Categories
Illini Basketball

The Giorgi Development

Rutgers was a good game for Giorgi, who seems to do well against Scarlet Knights.

He made half his shots, grabbed 7 rebounds in 23 minutes, connected on both free-throws, dished two assists and committed only two fouls (one of which accounted for his lone turnover).

Giorgi’s great attributes are hard to quantify. They’re so many. One that stands out is selflessness. He genuinely enjoys watching his teammates succeed, even at the expense of his own gaudy stats.

His major weakness comes simultaneously. He hasn’t refined his high-post screens to B1G standards, so he’s called for a lot of moving picks. Similarly, his understanding of the charge/block rule is a work in progress.

Giorgi was genuinely surprised when Kelly Pfeifer rang him up for the most obvious player-control foul of the 2020 college basketball season. Dozens of Rutgers fans screamed that’s a charge! the first time Giorgi thrust his shoulder into Ron Harper. When he felled Harper with a buttocks to the gut, everybody in the building knew which way the call was going.

Giorgi found his shot in Piscataway. It helped that Harper is shorter and less athletic than Jalen Smith & Xavier Tillman.

But that’s the point of playing him alongside Kofi, rather than instead of Kofi. If a team puts its big man on Cockburn, Giorgi can dominate a smaller opponent. Kofi could help clear out the paint by dragging his man to the high-post.

Problem is, Kofi hasn’t demonstrated (publicly) his ability to knock down a 17-footer. He can do it, and he does it in practice. But apart from a broken play at Mackey Arena, where Kofi surprised everyone by dropping a jumpshot; Illini fans haven’t seen that side of his game.

Giorgi has a knack for creating space, both for himself and others. But lately, Brad Underwood has not been pleased by Giorgi’s casual attitude to the stretch-four position. Giorgi is actually the team’s second-best long-range shooter, a hair ahead of Ayo at 30.6% (unless you count Tyler Underwood’s 2-of-6).

He works on his threes, and his free-throws, after every practice.

You’ll recall the elder Underwood lamenting, prior to the second MSU game, the beginning of the first MSU game. The boss man does not want to open his offense with a three from Giorgi. The next day, Giorgi opened that second game with a missed three-pointer. He didn’t play a lot after that.

This morning, Underwood praised Giorgi’s jump hook and added “we have to get him more looks down there.” (emphasis mine)

The advantage of playing Kofi and Giorgi separately, assuming Giorgi can’t improve his threes by 6-to-10 percent and Kofi doesn’t add that jumper to his arsenal, is twofold.

First, they’re each less likely to garner five fouls.

Second, the four-out look can deter zone defenses, especially if Tevian Jones gets more tick. Tevian’s advantage over every Illini (and all opponents) is that his release takes place above the heads of most defenders. Not only is Tev quick draw, but he’s a high leaper. His jump shot takes place in the clouds. That’s why it gives opponents fits.

Coach Underwood sees that he needs to open the middle, and create space for his offense. Giorgi is tool to that end. Because his attitude is pure altruism, he’s willing to do whatever it takes.

Categories
Illini Basketball

The Low-Percentage Shot

Step back from the ledge.

An eon ago, in The 12 Seed, I speculated an upcoming five-game losing streak. It felt like a safe bet.

The other day, I suggested a silver lining to Ayo’s unexpected vacation. The committee might look at this east coast swing with even less skepticism than they might have. Losing at Rutgers and Penn State is not a big deal, and there’s no penalty for tourney purposes.

The Illini must beat the remaining crap teams on their schedule. Compiled Quad 1 wins have almost guaranteed some kind of bid.

The next mission for the team and its coaching staff is to figure out how to find uncontested, or at least less contested, shots.

At Rutgers, the boys in blue got open looks from Tevian Jones. Alan Griffin had a pair of clean looks from the outside, and a lot of armpits closer to the hoop.

Kofi was harassed in the paint, and didn’t quite figure out the implication of his abuse: The refs were letting ’em play.

Would Kofi be able to shift gears if he knew he could play rough? Maybe. Maybe not. These skills develop over time.

He didn’t seem as rattled in the second half, but then, he attempted two-thirds fewer shots.

In the first half, Kofi converted 4-of-9 attempts from the floor. In the second half, he launched only three. One of them went in.

The worst shooting performance came from Trent Frazier. Trent didn’t simply miss his shots. It’s not that the rim was unkind (except for that three that spun around and out). Trent’s problem was Rutgers. They were taller than he. They were in his way.

Trent’s shots were terrible, and the results predictable.

Even his high-percentage shots were low-percentage shots. You try to make a lay-up against three taller guys. You’ll see that it affects your percentage.

Trent needs more of the above from his teammates. He’s a great offensive weapon when they keep defenders out of his way.

It might seem insulting to say that Trent can’t create his own shot, but basketball is a team sport. Moreover, Trent can create his own shot. It’s a sudden & unexpected 30-foot jumper. He’s pretty good at it.

With each new game’s worth of video, this team becomes easier to scout. Illinois’ opponents have demonstrated admirable capability & professionalism in their game-planning.

It’s getting hard to score.

Brad & staff recognize this problem. They’ve already taken steps to address it.

You may have noticed that Tevian Jones played real minutes in Piscataway.

Alan started.

These two spread the floor. Their teammates aren’t dreadful at kicking out to them once the defense collapses; they’re merely bad at it.

Both Trent and Andres Feliz know how to drive and kick, but Kofi and Giorgi are still learning when to quit fighting through a double-team.

Both still exhibit space-out moments, what Brad calls “casual.” At Rutgers, Kofi took a half-second to assess the defense.

That was the only half-second Ron Harper needed.

When the parts come together, it looks effortless.

But too much of the time, it looks labored. It’s not always easy to watch a broken play and determine, in real time, how it broke. It’s worse when you can see it break before the players do.

Giorgi’s game at Rutgers, and in general, deserves it’s own column. He seems to have got his groove back. Brad says he wants more offensive opportunities for Giorgi.

Look for that tomorrow.

Categories
Illini Basketball

The Slippery Spot

Now that the medical report is in, some of you are surely wondering why Ayo hit the deck, rather than the game-winning shot.

Did he, for example, slip on a wet patch? Was there, for example, some dripped perspiration left after a timeout huddle?

And why do teams huddle on the court anyway?

If you hadn’t known but always wondered, yes; the NCAA has a rule about timeout huddles. And that’s the reason teams meet on the court, rather than remaining on the bench.

Art. 2. During any timeout or before any extra period, bench personnel and players shall locate themselves inside an imaginary rectangle formed by the boundaries of the sideline (including the bench), end line and an imaginary line extended from the free-throw lane line nearest the bench area meeting an imaginary line extended from the 28-foot line.

2019-20 NCAA Men’s Basketball Rules and Interpretations, Rule 4, Section 3, Article 2

Somebody probably thought it was a good idea. Perhaps a better idea is to give teams a choice. Huddle on the bench or on the court, whichever works best for you.

One can imagine that visiting teams might want to get away from heckling student sections. That would be true at Iowa and Michigan, where the Hawk’s Nest and Maize Rage are three feet from the visitor’s bench.

But at Purdue and Indiana, the team’s bench is surrounded by friendly boosters and parents. It varies from place to place.

Moreover, teams figure out how to harass their guests within any rules paradigm. At Iowa, for example, a mid-timeout contest features fans lobbing half-court shots at the visitors goal. A few ball-hawkers are assigned to prevent long rebounds from striking the backs of visitors heads. Perhaps not enough.

But maybe Ayo’s near-tragic landing wasn’t a matter of moisture. As I’ve written here before, Ayo falls a lot. He frequently lands hard.

I’ve often winced when he lands on a hip, or his coccyx. I feel less fearful when he lands on me, because I’m relatively soft.

Part of my concern stems from Ayo’s slight build. If you’ve only seen him on TV, you might not perceive his slenderness. It’s part of what makes him so quick. He’s built like a greyhound.

Maybe his bones and joints are just as sturdy as bigger bones and joints. They’re certainly smaller.

’til Tuesday, he’d seemed to dodge that bullet. But the ground finally caught up with him.

Don’t expect any updates on his physical condition today or tomorrow. Rutgers is undefeated at home. There’s no reason to help with their scouting report.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Limbo

Running from the media room to the Spartans locker room, I caught a glimpse of the Dosunmu family in the training room. I made eye contact with Jamarra. I hope I cringed appropriately.

You never know what to say in these circumstances, and credentialed media aren’t welcome to poke around during medical examinations, so I hope I conveyed sympathy while also running as fast as possible.

I have a non-professional relationship with the Dosunmus. I don’t seek their input for publication purposes. I like to celebrate their highs and commiserate their lows. These are relationships you can’t help but form, especially at away games when a crowd of 15,750 contains 12 familiar faces.

I’m writing at 1:30 am. so this post may be obsolete by the time you read it. As of now, we don’t know the extent of Ayo’s injury. Everyone hopes it’s mild, of course. And if so, it could actually help the Illini.

How?

Well, as I wrote the other day, this was going to be a five-game losing streak. Illinois had beaten one good team this year (Rutgers) and came close to beating a different good team (Maryland, at their place).

The second half of Tuesday’s game was the tectonic shift of the season. The Illini changed their own narrative. A thousand moments unfolded to paint the perfect pastiche of when they turned the corner or the season turned around or the moment it all came together.

Each one deserves its own mention, whether it was Ayo ripping a rebound from some Spartan or Alan’s steals. The unyielding aggression that stymied them at Iowa and against Maryland was revved up and revisited upon a team renowned for its toughness and rebounding.

Now Illinois has an excellent chance to manipulate fate for its advantage. Let’s assume Ayo rests his knee for the week. If they lose at Rutgers and Penn State, they were going to lose at Rutgers and Penn State anyway. The supporting arguments memo to the Selection Committee will point out that Illinois was without its best player in those two losses.

Or, if Andres Feliz puts the team on his back (again) and Trent drains a dozen threes during the eastern adventure, then bully for those two. They’ll benefit from the extra opportunities either way. The team can only improve from this adversity … assuming its short-lived.

The lesser told story of Tuesday night was how everyone’s role changed. Tevian Jones went from oh, yeah I forgot about him to the first sub off the bench. Giorgi took Tevian’s spot on the bench, having perhaps not heard Brad’s pre-game admonition about starting games against Michigan State with Giorgi shooting threes.

MSU is different with Cassius Winston on the bench, and Josh Langford in a boot.

Winston’s foul trouble limited him to 25 minutes. He made a difference when he was on the court. So there’s still an asterisk qualifying any claim that this Illini team is good, or can beat good teams.

They will win enough games to get in the tournament. At that point, it will be fascinating to learn whether they’ll fix all the obvious problems. This team, more than any Illini team of my lifetime, has the potential to perform at uncharacteristic heights.

Categories
Illini Basketball

The Second Foul – A History

A hot topic after back-to-back losses is whether a player should sit after committing two fouls in a first half. Brad Underwood benched Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams for long stretches of the Iowa and Maryland first halves because each had committed a second foul.

Trent Frazier garnered an unfortunate foul at Iowa.

It’s not, by any means, the first time this Second Foul Rule has been hemmed-n-hawed among Illini observers.

Illini basketball has vast experience with the stodgy & inflexible. His name is Bruce Weber, and he’s notoriously hidebound in his approach to game management. The Second Foul Rule is a glaring example, and last March it cost him his second-best and probably last chance at a national title. Chester Frazier abandoned ship after watching Weber coach himself out of the NCAA tournament, losing to 13th-seed Irvine.

Weber needlessly sat first-team all-Big 12 guard Barry Brown for the rest of the first half after he picked up his second foul less than six minutes into the game. – Jeff Eisenberg

https://sports.yahoo.com/how-a-misguided-decision-its-coach-contributed-to-kansas-states-early-exit-223753384.html

Barry Brown finished that game with two fouls, as did Demetri McCamey on March 1, 2011. In that game, Illinois led Purdue by 13 in the first half. Then McCamey picked up his second foul.

Bruce Weber chastens Demetri McCamey

(While searching for these quotes, I found a classic example of Bruce Weber backhanded compliment concerning his best player/favorite target: “He’s grown up a lot. He’s learned how to play, he’s learned how to read defenses, all the things we’ve fought with him about over the years.”)

without McCamey, who was on his way to what might have been one of his best games of the year, the feeling changed instantly. -Mark Tupper

https://herald-review.com/blogs/mark_tupper/a-tough-loss-but-renewed-hope/article_4bb85b30-ac3b-5fb0-ba5d-2895340c8f19.html

With McCamey on the bench, Illinois (8-9 in the Big Ten, 18-12 overall) went scoreless for more than four minutes, plenty of time for the Boilermakers (14-3, 25-5) to seize momentum in front of 14,123 fans. – Stu Durando

https://www.stltoday.com/sports/college/illini/illini-start-fast-then-stumble-at-purdue/article_99ebb23a-f47e-5f33-8663-27db9a597b01.html

That 31-18 lead devolved to a 37-37 tie at halftime. Everyone wrote about McCamey’s benching, including me. I wrote about it again two years ago. I’m sort of obsessed with that game as a prime example of Bruce Weber’s inflexibility, and failure to learn from his mistakes.

This photo is not related to the story. I just couldn’t not publish it.

I also like to point out, at every available opportunity, that Brad Underwood is the anti-Weber.

This week, he addressed the Second Foul Rule twice. I asked in the pre-game press conference, and Brad Sturdy asked in the postgame. Here’s a mashup of those moments.

In short, yes. He will generally pull a player after a second foul in the first half.

But yes, he analyzes each situation and adjusts:

I do that a lot. I think the situation determines that.

I would prefer to have guys have more opportunities to stay aggressive in the second half. Yet that doesn’t always work.

If you feel like a game’s slipping and you need that guy … if you feel like you’re not getting quite the performance you need from the guy that replaced him, you may go back (to the pulled player).

I try to do that in very short stints when I put a guy back in (so) as to not let them get fatigued and commit a lazy foul. Not necessarily have them in there where the opponent can isolate a situation to try and pick up a third. I know we look to try to do that sometimes, depending on the situation.

My main premise for it is to be able to have the three fouls going into the second half, and then and be able to stay aggressive when you play in the second half and the game comes down to the end.

So that’s that’s why I do that. It’s not a everytime deal. But it’s completely based on the flow of the game from that aspect.

-Brad Underwood

So, maybe Underwood isn’t making the split-second decision you want. Maybe he’s not second-guessing himself at the times you’d like. But at least he’s always thinking about whether he can improve and adjust his strategy.

That’s what we want, yes?

Categories
Illini Basketball

The 12 Seed

Sweeping Michigan and Purdue seemed impressive, right?

Historically, and recently, Michigan and Purdue are B1G contenders. But what about this year? Purdue is 13-10 overall. Michigan is 4-7 in conference.

Is that good?

Memories of Caleb Swanigan and John Beilein are fresh, but Trevion Williams is not Caleb Swanigan. Beilein is gone. So is Bo Ryan. Wisconsin is also 13-10 on the year.

Looking at the schedule on February 8 gives the viewer a different impression of this Illini season than s/he might have had on October 29. Did you predict that Penn State and Rutgers would be the hard games?

And yet, arguably, Rutgers is the only good team that Illinois has beaten this season.

Last night’s loss looked a lot like its predecessor in Iowa City. Maryland employed an aggressive zone defense to completely emasculate the Illini. You can readily envision the Terps coaching staff slow-forwarding through video sequences of that Iowa game, identifying known weaknesses and capabilities.

Likewise, you can imagine the Iowa staff presenting video clips from the Braggin’ Rights embarrassment while telling its team if you challenge them with all your energy and effort; they will fold.

Special credit goes to Terps guard Darryl Morsell, who latched on to Ayo Dosunmu and didn’t let go. Perhaps he watched the Miami game.

If Ayo gets past you, it’s over. And Ayo is extremely good at getting past you. But if you keep him in front, hands high, Ayo’s arsenal diminishes.

Some fans seemed to think Illinois had a chance in the final 10 minutes of the game.

Or at least, they didn’t start leaving in droves until Anthony Cowan drained yet another three to put the Terps up 69-60 with 2:34 remaining.

It’s sweet that they felt Illinois had a chance, after scoring a single field goal in the first 10:52 of the second half.

But the truth is that Maryland had this one safely in its grasp from the moment they initiated that press.

The good news, if you want to call it good, is that NET rankings will probably keep the Illini in the tournament even if — as seems likely — their losing streak extends to five.

On the other hand, Izzo often craps the bed versus Illinois. And he’s too inflexible to mimic another team’s winning formula. So there’s that.

The Illini defense was much better against Maryland than at Breslin. In fact, it kept them within scratching distance during their 40 day ordeal in the scoring desert.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Los Feliz

Welp, my plan to publish every day encountered reality, fought it, and lost.

Yesterday, instead of writing this column, I spent every waking hour trying to install a forum at IlliniReport, only to find that WordPress and all its Forum plugins are super-buggy, like an Amish hot-rodder.

The IR forum was intended to replace the IlliniHQ fora, which died Sunday. In the grand scheme of things, neither that community nor the 72-65 defeat is all that important.

But both should be remembered, and this post will memorialize a moment from Sunday that Illini fans won’t want to forget.

This reporter has been Team Feliz since the first open scrimmage of last season. That fealty remains. I get why Coach Underwood wants to bring him off the bench, but I also want him on the floor for 40 minutes.

Sunday should remind everyone why Andres Feliz is a great Illini.

First, to set the scene: It was a warm, sunny Groundhog’s Day in Iowa City. About 45 degrees. The Iowa Caucus was the next day, so every available strip of dirt had a yard sign. Warren, Bernie, Yang Gang.

We found out that a big rally was happening just down the street from Carver-Hawkeye Arena. So we went to see what it was like.

It was big.

Maybe 1,500 people were waiting to get into a small junior high gym. Because we were wearing media credentials, campaign staffers grabbed us and walked us past the entire line, and into the gym. I felt kind of bad about that. But I did take some photos for the file, and I’ll share them with WILL. So it’s legit.

We moved on to Carver-Hawkeye, which was packed to the gills with white-clad white people. It was loud, and the Hawkeyes were playing an aggressive defense unseen in the Fran Era.

All defense has zone principles these days, and all zones have man principles these days. Whatever scheme the Hawkeyes employed, their defenders kept forcing smaller Illini to the baseline and sidelines. Both Alan and Trent got forced out-of-bounds completely.

Andres Feliz stood up to it. And then, he took its ball.

[Jason Marry was sitting to my right, so FightingIllini Productions will have this video in video form, rather than a bunch of 10 fps pictures glued together.]

Things looked pretty good for Illinois after Dre pulled off that unlikeliest of effort plays. The Illini led 59-55.

Even assistant coach Stephen Gentry got excited.

But on this unseasonably warm February afternoon, the sun was literally shining on Iowa City and its Hawkeye faithful.

You wouldn’t have known that Connor McCaffery was in a shooting slump, nor that Luka Garza had never attempted so many threes in his life.

They all went in the basket.

Or at least it seemed like they all went in. The box score says it was only 10-of-23, and that Garza made only 4-of-9.

But on a day when the Hawkeyes (and Brad Underwood) took Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn out of the game, that was enough.

Still, as Dre said in the hallway after the game. “We’re still in first place.”

That guy has grit.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Off-Night Warriors

Minnesota was the kind of game losers lose & champions win.

On a night when Ayo Dosunmu converted 4-of-12 shots, Trent Frazier managed 4-of-13 and Giorgi Bezhanishvili 2-of-7, you can see how desperately the Illini needed someone else to lead the way.

Fortunately, Illinois had two someones answering that call.

Da’Monte Williams swats the ball from Minnesota’s Alihan Demir on the would-be game tying shot, sealing the win.
At the other end of the court, Andres Feliz put the team on his back & carried them over the finish line.

In years past, John Groce would begin his postgame remarks by saying obviously, if you’d told me we’d hold them to 48 points or obviously, if you told me we’d limit ourselves to 8 turns and keep the rebound margin close or obviously if you told me we’d get production from all eight guys who played, I’d like our chances.

Things are better now. Illinois had an off-night and still found a way to win its seventh straight game.

It was a knife fight in a dark alley. Or a dogfight. Luckily for Illini fans, Andres Feliz and Da’Monte Williams are fighters.

Kofi Cockburn tallied a **yawn** double-double with 13 & 10 and managed, with the help of some deft coaching maneuvers, to avoid fouling-out despite challenging all-conference favorite Daniel Oturu throughout the night.

If Cockburn can stay toe-to-toe with Luka Garza on Sunday, he’ll earn his **yawn** eighth B1G Freshman of the Week.

Giorgi feeds the beast.
Giorgi feeds the beast, again.

So, survive and move on. Iowa awaits.

And now to the non-basketball aspects of Thursday night. If you take a head in the sand approach, this is your cue to stop reading.

In the top-middle of that second Giorgi feed, you’ll notice the rainbow “Pride Night” banner.

The Illini men wore long-sleeved Pride Night shirts over their jerseys, and State Farm Center was illuminated with rainbow colors rather than the traditional Orange & Blue.

The “Pride” movement and its various parades was created to make LGBT persons feel okay about themselves.

the promotion of the self-affirmation, dignity, equality, and increased visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people as a social group … as opposed to shame and social stigma

Wikipedia

According to the U.S Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.

Of course, Pride Night can be a tough sell when the audience is mostly white, small-town conservatives. Cleverly, the DIA took the Hobby Lobby approach, championing not LGBT rights, but “religious freedom,” the last constitutionally approved method for suppressing the uncomfortably different.

At the same time, the DIA announced the Robert Archibald Student-Athlete Health and Wellness Fund. Archibald’s funeral is today in Barrington.

So far, nobody has used the word “suicide” in relation to his death. Mentions of “demons” and “struggles” are as far toward that word as the discussion has ventured. It’s just coincidence that Pride Night aligned with the creation of a fund to support mental heath & wellness, even more coincidental that they landed on the same day that DJ Carton “stepped away” from the Ohio State basketball program for mental heath reasons.

Everyone who knew Arch is now questioning themselves about whether there was something they could have said or done to help. His last gift to the program is the wake-up call that addressing depression, anxiety & all forms of mental wellness issues must be a proactive pursuit. That young people should not be shamed against confiding their emotional identity.

It was the first Pride Night for men’s basketball. Volleyball and WBB have done it before, perhaps because the existence and occasional greatness of LGBT athletes has been acknowledged in those sports.

MBB has not crossed that bridge, and it’s yet to be noted that the Illini’s greatest alpha-male of the last decade was raised by lesbians.

Maybe next time, if DIA decides to have a next time; they’ll give the cheerleaders a less euphemistic slogan to promote.

Instead of the Hobby Lobby approach, why not just come out and say it: “It’s okay to be gay.”

Categories
Illini Basketball

Every Little Thing

Brad Underwood name-checked Da’Monte Williams 36 seconds into his opening statement. In fact, Da’Monte was the first person he praised.

Having done this “reporting” thing for more than ten years, I can guarantee you that half of the Wolverine media pool thought “who?” Another 48% recognized the name, but had not considered it while writing the first draft of their stories.

credit: Vashoune Russell

“I can’t say enough about Da’Monte Williams and the job he did today. I think he guarded every player on the floor for them.”

This is the kind of money quote that lands in newspapers.

For the kill shot, Underwood added “his value doesn’t show in the stat sheet,” which the reporters were at that very moment scouring in hopes of finding the name he’d just said before they forgot what name he’d just said. ” but it sure does to winning basketball.”

A few minutes later, Ayo Dosunmu allowed himself a diversion from answering questions about himself & his fellow stars.

“I also wanna give kudos not only to the guys who played but to The Fun Bunch as well.”

Ayo rolled off the names of his non-star teammates, here at 3:16

“Tyler Underwood, Austin Hutcherson, Jay (Jacob Grandison), Sammy (Oladimeji), Zima (Zach Griffith).

“They don’t get any recognition, but at the end of the day, those are guys that’s pushin’ us each & every day in the gym. Making the scout team. Making it tough for us. Pushing us defensively. Making us lock in. Those guys are a huge part of our success and it’d be selfish of me not to give them credit.”

Alan Griffin didn’t play, of course. But he was very much involved in the win. Just before the second half began, Alan worked his way down the bench, dapping every teammate.

Alan’s B1G suspension kept him from hitting the big shot. But when Ayo got the ball with ten seconds remaining, Alan leapt from the bench and slapped two fingers against the easy access vein on his right forearm.

Fortunately, these Illini shoot only basketballs. Alan’s gesture referenced Ayo’s cold-bloodedness. Two jukes later, Ayo proved him right.

This game was the epitome of every little thing. When Ayo slipped on an unwiped wet spot, he turned the ball over. If Illinois had lost by a point or two, fans could rightly blame Michigan’s game day crew for failing to wipe it up.

And then there were the free-throws.

credit: Vashoune Russell

I feel terrible for Austin Davis, especially.

Everyone knows Zavier Simpson is a lousy free-throw shooter, so his misses are swallowed with a grain of salt. He’s been outstanding for the Wolverines, in every way but one.

I’ve never met Franz Wagner, and I couldn’t hear what he said (could you?) in that grainy, out-of-focus postgame scrum you and 980 others watched after Saturday’s game (thank$).

But he’d converted 20-of-23 FT attempts coming into that game. The fact that he missed both of his coulda-been-game-clinching attempts is inexplicable. He’ll kick himself about it, but the fact is, he’s good. And shit happens.

But Austin Davis needed a good bounce, and he didn’t get it.

In his third year of active duty, the RS-junior center has played a total of 260 minutes.

On Saturday, he was the energy guy who rallied his team to take the lead after Isaiah Livers aggravated that groin injury. After sitting out a year, playing 50 and 93 total minutes in his next two seasons, and seeing action in only 12 games so far this year; this was Austin Davis’s moment.

Frankly, he was great. Unfortunately, his effort and energy will be, in his mind, completely eclipsed by the fact that when he stood at the charity stripe for the fifteenth time in his career, he missed for the eighth.

I have a super-soft spot for these Wolverines. I didn’t want them to beat the Illini Saturday. They’ve had enough victories over Illinois to last them a while. But John Beilein is the best coach I’ve ever watched, and he was also an earnest, honest and comprehensible communicator. He instilled those values in his players.

I got to know them a little during their run to the 2017 B1G Tourney championship run, and just now discovered that the commemorative documentary I made of their harrowing travel misadventures was ruined by a faulty video card!

Why doesn’t anybody ever tell me these things?

Categories
Illini Basketball

Everybody’s Talkin’

It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter.

Not January 2020, but Illini basketball. We’ve forgotten what it’s like to be the pretty girl at the party. For too many years, Illini hoops was not merely vincible, but easily vinced.

But this midwinter weekend, Illinois basketball noticed that everyone wants to be its friend. Everyone wants our phone number. Everyone who isn’t talking to us is talking about us. Right now, they’re complimenting us on our dress & poise. They like our fresh face.

credit: Vashoune Russell

They’ll turn catty later, but right now, Giorgi is the media darling. Kofi is the freshman sensation. Ayo is the assassin.

It struck me on Friday night, when one of the guys from The Journey walked into the bar at Pacific Rim, where @VashouneRussell and I had just ordered our bevs. He was by himself, so he joined in and we talked about camera specs & B1G basketball. I realized he was in town because of Illinois.

He takes pictures of EVERYTHING.

Sure enough, the next noon, I found myself sitting with two of his colleagues, the videographer & the Holder of The Boom Mic. They were positioned in the corner, at the end of the Illini bench. No similar crew sat at the Michigan end. The Journey was not interested in Wolverines.

Meanwhile, in the dungeon where media eat bacon and photogs edit, Tayshaun Prince somberly texted. We don’t know how many NBA scouts were there, but Tayshaun stood out. And his credential said SCOUT, so we knew what was up.

Vashoune spotted him, too. And because Vashoune photographs everything, he selfiebombed the former Kentucky star. (If Kentucky is not on TV, Vashoune will watch the Illini.)

“I’m sorry to do this to you,” he began, realizing just how much sorrier he was for saying it, and already feeling stupid for doing it, “but can I take a picture with you?”

Vashoune Russell & Tayshaun Prince

NBA scouts are not allowed to speak with working media at NCAA sites, and Tayshaun didn’t.

Maybe Tayshaun was there to see Jon Teske. But, you know, probably not.

Team Dosunmu knows what’s up, too.

Brendan Quinn, the former MSU/Michigan beat writer now at The Athletic, held his audio recorder over my shoulder during Ayo’s postgame interview. I told him he could rest his arm there when all the blood had gone. He laughed.

Upstairs, the Michigan media (and my other Android, on a tripod) were waiting for Juwan Howard to arrive for his Q&A.

Guys who usually cover Michigan usually cover Michigan. But not this time. Not now.

Illinois basketball is the life of the party. So after Ayo’s press scrum broke, Brendan did not hustle up the stairs to hear Juwan’s analysis. He sat down for a longer interview with Ayo — a privilege reserved for the important media, none of whom cover Illini basketball … until now!

We’ve completely forgotten what it’s like to be the center of attention. Illini basketball has performed the Washington Generals role for globetrotting tourney regulars like Wisconsin, Purdue & Michigan since Steve Jobs was pitching iPads. The last time you felt this excited about your team, you whipped out your BlackBerry to text your buddy. Then you remembered: he can’t work that feature on his dumbphone.

credit: Vashoune Russell

As you explore success, and rediscover its merits, please remember us little guys, too.

We’re lucky to have an extremely collegial media pool at a moment when Illini basketball has, stunningly & electrically, launched itself to a place of national prominence. At Michigan, you got coverage from Joey, Scott, Jeremy & Derek, Marlee, Gavin Good and that new guy Matt. These people work every day to keep you up-to-date.

It’s great to have the perspective of an outsider, too. Outsiders see things we miss for being right in front of us. Case in point: You should read Marcus Fuller this week, at StarTribune.com both before & after the Gophers come to town. You’ll learn something.

And yes, when SportsCenter features Illini basketball, when Dickie V & Pat Forde & Pete Thamel & Dan Wetzel spend an entire column on your team; enjoy the hell out of it.

It’s fun to be the pretty girl at the party. For one thing, you might get asked to dance.

Help a brother, yes?