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COVID-19 Illini basketball

Don’t be so anxious

As confetti streamed downward from Honored Jerseys to Lou Henson Court, priority recruits joined (their future fellow?) students at the center I, jamming together in a mass of humanity that constituted by far the best super-spreader event of the COVID years, as far as Illini basketball is concerned.

Stoic, taciturn Adam Fletcher, known to you all as “Fletch,” literally danced on the baseline and smiled while doing it. Brad Underwood found Fran McCaffery through the crowd, and congratulated him on a game well fought.

Sarah & Chester, a love story.

Chester Frazier ran around the entire crowd, along the edge of the SFC bowl, navigating the least obstructed path to Sarah, his wife. He called to her over the crowd. Somehow, she heard him. And despite carrying a toddler on her hip, she too navigated the crowd to meet him at the final balustrade/cattle fence.

It’s a good lesson: Remember what’s important. Prioritize. Accentuate the positive.

Illini basketball had just frustrated all its fans en route to an incredibly lucky, mathematically improbable #B1G championship.

Now, five days later, Illini fans will sweat through morning coffee until the ’22 Illini tip off against the B1G’s least predictable team. OR, if you’re in Indianapolis and connected to the DIA, perhaps you’ll be drunk by tip time.

The B1G’s hottest team, Iowa, continued its offensive romp on Thursday, dropping 112 points on Chris Collins’s purty good Northwestern defense.

Iowa had won five in a row before stubbing its toe on Coleman Hawkins, a seven-footer guarding the perimeter, a crazy Puerto Rican whose passes seemed wild as his defense was sound.

And Trent.

When not playing Illinois, Iowa is pretty great. They were pretty great against Illinois, too. At the end, Illinois had more points. Despite everything.

Defense wins championships. On Sunday last, defense won a championship. It certainly wasn’t Belo’s passing or ‘Monte’s free-throws. But those two were instrumental in the lockdown, and ‘Monte again saved the game with an offensive rebound that drove the Hawkeyes Radio Network crew crazy.

Friday morning, Illinois will play a team that lacks confidence. As Trayce Jackson-Davis said after Indiana overcame an error-prone Michigan team, he’s never played on the #B1GTourney Friday before.

Indiana could win, and it wouldn’t matter. Brad would like “back-to-back on something,” and #B1GTourney championships are his best opportunity. We’d all prefer it.

But the pressure is off here. Winning any games in Indianapolis is unlikely to affect Illinois’s seed in the dance. Losing won’t help or hurt in that regard.

The team can play for the enjoyment of the game, and to work on coverages, and to implement sets that haven’t been scouted.

It’s a great opportunity. So enjoy it.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

We Are All Rutgers Fans

It’s almost 2 pm in New York. Michigan/Wisconsin just reached halftime, tied at 31. I know, because I turned on the 19” Philips TV to channel 2.1, on a hunch.

If yesterday’s Illini game hadn’t been moved forward in time – a rescheduling prompted by COVID postponements in other league programs – it would have been broadcast on Fox rather than ESPN. I could have watched it on this tiny TV.

The antenna, between window & screen, gets 30+ over-air channels.

Yes, I’m still in New York. I’ve been in two ice-related accidents as an Illini basketball reporter. The totaled Dodge hemi wasn’t mine, and nobody was killed, so walking away after climbing up & out through the driver’s side window felt slightly triumphant. The other slip-n-slide broke a tie-rod, cost $600 and featured no spectacular flips and rolls. Not as exciting.

Point is, I don’t mess with ice storms anymore. Winter Storm Miles moved through Illinois, so Midway closed. Then Miles moved to Michigan, so I couldn’t go directly there. Then Miles came here, and the storm squalls have been howling for two days.

At least I have old TV shows. Star Trek TOS is on six nights a week, on channel 9.4. Then every other Star Trek brand runs until 2 AM. (I’d never even heard of Enterprise.) Yesterday, a Six Million Dollar Man marathon on Cozi prompted me to wonder how John Groce is faring in the MAC this year. All boys born in 1971 owned a Steve Austin action figure, with arm skin that could be rolled back to reveal the bionics inside.

But now I want to watch basketball. The B1Gest game of the year tips off at 4:30 CT, and it’s not on broadcast TV. It’s on FS1. I won’t be able to see it unless I go down to the lobby and watch online. (The apartment has been vacant since 2018. There’s no internet.)

I might go.

Perching a Surface is cumbersome, and a 6” Android screen is not ideal. But I watched Illini @ Minnesota there, the last time a snowstorm stopped me from leaving New York, two years ago. Of course, there was no mask requirement in the lobby back then.

I might go down. I want to watch Rutgers/Purdue. I really hope Ron Harper’s finger is healed.

The ball just landed wrong, I guess.

He seemed to jam it on a rebound. The quizzical grimace didn’t change, it’s always plastered across his face. But could it now mean “what just happened, and why does it hurt so much?”

It’s easy to root for Rutgers. Harper is a likeable chubster. You remember him from college. The funny, big-boned guy who keeps the girls amused but isn’t really competition. Paul Mulcahy is also unlikely to steal your girlfriend, but he’s tremendous threat to steal your basketball, because he never stops trying. You like to root for that guy, too (when it’s not your team opposing him).

And you have to appreciate, as a basketball fan, what Steve Pikiell did for a program that has a single season to remember, and decreasing numbers of people alive to remember it. I can’t recall the name of the elderly 1976er honored during a media timeout on Wednesday. I didn’t recognize his name at the time, either.

Imagine trying to recruit to a program that hasn’t seen success since Jimmy Carter was a maverick pipedream.

I wanna know what they talked about.

Pikiell makes his team play defense. His personal humility allows him to ask 100% effort from his players. They know they can’t outwork him, and they know he’s doing it for them. So they’ll sprint to Jacob Grandison in the corner. They’ll stay in front of Alfonso Plummer. They’ll hack-a-Kofi until B1G officials decide that whistle-hesitancy has become too obvious.

Illinois is not easy to defend. It takes a lot of hard work and effort. But there’s a formula, and anyone can do it.

Grandison spent a lot of RAC pre-game time practicing his shot from the arc. Grad assistant Marcus Anderson counted off his makes. When Jake got five in a row from the top of the key, he could move to the wing, and hit another five in a row. Then move to the corner.

Presumably, Jake did something similar six hours later, in Champaign. But his 3 AM workout with team managers was equally effective at prepping him for B1G defenses as was running a Princeton offense for Bill Carmody: Not at all.

Watching Jake shoot alone, you begin to understand the mechanics. He looks like your grandmother on TV. It’s almost a set shot. The low delivery makes it easy to block, and that’s something B1G opponents have noticed.

If RJ not kicking out has been preying on your mind, stop worrying. He probably couldn’t see Trent.
He doesn’t have a lot of experience with defenders as aggressive as Mulcahy & Caleb McConnell.

But it looks really smooth when he’s shooting uncontested. There’s a slight curveball action to his mechanics. It’s like watching a slider break over the inside corner. Jake can make 75% of his shots when defenders aren’t closing in. Same for Fonz. Maybe more.

When Illini media, social and traditional, cried out for Brad Underwood to shake-up the rotation, it’s this scoutability that prompted a call for change. What once surprised opponents no longer surprises opponents.

It’s not the starters’ fault, and replacing them isn’t the answer. Underwood needs to introduce some new actions, so opponents can’t call out the plays, like Trent does to them.

Tom Izzo was unable to motivate his players to defend Jake effectively. But MSU doesn’t match-up as well, either. Smaller guards, slower forwards. So Jake made 6-of-10 in East Lansing. That’s why Illinois won there. It’s why they lost at the RAC.

Purdue was successful against Illinois because it brought the effort on the wings, and DJ Carstensen called both games. Hack-a-Kofi was allowed.

Props to Cliff Omoruyi, tho. This block was clean.

I like Matt Painter. I don’t blame him for taking advantage. He gets paid to win basketball games. You use the tools available.

I like Steve Pikiell, too. I’d heard about Pikiell greeting & thanking everyone in the room after his RAC pressers finish, but I’d never seen it before Wednesday. We’re typically outside the Illini locker room while he’s speaking.

Kofi’s family was in town that night, so we cut that interview short. Hence, I was able to get back to the media room in time for Pikiell’s closing remarks. He came around and shook our hands. He knows we’re getting the word out: There’s a basketball program in Piscataway.

Today, we’ll all be rooting for Pikiell. Not just people in Champaign and New Brunswick. Everybody.

The Badgers and Wolverines have concluded with a brawl, which is apt given their respective mascots. The Wolverines proved more vicious, and the Badgers more cunning. It figures.

I’m in the elevator now. The lobby has good WiFi.

New Yorkers have cable and satellite options, and those providers are now paying the BTN because, according to both Uncle Jim’s logic and NJ Transit timetables, Rutgers is part of the New York metropolitan area. At 4:30 pm, dozens if not hundreds of tri-state sets will be tuned to FS1,assuming there’s not an Islanders game, or LaCrosse on a different channel.

Go Knights.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball Illini basketball

High Noon

Trayce Jackson-Davis has three names, but Brad Underwood used only one during his pre-game Zoom. “Trayce” needs no introduction. You know who he is.

An hour later and 167.7 miles east-by-southeast, new Hoosiers coach Mike Woodson conferred the same respect on “Kofi.”

Kofi Cockburn & Trayce Jackson-Davis

This feels like a fight where the top billing, Godzilla versus King Kong, might not determine the outcome. It oughta be entertaining. But you get the feeling that it’ll be someone else who puts his team on top.

Against Purdue, that other person was Rob Phinisee. Trayce needed only 12 minutes to collect four fouls. It worked out okay for the Hoosiers, because Trevion Williams was ineffective in his 15 of the #BoilerBigs 40 minutes, and Zach Edey got only six shots in his 25.

How did Indiana hold Purdue’s Power Duo to 10 FGA? It’s something to worry about.

Perhaps he was unable to hit them in the face?

The Hoosiers committed THREE total turnovers in that game, and Trayce had two of them. Phinisee came off the bench (as usual) for twenty points, four rebounds and four steals in 26 minutes. That’s a lot of steals. Purdue had none. It’s the product of different defensive philosophies. Woodson’s Hoosiers are doing something more akin to Underwood’s Pokes (and early Illini teams), less pack-line-ish.

But Phinsee won’t pick any pockets tomorrow. Plantar Fasciitis will keep him on the bench.

This won’t happen in Bloomington.

If you looked at early Hoosier results and thought meh, consider three factors.

  1. A new coach/style
  2. Many newcomers playing significant minutes
  3. Trey Galloway’s broken wrist
Galloway is the shaggy one.

Galloway broke his wrist in mid-November. Indiana missed his irritating peppiness for almost two months. He’ll be a pain.

What about Khristian Lander, the heralded super-recruit who arrived in Bloomington and then …

He’s played nine games, starting none. He missed eight straight with a leg injury. Indiana fans still believe in him. They think he’ll be the determining force in Saturday’s contretemps. He’s a turnover machine, and he fouls a lot. We’ll see how that works out.

Xavier Johnson, Parker Stewart and Miller Kopp are the new blood. The Transfer Portal was good to Indiana is how Underwood phrased it. Johnson and Stewart started at Pitt. Stewart left to play for his dad at UT-Martin. His dad died. He left Martin.

Xavier Johnson (IU Athletics)

Johnson arrived at Pitt after Stewart’s lone season, and stayed for three years. Now running the offense in Bloomington, he’s tallied 95 assists for the Hoosiers (and 48 turnovers). Compare Trent Frazier’s 72 (39) and top-ranked Auburn’s Wendell Green’s 110 (47).

The Frazier/Johnson match-up should be as fun to watch as the Bigs Battle, especially for Illini fans.

Stewart is the shooting guard, and he converts 45% from the arc. But he’s attempted only 87 of them. Alfonso Plummer has attempted 160. Frazier’s launched 130. Jacob Grandison 95.

Jake leads Illinois at 43.2% from downtown.

Indiana has attempted 390 3FGs on the year, and their opponents 481. The Illini are up to 537.

Miller Kopp is just as boring for Indiana as he was for Northwestern. Statistically speaking, he does almost nothing but not take away opportunities from his teammates, which is something. Not touted as a defensive stopper, and a proven disappointment as a rebounder, this is the guy you want on the floor to get RJ Melendez some highlight reel.

CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE

Covering an early game in (the other) Bloomington poses some obstacles to an Illini media pool still digging out from a foot of snow.

Sure, one could drive over on Friday evening, once the day’s pre-game availabilities have been edited, transcribed, uploaded. If one survived the snow drifts and howling winds while wending the hollers, one could get a room at The Graduate for just $499. Or Hyatt Place for just $439!

Thing is, Hoosiers basketball remains insanely popular in those hollers. Cityfolk like it too! And rather than get up early and drive, these folks have chosen to drive and drink. They’ll be boozing maskless in downtown Hoosierville ten hours before tip-off. The ones who get to bed before midnight will start again before the game.

So, much to Joey’s consternation, we’ll all get up at 5:30 am, lose an hour crossing the border, and hope that Indiana’s DOT plowed the tiny roads, too.

Your trusted sources, among others.

Illini Report will not have an assigned photography spot at The Skjodt. In fact, among Illini media, only WCIA gets a spot on the floor. COVID and big donors have eaten into floor space.

Instead, Illini Report will enjoy something it hasn’t done since the Indiana blowout of 2019 — watching a basketball game. (Illini Report got so depressed during that game, that it had to walk to the very top of the real Assembly Hall’s bowl to watch Archie Miller — remember him? — rip Andres Feliz’s heart out.)

Illini Report will provide postgame coverage from both media rooms at The Skjodt. Being all fancy about basketball, IU has two of them. The opponent’s room is actually an administrative office for IU softball, and it’s never set up until after the game. No A/V equipment, though. Just chairs.

But because the Illini media pool is so butch, and travels well, IU Athletics Communications made an 11th hour decision, on Friday afternoon, to move our postgame to Suite 1820 of The Skjodt.

If we can find that vending machine, we will communicate Brad’s thoughts about the big win.

Or so we can hope.

This game has, since the schedule came out, seemed like the linchpin of Illinois’s quest for a ’22 championship. A win at Bloomington would define the season.

People who forgot how good this IU team is, perhaps because their coach got fired, need only recall the UI-IU contests of the past three years.

We’ve always known that these particular Hoosiers are dangerous. We knew it when Illinois barely beat them last year, and we knew it when Illinois barely beat them the year before that.

See you bright and early.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini basketball

Covidton, Indiana

Bloomington, Indiana is a blue dot in Confederate red Trump country. That’s true of 10 B1G campuses, including Illinois. Our bumpkins might not be as invested in the Lost Cause, but culturally they’re as tribe-conscious as a 13 year-old girl, trying to figure out what the cool kids are wearing.

Indiana stands out among our conference’s Oasis schools because Hoosierland was the world’s hotspot for infections during the hand-off from Delta to Omicron. It gets extra credit for being one of the B1G’s least reputable academic institutions (there’s certainly a causal relationship there) and for worshipping a man who blazed a White Grievance trail decades before complaining about absolutely every fucking thing was cool.

Arguably a bad person. Demonstrably one of the greatest coaches.

If you’re counting; Rutgers, Maryland and Northwestern’s campuses are sited in areas too wealthy and educated to harbor a burning animosity toward the wealthy & educated. Plenty of basketball-loving Republicans live near those campuses, but they tend to be descendants of other Republicans, the kind who worried about Russian aggression, and championed fiscal responsibility.

Michigan’s campus sits on the edge of the Detroit metroplex. Minneapolis might be too ginormous to be called a blue dot. They get half a point each, hence the 10-of-14 calculus.

Inhaling deeply, Andre Curbelo turns the corner versus Wisconsin.

Omicron ripped its way through all these towns over the last month. In Bloomington, a symptomatic media member worked the Purdue game, infecting at least 8 other working media. That news came from Indiana’s sports information department, which emphasized that Illini media should not show up if feeling bad. (A separate, private email between Illini Report and IU Athletics Communications revealed that IU staff was also infected. “These fucking people” was not communicated verbatim, but merely implied.)

Illinois media had a super-spreader event, too. Maybe it was the Meyers Leonard visit. That’s the hunch of one infected member. It seems like half of us got it.

I say “us” only to evoke a brotherhood. My N95 worked. #3xPfizer.

You can probably guess who did get sick because they kinda disappeared for a few days of coverage.

These Fucking People, cropped from the above image.

Meanwhile, Illini fans from the sticks continue to show up maskless at the SFC. They can change a serpentine belt, ergo they know more about viral pathology than your average respiratory therapist.

We know these idiots won’t lift a pinky toward the kind of altruistic self-sacrifice that stopped Hitler. But would they wear a mask, or even get vaccinated, if they learned that their choices might determine the 2022 Big Ten MBB Champion?

Ha-ha. No. Of course not.

Belo got COVID

Only one Illini game was rescheduled thus far because of COVID, but it’s certainly arguable that COVID cost Illinois a hugely important win. Andre Curbelo was feverish at College Park. Those of us who saw it in person could see, with every stoppage, that he was out-of-sorts, winded.

Trent was terrible that game, too. Was he battling something other than Terrapins? He’s had three airballs in the last two games, is that brain fog? Trent’s defense since Maryland has been solid, with Tuesday’s Brad Davison performance among his unawarded trophy collection. But what happened to his depth perception?

IUBB says it’s enforcing masking at Saturday’s game. I expect 15% compliance among the mouthbreathing fandom.

Race Thompson and Trayce Jackson-Davis will romp, perhaps effectively. IU guards will have a tough day against Trent and Da’Monte. Omicron will waft over thousands of would-be insurrectionists.

Illini Report encourages those of you who think it’s not real to continue thinking it’s not real.

Thanks. Bye.

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COVID-19 Illini Baseball

The Off Night

KenPom says Wisconsin leads the B1G in “luck.” By a lot.

In fact, the next luckiest B1G team is Michigan State, which checks in at #86. Stanford and Washington are the only other P5 teams in the Top 20. (Illinois is 125, which seems incredibly high given the injuries, illness & Kofi’s $uspenSion.)

Well, the Badgers returned to the mean.

Greg Gard turned to his SID Patrick Herb (their Derrick Burson) to query the Brad Davison 50%-from-three streak. It was 10 games. Davison is a career 36.6% shooter from deep. Pretty good, not great. Kinda normal.

Against Trent, he was 0-for-6.

After a season that saw our All-American sit for a quarter of the games, while our other All-American was just plain out for two months, it’s nice that the other team had bad luck.

Brad Underwood wants you to believe that his team had something to do with the Badgers 3-of-24 performance. That could be true. For example, if Badger shooters were plum tuckered from dodging defenders when they launched those wide-open threes …

Illinois didn’t shoot well from the arc, too. As a team, the Illini were 7-for-22.

But oh boy were they good from a foot away. Wisconsin’s non-fouling policy didn’t work in either sense. The Badgers were called for 10 fouls while guarding Kofi, and they also played Kofi so softly that he was frequently able to convert shots from within double-teams.

Lose-lose.

Andre Curbelo returned from COVID protocol and played eleven minutes (11:29), scoring seven points, dishing two assists and committing two turnovers.

All-Big Ten candidate Johnny Davis led the Badgers with 22 points and 14 rebounds, but he needed 19 shots to get those 22 points. He converted 5-of-19 from the floor, 1-of-5 from three-point range and 11-of-14 from the free-throw line.

Tyler Wahl was Wisconsin’s other double-digit scorer. He scored 12 points in the first half, but only two in the second. Underwood said Illini halftime adjustments made it harder for Wahl to receive the ball in a good position to score.

You probably won’t see Greg Gard make this mistake in the B1G Tournament. Sorry to be a downer.

But hey, FIRST PLACE.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini basketball

The Fractured Path

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.

Trent drew the defense out of bounds while passing to Ben. Ben converted.

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.

No baskets, one loose ball & one poke in the eye

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.

Malik Hall’s first of two free-throws bounced out

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.

Luke Goode’s forearm rebound

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.

(credit: U of I Archives)

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.

The author & Clarence Shelley, circa 1996

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.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini basketball

The Dodgers

As Kentucky’s 8th-seeded runners-up proved in 2014, a young team can lose a lot of games before hitting its stride. That’s the problem facing Illinois tonight: When will this talented, underperforming Michigan team click?

The Hunter Dickinson-Kofi Cockburn match-up is more media hype than reality. They like each other well enough, and as Coleman Hawkins said Thursday, Kofi’s better.

More intriguing for Illini fans who enjoy worrying : Caleb Houstan. The five-star recruit has started every game at the wing, but he’s shooting just 31% from the arc. In 32 minutes per game, he’s averaging 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds. His 21-28 assist-to-turnover ratio isn’t terrible for a 6’8″ freshman. But it’s not great.

Another five-star, Francophone freshman Moussa Diabaté has started six games. Basically, journeyman Brandon Johns kept his seat warm while Diabaté got acclimated. Johns has returned to his role as spot filler. Diabaté’s minutes have gone up steadily.

MOO-suh DEE-yuh-BAH-tay

A 6’11” PF, he’s the Wolverines’ second-leading rebounder with 6.1/game in just under 21 minutes per contest.

His 25 personal fouls is the same as Houstan’s, and just 6 fewer than Dickinson’s, despite playing a total of 250 minutes to their 400. Look for him to be disqualified. Coleman Hawkins will try his damndest to make that happen.

Grad transfer DeVante’ Jones came over from Coastal Carolina to replace Mike Smith in the one year PG role. He leads the team in assists (50 total, 3.8/game) and personal fouls (36) in 27 minutes per game.

He’s also the most accurate shooter from three at 46%, but he’s attempted only 24 on the season. That’s fourth-place on the team, with the center Dickinson not far behind at 17. Houstan has 64 attempts. Super-senior Eli Brooks has launched 65.

Brooks is the last Wolverine of note. At 44 years old, he’s one of those guys who’s “shown flashes” throughout his career. Also a guy who’s earned the trust of two head coaches, because he understands what they want him to do defensively.

Brooks is hitting 37% of his three-pointers this season. It’ll be interesting to see which of Michigan’s guards gets Trent Frazier. Brooks is the more experienced, but disrupting Jones might cause worse outcomes for every Wolverine possession.

Another freshman, SG Kobe Bufkin was B1G Co-Freshman of the Week (with Nebraska’s Bryce McGowens) in mid-December, but pummeling Southern Utah doesn’t prove much. (Tevian Jones scored 4 points in 22 minutes, shot 0-4 from the arc and 2-8 overall. One rebound. Two turnovers.)

The 8 points Bufkin scored against Central Florida might seem more impressive, but Michigan got slaughtered (85-71), so it’s hard to praise anything about that performance.

Bufkin has played in 10 of 13 games, averaging 11 minutes. On the season, he’s made 4-of-14 shots from deep (28.6%). A whole lotta meh.

In short, it’s impossible to predict tonight’s outcome. You just never know when freshman phenoms will have that “breakthrough” game.

Also, we don’t know who’ll suit up, if anyone.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini basketball

Cakewalk Continued

The Illini men’s basketball team will likely face a good opponent during the 2022 B1G season. But not tonight.

Nebraska is winless in conference play, and 6-10 overall. Losses include the Western Illinois Leathernecks, a team that’s 1-3 in the Summit League so far this season. WIU beat Denver before losing to Omaha, St. Thomas and Oral Roberts in league play.

Lat Mayen and Illini Zach Griffith, who got the start on Senior Day

What, you ask, is St. Thomas?

Good question. Evidently it’s a basketball school in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and evidently it became a member of the Summit League after some less obscure basketball team departed for the greener pastures of MVC, or MAC or something. Probably.

Transitive property, that’s how bad Nebraska is.

But Lat Mayen is still in Lincoln. He led the Huskers in scoring during last years overtime “thriller” against Ayo (31 pts) and Kofi (21). Brad Underwood says Nebraska is even better at rim protection this year, so Illinois better find its shooting rhythm from the arc.

Injured guard/bulldog Trey McGowens was the Huskers’ top scorer in the return game, an 86-70 Illini win in Champaign. He scored 16 in that game, and 15 the first time around. Some regarded him as the Huskers best player last season. This year, it’s his kid brother, the first five-star recruit in program history. Bryce McGowens is a lanky scorer

Derrick Walker is also back, and still beefy in the middle. He was Nebraska’s other interior defender last year, but caused the Illini few problems. In the first game, he’d just returned from a major suspension. In the second game, he had foul trouble.

The remaining Husker of interest is Alonzo Verge, whose career has had a lot of ups and downs since the days when John Groce was recruiting him.

This should be a snoozer. Let’s hope you find it restful.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini basketball

Down Time

Brad Underwood walked into the locker room after watching a 14-point lead devolve into a 4-point deficit. He knew what he needed to say.

But Da’Monte Williams beat him to it: “Coach, we already talked about that. We’re good.”

Loose ball collector from Peoria

“When you don’t have to coach ’em — and they’re coaching themselves because they know — you’re in a good place.”

Let’s hope NIL money keeps Kofi Cockburn and Slim Jake in school next year. Because Trent and Da’Monte are gone, and without them, the future looks bleak from a defensive perspective, from a toughness perspective, and because there’s nothing more valuable than experience.

Get old and stay old only works if guys like Coleman Hawkins and RJ Melendez acquire oldness, and that means more than just practice. They must acclimate to the bright lights and the hostile crowds. But as long as this ’22 Illinois squad is in the running for a B1G championship, you can expect to see the same amount of tick for RJ (00:00) and Coleman (12:16) as they got against Maryland.

Illinois won because old, experienced guys decided they would win. They decided not to lose. They knew what to do to ensure the proper outcome.

It’s terrible for future purposes, but because nobody’s really sure whether the world will exist next week, that dire viewpoint is immaterial. This Illinois team is positioned to win a B1G championship, and possibly more. Yeah, Ayo’s gone. But so is Luka. So is Bo Ryan. So is John Beilein.

2022 is the best chance Illinois has had since 2005. Seriously. And you can love it because while Kofi and Plummer bring the glam, ‘Monte and Trent are bringing the dirt.

And with those roles assigned, nobody even notices Jake’s quiet 15 & 5.

Brad Underwood stopped Kofi & Trent in the landing, just outside the Media Room, after they’d answered our questions about the game. We could hear him saying something to Kofi about his reasons for keeping the National Player of the Year candidate on the bench for the majority of the first half.

Somehow, nobody asked exactly what was said in that moment. Underwood talked about his 2-foul philosophy, and added that he’d strayed from it. He talked about Maryland’s strategy versus Kofi, and how Minnesota had changed its entire defense to stymie Illini shooters while not even trying to contain the Jamaican Menace.

The truth about Thursday is that Maryland missed a lot of shots in the second half, even though they got a lot of open looks.

That’s not necessarily an indictment of Illinois strategy. Illinois sicced Da’Monte on Donta Scott, and Donta managed just 1-of-5 shots in the second half.

Sometimes it’s easier to identify the scoring threats, and contain them, rather than trying to defend an entire five-man unit.

Maryland’s scorers were known before tip-off, and while Eric Ayala and Hakim Hart got theirs, the Terps as a group were silenced for the last twelve minute of the game.

ROAD WARRIORS

As Underwood left the media room Thursday, he poked fun at the regulars for not attending Wednesday’s pre-game presser. It was jest.

Nico, Bret, Doug, your humble servant and the new H&R guy Anderson Kimball were the lone attendees. It’s a combination of COVID and cold. The airlines cancelled thousands of flights. Thousands of others were delayed.

Dos & Doz

Turns out, Richey’s return flight was cancelled, and he got a lift with Piper and Joey, whose lack of progress across the frozen north was chronicled on Twitter. Illini Report looked at the weather forecast, and more particularly at the flights situation, and pocketed the postponement vouchers from United and Southwest rather than rebooking after the Sunday game was pushed to Tuesday. (Hotels.com did not offer a cancellation or credit for two unspent nights at The Graduate-Dinkytown)

Tyler (Walkon) told us that Robert’s return on Amtrak was delayed 12 hours. That seems about right for Amtrak. Illini Report also enjoys the train, and expects it to never be on time.

If you like reading about Illini sports, these are the people who bring you the material. We try to show up. Sometimes, in the dead of winter, it’s a challenge. But it’s especially hard during a plague.

That being said …

TECH UPDATE

Illini Report has sussed the audio problem with livestreaming on YouTube. Maybe it will continue to work. It’s hard to tell.

Both audio and video were great during the Kofi/Trent portion of the Maryland postgame press conference. Then, for some reason, the video quality degraded after the players left.

So the Brad portion of the Maryland postgame looks bad. I assume it’s a bandwidth issue.

I further assume it became bad because photogs began transmitting enormous ZIP files to wire services, newspapers and websites. eating up available WiFi bandwidth.

Andre Curbelo said words to Eric Ayala during a time-out.

At SFC, photographers work in the sole Media Room. Many B1G and pro sports venues have a separate workroom for photographers. SFC won’t ever have such a room, because we’ve already had our renovation, and every bit of space already has a purpose. SFC already had its big WiFi upgrade, too. So the only remaining hope is that the Media Room gets hardwired for Ethernet at all the workstations that line the outer walls.

Point is, lots of time & thought (and wiring) have gone into the ongoing attempt to bring HQ HD A/V to you, in real time.

But here’s what I noticed the last couple of days: My friends at Illini Inquirer grabbed the DIA’s upload of the Maryland pre-game and postgame from Box.com (DIA’s choice of file sharing tech, some B1Gs use Google Drive instead) and those got more views than the videos created by conference attendees.

It’s certainly fair game. The Terrapins Zooms you’re seeing at Illini Report were gathered the same way, as were much of last year’s material.

Because Illini Inquirer is now the dominant force in local sports reporting, Jeremy Werner and Co. can get a thousand clicks for a video published six hours later than the same material published elsewhere.

Bully for them. Jeremy is the best reporter on the beat, and he’s done an amazing job in building his multi-media group from the days when Illinois Scout was a punching bag.

But if they can get more views for a press conference that none of them attended, it makes the rest of us wonder why we bother. That’s bad news for Rivals. Loyalty the new Illini Guys and the websites attached to all the remaining newspapers covering Illinois sports.

So while remembering that Jeremy (and Joey and Piper) are bringing you the most complete coverage, and are all very nice people to boot, click on the rest of us now and then, just to keep things interesting.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini basketball

Manning the Post

The Maryland game might not, when it’s all said & done, prove to be a Battle of the Bigs.

Maybe Eric Ayala will go off from three. Maybe every Illini perimeter player will do the same. But it feels like this game should be decided down low, and that Kofi Cockburn should be The Decider.

Maryland has a legendary Big at the helm. Maryland has an excellent Big at the 4 spot.

Qudus Wahab launches a baby hook versus Brown. (Maryland Athletics)

But the guys who’ll defend Kofi Cockburn are not Donta Scott. It would be a waste of fouls to put the Terps’ 6’8″ scorer on Illinois’s 7’0″ double-doubler.

Interim coach Danny Manning says 6’9″ freshman JuJu Reese will participate in the Kofi defense. And, you know, good luck to him.

Julian Reese (Maryland Athletics)

If he’s successful, that means Manning wasn’t just coachspeaking about all his players getting better. (Manning also addressed coachspeaking in his pre-game availablity.)

Mostly, it’ll be Georgetown transfer Qudus Wahab defending the #B1G’s pre-season POTY. That Wahab left Patrick Ewing to play for Danny Manning says something about Wahab’s personality: Manning is nicer than Ewing. Wahab has probably never heard of Leo Durocher.

If the Terrapins weren’t arguably awful, the talking point wouldn’t be Mark Turgeon’s negotiated departure. Democrats of Prince George’s & Anne Arundel Counties might not even care that Darryl Morsell chose to live in Em-Efffing Wisconsin rather than continue to toil on their behalf.

The talking point would be balanced scoring.

It’s hard to defend when all five guys can burn you. Maryland’s starters average double-figures. 6’8″ wing Hakim Hart barely makes the cut-off with 9.5/game, but he’s the Turtle to Fear.

A disruptive defender with a 2:1 ATO, he’s also a 52% shooter. His only problem in Champaign will be Da’Monte Williams, until it’s Jacob Grandison.

It’s an eight-man rotation, and six of them are there to put a ball through a hoop. Only Xavier Green and Ian Martinez play for primarily defensive purposes.

Grad-transfer Green made plain that he doesn’t expect anyone to guard Kofi one-on-one, and that’s the correct response. Kofi becomes vulnerable when Smalls join Bigs in defending him. Adding active hands, especially below the waist, causes problems for Kofi.

Kofi’s spin move (from elbow to block) at The Barn was intriguing to watch because it was sui generis.

It didn’t work.

Kofi has not reached that rare level of sophistication where the big man sees the short corner while his back is turned. Ideally, he’ll return for Year 4 to figure that out. On Tuesday, he got his pocket picked.

That’s the video clip that Xavier Green is visualizing when he talks about helping against Kofi.

Illini fans can satisfy their worrying habit by contemplating how these 8-and-5 Terps got to 8-and-5: They lost by only five points at Iowa, and Iowa is pretty good-ish, yes?

Maryland lost to George Mason by only five points, and George Mason almost beat James Madison in its subsequent contest!

Maryland lost to Louisville, lost to Virginia Tech, lost to Northwestern. Then they beat #20 Florida. Double you, tee eff?

Maryland beat Hofstra by 2, and HOFSTRA BEAT ARKANSAS!

They seem small, but that doesn’t mean they lost.

Yes, the all-caps is necessary because Illinois couldn’t even get to the Arkansas game in Kansas City.

Sure, a lot has changed since then. Coleman Hawkins has a new role. Andre Curbelo decided to get well instead of faking it. Alfonso Plummer bloomed.

Until Illinois can beat Maryland consistently, you’ll need to regard this as a trap game. The Illini should win, but Maryland has shown flashes kinda thing. Terps assistant coach Matt Brady has the Illini scout, and he’s one of those intellectual analysts that can rape a team of all its advantages just by explaining details. Loyola did it, so can they.

But because Darryl Morsell left for pastures, you’ll want to know whether Fatts Russell (whose name is actually “Daron”) can tandem with Eric Ayala to impose the kind of defensive pervasiveness that stops otherwise capable shooters, dribblers, passers & penetrators from enjoying Mr. Naismith’s winter exercise.

There’s no reason to believe he can. There’s less reason to believe that Maryland will win on Thursday. If they do, you can make spring break plans.

Brad Underwood already lost to a terrible Danny Manning team in his Illini career. If you think he’s forgotten about that, thanks for checking out IlliniReport dot info. I’ll assume this is your first time here.