Illini Basketball

Yep. This is What a Rebuild Looks Like.

The AP reporter who addressed Trent as “Ayo” can be forgiven. Illini basketball has been irrelevant for a dozen years, and non-217s couldn’t care less who plays for this ex-newsworthy program.

But she also raised a great (if not original) point, in a different question to Alan Griffin: This team is young.

They don’t know they’re young, because they’re young. They take umbrage at being told they’re young because they’re young.

Last night’s Wisconsin game was, objectively, pretty bad. Dumb fouls. Execution failures. On the bright side, it reminded us again about the value of executing the plan. It’s the difference between winning and losing.

Illinois didn’t execute on Wednesday. Not until the end. And then they did, and then they won.

Because the Dick Bennett/Bo Ryan standard has not yet been undermined by its own fans; it felt especially impressive.

Brad Underwood dismissed the idea that a team’s defense is aided when its entire bench is calling out actions from the bench, as the Badgers did Wednesday. But he also acknowledged a massive improvement in field goal percentage, and 3FG% in the second half (62% and 71%). Perhaps the Illini got better looks because there weren’t as many Badgers waiting in their spots?

Certainly being alone on the court allowed the visitors to communicate among themselves. The Illini broke huddle before the hosts, just about every time. In the second half, that left them alone on the court’s south end. Alan and Ayo communicated about the play Underwood had just drawn. A moment later, Alan drained the tying three.

After the next huddle break, Ayo spotted Kofi Cockburn out of place. He directed Kofi to the correct spot, then lobbed the ball there a few seconds later.

Kofi is frequently in the wrong spot, and if you listen closely, you’ll likely hear Underwood yelling as much.

It’s not because Kofi’s stupid. It’s because he’s young and inexperienced. Get old and stay old is Matt Painter’s mantra for running a successful program.

A few days ago, Ayo rejected the notion that Illini execution problems were a symptom of youth. He doesn’t know, because he’s young.

The good news here is that last night at Kohl, Illini fans saw (finally!) what Brad Underwood’s program can look like when things start clicking.

Will it all come together by March, like it did for Kentucky’s recent 9-seed champions? Will you have to wait for next year before the team seems to be consistently moving downhill?

Right now, you’re pretty psyched that there’s another game in a couple of days. So maybe it doesn’t matter. Just enjoy the ride.

Illini Basketball

Trent Transformation

Discussion of Trent Frazier’s defense is all the rage these days. It’s all anyone’s talking about. But who knew Trent would be offended if one asked about his offensive outburst against Purdue.

I suppose it makes sense. Offense is offensive.

Cuonzo Martin was exasperated by Illini freshman Trent Frazier (Vashoune Russell)

Erich Fisher and I asked different versions of did coach tell you to be more aggressive with the ball after that game. Trent dismissed the notion.

Then Derek Piper posed the same question to Brad Underwood. He said yes.

It seemed pretty obvious. But whatever the case, thank goodness it’s happening. The Complete Trent is much better than Defensive Specialist Trent. The Illini need those buckets. In a handful of losses this year, an extra 10 to 15 points from Frazier would have dramatically changed circumstances.

Cuonzo Martin made it clear in his 2019 postgame observations that taking the ball from Trent changed the whole nature of the Illini offense.

When Brad gave the ball back, Illinois walloped the Boilermakers. Cause and effect can be pretty simple sometimes.

Illini Basketball

Alan’s Minutes

A few press conferences ago, Brad Underwood said he doesn’t read anything produced by us, the media pool. In the MSU postgame, he scoffed at “social media” as a concept. At Saturday’s presser, he dismissed the suggestion, offered by one of us, that Alan Griffin might join the starting line-up.

We do read social media, and participate in it. We know that people have clamored for MOAR ALAN since November. Maybe since last year.

Last night, after beating Purdue for the first time in his tenure, the head coach expressed surprise that Alan Griffin got so little floor time.

“I looked down and he played 19 minutes and I’m like my goodness I needed 25 to 30 minutes.”

If that concession surprised anyone, it should. We might all safely assume that Brad Underwood oversees (or at least knows about) minutes distribution among Illini Men’s Basketball players.


This column does not seek to indict the coach, or the champion the madding crowd. It’s merely observational, capturing a moment in the history of Illini basketball. Perhaps like that time that Wayne McClain told Bruce Weber that Demetri McCamey is good at basketball, and should move into the starting line-up.

As Alan waited at the FT line, a band member called “you need ONE more rebound!” Alan gave him a thumb’s up, then got three more rebounds.

Underwood is paid $3 million and fans aren’t. On the other hand, collective wisdom often competes favorably with an individual perspective.

With a staff of five, full-time well-paid advisors; one might assume that someone has suggested that Alan’s numbers dictate more court time.

Has Alan cleaned up his turnover problem? Has he been stripped recently? Those were factors in earning his coach’s trust. Maybe we’ll know more by bedtime Wednesday.

Illini Basketball

Undefeated (them)

A noteworthy factoid prefacing this forthcoming week in Illini basketball: Brad Underwood has never beat Purdue. Or Wisconsin.

In fact, Greg Gard has never lost to Illinois, period. Whether Underwood or John Groce led the team, Wisconsin’s current streak (15 wins in a row) remained intact.

Matt Painter is 17-7 all-time against the Illini. Despite being the closest campus to Urbana, Purdue is not a “protected rival.” Count your lucky stars.

The Illini and Boilermakers met only once in each of Underwood’s first two years. Now they’ll face each other twice in a month.

These streaks amplify the point that Illinois doesn’t play good teams in the B1G Tournament. Playing & losing on Wednesday meant the Illini charter flight departed DC and NYC before B1G contenders left their campuses. Playing and winning last year’s Wednesday nightcap meant the best B1G teams arrived at the United Center in time to see Iowa end Underwood’s season for the second year in a row.

Tonight, the Paint Crew brings its worst team in years. Illinois has a chance to win. Both teams are 9-5 overall, but (get this) Purdue is a far worse shooting team than the Illini. Illinois is in the top 50 nationally in FG percentage. The Boilers aren’t in the top 200. More bizarre: Illinois is a better rebounding team, as seen in East Lansing, where the Illini tied habitual carom-grabbers Michigan State with 48 boards apiece.

Illinois’ low-post scoring is a strength, diminished only when Kofi Cockburn is challenged by freakishly tall, gangly shot blockers.

What could go wrong?

If the inside game isn’t working, there’s always the option of kicking out for a three-pointer.

In previewing this game, Underwood said his staff is trying to teach Kofi to use his body as the weapon it could be. As we’ve learned in the first two months of the season, Kofi Cockburn is considerably less vicious, personally, than you might assume for a beast whose Twitter handle includes the word “Alpha.” Having concussed Lewis Garrison, Kofi has been even more tentative inside. He doesn’t want to hurt people.

We’ll learn tonight whether that coaching took hold. As far as kick-outs are concerned, Underwood dismissed the idea that Alan Griffin should take over the starting wing spot. His rationale, it seems, is to make his second team as challenging as his starters.

With Da’Monte Williams, an 18% threat from the arc, Purdue can focus its attention on clogging the middle, and swarming Cockburn.

Optimists can look forward to twin developments tonight: Kofi returns to banging, and Da’Monte goes three-for-three from three. Given those two outcomes, it’s hard to see how Illinois could lose.

Illini Basketball

Self … uh, where?ness

No, not Bill Self.

A fascinating takeaway from the Laugher in East Lansing is that MSU knows a lot more about the Illini men’s basketball team than the Illini men’s basketball team.

After effectively removing Kofi Cockburn & Giorgi Bezhanishvili from Illinois’ offense, the Michigan State Spartans told how they did it. This was not boasting. They were simply answering posed questions, honestly. It’s the naked forthrightness of Tom Izzo and the culture he’s instilled since arriving in East Lansing in thirty-six years ago. He has nothing to hide.

Marcus Bingham blocks Kofi Cockburn’s shot

Xavier Tillman offered his analysis of Giorgi Bezhanishvili. He explained that he’d scouted Giorgi’s attempts to feed Cockburn from the high-post. He knew the tells.

He added that he respects Giorgi’s game, which players always say to cameras & microphones, but he seemed sincere in saying it. He respects Giorgi, and he knows Giorgi’s high-post moves.

Giorgi’s low-post moves are not so easy to defend, because Giorgi can pivot, and change hands/plans mid-step. That’s why Giorgi was (as) effective (as anyone wearing orange) on FGAs Thursday.

Marcus Bingham assented to the suggestion that Michigan State specifically sought to shut down the Giorgi-Kofi mechanism.

The Illini, on the other hand, don’t seem to know why they can’t execute their offense. Ayo Dosunmu said the team has had plenty of time to gel, including 60 practices. But he also pointed to Italy as a time when team chemistry got a boost.

Kofi Cockburn did not travel to Italy.

Brad Undrwood, offered a softball about giving his young players time to learn from their mistakes, and hone their skills GOT REALLY MAD (go figure) at the notion that social media thinks Giorgi commits too many turnovers. Most of those turnovers are errant passes to Kofi.

Underwood seems to understand that those two need time on the court together, and not just in practice, to perfect their timing and learn each other’s instincts in the face of fierce, high-major defenses. (But he certainly didn’t understand the question.)

Illini Basketball

The Third Side

Following that tirade at 16:08, the Illini might have felt motivated to execute. But they didn’t.

We don’t know whether a set was called during all that yelling. If Brad Underwood drew up an action, it must have planned for a low-post feed.

For whatever reason, the team did nothing better, or well, once they broke that huddle. The Illini suffered through one of their worst offensive possessions of the season. It seemed as if they were trying to compile a highlight reel of bad tendencies.

Succinctly, they failed to reverse the ball. It’s been a talking point all year, and something they still get wrong. For every “we need to fix that” in a postgame remark to the media, there are as many further iterations of “stickiness” as the lads like to say. The ball “sticks.”

Missouri foisted an intense defensive effort, certainly the most insistent, unrelenting 40 minutes of defensive pressure these Illini have faced all year. And this one possession showed just how effective that type of effort can be against a young team that’s still trying to learn its reads.

The major combatants were centers Reed Nikko and Kofi Cockburn. Nikko won.

At this crucial moment in the game, and after spending a precious timeout, Illinois fails to convert. Instead, it’s another turnover and a foul.

And although Reed Nikko’s defensive footwork was superb, and deserves a lot of credit; it’s also true that Illinois helped him immensely by not reversing the ball to the left wing (the second side), forcing Nikko to establish a different defensive posture. And then, ideally, reverse the ball again (the third side) while Kofi seals Nikko with his big ole butt, creating a drive for Trent from the short corner.

The Underwood administration has seen some fantastic back screens and butt screens. Jermaine Hamlin had a great one for that Samson Oladimeji alley-oop.

Jermaine’s screen is quick, simple and effective.

Adonis de la Rosa executed a beautiful butt screen at Northwestern last year. Giorgi did one for Kipper just a couple of games ago.

It’s a really effective maneuver, but it doesn’t work against a well-coached team that’s already established its defensive position. you’ve got to get them out of position to make it work, and you get them out of position by reversing the ball.

Perhaps the problem against Mizzou was simply that Kofi Cokburn was, as Underwood pointed out, ten games into his college career. He might have popped backward sooner, when he felt Nikko release for the double-team. But it seems likely that Da’Monte would’ve been smothered regardless.

And while Kofi did struggle all game against Missouri’s bigger, quicker defenders (i.e. bigger and quicker than he’s accustomed to playing, so far), reversing the ball would have afforded Kofi the opportunity to re-position himself for screening a backdoor cut.

Some people scoff at the notion that this team is “young.” But they really are young. More importantly, they haven’t played together as a unit in the way that, say, Dee-Deron-Luther-Roger-James did.

If you’ll recall, those guys looked pretty bad in January of 2004. They’d lost in the B1G-ACC to North Carolina. They got clocked by Providence in the Jimmy V Classic. They scraped by a 16-14* Mizzou team in Braggin’ Rights 71-70. Then they started the conference schedule at 3-3.

Things looked bleak. Disjointed. And then that team didn’t lose again until the B1G Tournament’s championship game.

So be patient. Let’s see how this comes together.

*Mizzou’s website credits that team with a 20-14 record, including two wins over themselves in pre-season intrasquad games and a 0-0 win over the Blissless Baylor Bears. You should laugh at them, point fingers, and dump popcorn on their heads.

Illini Basketball

Anger Management

The best coach I ever had, Urbana High School’s Wayne Mammen, offered a unique combination of old school toughness (61%) and new world sensitivity (6%). Most of the time, he yelled at us. Every once in a while, he showed the warm-hearted side. The other third was conditioning. Each practice he ran his team ragged, which got us in the best shape of our lives.

We were undefeated that year. I’ve been a Tough Love believer ever since.

Brad Underwood is the angriest coach I’ve seen since Gene Keady retired. He’s also got the sensitivity gene, which makes him comfortable and genial when the cameras roll. For some iGen players, this duality works. The others left the program.

Many left the program.

At 16:08 of the 2019 Braggin’ Rights second half, Brad Underwood was angrier than he’s ever been in his life, according to two people who’ve seen him angry.

I turned to look over my left shoulder, where Gordon Voit was perched on a tiny stool, checking his notifications. To his dismay, Gordon had rested his HDTV camera on the court surface, which is normal procedure for us baseline sitters. When a called timeout occurs, it takes a little longer to put the camera down, because we can’t anticipate it. A deadball whistle at 15:56, or 7:48, or 11:53 (media timeouts) will find an experienced photog’s equipment on the ground before that little cork ball has begun to rattle in its chamber.

Before I could say Gordon, is that the angriest you’ve ever seen … Gordon said “that’s the angriest I’ve ever seen him.”

He paused to collect himself, then continued. “That’s not hyperbole, is it?”

I reassured him.

Underwood launched himself so far into Ayo’s left ear that his lips might have protruded from the other side. I picked my camera back up, but I’d missed the most intense moment. Someone’s still photos might capture that rage, but mine don’t. Someone might have captured the whole thing on video, but Gordon didn’t.

Ayo’s family attends most games. They were a few rows back from the Illini bench at Braggin’ Rights. If I looked at them and saw their facial expressions at that moment, I don’t recall it. I didn’t see Quam Dosunmu at the NCA&T game.

Three years into the Underwood Administration, the Ubben is now CLOSED to visitors. Those caps represent the 8.5″ x 11″ message currently taped to each glass door sealing the practice gym from the outside world. Spies can no longer scout Underwood’s Arrow Inbound Play. Or maybe those signs are meant to protect visitors from Underwood’s regular barrage of four-letter words. Which do you think?

Underwood arrived professing openness, and it took the DIA nearly three years to completely shut him off from unmonitored monitoring. It doesn’t quite work, though. You can still hear him yelling on the other side of those doors. And down the hall.

DIA contracts purport to give free rein to head coaches, who ostensibly know better than most (to the tune of $3M/year) how to run a sports program. It will be interesting to see how the DIA curtails Underwood’s style and philosophy going forward, and which avenues are closed off.

On the one hand, we live in an age where unhinged invective inspires 41 to 43% of the electorate. On the other hand, college administrators offer Safe Space for the Coddling of the American Mind. But which of those strategies most effectively inspires four young people to successfully feed a round ball to a manchild in the low post?

You can’t really have both at the same time. So the question is whether Underwood will be allowed, moving forward, to be Underwood. Can this generation tolerate anger?

It might be interesting to consider, while contemplating that question, the immediate outcome of Underwood’s 16:08 tirade. The team broke that huddle to run one of its least effective possessions of the game, and arguably the season.

Tomorrow: The Nikko v. Cockburn possession

More on that tomorrow.