Rutgers controlled Friday night’s game from the get go. The Scarlet Knights prevented Kofi Cockburn any post touches. They ran offense, got great looks, and jumped out to an early lead.
This point should be remembered, because it’s in danger of being lost in the telling of Illinois’s massive ass whooping. By the time the Illini lead reached 30 points, most of the fans probably forgot how awful things looked in the early minutes.
Everything changed when Omar Payne replaced Kofi Cockburn at 16:05. Illini substitution patterns are certainly known to the Rutgers coaching staff, and Payne’s entry happened right on time. So why did the Knights fall apart at this particular point?
Omar altered shots and grabbed the rebounds those alterations produced. The Rutgers game plan, in other words, hit an Omar-shaped wall. He doesn’t have a whole lotta offense, but he shut an entire team down on their own end of the court.
Brad Underwood reserved special praise for Omar in his postgame remarks.
By the time Nnanna Egwu graduated, Illini fans had come to appreciate what he could do defensively, despite his failure to learn low-post moves throughout a four-year career. Omar has that same intmidation factor. But he can also jump four feet into the air, which is a lot to deal with when the guy swatting your shot is already 6’10”.
The other thing that happened at U16 was Jacob Grandison. Like Da’Monte Williams, he’s been a team leader, and an indispensable part of recent Illini success.
His intellectual and leadership gifts can be overstated sometimes, but only because those conversations might make you forget that he’s good at basketball, too.
Smart & fearless. It makes him dangerous.
Brad Underwood’s strategy of not starting his best players, but using them as surprise attackers, continues to pay dividends. Most infamously, this strategy saw Richard Pitino not seeming to know who “Da’Monte Williams” was just 15 minutes after Da’Monte Williams had vanquished Pitino’s Gophers.
Williams was probably on that scouting report, but because he wasn’t a starter, he probably didn’t figure prominently on that scouting report.
Grandison might not be an obscurity to this year’s #B1G opponents, but the thing that makes him a tough assignment is that he knows how to pick his spots.
Omar provides a different kind of stealth. There’s no question that Kofi is better than Omar, but Omar’s defensive instincts (and wing-span) are difficult to appreciate on film. It’s only when your shot lands in the eighth row that you’ll truly appreciate Omar.
Illinois defense was fun to watch on Friday. We’ve all been waiting for Coleman Hawkins to get out of his own head and focus on applying his natural talents to disciplined domination of opponents. It happened Friday.
Brad compared his work/battle with Coleman to two rams butting heads. He said he told Coleman that Ron Harper dreams of him (Coleman) every night, and pictures him in a pink tutu.
As in “Coleman is a little girl, and I can dominate him.”
It worked. Coleman played with a defensive intensity that Illini fans haven’t seen before.
There’s always been the flashy two-handed slam guy. There’s always been the flashy shot-blocking guy.
It’s the stolid, stern defender that you hadn’t seen.
Coleman is a thinker. He’s analytical. He thinks too much sometimes, and that’s not something that can be undone.
But Friday proved that he can focus his analytical skills.
Given his lateral quickness, size & outside shooting, he already had NBA written all over him. The thing that seemed doubtful in Friday’s first half was whether Coleman could feed the low post.
He rejected many opportunities to get Kofi the rock. Illini fans jeered. “Come on!” screamed one of them, loud enough for Coleman to hear it.
The second half was a reversal. It was as if coaching occurred in the locker room. And maybe Coleman settled into himself, after realizing that he’d done to Harper what he’d deeply desired to do to Harper (his good friend, by the way).
Coleman fed the beast.
Dan O’Brien captured it in GIF form. This is the perfect Illini basketball possession of 2021-22. This is what Illini basketball can be, this season, if everyone gets healthy, and if everyone understands his role.
We learned after the game that Trent Frazier hasn’t been practicing much. He’s been recovering. He’s been in physical therapy. So you shouldn’t be surprised that his shot is off.
With all the new harnesses he’s been wearing since wrecking his shoulder and knee, the fine tuning of muscle memory hasn’t had sufficient repetitions to adjust.
But his defensive principles remain intact, and that’s why he’s playing starter minutes.
Alfonso Plummer has taken over the Trent Frazier Role as contemplated in 2017. Trent Frazier has become, with Chester Frazier’s help, Chester Frazier.
The fact that Chester Frazier is still, at 35, playing stern defense in practice, has undoubtedly helped the younger Illini to recognize that there’s serious peril awaiting them in the #B1G. It’s kept Trent Frazier in shape, defensively.
Friday night was a celebration of Illinois basketball. Everything went right for Our Side. You’d be disappointed by the game if you didn’t know how great a coach Steve Pikiell is, and how good the individual Scarlet Knights can be.
The fact that they’re missing their point guard should seem familiar. Missing a point guard has ruined many a basketball team’s unit productivity since the days of Steve Lanter. Possibly even earlier.
The fact that Illinois basketball has recovered from losing Andre Curbelo is … well, is it surprising? Is it predictable? I certainly don’t have the expertise to declare either of those descriptions.
The Illini offense looked good for the final 34-ish minutes of Friday night’s game. Curbelo enjoyed watching it. The national audience probably included a few AP voters, maybe a committee member or two.
The early going of this season was tough, especially for Belo. But it seems as if the Illini might find their way.
You can help. Tweet #ISupportBelo if you want to tell Andre that you have his back.