Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Jacob’s Ladder

During the first half of Saturday’s 106-48 blowout, a Da’Monte Williams three glanced off SFC’s south rim, and caromed into the hands of Jacob Grandison, strangely alone on the low post’s near side.

I turned to Nico Haeflinger, sitting beside me on the north baseline. “He’s always in the right place at the right time.” I think I said.

“He’s got an old man game,” Nico agreed, and added that highlights of Slim Jake rarely make his game reel, because Grandison is so rarely spectacular. You barely notice him scoring 20 points and grabbing 8 rebounds. He moves like a cat.

This was pretty spectacular, but the ref’s ass blocked Nico’s view.

Jake’s stat line, 11 games into the season, is instructive. It tells you about the other people on the team.

Compared to Omar, Coleman and even Da’Monte, Jake doesn’t accrue personal fouls or turnovers. His three-point delivery looks a bit awkward. It’s almost like a set shot. But so far, he’s made half of them. The Fonz is only 43.8% by comparison.

You can see why Omar’s minutes have been reduced to relieving Kofi’s panting. There’s no room at the 4, and Kofi will only be out to the extent that he needs to be out. (That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be intrigued by the Kofi/Omar twin towers set, which finally made its debut, which the coaching staff continues to dream about, and which threatens any team that relies on interior scoring.)

The re-emergence of Jacob Grandison drives home a stark reality about the future of Illini basketball: Oh shit, what happens when the olds are gone. Brad keeps pointing it out, because he knows that losing all those guys undercuts the foundation, everything he’s built.

If Coleman doesn’t figure it out real quick, Underwood’s get old, stay old plan might require an infusion of JUCO or transfer olds.

Luke Goode and Benjamin-Bosmans-Verdonk are interested in rebounding.

Getting old got a little easier against St. Francis, with Luke Goode earning almost 14 minutes of tick. He made 2-of-3 threes, assisted on Alfonso Plummer’s trey in the Five Pass Possession and grabbed three rebounds.

Luke provides the same team leadership, intelligence, grit and rebounding that Jake provides. He’s 10-of-23 (43.5%) from the floor, and 8-18 (44.4%) from the arc this year. Fine numbers, but not on par with Jake’s 46-of-85 (54.1%) and 23-of-46.

It’s no secret that he’s ahead of his fellow freshmen, but is it enough to slide into a 30 minute roll in 2023?

SUPERTRENT

The StFrPa game offered Trent Frazier another fantastic opportunity to demonstrate Brad Underwood’s proclamation that SuperTrent is the best defender in the US.

Trent Frazier checks Ramiir Dixon-Conover

Brad always characterizes this argument by pointing out that Trent doesn’t garner flashy defensive data (blocks, steals) to buttress his standing among elite, elite defenders. Trent simply renders one’s existence intolerable.

Trent Frazier is a hands-on defender.

Ramiir Dixon-Conover scored 10 points against Illinois. He was 3-of-11 from the floor. Trent’s harassment took its toll on him as the game progressed. Those first three possessions were fantastic for the Red Flashes, with Dixon-Conover draining a three in the opening set, then kicking out from a double-team on the third.

Trent Frazier is a legs-on defender.
And if you get past Trent, there’s this guy.

From that point on, St. F-PA was 13-of-58 from the floor.

It’s not just the physical harassment that wears opponents down. Trent Frazier is an unabashed trash talker. He’ll tell you how bad you are while making you worse.

He doesn’t care who’s listening.

Dixon-Conover is a career 72% free-throw shooter, and entered the Illinois game at 73% this season. He converted 2-of-5 against the Illini.

He was rattled.

FRESH MEN

RJ Melendez continued building his highlight reel against Saint Francis. Although he’s a persistent rebounder, his game is not a mirror of Jacob Grandison. RJ is flashy. He’s already becoming a fan favorite thanks to his leaping, fancy passes, windmill dunks, and 67% shooting from the arc.

RJ drives to the bucket.

That last stat probably won’t survive another ten attempts. He’s 4-of-6 on the season.

To my utter shame, I didn’t capture an image of the Podz dunk in Saturday’s game. I’d just captured a few images of SFU freshman Brendan Scanlon, and had set my camera down so I could ask Twitter if it remembered the last time a 12 year-old competed in a regular-season Illini basketball game.

Maybe 10?

The answer, of course, is Little Lick. There’s no better way to get fired from a D-1 job than to give playing time to your own pudgy 5’8″ kid. It just looks bad, even in Iowa.

ENJOYING THEMSELVES

It’s been a harrowing season, and we still haven’t reached Christmas. The Saint Francis game offered every Illini a chance to let his hair down, get his stats up, and just have fun.

The bench shares a laugh after a Brandon Lieb dunk.

The biggest laugh for the team was a Brandon Lieb dunk. The dunk itself wasn’t funny, and the team wasn’t laughing at Brandon, who’s one of those guys that works hard in practice and gets little opportunity in games.

Brandon Lieb dunks against Saint Francis-PA

This was a laugh of relief, of having worked hard and got the job done right. This was a thank god the Flashes aren’t another Marquette, or Loyola.

The crowd’s biggest laugh came when Kofi mistook Da’Monte for an opponent, and ripped a defensive rebound from his smaller teammate’s grasp.

Monte thought it was funnier than anyone, and couldn’t help but laugh all the way down court as the Illini set up their offense.

Kofi’s biggest laugh was at himself. He executed a typical Kofi-esque low-post move, shifting toward the center of the cleared-out lane, dribbling with his right hand, pinning his man with the left.

He rose up for a right-handed baby hook, but missed from 30 inches away.

Kofi Cockburn clears some space with his left elbow

Kofi got his own rebound, power-dribbled, pushed a pair of St, Francis defenders away from the basket with his big old butt and left elbow, then brought the ball up with both hands for a bank into the bucket and-1.

Whether it was the miss from point blank, or the ease with which he moved two gnats from his path, Kofi thought it was hilarious.

Coleman Hawkins got back in the groove, and that might be a turning point for the entire Illini season.

Coach Underwood said he has more confidence in Coleman than Coleman has in Coleman. It’s a quirk of Illinois’s cockiest player. But given an opportunity to score against an inferior opponent, Coleman made it easy on himself by starting with a simple drive & lay-up.

Seeing the ball go through the net opened things up for Coleman, and he later drained a pair of threes from the corner.

Underwood’s management of Coleman will inevitably be a talking point when this season is deconstructed.

FIVE PASS POSSESSION

The coach’s favorite moment of the game was, of course, the five pass sequence that ended with an open three for Alfonso Plummer.

It began with Fonz dribbling to the baseline, then dumping to Kofi in the paint. Eventually, the ball made it all around the horn, and back to Fona, who ran back to the corner immediately upon releasing his pass.

Plummer to Cockburn
Cockburn to Frazier, Plummer runs back to corner
Frazier to Willams
Williams to Goode
Goode to Plummer
Fonz drains a three
Brad jumped up and ran to half court, cheering and pumping his fists.

THE OMICRON DELTA

So, it’s nice that the Illini got to enjoy this final game of their season.

Or maybe they’ll play in Braggin’ Rights Wednesday, as scheduled. Perhaps even after that.

As the Omicron variant swarms New York City, Midwestern know-nothings continue their Covid is Over behavior. Shopping at Champaign’s home improvement stores on Sunday, it was easy to identify the Faux News & Trump voters. The camo clothing and F-150s are often a sign, but their unmasked faces are the giveaway.

The team modeled mask-wearing more than ever.

Omicron is less susceptible to the immune response generated by mRNA vaccines. Just today, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced that he’s positive despite being triple-vaxxed. My vaxxed niece in NYC got it by sharing a meal with co-workers in a break room. An NYU sophomore on winter break, she’s already spread it to ten people, and is suffering through Day 6 of feeling like shit.

Another niece in California got the contact tracing text on Friday. She’d joined her fellow teaching staff in the school’s faculty holiday party. Someone brought The Vid.

Delta continues to rage in the United States. But as the US passed 800,000 deaths, the anti-science cohort — those who never participated in abatement measures while complaining about abatement measures, and seem to think that knowing how to install a serpentine belt gives equal/better understanding of viral pathology than a medical degree — continue their tribal resistance to simple measures.

Before Saturday’s tip-off, the major donors (many of whom do abide COVID protocols) were moved two feet back from Lou Henson Court. Perhaps the thinking holds that these 24 extra inches will provide a total of six feet distance from the players. Campus, like check-out lanes at grocery stores, boasts a bunch of six-foot markers.

But the aerosols generated by 15-thousand people, in one confined space, will not stop at six feet. So far, few of the attendees at Illini home games have abided the mask rule, and the DIA/SFC staff doesn’t enforce it.

Underwood declined the opportunity to offer a potentially controversial statement about his fans ennui with COVID precautions. Meanwhile, the medical community predicts a million new cases tomorrow, and exponential spread through the holidays.

I’m glad my Zoom room has a fireplace. I’m just sitting here, enjoying the warmth, and waiting for the Braggin’ Rights cancellation email.

Merry Giftsmas.

Categories
Illini Basketball

St Fran PA preview

If you’re a Chief Illiniwek stalwart, perhaps you’d want to open an SFU preview with “What the hell is a Red Flash?” Otherwise, “balanced scoring” is the obvious place to begin.

Four guys average between 11.3 and 14.4 points. Three guys play 30+ minutes per game, and that includes leading scorer Ramiir Dixon-Conover, who’s about to go through a Trent Frazier-shaped hell.

Ramiir Dixon-Conover

Dixon-Conover is a Criminal Justice major, so he’ll probably understand the restraints Frazier employs, and the reason Trent employs them. He’s listed at 6’3″, shorter than Dalen Terry, whom Trent checked in the Arizona game.

Admittedly, this is not a photo of Trent checking Dalen Terry.

The low post might be a problem for SFU. Redshirt sophomore Josh Cohen is steadily eating up the minutes that might otherwise go to redshirt senior Mark Flagg. Neither of them will be able to defend Kofi Cockburn.

Maxwell Land is SFU’s most frequent launcher of threes. He’s 12 of 32 on the season. As a 6’4″ swingman, he’s likely to see Da’Monte Williams in his grill. It’s not a pleasant prospect for anyone, so let’s sympathize with him.

Da’Monte Williams swats the ball from Minnesota’s Alihan Demir on the would-be game tying shot, sealing the win

Myles Thompson is another swingman for the Red Whatevers, and so far their best volume shooter. He’s at 42.3% on 26 attempts. He’s started every game for SFU, but plays on 25 minutes per game. Marlon Hargis is the final outside threat for the visitors. He’s the best overall shooter, but with a small sample size, and getting just 14 minutes/game, it’s hard to predict what he might do against the Illini.

Coleman Hawkins and Jacob Grandison will rotate against these two. Coleman presents more problems from a trash talking perspective, but either Illini is capable of perimeter defense.

Jake, by the way, has three stitches in his head, and plays the violin. These two facts are not necessarily related.

That leaves toreador Alfonso Plummer to check SFU’s second leading scorer, Ronell Giles.

Just a sophomore, Giles takes the most shots of any Red Guy, and he’s more of a slasher than a spot-up threat.

Ronell Giles Jr.

Plummer’s red cape might take some abuse here. On the other hand, The Fonz was uncommonly bold in dismissing a Red Threat. (Obviously the communications staff failed to warn him against downplaying opponents.)

Tip time is noon Saturday on the BTN.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

An Iowa Moment

A single moment, deconstructed, can be a great vessel for storytelling. Dealey Plaza, for example.

Illini fans will want to remember the 87-83 win at Carver-Hawkeye. They’ll enjoy the outrageous moments of injustice. The 21-2 run won’t bother them, nor the final moments when a 15 point lead disappeared.

The orange team won. That makes all of it enjoyable.

Here’s the moment I’ll deconstruct.

Before I deconstruct the moment, I’ll share some others. It was a frustrating game for the Illini, and the fact that maintained their composure is the reason they won. That’s why Brad Underwood talked about Jacob Grandison in his postgame comments.

Composure.

Kofi Cockburn should also get credit. And Da’Monte Williams. And Trent Frazier.

Eric Curry and Da’Monte Williams

Watching replays and looking at photos, I feel bad for DJ Carstensen. He’s an earnest person, a little nerdy, not an egomaniac. He wants to be a good referee.

He was responsible for most of the outrageously bad officiating on Monday. But when you analyze all the calls he got wrong, you can see that he had bad angles on the action. He couldn’t see Alfonso Plummer pushed to the ground.

He couldn’t see Jordan Bohannon molest Trent Frazier.

The latter play happened at the other end of the moment captured above. It started when Plummer left his feet (bad) which prompted Joe Toussaint to make a terrible pass (worse).

Trent got the steal, and headed downcourt, where Bohannon hacked him. Because Trent moves at near Dee Brown speed, you can understand why Carstensen wasn’t in position to see the hack.

There were plenty of bad calls, and plenty of bad non-calls. In general, DJ, Eric Curry and Lewis Garrison allowed Hawkeyes to batter Kofi. On the other hand, Kofi was the victim of a phantom foul call, among other injustices.

Lewis Garrison saw contact here. In his defense, he’s probably still having nightmares about Kofi.

But the thing that made Kofi mad wasn’t the hacking. He got really mad when DJ missed an out-of-bounds call. Kofi is a mild-mannered person, and he’s learned not to dwell on things (as Brad Underwood pointed out in the postgame press conference), but he was really mad in the moment. Probably because it began with yet another uncalled foul, but not one that hindered him. He’s sensitive to injustices against others.

After Gunman was hammered, the injustice was compounded when Keegan Murray batted the ball out of bounds, and DJ Carstensen awarded posession to the Hawkeyes.

Nevertheless, once his protest was logged, Kofi got back on D.

Now, back to the Frazier steal. The thing I like about the picture is that it tells many different stories, depending on how it’s cropped.

Both Joe Toussaint and the bespectacled fan were horrified by his pass.
COVID is a hoax to Iowa’s whiteys.
Matthew Crasko wasn’t the only one.
So nice to see them disappointed.

A BIT MORE ABOUT CARVER-HAWKEYE

Following @TylerCott’s lead in writing about media access at various #B1G and non-conference venues, I’ll revise & extend my remarks about Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Carver-Hawkeye is arguably the best place in the #B1G for a photographer to shoot a game. It’s also the worst place for media overall. The photography is good because the place is well lit, folding step stools are provided (the #B1G tournament is the only other place I’ve seen this handy accessory offered), and both home and away benches are immediately adjacent to the assigned photography spots, so one can get great pictures of the coaches and players on the bench.

One can’t hear most of the things they say to each other, because it’s an arena full of people and piped noise; but one can usually hear the head coach and whichever assistant had the scout for that game.

One is also free to imagine what the participants are saying.

Ooh, scary.

Before the game tips, and once the game is over, Carver-Hawkeye reverts to being the worst place for media. Iowa doesn’t have a media workroom, nor a media hospitality room. There’s no place to hang a coat. If you know who to ask, you’ll get a coupon good for $12 at the concession stands, which are all at the top and accessible only by walking up every last stair in the building.

Kofi tried to bat the ball to a teammate. It didn’t work, but it was a good idea.

Once the winded, sweating reporter makes it to the top, and waits in line for ten minutes, an industrial grade bratwurst or hot dog awaits. Conveniently, these food-like substances cost $12 with a soda. (Pro-tip, somehow it’s only $10.50 for the bunned, meatlike salt torpedo if you get a coffee instead, but they won’t make change anyway, so it’s not an exceptionally devilish trick.)

Iowa was the first #B1G program to employ the coupon method. Since then, tOSU and Penn State followed. That’s a shame because they both had great food, and comfortable places to eat it.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Eff All the Bruce Pearls

The following rant is mostly emotional, and features little analysis — outside of the pictures — of the 87-83 Illini win over Iowa, Monday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Maybe I’ll write that column on Wednesday.

The two things that I’m bursting to tell you about are Andre Curbelo’s coaching & cheerleading during the win, and how hard it is to bring you, the fan, good material from an @Iowa game.

First, Belo.

He sat on the floor for most of the game, at the end of the Illini bench, next to trainer Paul Schmidt.

He carried a big Ziploc bag filled with Fun Size packets of Haribo gummi bears. A bit of instant fructose infusion for any teammate who might need a boost.

He called out defensive plays, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish, depending (duh) on the target of his advice. He wailed about his teammates’ inability to break the Iowa press, yelling “JUST GO!” as Trent Frazier got bogged down in a double team, five feet short of the ten second line, with those ten seconds expiring. Belo saw the open court ahead of Trent. Trent didn’t see it.

Trent gets inside his own head a lot, and this was one of those times.

In defense of Trent, the Iowa defense was violent, and the referees incompetent.

Belo was up and active for most of the game. But there came a time in the second half, a media timeout, where he stayed hunched on the floor, looking at his feet, as the team left the bench to form the NCAA-mandated Huddle Square (the time for team managers to shine, by snappily opening those round-top stool seats).

Schmidt reached out an arm, and pulled Belo to his feet. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. Everyone needs a helping hand sometimes.

No foul called.

Illini fans enjoy insulting Iowa, and there are plenty of insults to yield. The B1G’s whitest fanbase is stuck in 1952, although Eisenhower was surely too liberal for their liking. Listening to Iowa’s AM radio (Iowa Basketball Radio Network affiliate) on the drive in, I understood why so much of middle America believes the craziest things.

He even chases long rebounds. You gotta love this guy, for real.

Iowa is the worst place to cover Big Ten basketball. The people who work at Carver-Hawkeye are all very friendly and accomodating, but the facilities are decades behind. So on the one hand, you’ll get great pictures and video from an @Iowa game, because Iowa provides photographers and videographers good spots and good lighting. The Wi-Fi works, and that’s important.

As a representaive of the Illini basketball media pool, I apologize for all the materials we uploaded last night. It’s not our fault. It’s effing Iowa.

Jake hoisted this one as soon as he touched it, knowing the shot clock situation. He’s smart. (It went in.)

They offer no media workroom. They offer no sound system. They offer no hospitality area (eating).

It’s the #B1G’s last unreconstructed facility. Even Williams Arena has more modern tech, and it’s older than Bob Dole (a fine American, may he rest in peace). Trying to report from Carver-Hawkeye in 2021 is like a Tardis to the newspaper era, and a lot of you noticed how poor our product was. (I’m sorry.)

The most important takeaway from Monday night’s game, if you read the non-weird reporters, is perhaps that Illinois won. But I’ma take a big picture persepective. The Belo thing has all of us worried, and Iowa’s trapping, three-quarter court press demonstrated that Brad’s team needs a healthy Belo.

It was great to see Belo engaged, enthusiastic. He saw, from the most distant corner of the hardwood, what needed to be done.

Perhaps he’ll be ready to do it, sooner than later. Fingers crossed.

#ISupportBelo

That said, Plummer’s minutes are working oout pretty well.
Categories
Illini Basketball

The Invisible Game

Reading the internet’s Sky Is Falling crowd right now, it occurs to me that no one actually watched the RGV game. It helps that a lot of you began your observations by saying “I didn’t watch it, but …”

It was a fun game. The Illini had the troubles you’d expect from a team without its point guard, back-up point guard, and third-string point guard.

Two wings and a center manned the point. The center tallied six assists. The wing dished a game-high eight. (RGV managed nine total).

The other wing notched an 0/5 assist-to-turnover ratio. Considering he’s a wing who was forced to play point … well, it’s still a bad night. But Hutch is just getting his legs back, you’ll remember.

People Who Didn’t Watch also missed a fundamental point. RGV was really great at both ends of the court. On offense, their guards and wings utilized angles that Ayo Dosunmu and Rayvonte Rice would appreciate. They knew when to employ a floater, and the backboard. They used the rim as a screen. It was gorgeous.

On defense, they executed a plan that proved immediately effective, and then adjusted when Illinois coaches figured out how to attack it.

Eventually, playing a 7-man rotation while also defending the bejesus out of two unstoppable forces proved fatal. Two of the 7-men fouled out. Another two garnered four fouls. Eliminating Kofi’s touches worked in the opening minutes, but Kofi has a certain inevitability about him.

The Vaqueros deserved to win, and that’s no slight to a team that was favored by 26 because no one in Las Vegas knew three starters were unavailable. They just played really well. They pentrated well. They rebounded well.

They adjusted well.

Alfonso Plummer, seemingly perturbed to learn that he hadn’t set a record the other night, was determined to claim it against RGV. But after 5-of-8 arc shots in the first half, he managed only 1-of-3 in the second.

They wouldn’t let him see the rim.

Kofi should have challenged Dave Downey’s all-time single-game scoring record. But RGV employed the right combination of fronting, denying, doubling, switching and hacking. His 38 points were a bit of a disappointment, frankly.

But then, when your point, back-up point, and back-up point’s back-up are all sidelined with various maladies, it’s hard to expect a great post-feeding experience.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Plane, trains, automobile

This is not a UTRGV preview, except for the following Brad Underwood media Zoom, in which he mentions his longtime friend Matt Figger, who took over the Vaqueros head coaching position after Lew Hill died suddenly this year.

I’m publishing this column to share some pictures from Kansas City, but the text will chronicle my Thanksgiving week travels to-and-from Kansas City. As far as I know, only one person died.

Take me out, coach. I’m not ready to play.

The Groce Staff liked to quiz me about the dollars & time my road trips cost. It became a regular routine when I strode on to the court at Bryce Jordan, the RAC, The Barn or Madison Square Garden.

I got from Champaign to the latter for $2. It took about 20 hours. Unfortunately, Megabus no longer serves Champaign. Miami cost more. There was an extra dollar to get north to Orlando. Then another dollar to get to Atlanta, and finally a third dollar to get to Champaign.

I don’t remember how long it took. I was asleep for quite much of it. And to be honest, you’d need to factor in the money I spent at Landmark Diner on Luckie Street if you wanted a true evaluation of the cost.

So anyway, here’s what happened this week

Monday, 5:45 am: Heather and I get in the Mazda 3 and drive to Illinois Terminal. The train is only about 10 minutes late. (It’s never on time, ever.)

Chet knows. Listen to Chet.

City of New Orleans ($22 because I waited) gets to Chicago at 8:30. It’s 45 minutes early. They added that extra 45 minutes as a pretense, because it’s always late.

Blue Line from Clinton to O’Hare (Ventra card, $2.25). 1 pm flight on United ($77). RideKC bus from airport is free, it picks me up about 8 minutes after I arrive, and takes about an hour to get to downtown. From there I could walk to Home2Suites, but the Streetcar comes every ten minutes, so I hop on that. It’s free too.

Home2Suites gave me a free late check-out. I asked if I could pay for one. That got me to 1:30. Starbucks would have filled the void ’til 3 pm doors at T-Mobile Center, but their pandemic closing time is 2 pm. So I sat on the steps enjoying the 60° weather until Scott Richey arrived, and we bantered for the final ten minutes.

The little market across the street from Home2 had a bottle of Two Buck Chuck for $3.50. It cost $3.50 because it’s a convenience store, and the brand name was Spring Creek but let’s face it, they all come from the same factory in Lodi. The merlot is innocuous, not too acidic, and gets the ideas flowing.

I’d decided against booking a second night at Home2, because the bus station was walking distance from the arena, and a Greyhound for Saint Louis was leaving at 1:20 am. After an 8:30 pm game (oh how optimistic we were back then, in the halcyon days of October), I’d have just enough time to finish my radio piece before walking over.

But then I waited too long, and the price went up to $88. But wait! There’s a 1:30 Trailways that goes to Omaha, where I can transfer to the Champaign bus! Trailways is the worst travel option in America, but I suppose I’d forgotten that point.

I can never sleep after a game/editing pictures and audio, so another hotel night seemed wasteful.

The TMC Director of Operations basically insisted on driving me to the station. The bus boarded on time. The driver, Dave, told everybody that Federal Law required him to read an admonition about mandatory masking. But he added that we could see where his own mask was (a gaiter, around his neck) and that he’d probably get in trouble for saying so.

Wincing, he took a seat on the bench.

The ride was quiet and uneventful until about 3 am when a two year-old girl launched into an uncontrollable coughing fit. Not old enough for a vaccination. I had little doubt about the root cause. No face covering blocked her aerosols, but perhaps they didn’t make it all the way to Dave at the front.

The elderly Chinese couple to my left were both wearing surgical masks. My N95 was held in place by a more stylish fabric mask. I’m 3x-Pfizered, so I should be okay.

Unfortunately, the guy across the aisle from the little girl died at this point.

We arrived in Omaha a few minutes early. About 5:41 am. My transfer was scheduled for 6:10 and arrived at about 6:40. That gave me plenty of time to watch the firetrucks arrive. Then the police. Then an ambulance. Then more police. Then another ambulance. More police.

Firetrucks left. Ambulance left. The forensic van arrived. The other ambulance left.

Dave was probably not going to finish the drive to Sioux City. He’d surpass his TSA maximum hours mandate. Despite his maskholishness, Dave was the friendliest of the drivers. He stayed outside near his bus as various law enforcement and medical people shuffled on & off. That’s for the best, because the coughing two year-old had gone into the building. There were two other wee ones with persistent cough in that small space. The Mesoamerican one year-old had the same cough. It sounded wet, from deeply congested lungs. The other was about 18 months, a little black boy.

The girl was white. She had straight brown hair to her shoulders, and honestly looked pretty happy for a toddler who’d been coughing since 3 am before arriving in a dingy Nebraskan bus depot.

It was nice to see the Covid spread among the demographics, rather than a single Boogeyman. I suppose Fox will still blame the Mesoamericans, though. They didn’t seem especially legal.

Our next driver (Omaha to Burlington, Iowa) was curt, and that may have been his name too. I didn’t catch it. He made unnecessarily long and frequent announcements over the PA. Everytime a batch of new passengers alighted, he thanked all the veterans on board, and especially the Gold Star Families.

Burlington Trailways is a bunch of small-town, conservative white people who provide terrible yet expensive service to a predominantly black clientele, and treat them like shit. “Curt” yelled at me for not having a paper ticket, and not remaining in the depot. The two people behind the sales window were black, and extremely friendly despite a roomful of fugue & fog. I hope the space behind that window had separate ventilation. But then again, what are the odds that these two haven’t already had The Vid?

People who ride the bus are not always the world’s smartest. Many of them just got out of jail, and are still dressed in gray jump suits. I like traveling this way now and then, because it reminds me that there’s another America out there, and I rarely share a glass of merlot with it.

You shouldn’t be so surprised. He used to make a lot of them.

The final bus was hell. The driver was the dumbest guy on the journey. His name was almost certainly not Dunning-Kruger, because that would be too perfect. He yelled at absolutely every single passenger. He yelled at me for not having a paper ticket. For the second station in a row, I had to find a second staff person to explain PDF downloads to a bus driver.

Bobby Gikas has grown a mustache.

One of the convicts explained to Dunning-Kruger that “curt” had taken his ticket and given him a reboarding pass instead. Dunning-Kruger said there’s no way “curt” would have done that, and only barely backed down when every single other passenger said the same thing.

A thirtysomething named Juh-MEE-qua (that’s the phonetic, I wouldn’t want to guess the actual spelling) walked into the building and Dunning-Kruger immediately yelled at her to get out of the hallway. She wasn’t going to take his shit. She’d paid $140 to ride this hellish bus. (Pro-tip: Buy early, Juh-MEE-qua.) I commiserated with her. She had long curly extensions, a big butt & fake eyelashes. You meet all kinds of people out there.

Dunning-Kruger played the Burlington Trailways promo/safety movie after every stop. Galesburg, Peoria, Bloomington and presumably Champaign. So I got it four times. Because the loudspeakers were behind him, and facing the passengers, he cranked the volume until he could hear it loud and clear. That meant 11 in Spinal Tap terms.

The movie featured the Burlington Trailways president (a hunch, but I’m pretty sure this hunch would pay off) telling people how to sit down, how to strap on a seatbelt, how to open a restroom door. Every single person in the video was not just white, but old and white. I looked around at my predominantly black cohort and thought “of course they’re not surprised. Just like January 6 didn’t surprise them.”

One camera angle caught the president as he pretended to steer a moving bus. He smiled, looked confidant. The freshly pressed suitcoat. The epaulettes.

One understood immediately that he’d made this movie to satisfy his own sense of vanity, and that people on Greyhound can find their way into the bathroom without an explanatory video.

One understood that his yesmen all praised the work. He looked great in this movie, they assured him. Maybe some of them realized that forcing it upon 55 human sardines would not make them feel safer, but remind them NEVER TO FUCKING RIDE GOD-DAMNED BURLINGTON TRAILWAYS EVER AGAIN. The passengers literally covered their ears with their hands because it was so loud.

I had planned to sleep a while on this bus, but a four minute video every 45 minutes eliminated that possiblity. Dunning-Kruger also played satellite radio from his dashboard, as if people wanted to listen to Hot Country.

Fortunately, it kept me awake for the Underwood availability. But given the lack of sleep, and the need to locate an elderly parent, and then put some turkey, sides and yes, merlot into him; I never had time to research the UTRGV Vaqueros.

Just kidding. It was a 2018 Dry Creek cab.

Categories
Illini Basketball

The Assassin assassins

After Alfonso Plummer connected on his first three-pointer, this lazy cameraman said to himself “I ought to take a picture of that, in case it turns out to be important.” These are the thoughts of an incompetent sports reporter. Fortunately, I paid attention to me.

“He’s really, really good at what he do.” – Asst. Coach Tim Anderson

There are sooo many great pictures from Tuesday, and I hope to post them by the time your tryptophan infusion forces you to have a little lie-down. Lots of them feature Bruce Weber, who contines to be a great subject for ridicule. But there are also just a whole lot of moments that you’ll want to remember about this young team. And a few that they’ll want to forget.

Paul Schmidt & Marcus Anderson carry Trent Frazier to the locker room.

Belo’s continuing head trauma seems to have escaped the secrets locker. The bright side is that he’ll probably stop playing like he’s concussed if he ever reaches the point where he’s no longer concussed.

Kofi’s passing out of the low block increases with each game, proving that those practices where he’s not allowed to shoot/dunk are improving his habits markedly.

Hutch played as a triple-threat on Tuesday. You first heard he was just a shooter, but more recently you’ve been told that “he can do it all,” and he was certainly more of a slasher in Kansas City. That should give you optimism about this team’s chance at improving its offense.

Bruce Weber, whose string of bad luck continues to not be his fault, noticed that Illinois did things to his team that they didn’t do to Cincinnati.

You almost feel for the guy.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Kansans of the Ark, part 1

There’s usually a story behind a non-conference scheduling.

Lon Kruger brought Texas – Pan American to Champaign, because he coached there. He liked the people there. He wanted them to get paid.

Bruce Weber scheduled Vanderbilt because he liked having a couple of beers with Kevin Stallings, his old benchmate from Gene Keady’s glory years.

Scheyerface: It’s not just for Scheyers anymore.

Brad Underwood scheduled Arkansas State because he’s friends with Red Wolves coach Mike Balado. He didn’t use the word “beers” in describing their friendship, but feel free to draw your own conclusions. Florida was involved.

I misshopped the guy’s forehead on the right. He doesn’t actually look like a Romulan.

Trent Frazier wore a big black harness on his right arm during Thursday’s practice. It looked like the thigh pads that basketball players wore under their baggy pants in recent years. It looked like the thigh pads that football players wore until fashion became more important than practicality. It didn’t look like a shoulder harness. If there was a shoulder component, it was obscured by Trent’s practice jersey.

Talking to Omar Payne and Alfonso Plummer before today’s practice, we got the feeling that both Illini were aware that Arkansas State has a couple of talented guards, and possibly some bigs that know how to basketball.

The unspoken point was that these two Illini players will be auditioning their skills against the best opponent they’ve faced so far in this nascent Year ’22. Plummer wants to showcase his PG skills because he knows the NBA isn’t interested in SGs my height. And although both Trent Frazier and Andre Curbelo are likely to play Friday, Plummer has been practicing at PG in preparation for the game.

Brad Underwood said the coaching staff was surprised by Plummer’s adjustment to the role, and his adeptness with the unique skill set involved in directing an offense.

This may have been an Elite. Elite on Brad’s part, but he did seem genuinely surprised.

Payne gets another chance to swat shots and possibly integrate himself into the Illinois offense. This is a good thing. Kofi Cockburn’s suspension was a godsend in this regard. And although Kofi got a raw deal from the NCAA, it’ll almost certainly help the team in the long run.

You want Omar to succeed. He’s exactly the kind of student-athlete that you want to root for, both in life and on the court.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Lighting Up Francis

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

Yes? Congratulations! You’re from Joliet!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Verdonk

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

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

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

Or does it?

Hutch with coach Tim Anderson

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

Brad Underwood watches Andre Curbelo during a drill.

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

It doesn’t seem likely, does it?

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

As Omar said, “I’m a scholar.”

Omar Payne & Ben Verdonk

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

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

  • Belo
  • Trent
  • ‘Monte
  • Jake
  • Kofi

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

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

What happens when it’s

  • Belo
  • Plummer
  • Hutch
  • Coleman
  • Omar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once.