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Illini Basketball

2020 Vision

Illini Report gets as much traffic as you’d expect for a website that intermittently offers extraneous observations about an irrelevant sports program.

People don’t want to read about losing. It’s a waste of four hours to compile a thousand words for a dozen people who’d rather read 280 characters.

Besides, a picture already says a thousand words

So beginning in 2020, let’s try a change in format. More random thoughts, still unpredictably published. But more often, and shorter. That way, you can hope to check for, find and finish a new article during your most important window of available reading time: when you’re both at work and on the toilet.

I decided not to publish the words I wrote in the window nook at Forget Me Not Bed & Breakfast, Saint Louis, while Heather slept. I was feeling a lot less pessimistic than everyone else, and I thought it might be the sherry. Furthermore, the title I’d conceived while sitting in my spot on the Enterprise Center baseline (“Out-Toughed”) had already been used by every single other reporter, and most fans, in the outpouring of online outrage.

I figured I oughta find something original to say.

The fact is, I feel a lot better about the direction of the Illini basketball program than I have since Charlie Villanueva verballed. I like that Illinois has a coach who changes direction in midstream. I’m enjoying the Kofi Cotillion. I’m optimistic that recruiting keeps improving.

People tell me Andre Curbelo is The Real Deal. I want Orlando Antigua to see a significant salary bump, and maybe even a cleverly worded employment contract (rare for assistants).

I feel a lot better about Giorgi Bezhanishvili, and his scoreless (but not pointless) performance, than Idiots with Internet Access.

I feel as if Andres Feliz & Kipper Nichols have both corrected some of the problematic tendencies that limited their effectiveness in the past.

I think the 2020 Illini can beat any team in the country. I haven’t felt that way about an Illini team in 30 years. I agreed with Dick Vitale’s assessment in 2005, and North Carolina proved him right in the end. The Bill Self teams never seemed capable of eliminating Top 5 competition. Lon Kruger’s ’98 squad was terrific fun, but we all knew they were overachievers.

This Illini team might not compete favorably against those squads, but they don’t need to. The remarkable fact about 2020 is that everyone seems vulnerable. They might have to play out of their minds to beat top opponents (kind of like Missouri did in Saint Louis). But that’s well within the realm of plausibility. We saw what happened against Michigan and Maryland.

Can these Illini put together a string of consistent performances? Can they learn to reverse the ball, as Brad Underwood promised, to the “third” side? Will their defensive “identity” gel? What about that stupid weave?

Frankly, I’m enjoying the suspense. Where Illini teams were stiflingly predictable under Bruce Weber and John Groce; the Current Occupant keeps us guessing.

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Illini Basketball

Talking Points

It’s Finals Weeks. Braggin’ Rights looms. One fourth of the way through the season, where does this Illini team stand?

Great teams don’t rest on their laurels. They analyze their mistakes, and their successes. They seek to improve every aspect of performance. There’s plenty of good and bad to think about on the way to Saint Louis. A few key match-ups should provide the best talking points, and might decide the game.

Da’Monte Williams

Is there a more polarizing Illini player? Almost certainly. But it’s worth noting that if you do have an opinion about Da’Monte Williams, you either think he’s the guy who holds it all together, or you’re calling for his benching.

You don’t have to like Clarence Thomas to be impressed by the effect he had on the US Supreme Court from day one. Da’Monte is like that.

Thomas arrived when the court was split 4-4 on a particular case. His vote would determine the outcome. Yet at the end of debate, Thomas found himself in the minority. Whatever happened in that conference room, he made an impression on his colleagues.

Likewise, Williams sat out his first summer as his ACL healed. On the first day he joined practice, according to Brad Underwood, he changed the team “because of his basketball IQ.”

Da’Monte’s intelligence would be useless if he didn’t have a lot of dog in him. But he’s from Peoria. Wimps don’t make it out of Peoria.

Da’Monte rips the ball from Mark Smith, last year

Williams will be the player to watch Saturday at the Checkerdome (or whatever it’s called these days). He probably won’t score much. That’s not the question.

The question is how will Mark Smith fare? Da’Monte hopes to answer with his defensive performance: not very well.

Last year, Smith scored 5 points in 35 minutes in his first game against his old team. It was pretty clear that Da’Monte enjoyed his part in that futility.

He enjoyed taking Smith’s ball

The other guy in all Sunday’s pictures of Smith will be Andres Feliz, who wouldn’t be here if Mark Smith chose to stay. In hindsight, Illini fans are probably okay with that trade. Feliz will want to prove it to them, nonetheless.

If you don’t think Andres Feliz plays with a chip on his shoulder, you haven’t met Andres Feliz.

It’s not a bad thing. He plays with pride, and as if his life depends on it, which it kind of does. That goes for his wife and kid, too.

Kofi Cockburn is a machine, and should be treated like one. His underuse might be this team’s most obvious problem. Watching from the bench during two heartbreaking losses was remedied by a dominant performance over ranked (overrated?) Michigan.

Against Old Dominion, Kofi attempted six shots. He finished with three field goals. Maybe he didn’t need the extra practice, but it would be nice to see the team go to that well continuously, until it becomes second-nature. He converts 59% of his shots. If you fould him, he’ll make his free-throws.

Maybe Kofi doesn’t know it, and maybe it’s not fair; but his match-up with Jeremiah Tilmon will be the talking point of Braggin’ Rights. Tilmon abandoned the Illini when Underwood came aboard. Instead, the Illini have Kofi and Giorgi Bezhanishvili.

Tilmon is averaging 9.7 points and 4.7 rebounds in 22.6 minutes/game on the season. Contrast Giorgi with 9.6 points and 5.7 boards in 25.9 minutes.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili rebounds

Kofi also gets 25.9 minutes, is averaging 15.4 points and 10.5 rebounds in those minutes. Foul trouble can limit minutes for any of them. Tilmon leads the way with 2.8 per game. Giorgi and Kofi accrue less than 2.5/game.

(Watch for Mizzou’s transfer guard Dru Smith to foul out. He averages 3.3 fouls per game.)

Alan Griffin

When Brad Underwood says “I don’t remember anyone stripping my ball” in college, he’s talking about Alan Griffin.

To Alan’s credit, Giorgi got his ball stripped a bunch of times in the Michigan game. It doesn’t mean you’re terrible. It means you haven’t played against the very best, and your habits are not attuned to playing the very best. It also means you’ve been distracted.

Alan is, by far, the most yelled at player of the Underwood tenure. Number 2 is Kipper Nichols, whom Underwood yelled at a lot during last Saturday’s game against Old Dominion. When the dust settled, Kipper was sitting in the media room, in front of a microphone. That’s always a sign that the coach thinks you done good.

Underwood doesn’t yell at you unless he thinks you’re worth yelling at. With Alan Griffin, the athletic ability is obvious. The talent is there. It’s the processing that frustrates Underwood. Alan is more cerebral than most, which sometimes slows him a step. Being too smart and being too thoughtful are enviable problems. In sports, it’s described as “spacy.”

Alan’s game translates well to the Mizzou defense, which is also spacy.

BTW: Underwood also spent a good amount of energy yelling at Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk during his moment of PT last Saturday, which suggests BBV might be worth the time & effort.

Note: Inquiries to the B1G office yielded no update on the health of Lewis Garrison. The ODU game was refereed by Brandon Cruz, I don’t know that Brandon Cruz had ever refereed an Illini game previously.

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Illini basketball

Glass Half … Full?

If you don’t like to read coverage of your favorite team’s agonizing losses, you missed Monday’s brow-furrowing about learning how to win and its alternative, accepting failure as your lot.

Brad Underwood reiterated the point tonight, after his team found itself on the less bad side of basketball failure. Or perhaps it was a glorious win.

How do you look at it?

Maybe the Illini defense was responsible for holding the Wolverines to 3-of-18 shooting from the arc. For the sake of argument, let’s say it was.

For the sake of arguing more, because we like to argue, let’s say Illinois collapsed AGAIN in the closing minutes, because they did.

Nobody enjoyed the game less than Lewis Garrison.

Michigan turned up the heat defensively, the Illini coughed up the ball, and a ten-point lead evaporated. But this time, Michigan lacked the moxie to rip victory from the jaws of collapse.

Or not?

Brad Underwood allowed Kofi Cockburn to play, even in the closing minutes. Cockburn hit most of his free-throws. He batted his opponent’s shots. He rattled Wolverine bigs, and the littles who might otherwise have penetrated the lane.

No other freshman played for Illinois.

Did Illinois turn the page with this win? Well, if you believe the analysis from the Maryland game (which you didn’t read) then yes. Illinois did the most important thing Wednesday night. It’s that simple. And now, they know how to do it.

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Illini Basketball Illini basketball

The Ghost of Hassan Adams

Other titles considered for this article:

Ovey.

Ugh.

Finding New Ways to Lose

A Hard Daze Night

Recalling Hassan Adams’s failure to save Arizona at the end of That Game in 2005, I’m wondering how to compare the Illini collapse at Maryland, 2019.

Ideally, your team shouldn’t need to overcome a fifteen point deficit. Ideally, it builds a 7-to-12 point cushion in the first half, and then expands that lead to a comfortable 15-ish, wears down the opponent emotionally, inserts the walk-ons for the last minute, then bring on the dancing girls.

Did Illinois mount a furious comeback against Arizona in 2005? Or did Arizona blow it?

That debate renewed when Brad Underwood stepped in front of the Xfinity Center lectern, wiped tears from his eyes, and defended his youngsters, their execution; and his own decision-making in the nitty-gritty crunchtime of an intensely contested basketball game.

The fury of Maryland’s defensive effort was palpable in those closing minutes. Andres Feliz didn’t go too soon, but he did get stripped … by a pre-season Player of the Year candidate.

Calling a foul in that situation, where the game would otherwise be decided by overtime, might be credited as a brave act of officiating. Maybe it was.

Reading the reaction of Illini fans, you’d think the officiating crew had sided with Maryland for 40 minutes. Sitting at (sometimes on) the feet of Terps fans, I learned that the stripes were actively working for an Illinois win. D.J Carstensen heard “you’re literally a human dildo!” They had fun with Kofi’s last name, too.

Overall, the Maryland fans lacked originality, and resorted to simple (if loud) profanity. But fan perspective notwithstanding, the game was well officiated.

Even “collapse” might be a bit strong. In truth, the Illini lost a game by 13 points when the betting line was 11. Technically it was a one-point game, yes. But the fact that Maryland found itself down 14 at halftime is simply the product of unbelievably bad bounces. The north end basket refused the ball entry. In and down and up and out, clang clang clang. The Terps missed bunny after bunny, and the Illini got all the rebounds.

In the second half, they changed sides and the results were similar. And then Maryland played intense defense, and Giorgi (3 FGs on 8 attempts) tried again, and failed again, to get past Jalen Smith.

It worked in the first half

For the second game in a row, Kofi Cockburn watched the endgame from the bench. Underwood said the defense was working without him. But what about making buckets?

A fundamental problem with this Illinois team is frontcourt depth. Jermaine Hamlin would redshirt if any other option existed. That he was asked to play crucial minutes against a team of Maryland’s stature demonstrates the depth of the problem.

But here’s the thing: Even during its big comeback rally, Maryland still couldn’t sink a shot. And it took an immediately ridiculed coaching decision to ensure their victory.

So whether it really matters in the grand scheme of thing, the question must be asked: Who among the Illini brain trust thought that timeout was a good idea? (EDIT: answered at end, below)

DOES IT MATTER?

A week after the Northwestern loss, Illinois Football was rewarded with a trip to the (relative) warmth of Silicon Valley. Maybe Max Levchin will show up. (Mark Andreesen … probably not.) That disastrous performance against the Purple Fitzes might seem insignificant when its end result is … nothing. Illinois went to the bowl it wanted. A win over the ‘Cats and Illinois would have gone to the Redbox Bowl anyway.

Maybe, by Christmas Eve, you’ll be basking in the glow of big wins over Missouri and Michigan, and a warm fireplace and a fortified nog.

Meh, it’s just a game, right?

NO! These Illini players are learning, with each collapse and bizarre coaching maneuver, that they don’t know how to close games. Moreover, they’re not learning how to close games.

The confidence alone is worth having, but internalizing that learned lesson how to execute can’t be taught in practice. It can’t be seen in video sessions.

It matters because with each collapse, these players are losing sight of how to win. Instead, they’re learning how to lose.

In Brad Underwood’s defense, he was probably right to keep that timeout in his pocket when Illinois had the ball, the shot clock was off and the game was tied. What could possibly go worse than a missed shot and overtime? (Statistically speaking, of course.) Calling a timeout, and thus disrupting the flow, would give Mark Turgeon a chance to set his defense. It’s exactly what Bruce Weber would have done.

And then Feliz, unlike Hassan Adams, tried to penetrate the wall of Deron Williams in front, Dee Brown to the right, and Luther Head on the left. But in this case, it was Anthony Cowan, whose quickness and heart might remind people of Dee, on the right.

If Feliz had attempted a closely-guarded three as time expired, it likely would have been just as effective as the Hassan Adams heave. People would be angry about the drive he didn’t make.

So basically, Illinois was shorthanded, in foul trouble, and matched against a fierce opponent who’d finally shaken the rust from its Under Armour.

But that timeout call … there’s no explaining that. It would have been great if someone had asked about it in the postgame press conference. Right?

I can only speak for myself, but because nobody else asked, I’ll say that I think we were all confused by the Public Address announcer. In the moment, if I recall it correctly, the original announcement was that Maryland called timeout. I think everyone (media) buried their heads in Twitter updates, or rewriting their Illinois Stuns #3 Maryland stories, and missed that crucial datum … as did the coaching staff.

The only logical answer is that Underwood forgot, in the heat of the moment, a crucial bit if information that Joey Biggs had just fed him, and fed him 30 seconds before that, and also another 30 seconds before that.

Geoff Alexander and Jamall Walker now sit behind the bench (likely to help control their impulse to jump up and bark instructions to players, which is verboten). They probably provided Underwood with printouts and dry-erase boards featuring top either/or scenarios for the exact circumstances Illinois faced.

EDIT: Brad explained the decision at the end of the subsequent press conference, three days later. He heard Mark Turgeon directing Anthiny Cowan to miss the second free-throw, so he decided to call the timeout. In hinndisght, he wishes he’d called another timeout after the subsequent rebound, get an administrative technical foul, give up another free-throw, but have a deal ball inbound play before the final hoen. Here’s that video:

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Illini Basketball

Shifty, scheming

Brad Underwood announced today that Tevian Jones will “suit up” for the Maryland game.

No matter what that phrasing implies, it’s top-notch trolling.

Jones, you’ll recall, is the Terrapin killer whose career-best game stunned Madison Square Garden last winter. He’s the guy they didn’t see coming, and couldn’t stop going. Mark Turgeon still has nighthorses about Tevian Jones.

Jones sat out 8 games last year, so it might seem natural that this year’s suspension is also 8 games. But we know that his sophomore suspension is academics oriented, whereas last year’s was urine-based.

Perhaps DIA penalties for academic misdemeanors include, like a second positive pee test, sitting out for a quarter of the season.

But otherwise, the timing seems weird. The semester ends next weekend, not this one.

Underwood did not say Tevian will travel with the team. He did not say Tevian will play. We hope both of those potentialities come true. But it would be hilarious if Underwood made the announcement merely to keep Turgeon and staff up all night.

Tevian Jones was arguably the most improved sophomore coming into this season. The other candidate is Alan Griffin. Both showcased their improvement in Italy. But there’s no doubt that Tevian had the most dazzling European performance.

The book is still out on Underwood. He’s going to have to reach the NCAA tournament before any Illini fan can be sure he’s The Guy. But for those still recovering from Bruce Weber Syndrome, it’s refreshing to have a leader who’s willing to shift direction, change schemes, and plant misdirection in the minds of his opponents.

Well played, coach.

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Illini basketball

When Two Tribes Go to War & One Shows Up

The morning after, everyone is surveying the wreckage and wondering whether it’s worth rebuilding.

Two Hurricanes blew through town last night. Now we have to see whether the damage is superficial, if the foundation is solid.

First it was Chris Lykes, who outscored the Illini 13-11 through the first quarter of the game.

When the Illini defense noticed him, the Hurricanes found DJ Vasiljevic on the arc. He connected for 6-of-9 threes.

Bo Ryan shrugged off the Pick-n-Pop Massacre of 2010, when Mike Tisdale and Demetri McCamey took turns lobbing bombs over a principled Wisconsin defensive system. Should we feel the same way about last night’s debacle? Sometimes the ball goes in and there’s nothing you can do about it?

Well, here’s the thing: Chris Lykes didn’t hit a single three-pointer in that first half. He found weak spots in the Illini defense, and exploited them. He drove 1-on-4 against the host team, and it worked.

Vasiljevic had enough time to eat a sandwich and finish his homework before launching most of his shots.

When Ayo Dosunmu guarded Vasiljevic, the Illini earned a five-count turnover.


DJ Vasiljevic responded poorly when defended.

Lykes is 5’5″ at most. Could it be that Illini defenders simply weren’t prepared for someone so tiny? They likely haven’t seen his size since 8th grade, and might never have encountered such quickness.

Brad Underwood’s crafty tactical response was siccing Da’Monte Williams on Lykes, to get in his head. And it worked! Lykes immediately picked up two fouls (one technical, for jawing with Alan Griffin).

But it was too late. The Illini didn’t have time to dig themselves out of the 27-point hole. If it were a 48 minute game, the Illini win. It’s not. They didn’t.

I already wrote about ending the Star-Spangled Banner in favor of a reading from the U.S. Constitution (assuming the goal of this ritual, which began in the era of execrable Espionage & Sedition Acts, is to remind people that they’re in America, and why that matters).

I think this team needs to halt the pre-game light show altogether. They’re clearly enamored of their own (unoriginal) hand-slapping, biceps-flexing pre-game pageantry. But then they crawl to a 14-2 point deficit against the pride of Romeoville (Lewis), score six points in the first 10 minutes (Hawai’i) or let a football school run up a football score on their home court.

Guys like Williams and Andres Feliz don’t need to be told. Maybe that’s true of Trent Frazier as well.

The rest of them are, perhaps, too genteel in their dispositions (or satisfied being an Instagram darling). It’s a wonderful personality trait, but contrary to the competitive instinct.

Eventually, Underwood figured things out. Eventually, the Illini began “playing with a sense of urgency.” But by that point, Underwood was out of time outs. So when it came time to remind Ayo that 1-on-3 means somebody’s open, there was nothing Underwood could do about it.

It’s great that Giorgi executed a perfect backscreen. It was great that Feliz read it correctly. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the go-ahead bucket. It brought them within one.

It’s also great that Feliz has learned not to get too deep, and has become Illinois’ go-to, gut-check guy. It’s great that Trent has his groove back, offensively. It’s great that Giorgi loves creating for other guys as much as scoring buckets.

None of those guys took the last shot.

Worse, when Illinois found itself within a point, its best offensive option — the guy around whom this team was built — was on the bench, one clock-stoppage from a well-drawn, game-winning play.

Unfortunately, this didn’t happen with 2.7 seconds remaining.

Watching Kofi dunk is fun. But Underwood needs to produce wins.

The DIA cleverly abandoned #WeWillWin after three years of steady losing produced the obvious retort We Will? When?

The new slogan is #JoinThe Fight, and after an embarrassing weekend in the revenue sports, a new retort is becoming clear: What fight?