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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
No matter where you’re getting your NCAA Tournament info, the source is always the same. Dan Gavitt has held a morning Zoom every day this week, fielding about 25 minutes of questions.
Most of these questions are about food and COVID, as they should be. The basketball stuff can be safely left to the coaches and players, although “safely” is a loaded word in this context. Gavitt said today that about 9100 tests have been conducted in the bubble, yielding eight positive results.
He also divulged attendance allowances for all the stadia, including Farmers Coliseum. He said 1,200 people will be allowed to watch Illini/Drexel, which is 18% capacity, the highest among named venues.
People will be required to wear masks “unless someone’s eating or drinking actively,” he added.
Today, Ralph Russo asked about protests among student-athletes. Gavitt sided with the players. “Peaceful & non-disruptive” was an important qualifier in his encouragement of using their platform to advance social issues and complain about not being paid.
Gavitt made sure to trumpet the vast amount of food his organization has bought for the youngsters. The following is verbatim, and worth reading.
Or you can watch it yourself.
“Over the last four days we’ve had 161 teams order late night meals. That’s an average of 40 per night. In the first days of the controlled environment the NCAA and their corporate partners have fed 55-hundred student-athlete meals. A Wendy’s traveled in with a food truck to offer a special Biggie Bag for players; and prepared, packaged and delivered over fifteen-hundred burgers and chicken sandwiches.
“Buffalo Wild Wings fed 61 teams over the last three days, maximizing out at a whopping 19,000-plus wings on its busiest night. And over those first couple of days following Selection Sunday Pizza Hut delivered 665 pizzas, 208 family pastas and 4,365 total breadsticks. That’s a lot of food for hungry student-athletes.
“We also talked a little bit about laundry. Lowe’s has provided washers & dryers for the tournament. Over 2500 loads of wash have been done in the last couple of days, mostly practice uniforms for the teams but some team uniforms for teams that came directly from their conference tournaments as well as personal items as well (sic).
“That service will continue throughout the tournament and we’re very thankful to Lowe’s for helping us with a very fundamental operational need for the tournament.
“And finally, there is an NCAA host program through the Indiana Sports Corporation that has provided opportunity for teams and travel parties to get items that they may have forgotten or are interested in getting inside this controlled environment. So there have been deliveries on a 24-hour basis to team hotels and we have a list here that we’ll share with you but it includes such basics as toiletries and batteries and electronic equipment. But it also includes interesting things like games. Some teams ordered checkers, dominoes, soccer ball, football. Kid-sized basketball goals. A Wiffle Ball set, as I mentioned yesterday, I think. Ten balloon bouquets.
“And maybe the most interesting one to me is someone ordered a ukulele. So you can track down that story, I’m sure it’s got a great human interest angle to it.”
A spokesman for Illini basketball did not respond to ukulele inquiries.
Below is the transcript created by Zoom’s robots during Wednesday’s online video conference. It’s a good thing that no reporter will rely on it for writing a preview of Friday night’s game.
For one thing, Scott Richey almost certainly didn’t begin his portion of the call with “executives curvature the champagne.”
Reporters rely on the materials uploaded by Sports Info staff. That’s true before, during and after the season. The NCAA has a huge Digital Media Hub which got really active today as SIDs began loading PDFs and JPEGs and M4A audio files into their team’s folders.
Unfortunately, Drexel’s folder didn’t get the M4A of today’s Zoom, It got a 5 MB file of silence. The video was slightly larger (5.9 MB) but just as blank.
Your faithful servant engaged Drexel SID Mike Tuberosa in a dialogue about the problem, and Mike finally got through to a media specialist at Drexel, who retrieved the video file from cloud storage.
So here you go, reporters. Here’s the pre-game presser. And if you want to be ultra confused about what was said, read its transcript below.
Hello everybody thanks for coming today.
We have coach Spyker drexel university he’s going to start off and when he is finished with his opening statement, these. After your question say your name and where you’re from Thank you.
Alright guys thanks for coming today we’re very excited about this opportunity to participate in a tournament very proud of the players in our program to have earned this right to be here.
It was a challenging difficult season on many levels for all of our programs, and all of our young men and our programs and really if you go back a year from now, to think about and I try to see things to the perspective and lens of what our players are experiencing.
You can’t have a more emotional or full year and everything that has gone on and i’m happy that they’ve gotten to this point, and they get to experience success on the basketball floor and very happy feeling.
You know i’d also add before we take a question just that in a pandemic situation there are so many people behind the scenes, they work so hard to get us to this point i’d like to just.
Thank the doctors at Drexel university that came up with the protocol to put us in place to be successful, Dr marlin goal, Dr Tucker Dr Cruz.
and also our athletic trainer Mike West tougher when you’re in Philadelphia our code restrictions and protocols are much more different than most of the country.
And we’ve been testing daily since October, with the exception of the Christmas break and that group has kept us safe and allowed us to continue to practice when others weren’t.
and happy that they get to see that return on the investment they made an appropriate.
Okay first question Austin.
hey zach hope everything’s going well out in indy arm, as far as the Illinois goes obviously tough team will we see a little bit more timmy to kind of combat coburn down in the post.
Well Illinois is it physically imposing team, as we all know, we’ve all seen a lot of tape of them they’re on national TV all the time.
And I think we need to be ready to have a couple different options. TIM is one of them.
But you know their their their offensive attacks from a defensive perspective is not just one player coburn is terrific and physically dominating down low.
But they surround him with a number of other players that are good in transition, and also very good catch and shoot three point shooters so.
Certainly playing a team in the tournament all teams are good and successful, and if you take away one thing they’re going to be able to hurt you in a different way, so we’re going to need all of our players available to combat the athleticism and the scoring ability of Illinois.
And sure can you know, obviously, everybody knows that iowa is one of the best players in the country for you guys, how are you going to take you know.
what’s the strategy defending him, and then on the flip side, what do you guys going to look to do on offense.
You know just on different bodies Adam you know we have a lot of defenders so just showing them different looks making everything tough warm.
Not trying not to give him any open looks and our friends. Just just doing what we do we move the ball out, we find the open man, we shoot threes a lot, so you know just being us on offense.
And for you what’s life, like in the bubble up what do you guys doing the kind of stay active and not just kind of sit around all day.
You know coach keeps us active all day.
Some players say a little bit too much, but yeah play video games, you know with each other. Online and then you know just hang out.
And last one for me zach obviously you guys had to practice today. Did you like the look of the team that I.
Have you know you talking about our team and our practice today.
yeah, I think, like any day certainly you like some segments better than others, but I did think that.
You know you’re here, we had earlier practice slot which was two different we normally practice in the morning, but little slow start, but once we got going I thought we were pretty good and again Austin i’ll refer to this a lot.
Deeper we’ve got into the season, the more communication has been player to player and I think if guys aren’t in the right spot we’re able to our players able to hold each other accountable and today we gotta get going here and then that’s an area where i’ve seen A lot of growth and cam winner in the last month and a half and there’s no mistake, no, no, no mystery that we played better basketball last month and a half as well, so well I liked our practice today.
Alright, thanks guys take care.
Thank you, our.
next question for Carter.
We’ll come back to Carter
justin Jackson with morgantown dominion post those questions for coach Spyker coaching you know, obviously Your journey to get to this point, you know the years spent as a Grad assistant, and you know working your way up the West Virginia And army and and you know.
That journey to get to this point what’s it meant to you and, and you know what will it mean for you, moving forward.
hey justin good to hear from you again, you know every coach has a story all right, and behind that story, though, are successful basketball players and players that make that story possible so.
There is a story in a journey but i’m honestly more focused on the story and journey cam winner Tata scariness Zack walton guys in our program and Thomas and zach are seniors i’m focused on making this the absolute best experience it can be.
There was a bit of memory lane getting here to indianapolis staying in the hyatt this exact hotel was my first final for years ago coach mark down at my hometown introduced me to damon Stevenson, who was on the staff at Winthrop at the bottom of these escalators right over there. And that’s how I got the opportunity to go to winter and beyond the coaching staff there and to be back here 21 years ago I didn’t even have.
My to stay in a hotel I stayed with a friend of my sisters and mark Stat is a friend who kept in touch and excited to maybe lead him a couple tickets 21 years later, and thank him for help them help help me get started, but other than that guys honestly I think the emotion enjoy that some of you may have seen at the end of the game.
In our Conference tournament was about the men in our program and our managers and our training staff, everyone has sacrificed and work so hard this year so.I joke, a lot of people like I was fine to a winter, I saw tears and winters face and then that same time I walked by the scorer’s table and somebody happened to be chopping up some money into the scorer’s table, so my arm my I started to water, a little bit.
Serious it was it was a great moment and I think it’s one that everybody in our program on our campus and honestly even former basketball players really appreciated the magnitude of it for our basketball program and our university.
I imagine you’ve been getting a lot of support from the people back here family background work down.
yeah it absolutely absolutely again those things don’t happen unless you have great people in players in our program and as we’ve talked about.
After tough losses why we’re going to get through some things because of the character of our players so justin Those are all accurate things I appreciate you asking, but certainly happy for that moment, but more focused on our guys haven’t helping them have a great experience sure I guess I don’t want to do too much the sun hang out in their rooms and play video games right.
next question for Scott.
executives curvature the champagne us because that I was curious kind of your thoughts on Andre Kerr bellow maybe what he’s Mattel might, especially in the last two weeks.
yeah Scott i’m known for a long time not personally but i’ve watched him and seeing them play recruited that program and I didn’t have the opportunity to see him play I think he’s incredibly crafty with the basketball he’s got a very good feel for the game physically a little bit different than other guys on the team, but also allows them to get into tighter spaces, I think he really delivers the ball to coburn.When he’s open as much as well as anybody on the team, and then I also think that really quick hands defensively so People may try and attack him at times, but I think he’s he’s very sleight of hand is crafty like he had a steal one of the Games, I saw you just kind of hanging back and laying around sneaks up behind the guy so I think he’s if you’ve got that guy i’m contributing to your program alongside is a role player compared to everybody else you’ve got a really good team and, certainly, you know my does, we all know that.
Any mentioned know, maybe not just being Kofi and not just io in six guys in double figures in the big 10 tournament champion tricky championship game that’s the challenge, maybe there when it could be any one of them.
yeah I mean it could be frazier it could be Miller could be Williams, I don’t want to put your george’s last name, it could be him as well, so.
Now it’s a sign of of a nationally ranked team that’s well balanced they’ve got multiple weapons and multiple threats and they’re really, really good basketball team they’re very well coached they’ve got some great schemes, they execute and what we need to do to be successful, is be at our absolute best and hopefully keep them off balance and go from there.
And they want for Cameron as well, just as kind of upset filled as the CAA tournament was you guys kind of just embracing maybe the chaos that can be March.
yeah you know we always say March is a special month, then you know you can make special things happened in March, so I think every day we come into practice with that mentality that that we’re the underdog and we can make a special thing happen.
Thank you, both.
Carter we’ll try again.
hey coach you hear me OK now.
We can hear you everybody.
Okay awesome Thank you, Sir, thank you alright so first off part of your fifth quarter i’ve invited to say for a while, so happy to see you guys finally get in the tournament but you’re kind of in a unique situation as a mid major in a in a major city in the country, so is there a sense of pride to represent the the city of Philadelphia with drexel basketball, as you head into the nc double a tournament.
Absolutely, I mean this win this championship, and I run a conference tournament.
Is not just for our players but it’s for all of our former players, I mean you’ve been some really, really good teams Carter drexel.
I think back to a couple of teams abreu coach oh six or 711 and 12 quite frankly we’re tournament worthy and did not get a selection so when we play on Friday we played a represent everyone has ever worn the uniform at drexel but also our student body or university administration but, as you said.
You know, we talked about it a little bit you know when we need to when we play other schools in the city that. You know our guys may or may not have gotten the same attention to the same group of schools, but we get that opportunity and.
We see challenges at drexel as opportunities and we play those teams it’s a great opportunity for us to prove what we’re capable of doing and I think we were able to do that the last couple years when we play those Games.
next question for rob.
First, for Cameron, the one of the big story, so far as how you’ve been eating and whether you’ve had enough to eat so i’m curious about what your your meals have been like the last couple of days, can you tell us what you had for dinner last night.
I think we had pasta, with with some sauce chicken parm. potatoes, maybe.
it’s Buffet style now now that we’re out of quarantine when we were first in there, they were delivering meals to our rooms, so I think that’s what people might be complaining about okay.
So you can choose how much you have to eat.
for zach i’d like to know about what technologies you’re using to scout watch clips.put everything together, do you have enough, do you have screens that are big enough.To project
what’s it been like.
Excuse me, you mean like like screens for like film for our team.
yeah for coaches to put together scouting reports and for teams to get together and watch.
You know what it we’ve gone about our process, like any other game.
The screen part is kind of irrelevant, we just maybe I don’t know different programs are different, we just use the wall right
we just take the projector and back it up don’t get really big and it’s on the wall and it’s like a drive in movie theater honestly it’s plenty big.
You know I tell you back on cam to I think one of the not the enemy has been bad, but the chicken I had to second night that was delivered to my room during quarantine was terrific.
Right, it was really good so we’re a program that we you know we’re built on our core values of gratitude respect and compete appreciate what’s given to you appreciate the opportunity to have respect how hard you have to work to be successful respect listening to your teammates you’ve got locker room covers the entire world learn about other people, and what their perspectives are
And then try and be at your best and compete, so I don’t think you would hear many i’ve heard rumblings of it outside of our circle, but
The food’s been fine we’re going to have a great meal tonight from Harry and disease we’re excited about that we’re going to have a great Barbecue meal tomorrow afternoon.
And we’re doing everything candy give our guys the best possible experience, knowing that we’re in a very, very controlled environment so hope call this basketball terminology.
Just one more for me, because he played a few games December January march how has how have you seen it in terms of conditioning and response execution.
yeah rob Let me follow up to I didn’t totally answer your other question mean it’s still got access to synergy right we use synergy we use Ken palm Bart terrific calm another another website analytically.
I personally use evernote to make notes in different times but we’ve got where we need we got to practice playing software always used us for 10 years now and Now that we use every analytic piece, we can make sense it’s still funnels down into the same simple things for our guys right and it always comes down to taking care of the basketball transition the and doing what you can from personnel standpoint so to answer that question from a technology piece we’re fine we got what we need, certainly as our coaching staff would love to have ipads and different things and make things better from film standpoint.
Maybe we’ll get to that, but again appreciation is at a high level our expectations and low level and we’re just thankful, where we have will make it work to be the best we can Right now
the other question you’re asking did we see a deep conditioning issue with all the pauses rob our pauses were based on testing from our opponents, we in fact cam craving for now we don’t think we had any positive we had days off from practice That we gave our team, but to our guys credit we’ve always talked about the most disciplined teams going to win our guys were incredibly disciplined.
They live across the street and that’s getting a car to drive the gym or practice or go get food everything’s in walking distance they live in our own bedrooms.
You know secretly they love where they live, because the laundry is inside their sweet, so they don’t have to go to a laundromat or a shared laundry facility so it’s just them, and their teammates and and sweets which probably was helpful in a coven world but we didn’t have any deep conditioning issues we were, thankfully, and to kind of twist it and look at it rob
We went off the grid we didn’t have games to play so people didn’t see maybe the progress and things we were doing and adjustments and things and tweaking some return action or different things, we did offensively we came back out, we were much better team now, so you got to the point where i’m watch old games like we’re not we’re not that team anymore we’re much better, I think, can make a lot of our guys felt that what.
I understood, thank you.
hey coach have things on indie so far.
they’re great day good to hear from you man, how you doing.
doing good doing good my question for you is anybody during the CAA season resembles anything that they want annoyed it will be doing that you’ll be playing on Friday.
Good question you know, I think And there’s some physicality I would say it’s all different levels right I don’t think there’s an exact replica of in Illinois anywhere, maybe in the country. Big 10 teams and May. speak very highly of Illinois so.
Some of our teams have the physicality piece on our teams have the shooting piece, but I wouldn’t say that will look back and say hey there’s one team that really if we play like we did against charleston will be fine it’s Illinois So there’s there’s there’s elements of those teams Dave but Illinois and elite team for a reason there’s not many people like not many teams like that makes sense.
and final one for me, have any Members of the drexel team from 1996 reached out to you guys wishing you luck this week.
Yes, they have we’ve actually.
I think we’re going to play a video tonight at dinner that our alumni associations put together. You know, we did a zoom during the pandemic with monique and he’s been he’s been great with this time and number of other players and other areas as well, so. As i’ve said before it’s a great honor and we take it very seriously to represent our school my university but also any player that is ever put the uniform on.
We play for them.
austin’s you have a question for him.
yeah can I actually I meant to ask you this, after the CAA final and and I think justin brought it up, but The emotion, we saw on the broadcast you know, he was talking about zach with you, you know that was shown on the broadcast you were crying zach said, you can even talk you’re crying so much what kind of went into those emotions in that moment, where you feel.
Just all the hard work that we’ve been through since i’ve been here. You know a lot of Dudes in that locker room and the same guys I came in with and just we always talked about, and just to finally do it was just a random emotion from from me and from other guys and yeah it was just just that moment that we all share together.
And, given the circumstances, you guys are in, are you guys trying to embrace being in the dance kind of like looking around be like wow we’re really here.
I think we’ve got past that point of why we’re here and to now it’s like wow we got to win a game One game, at a time, so I think we’re at the point where it’s like a you know we play in two days, and now we have to be prepared, you know they’re here just the same way, we are every team here is good, and we know that we’re good to.
Go thanks Kim.
Stephen Whyno AP
It Cameron Steve Martin from Associated Press I got a wacky question for you, everybody knows the the one shining moment song i’m curious as a kid or playing as a kid did you ever imagine yourself hitting a buzzer beating shot or anything being in that song.
I think every kid probably goes in their driveway and stuff like that and i’ve been watching the tournament since I was really young.
So just to be in the tournament i’m grateful and i’m just i’m honored honestly to have my dream come true.
ock you another question.
anyone else justin.
Stephen I jump on that question, I used to watch it no one shining moment, I think the first one shining moment might have been Keith smart with indiana right but they used to do videos Prior to that, too, it was different song every year, I thought that was pretty good to. Just just shows you how old, I think.
yeah I got a question for camera and, if I may.
Go ahead okay.
Kevin justin josh with the morgantown dominion post obviously a coach baker had been there for a couple years there at drexel when when he recruited him brought you in i’m just kind of wondering.
You know, over the years how have you seen the program grow and and you know what’s it been like to be part of the you know part of that process.
Since i’ve came in the program and it’s just kept going up every single year.
Better I wouldn’t say better partners but um you know we brought in, you know Dudes that that mesh with each other good people.
You know everyone just seems to trust each other. We all trust coach Parker and what they have for us and you know we just we just go out there and play as hard as we can form.
Before it escapes our priorities list, let’s praise Kofi Cockburn for bringing Illinois to a tie, and then giving them a lead they’d never relinquish. He connected on two free-throws. It seems simple, right? It won them a championship.
He did the same against Michigan State last year, and nobody remembers it because Ayo dropped in a pile and Alan Griffin didn’t box out Xavier Tillman.
Make your free-throws. Box out. Make your free-throws. Box out. Make your free-throws.
If you’re an Illini fan, and the term “box out” sends a chill through your spine, congratulations on reaching your golden years. You are at least forty, and despite advancing decrepitude, you’ve failed to wipe the name “Sean Higgins” from your memory.
1989 was a helluva year for making free-throws and boxing out. Or not. The Midwest Regional Final pitted #1 seed Illinois against a loaded Syracuse team, six of whom played in the NBA. It was tight, decided in the final 30 seconds. Illinois missed a lot of free-throws, which allowed Jim Boeheim’s squad a chance.
But then, after considerable discomfort — that hollow feeling in your stomach when you know that an Illini game is slipping away and fate has cursed you yet again — Kenny Battle stepped to the line.
The lore among my high school friends holds that Battle huddled his teammates and uttered one word: “Money.” As in “I got this.” As in “don’t worry, I’m going to put an end to the Orangemen.”
Not much has changed in 32 years. When Trent Frazier buries a three, he says “cash.” But in this case, Battle was talking about a pair of free-throws he intended to bury. Promised to bury. Knew he would bury. He buried them. And Syracuse.
If you’re comparing great Illini teams, the 2021 version is much more like 1989 than 2005. Illini ’21 is a highlight reel of flashy passes and thunderous dunks. Even the uniforms are the same. Form-fitting jerseys emblazoned with classic scripts. Mid-thigh shorts that don’t THANK YOU JESUS resemble Moroccan culottes.
Brad Underwood is a showman. He understands that basketball is entertainment. Where 2005 was exciting for basketball coaches, 2021 is fun for basketball fans They might not know what it means to “ice a ball screen,” but they thrill to a well-lobbed oop.
Ayo Dosunmu is the guy who put his home state team on his back, and dragged them to the finish line. The comp here is Battle, not because those other Flyin’ Illini didn’t stay home, and not because they weren’t outstanding ballers. It’s because Battle was the heart and soul of that team. When he stepped to that line and promised to bring them home, you believed he would do it.
In 2020, you hoped the Illini could overcome their tendencies. Andres Feliz gave you courage, and Alan’s shooting and rebounding gave you a chance. But you knew the Achilles Heels. Even in January of this year, you could spot the weaknesses.
And then you watched everything coalesce. All the pieces came together. Still not perfect, but enough.
Did you believe when Kofi stepped to the line, with the Illini down a point? Underwood did. He sent the rest of the team back on defense. Kofi drained the pair. Illinois won a championship.
This team is not the Illini of 2020. This team is not the Illini of January 2021.
After yesterday’s narrow victory over Michigan, a Buckeyes reporter asked Duane Washington to describe the feeling when a team’s “connected.” It’s the hot word of the 2021 season.
“There’s no words to describe that feeling,” said Washington. “I know exactly what you’re talking about.”
When Ohio State beat the Illini in January, we all lamented the open looks EJ Liddell got from the arc, and rationalized his 4-of-7 long-range shooting by explaining to ourselves that he’d only attempted three three-pointers through the Buckeyes’ first 13 games.
Yesterday, against an opponent known for its three-point shooting, the Illini made it look easy. And it’s not because Iowa doesn’t have a pivot-man who can shoot from long range. It’s because Illinois was a collective irritant on defense. They were the annoying kid who’s had too much sugar. They kept waving their hands and shouting. It’s irksome.
The best moment to underline this defensive gnatery was Andre Curbelo hovering over a fallen Jordan Bohannon. Bohannon still had control of the ball, but needed to get rid of it. Curbelo flailed his arms in all directions to prevent Bohannon from getting a good look at any potentially open teammate.
For a chico as relaxed as Andre Curbelo, it’s tough to say whether this frenetic energy can be readily called to action. Where did it come from? Belo credited coach Underwood in particular for beingin his ass, and one wonders whether physical horseradish was involved.
“You just gotta do it every day. Dive on the floor. That’s what makes Illinois special, man. Those are the little things what make Illinois special. A lot of credit to the coaches, especially Underwood. He’s always on our ass about that. And what better moment to do it than now.”
In this specific instance, the energy probably came from within. Moments earlier, Belo got the thrill of turning defense into offense, stripping Joe Toussaint’s ball and taking it solo to the other end for a two-handed flush. No one would have had time to stop him, but it’s interesting that no one tried, either. Instead, Toussaint complained about a no-call. Bill Raftery had just observed the same complaint from Joe Wieskamp, who allowed Ayo an undefended breakaway dunk.
What is it that makes Hawkeye players lose focus, and complain to referees? Where do they get that from?
Contrast Chris Holtmann, who gave his team two simple instructions, as told by Duane Washington after the game: “You’ve gotta move on from everything that happened. Obviously we were up twelve, they got it to one.
“The last huddle we had — before we actually turned the ball over, for them to get another shot up on the rim — coach said ‘hey, forget about everything else. We have one job. We gotta score and get a stop. And you know, we didn’t score.”
Asked to describe himself, what kind of leader he is, Washington said “positive. A positive leader.”
Illinois fans will understand that Chris Holtmann comes from a new school of thought, more modern than Underwood’s Old School. They may recall that Holtmann was roommates with John Groce at that school.
Does Holtmann’s relentless positivity contrast favorably with Underwood’s horseradish? It seems like it’s two paths to the same goal: Inspiring a team to exert all available energy during every moment its opponent has possession of the ball.
Yesterday, the Buckeyes made Juwan Howard look like an idiot on the final possession. And they made Mike Smith look like Hassan Adams.
In five hours, we’ll know who brought the energy today.
It’s Friday morning of the Big Ten Tournament. In the past decade, your favorite team would usually be home by now. Sometimes, its coach has already been fired.
In Year One of the Underwood regime, the B1G held its tournament at Madison Square Garden, forcing the schedule forward a week because the Big East books Selection Sunday every year. Thus, despite 31 points from Good Kipper, Illinois’s season was done before the month of March began.
Willie Geist didn’t even attend that game, as far as I know. That’s how dark things were for Illini basketball.
It’s better now.
Today on Morning Joe, Willie picked Illinois to win it all. Not just the B1G. Gene Robinson took Michigan, and Jon Lemire wondered about Gonzaga’s annual choking act.
For you young-ins, this is what Illini basketball is supposed to be — talked about.
Meanwhile, in the rolling hollers of southern Indiana, birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, inbred Hoosiers are deciding how to kill Archie Miller.
Another tip for you young-ins: Indiana basketball was a thing, way back even before Illini basketball was last relevant. Old-timers remember an era when an angry old ape bullied and browbeat his way to three national championships. Enough of these old folks haven’t succumbed to Alzheimer’s & still have enough money and anger to extort an entire Athletics Administration. Thus, the Archie deathwatch is upon us.
They’re also cosplay fantasists, who dress up in candy cane pants and daydream that other white people want to coach their team.
You almost want to root for Steve Pikiell and Rutgers today, in thanks for putting IU in this position, where they must choose to pay $10M for 2017’s brightest up-and-comer to not coach their basketball team.
There are a couple of people on that list who aren’t completely unrealistic. Thad Matta (also rumored for Penn State) seems ideal. He grew up a Hoosiers fan, and he might not mind getting shitcanned in four years. But that’s if he’s healthy enough to get back in the game.
Chris Beard already chose Lubbock over Las Vegas because it’s home and he has family there. If IU can scrape $7 million x 10 into a contract offer, maybe he’d leave. It doesn’t seem risky financially, just for future piece of mind. Who really, when you get right down to it, enjoys being hanged in effigy?
Ah, the sun just came out. It’s another warm March day here in the ECI. Dos Mamba & SuperKofi are going to play basketball tonight. If they lose, they’ll still be a #1 seed. But they won’t lose.
We’ve waited for this, so long that you’re having to explain your tears to people who weren’t even born last time Illinois was good at basketball, and are now clamoring for a learner’s permit.
Who knew that a profligate pounding to the proboscis could produce such a magnificent marketing moment?
Mady Sissoko’s RHINO attack (regular hit, in Izzo’s narrative only) threatened to end a dream season for Illinois basketball. Instead, it launched a legend.
Concussions have repercussions.
Keep in mind, Ayo Dosunmu had already written his own legend in a normal, if extremely rare fashion. His ascendance to the zenith of college basketball prominence came well before Izzo delegated his goons to give Ayo a message. Ayo made his name on the court, the old fashioned way.
That he used a moment of crisis to propel his legend into superhero status is … I mean, can you be surprised, at this point, by anything Ayo does?
Cocky young sports figures come and go. They’re mostly forgettable. Great successes get lost in a mire of mean. Specifically, reversion to the mean. Even champions.
Charles Barkley’s round mound of rebound + dazzling personality + occasionally stunning gaffes = someone whose name you recognize. “Air Jordan” is a trademark while Michael Jordan, albeit great at basketball, is a person.
Ayo Dosunmu already had the hair. His mom and sister understood that that aspect of his image was important. The Masked Dagger eclipses Ayo the person.
Dos Mamba is, as the Athletics Director might say, a discrete warrior. Unique, immediately recognizable, sui generis.
His super power, as the Athletics Director probably meant to say, is that he’s a discreet warrior. The mask offers the conceit of anonymity, and the fable that Ayo strikes when you least expect it.
Of course none of that is true. Everybody knows who he is. Everybody knows it’s coming. And they still can’t stop it.
Mamba Dos? Dos Mamba? The Masked Closer?
Illini postgame Zooms typically give first dibs to reporters who attended the games. It’s bad policy, but that’s their choice. It means those of us who complied with COVID restrictions — stayed at home and abided the protocols — go last. Or, as often happens, we don’t get to ask our question at all.
That’s what happened with Ayo after tOSU. Lots of people wanted to talk to him, but nobody asked what his superhero alter-ego should be called. By the time my turn came around, Ayo was in the shower. Da’Monte Williams cheerfully offered “Dos Mamba” or “Mamba Dos.”
The latter offers a Kobe II connotation. I reject it. Ayo is an original. The Dos part should come first, thus “Dos Mamba.”
“The Masked Closer,” profferred by the @IlliniMBB account, just sounds weak. Yes, Ayo is the greatest closer in college bball, but it’s not a good superhero name.
Ayo’s weapon, when shutting the door on an opponent, is the dagger. If he were Scottish, you’d call him Dirk. He’s Nigerian. Thus Dos Mamba, the Masked Dagger.
TALL BUILDINGS, SINGLE BOUND
Illini Report has been privileged to capture a few of those iconic moments that built the Ayo legend at Illinois. During the lean years, Illini Report was often the only visiting media credentialed for distant road games. So whether it was this (above) moment at Wisconsin, the game-winner at Michigan or a video from Penn State, Illini Report had you covered for coverage.
This year, with baseline photography verboten for non-staff, we’re all relying on others to capture the magic moments. For road games, that photog is Kelsea Ansfield.
News-Gazette‘s Matt Daniels wrote about Grace Duggan and the Illini marketing team the other day. Kelsea is part of that in-house media contingent. She’s one of the few people who travels with the team. In non-pandemic years, she captures pictures for the first 12 minutes of the game, then leaves at the under-8 media timeout, and starts editing & uploading.
This year, she’s the Masked Dagger chronicler. It’s fitting, because an Illini opponent broke her nose during a game before the Sissoko mugging.
Illini Report thanks her for her dedication & branding wizardry.
Greg Gard prefaced his complaint by saying “I didn’t see the replay.” He added that his view was blocked. For these reasons, we must remember that Gard knows not of what he speaks. He’s not the best witness for the defense.
But because Gard ended his post-Iowa Zoom by demanding an apology from the Big Ten, and simultaneously divulged that he’d already demanded and received an apologies from an ESPN producer and Bob Wischusen and Dick Vitale; you’d have a much better argument that he’s not a witness at all, but a co-conspirator. He told you, right there, that he’s made a formal application to silence criticism of his program.
Maybe it’s the current political environment in Wisconsin, where witness intimidation is still popular.
Gard is a quietly funny man, and an intense if non-showy bench coach. Middle-aged white men from the Midwest understand him.
But yesterday, his team lost a basketball game because he’s failed to address a problem within his program. The problem is not that people perceive Brad Davison to be dirty. The problem is not that people poke fun at Brad Davison for being dirty. The problem is that Brad Davison is dirty.
A simple “Brad needs to stop punching people in the balls, and we’re going to take care of that internally” would have done wonders to ameliorate the perception problem. But Gard actually needs to actually stop Davison from actually punching people in the actual balls.
Has Gard considered that maybe, just maybe, continual complaints about Brad Davison might indicate a problem with Brad Davison?
Consider his jeremiad toward the B1G, in the back half of this video. He says players can get a review any time they point at an opponent, and it’s ruining the game. Any time they urge referees to check the monitor, referees check the monitor. And it’s ruining the game.
Was Gard’s view blocked when Davison pointed at his opponent, and urged referees to check the monitor?
This column neither holds nor professes a Good Guys Wear White Hats viewpoint. Brad Davison is undoubtedly a good guy in practice and while sitting for interviews. And he definitely punches people in the nuts.
His teammate D’Mitrik Trice is a model citizen in those former examples, and he pushed-off on Jordan Bohannon at a crucial moment in the Iowa game.
Next time you pass a moving object, see if you’re arm doesn’t instinctively draw closer to your body. Conversely, if you frequently bruise your shoulder on door jambs, it might be time to visit a neurologist.
Trice can be an earnest student and get whistled for trying to throw an opponent off-balance while rising for a jumpshot. It’s not a good versus evil value judgment. Similarly, fans can laud his mother for not aborting him and kick her out of the building for annoying an entire network TV audience.
Bo Ryan can be a world-class coach and romance a woman who isn’t his wife.
The Wisconsin program is the epitome of class and humanity in its response to Howard Moore’s tragedy. Howard Moore himself is graciousness personified. Thus, we can rest assured that good people exist and good things happen within the Badger community.
And every time Brad Davison’s arm extends toward a player from a different team, and every time Brad Davison’s arm clamps another player and pulls him downward as happened to Keegan Murray, no matter what Gard thinks; Bo Boroski and the entire B1G officiating contingent should check the monitor.
Repeat offenders draw scrutiny. Or, as Wisconsin’s favorite witness intimidator would say “you knew he was a snake.”
On Thursday, Steve Helwagen asked Buckeyes guard CJ Walker if he’d consider returning for a sixth year. CJ said, essentially “you never know.”
On Friday, Chris Holtmann didn’t wait for a question. He said Walker will not return for a sixth year. “CJ will move on and professionalize. As many people know, he’s got a young daughter, and we’re fully supportive of that.” Holtmann then immediately switched subjects, to Kyle Young. He hopes Kyle will come back for another year.
The mood in the Zoom was somber.
Spencer Holbrook asked how Holtmann felt about his nomination as Naismith Coach of the Year. Holtmann looked at the floor. “Looks like they did their voting before last week.” It’s a realistic response. tOSU has lost three in a row. It must feel like ages since they’ve had mojo at The Schott.
Illini fans might look at Kyle Young as a tough, tattooed, bouncy ball of muscles and gristle. Holtmann certainly echoed those sentiments in his Senior Day preview. But Thursday’s Q & A with Kyle, when not pondering another year in Columbus, was about his frailty.
Contrast Giorgi Bezhanishvili’s pre-game Zoom. It doesn’t seem to have gone as viral as we, the participants, seemed to expect. (I think everyone on the call Tweeted, wrote or compiled something about his infectious mood.)
Perhaps lost in the bonhomie was the deadly seriousness of Giorgi’s intention to win a “naytional” championship. Giorgi keeps things loose, but there’s a 94 x 50 foot rectangle where he’s not always friendly.
IT’S GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME
The eternally optimistic Scott Beatty floated, in another recent Zoom, the notion that most teams are getting better this time of year. Brad Underwood did not assent.
In fact, this is the wheat from chaff portion of the season. The culling of the weak. Some teams are mentally weak and some are physically worn out. Ohio State seems, as of this morning, to be both of those things.
Does that mean Illinois will win this afternoon’s game? You don’t look to Illini Report for predictions or betting tips. Sports abstractions are a billion dollar industry, and you have plenty of places to read them. I’m just telling you about the people involved. Brad Underwood seems to be holding his team together while Holtmann’s falls apart.
Hawkeyes fans lament Fran’s February Fade, a seemingly annual tradition in Iowa City. This year, much of that talk can be attributed to CJ Fredrick’s ankle. But if you had to choose between mental and physical when diagnosing Iowa’s late swoons, you’d probably guess the former.
Cellvin Samsung has borne this reputation for decades. His 2002 Oklahoma squad scrapped and scraped its way to a Final Four. That’s his only trip. Since getting his first head coaching position forty years ago — and despite perennial high-rankings, media hype and avoidance of NCAA-oriented restraints; his teams routinely limp to the finish line.
Is it a minor miracle that Underwood has this team improving, loose and confident in March? Or is it the major miracle of this season?
How much of the late season vitality should you attribute to wacky personalities like Andre Curbelo and Jermaine Hamlin? How much should you credit the toughness of Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams? What of Jacob Grandison, the guy you’d most likely describe as the team’s moral conscience?
Was the first Ohio State game the impetus for Brad to insert Grandison in the starting line-up? Brad didn’t phrase it exactly that way yesterday. He said the team was “discombobulated” and “searching for some things.” Perhaps Grandison’s quiet leadership has merely coincided with the mid-season relaunch. Maybe it laid the foundation.
If Illinois does win a naytional championship, books will be written about all these personalities and the confluence of their circumstances. If not, maybe it doesn’t matter.
As 3 PM central approaches, it’s nice to feel optimistic that Illinois is in the position to do something special.