When you read accounts of this game, a 54-53 slog, scribes will tell you Lamont Paris apprenticed under Bo Ryan and Greg Gard, which is why Chattanooga plays slow.
Thus, Dick Bennett’s legend continues to infect the uninvolved. Wisconsin’s 21st century teams score plenty. The reason Illinois & Chattanooga scored only 107 total points is all about Illinois.
Illinois is really, really good at defense.
“Brad Underwood assembled a team that’s deadly inside & out.” Or that’s the rap, anyhow. And that’s all anybody talks about. But Illinois wins because Trent Frazier & Da’Monte Williams get in your business and force you to shoot 4-of-20 from the floor.
You will always enjoy beatdowns like the Wake Forest game in December 2004. But the games that live in legend are awful. The Arizona Game was awful. ’89 Bloomington was awful.
Yes, we all want 40 minutes of highlight reel, including six or seven dunks and about 15-for-19 from the arc. Cross your fingers, and the next five games might be like that.
But probably not.
Illinois survived, and moved on. In doing so, the Illini advanced the cause of Brad to KSU. But it also helped Lamont Paris, who should be strongly considered for any open P5 job. IN fact, let me launch the Lamont Paris to KSU meme right here. We need to get this guy away from B1G openings.
Sunday’s early lunch involves a more traditional Illini nemesis, and possibly the best coach in college basketball history.
Cellvin Samsung is like Bruce Pearl: Irritatingly good at coaching, regardless of whether he’s destroying the NCAA’s Rulebook. You should feel less great, after the Chattanooga performance, to know that Houston doesn’t compete in a lot of Q1 games.
Trayce Jackson-Davis is a great ambassador for college basketball. I’m happy that he’ll finally play in the NCAA Tournament. That it took an Illinois loss to get him there? That doesn’t bother me either.
The Illini need a weekend off. You got the feeling that they were willing to win another B1G Tourney if that’s how the chips fell. But they made it clear that their sights are scoping a different tourney.
Their ability to win six in a row hasn’t changed because of Friday’s umpteenth consecutive uncomfortable performance. They still have the defense & rebounding. It’s much more likely that non-B1G opponents won’t have sussed Plummer, won’t comprehend — even after watching a boatload of videos — the intensity and (sorry to say) violence required to stymie Kofi in the low-post.
Brad Underwood was funny, but not joking, when he said he’s tired of playing this league. He should be. Giving Micah Shrewberry a three-month head start on scouting Illinois demonstrated just how effective B1G scouting can be.
So how great is it, from an Illini fan’s perspective, that if Illinois had to lose a game during this stretch, that it wasn’t one of the next six, nor one of the last three? Beating Michigan, Penn State and Iowa damn near killed you, so aggravating and trying were those games. But in the end, you got a shiny trophy. Win the next six, you get another trophy.
Lose Friday, and you get a weekend off to heal. Even the guys not recovering from a sprained shoulder will benefit.
We all wish Andre Curbelo were 100%, and that a 100% Belo will someday launch the type of unexpected 8-foot floaters that won him B1GS1Xth last year. He’s still launching unexpected floaters, and they still catch defenses offguard. But because they travel only 6 feet beefore landing, defenses aren’t as bothered.
The 100% Belo probably won’t emerge this year. And maybe not during his time at Illinois. But it feels too soon to say, given that we’re still just weeks from his hibernation. With every practice and game, he gets closer to his groove.
Thing is, Belo cares. If you think he’s just enjoying the circus, don’t.
After his game-winning drive that didn’t, Belo collapsed in horror, hands to cheeks, and crouched in disbelief on the baseline.
Nobody noticed. The camera pulled away to follow live action. If he hadn’t sat there in my lap for a solid 30 seconds, I mightn’t have noticed either.
#ISupportBelo remains an important concept because, as the young man recovers from an unexpectedly serious neurological problem, he’s also trying to figure out whether he can still basketball, and why all his tricks are broken.
Basketball got him off the island, and holds the potential for enormous riches. But if he can’t trust muscle memory and well-honed instincts to function at crunch time, his past stops being prologue. He’s just a kid who payed basketball when he was younger. Like us.
Coleman Hawkins got out of his Coleman Hawkins funk, so we know it can be done. And the fact that last Sunday happened, that all the stars aligned, shows that it can happen to Illinois (despite what seems like a Goat-shaped curse).
You’ll probably root for Illinois in the tourney, andyou’ll probably invest some amount of your emotional health in their performance.
It’s just possible that this team has all the tools. So aren’t you glad that they took this loss, and can now focus on the goal?
As confetti streamed downward from Honored Jerseys to Lou Henson Court, priority recruits joined (their future fellow?) students at the center I, jamming together in a mass of humanity that constituted by far the best super-spreader event of the COVID years, as far as Illini basketball is concerned.
Stoic, taciturn Adam Fletcher, known to you all as “Fletch,” literally danced on the baseline and smiled while doing it. Brad Underwood found Fran McCaffery through the crowd, and congratulated him on a game well fought.
Chester Frazier ran around the entire crowd, along the edge of the SFC bowl, navigating the least obstructed path to Sarah, his wife. He called to her over the crowd. Somehow, she heard him. And despite carrying a toddler on her hip, she too navigated the crowd to meet him at the final balustrade/cattle fence.
It’s a good lesson: Remember what’s important. Prioritize. Accentuate the positive.
Illini basketball had just frustrated all its fans en route to an incredibly lucky, mathematically improbable #B1G championship.
Now, five days later, Illini fans will sweat through morning coffee until the ’22 Illini tip off against the B1G’s least predictable team. OR, if you’re in Indianapolis and connected to the DIA, perhaps you’ll be drunk by tip time.
The B1G’s hottest team, Iowa, continued its offensive romp on Thursday, dropping 112 points on Chris Collins’s purty good Northwestern defense.
Iowa had won five in a row before stubbing its toe on Coleman Hawkins, a seven-footer guarding the perimeter, a crazy Puerto Rican whose passes seemed wild as his defense was sound.
When not playing Illinois, Iowa is pretty great. They were pretty great against Illinois, too. At the end, Illinois had more points. Despite everything.
Defense wins championships. On Sunday last, defense won a championship. It certainly wasn’t Belo’s passing or ‘Monte’s free-throws. But those two were instrumental in the lockdown, and ‘Monte again saved the game with an offensive rebound that drove the Hawkeyes Radio Network crew crazy.
Friday morning, Illinois will play a team that lacks confidence. As Trayce Jackson-Davis said after Indiana overcame an error-prone Michigan team, he’s never played on the #B1GTourney Friday before.
Indiana could win, and it wouldn’t matter. Brad would like “back-to-back on something,” and #B1GTourney championships are his best opportunity. We’d all prefer it.
But the pressure is off here. Winning any games in Indianapolis is unlikely to affect Illinois’s seed in the dance. Losing won’t help or hurt in that regard.
The team can play for the enjoyment of the game, and to work on coverages, and to implement sets that haven’t been scouted.
What a stupid way to win a championship. Aaaaaaaand we’ll take it, AMIRITE?!?!?
First, the #LuckyBadgers find they’ve spent all their tokens. Then, the Murray Twins can’t buy a free-throw, while Belo spends twenty minutes throwing the ball away. And when the dust settles, a trophy.
As your hangover recedes, you’re already forgetting how the game unfolded. Twenty years from now, you’ll have no idea.
It doesn’t matter.
The feeling you had throughout the championship-winning game was probably something like “BELO WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?” or perhaps “COLEMAN WHY DID YOU SHOOT THAT?!?!?”
Honestly, this game felt like a lifetime. And most of the time, you felt like you were dying.
And then, at the other end of the court, Joe Toussaint moved his feet too much while trying to find a passing lane.
Defense. Travels. It was the theme of the game. And Illinois won it, and a championship.
We remember the Derek Harper three that got Illinois into the 1983 tourney, but we have no idea what the ’84 Illini did to tie Purdue for the conference championship.
Ah, yes. They lost at Mackey.
I mean, that’s one way to look at it. You could also sayIllinois beat B1G doormat Wisconsin to clinch the deal.
Or don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter.
Illinois was in position, Saturday, to win a Big Ten Championship on Sunday. It didn’t seem likely, but fundamentally, it’s the putting yourself in position that matters.
The 2002 Illini championship (or 2001? … nah, not even finna Google this time) had a similar less than triumphant, come-from-behind, all dominoes must collapse in this order feel to it. And that’s how those dominoes fell. I think there was an unlikely Wisconsin loss there too, but I ain’t lookin’ it up.
Brad Underwood said something important in the PSU postgame, which was about four nights and a lifetime ago. He said he told his team they’d have four or five games in the NCAA Tournament that were like that.
Scrap, scrape, bang, bend. Don’t break.
It’s been alarming and unnerving to watch Illini basketball these past two months, and yet here you are, celebrating a championship. How should you feel about that? How should you feel about their tourney chances?
1989 was a lot more fun. 2005 felt too easy. 1998 was five wastrels against the Big Bad Izzoes, a genuine David/Goliath story.
2001 was a tragedy, but maybe it helped the Big Ten’s front office recognize that referees should penalize players for fouling other players.
The gritty 2022 championship-winning Illini men’s basketball team feels like an offhand remark that’s been weighted down by the gravity of situation: If it keeps scrapping, it might win a championship. You know, like it just did last night.
“I told them they’d have four or five games like this in the NCAA Tournament” became “I’d like to play nine more.”
That was Brad’s postgame observation about his time with Trent and Da’Monte.
Brad Underwood doesn’t want to talk about a Big Ten conference championship.
“Our guys aren’t dumb. They know what’s at stake,” he said yesterday, but added the team’s focus is “Ohio State, Ohio State, Ohio State.”
He prefaced all that by expressing relief that Duane Washington moved on to the G League while acknowledging that Washington’s replacement, Buckeye guard Malaki Branham, is “probably” the best freshman in the B1G.
Chris Holtmann still has his dynamic pair of undersized power forwards Kyle Young and EJ Liddell, two guys that have bugged Underwood throughout his Illini tenure. Young has taken on a sixth-man role this season, which provides Holtmann’s traditional 9-man rotation extra experience when the subs come in.
Sophomore wing Eugene Brown started the last four games. His role expanded when Justice Sueing went down for the season with an abdominal injury. Brown’s minutes became more important after back-up PG Meechie Johnson suffered a facial injury in practice, just before the January 13 game at Wisconsin. After missing three games, Johnson returned, wearing a protective mask. Then starting PG Jamari Wheeler went down with an ankle injury. Then, two weeks ago, Johnson rolled his ankle at Rutgers.
With Sueing and grad transfer Seth Towns both out for the season, the Buckeyes are the one B1G team that can argue with Illinois about who’s had the most roster fluctuation this year.
Theoretically, both Buckeye PGs are now healthy. Johnson played 18 minutes, and Wheeler 30 in the Buckeye’s 80-69 overtime win over Indiana on Monday, in Columbus.
Branham is the guard to watch. Underwood called him the B1G’s best pro-prospect, which satisfied the coach’s hyperbole quotient for yesterday’s press conference. But Branham’s scoring average has increased during B1G play (15 ppg), and he’s up to 46% from three on the season; so he’ll get the Trent Frazier treatment.
None of these people can guard Kofi Cockburn, but that wasn’t an issue when the Buckeyes won in Champaign last year. The Liddell pick n’ pop turned the tables on Illinois, which found its dominant low-post player … in the low post, while Liddell rained threes.
EJ is connecting on 39% of his arc shots this season. He’s connecting on Twitter at EasyE2432. It’s in the OSU pre-game notes.
The Buckeyes are a six point dog tonight, and that probably won’t change when betters find out about RJ Melendez’s emergency appendectomy.
Whether RJ could have helped against Liddell? Debatable. It’s nice to have an extra five fouls, but Underwood has pretty much stuck to a 9-man rotation, even though 12 guys are involved. (Nine play, while three DNP/CD per game.) That’s Luke Goode’s music you’re hearing.
And if Coleman Hawkins continues his aggressive defensive play, he might be just the problem Illinois needs to impose on Liddell.
But we’ll know the outcome when the Buckeyes take the court tonight. It’s Orange Out at SFC, which means the Illini will be wearing orange, perhaps the ’89 throwbacks?
If the Buckeyes dress in white, that means they’ll win. So let’s hope they don’t read Illini Report.
Three B1G teams stink. Losing to any of those three teams should embarrass you, the fan. Northwestern is not one of those teams.
On the other hand, Illinois already lost to Maryland, one of the icky three. And yet, here remain the Illini, alone in first place.
It’s a brutal league, and the Wildcats compete with everyone. They’re especially tough defensively. And that’s why Illini fans can feel good about Sunday’s dogfight.
Ryan Young’s offense is the reason NU is under .500 in league play, but his defense is terrific. Robbie Beran is worse at the former, and even better at the latter. That’s why he’s remained a mainstay of the Chris Collins era, despite averaging 6 & 4.
These two defenders and their coach calculated that hacking Kofi Cockburn for 40 minutes might give them a chance to win. Adding Elyjah Williams’s five fouls to their arsenal, the Wildcats probably figured they could finish regulation with one big undisqualified.
Of course, that strategy required some hacking from the wings, too. And Chase Audige obliged. He and Beran fouled out. Young and Williams finished with three PFs apiece.
Bert Smith, Keith Kimble and Lewis Garrison reported 22 Northwestern fouls to the official scorekeeper. The Illini committed, as far as those three were concerned, just 14.
Kofi officially drew 11 fouls, and unofficially drew two or three per possession.
That NU’s free-throw attempts lagged the Illini just 18 to 19 demonstrates that the ‘Cats did a lot of hacking in non-shooting situations. That Illinois reached 20 turnovers for just the second time this season (Marquette, 26) shows that the hacking worked.
Expect more hacking. Paul Mulcahy will certainly bruise Kofi’s forearms on Wednesday. Caleb McConnell will be the triple-teamer who forces held-balls.
Kofi is among the most emotionally balanced players ever to feel the bright lights, elbows & fingernails descend upon him. That’s the reason Illinois fans can hope for some success in the NCAA Tournament this year, regardless of their B1G Championship aspirations.
The B1G has clearly decided that its referees won’t stop play every time someone hacks-a-Kofi. But as James Augustine can tell you, it’s different in the post-season.
Sunday’s 73-66 verdict demonstrated a championship-caliber persistence in an Illini team whose stars have been saddled by ever-developing scouting report information. Grandison and Plummer surprised some people early in the season.
There are no surprises in February. Not among foes whose budgets afford top salaries for human scouting, plus plenty $$ remaining for proprietary analytics.
On the other hand, the tendencies of Casey Simmons and RJ Melendez haven’t been compiled to the point that dribbles right on 97 % of ball screens at the top of the key can be deduced from previous performances.
And, of course, they’re both surprisingly bouncy.
Simmons was fantastic for the Wildcats, mostly on defense. Perhaps because, as a freshman, he hasn’t learned to play conservatively. He gambled and won time and again, most obviously when he intercepted Illini passes, and returned them for touchdowns.
RJ’s play, offensively, was the same thing he’s shown at every opportunity this season. It’s the reason Illini social media clamors for additional Ramses every time he gets tick. As Geoff Alexander promised in the pre-season, “he’s exciting.”
Whether RJ’s defense was any good in November, it wasn’t as good as Da’Monte’s defense. Whether RJ’s defense is better in February … still maybe not the point. Melendez minutes don’t require RJ to displace a veteran. As legs tire, as the gauntlet of a 20 game conference season reaches its trench warfare phase, RJ’s minutes will, ideally, provide exactly the kind of difference-making spark that beat Northwestern Sunday.
As Belo keeps Trent fresh, and provides a disorientingly unTrent-ish vibe on offense, so RJ can disrupt opponents simply by being unpredictable.
The weird thing about both these Puerto Ricans, however, is how cool they remain under pressure, despite their manic offensive explosiveness.
And if RJ remains as unflappable as he’s seemed throughout his brief Illini tenure, you can feel good about putting the ball in his hands at crunch time. For a guy who won’t be able to buy beer legally for another 10 months, that’s a remarkable quality.
Brad Underwood deviated from a standard 9-man rotation only to the extent that Ben Verdonk played two extremely meaningful minutes, keeping Kofi from committing a third foul before halftime.
That Luke Goode is sometimes the ninth man, that Coleman Hawkins sometimes doesn’t play meaningful minutes: These are indications that Brad is balancing PT based on match-ups, and doing his best to keep everyone involved.
It doesn’t mean that 10 or 11 guys will see meaningful tick in any game. It means that Podz will be ready the next time Trent hurts his knee. It means Coleman will be available to extend a packed defense.
Ben Verdonk personifies the Good Guy. Da’Monte Williams epitomizes coachable selflessness. You want to root for them.
When ‘Monte drove from wing to paint during that 40 Year Desert of Illini scoring on Tuesday, you and I cringed. His forte has never been finishing in the lane.
Ben was the only guy available for a dump-off. Illinois really needed a bucket.
You & I don’t want Da’Monte driving to the low-post, and we don’t want Ben taking passes in the low-post. We want Andre Curbelo dribbling, and Kofi waiting for the lob.
We can’t have nice things. We’re Illinois.
Or that’s the meme, anyhow. In fact, Illinois remains in great position to win the B1G. Wisconsin and Michigan State jumped from middling pre-season expectations to the top of the standings, almost as if they were Wisconsin and Michigan State. (When will people learn?) But Illinois is right there, like 2007-2019 hadn’t happened.
Olds remember conversations including the Illini, right up there with Badgers and Spartans.
Purdue, the all-time leader in Big Ten Conference titles, is in good shape to capture a 25th.
But between COVID rescheduling, inevitable injuries and off nights; there’s plenty of opportunity for Illinois to scrape & claw its way to a title. And even though Da’Monte’s penetration produced no points on Tuesday, I’m glad Brad Underwood allowed it to happen.
After complaining about Bruce Weber’s micromanaging for all of 2010-12, I feel ashamed for questioning Brad Underwood’s patience.
Illinois did not, as history won’t remember, get that bucket. As it happens, they didn’t need it. By the slimmest of margins, and possibly because Williams and Verdonk were on the floor, the Illini held off a vastly overrated but still defensively sound Michigan State team.
I was reminded once again that between you, me and Brad Underwood; one of us gets paid three million dollars to run the Illini basketball program. When that final two-tenths of a second had finally ticked, that guy had beaten yet another Top 10 team.
History will probably also forget that no one expected Illinois to beat MSU on Thursday, with the notable exception of Las Vegas. Illini fans watched the previous game, at Maryland, and decided that the dream had died. Illinois basketball was a mirage, a fantasy. They’d just woken up with a hangover and regretted ever investing emotional capital in this squad.
How did Brad Underwood turn the hive mind of his team, the same team that lacked urgency in College Park, into a ramshackle collection of scrappers that beat a ranked team while BOTH of its most heralded players sat out?
This is why I was disappointed, in hindsight, that Matt Stevens didn’t cover the Maryland game for IlliniGuys.
Larry Smith was the IlliniGuy covering the game at Maryland, accompanied by his beautiful wife Rita. It was great seeing them, and Larry is both the consummate professional and a gregarious colleague.
But Matt Stevens would have been useful to have there. Among the regular Illini media pool, he’s the best at probing sports psychology issues. He’s subtle about it. He knows how to ask meaningful questions without making people uncomfortable.
Whatever happens going forward this season, the Maryland game was some kind of turning point. And I’d like to figure out how Underwood managed it. The path to a championship veered off course there. How did he get it back?
We learned later, of course, that Belo was sick and Trent injured. That’s part of the problem. But another reason for the “lack of urgency” was that guys were playing unfamiliar roles. Ben isn’t accustomed to starting Big Ten games. Da’Monte hasn’t been a “scorer” since his high school days.
If Underwood cultivated hesitancy in these guys, at this point, he’d be shooting himself in the foot. So whether he cringed along with you and me, he didn’t show it. That’s the important thing.
NOT ABOUT BASKETBALL
This afternoon in Champaign, the mortal remains of Associate Vice Chancellor Emeritus, former Dean of Students and noted martini quaffer Clarence Shelley will lie in repose at the Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church.
If you ever set foot in Champaign, you were probably friends with Shelley. If you were a black UIUC student trying to acclimate to campus life in the latter half of the 20th century, he counseled you, supported you, and kept you on the straight & narrow.
My mother had a friendship with Shelley in the 1970s. He steered black students toward her literature classes when she was a TA before earning her PhD. in 1974. I learned about that in the 1990s, when I befriended Shelley in a reviving downtown Champaign. We were both martini traditionalists.
To the extent that Illinois Basketball needs urban black people to spend their college years among the soybeans & hogs, Dean Shelley was the man who paved a path through the corn. But you didn’t have to play basketball for Shelley to be important. You didn’t even have to be a student, or black.
Very few of us will have an impact on so many lives. So if you can’t make it to the visitation, pour one out for Shelley tonight.
The last time Illinois visited College Park was also the last game before The Ayo Era truly began. Like a lot of games against Maryland, it ended stupidly.
You’ve tried to forget Anthony Cowan’s 35-footer, and in part, you’ve been successful: You still remember it, but you think it won the game.
It didn’t. It tied the game.
Then things got stupider.
The Illini had a chance to win in regulation. Or just kill the clock.
Instead, Cowan & Sticks Smith tackled Andres Feliz, stole his ball, and ran to the other end. One free-throw and one intentional miss later, Maryland had capped off yet another improbable defeat of Illinois.
Illinois led 57-48 with 4:12 remaining. Closing a game on a 1-11 run was the only way they could manage to lose, so that’s what they did.
It was arguably even stupider than the statistically impossible Terrapin comeback in Brad Underwood’s first year, when Da’Monte Williams had not yet become the unshakablest Illini.
After the December Debacle, Quam Dosunmu (the elder) was possessed by frustration. He hadn’t steered his son to the Illinois program to watch Andres Feliz get ripped in crunch time. His family hadn’t traveled to Washington to witness ignominious defeat.
Quam’s rant went on for quite some time, and I probably wasn’t the only one who listened to it. I was however, the only one present while he was ranting to me.
I never asked Quam’s permission to share his words, and I didn’t record them, or even make notes afterward. But none of that matters. Once The Legend of Ayo became a matter of record, the Dosunmu family no longer needed to campaign.
It wasn’t unreasonable to put the ball in Andre Feliz’s hands. After all, he’d closed the first half of that same game effectively.
But obviously, Illinois needed to ensure, from that point on, that Ayo Dosunmu had the ball when the game was on the line.
The rest is history.
Brad Underwood remembers the violence and the non-call, but he doesn’t remember the Xfinity Center as the place where he realized that, going forward, Illinois basketball would look to Ayo Dosunmu to close the door.
Or at least he’s not saying it.
Presumably, Quam shared his thoughts with Brad, too. The Dosunmus had an access that most families don’t enjoy. Was that part of the deal? Your guess is as good as mine.
Underwood probably wouldn’t like to develop a reputation for heeding the demands of disgruntled parents, because all parents are disgruntled at some point, and many carry a low intensity grudge throughout their son’s eligibility.
All we know is that after the game at Maryland, Things Changed.
Underwood is not the kind of guy who’s put off by a grudge, of course. He thrives on them. You noticed, as the team prepared for its first B1G road trip of this season, that winless at Carver-Hawkeye was made known to everyone. It’s a chip that Underwood carries. He carries that chip for the Xfinity Center, too.
Because Maryland is bad this year, Illinois has a good chance to get Brad his first College Park roadkill. And the truth is, this is a must win for the Illini. They can’t expect to compete for a B1G title if they lose to the last place teams.
Maryland is 1-6 in conference, and 9-9 overall. Their coach quit before the angry mob arrived. Interim coach Danny Manning has already been drummed out of P5 basketball. After getting Tulsa to the dance in his second year, he went 78–111 at Wake Forest.
But he’s 1-and-1 versus Underwood. And Brad knows that, too.
When college basketball finally ends — giving way to Twitch, or similar things you’ve never heard of* — clever analysts and their publishers may finally have the opportunity to figure out what happened.
Why was college basketball so popular? So lucrative? Why did people invest so much of their time & emotions in college basketball?
To this point, we’re all kinda wondering.
Historians probably won’t question why Brad Underwood brought Omar Payne to Illinois. But that’s one of those subjective details that makes college basketball so fascinating.
Omar Payne might forever remain the least appreciated Illini recruit.
Lousy on offense (without Andre Curbelo to feed him dunkable lobs) and a defensive menace, he’s a liability to those who see value only on the former end of the court.
For a few months, social media geniuses have been asking each other why Illinois recruited Payne, whose 9:47 of tick at Nebraska bumped his average to 8.3 minutes per game. Is it his 1.9 points or his 1.9 rebounds?
The man who’s paid $3.5 million to make these decisions has maintained, throughout, that Omar Payne’s performance has been nearly flawless. Measured in the way Underwood’s staff grades defense, Omar is an A student.
That’s just in games. Omar’s major contributions have always been off the court (he’s a scholar, and a glue guy) and most significantly, in practice.
Omar is the pain-in-the-ass defensive presence that Kofi Cockburn needed. They’re great friends and mortal combatants. The former aspect is important, although not necessary. Omar would be making Kofi better if they hated each other. But it’s nicer when guys can be friends after they’ve had their showers and cooled off.
Omar isn’t the only reason Illinois beat Nebraska on Tuesday. Of course not. But the game was a great example of getting enough from the pieces you have. Guys fulfilled their roles.
Omar’s role expanded a bit when Kofi got his fourth foul. He added scoring to his rim protection and rebounding.
Jacob Grandison’s four assists and 12 points will disappear from public consciousness by the time you finish this sentence. Trent Frazier’s dominant offensive effort (mostly as a dribble-driver, not a spot-up shooter) will likely provoke more questions than satisfaction. Where has this been all these years?
But Trent’s performance was an excellent example of his discipline. He took what the defense gave him. He recognized the openings, and followed the path they presented to him.
Omar said as much about Nebraska’s choice to hedge rather than ice. He knew what opportunities that strategy would open in the paint.
Although closer than you might have expected, the outcome at Nebraska was perfect for an Illini team that wants to learn. The fact that it won Omar some plaudits, finally, is gravy. The best thing that happened is that Illinois was challenged, and it overcame.
*because you’re not 18-24/male and therefore not a market worth exploiting
Midway through his postgame press conference, Cuonzo Martin got his Bret Beherns Moment. From the back of the room, a reporter asked what Cuonzo would say to fans after being blown out in both rivalry games (102-65 in Lawrence on December 11th).
His response was much better than John Groce’s “goodness gracious, Bret. What kind of question is that?”
Cuonzo said “stay the course. We will continue to get better. We will continue to grow.” Trouble is, he didn’t just lose to Kansas. He lost to Kansas City, too. And Liberty. Moreover, Cuonzo is not a course-stayer. He’s developed a talent for getting out of town.
On the brink of getting fired at Tennessee, he parlayed two lucky weekends into a Pac-12 job in Berkeley. First, he beat a Brad Underwood-less South Carolina team in the SEC Tournament (before losing to top-ranked Florida). That moved him into the NCAA First Four (beating out, for example, John Groce’s second Illini squad) where he conquered The Frans in overtime. His Volunteers handled 6-seed Massachusetts. But Duke and Coach K awaited.
Or not! Mercer gave their all to beat the Blue Devils, and thus spent, had nothing left for UT. Hence, Cuonzo made it to the second weekend. He knew the temperature of his seat in Knoxville, and he got OUT.
Mizzou must be an awful job. Since Norm Stewart retired, no one can manage it. Or if they keep afloat, they get out. Remember Frank Haith? He made a lateral (?) move to Tulsa. Mike Anderson, their best coach of the century, jumped to Arkansas. Quin Snyder’s career was almost ruined in Columbia. Kim Anderson enjoyed three D-II Final Fours, including a championship, before killing his career in Columbia.
If Cuonzo isn’t looking elsewhere, he’s lost his edge.
On the other hand, kudos to him for starting freshman Trevon Brazile, who’d previously played in a total of 3 games, against Kofi Cockburn. Brazile earned Brad Underwood’s praise in the postgame cameras on/microphones live session, but Andre Curbelo jumped off the bench *during* the game and yelled “Kofi, go at him. LOOK AT HIM!”
There’s really not much to report about the actual Braggin’ Rights game. It featured one team on the rise, and another in a death spiral. The crowd wasn’t 50-50, but perhaps 80-20. By the time Illinois had a 30 point lead, all the yellow shirts were missing, and orange people had moved from the nosebleeds to take their seats. Apart from the assistant football coaches (sitting on the court), this reporter didn’t spy celebrities. The courtside spot generally reserved for recruits featured only Belo.
Illini alums were sparse as well. Steve Bardo was there because he was working. Drew Cayce and Bubba Chisholm were the only former players I spotted. Oh, and Nate Mast providing play-by-play with Brian Barnhart, because Deon and Doug were unavailable.
It was fun, but it wasn’t Braggin’ Rights.
The best part was watching Mark Jones honored for 33 years of photography (and insolence). He’s a gem.