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Illini basketball

The Press

Normally, an Illini Report column assumes you watched the game, got your factsy news from a reputable source, and came here for some verbal panache and pictures.

For the Nicholls State write-up, I’m going to assume you didn’t see the game, and need to know why Illinois choked away a late lead. I’ll even go to the extraordinary length of divulging the final score: Illini 78, Nicholls State 70 (OT)

Illinois’ 3-guard line-up couldn’t handle a trapping press. That’s the story of the game. It wouldn’t have been close if Trent Frazier could buy a shot, or Giorgi a rebound. But that’s the way the ball bounced for those two, and suddenly a comfortable 64-50 with five minutes remaining was a tense 66-64, in favor of the visitors. And there was the seven-foot freshman, trying to bring the ball up the court.


Trent didn’t score until hitting the free-throws that sent the game to overtime. Giorgi finished with only 4 rebounds, three of which came at the offensive end. But in crunch time, he just couldn’t get to the ball when it really mattered.

Ayo had five turnovers, and landed in a crumpled pile as often as usual, which is too often. It hurts to watch

Inevitably, it was Andres Feliz who willed the team to victory. Why is it that Andres Feliz was forgotten when everyone crafted his pre-season starting five? When will you people learn?

Giorgi hit a pair of threes, and he worked to give Kofi space in the paint. In the latter respect, his energy was not focused on putting a ball directly through a hoop.

But because those efforts garnered a double-double for Kofi, and 11 points for Giorgi … well, there was reason for optimism. But yes, Giorgi isn’t getting those same low-post isolation opportunities that launched Frank Kaminski into the NBA.

More significantly, Dre’s nose for rebounds provided an unflattering comparison for Giorgi. Certainly, it seemed that the ball bounced where Giorgi wasn’t. But when you compare Giorgi’s bad luck with guys like Dennis Rodman, or Dre (and Chester Frazier before him) you have to question whether it’s luck.

Either way, it doesn’t show that Giorgi is terrible. Rebounding is a rare skill. Most guys can grab a ball that comes toward them. Andres Feliz is one of those guys who always seems to be where the ball lands.

If you want reason for optimism, think of it this way: Almost everything that could go wrong for Illinois went wrong, and yet they won.

Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk followed his debut perfection with an 0-fer performance. Ayo couldn’t keep the ball in his own hands and Trent went 0-for-9 from the field.

The night’s loudest crowd reaction came on a rebound dunk that Alan Griffin missed. Come Monday, we’ll have a much better idea of how worried everyone should be.

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Illini Basketball

In with the old, In with the new

It seemed like old times when Illini basketball fell behind Lewis 14-2 Friday night. After all, my first-ever write up of an Illini basketball contest was titled Illinois almost Lewis-es.

Then there was Chaos and Lewis.

The new.

Friday’s exhibition featured new faces prompting new story lines. The youngsters deserve the spotlight. They performed.

Kofi Cockburn tallied a double-double. His footwork seemed natural. He looked comfortable on the floor. He didn’t panic under pressure, but instead found Da’Monte Williams for an open three.

Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk converted three of three attempts from three. He converted two of two attempts from one.

Eleven points in eight minutes. Three rebounds. No fouls. And Brad Underwood was even more impressed by his defense than his O.

That last point is significant for two reasons. As Underwood pointed out, BBV has been fully cleared to practice for a total of five days in his career. And more importantly, what freshman big man was ever praised for his defense in a first-ever appearance?

Cockburn was so reliable in the paint, he was almost boring to watch. The hi-lo didn’t work right away because, as Underwood reported, Giorgi was a little too excited to get it going. i.e. Giorgi forced things. i.e. Giorgi was enthusiastic about passing to another guy so the other guy could score. It’s an excellent problem to have.

But Kofi didn’t show nerves. He merely executed.

Kofi Cockburn celebrates a forced three-second turnover against Lewis.

Eventually the hi-lo worked. Giorgi and Kofi both finished with points, and Giorgi and Kofi both finished with assists. Kofi had 16 & 3. Giorgi had 12 & 2.

Kipper Nichols played the hi-lo as well. He threw two dimes, called out defenses, and rebounded/converted a missed Alan Griffin lay-up, despite much harassment.

Fellow old man Da’Monte Williams was up to his old man tricks. Even older Underwood mentioned these two in his postgame comments, and he probably wasn’t simply throwing a bone to the Groce recruits, who’ve been bypassed in the starting line-up.

Underwood can count on Williams in the same way that he counts on his son Tyler. And he did on Friday, when flashier players’ turnovers mounted.

Brad Underwood likes turnovers as much as the average basketball coach. Possibly less. He also enjoys watching his players shift out of position, reach in, foul jumpshooters, etc. just as much as the average coach.

When Alan Griffin had another Alan Griffin Moment, Underwood gave Griffin another Alan Griffin Brad Underwood Moment.

If Underwood is as hard on any other single player as he is on Alan Griffin, it hasn’t happened in public moments. It’s therefore almost impossible to avoid assuming that Underwood wouldn’t be so hard on Griffin if

  1. Underwood didn’t see enormous potential waiting to be tapped
  2. Griffin’s dad were not also a hard-nosed coach

Contrast Underwood’s praise for Jermaine Hamlin, whose performance was statistically the worst of any Illini. Five minutes, two rebounds – one of which was immediately stripped by a tiny D-II guard.

Underwood said he didn’t know how Hamlin could help the team this year, which should get Redshirt talk churning. But Underwood said he’d like Hamlin to be involved this year. Does that mean in games, or just practice?

The oldest guy in the house was Aaron Jordan.

He was present for the last Illini game at State Farm Center, of course. But that seems like ages ago, for a lot of reasons.

Aaron was working for money on Friday, not just for your enjoyment. He was part of the DIA marketing team. More fundamentally, Aaron attended his first Illini game where Rob Jordan wasn’t also in attendance.

People who didn’t know Rob Jordan might assume that his attendance streak would have ended with Aaron’s eligibility. People who knew Rob Jordan understand that he would have been there Friday night, not just to cheer Aaron’s new job, but only about 85% to cheer Aaron’s new job.

Had Rob Jordan not died suddenly this year, he would have continued to attend Illini games even after Aaron moved on and up in the world. Fundamentally, Rob was put on earth to yell at referees, to buy Cracker Jack (and tip the hawkers who brought it to his seat) and to socialize and enlighten people through networking. He was, after all, the Fiber Guru.

Rob Jordan was more important to Illini basketball than almost anyone understands, so it was especially nice to see his scion in attendance Friday. If you’re bored with reading about him, don’t check back next week. It’ll only get worse for you.

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Illini Basketball

Varese, Day 3 – Gazzada

First, the good news. Alan Griffin is “playing above the rim,” as they say.

Has anyone compared him to Kendall Gill yet? No? Well, they will. He’s bigger and stronger and still bouncy and suddenly recognizing that, despite a non-hyped recruiting experience; he can play with these guys.

Italy has been good for Tevian Jones, too. Like Griffin, he’s displaying a good balance of triple-threat capabilities. In Gazzada, Jones scored 18 points, in various ways.

Last year, people didn’t get to know Tevian as well as they might, were it not for 1933’s cult classic Reefer Madness, and the McCarthyism it engendered among Americans. Fortunately, a violation of team rules is now legal in Illinois, and the NCAA should adapt to the new legal landscape within a quarter-century, judging by their previous progressive acumen.

Tevian spent a lot of his downtime in long talks with his mentors. These sessions were observable from afar, so I did. He spent a lot of time after practice, before games, etc. in deep. It happened again last night, when Coach O spent his pizzatime offering wisdom.

Everyone seems to be having a good time, although this reporter suspects they aren’t getting enough sleep. Dragged out of bed for a bus ride through thunderstorms to a boat ride through thunderstorms is not what I would have done (and, in fact, didn’t). But later that night the lads pwn3d another local team, which included a few elements of the previous night’s local team.

The families were glad to have the opportunity, although they too would have liked to have known the games weren’t in pricey Milan but instead small towns where the rooms are dirt cheap. Lali Bezhanishvili paid only $80 for a round trip from Wien, but stayed in Milan rather than Varese. She had to go back to work today.

The Dosunmu posse has been touring northern Italy for ten days already, led by experienced traveler and recovering attorney Jamenda McCoy. They’re having a good time either way. Meanwhile, Ayo has attained cult status. Middle-aged Italian men swarmed him after the Gazzada game, to ask about his NBA plans.

People paid to get in at Gazzada (despite all pre-game information to the contrary), and at least 3/4 of the crowd was rooting for the home team, although not antagonistically. They appreciated the artistry & athleticism of our American lads.

Afterward, they all asked for (and got) pictures with the Illini.

This poster hung at the front door to the Gazzada gym

Jamall Walker also didn’t sleep yesterday, despite arriving at 9 a.m. on an overseas flight. He said he got in a little work-out and walked around town a bit, adding that naps are for *******.

It’s too bad that he had to walk around Milan. Milan is, as civic engineering goes, as close to Soviet central planning as Italians get. Lifeless apartment blocks stretch for miles from the city center. The next Rudy Guede cycles aimlessly through the tourist zones, harassing local women in a way that would floor #MeToo activists (which is his goal, but not metaphorically).

That brings us to the bad news.

The Italian Trip will provide lifelong memories for the individuals. It’s a disaster for the program. This was meant to be the testing ground for new players. To get Kofi Cockburn integrated in the system, while Giorgi adapts to the four-spot.

Instead, the flagship campus continues a years long tradition of asking its willing joiners to play out-of-position, because it’s incapable of getting its own roster on the court.

The reaction from the DIA, when asked for comment on the “visa situation” from a reliable spokesperson (such as the Athletics Director, the coaching staff, its overseeing Faculty Representative; all of whom were within 25 yards) was to ridicule the suggestion that this blunder merits any ink.

That’s always a sign. When PR people tell you there’s no story here, there’s always a really interesting story.

Speaking of non-stories, and the lengths PR people go to stop them, here’s a picture of the beer truck outside the Gazzada venue. After last nights win, Brad Underwood and the entire coaching staff lined up to patronize these guys. It’s just their way of showing thanks. I didn’t stick around to take any pictures. I had a train to catch. And although Brad loves to tell stories about beer (and even Zima) with cameras rolling, sometimes it’s best to allow people to be themselves off-camera.

Livorno is a significantly more Italian city. I’m here now. The team probably won’t see it, except for the inside of its gym. We’ll find out tomorrow,

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Illini basketball

Re-Boot

Trent is fine. Da’Monte is fine. AJ is Brad Underwood’s favorite & nominal MVP.

Illini fans need only worry about everyone else.

Last time around, I wrote about Adonis, Ayo and Andres. The Triple-A would be the key to success, I said.

In Maui, Adonis corrected his errors of judgment & execution. Against Gonzaga, he converted 2-of-4 shots, which is nearly good enough for a 7-footer with negative quickness. Slightly alarming was the fact that he attempted those shots in five minutes of PT.

Against Iowa State, he equaled the 2-of-4, converted both of his free throws, and stretched his shooting over a 14-minute span. Even better.

Then, against Xavier, Bizarro Adonis returned, reviving his Mike Thorne impression with 1-of-5 flung from the field.

His reversion worsened against awful Mississippi Valley State. He was 1-of-3 from the field, and managed a -3 point impact against the 345th best team in the college basketball. His team won by 19 points, but lost when Adonis was on the floor.

Brad Underwood says Adonis is working his way back into shape, and that’s the reason for his poor shooting. Perhaps he’s building Adonis in the media while taking a different tone behind closed doors. That’s Underwood’s way.

Or maybe the coach has so much on his mind that he doesn’t see the huge problem here. Adonis, right now, is killing his team. He’s a turnover on offense. The numbers paint a bleak picture. It needs fixed immediately.

Andres Feliz is struggling at the rim, and — to a surprising degree recently — in the backcourt.

Underwood says he doesn’t want to dampen Dre’s instincts completely.  It’s refreshing to know that the coach sees a fine line here. His predecessors were hidebound in their philosophy of player freedom.

But Underwood also says Andres needs to recognize, when he gets too deep and the Tall Hands are blocking his view of the hoop, that it’s time to pass the ball.

Illini shooters have been pretty effective on wide-open threes.

But AJ, Alan and the gang can’t shoot if the ball is being batted out-of-bounds, or into the hands of an opponent.

Even Ayo, the Heralded Savior, has been slow in adjusting to the height and quickness of major college defenders. Consequently, he spends more than an advantageous amount of time crumpled in a heap on the baseline.

Kipper’s been broken since that little shit Mac McClung outhustled him for a loose ball, and reverse jammed it on Lou Henson Court.

Perhaps it’s not fair to expect him to guard power forwards and centers for 30 minutes per game while also running a fast-paced offense, but that’s the lot he’s drawn.

It’s especially sad to watch Kipper unravel because he’s the Illini who might have been the dominant upperclassman. And if he’s not, that’s another reason this season could go quickly down the drain.

Perhaps scoring 14 against MVSU will give Kipper his groove back. He’s done it against high-major opponents. but perhaps not while manning the low-post.

These are just the offensive problems. The defense should get better as the newcomers convert knowledge & experience into habits. But unless these offensive tendencies get fixed, it’ll be a loooong season.

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Illini basketball

46 Turnovers

For people who’ve never seen these fresh-faced Illini cagers, the newcomers were certainly the most interesting thing about Friday’s Wesleyan exhibition. Now you know why Andres Feliz will be a starter, and why Giorgi Bezhanishvili will be a fighter.

For those of us who’ve seen them a few times, the box score was the eye-opener.

After years, perhaps decades of following a same-old formula, the official stat sheet has added new concepts. That’s why we know that Feliz not only committed zero fouls, but drew five from the Titans. Same stat for Trent Frazier.

We also know the plus/minus points tally for each individual’s playing time. And the playing time is more exact. For example:

That’s also a great example of how the +/- might mislead a person who reads box scores instead of watching games. Da’Monte’s impact on the game must be described as positive.

Three assists to zero turnovers, four rebounds and solid defense. He also made the play of the game (as judged by crowd reaction) with a dramatic shot rejection.

Still, it’s a metric. Da’Monte was -3. So was Alan Griffin. So was Tyler Underwood.

Yes, Tyler Underwood played 8 minutes and 44 seconds. Trent Frazier was +25 in 25:34 at the same position. Absolutely no one is shocked by this contrast, I presume. 

Feliz was +15. Like Griffin, he’s considered a superior on-ball defender. Like Griffin, he was posterized by a group of amateur Methodists, none of whom earned an athletic scholarship.

These things happen. Brad Underwood’s job is to make sure they don’t happen again.

Only Ayo Dosunmu played more minutes than Frazier, totaling 28:49. Ayo was the primary ball-handler for some of that time, but not much. So it’s not surprising that he managed a solitary assist. It’s more surprising that he booted the ball five times. The 1-to-5 turnover ratio might be explained by his inexperience at the college level. Frazier’s ATO was 5-to-4.

Seventeen turns is more than any college coach will accept, but on the other hand, Ayo garnered four steals. That evens things out. Likewise Aaron Jordan. His turnover was countered by two steals and two assists, plus a game-high seven rebounds. Dude was clearly feeling possessive about ball security.

Those numbers will keep him on the court. His 3-of-7 shooting is less than ideal, but AJ was +18 in his 21:10. It’s hard to argue with numbers.

Obviously this “contest” was not, in Brad Underwood’s mind, a proving ground for his eventual 200 minute distribution. Other than the two cripples, everybody played.

Samba Kane showed fans why he was recruited (height, mobility) and why they won’t see him again for quite some time (everything else). Drew Cayce and Samson Olademeji played. Team manager-cum-forward Zach Griffith got floor time.

The only omen one might read in the PT tea leaves is that Tevian Jones earned less tick than Kid Underwood. And, during that tick, one could see why.

Jones was the best example of freshman inexperience. The game was waaaaay too fast for him. He performed well when standing still (3-for-3 FTs), but needs the Team Underwood concepts to settle into instincts rather than second-guessings.

Why was Brad Underwood so generous with his PT? Probably because he wants the freshmen and walk-ons to feel rewarded for all the work they’ve put in since June. And also because he knows the newcomers can’t be hurried. They’re going to keep playing like freshmen until everything clicks for them. 

Finally, he’s probably realized, after having major parts of his body removed and replaced, that life is short, and must be lived in the present.

Perhaps he also wanted to show visiting Class of 2019 PF Chris Payton that everyone gets a chance here at Illinois.

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Illini Basketball

Practice thoughts, October 2018

Homecoming weekend included a basketball practice at Ubben, first thing this morning. Unlike last time, there were no Official Visitors. So the team wasn’t focused on throwing lobs to 17 year-olds.

Spectators numbered about one-third the size of the Tshiebwe-Liddell-Shannon crowd. That is, they lined the catwalk one-deep rather than three.

They learned that Giorgi Bezhanishvili is not a goofball all the time. He’s a shittalker. Giorgi’s shit was mostly directed at Samba Kane, who might have wilted on the spot. When teammates and coaches talk about Samba, the sentence usually begins with “he’s had a hard time because …” and usually continues with the themes like “arrived late” and “new to the game.”  Piling on psychologically doesn’t seem fair, but it’s hard to imagine prospective opponents treating Samba more deferentially.

Mike LaTulip, Brandon Paul and Steve Bardo joined the team for a Homecoming photo, after practice

Giorgi should be raw too, but he’s not. He moves fluidly, and finishes at the rim. That might change when a competent defender over 6’6″ challenges him. This Illini team has no such defender. Adonis de la Rosa dressed for practice, but did not participate. Anthony Higgs began the session looking at an iPad, reclining on a cushioned table, in the training room. He didn’t enter the Corzine Gym for the first 20 minutes, and then rode the stationary bike for the next 20. Samson Oladimeji and Zach Griffith did their best (Oladimeji’s rejection on a Tevian Jones lay-up was a highlight of the day), but neither is big enough to present a B1G-caliber post-presence.

So, we might not know what Georgi can’t do for another month or three. As of now, he’s a definite starter.

If the season began today, the starting five would be

  • 1 – Andres Feliz
  • 1 – Ayo
  • 1 – Trent
  • 4 – Kipper
  • 4 – Giorgi

That’s no slight to Aaron Jordan. He continues to burnish his coach-on-the-floor bona fides, spreads the defense and drains threes. In that regard, he’s the quintessential sixth man. Brad Underwood might need to start him, but ideally Aaron would enter the game after assessing what’s happening. 

Da’Monte Williams continues to make unforced errors, the kind Underwood claimed he never commits at the beginning of last year (before the Maryland game). Because Feliz offers doggish on-ball defense, and Ayo’s impersonation of a six-foot spider will, arguably, compensate for Monte’s absence, Williams will need to clean up his little mistakes to challenge them for PT. The three-headed PG attack is just too hard to defend. Feliz pushes the ball, and finds the open man. When left alone on the perimeter, he buries his threes.

Saturday’s practice

The wing-to-be-named-later continues to be Alan Griffin. Like many wings of the three-point era, Alan seems comfortable pitching a tent on the arc. Underwood stopped live action to holler at him about another option from the Triple Threat  “Alan!” he called, arms aloft and sweeping downward to indicate an open path to the basket,  “Drive!”

From the sidelines, ex-perimeters Mike LaTulip and Brandon Paul agreed with the assessment. “When your defender is that close up on you, you can always dribble past him,” observed LaTulip.

Also in town for Homecoming were 89ers Steve Bardo and Ryan Baker. Bardo relayed the story of his Bobblehead mishap. He was in Atlanta working on a non-sports TV production (cooking) and missed the deadline for signing his release. Hence, no Steve Bardo Bobblehead.