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Illini Basketball

The Littlest Indiana

Last week, the Illini men prepared for an awful Saint Francis team. They’ll play a better Saint Francis in December.

Friday night, Illinois hosts an Indiana team. They’ll face a better Indiana team in February, in Indiana. Friday’s Indiana team is not from Indiana. It’s from Alabama.

Specifically, it’s from that part of Pennsylvania that political operatives refer to as “Alabama in the middle.” So is California, another ineptly named school from the Alabama part of Pennsylvania.

The Indians of Indiana are no longer Indians. Not content to simply retire an irksome logo, they embraced the Nonexistent Bird path favored by Lowell’s RiverHawks and Miami’s RedHawks. (But not that Miami.)

They are now Crimson Hawks.

Indiana begins a fifteenth season with its winningest leader, Coach Lombardi (but not that Coach Lombardi). His team features four D-I transfers, led by 6-8 forward Tommy Demogerontas, an Orland Park native whose collegiate career began in 2015 at Moraine Valley Community College. Demogerontas originally transferred to Northern Illinois before moving to IUP, and suffered season-ending injuries at both stops.

photo by Peter Fortunado

He averages 17 and 9 per game, and takes almost half of his shots from outside the arc.

Dave Morris’s previous stop was Tennessee State. Not a powerhouse you say, but they beat Illinois in Champaign during that season you’ve been trying to forget, with that coach whose name escapes you. (So did the RedHawks. Those RedHawks.)

IUP plays in a conference of little Division II Pennsylvanian schools. But this team will be much better than the laughable Joliet squad that embarrassed itself here on Saturday.

Dave Morris is the Crimson Hawks point guard. He also makes half of his shots. (Teri Enciso)

The Crimson Hawks advanced to the DII Championship game twice since Joe Lombardi took over. They’re a perennial PSAC powerhouse, last winning the conference in 2020. You shouldn’t expect them to win against Curbelo & Co., but they won’t puke on their shoes either.

Tip time is 7pm on FRIDAY at the SFC.

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COVID-19 Illini basketball

Was That What We Were Expecting?

The Trent Frazier Show was rolling in fifth gear all night. Luke Goode rebounded. Coleman Hawkins drained threes. Austin Hutcherson made a 90° turn in mid-air, to shoot a ball that he’d already rebounded while already in-air.

I guess that’s what we expected to see in a contest featuring the state’s worst basketball team versus the state’s best basketball team. (I’m including JV teams from the IHSA.)

The unexpected performance came from Andre Curbelo, who was really … um … bad? And amazing? But we expected amazing. We didn’t expect five turnovers.

D’oh!

Brad Underwood won’t lose much sleep over it. He explained that Belo was, frankly, nervous. After a freshman year of balling for 200 people, he’d found himself on display for a few thousand, including a rowdy student section.

This is why we schedule exhibition games.

And we shouldn’t forget that he was also amazing, as expected.

The challenge for Brad Chet Tim Geoff is to rein in Belo’s exuberance without crushing it. Or am I being too control-ly?

Maybe Belo just needs a couple of exhibition games under his belt, and he’ll be fine?

He was, after all, amazing.

Coleman Hawkins is the other free spirit whose playmaking thrilled fans and burst capillaries in his coach’s face. Should he be throttled?

Coleman seems to know that it’s a matter of picking his spots. Knowing when to play it straight. Knowing when to get creative.

Surely the surprise of the night was RJ Melendez, who didn’t get in the game ’til the fourth quarter. That late entry was expected, because RJ’s performance in the Open Practice suggested he was a few years away from comprehending the defensive principles that Underwood’s staff requires of its rotation players.

But RJ found his spots against USF-Joliet. He didn’t get backdoor-ed. He hedged correctly. He didn’t look afraid.

RJ was fun on offense, hitting a three and converting a reverse lay-up. But that was the expected part for him. We knew he could rebound, too. But what about his defensive positioning? Will he be instant offense for the other team?

He did not look lost against USF.

The rest of the veterans displayed rust here and there, among moments of grace. Da’Monte Williams best play was batting a ball from a Saint and simultaneously knocking it off his victim, out of bounds. He nearly emoted in celebration.

Kofi had a somewhat frustrating game, of the sort he’ll experience every night over the next five months, as teams study his every move, and do their utmost to stop him.

He’s a kind, sensitive person. So you hope he can keep that good nature while opponents do their best to ruin his future.

Hutch did not miss.

We still can’t be sure that Hutch is ready for P5 competition, because he certainly didn’t face it Saturday. But he looked a lot more like the super-hyped Hutch than he did the skinny Division III kid we saw two years ago.

It still looks like Podz and RJ won’t see a lot of floor time this year, a vibe that Underwood conveyed in his season kickoff press conference. Podz didn’t have the opportunity to show us anything worth knowing. He didn’t have time.

The ball was in his hands as time ran out on the game, so he was in position to score the hundredth point. He did it.

Trent was already laughing, Brad was already angry.

RJ’s brief tick was a lot flashier, but he faces the same general problem: Which three veterans will he replace?

Maybe we’ll know more after Exhibition #2, just six days from now.

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Illini Basketball

Lighting Up Francis

Did you know there was a University of Saint Francis in Illinois?

Yes? Congratulations! You’re from Joliet!

University of Saint Francis (IL) is the fifth biggest University of Saint Francis in the United States; after PA, Fort Wayne, Brooklyn and Steubenville.

Compared to other scismic branches of papist basketball, Franciscan hoops suffers — just as it should, given its namesake — versus Jesuit powerhouses like Georgetown & Gonzaga. St. Bonaventure is probably the best Franciscan basketball program. The second-best might be Saint Francis-PA*, which tied for last in the mighty Northeast Conference last year. (If you don’t have a sense of the NEC’s might, know that Robert Morris abandoned its affiliation in 2020, to join the Horizon League.)

Against Pennsylvania’s Franciscans, which Illinois hosts on December 18, Brad Underwood will foist a rotation of Illini which will, by that 13th contest, have grown familiar.

But who?!?!?!? you wail.

That’s your nine-man rotation. But will Brad use a nine-man rotation?

Tim Anderson says the coaching staff is working on ways to employ a Twin Towers set, with Omar Payne and Kofi Cockburn blocking all sunlight from penetrating the lane.

That mission seems counterintuituve given the obvious 4-out nature of this roster. “Positionless” basketball demands that the parts be interchangeable, and that’s not the case when you put Omar and Kofi in the same five.

Ben Verdonk

What about Podz and Goode? Will Underwood try a two sets of five approach, like John Calipari did in 2014?

Underwood wants to run. He wants transition baskets and threes. That suggests that “ten starters” is possible. And we know that Underwood is willing to tinker, to experiment. (Such an emmeffing breath of fresh air.)

On the other hand, if you’re starting from the simplest of recipes (Belo to Kofi) it feels unecessary to get weird. Replacing Ayo with shooters gives away the game plan.

Or does it?

Hutch with coach Tim Anderson

Coleman Hawkins says the Hutch Game isn’t so much a steady diet of three-pointers as it is using ball-screens to create a pull-up jumper. Hutch’s much reported near-posterization during the Open Practice suggests that he’s willing to drive like Ayo, but perhaps not finish like Ayo. (Ayo’s use of the glass, the oldest of old school basketball, is nearly extinct among young players. They could learn from Ayo’s example.)

Brad Underwood watches Andre Curbelo during a drill.

Is Underwood so devious that he’ll run two completely different offenses during the same season? That’s the kind of departure from the norm that gets books published, even dissertations.

It doesn’t seem likely, does it?

Then again, a low-post offense doesn’t require more than a few option plays. If Geoff Alexander wants to drill his bigs on a few different sets, and some of those sets incorporate a double-post presence … well, isn’t that the type of advanced education these scholar-athletes expect from a world class institution?

As Omar said, “I’m a scholar.”

Omar Payne & Ben Verdonk

Because Illinois scheduled two exhibition games, rather than a secret scrimmage, one might conclude that Brad wants to learn more about his rotations. How do these guys interact when facing unfamiliar opponents? Which fivesomes mesh?

It’s not unfair to predict a 126-42 final score in an imbalanced match-up against the nation’s worst Francis. But it would be more fun, and more useful, to use the game for experimentation. The “starters” already know what to do. You can put a fivesome of

  • Belo
  • Trent
  • ‘Monte
  • Jake
  • Kofi

on the floor, and expect them to run like clockwork.

NOTE – Two minutes of this video were muted by YouTube, for copyright purposes.

What happens when it’s

  • Belo
  • Plummer
  • Hutch
  • Coleman
  • Omar?

What happens when you mix and match those fives, or put Goode on the wing?

Personally, I’d rather see Podz, Verdonk and Goode get the maxium PT. We need to know what those guys can do, and whether they’re ready to help.

Podziemski gives a Matt Heldman vibe. It’s difficult to keep the Matt Heldman types of the floor. Goode looks ready, and might challenge veterans for tick.

RJ Melendez meets team IR photo by Mark Jones, who is hilarious

You’d want to see RJ Melendez and Brandon Lieb get some minutes, just because it’s fun to play, and they’re unlikely to play in non-exhibition games. Not unless Brandon puts on 30 lbs. and RJ grasps defensive positioning.

RJ is, according to his coaches & teammates, the athletic freak among them. That implies Fan Favorite potential. But it’s almost painfully obvious when talking to him that he’s the youngest, or most youthful, of this Illini team. Acclimating to a huge American campus — via a second language — while also trying to compete with crafty fifth-year seniors, all while realizing that the wind can be uncomfortably cold sometimes … it’s a lot.

He seems bright and cheerful, though. So who knows? Maybe he’ll get his footwork in order by December.

*Francisan hoops completists will want to know that, while Brooklyn fared better in last year’s NEC, it split its games with PA. PA has put three (THREE!) guys in the NBA and, unlike the Terriers in New York, played in The Tourney once.

Once.
Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

A gathering of friends

The obvious story line was Hunter Dickinson versus Illinois.

It’s tricky to perpetuate this line with a straight face, because Hunter made plain that he likes Kofi Cockburn and feels no personal animosity toward the Illini team.

On the other hand, you could take offense at Juwan Howard’s refusal to acknowledge Illinois as a rival, because it tends to diminish the Illinois brand. Since Howard rebuffed his home state’s school for the Maize & Blue, way back in 1991 (in the midst of Bruce Pearl-induced sanctions), some Illini fans have correctly felt jilted, even disrespected.

In fact, Illinois is a second-tier B1G school. University of Michigan is better than University of Illinois, by almost every conceivable metric.

Ann Arbor has a cooler downtown. It’s closer to major metropolitan attractions. The academic programs are equal or better. Their airport will get you to Munich or Tokyo and Chicago and Dallas.

Michigan’s football success allows the school to field 29 varsity sports teams. Illinois has just 21. (Ohio State has a whopping 36, including a rifle team. Penn State funds 31.)

So it must be at least slightly infuriating that Howard’s team hasn’t defeated Brad Underwood yet. But Howard, in his #B1GMediaDays availability, couldn’t have praised Underwood more effusively. His refusal to acknowledge Illinois as a rival was also a refusal to disrespect any B1G team.

Yesterday afternoon on the Conseco Banker’s Gainbridge hardwood, Greg Gard bantered with Trevion Williams, Sasha Stefanovic & Eric Hunter — his theoretical enemies.

The day before, it was Maryland’s Donta Scott and Eric Ayala yucking it up with Rutgers’s Ron Harper, Geo Baker and Caleb McConnell. These meetings occurred on the same 20′ square of court, certainly visible to anyone watching BTN while Mike Hall interviewed coaches and players from the xx-chromosome half of B1G hoops.

They’re all friends, whether you hate them or not.

We/Them is a dichotomy that exists only in minds. But it’s an important distinction. Among the B1G, all players, coaches and staff is a We. You are a Them. So am I.

I know I’m a Them because I was on the other side of the stanchions & ropes that protected players & coaches from media. They’re all vaccinated. Are we?

I brought my vaccination card, because the emailed event instructions said someone from the conference might ask, at any time, to see it (or a negative PCR test result from the previous 72 hours). I don’t think that actually happened. The B1G staff was extraordinarily helpful and attentive. Competent and friendly.

Legacy media gained a huge advantage through Covid protocols. It wasn’t hard to hear the coaches and players, who sat fifteen feet away from us. But smartphone mics can’t capture worthwhile audio from that distance. The guys who transcribe words to text, and the guys who plug XLR cables into a mult box (multiple audio jacks, that is), had no problems with the set up. So newspapers and TV stations got the materials they needed.

It was worth going, for me and probably every attendee. Because it was a gathering of friends, and it was nice to see them after a long, lonely winter.

But for you, the fan … well, I hope you got some good coverage from TV and newspapers.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Tenacious Day

Geoff Alexander paused, and looked up from the list of newcomers.

“Can I pick somebody that’s not on this list?”

Of course, we assurred him. We want to know what you have to say about this team, not put words in your mouth.

“Benjamin Verdonk.”

Geoff Alexander

Geoff takes over as Big Man coach this year. So his choice of the 6’8″ Belgian, when prompted with the descriptive noun “bruiser,” must be the single-most noteworthy moment of Media Day 2021. This is a team, you’ll recall, that features an All-American center.

You’ll enjoy the rest of the Q&A, too. But Geoff’s praise for Ben is the scoop of the day. And it wasn’t limited to bruising.

Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk

Here’s what you’ll see when the videos are cut & pasted:

Coleman Hawkins & Omar Payne enjoy a chemistry which, if it works as well on the court as off it, promises explosively hilarious basketball.

Perhaps hilarity isn’t what you’re looking for from your #Illini, in which case you should hope that it’s simply great chemistry, and manifests itself as great basketball when they’re hooping, and great comedy when they’re clowning.

Coleman Hawkins & Omar Payne

Brandin Podziemski has a chip on his shoulder. He will tell you that he plays with a chip on his shoulder. His teammates and coaches will tell you that he plays with a chip on his shoulder.

It’s almost like he’s from Wisconsin.

So thank your lucky stars that Greg Gard’s program hit a rough patch since the Kobe King incident. If Podz were playing in red, he’d be under your skin for the next four years. Like Bruesewitz and Krabbenhoft and Davison. All those irritating Badgers.

Illinois finally has its Lucas Johnson back.

Brandin Podziemski
Luke Goode

Luke Goode is super earnest. A true yeoman Midwesterner. He’s earned the respect of grinders like Da’Monte Williams and Chester Frazier. That’s hard praise to merit. ‘Monte and Chet are two of the toughest, no-short-cuts men to don an Illini uniform, ever.

Once you’ve known him for five minutes, you’ll want Luke to be your pastor, and Chief of the Boat.

And the guy every single one of them praised to high heaven was Alfonso Plummer. Brad Underwood was irritated that we weren’t writing about him already, and this was before any media were introduced to the guy.

Alfonso Plummer, the assassin

Plummer topped the poll when asked about snipers, and motor. Each player & coach channeled Reese from The Terminator: HE WILL. NOT. STOP. UNTIL YOU ARE DEAD. That kinda thing.

All right, time to start editing the clips. Stay tuned.