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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.”

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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.

IT’S GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME

The eternally optimistic Scott Beatty floated, in another recent Zoom, the notion that most teams are getting better this time of year. Brad Underwood did not assent.

In fact, this is the wheat from chaff portion of the season. The culling of the weak. Some teams are mentally weak and some are physically worn out. Ohio State seems, as of this morning, to be both of those things.

Does that mean Illinois will win this afternoon’s game? You don’t look to Illini Report for predictions or betting tips. Sports abstractions are a billion dollar industry, and you have plenty of places to read them. I’m just telling you about the people involved. Brad Underwood seems to be holding his team together while Holtmann’s falls apart.

Hawkeyes fans lament Fran’s February Fade, a seemingly annual tradition in Iowa City. This year, much of that talk can be attributed to CJ Fredrick’s ankle. But if you had to choose between mental and physical when diagnosing Iowa’s late swoons, you’d probably guess the former.

Cellvin Samsung has borne this reputation for decades. His 2002 Oklahoma squad scrapped and scraped its way to a Final Four. That’s his only trip. Since getting his first head coaching position forty years ago — and despite perennial high-rankings, media hype and avoidance of NCAA-oriented restraints; his teams routinely limp to the finish line.

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.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Battle of the Unexpected Warriors

Nobody predicted Michigan would win the B1G this season. No one foresaw Mike Smith and Hunter Dickinson rocketing from unknown & under-recruited to prime time stardom.

If none of you predicted the 76-53 final score of Illini at Wolverines 2021, you’re forgiven. Weird things happen when you remove a primary character from a plot. The story veers off its predicted path. And here we are: Illinois without Ayo Dosunmu is playing like Michigan without Bill Frieder.

All photos from the UM game by Kelsea Ansfield, who is great.

The Chaundee Brown airball free-throw was Michigan’s night in a nutshell. Unexpected, embarrassing and not living up to the earned reputation. It seemed as though the god of basketball squatted over Crisler’s domed roof and squeezed off a giant fart.

How the hell did this team fool the entire United States into believing? How did they wipe the Schott with Ohio State? Where the fuck did this game come from?

H/T Dan O’Brien

SILENCING THE CRITICS

It was fair, as of Tuesday morning, to criticize this Illini team as overrated. You could say they hadn’t earned the lofty seeding “experts” project for The Tournament. After all, they played a cakewalk B1G schedule and barely survived some of those cupcakes. They got trounced by Baylor. They beat Iowa with one Fredrick tied behind its back. They lost to four middling league teams. They played the bottom five teams twice each, and won all ten games.

So they’re 5-4 against the B1G’s not worst teams.

But fair’s fair. The B1G standings say Iowa and Michigan are the top two teams not named ILLINOIS. The Illini beat fourth-place Purdue in their only contest, and Ohio State has lost seven times in conference, including stinkers at Northwestern and Minnesota.

You now have Illini Report’s permission to believe in this team. #YouGoGirl #DoIGetACookie

THE SALARIES, UNCAPPED

And so let us now face an elephant that has finally, at long last, wandered into our room. For the first time in Andre Curbelo’s memory, other teams will want to poach from the Illini coaching staff. (Does Belo even know that three Big 12 coaches once led this program, and that two of them left town of their own volition?)

Rumors began circulating this week about teams who’d like to hire Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman for head coaching positions. And thus, it’s time for Josh Whitman to decide whether he wants Illinois to compete off the court.

Let’s say NIU offers Chin $450,000 to take over from Mark Montgomery. Assuming a five year contract, that would be enough to pay a few tuitions and retire to a modest home. The risk of ruining a career in DeKalb is significant, so it’s not a no-brainer that Chin would go. The DIA response should be to equal whatever NIU offers, with some added performance bonuses. Give Chin reason to stay until a competitive program comes ‘a callin’. Big Boy programs lose assistants to mid-majors, as Montgomery and Howard Moore have shown. But the Blue Bloods also keep their staves intact & cohesive by paying them a lot of money.

Pay these men whatever they ask.

Orlando Antigua will be offered more money than Chin. He’s already been fired from a head coaching position, but athletic directors will have noticed Andre Curbelo, Kofi Cockburn and Andrez Feliz — three drastically different players who all, in their own way, changed the Illini program dramatically.

How much is it worth to have Ayo, Kofi & Belo in Champaign? Is it worth $2 Million per year? That seems like a bargain. I suggest the figure is more like $20 million. #1 seeds are worth a shitload of money. Teams that consistently compete for top talent and conference championships can, essentially, print their own cash. If it takes another few million to keep this staff intact, and they’re all into it, Josh should forget everything he learned from Ron Guenther, and find his checkbook.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Ayo’s nose

The question everybody’s asking is when Ayo will return. The question everyone should be asking is what Ayo will return.

Trauma changes people. It’s a fact of evolutionary biology.

Jason Heyward & Dickie Thon didn’t recoil from inside fastballs because they’re cowards. After he got hit in the face with a fastball, Heyward’s brain sent him a signal based on that learned trauma. Thon’s beaning changed the way he saw fastballs because an orbital fracture changed his depth perception.

It’s possible that Ayo will be exactly the same old Ayo when he returns, but it’s not likely.

Tiny physical changes can alter the perception, and consequently the muscle memory, that he’s developed since infancy. And then there’s the subconscious psychology of his trauma. The PTSD.

Again, Ayo doesn’t need to know that he’s been traumatized to be changed by the trauma. He can have all the confidence in the world, and still recoil, unconsciously, from contact.

We haven’t heard much about Ayo’s treatments, except that Brad Underwood used the word “doctors” rather than the word “doctor.” We can assume an otolaryngologist is involved. We should hope ophthalmology wasn’t necessary. But what about a Bad Memories doctor? The National Institutes of Health have studied drug-induced amnesia for at least a decade. If Ayo’s brain is rendered incapable of learning from his trauma, he’d be better off. You’d want Ayo to know that he can drive to the bucket without a tiny part of his brain telling him he’d better not.

If you’ve heard Brad answering questions about Ayo’s treatment, you’ll know it’s not worth asking whether any particular therapy is involved.

HDTV

It’s interesting that you & I knew about Ayo’s nose before Trent Frazier did. Or anyone else on the team for that matter. You’ll recall that Brad was nearly giddy after his first loss in 8 games. Trent seemed sincere in saying “he’s fine.”

They didn’t see the play from the angle we did. They didn’t see the replay. They didn’t see the Breslin Kliegs casting an unusual shadow from a swelling bulge.

I’ve attended zero games this season, so I’ve had little to write about. You saw it yourself. We’re in the same boat. There’s nothing I can tell you that you didn’t already know.

Because Illini Report is written for people who watched all the games and know all the details, the only thing I can share that’s worth your time is something I saw but you didn’t.

(I continue to report straight news for people who didn’t watch the game.)

You’ll notice, in the writing and questions from the Illini media pool, that journalists instinctively work this way. They ask about something that happened off camera, on the sidelines. Perhaps it involved reserve players on the bench, or coaches yelling in the tunnel. It’s something only they can tell you. It justifies the travel expenses. It’s the reason to read them, no matter whom else you read.

I can write about Ayo’s nose not just because I saw it on TV, but because I had my own nose smashed into my face, during a game.

It was the day Mitchell Brookins caught that long TD and Illinois beat Iowa 33-0. I headed the soccer ball, watched it sail away, and then saw Aaron Libman’s face as his tooth penetrated my nose. Dr. Robert K. Kuramoto fixed it surgically, but my nasal passages still keep me awake too often.

I was my team’s best player when that happened. Then everything fell apart. I was never able to slide-tackle again. I quit soccer, and started playing football, where they give you a facemask.

SORRY NOT SORRY

Let’s not pretend that Tom Izzo didn’t send his goons to pester, poke and ultimately batter the Illini. If Mady Sissoko weren’t playing to foul, he’d have defended Ayo’s drive with both arms straight in the air. That’s how the game is coached these days. So either Izzo is a lousy coach, or Sissoko hammered Ayo with both arms because that’s what he was told to do. (You’ll find, if you spend a week researching everything this author/commentator/social media participant has ever written, that superlatives about B1G coaches mention Beilein and Bo Ryan. It’s not an error of omission.)

If you’re like me, you were already frustrated — well before Ayo’s clubbing — from watching Sissoko bother Kofi Cockburn. There was nothing subtle about it. That’s why Kofi eventually snapped, and swatted Sissoko’s arm away — a moment which gleeful sadists among the Spartan fandom cited in bothsidesing the violence.

Brad’s spent a good portion of the past two weeks talking about Kofi’s patience despite the incessant pounding he puts up with. So far, nobody at conference headquarters has noticed.

If the Big Ten cares, it’s done nothing to deter the bludgeoning. So MSU continues to bludgeon. In the Spartans next game, Chris Holtmann watched in horror as Josh Langford tackled Duane Washington to prevent a game-tying shot.

Slo-mo replay showed the Spartans did it again on the subsequent play. Why allow a team to score if you can just knock them to the ground instead?

The bothsidesers will tell you that everyone does it. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it. And besides, what’s the big deal?

And then there’s the segment of the Michigan State fanbase that doesn’t merely rationalize Izzo’s brand of tackle basketball.

They celebrate it.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Enter Glass Man

Contemplating a return match with the B1G’s enigmatic Indiana Hoosiers, you should focus on rebounding and how the Hoosiers approach it.

Angry white trash fans will tell you — between calls for Archie Miller’s head — that their team has been pretty damn good on defense this year. The offense stalls for massive dead periods, predictably, if not every single game.

As for boards, Indiana is not good. Or at least, they’re not as good as conference opponents. Here’s a chart of recent Illini opponents, and how they perform on the glass in B1G games.

Some obvious points here: Iowa has the most rebounds per game because they play fast. Ohio State has the most rebounds overall because they’ve played 12 games. Rutgers has more O-bounds than its opponents, and fewer overall. Maryland does not compete for offensive rebounds. Not always, anyhow.

Not crashing the O-boards was key to Maryland’s win in Champaign. By sending their guys the other way, Maryland’s defense allowed itself to fend off Ayo and the blitzkrieg Illini transition game.

Deconstructing that game, Terps coach Matt Brady said this of the Illini “7 seconds” plan:

“Transition is such a big deal for them, We lost to Illinois (the Tevian Jones game) when they beat us in transition. And even though they got 18 points in transition (this January), we said we’re gonna send three if not four guys back. We’re not even going to try to get an offensive rebound unless we have a great chance to get a rebound. It’s another one of the things, if you’re going to beat them, you have to keep them out of transition. It was part and parcel of what we tried to do.”

Contrast Friday’s Iowa game. Every time the Hawkeyes made a bucket, Ayo immediately sprinted through their “defense” for a lay-up.

Ohio State won in Champaign because they did something unusual — or at least unusual for them: They relied on three-point shooters who hadn’t previously been successful from the arc.

It’s hard to scout for things that never happen, and it’s not worth scouting for things that rarely happen. That’s why Illini fans perseverate about the unknown bench player who “goes off” against Illinois. In truth, that happens to every team. It’s the nature of the game.

Like Ohio State, Indiana is small-ish on the interior. Like EJ Liddell, Trayce Jackson-Davis is a natural power forward who plays somewhat out of position. But unlike EJ Liddell, Trayce Jackson-Davis has not attempted a three-pointer this year. Not even during Indiana’s three non-conference blowouts.

So the key thing to watch for tonight is how Indiana sets up on the defensive end. Will they get back before Ayo takes off for the races? Will they keep the ball out of Kofi’s hands? That’s been an Achilles heel for Illinois this year. You’d want Kofi to get more than 10 touches per game, but so far, Brad Underwood’s scheming has not produced more touches. A few Zooms ago, he chuckled at the notion that any scheming could achieve a more open, or less harassed, Kofi.

But if it weren’t possible, you’d never have heard of Aloysius Anagonye. There’s a list of famous Spartans from Zach Randolph to Kelvin Torbert to the supersoft Paul Davis whose interior efforts were greatly advanced by Aloysius Anagonye felling defenders left and right around them.

So far in the Underwood tenure, Illinois has employed the butt-screen for its little guys, rather than as flack protection for its bigs.

Giorgious

When Kofi does get the ball, he’ll need to keep it high. away from help defenders.

Jackson-Davis is a good shot blocker, and he has a thick base. His shoulders aren’t as broad as you’d expect if you only got a chance to look at his lower trunk. But he knows how to use his hands in low-post defensive situations. But if Kofi can muscle the ball upward, he (or a teammate) will get slightly more than one chance per shot to achieve ball-through-ring.

Indiana doesn’t rebound well, and Jacob Grandison has launched himself into a prominent role largely because his natural instinct is to rush the offensive glass (90% according to Underwood).

If Kofi gets 15 touches, Indiana loses. If Grandison gets four second-chance buckets, Indiana loses.

But teams don’t need to rebound, certainly not offensively, if they never miss. Quod erat demonstrandum. If Rob Phinisee and Aljami Durham drain their threes*, and if Kofi gets twelve touches or fewer, Indiana wins.

*Armaan Franklin will make his, if he plays. He’s shooting 46% this season. Durham is 32% & Phinisee is 35%

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Consider Ricky Blanton

You’re having a sad, and that’s okay. Your team just lost to a 1-and-5 Maryland squad whose point guard sat out, and whose best veteran played with half a face. You then thought you’d take your frustrations out on the former Mayor of Ames, Iowa; but your guaranteed win got cancelled.

Andy Wenstrand – Illini Athletics

My job this season seems — if I’m reading me correctly — to consist of regurgitating two themes:

  • Tempering your enthusiasm
  • Encouraging you to be encouraged

Remember, the 2020 Illini were getting better, but they weren’t great. Then you lost Andres Feliz and Alan Griffin, the fighter and the shooter. Nobody will replace Griffin’s shooting and rebounding. Maybe Adam Miller can replace his shooting. He got a little of that mojo back the other night.

No one has filled — and perhaps no one can fill — the Feliz-shaped hole left in the team’s je ne sais quoi. Intangibles are hard to tangib.

Michael Glasgow / Illinois Athletics

This 2021 team remains a work in progress, and the individual parts aren’t currently symbiosing toward a greater whole. So when a team like Maryland holds Kofi to 10 FG attempts — and Ayo misses 14 of his own 23 — well, yes, this group becomes susceptible to mischief.

Maryland had the intellectual advantage in that its scouting report came from former Marist and James Madison head coach Matt Brady, who had an opportunity to expose Illini newcomers in a way that Duke’s staff didn’t. More games = more video clips.

Where Baylor’s Alvin Brooks III exploited weaknesses from known players, Brady was able to focus on Andre Curbelo, and take note of Belo’s tricky kick-outs.

Mark Turgeon might be underrated by Maryland fans, but he’s not underrated by his colleagues. You may recall that UMD beat Illinois twice last year, en route to a B1G Championship. Adding a veteran tactician like Matt Brady, first as a non-recruiting-but-definitely-hands-on assistant* before Brady’s elevation to an unrestricted role, should be seen as an obvious move. It’s the same with Phil Martelli at Michigan, and Ed Conroy at Minnesota. You get these guys on staff when you can.

Brady had an opportunity to talk about his Illini scouting report because the Terps had this week off, and won’t face the Illini again during the regular season.

ON CURBELO

“He’s a marvelous player and I think he’s got a chance to be one of the best point guards in this league, in time. He is elite at driving and getting into the lane and making shots at the rim, and making other players better with his penetration — but that pre-supposes that he’s going to get in the lane.

“We started with ‘we gotta keep him in front of us, and out of the lane.’ And if it meant helping off of him, and giving up a couple of shots, then we were willing to live with a couple of his made shots. But we had to keep him in front.

“He still got to the lane. In fact, he got one on a turnover where he beat everybody on the court — he just missed the shot.

Some of that, we were fortunate. He didn’t play as well as he normally has … but it was a big deal that we stayed in front of him, no doubt.

ON DEFENDING AYO

“We have an elite on-ball defender in Darryl Morsell. He probably hasn’t made an all-defensive team here, in his four years, But when there’s a perimeter guy who can really score, Darryl is as close as a “closer” in this league … he doesn’t have the length of some other guys in this league that are elite defensively, he’s only 6’4″ but he is an outstanding defensive perimeter guard, and he loves the challenge of taking on the best players in this league.”

Darryl Morsell guards Ayo during simpler times.

Brady reflected on a pair of games between Maryland and Purdue, when Carsen Edwards was still in the league (dropping 40 on Illinois, for example). Edwards got his points against Maryland, but it took him a boatload of shots to do it. In a December 2018 match-up at Mackey, Morsell harassed Edwards into 4-of-15 shooting. Edwards was 9-of-9 from the free-throw line, but Morsell finished the game with only two fouls.

“We decided not to switch at all. Darryl wanted him and Darryl guarded him. Darryl’s been able to do that in his time.”

Purdue won the first of those two match-ups when Anthony Cowan’s game-winner was blocked as time expired.

It was the closest Purdue — eventual B1G champions that season — came to losing at home. The Terrapins converted all those missed Edwards attempts into a 39-29 rebound advantage.

Two months later, in College Park, they repeated that formula to great success. Edwards got his points, but his 8-of-27 shooting (3-for-13 from the arc) was ridiculously inefficient, and cost Purdue better opportunities. Maryland won 70-56.

It worked against Illinois, too.

Forcing Ayo and ‘Belo into bad shots didn’t just result in them hitting 4-of-12 and 9-of-23 respectively. It meant Kofi got fewer opportunities.

ON SLOWING KOFI

“A lot of it was the mentality of our group, that we were going to fight him for space,” said Brady, “and not let him get deep post touches.

“We have a grad-transfer in Galin Smith who’s not an excellent offensive player, but like Darryl Morsell he’s very prideful. I grabbed him before the game and said ‘we’re going to need an extraordinary effort, defensively … and it can’t be after the catch.’ It’s kind of like turf warfare. He’s going to have to fight for low-post position. And Galin did an extraordinary job of just fighting with him on every possession, particularly in the second half.

“Most of the baskets Kofi had in the first half — I think he was 6-for-8 — were against Chol Marial, who’s not built for that kind of hand-to-hand combat. But Galin Smith was really up to the challenge. He knew that we couldn’t be in the game unless he brought it defensively.

“After the game, each of us coaches had something to say to the team. The only thing I said to the team in the locker room was ‘there’s no way we win that game without Galin’s extraordinary effort.’

“I was glad Galin was able to take a bow for our group, because he’s a really unsung player for us.”

It feels unlikely that any squad which continually bares its soft underbelly would, could … might put together a stretch run, or a March Maddening. But then again, you never thought a loosely organized brood of underemployed motorcycle mechanics and fulfillment clerks would overrun the United States government, didya?

Michael Glasgow – Illinois Athletics

It would be best if Brad Underwood’s fifth Illini team just put it all together, and won out. But it’s more likely that they’ll grow gradually, both individually and as a unit, and be pretty good on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Is that enough to win four games in four days? (Or, knock on wood, three?) Can this team play consistently six times in a row?

Of course it can. Weird things happen in March.

This crossroads, where a rising Illini team was felled by a Maryland squad that’s past its due date, but still has some capable veterans, reminded me of another Illini team on the rise.

I don’t remember the above game, but I’ll never forget Ricky Blanton’s name, especially because he was so ugly and inspirational.

We were all Ricky Blanton fans in March of 1986, when 11th-seeded Louisiana State made an historic and unlikely run to the Final Four. They kept getting the right breaks. The ball dropped when they needed it to drop.

Contrast Blanton’s Cinderella slipper with his pummeling, at the hands of your Flyin’ Illini — who came, saw & conquered Le Baton Rouge in December of 1988.

By that point, LSU had added the artist formerly known as Chris Jackson, but not the Illini recruit Shaquille O’Neal. Jackson’s passes were too quick for Blanton and his teammates. They hadn’t gelled as a unit. Illinois, on the other hand, was the best team in college basketball. That was especially true because they’d already played together for a full season.

Give it time. They’re young.

When March of 1989 finally arrived, a recovered Kendall Gill (greenstick fracture, foot) had rejoined an Illini team that went undefeated with him, and had lost four games without him. But then Kenny Battle slipped on a patch of water from the leaky Humphreydome roof, and sprained his knee. What might have been?

The Illini had vanquished both Indiana (Big Ten champs) and Michigan (national champs) during the regular season. But by the last weekend, the Wolverines had come together. Without Battle at 100%, Michigan did to Illini dreams what Illinois did to Ricky Blanton’s.

Michael Glasgow / Illinois Athletics

It left a bad taste in your mouth at the time, but it should give you hope in 2021, especially if Trent’s shoulder and Da’Monte’s ankle aren’t as consequential as the publicity-squelched Battle hobbling.

Darryl Morsell should have played for a national title last year. He deserves it, given all the hard work he’s put in. But COVID wiped his only chance. Anthony Cowan ran out of eligibility, and Jalen Smith decided to go pro. The best laid plans fell apart.

Curbelo is not yet Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and he’s not even Chris Jackson. But let’s enjoy seeing who he becomes once he’s adjusted to B1G scouting adjusting to him. After all, Jackson — exciting as he was in that December ’88 game — fouled out even before Illinois crossed the century mark.

You should always have been emotionally prepared for these early losses. This team is not like the 1989 Illini, nor 2005. Too many new parts are coming together. You can fret about that if you like to fret. But as Ayo said, it’s just a step in the journey.

Temper your enthusiasm. Be encouraged.

*Brady served a six-game paid suspension at the start of the 2019 season because, like a lot of Illinois “non-coaching” assistants, he was coaching.

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The Second Dimension

Listening to outsiders — basketball fans who aren’t Illini fans, sports media that’s not Illini sports media — you’d know the common wisdom about this 2021 Illini basketball team.

It’s the Ayo Show, featuring Kofi.

For the first time since forever, Illinois has a dominant hi-lo combo. If we can’t kill you from the inside, we’ll kill you from the outside. It’s a treat to have both weapons, but probably not enough to win a championship.

That’s why Saturday’s win over Purdue was the third significant game of the season, and the first significant game Illinois won this season.

It signifies because Ayo was normal. Not normal for Ayo, but normal for mortals. While the Boxing Day win over Indiana led to the obvious conclusion this team is screwed without Ayo, the Purdue win showed that, yes, Illinois has other options. It’s an important building block.

The 2005 team needed Jack Ingram to win at Wisconsin. It needed Roger Powell to beat Louisville. The Deron-Dee-Luther three-headed dragon was enough for 25 wins. The team needed other weapons to reach 37. It’s important that Da’Monte Williams and Andre Curbelo were the guys in that postgame presser.

The best part about this block is that Illinois notched a victory while building it. The two previous significant games were Baylor — in which the lads witnessed a near-flawless team defense — and Rutgers, where Coach Underwood showed them that ungoverned individual effort (Paul Mulcahy) can be the difference in a game (and not necessarily because it scores a lot).

Matt Painter put it this way after Saturday’s game: “You want to learn from the games that you lose, and you’ve got to be able to earn that right.”

Painter’s press conferences are always an elucidation in basketball philosophy. It almost doesn’t make sense that he can be so professorial within minutes of being so … well, angry.

Ayo’s getting out of the way allowed Belo and Da’Monte to embrace a challenge they wouldn’t face if Ayo carried the team on his back. They played lead roles in a contested game, with consequences.

Da’Monte’s sharp-shooting is a story in itself. His rebounding is what you’d expect. But he does both quietly. He’s the perfect foil for Belo, who’s entertainingly out-of-control.

The Belo/Kofi oop game has potential to develop a Douglas-Winters mythos (ask your dad).

The coaching staff will need to decide if reining Belo is worth the risk of ruining him. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate their coaching chops. But any (perceived) negative outcome will be talked about. You like your chances in this scenario, as an Illini fan. For all the brilliance its shown in landing Cokburn, Belo, Feliz (Orlando Antigua) and Ayo and Adam (Chin Coleman); this staff has plenty to prove.

Chin Coleman, masked appropriately

Antigua took the dangerous step that a lot of comfortably compensated assistants don’t dare: After his Kentucky success, he stepped out on his own. It didn’t work at South Florida. If you’re a religious Illini fan, thank god for that. His suffering is your redemption.

Chin finally worked his way into the P5 coaching ranks with the Promise of Ayo. He delivered, thus sealing Paris Parham’s demise at Illinois. (Jamall Walker was kept on for the same reason that Parham wasn’t — to secure recruits from his territory.)

The next chapter in the Chin story is his to write. Wrangling this group together, to execute as a disciplined unit, is how this author would write it (given a choice).

It’s early January, and Brad Underwood has already bestowed sophomore status on his freshman guards. But that’s premature. They’re playing like freshmen.

That’s okay. It’s expected.

You get the idea that Ayo is willing to wait in the corner, ready to take over if needed. That’s an amazing quality, but it fits with his big brother viewpoint.

The development of this team will be entertaining no matter what. It will be especially fun to watch if they win games while they’re developing.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Arch Support

What a great day to be a basketball fan. You can hardly wait to see Matt Painter’s gang bludgeoned at the RAC, right? And what if Northwestern beats a top 10 Iowa team at Carver?

May we live in Interesting Times.

B1G standings – December 29, 2020

Yes, MSU is the worst team in the Big Ten. Yes, Northwestern is alone in first place. The times they are a-changin’.

Beilein and Bo, the best coaches in the conference, are gone. Tom Izzo turns 66 in a month. Juwan Howard has proved he can recruit, but can he coach a team to consistency? Steve Pikiell revived a program last relevant in the Ford Administration. He’ll be getting job offers in three months. If Chris Collins keeps it rolling in Evanston … well, Mike Krzyzewski turns 74 in February.

In simpler times, people crowded around Chris Collins in person

Fran McCaffery will never have a batter team unless he can land every single white kid in America.

Painter continues to churn away with a system that’s worked for four decades. But starters Nojel Eastern & Matt Haarms had enough of it. When your senior leaders bail, people start to whisper & mutter.

So to be specific, it’s a great day to be an Illini basketball fan. Last week was a great example of where we stand, and where the conference is headed. Pikiell rallied his team to execute. Penn State is falling apart. And Indiana is drowning in a swamp of angry fans.

Justin Smith had enough of Indiana. Same with Nojel Eastern and Purdue.

Looking back at four years of Illinois-Indiana, you could make an argument for which school hired the better coach in 2017. And assuredly, cynical fans of each program will tell you: They did.

The teams split their 2017-18 games. Looking back at that Hoosiers roster, you’ll think “oh yeah – him.” They finished 16-15 which is no better than Illinois, which finished 14-18. Good seasons end with single-digit losses. If your coach leads you to enough 12-loss seasons, and their accompanying 8-ish seed berths in the tournament, you’ll be anxious for the next coach.

In 2019, Illinois was full rebuild, and Indiana crushed any promising signs of life with March 7’s 92-74 drubbing at SFC. It was one of the most depressing games in recent memory, which is why you’ve forgotten it. The Hoosiers won both games that year, but haven’t beaten the Illini since.

Saturday’s game buttressed all the arguments against Archie. The offense stalled for two significant stretches. His substitution patterns and line-ups created mismatches and weak spots for his team. He benched his star player for a fourth of the game because Trayce Jackson-Davis committed a second foul, and subsequent to that, a third foul. Trayce Jackson-Davis finished the game with three fouls.

Tyler, Edgar and Ayo were thrilled with Archie’s strategic decisions

Hoosier fans comfort themselves with Beckmanesque rationalizations. These two teams would be equal, but Romeo left and Ayo stayed. The loudest critics are FREAKING OUT because all of Archie’s top recruiting targets went elsewhere. So did Brad’s of course. But Brad has a pair of touted freshmen who will also be freshmen next year.

Can Archie win enough games to fend off the clamoring Banners Pointers? Lots of summertoothed holler-dwellers still believe Indiana is a blue blood. They’re unparalleled at running coaches out of town on a rail. Meanwhile, Purdue hasn’t fired a basketball coach in over forty years. Maybe fifty. Nobody’s really sure.

Purdue tried to Guenther Lee Rose after his 1980 Final Four run. It didn’t work then, either.

Illini fans still haunted by nightmares of Weberball don’t ever again want to watch a well-coached defensive team that hasn’t really worked on offense yet and auto-benches its best player after two fouls. Benching one’s best player is the epitome of inflexible coaching, a hallmark of the Weber philosophy. Indiana fans might accept stodgy inflexibility for old time’s sake, but not of it finishes 9-11 in conference.

Underwood critics say he doesn’t have a system. That he keeps changing his defense. That he keeps trying new things. You know, as if that’s a problem.

THE LONE WOLF

Adam Miller started the Indiana game, as usual. He scored zero points and grabbed zero rebounds, with two turnovers and no assists in 17:38. Afterward, Brad Underwood said he’d keep starting Miller. Underwood said Miller’s been great.

We’re seeing sports psychology in action.

Miller was practically invisible against Indiana while his roommate was everywhere, all the time. Andre Curbelo again ignited the team, turning a scoreless start into a thrilling rally. The Illini raced through the first eighth of the game without converting a field goal. Belo came in, and the team converted three of them within about 15 seconds of whirling dervish.

Underwood has coached for a few minutes, though. He knows that benching Adam might break a delicate psyche that’s undergoing some painful adjustments and a whole lotta learning process. So Underwood will keep saying that Adam is great. He’ll keep Adam in the starting five. Curbelo played 29:41 — thirdmost court time after Ayo and Trent.

The dynamics of the Miller-Curbelo-Underwood relationship are one of the underrated storylines of the season. And the supporting cast is important, too. Orlando Antigua, Chin Coleman, Da’Monte Williams and Ayo Dosunmu play key roles. Even Edgar Padilla Jr. can’t be ignored in telling the story.

It’s one of the great reasons to look forward to 2021.

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Illini Basketball

Snowy Centre

Jim Ferry made an interesting point in his postgame Q&A session. Illinois has two NBA players, he said. Which is nice, he said.

But that’s not the reason his team lost.

Ayo and Kofi combined for 53 points, and did it pretty efficiently — Kofi on 11-of-13 shots in the paint, and Ayo on 50% shooting from farther away.

But it was laziness, he didn’t quite say, that lost the game for his interim Lions. Little Things, he said, as if talking about Da’Monte Williams, were the difference. But big things (guarding your man, rebounding) and not fouling left and right were also the difference.

Ferry pointed out that the stats were fairly even, and everybody performed well offensively.

But Illinois attempted 28 FTs while the home team attempted SEVEN.

TOTAL.

It’s almost as if Brad Underwood got angry after the Rutgers game, and Mentioned It to his team. Yes, the game at Penn State was the complete Bizarro 180° reversal of the game at Rutgers. Just like last year!

But let’s get back to that initial observation: Ayo & Kofi combine for 53 points, and that wasn’t the difference in the game, according to the guy who lost it.

It’s an important point to keep in mind. If opposing teams are willing to let Ayo get his 30, and Kofi his 23 while they focus on Mulcahying the rest of the team into submission, Illinois should be worried.

So yeah, that’s why all of you and all of us knew Jake Grandison would be the guy proffered as postgame spokesman last night. And oh my those offensive rebounds.

The supporting cast of this Tale of 2021 has yet to be written into the script. We know the leads. We know the ensemble. We don’t know who’s going to provide the comic relief, as it were.

No, sorry, that’s obviously Curbelo.

We don’t know who the Ervin Small is going to be. The guy who disrupts the other team, because they weren’t expecting him, nor the fight he brought to the contest.

Good on Jake for being that guy last night. It will be Adam Miller in February. It might be Coleman Hawkins playing the (taller) P.J Bowman role in a crucial March game. Last night it was Jake, and you should feel good about that, because Jake is a good guy.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Mausoleum

Brad Underwood says the new Nittany Lions (Jim Ferry’s squad) press their opponents more than the old Nittany Lions (Pat Chambers’ squad) and that does not bode well for this Illini team in its second B1G road adventure. So far, Penn State has beaten VMI, VCU and VT. Non-Virgina Schools fared better. Seton Hall and Michigan aren’t as great as they were in 1989, but they had enough to manhandle this year’s Lions.

Jim Ferry was an assistant last year, now he’s the interim head coach

Bright siding tonight’s game, Underwood likes fake crowd noise. Penn State invented fake noise.

The Bryce Jordan Center was sold out when Lucas Johnson, or maybe it was Brian Johnson, and his Big Ten Champion teammates rolled into University Park, PA.

As far as I know, that was the last BJC sellout. Or at least, that was the last time the upper deck was filled with actual people.

Apart from the piped lion, it’s sedate.

The media workroom sits across the hall. In past years, you’d find Steven Bardo serving himself from the steamtable buffet. But recently, PSU stopped catering to its guests, choosing to follow Iowa’s lead by providing $10 food vouchers for use at BJC concessions stands. Or maybe it’s “stand.” I’ve seen only the one.

No, I’m not complaining about free food. A ten dollar voucher got me a ten dollar hamburger, and it was okay.

The BJC sits on the edge of town, like the State Farm Center. A massive football stadium is nearby, and then there’s pasture, also like the SFC, but without all the people that you’d find at an SFC basketball game. It feels like a glacier. Serene, and slightly windblown.

PSU’s Materials Science Building is cool lookin’

It’s not that PSU fans don’t care about sports, of course. Across the street, on the campus side (as opposed to the pasture side) an ice hockey rink bustles with fans. When the team isn’t playing, it bustles with community skaters (in non-Covid times). The Nittany Lacrosse Team practices nearby. Its stadium reminds B1G visitors that PSU has an athletics program.

Just look at all their sports!

But they don’t care about basketball.

State College is arguably my favorite place to cover B1G basketball. But it’s not because of the crowd, the team or the game.

I know how to get & stay there, cheap. I thrive on reports of its inaccessibility and cost. I’m usually the only Illini reporter, which affords me more interaction with the team and coaches. The Hotel State College has three restaurants and two bars in the building, and I can walk to the arena. Vicky Lumpkin hooks me up with my favorite room. Dave Staab awaits in the basement, and draws fresh ideas from the Zeno’s tap when I need inspiration.

The Hotel State College

To me, State College is about individual people I can get to know, with whom I work.

Most importantly, since the Sandusky scandal, PSU hired PR staff who connect with people on a human level. That sounds like corporate speak, but it’s not.

A lot of SIDs are self-satisfied assholes. They think/know that you need them more than they need you. It heightens one’s appreciation for guys like Patrick Herb (Wisconsin) and Tom Wyrot (Michigan) who remain down-to-earth and accessible, despite their teams’ enormous success.

When the old PSU staff bailed (tired of scandal) PSU brought in the relatable Alissa Clendenen, who wore Chuck Taylors at the end of her black hose. Punk rock, not business casual. When she left for Pitt, the boisterous Rose Carter took over. She’s a force of nature, passionate and compassionate. That’s her voice encouraging John Harrar when he says he wants “peace” for Christmas.

When the News-Gazette scrambled to locate a photographer a couple of years ago, Rose found me in the media lounge, and asked if I’d like to help them. I emailed a couple of pics to Matt Daniels, for the Sunday Sports Section. Everybody wins!

She’s not a pushover, though. When Myreon Jones struggled with “illness” last season, Rose made it clear that undisclosed would not be disclosed.

I thought I might play it cool. “Do we know the nature of this Myles Dread ‘illness?'” I asked, having gleaned from the TV commentary that “illness” was the company line.

“Illness!” she answered, smiling brightly.

Rose Pietrzak Carter, emphasis on the Pietrzak

BJC is an intimate setting. A couple of old guys wait at the media door, just off the loading dock. There’s another pair of guys down the hallway, sitting outside the visitor’s locker room. Last year, erstwhile Champaign County Sheriff candidate Allen Jones was also there, having been hired as Underwood’s body man.

Yes, there’s a student section. Yes, there’s a mascot. Yes, four thousand people show up to watch. There’s nothing like it anywhere in the B1G.

So tonight’s game will feel just like a Penn State home game. The fake lion growl will be no more audible. Unfortunately, it will be no less audible. The fake crowd noise might not sound like the usual fake enthusiasm of the student section, but its insincerity will come across. And Brad Underwood will enjoy it.

Tune in at 5:30 on the BTN.