Illini Basketball

October Surprise

Last Monday night (October 12) at County Market Midtown, two Illini football players milled through the frozen food section, facemasks dangling around their chins.

It’s a common fashion statement among Champaign-Urbana’s Dazzling Urbanites, but mostly off-campus. Whereas our redneck population refuses to wear masks on principle, our blacknecks prefer to wear their masks as they do their trousers.

These two players are redshirt freshmen. Neither is on the two-deep chart. So you can imagine the ennui with which they approach a global health crisis that affects old and/or fat people almost exclusively: If their season is lost due to their lacking altruism, they weren’t playing anyhow.

This Monday, Lovie Smith said the entire Illini football organization is COVID-free. So perhaps the lapse in judgment brought no consequence to the team. Lovie was mildly annoyed (at 19:40) when I asked about disciplinary measures for players who skirt the protocols. I got the feeling that he earnestly believes his guys are doing the right thing, all the time.

You couldn’t ask for a more noble leader of young men than Lovie Smith. He’s the incarnation of stolid. His quiet humility blends seamlessly with an unyielding demand for justice, effort, righteousness.

But the tricky thing about immature people is they haven’t figured out, yet, that heeding wise elders is good.

Contrast Da’Monte Williams, who Zoomed a pre-season availability yesterday. He sat down at Derrick Burson’s laptop wearing a mask. He waited for everyone to move away from him, then asked Derrick if it was safe to take the mask off. Then the took the mask off.

Few Illini student-athletes can touch Monte’s street cred. On the other hand, Brad Underwood’s least ballyhooed starter has demonstrated, time and again, that he’ll give the effort, that he’s coachable, that he’ll follow directions.

Will Illinois Athletics see its teams complete a season’s worth of competition?

Covid hasn’t killed all the fun here in C-U. Small groups of youngsters can be heard at 2 am, hanging out in the parking lot at Busey & Green. They frolic on the first floor balconies (sic) at Springfield & First.

Last night, a lone, tiny Asian student sang himself home (drunk?) from Green Street to Lincoln & Stoughton.

I know these things because my 2020 has been spent going on long walks every day, then stretching profusely when I get home because I am now old. Walking from my house to Campustown and back is what I do. It’s the daily ritual to offset Stir Crazy. As a good house-husband, I also do the laundry, the dishes, the yard work, tech support, the N95ed grocery shopping, plumbing & carpentry. But it’s the long walks that keep me sane.

Champaign-Urbana is the safest place in America, Covid-wise. Doctor Jones & Company have achieved the gold standard. We’re celebrated in network news stories. History will remember us for this moment.

It’s not just that UIUC is tested twice weekly. C-U is packed full of Asian students. They all wear masks. Some of them wore masks before Covid. These are the faces of SARS 2003.

There’s reason to be optimistic that Illini sports will happen. But a week ago, we learned that Illini basketball has already suffered covidity.

Brad Underwood didn’t reveal that Covid contaminated his team. He didn’t tell us who tested positive, or how serious that/those infection(s) became. He said “myocarditis” three or four times, and added the philosophical observation that Covid should be expected, that it would be folly to hope for a Covid-free season.

That’s when I realized we’re unlikely to see the greatest Illini basketball season in fifteen years.

Yes, we’re doing our part. But even the standard-bearing U of I is seeing positive tests. Worse, to win B1G championships, Illinois must compete with covidiots Wisconsin and Iowa. Wisconsin just built a field hospital because their brick & mortar hospitals are full. Iowa is the nation’s hotspot.

If UIUC’s student-athletes can’t keep themselves Covid-free, there’s no reason to believe the Skeptical States will.

The State of Illinois itself hit a record-high number of positive tests last week, then exceeded it the next day. Most infections come from our Iowan & Alabamian counties, of course. No one ever said redneck principles are sound. But Danville, our very own Detroit, is blowing up as well.

If you’re an Illini fan, and you want to see this year’s teams, you must wear a mask in public. If you’re a redneck Illini fan, and want to see your team win while maintaining Rural Route cred, wear a mask that says MASKS ARE BULLSHIT/GO ILLINI. Everyone will know where you stand.

If you’re a young black man trying to navigate social groups, yearning for the kind of street cred Da’Monte Williams earned the hard way; Don’t consider Lovie Smith’s frustration. He’s trying to teach impressionable young people to Do The Right Thing in a world of adults who refuse that responsibility. That’s asking a lot.

Instead, consider this: Illini third-stringers have sagging masks. You don’t know their names.

Ayo, on the other hand, doesn’t even need a last name. Everybody knows who he is, in just three letters.

Illini Basketball

June update: Bringing the Covid back

Here, pasted in its entirety, is today’s email from the DIA regarding student-athletes returning to campus.


A note to media covering Illinois Athletics,

Today, select members of the University of Illinois football team will begin arriving in Champaign, beginning a process for the safe return of all Fighting Illini student-athletes to campus over the coming months.

The return plan, which we shared with you on May 22, opens with robust COVID-19 testing and initial quarantining for all student-athletes before they are clear to begin voluntary activities. In addition, all staff members who will interact regularly with the student-athletes will undergo testing before they are approved to return to their offices. Student-athletes and staff will be retested frequently through the summer and into the new academic year.

As we have seen in media reports from other schools across the country, it is possible, even likely, that some student-athletes will test positive for COVID-19 upon their return to campus. In the event of positive tests, now or in the future, Division of Intercollegiate Athletics (DIA) officials have developed comprehensive arrangements for extended quarantine and care. 

Due to privacy laws, throughout the summer and the new academic year, the Illinois Athletics Communication staff will not share or confirm any information regarding the health of student-athletes or DIA staff members as it pertains to COVID-19.

Illini Basketball

Big Softies

Kofi Cockburn is a monster in the minds of people who’ve never met Kofi Cockburn. Brad Underwood is a monster in the minds of people who get their opinions from social media.

In fact, Brad Underwood is a reflective person. One of the things he reflects on, frequently in recent weeks, is that Kofi Cockburn is a freshman, and a minor.

Tyler did not cry.

We and Brad sometimes forget — because Kofi is an intimidating physical specimen — that inside the cranium crowning 290 lbs. of lean muscle is a youthful, playful mind just discovering the outside world, as we all did if we were lucky enough to have a freshman year.

On Sunday, as Kofi battled an intensely, historically talented B1G man, Nico Haeflinger marveled at a moment of video he’d just captured for his nightly sportscast. I was sitting next to Nico, so he shared it with me. We sat on the north baseline, under the Home basket. But this was the first half, so Nico’s footage took place 94 feet south of us.

The gist: Kofi was angry, or at least seemed angry.

After a particular play under the south basket, the quiet, polite, shy, deferential, reserved and demonstrably pacifist BEAST-IN-WAITING emoted in way that Nico had never seen. He shared the slo-mo of Kofi’s facial expression, expanding.

It started as defiance. It ended in roar.

Kofi executed, finished, successfully completed a set. Choose your verb, and strive for strength. Alliteration if possible. Onomatopoeic CRASH! in an ideal world.

Or, if you prefer, forget the prose.

Something magical happened. Appreciated simply: Kofi Cockburn scored on Luka Garza.

In doing so, Kofi passed a milestone in an extremely personal, intimate and perhaps indescribable growth step.

For all his plaudits, Kofi remains as humble & surprised as you’d expect him to be if you knew his biography rather than his press clippings.

Of course, all these impressions were formed before his official coronation as B1G Freshman 2020. But the reality of Kofi is that he doesn’t react to plaudits. People have told him that he’s god’s gift.

The important thing to know is that he learned how to play against Iowa, and Luka Garza. In the grand scheme of things, it’s the only thing he’ll ever need to know, because Luka Garza is the best B1G he’ll ever see.

When they face each other on Friday, Kofi will know that he’s answered the Garza challenge.

Illini Basketball

Ayo whaaaa?!?

You should probably feel less depressed about Ohio State if you feel depressed about Ohio State.

You should probably feel less anxiety about Iowa if you feel anxiety about Iowa.

This Illini team has demonstrated, throughout this season, that you can’t predict what this Illini team will do this season. Your source of anxiety shall henceforth parrot the reality of March: This team can lose to anybody.

Luckily, your glass is half full: This team can beat anybody, and has already proven its propensity to win seven-in-a-row.

Ayo mentioned winning seven-in-a-row just the other day, but he was talking about a state title, not a national title.

Ayo is voracious about titles. The chip on his shoulder is practically visible. His deference toward teammates & oft-stated respect for opponents belies a singular, individual drive to prove to you and your mom and everyone else that he, Ayo IS YOUR DADDY.

Ayo’s love of competition is infectious, and he’s contaminated an entire team and fanbase.

There have been two hints in recent Ayo Availabilities which should, at the very least, drive conspiracy theories about Ayo returning for a third year.

The most obvious was when he said he was contemplating Journalism as a major.

The other came after that, and I can’t remember which pregame availability it was, but you should probably just click on all the IlliniReport videos anyway.

But the good news about Ayo is that he wants to be The Guy who returned Illinois to jersey-popping status. If His Team doesn’t win three-in-a-row next weekend, or six-in-a-row after that; you can imagine him making another Consequential Decision in your favor.


The alternative is that you celebrate a championship.

Illini Basketball

The Deserve Curve

You like sports & you know how to use the Internet, so you’ve probably encountered a probability to win graph. You might remember the one from ILLINI/MSU football. The sine wave changed at the end. The orange line moved up in comparison to the green line.

On Sunday, the red line hovered over the orange line for about 39 minutes of basketball.

Maybe not on your preferred website, but in my mind. Indiana was better than Illinois, and deserved to win Sunday’s game — for about 39 minutes.

If you want a more precise figure, the best I can come up with is 39 minutes and 53.6 seconds, because that’s when Terry Oglesby blew his whistle, and awarded a timeout to Trent Frazier.

It was this moment, when Andres Feliz pounced on a loose-ish ball, that the pendulum swung.

That might seem like an easy thing to say, because it happened to be the moment upon which the game swung.

Archie Miller wondered how the play could unfold with neither foul nor held-ball whistled.

Indiana was in position for a game-winning shot when — with about 8 seconds remaining —  Andres Feliz leapt to steal the ball from Phinisee, who had unsuccessfully attempted to dribble through Trent Frazier’s outstretched leg.

Feliz then rolled his upper body away from Phinisee to prevent a held-ball situation. Trent ran toward referee Terry Ogelsby, who was closely monitoring the play. Frazier both screamed and signaled for a time-out, which Oglesby granted.

Indiana fans melted the Internet and phone lines for post-game call-in shows, arguing that Trent’s leg had committed a punishable act.

It’s an interesting theory. Should Oglesby have called tripping? Did Trent have a right to stand where he was planted? Might it be a charge?

Maybe Oglesby just didn’t see the contact. It happened pretty quickly.

In general, I think complaints about officiating are a waste of time. Fans often misinterpret calls (e.g. yes it was a clean block, but the defender bumped the shooter with his hip), and too many fans vocally express displeasure at all calls, creating a Boy Who Cried Wolf vibe with the refs.

That said, the officiating on Sunday was worth discussing.

The most obvious gaffe was a foul not called on Devonte Green. Andres Feliz drove to the basket, Joey Brunk and Green closed in, and Green hacked Feliz on his shooting arm, visibly changing the shot and Feliz’s follow-through.

Feliz was so stunned by the non-call that he failed to get back on defense (which is, as you know, quite unlike Feliz).

The other remarkable call that went against Illinois saw Oglesby whistling Alan Griffin for helping an off-balance Justin Smith fall out-of-bounds.

Did Alan touch Smith? Did he give Smith a gentle push? That’s obviously what Oglesby saw.

I was at the far end, so I asked my fellow reporters if anyone got a good look. Erich Fisher said something along the lines of where there’s smoke there’s fire.

Brian Dorsey must have agreed with Alan, because his make-up call arrived as soon as he could find a potential infraction. It’s easy to call traveling in any situation, so traveling is a common tool for make-up calls.

Some Hoosier grad student might inquire about a grant to study how officiating affected the outcome of this game. Surely some donors would fund it. I’d like to know myself.

As far as deserving to win. Indiana definitely deserved this game for all but 6.4 seconds. And then Illinois deserved it more.

Ayo’s third major end-game gaffe (Miami, MSU) nearly handed the Hoosiers their win. But Ayo also drilled the big three that pushed the lead to 65-60. He drained his two free-throws. i.e. he redeemed himself, and snatched back the win.

They say ball don’t lie. It seems about right that at the end of the game, Illinois had one point more than Indiana. They deserved it more.

Illini Basketball

Overtaking Chicago

Alan Griffin deserves a hero’s recognition.

You have umpteen places to read about his heroics, because a relevant Illini team playing at Northwestern brings the biggest media contingent of any game in any season. You get all the B1G Chicago people including Andy Katz, the Trib’s Shannon Ryan and Teddy Greenstein plus all the C-U blogs and websites that rarely cover road games.

Read their pieces for game coverage & photos. I got a lot of Referee Butt tonight. It’s the most common complaint among basketball photogs. Tonight, it nearly killed me.

No biggie. My story was formed before I set foot in Welsh-Ryan Arena.

WLS 89-AM is broadcasting Illini basketball to more millions of homes & 18-wheelers than you can imagine.

Normally, I take a Peoria Charter to road games. You might have noticed. But I drove to last night’s game, and after WILL 580 faded, I tuned to 890 for traffic updates, as I usually do when driving into the city. The Afternoon Drive jock kept mentioning the Illini game. He even said he might drive up to Evanston to watch it himself. It won’t be sold out, so I can get a ticket no problem he speculated out loud.

If you’re 30 and under, you might not know how powerful a clear channel (not Clear Channel) AM radio station can be. The one that broadcasts from the World’s Largest Store, atop the former Sears Tower, reaches the nation’s capital, and Denver, and farms in North Dakota, and bogs in Louisiana. The signal strength is affected by weather, but it’s pretty damn good in any circumstance.

Hearing Brian Barnhart & Deon Thomas — on what is arguably* the nation’s most powerful radio station — changed my perspective of Illini sports.

Maybe satellite radio & podcasts have reduced the power of terrestrial radio and the DIA got suckered into supporting a dying industry. I’d like to see the latest Arbitron ratings (whatever they’re called now). I expect we’ll find that a shitload of previously untapped audience got a taste of Illini basketball from this deal.

That said, I felt bad that the DIA hasn’t been able to maximize its monetization of the WLS deal. I listened from the 6:30pm open until I got to the Welsh-Ryan parking lot, about 3 minutes into the game. I heard too many Public Service Announcements and not enough commercials. PSAs are required by the FCC for all licensed broadcasters, but most stations play them at 3am, not during Evening Drive/Prime Time.

There’s a huge advertising opportunity available to non-agricultural, non-insurance companies. Millions of people listen to WLS.

*WNYC, KROQ and KCRW are the only contenders I can think of, and this was my college major.

Illini Basketball

Win Out, or 0-for-4?

When Illinois and Northwestern met in January, the Wildcats tied the Illini 37-37 in the second half. The first half’s 38-34 tally gave Illinois the edge. Northwestern did that without second-leading scorer Boo Buie.

Boo Buie launches a floater against DePaul (courtesy Northwestern Athletics)

The Wildcats seemed like a young team on the verge of putting it all together. Since then, they nearly beat Purdue at home, and took Rutgers to overtime at the RAC. i.e. they lost every game, and only two were close.

The history of college basketball has taught you that this Northwestern team has lost all confidence. There’s no joy in lacing up. They just wish the season would end. Asterisk.

The Asterisk tells you this young team has nothing to lose, and the odds are good that they’ll put it all together one of these nights.

Illinois is not good enough to overlook the Mildcats.

Susceptible to handsy defenders and incapable of shooting from deep, close or mid-range; this Illini team wins ONLY when its known weaknesses don’t manifest simultaneously.

Or, as at Penn State, the opponent can’t hit the broad side of a barn.

Robbie Beran and Miller Kopp combine for 40% on threes. If the other Wildcats connect on the same pace that they did in Champaign, it could be an unpleasant night for Illini fans. Boo Buie nearly ended Rutgers’ undefeated-at-home streak by himself.

Northwestern will certainly throw a zone at Illinois, which works like a bucket of water on a wicked witch. The current Illini offense is Ayo versus everyone + shooters in the corners in case he needs to pass. If a low-post defender hedges, throw it up for Kofi. If a wing defender moves inward to help, kick it out to the shooter.

If the non-Ayo Illini can convert from deep, it’ll be a laugher.

After watching Minnesota hand Maryland the B1G Championship last night, you might feel confident about this game. Good teams win and bad teams lose, right?

Yeah, maybe.

But while Northwestern is demonstrably bad, there’s still reason to wonder whether Illinois is good. It’s beginning to feel that way.

Like Sally Field taking the Oscar for Norma Rae, these young Illini are feeling their oats. If you didn’t already watch this video of Ayo, Alan and Trent joining the media pool to ask questions of themselves, please do.

We like them. We really like them. But we still feel anxious about handing them the keys.

The advantage for Illinois might be its elders. Da’Monte Williams and Andres Feliz are fierce defenders, and they know how to follow a scouting report.

But Northwestern is TALL. Da’Monte’s wingspan enables him against opposing Stretch Fours. For Andres, it’s a bad match-up. Or a challenge. Depends how you look at it.

Illini Basketball

A Good Night for a Bad Night

When this Illini team is great, it feels like a rebirth of history and tradition. When this Illini team is bad, it feels like the last 14 years of kicks to the nads.

Illinois was terrible Monday. They won a game against a team that arrived in Champaign with a 7-19 record. It was uncomfortably close. Thank your favorite deity that the final minutes weren’t excruciating. Thank goodness it was an awful opponent.

What if Ayo hadn’t decided to play through the pain?

Ayo connected on 9-of-16 FGAs. That’s a solid number in hindsight.

At the time, his misses felt like a bad omen. He was missing shots you expect him to drill.

The rest of the team was much, much worse.

It might go unnoticed, as this game desolves from memory, that lowly Nebraska overcame a ten-point deficit. They were rolling. They had all the momentum. They’d tied the game. The crowd was silent.

Then Trent Frazier connected from three. It was the team’s third make in eleven attempts from the arc.

After that, Nebraska threatened a bit in the second half, but Alan Griffin and Kipper Nichols made key defensive plays to suck the wind from Cornhusk sails.

Alan wanted it more.

Kipper’s steal made a spectacular moment, and a major buzzkill for the Huskers. But it shouldn’t go unnoticed that he fought for, and garnered, the offensive rebound that followed a failed Illini attempt to beat an elapsing (3 seconds) shot clock on an inbound play.

This was the single play that changed the direction of the game. From this point on, Nebraska never felt competitive.

So, crisis averted. For now.

Nebraska reminded us that Illinois has beaten three good teams. The first was Rutgers, without Geo Baker. The second was Penn State, without Myreon Jones.

Now, a third can be added to the list. Wisconsin got to 10-6. Whatever they did to get there, they got there. The win at Madison now feels like a win at Madison.

So yeah, tourney lock. Illinois is in. Woo-hoo!

But there’s plenty to worry about.

Let’s hope someone tells Josh Whitman — who spent the dark days in Wisconsin and Missouri — that his model of DIA leadership, Ron Guenther, is the guy who didn’t offer Bill Self a double, treble, quadruple increase in salary.

Brad Underwood will be a hot commodity on the upcoming coaching carousel. Orlando Antigua is not paid enough, even at the standard academic salary commensurate with experience.

It’s 2003 again, and all the cutlery is in the drawer, or on its way. Can the DIA get it right this time?

Illini Basketball

All Hands

I haven’t seen the split-screen all-access thingy*, so I don’t know whether the following news is news to you, dear reader. I do know you can’t get enough Illini Basketball at the moment, so I’m here to help.

You know that Da’Monte Williams got in Lamar Stevens’ grill, and head. Maybe you didn’t know the other member of the team who gave her all to stymie Stevens.

Kelsea (Garthoff) Ansfield is Director of Creative Media and one of the great personalities of the Illini team. On the road, she spends the first 12 minutes of each game shooting photos in furtherance of the Illini online presence. (i.e. she gets up from the baseline at the under-8 media timeout and goes to edit/upload to various Illini branded properties.)

Early on in Tuesday’s game, Kelsea was sitting in the pole position (photog spot nearest the home basket’s stanchion) when Lamar Stevens fell on her.

Something crunched.

Lamar Stevens was horrified

He’d jammed her camera right into her nose.

I was sitting two spots away, WJAC-TV’s Candace Martino was between us. I heard the crunch.

PSU’s trainer Jon Salazer rushed over to help.

Jon Salazer & Lamar Stevens attend to the felled Kelsea Ansfield

Kelsea was able to get to the locker room on her own. At halftime, Paul Schmidt inspected her swelling. It looked a lot better than it sounded, but you could tell she’d taken a blow.

So had Stevens. He was clearly rattled, and it put him a step behind. A moment later, he committed a major faux pas.

You have to love Da’Monte’s reaction to this turn of events. It’s pretty unusual to see him smile, but on Tuesday in State College, it happened at least three times.

So Lamar Stevens, the best player on the B1G’s hottest team, spent a crucial nine minutes on the bench during a first half that set the narrative for the game. Illinois led 30-26 at halftime.

Pat Chambers said he was encouraged that his team kept the game so close without Stevens. The unanswerable question is how well they would have done with him? As it was, he never found his rhythm against Da’Monte and Kipper Nichols.

While the Second Foul Rule is universally respected by college coaches, you have to wonder whether it cost the Nittany Lions a ninth-straight victory. As seems so often the case with these fateful coaching decisions, Stevens finished the game with two fouls.

*If anyone who wants to send me an MP4, I’d love to watch it.

Illini Basketball

The Lock

Your favorite team is going to your favorite tournament.

Ayo hasn’t finished his business, and Tuesday night he made a statement to that effect.

Penn State’s defense was every bit as stifling as MSU’s, or Rutgers or Iowa. But they didn’t stop Ayo from penetrating the way Iowa did. They don’t have a Sticks Smith or a Myles Johnson anchoring the D.

No Rob, I hear you say, they have a Mike Watkins!

Tuesday night in State College, Mike Watkins was AWOL. He didn’t start. He played 18 minutes, including just five in the second half. The Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Nominee was not in foul trouble. He had Kofi problems. Or he had Ayo problems.

Really, it was his choice.

Illinois’ spacing problem resolved itself in State College. Well, enough anyway.

Ayo and Andres Feliz made the right decisions on a sufficient number of occasions to keep the Illini a few points ahead, keep the crowd nervous, and the Lions on their heels.

Two specific plays changed the tone, and perhaps the outcome of the game. One involved Ayo & Da’Monte, just as you’d expect. (It makes sense from a narrative perspective, see?) The other demonstrated Kofi’s mid-game tutelage.

Kofi had already committed his second shot clock violation in as many games, getting caught with the ball in his hands and no idea that time was running out. He learned from that experience.

With the Nittany hosts seeking a late-game comeback, it happened again.

But this time, Kofi got the ball in the basket, dampening the hosts’ hopes.

The other play happened a few moments earlier.

Ayo had hit the ground for the second time, as he often does. He was slow to get up, and assuming the TV camera was on him, I suspect some of you feared the worst.

He did get up, but he was late getting back on D. It turned out serendipitously well.

It’s a game of inches, and this time, the Illini punch had greater reach.

The bid was already locked in, so this column’s title is shameless clickbait. But the Illini are no longer the 12 seed. Now they’re playing for a four.