Ben Verdonk personifies the Good Guy. Da’Monte Williams epitomizes coachable selflessness. You want to root for them.
When ‘Monte drove from wing to paint during that 40 Year Desert of Illini scoring on Tuesday, you and I cringed. His forte has never been finishing in the lane.
Ben was the only guy available for a dump-off. Illinois really needed a bucket.
You & I don’t want Da’Monte driving to the low-post, and we don’t want Ben taking passes in the low-post. We want Andre Curbelo dribbling, and Kofi waiting for the lob.
We can’t have nice things. We’re Illinois.
Or that’s the meme, anyhow. In fact, Illinois remains in great position to win the B1G. Wisconsin and Michigan State jumped from middling pre-season expectations to the top of the standings, almost as if they were Wisconsin and Michigan State. (When will people learn?) But Illinois is right there, like 2007-2019 hadn’t happened.
Olds remember conversations including the Illini, right up there with Badgers and Spartans.
Purdue, the all-time leader in Big Ten Conference titles, is in good shape to capture a 25th.
But between COVID rescheduling, inevitable injuries and off nights; there’s plenty of opportunity for Illinois to scrape & claw its way to a title. And even though Da’Monte’s penetration produced no points on Tuesday, I’m glad Brad Underwood allowed it to happen.
After complaining about Bruce Weber’s micromanaging for all of 2010-12, I feel ashamed for questioning Brad Underwood’s patience.
Illinois did not, as history won’t remember, get that bucket. As it happens, they didn’t need it. By the slimmest of margins, and possibly because Williams and Verdonk were on the floor, the Illini held off a vastly overrated but still defensively sound Michigan State team.
I was reminded once again that between you, me and Brad Underwood; one of us gets paid three million dollars to run the Illini basketball program. When that final two-tenths of a second had finally ticked, that guy had beaten yet another Top 10 team.
History will probably also forget that no one expected Illinois to beat MSU on Thursday, with the notable exception of Las Vegas. Illini fans watched the previous game, at Maryland, and decided that the dream had died. Illinois basketball was a mirage, a fantasy. They’d just woken up with a hangover and regretted ever investing emotional capital in this squad.
How did Brad Underwood turn the hive mind of his team, the same team that lacked urgency in College Park, into a ramshackle collection of scrappers that beat a ranked team while BOTH of its most heralded players sat out?
This is why I was disappointed, in hindsight, that Matt Stevens didn’t cover the Maryland game for IlliniGuys.
Larry Smith was the IlliniGuy covering the game at Maryland, accompanied by his beautiful wife Rita. It was great seeing them, and Larry is both the consummate professional and a gregarious colleague.
But Matt Stevens would have been useful to have there. Among the regular Illini media pool, he’s the best at probing sports psychology issues. He’s subtle about it. He knows how to ask meaningful questions without making people uncomfortable.
Whatever happens going forward this season, the Maryland game was some kind of turning point. And I’d like to figure out how Underwood managed it. The path to a championship veered off course there. How did he get it back?
We learned later, of course, that Belo was sick and Trent injured. That’s part of the problem. But another reason for the “lack of urgency” was that guys were playing unfamiliar roles. Ben isn’t accustomed to starting Big Ten games. Da’Monte hasn’t been a “scorer” since his high school days.
If Underwood cultivated hesitancy in these guys, at this point, he’d be shooting himself in the foot. So whether he cringed along with you and me, he didn’t show it. That’s the important thing.
NOT ABOUT BASKETBALL
This afternoon in Champaign, the mortal remains of Associate Vice Chancellor Emeritus, former Dean of Students and noted martini quaffer Clarence Shelley will lie in repose at the Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church.
If you ever set foot in Champaign, you were probably friends with Shelley. If you were a black UIUC student trying to acclimate to campus life in the latter half of the 20th century, he counseled you, supported you, and kept you on the straight & narrow.
You can read about Shelley at WCIA, at Smile Politely, in the News-Gazette and its offshoot publication about homes. His obituary is here.
My mother had a friendship with Shelley in the 1970s. He steered black students toward her literature classes when she was a TA before earning her PhD. in 1974. I learned about that in the 1990s, when I befriended Shelley in a reviving downtown Champaign. We were both martini traditionalists.
To the extent that Illinois Basketball needs urban black people to spend their college years among the soybeans & hogs, Dean Shelley was the man who paved a path through the corn. But you didn’t have to play basketball for Shelley to be important. You didn’t even have to be a student, or black.
Very few of us will have an impact on so many lives. So if you can’t make it to the visitation, pour one out for Shelley tonight.