

Livorno is a significantly more Italian city. I’m here now. The team probably won’t see it, except for the inside of its gym. We’ll find out tomorrow,

Illini Basketball

Varese, Day 2 – Illini all over CUS Insubria

Geoff Alexander said “That’s it. I’m retiring,” His head coaching debut was that good.

Geoff Alexander led the team in Varese

The Special Assistant to the Head Coach is not normally allowed to instruct players, much less lead a game. But Jamall Walker is stuck in Miami, looking after Kofi Cockburn and Andres Feliz, whose passports don’t work smoothly with the EU. NCAA rules allow an exception in such cases, so Alexander got the first game assignment.

His starting line-up featured Zach Griffith and Tyler Underwood. If this Illini team wins the national championship, that tidbit of lore will be noted and memorized by a generation of ten-year-olds. Otherwise, it was a sloppy start.

That’s not a diss to the walk-ons. They weren’t especially bad. In fact, Samson Oladimeji was nearly dominant in his court time. A smart, older guy, given a chance … who knew?

Things got moving when non-starters Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili entered the game. One wishes, in deference to the not-as-publicized players, that the difference weren’t so obvious.

Woof. Man did Ayo bring something special to this game. It’s not as though he’s unusually tall, or dead-eyed. It’s that he recognizes the opponent’s response, and reacts. Read & react is normally what the defense does. It sucks to be on the other end of read & react read reaction.

You can see the CUS Insubria gym in the background

The gym was hot-ish at tip time. 31 degrees is normal for basketball season, but this time it was in centigrade, which makes your skin bubble. Ayo liked it, comparing it to Morgan Park.

There were two electrical outlets in the gym, and one functional pair of toilets per assigned sex identity. Oddly, no crowds ensued around these facilities. The Italians went outside at halftime, to smoke. The Americans didn’t. No one peed.

@IlliniHDProductions used the northern outlet to power the camera which may someday show reasonably good video of the Insubria game, and which may just as likely stay in the can for in-house reference. I used the southern outlet to re-charge my phone.

The crowd was small, but above capacity. Local fans started wandering in once they realized no one was stopping them, and that a game was in progress. Illini fans were limited to Extra Special Friends of the DIA. If you donated more money than my house is worth, you were on the list. Jeff and Tami Verbin were there. The State Farm Center has a wing named for their interest in the betterment of Illini sports, and that’s worth much more than my house.

Keiko Price was also in attendance, in addition to @IlliniAD. Price is the associate director of athletics responsible for oversight of the men’s basketball program. Chris Span was there as faculty representative.

Everyone came on one bus. The team came on another.

After the final horn, Orlando Antigua asked the official scorers to clear the scoreboard. The hosts didn’t need a reminder of the beatdown. CUS Insubria players hugged and asked for photos with the victors.

Price and Joey Biggs wrangled pizzas and cans of Coca-Cola for the players. (Big bottles of water were also available, although the local tap is perfectly potable.)

Tyler Underwood said players got to choose their toppings. Kipper Nichols had zucchini.

Kipper chose zucchini pizza

I walked back to downtown Varese, enjoying the weather and my $28/night apartment. Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues watched my progress from a head shop named Urbana Botanica.

Illini Basketball

Varese, Day 1

The Italian Tour has been misrepresented in the media, likely because no one thought it would matter. The DIA gave only vague details until this weekend, when they found out.

So no one knew where the games would be played. Even the guy on the TrenNord from Malpensa, who wore a black Brooklyn jersey, number 8, with the name “Williams” on the back.

For example, did you know the next Illini basketball game is in Varese? It’s 25 miles from Milano, the first city on the posted itinerary, in which Illinois basketball will play zero games.

Milan is not known for its historical architecture or ancient cultural significance. It’s known for the banking and fashion industries. But that’s where the team is sleeping tonight. Would Varese have been more enriching? Well, it’s certainly diverse. So maybe not?

Groceries from Varese. Just the staples.

Or, at least, it wouldn’t have shown the lads a niche of quaint ethnocentrism, such as you might find in any of the Cinque Terre. Half the people milling the streets of downtown Varese are distinctly not of northern Italian origin. The odor of ancient urine could be found in any centre-ville. Local homeless haul their lives from park to park in the same backpacks you’d see in Seattle.

Cobblestone streets, narrow alleys and grandfathered not-to-code construction remind the visitor that he’s not in Orange County. The weather wouldn’t.

Still, I feel like they’re missing something by not staying in the small towns where they’ll be balling. Milan and Florence are international cities, packed with tourists. Varese, Gazzada and Livorno might be just as 21st Century as … everywhere, now that the world is flat. But I’ll tell you this: There’s no English-language TV in Varese. (Diamonds Are Forever is on right now, and Shady Tree dubbed as Sicilian tough guy unsettles the purist.)

If the DIA had (as it did when Illini sports were relevant) pitched this European vacation to tourists, these smaller towns would be an easier sell. My apartment in Varese is huge, with high ceilings, French windows, a full kitchen, five minutes from the center of town by foot … and $28/night.

At least the parents will save money. Lali Bezhanishvili will, according to Giorgi, know exactly where the games are played. She’ll be on hand. Quam Dosunmu isn’t making the trip, but his wife and a lot of family are already here in Tuscany. Like me, they got a great deal on AirBnB. He showed me the video on his phone Saturday afternoon, while we were both at Ubben. Jamall Walker jumped in to ask how I’d be getting to Italy (The Groce administration was fascinated by tales of dollar fares on Megabus, and $20 deals on Spirit and Frontier. ) And the truth is you could have got here just as cheap as I (and Derek Piper) did, on the same planes, with the same stopover at Gatwick.

If only you’d known.

Tuscan Illini hoping to catch the action can probably just show up tomorrow night at the CUS Insubria gym. tomorrow at 19:00.

Wednesday night’s game is in Gazzada, one stop down the rail line from Varese. Unless it’s not. The address provided to the DIA shows a walled alley leaving the train station. We’ll see who can find that gym.

The Livorno game site can be found on a map. Same with Rome, where the game is on the south end of town, in a tennis complex.

C-U there.