Listening to outsiders — basketball fans who aren’t Illini fans, sports media that’s not Illini sports media — you’d know the common wisdom about this 2021 Illini basketball team.
It’s the Ayo Show, featuring Kofi.
For the first time since forever, Illinois has a dominant hi-lo combo. If we can’t kill you from the inside, we’ll kill you from the outside. It’s a treat to have both weapons, but probably not enough to win a championship.
That’s why Saturday’s win over Purdue was the third significant game of the season, and the first significant game Illinois won this season.
It signifies because Ayo was normal. Not normal for Ayo, but normal for mortals. While the Boxing Day win over Indiana led to the obvious conclusion this team is screwed without Ayo, the Purdue win showed that, yes, Illinois has other options. It’s an important building block.
The 2005 team needed Jack Ingram to win at Wisconsin. It needed Roger Powell to beat Louisville. The Deron-Dee-Luther three-headed dragon was enough for 25 wins. The team needed other weapons to reach 37. It’s important that Da’Monte Williams and Andre Curbelo were the guys in that postgame presser.
The best part about this block is that Illinois notched a victory while building it. The two previous significant games were Baylor — in which the lads witnessed a near-flawless team defense — and Rutgers, where Coach Underwood showed them that ungoverned individual effort (Paul Mulcahy) can be the difference in a game (and not necessarily because it scores a lot).
Matt Painter put it this way after Saturday’s game: “You want to learn from the games that you lose, and you’ve got to be able to earn that right.”
Painter’s press conferences are always an elucidation in basketball philosophy. It almost doesn’t make sense that he can be so professorial within minutes of being so … well, angry.
Ayo’s getting out of the way allowed Belo and Da’Monte to embrace a challenge they wouldn’t face if Ayo carried the team on his back. They played lead roles in a contested game, with consequences.
Da’Monte’s sharp-shooting is a story in itself. His rebounding is what you’d expect. But he does both quietly. He’s the perfect foil for Belo, who’s entertainingly out-of-control.
The coaching staff will need to decide if reining Belo is worth the risk of ruining him. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate their coaching chops. But any (perceived) negative outcome will be talked about. You like your chances in this scenario, as an Illini fan. For all the brilliance its shown in landing Cokburn, Belo, Feliz (Orlando Antigua) and Ayo and Adam (Chin Coleman); this staff has plenty to prove.
Antigua took the dangerous step that a lot of comfortably compensated assistants don’t dare: After his Kentucky success, he stepped out on his own. It didn’t work at South Florida. If you’re a religious Illini fan, thank god for that. His suffering is your redemption.
Chin finally worked his way into the P5 coaching ranks with the Promise of Ayo. He delivered, thus sealing Paris Parham’s demise at Illinois. (Jamall Walker was kept on for the same reason that Parham wasn’t — to secure recruits from his territory.)
The next chapter in the Chin story is his to write. Wrangling this group together, to execute as a disciplined unit, is how this author would write it (given a choice).
It’s early January, and Brad Underwood has already bestowed sophomore status on his freshman guards. But that’s premature. They’re playing like freshmen.
That’s okay. It’s expected.
You get the idea that Ayo is willing to wait in the corner, ready to take over if needed. That’s an amazing quality, but it fits with his big brother viewpoint.
The development of this team will be entertaining no matter what. It will be especially fun to watch if they win games while they’re developing.