Illini Basketball

The Forth Wave

Today is July 23, 2021 and the Delta Variant is scorching SEC country.

But here in the Blue State, where vaccination is championed, Your Humble Servant touched actual Illini basketball players this week. Three of them! Although I’m not sure which. One was definitely RJ Melendez. One was the most improved player. I’ll get to that later.

I don’t expect this intermingling to continue.

Wednesday’s Ubben Availability was a ridiculous malpractice of aerosol exposure. With The Mighty Pfizer proving only 90% effective against the variant, there’s no way we’ll be allowed to Breathe on Brad like we did.

It began with 14 sports reporters socializing indoors, unmasked, up-close n’ personal. It continued with SID Derrick Burson making an announcement from the second floor catwalk. Vaxx or ax was his message. Access to players, coaches & press boxes would be available only to the vaxxed.

His email the previous evening reminded media that DIA would keep our CDC vaccination cards on file — a public record if you think Illini Athletics is institutionally controlled by the state university.

That’s fine. I’ve read the Constitution. I have no right to breathe on anybody.

Eventually, seventeen reporters and Kent Brown (Zooming to out-of-towners from an iPhone) crowded around Brad, and then Kofi. Of those 18 people, one person wore a face covering. It was me. I had an N95.

I’m visiting an immunocompromised relative tomorrow, and taking no chances. Wedged between Nico, Joey and Robert; and with Loren exhaling behind me; I realized that I’d gone from 16 months of isolation to Aerosols Central.

The CDC is pretending, for the moment, that this kind of behavior is okay. It’s a political ploy. They want to lure the vaccine-resistant toward jabs by promising a free face.

I know two fully vaccinated people who Got The Vid recently. My sister the pulmonologist says 50 fully vaxxed Brits are dead from Delta.

It’s going to get us all. I hope yours is mild. For sports purposes, however, the Vid is over.

Plowing forth toward sold-out B1G sports seasons, in stadia packed full of Midwestern mouthbreathers, is financially inevitable. Everyone needs the revenue. It’s going to happen.

Illini fans are just as Ignorant Redneck as any of them, so our stadia will be as packed as Bielematic Optimism affords. But that’s your ass on the line. You can choose to sardines yourself with a thousand randoms.

Our nearing-sixty basketball coach & morbidly obese football coach should probably be protected from you. And me.

And we should certainly protect the players, especially because Illinois basketball has a realistic shot at a national title. Ahem, I mean because it’s the right thing to do.

Or both.

Mizzou fans are hospitalized, gasping for air. Illini fans are experiencing an unfamiliar light/sunny feeling. Everything grey is now colorful.

Your favorite basketball program looked dead, or at least mortally wounded. All the news was bad: Loyola. O & Chin. And then, everyone left.

You could reasonably conclude that Brad Underwood’s momentum —from losing at EIU to a 1-Seed in 1227 days — ended when O got bored with Josh Whitman’s Compliance Worldview.

Kofi’s return gives Loren and the rest of us non-Millenials one last shot at seeing an April Trophy-Hoisting.

Brad and Kofi said important things Wednesday. Perhaps historically important things. As facile as Kofi’s ascension might feel to the hundreds of Illini whose jerseys won’t hang in the rafters; the fact is that Illinois basketball has him, a once-per-generation athlete, and every other of 356 Division I NCAA basketball teams doesn’t.

The Curbelo-to-Kofi connection, with assassins waiting on the wings, is the best argument for a national championship since 1989. Ayo was exciting. Deron Dee Luther garnered attention. But 2022 has the analytics potential. It is, in year five, The Team Brad Built.

The head coach’s outlook is waaaaaay more data-driven than his two predecessors. And you can see exactly what he has in mind just by looking at the newcomers, even if you’re not sure who they are. They’re all 6’7″ and 190 lbs. of lithe, taut limbs.

Curbelo-to-Kofi is the fastball, for sure. These new wings are the slider.

I was pulling a laptop from my bag when two nearly identical SFs approached. One was a ginger, so I just kind of assumed he was that Wisconsin kid.

That’s the weird thing about covering Illini basketball during COVID-21. I should have met all these dudes a long time ago. I should be able to tell them apart.

My N95 caused my glasses to steam up. I couldn’t even see them now.

“Hey guys, I’m Rob. I’m media.”

“Hi, I’m Luke,” is perhaps what the one on the left said, shaking my proffered hand as if touching strangers were a completely normal thing to do. “I’m RJ,” said the other, grasping an obviously shaken hand.

“I’m Coleman,” said a third guy, who approached as I explained that my N95 was a precaution for … I mean, do they need to hear about an immunocompromised relative?

Then it sank in: Coleman Hawkins just introduced himself to me. He’d never seen me before.

I’ve talked with Coleman Hawkins a few times. But it was on screen. I’ve seen him on TV a lot. It didn’t even occur to me that he’d have no idea who I was in the flesh.

“Check your Twitter,” I told him as the tall trio headed toward the exit. “Coach Underwood just said you were the most improved player.”

“Oh yeah?” Coleman responded. He still has that ingenue spirit. He’s unabashed about it. You have to like him.

Geoff Alexander came in after the players left. By this time, I’d sat down on the hallway’s only chair, catching up on texts & emails. Geoff said “hey brotha,” and offered a left elbow by way of greeting. His entire body contorted down and across to offer this simple, pandemic-oriented gesture.

This feels more familiar, I thought.

But again, something was very different. Geoff is in perfect physical condition now. We’d kind of seen that happening from afar, but it’s really astonishing up close. He wasn’t a lard ass before, but he’s just super fit now.

I was glad to offer my elbow in return. I’m personally very excited for Geoff’s promotion. I think it’ll be good for Illini basketball, too. Geoff had a lot to do with keeping Kofi in the fold.

Tim Anderson will likely be introduced to the media next week. I expect that availability to happen in the State Farm Center Media Room, if it’s at all in person.

It’s the aerosols. But there’s more to it.

All the TV guys got wobbly-armed by Brad’s 27th minute of Q&A. Covid made everything so much easier on those arms. But even before Covid, the DIA built a fancy media room where TV guys had access to a riser, an audio feed, and tri-pods.

So I’m guessing that your next viewing will find your Illini favorites in frame, well lit, in focus and audible. Wednesday’s scrum might not have seemed as uncomfortable to you as it did to the people who provided the coverage, but it’s the wildfire spread of Delta that seems likely to keep the state’s highest paid employees, and potential national champions, out of our airspace.

You’ll like it, too. The video won’t be so shaky.

Illini Basketball

Ides of May

A month ago, Brad Underwood said he didn’t anticipate any staff changes. He laughed at the concept of retention incentives and/or performance bonuses, and said “I have no idea” what the DIA might do to reward/keep an incredibly desirable & succesful basketball staff intact.

And now, here we are.

If you’re trying to keep up with the latest, it’s this: Orlando & Chin are gone. You can’t have Omar Payne and Al Pinkins in the same building, so Illinois gets Payne (for now). Kimani Young is staying in Storrs. Alan Huss was onboard the other day, but maybe he’s staying on Omaha now. It’s home, after all.

In announcing Chester Frazier, Underwood confirmed that Chester is a guards coach and defensive guy. But he added that his recent staff didn’t always stick to their group assignments. Chin Coleman was a wings guy, but was also Chief Ayo Officer on the Illini staff. Brad said Chin worked with different skill groups in more recent times. One wonders if that caused some of the Gentry Friction you’ve read about.

The point here is that Frazier’s hiring casts a penumbra on the soothsaying of further hires. Who will coach the bigs? Who will coach the wings? And is Gentry really going back to Spokane?

Mrs. Frazier, with her mother, Ann Zeffert

The answers change every fifteen minutes, and so goes the fate of the program. Illinois was taunting Michigan in March. Now we envy the stability at Indiana. Losing Orlando Antigua is a bigger deal than you think, even if you thought it was a big deal. The foreseeable came to pass, and you’ll remember it for years to come.


You were stunned when Orlando Antigua joined the original Underwood staff, so maybe you’ll be stunned again when Underwood plucks another ace recruiter. Chester said he wants to learn new things, so maybe he’ll become an ace recruiter. Maybe he’ll become the wings coach. Who knows?

It was fun to watch his evolution as a player, from the offensive liability whom Purdue ignored to the sharpshooter who torched Ohio State. (Kudos to Gary Nottingham on reworking Chester’s shot.)

Senior Day 2009

He’s also evolved, as people tend to do with age, personally. Chester the Illini player was cautious, even defensive when interacting with the media. He shared with this writer a well-founded disdain for characterization of his words (as opposed to direct quotes). Nothing about his attitude was illogical or unreasonable. It made him a less likely source for good material and general bonhomie.

The Chester who Zoomed with a mostly unfamiliar Illini media pool this week showed a hint of that residual caution. But he’s 35 now, and he’s worked in a necessarily social & networking-oriented profession for a decade.

And of course, there’s Sarah.

Some college basketball players get drafted to the NBA. Chester also won the lottery, but off the court. A dozen years and two kids later, Sarah remains the dynamic, if lesser known star of this package deal.

Returning to Champaign means the Fraziers are closer to her hometown of St. Louis. It also sets Chester in a good position to launch himself into a head coaching gig in a region he’s recruited for ten years. Keep an eye, for example, on Travis Ford’s career trajectory.

For now, we can’t know what to expect from Chester as a recruiter or coach. He promised he’s still the same guy, but that refers to his passion & work ethic. He’s changed a lot since 2009, whether he knows it.

Sarah will bring her photography business to Champaign. So you can meet her, too. And you should, because she’s the best.


The News-Gazette ran a retrospective the other day. The guy is a Hall of Famer and already had a street named after him, but why not.

There’s something I’d like to offer from my own observation.

At some point, over the years, it slowly dawned on me that a defining Loren Tate characteristic is the deference and collegiality he shows to the beat reporters as a group. He loves being one of the guys, and he doesn’t lord his legend over anybody, not even the 20 year-old, wet-earred newbs from the DI. He takes a seat in the middle of the pack, and engages the others with questions about their views.

I think that might be the most important quality to recall in his epitaph. The problem is that he’s going to outlive anyone who might write it.

Illini Basketball

Peeking behind the NCAA Rule Changes curtain

As we waited for Brad Underwood to join yesterday’s Zoom, Loren Tate cheerfully struck up some conversational topics. Rob, what do you think of the proposed rule changes? is a reasonable paraphrasing of his first foray.

I assured him that I don’t know anything about basketball, which should be obvious to anyone.

But why don’t I know? And how did he?

This column is about those rule changes, but also about access to information. Google tells me that Matt Norlander is the source for the hard data. A radio newsy from Kentucky SEO’ed the details, which I’ve pasted below. So thank you Mrs. Tyler Thompson.

Your Faithful Servant was approved for a credential/access to last month’s NCAA Tournament Digital Media Hub. The NCAA has my email address. Why did I learn about this stuff from Loren Tate? (I’ve learned most things about Illini sports from Loren Tate, and am not unappreciative.)

A couple of Zooms ago, Shannon Ryan told us that she’d been voted the new poobah (or was it honcho, or vizier?) of a national basketball writers association, succeeding Seth Davis. The ever-genial Scott Beatty observed that he wasn’t invited to vote, despite being a member. Perhaps I wasn’t the only one who thought “how does one become a member, and who decides?”

The News-Gazette tells us, year after year, that it’s won sports section of the year or newspaper of the year or similar. Who voted?

Google helped, again, with the former question. The latter seems too boring to research, but is probably found exclusively on fishwrap.

The writers association is open to anyone who pays them $50. (Don’t worry about the “members of the media” qualifier. We’re all members of the media.) I’m always reminded, in these moments, of my Lifetime Membership in the International Thespian Society. It was $10 for a year’s membership, and $15 for lifetime. Brilliant.

Maybe $50 is the cost of doing business these days? Perhaps, if I joined the USBWA, I’d get emails about important goings-on in the NCAA. Or perhaps I could spend all day reading Tweets from the 650 people Joey follows, the 1,960 Jeremy follows. or the 3,388 Shannon follows?

My feeling remains that if it’s on Twitter, you already know it. So why do you need to hear it from me? I envy traditional print reporters in this respect. Their foundational assumption is that newspaper is your only source for information. If they don’t transcribe & publish, you’ll never find out.

Also yesterday, I got an email about The Basketball Tournament from a Bradley Braves staffer named Bobby Parker. I’ve never met Bobby, and I don’t know who compiled a list of active addresses for him. Did it feel like the Glengarry Leads when he got it? Did it feel like the Glengarry Leads when you saw a Tweet about TBT yesterday?

Enough Illini basketball fans care about TBT and the House of ‘Paign that it seemed worthy of a Tweet.

Anyway, here’s the pasted list of changes being discussed for Men’s Basketball.

2020-21 Possible Rule Changes (via @MattNorlander)

— Widen the lane to 16 feet

— Reset team fouls at the 10:00 minute mark of each half and begin double bonus on the 5th team foul of each 10-minute segment. This would eliminate the one-and-one free throw.

— Allow laptops, tablets, or similar devices in the bench area for coaching purposes.

— Adopt a modified six-foul rule with the following provisions:

  • 1. A player may not commit more than three personal/technical fouls in any one half. Penalty – disqualification.
  • 2. A player may commit three personal/technical fouls in the first half and three in the second half. In this case, the player is allowed six fouls before being disqualified.
  • 3. A player may commit two personal/technical fouls in the first half and would be disqualified on his fourth personal/technical in the second half. Total – six fouls.
  • 4. A player may commit zero or one personal/technical fouls in the first half and would be disqualified on the player’s fourth personal/technical in the second half. See #1.

— Award possession of the ball to the defense when they create a held ball situation.

— Limit the number of timeouts that may be called by any one team in the last two minutes of the second period or of any overtime period to two.

— In the last two minutes of the second period or of any overtime period, allow instant replay review of potential shot-clock violations when the shot is unsuccessful.

— Eliminate the ten-second backcourt rule.

— Permit the use of Instant Replay on all basket interference/goaltending calls throughout the game, but only when a call has been made by an official.

— Permit a team to decline free throws in the last two minutes of the last period or of any overtime period and elect possession of the ball for a throw-in instead.

— Eliminate offensive basket interference after the ball hits the ring or flange. Would make the rule consistent with the FIBA rule.

— Adjust the traveling rule to allow a player to take two steps after lifting his pivot foot which would make moves such as the spin move, Euro-step and step-back shot legal.

— Eliminate the five second closely guarded rule.

COVID-19 Illini Basketball

All right. Who ordered the ukulele?

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.

Dan Gavitt Zooms with media on Thursday, March 18 2021

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.

COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Free-throws. Box out. Free-throws. Box out. Free-throws.

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. 

Free-throws. Box out. Free-throws. Box out. Free-throws.

COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Everyone Hates a Spaz

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 being in 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.”

David Craan / Illinois Athletics

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.

COVID-19 Illini Basketball

BTT 2021 – The Return of Illini Basketball

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.

Kevin Miller and Willie Geist at Illinois/Villanova December 2014

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.

Screencap from a Hoosier message board

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.

It’s a good time to be alive. And Indiana sucks.

COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Dos Mamba, the Masked Dagger

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.

Vashoune Russell/Illini Report


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.”

Kelsea Ansfield – Illini Athletics

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.

H/T Quam Dosunmu @qldos67

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.

You’re welcome.

Captured by your humble author, in simpler times.


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.

Kelsea Ansfield – Illini Athletics

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.

COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Coach Who Cried Wolf

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.

Brad Davison knows how to keep his arms up.

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.”

COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Mood

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.


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.

Andre Curbelo, Jacob Grandison, Jermaine Hamlin (Illinois Athletics)

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.