I know some of you care only about Illini sports. But most of you are interested in Champaign-Urbana and the University of Illinois, generally. You probably spent some time here.
Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of a radio feature I produced for NPR’s Morning Edition about the Champaign-Urbana music scene. I’d planned to revisit that piece, and re-publish it. But then, a few days ago, my old friend Nick Rudd hanged himself.
He won’t be counted among the covid-19 victims; but loneliness + the restriction from playing his guitar for people + the closure of all libraries = a bad outcome for a guy challenged to start over, at 59, following the breakdown of a marriage.
Nick was a central figure, a stalwart of C-U music. Everybody knew him, and most of us played with him at some point. If not, we bought a record on his recommendation.
So the radio piece can wait. It’s already been 25 years.
I’ve never forgotten the first thing I knew about Nick Rudd. Not verbatim, perhaps, it was Peter Buck thinks Nick Rudd is an amazing guitarist.
I didn’t even know what Nick Rudd looked like at the time. But in the 1980s, that praise carried a lot of water.
Mitch Easter produced an album by Turning Curious, Nick’s band, in 1983. That was the same year Easter produced an album called Murmur, by Pete’s band. That’s the connection that led to Nick opening for Pete’s band.
In the late 1990s, while I perused the bins at Record Swap, Nick spontaneously walked over to praise the song Box of Wormgears, from my second album. I felt the spinal straitening that stunned Dave Wakeling upon learning Pete Townshend and David Gilmour had spent an afternoon in a 4-star hotel suite, trying to decipher the guitar part from Save it For Later.
When a noted virtuoso praises your guitar work, you’ve summited the mountain.
Turns out, he meant it. A few years later Nick volunteered himself to be the guitarist, and bring along Brian Reedy to drum for me. Brian and Brendan Gamble are, in very different ways, the two musical artists I’ve most admired in my life. So indeed, the last time I picked up an instrument and performed in front of people, Nick and Brian were on stage with me.
I kind of gave up on music the next year, and became a sports writer. People still show up for sports.
Nick never gave up on being a musician. And then last week, he did.
Illini baseball coach Dan Hartleb and pitchers senior pitchers Garrett Acton & Ty Weber participated in a teleconference this morning (posted in full at the bottom). Here’s what they had to say about life in C-U while baseball has been supplanted by a worldwide viral pandemic.
Hartleb was in Carterville last Thursday, waiting to watch his son play a game for John A. Logan Community College, when things started to happen. His team was preparing to play Southern Illinois in nearby Carbondale. He says he got the feeling, based on the NCAA’s announcement of no fans/tournament still on, that baseball season was in jeopardy.
When word came that the season was, indeed, cancelled; Hartleb said he had a meeting with the team which went as well as could be expected “under the circumstances” considering his players had just seen “their world turn around on them.”
Hartleb said he just spent his first March weekend without having to make a baseball-related decision, and added that his wife’s reaction was “oh crap, I’ve got to put up with you for three or four more months than I usually have to.”
Asked whether he’s experienced anything like the COVID-19 pandemic, Hartleb mentioned September 11, but added that you’d probably have to go back to WWII to find this type of social disruption. He referenced polio as the last time a disease made Americans so afraid, adding that a typical American mindset is this type of thing doesn’t happen here.
SHOULD PLAYERS STAY IN SCHOOL OR GO PRO?
“Guys know the way I feel about academics.” It’s a “golden opportunity” to get a one or two-year Master’s, and still come back and play before going on to a pro career.
Hartleb said he’s not pushing his players in either direction. “Last thing I want someone to do is come back and regret that decision.”
He says the NCAA has cancelled all scheduled workouts through April 6, but he expects all his players will keep working out on their own.
Hartleb spent a good amount of time talking about the extra year of eligibility each of his players (and all NCAA spring sport student-athletes) were granted. He said it “took the edge of the meeting” because “it gave guys hope.” Hartleb characterized it as a “redshirt year” for everybody, and pointed out that players invariably get better during a redshirt year.
WILL THERE BE A DRAFT THIS YEAR?
“The thing we know right now is that MLB is shut down.” Scouts aren’t allowed to have contact with college players. Hartleb says he’s heard from different people that the draft is on, or that the draft will be cancelled. He offered the hunch that it might be an abbreviated draft.
He observed that, at worst, his guys have an opportunity to finish their degrees and/or earn Master’s degrees.
Hartleb said his biggest concern is that guys get injured in summer baseball leagues because they haven’t had proper strength & conditioning in the spring
GARRETT ACTON – SR. RHP
On the NCAA canceling the entire season: It’s obviously the right decision. It’s a tough decision
Acton was upbeat about the future, whether it’s getting a Master’s degree and returning next year to pitch for Illinois, or going pro.
He said the team was really starting to hit its stride, especially the pitching, and particularly praised the newcomers for executing their jobs while playing in front of big crowds for the first time in their lives.
He said he’s got training equipment in his house, and can get together with a teammate if he needs to throw. “Even if there’s not a hitter in the box,” he can work on attacking the strike zone.
TY WEBER – SR. RHP
He was sitting in his apartment with his roommates when he found out. He said everyone was stunned., and that the full reality still hasn’t hit him yet.
“For me, it was crazy.”
He praised Hartleb for not pressing individual players to make decisions about whether to stay in school, whether to enroll for more school next year, whether to seek professional opportunities.
It does make it easier to have options, he added.
He said it was weird to be home in March, and not physically interacting with people. “Everything is either Facetime or text … it’s been a very weird experience.”
He said both his parents are schoolteachers, and he has access to his local high school’s workout facilities, which helps him “stay on top of my physical side” while he figures out his mental side, and future options.
He said his team was just starting to hit a groove, that he and Garrett and senior teammates had “bought-in” and were putting things together.
He said he’s grown even more as a person than a player during his time at Illinois, and hoped that if his time is done with Illini baseball, he will have had a positive impact on the younger players.
He said if he had to make the decision again, he’d definitely choose Illinois.
Lots and lots more is here, for completists, in the full teleconference.
Kofi Cockburn is a monster in the minds of people who’ve never met Kofi Cockburn. Brad Underwood is a monster in the minds of people who get their opinions from social media.
In fact, Brad Underwood is a reflective person. One of the things he reflects on, frequently in recent weeks, is that Kofi Cockburn is a freshman, and a minor.
We and Brad sometimes forget — because Kofi is an intimidating physical specimen — that inside the cranium crowning 290 lbs. of lean muscle is a youthful, playful mind just discovering the outside world, as we all did if we were lucky enough to have a freshman year.
On Sunday, as Kofi battled an intensely, historically talented B1G man, Nico Haeflinger marveled at a moment of video he’d just captured for his nightly sportscast. I was sitting next to Nico, so he shared it with me. We sat on the north baseline, under the Home basket. But this was the first half, so Nico’s footage took place 94 feet south of us.
The gist: Kofi was angry, or at least seemed angry.
After a particular play under the south basket, the quiet, polite, shy, deferential, reserved and demonstrably pacifist BEAST-IN-WAITING emoted in way that Nico had never seen. He shared the slo-mo of Kofi’s facial expression, expanding.
It started as defiance. It ended in roar.
Kofi executed, finished, successfully completed a set. Choose your verb, and strive for strength. Alliteration if possible. Onomatopoeic CRASH! in an ideal world.
Or, if you prefer, forget the prose.
Something magical happened. Appreciated simply: Kofi Cockburn scored on Luka Garza.
In doing so, Kofi passed a milestone in an extremely personal, intimate and perhaps indescribable growth step.
For all his plaudits, Kofi remains as humble & surprised as you’d expect him to be if you knew his biography rather than his press clippings.
Of course, all these impressions were formed before his official coronation as B1G Freshman 2020. But the reality of Kofi is that he doesn’t react to plaudits. People have told him that he’s god’s gift.
The important thing to know is that he learned how to play against Iowa, and Luka Garza. In the grand scheme of things, it’s the only thing he’ll ever need to know, because Luka Garza is the best B1G he’ll ever see.
When they face each other on Friday, Kofi will know that he’s answered the Garza challenge.
You should probably feel less depressed about Ohio State if you feel depressed about Ohio State.
You should probably feel less anxiety about Iowa if you feel anxiety about Iowa.
This Illini team has demonstrated, throughout this season, that you can’t predict what this Illini team will do this season. Your source of anxiety shall henceforth parrot the reality of March: This team can lose to anybody.
Luckily, your glass is half full: This team can beat anybody, and has already proven its propensity to win seven-in-a-row.
Ayo mentioned winning seven-in-a-row just the other day, but he was talking about a state title, not a national title.
Ayo is voracious about titles. The chip on his shoulder is practically visible. His deference toward teammates & oft-stated respect for opponents belies a singular, individual drive to prove to you and your mom and everyone else that he, Ayo IS YOUR DADDY.
Ayo’s love of competition is infectious, and he’s contaminated an entire team and fanbase.
There have been two hints in recent Ayo Availabilities which should, at the very least, drive conspiracy theories about Ayo returning for a third year.
The most obvious was when he said he was contemplating Journalism as a major.
The other came after that, and I can’t remember which pregame availability it was, but you should probably just click on all the IlliniReport videos anyway.
But the good news about Ayo is that he wants to be The Guy who returned Illinois to jersey-popping status. If His Team doesn’t win three-in-a-row next weekend, or six-in-a-row after that; you can imagine him making another Consequential Decision in your favor.
The alternative is that you celebrate a championship.
You like sports & you know how to use the Internet, so you’ve probably encountered a probability to win graph. You might remember the one from ILLINI/MSU football. The sine wave changed at the end. The orange line moved up in comparison to the green line.
On Sunday, the red line hovered over the orange line for about 39 minutes of basketball.
Maybe not on your preferred website, but in my mind. Indiana was better than Illinois, and deserved to win Sunday’s game — for about 39 minutes.
If you want a more precise figure, the best I can come up with is 39 minutes and 53.6 seconds, because that’s when Terry Oglesby blew his whistle, and awarded a timeout to Trent Frazier.
It was this moment, when Andres Feliz pounced on a loose-ish ball, that the pendulum swung.
That might seem like an easy thing to say, because it happened to be the moment upon which the game swung.
Archie Miller wondered how the play could unfold with neither foul nor held-ball whistled.
Indiana was in position for a game-winning shot when — with about 8 seconds remaining — Andres Feliz leapt to steal the ball from Phinisee, who had unsuccessfully attempted to dribble through Trent Frazier’s outstretched leg.
Feliz then rolled his upper body away from Phinisee to prevent a held-ball situation. Trent ran toward referee Terry Ogelsby, who was closely monitoring the play. Frazier both screamed and signaled for a time-out, which Oglesby granted.
Indiana fans melted the Internet and phone lines for post-game call-in shows, arguing that Trent’s leg had committed a punishable act.
It’s an interesting theory. Should Oglesby have called tripping? Did Trent have a right to stand where he was planted? Might it be a charge?
Maybe Oglesby just didn’t see the contact. It happened pretty quickly.
In general, I think complaints about officiating are a waste of time. Fans often misinterpret calls (e.g. yes it was a clean block, but the defender bumped the shooter with his hip), and too many fans vocally express displeasure at all calls, creating a Boy Who Cried Wolf vibe with the refs.
That said, the officiating on Sunday was worth discussing.
The most obvious gaffe was a foul not called on Devonte Green. Andres Feliz drove to the basket, Joey Brunk and Green closed in, and Green hacked Feliz on his shooting arm, visibly changing the shot and Feliz’s follow-through.
Feliz was so stunned by the non-call that he failed to get back on defense (which is, as you know, quite unlike Feliz).
The other remarkable call that went against Illinois saw Oglesby whistling Alan Griffin for helping an off-balance Justin Smith fall out-of-bounds.
Did Alan touch Smith? Did he give Smith a gentle push? That’s obviously what Oglesby saw.
I was at the far end, so I asked my fellow reporters if anyone got a good look. Erich Fisher said something along the lines of where there’s smoke there’s fire.
Brian Dorsey must have agreed with Alan, because his make-up call arrived as soon as he could find a potential infraction. It’s easy to call traveling in any situation, so traveling is a common tool for make-up calls.
Some Hoosier grad student might inquire about a grant to study how officiating affected the outcome of this game. Surely some donors would fund it. I’d like to know myself.
As far as deserving to win. Indiana definitely deserved this game for all but 6.4 seconds. And then Illinois deserved it more.
Ayo’s third major end-game gaffe (Miami, MSU) nearly handed the Hoosiers their win. But Ayo also drilled the big three that pushed the lead to 65-60. He drained his two free-throws. i.e. he redeemed himself, and snatched back the win.
They say ball don’t lie. It seems about right that at the end of the game, Illinois had one point more than Indiana. They deserved it more.
You have umpteen places to read about his heroics, because a relevant Illini team playing at Northwestern brings the biggest media contingent of any game in any season. You get all the B1G Chicago people including Andy Katz, the Trib’s Shannon Ryan and Teddy Greenstein plus all the C-U blogs and websites that rarely cover road games.
Read their pieces for game coverage & photos. I got a lot of Referee Butt tonight. It’s the most common complaint among basketball photogs. Tonight, it nearly killed me.
No biggie. My story was formed before I set foot in Welsh-Ryan Arena.
WLS 89-AM is broadcasting Illini basketball to more millions of homes & 18-wheelers than you can imagine.
Normally, I take a Peoria Charter to road games. You might have noticed. But I drove to last night’s game, and after WILL 580 faded, I tuned to 890 for traffic updates, as I usually do when driving into the city. The Afternoon Drive jock kept mentioning the Illini game. He even said he might drive up to Evanston to watch it himself. It won’t be sold out, so I can get a ticket no problem he speculated out loud.
If you’re 30 and under, you might not know how powerful a clear channel (not Clear Channel) AM radio station can be. The one that broadcasts from the World’s Largest Store, atop the former Sears Tower, reaches the nation’s capital, and Denver, and farms in North Dakota, and bogs in Louisiana. The signal strength is affected by weather, but it’s pretty damn good in any circumstance.
Hearing Brian Barnhart & Deon Thomas — on what is arguably* the nation’s most powerful radio station — changed my perspective of Illini sports.
Maybe satellite radio & podcasts have reduced the power of terrestrial radio and the DIA got suckered into supporting a dying industry. I’d like to see the latest Arbitron ratings (whatever they’re called now). I expect we’ll find that a shitload of previously untapped audience got a taste of Illini basketball from this deal.
That said, I felt bad that the DIA hasn’t been able to maximize its monetization of the WLS deal. I listened from the 6:30pm open until I got to the Welsh-Ryan parking lot, about 3 minutes into the game. I heard too many Public Service Announcements and not enough commercials. PSAs are required by the FCC for all licensed broadcasters, but most stations play them at 3am, not during Evening Drive/Prime Time.
There’s a huge advertising opportunity available to non-agricultural, non-insurance companies. Millions of people listen to WLS.
*WNYC, KROQ and KCRW are the only contenders I can think of, and this was my college major.
When Illinois and Northwestern met in January, the Wildcats tied the Illini 37-37 in the second half. The first half’s 38-34 tally gave Illinois the edge. Northwestern did that without second-leading scorer Boo Buie.
The Wildcats seemed like a young team on the verge of putting it all together. Since then, they nearly beat Purdue at home, and took Rutgers to overtime at the RAC. i.e. they lost every game, and only two were close.
The history of college basketball has taught you that this Northwestern team has lost all confidence. There’s no joy in lacing up. They just wish the season would end. Asterisk.
The Asterisk tells you this young team has nothing to lose, and the odds are good that they’ll put it all together one of these nights.
Illinois is not good enough to overlook the Mildcats.
Susceptible to handsy defenders and incapable of shooting from deep, close or mid-range; this Illini team wins ONLY when its known weaknesses don’t manifest simultaneously.
Or, as at Penn State, the opponent can’t hit the broad side of a barn.
Robbie Beran and Miller Kopp combine for 40% on threes. If the other Wildcats connect on the same pace that they did in Champaign, it could be an unpleasant night for Illini fans. Boo Buie nearly ended Rutgers’ undefeated-at-home streak by himself.
Northwestern will certainly throw a zone at Illinois, which works like a bucket of water on a wicked witch. The current Illini offense is Ayo versus everyone + shooters in the corners in case he needs to pass. If a low-post defender hedges, throw it up for Kofi. If a wing defender moves inward to help, kick it out to the shooter.
If the non-Ayo Illini can convert from deep, it’ll be a laugher.
After watching Minnesota hand Maryland the B1G Championship last night, you might feel confident about this game. Good teams win and bad teams lose, right?
But while Northwestern is demonstrably bad, there’s still reason to wonder whether Illinois is good. It’s beginning to feel that way.
Like Sally Field taking the Oscar for Norma Rae, these young Illini are feeling their oats. If you didn’t already watch this video of Ayo, Alan and Trent joining the media pool to ask questions of themselves, please do.
We like them. We really like them. But we still feel anxious about handing them the keys.
The advantage for Illinois might be its elders. Da’Monte Williams and Andres Feliz are fierce defenders, and they know how to follow a scouting report.
But Northwestern is TALL. Da’Monte’s wingspan enables him against opposing Stretch Fours. For Andres, it’s a bad match-up. Or a challenge. Depends how you look at it.
When this Illini team is great, it feels like a rebirth of history and tradition. When this Illini team is bad, it feels like the last 14 years of kicks to the nads.
Illinois was terrible Monday. They won a game against a team that arrived in Champaign with a 7-19 record. It was uncomfortably close. Thank your favorite deity that the final minutes weren’t excruciating. Thank goodness it was an awful opponent.
What if Ayo hadn’t decided to play through the pain?
Ayo connected on 9-of-16 FGAs. That’s a solid number in hindsight.
At the time, his misses felt like a bad omen. He was missing shots you expect him to drill.
The rest of the team was much, much worse.
It might go unnoticed, as this game desolves from memory, that lowly Nebraska overcame a ten-point deficit. They were rolling. They had all the momentum. They’d tied the game. The crowd was silent.
Then Trent Frazier connected from three. It was the team’s third make in eleven attempts from the arc.
After that, Nebraska threatened a bit in the second half, but Alan Griffin and Kipper Nichols made key defensive plays to suck the wind from Cornhusk sails.
Kipper’s steal made a spectacular moment, and a major buzzkill for the Huskers. But it shouldn’t go unnoticed that he fought for, and garnered, the offensive rebound that followed a failed Illini attempt to beat an elapsing (3 seconds) shot clock on an inbound play.
This was the single play that changed the direction of the game. From this point on, Nebraska never felt competitive.
So, crisis averted. For now.
Nebraska reminded us that Illinois has beaten three good teams. The first was Rutgers, without Geo Baker. The second was Penn State, without Myreon Jones.
Now, a third can be added to the list. Wisconsin got to 10-6. Whatever they did to get there, they got there. The win at Madison now feels like a win at Madison.
So yeah, tourney lock. Illinois is in. Woo-hoo!
But there’s plenty to worry about.
Let’s hope someone tells Josh Whitman — who spent the dark days in Wisconsin and Missouri — that his model of DIA leadership, Ron Guenther, is the guy who didn’t offer Bill Self a double, treble, quadruple increase in salary.
Brad Underwood will be a hot commodity on the upcoming coaching carousel. Orlando Antigua is not paid enough, even at the standard academic salary commensurate with experience.
It’s 2003 again, and all the cutlery is in the drawer, or on its way. Can the DIA get it right this time?
I haven’t seen the split-screen all-access thingy*, so I don’t know whether the following news is news to you, dear reader. I do know you can’t get enough Illini Basketball at the moment, so I’m here to help.
You know that Da’Monte Williams got in Lamar Stevens’ grill, and head. Maybe you didn’t know the other member of the team who gave her all to stymie Stevens.
Kelsea (Garthoff) Ansfield is Director of Creative Media and one of the great personalities of the Illini team. On the road, she spends the first 12 minutes of each game shooting photos in furtherance of the Illini online presence. (i.e. she gets up from the baseline at the under-8 media timeout and goes to edit/upload to various Illini branded properties.)
Early on in Tuesday’s game, Kelsea was sitting in the pole position (photog spot nearest the home basket’s stanchion) when Lamar Stevens fell on her.
He’d jammed her camera right into her nose.
I was sitting two spots away, WJAC-TV’s Candace Martino was between us. I heard the crunch.
PSU’s trainer Jon Salazer rushed over to help.
Kelsea was able to get to the locker room on her own. At halftime, Paul Schmidt inspected her swelling. It looked a lot better than it sounded, but you could tell she’d taken a blow.
So had Stevens. He was clearly rattled, and it put him a step behind. A moment later, he committed a major faux pas.
You have to love Da’Monte’s reaction to this turn of events. It’s pretty unusual to see him smile, but on Tuesday in State College, it happened at least three times.
So Lamar Stevens, the best player on the B1G’s hottest team, spent a crucial nine minutes on the bench during a first half that set the narrative for the game. Illinois led 30-26 at halftime.
Pat Chambers said he was encouraged that his team kept the game so close without Stevens. The unanswerable question is how well they would have done with him? As it was, he never found his rhythm against Da’Monte and Kipper Nichols.
While the Second Foul Rule is universally respected by college coaches, you have to wonder whether it cost the Nittany Lions a ninth-straight victory. As seems so often the case with these fateful coaching decisions, Stevens finished the game with two fouls.
*If anyone who wants to send me an MP4, I’d love to watch it.
Your favorite team is going to your favorite tournament.
Ayo hasn’t finished his business, and Tuesday night he made a statement to that effect.
Penn State’s defense was every bit as stifling as MSU’s, or Rutgers or Iowa. But they didn’t stop Ayo from penetrating the way Iowa did. They don’t have a Sticks Smith or a Myles Johnson anchoring the D.
No Rob, I hear you say, they have a Mike Watkins!
Tuesday night in State College, Mike Watkins was AWOL. He didn’t start. He played 18 minutes, including just five in the second half. The Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Nominee was not in foul trouble. He had Kofi problems. Or he had Ayo problems.
Really, it was his choice.
Illinois’ spacing problem resolved itself in State College. Well, enough anyway.
Ayo and Andres Feliz made the right decisions on a sufficient number of occasions to keep the Illini a few points ahead, keep the crowd nervous, and the Lions on their heels.
Two specific plays changed the tone, and perhaps the outcome of the game. One involved Ayo & Da’Monte, just as you’d expect. (It makes sense from a narrative perspective, see?) The other demonstrated Kofi’s mid-game tutelage.
Kofi had already committed his second shot clock violation in as many games, getting caught with the ball in his hands and no idea that time was running out. He learned from that experience.
With the Nittany hosts seeking a late-game comeback, it happened again.
But this time, Kofi got the ball in the basket, dampening the hosts’ hopes.
The other play happened a few moments earlier.
Ayo had hit the ground for the second time, as he often does. He was slow to get up, and assuming the TV camera was on him, I suspect some of you feared the worst.
He did get up, but he was late getting back on D. It turned out serendipitously well.
It’s a game of inches, and this time, the Illini punch had greater reach.
The bid was already locked in, so this column’s title is shameless clickbait. But the Illini are no longer the 12 seed. Now they’re playing for a four.