Illini Basketball

Lighting Up Francis

Did you know there was a University of Saint Francis in Illinois?

Yes? Congratulations! You’re from Joliet!

University of Saint Francis (IL) is the fifth biggest University of Saint Francis in the United States; after PA, Fort Wayne, Brooklyn and Steubenville.

Compared to other scismic branches of papist basketball, Franciscan hoops suffers — just as it should, given its namesake — versus Jesuit powerhouses like Georgetown & Gonzaga. St. Bonaventure is probably the best Franciscan basketball program. The second-best might be Saint Francis-PA*, which tied for last in the mighty Northeast Conference last year. (If you don’t have a sense of the NEC’s might, know that Robert Morris abandoned its affiliation in 2020, to join the Horizon League.)

Against Pennsylvania’s Franciscans, which Illinois hosts on December 18, Brad Underwood will foist a rotation of Illini which will, by that 13th contest, have grown familiar.

But who?!?!?!? you wail.

That’s your nine-man rotation. But will Brad use a nine-man rotation?

Tim Anderson says the coaching staff is working on ways to employ a Twin Towers set, with Omar Payne and Kofi Cockburn blocking all sunlight from penetrating the lane.

That mission seems counterintuituve given the obvious 4-out nature of this roster. “Positionless” basketball demands that the parts be interchangeable, and that’s not the case when you put Omar and Kofi in the same five.

Ben Verdonk

What about Podz and Goode? Will Underwood try a two sets of five approach, like John Calipari did in 2014?

Underwood wants to run. He wants transition baskets and threes. That suggests that “ten starters” is possible. And we know that Underwood is willing to tinker, to experiment. (Such an emmeffing breath of fresh air.)

On the other hand, if you’re starting from the simplest of recipes (Belo to Kofi) it feels unecessary to get weird. Replacing Ayo with shooters gives away the game plan.

Or does it?

Hutch with coach Tim Anderson

Coleman Hawkins says the Hutch Game isn’t so much a steady diet of three-pointers as it is using ball-screens to create a pull-up jumper. Hutch’s much reported near-posterization during the Open Practice suggests that he’s willing to drive like Ayo, but perhaps not finish like Ayo. (Ayo’s use of the glass, the oldest of old school basketball, is nearly extinct among young players. They could learn from Ayo’s example.)

Brad Underwood watches Andre Curbelo during a drill.

Is Underwood so devious that he’ll run two completely different offenses during the same season? That’s the kind of departure from the norm that gets books published, even dissertations.

It doesn’t seem likely, does it?

Then again, a low-post offense doesn’t require more than a few option plays. If Geoff Alexander wants to drill his bigs on a few different sets, and some of those sets incorporate a double-post presence … well, isn’t that the type of advanced education these scholar-athletes expect from a world class institution?

As Omar said, “I’m a scholar.”

Omar Payne & Ben Verdonk

Because Illinois scheduled two exhibition games, rather than a secret scrimmage, one might conclude that Brad wants to learn more about his rotations. How do these guys interact when facing unfamiliar opponents? Which fivesomes mesh?

It’s not unfair to predict a 126-42 final score in an imbalanced match-up against the nation’s worst Francis. But it would be more fun, and more useful, to use the game for experimentation. The “starters” already know what to do. You can put a fivesome of

  • Belo
  • Trent
  • ‘Monte
  • Jake
  • Kofi

on the floor, and expect them to run like clockwork.

NOTE – Two minutes of this video were muted by YouTube, for copyright purposes.

What happens when it’s

  • Belo
  • Plummer
  • Hutch
  • Coleman
  • Omar?

What happens when you mix and match those fives, or put Goode on the wing?

Personally, I’d rather see Podz, Verdonk and Goode get the maxium PT. We need to know what those guys can do, and whether they’re ready to help.

Podziemski gives a Matt Heldman vibe. It’s difficult to keep the Matt Heldman types of the floor. Goode looks ready, and might challenge veterans for tick.

RJ Melendez meets team IR photo by Mark Jones, who is hilarious

You’d want to see RJ Melendez and Brandon Lieb get some minutes, just because it’s fun to play, and they’re unlikely to play in non-exhibition games. Not unless Brandon puts on 30 lbs. and RJ grasps defensive positioning.

RJ is, according to his coaches & teammates, the athletic freak among them. That implies Fan Favorite potential. But it’s almost painfully obvious when talking to him that he’s the youngest, or most youthful, of this Illini team. Acclimating to a huge American campus — via a second language — while also trying to compete with crafty fifth-year seniors, all while realizing that the wind can be uncomfortably cold sometimes … it’s a lot.

He seems bright and cheerful, though. So who knows? Maybe he’ll get his footwork in order by December.

*Francisan hoops completists will want to know that, while Brooklyn fared better in last year’s NEC, it split its games with PA. PA has put three (THREE!) guys in the NBA and, unlike the Terriers in New York, played in The Tourney once.

COVID-19 Illini Basketball

A gathering of friends

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.

Illini Basketball

Tenacious Day

Geoff Alexander paused, and looked up from the list of newcomers.

“Can I pick somebody that’s not on this list?”

Of course, we assurred him. We want to know what you have to say about this team, not put words in your mouth.

“Benjamin Verdonk.”

Geoff Alexander

Geoff takes over as Big Man coach this year. So his choice of the 6’8″ Belgian, when prompted with the descriptive noun “bruiser,” must be the single-most noteworthy moment of Media Day 2021. This is a team, you’ll recall, that features an All-American center.

You’ll enjoy the rest of the Q&A, too. But Geoff’s praise for Ben is the scoop of the day. And it wasn’t limited to bruising.

Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk

Here’s what you’ll see when the videos are cut & pasted:

Coleman Hawkins & Omar Payne enjoy a chemistry which, if it works as well on the court as off it, promises explosively hilarious basketball.

Perhaps hilarity isn’t what you’re looking for from your #Illini, in which case you should hope that it’s simply great chemistry, and manifests itself as great basketball when they’re hooping, and great comedy when they’re clowning.

Coleman Hawkins & Omar Payne

Brandin Podziemski has a chip on his shoulder. He will tell you that he plays with a chip on his shoulder. His teammates and coaches will tell you that he plays with a chip on his shoulder.

It’s almost like he’s from Wisconsin.

So thank your lucky stars that Greg Gard’s program hit a rough patch since the Kobe King incident. If Podz were playing in red, he’d be under your skin for the next four years. Like Bruesewitz and Krabbenhoft and Davison. All those irritating Badgers.

Illinois finally has its Lucas Johnson back.

Brandin Podziemski
Luke Goode

Luke Goode is super earnest. A true yeoman Midwesterner. He’s earned the respect of grinders like Da’Monte Williams and Chester Frazier. That’s hard praise to merit. ‘Monte and Chet are two of the toughest, no-short-cuts men to don an Illini uniform, ever.

Once you’ve known him for five minutes, you’ll want Luke to be your pastor, and Chief of the Boat.

And the guy every single one of them praised to high heaven was Alfonso Plummer. Brad Underwood was irritated that we weren’t writing about him already, and this was before any media were introduced to the guy.

Alfonso Plummer, the assassin

Plummer topped the poll when asked about snipers, and motor. Each player & coach channeled Reese from The Terminator: HE WILL. NOT. STOP. UNTIL YOU ARE DEAD. That kinda thing.

All right, time to start editing the clips. Stay tuned.

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.