Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Consider Ricky Blanton

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

Andy Wenstrand – Illini Athletics

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

  • Tempering your enthusiasm
  • Encouraging you to be encouraged

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

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

Michael Glasgow / Illinois Athletics

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

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

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

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

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

ON CURBELO

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

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

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

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

ON DEFENDING AYO

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

Darryl Morsell guards Ayo during simpler times.

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

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

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

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

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

It worked against Illinois, too.

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

ON SLOWING KOFI

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Glasgow – Illinois Athletics

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

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

Of course it can. Weird things happen in March.

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

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

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

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

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

Give it time. They’re young.

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

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

Michael Glasgow / Illinois Athletics

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

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

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

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

Temper your enthusiasm. Be encouraged.

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

Categories
Illini Basketball

The Deserve Curve

You like sports & you know how to use the Internet, so you’ve probably encountered a probability to win graph. You might remember the one from ILLINI/MSU football. The sine wave changed at the end. The orange line moved up in comparison to the green line.

On Sunday, the red line hovered over the orange line for about 39 minutes of basketball.

Maybe not on your preferred website, but in my mind. Indiana was better than Illinois, and deserved to win Sunday’s game — for about 39 minutes.

If you want a more precise figure, the best I can come up with is 39 minutes and 53.6 seconds, because that’s when Terry Oglesby blew his whistle, and awarded a timeout to Trent Frazier.

It was this moment, when Andres Feliz pounced on a loose-ish ball, that the pendulum swung.

That might seem like an easy thing to say, because it happened to be the moment upon which the game swung.

Archie Miller wondered how the play could unfold with neither foul nor held-ball whistled.

Indiana was in position for a game-winning shot when — with about 8 seconds remaining —  Andres Feliz leapt to steal the ball from Phinisee, who had unsuccessfully attempted to dribble through Trent Frazier’s outstretched leg.

Feliz then rolled his upper body away from Phinisee to prevent a held-ball situation. Trent ran toward referee Terry Ogelsby, who was closely monitoring the play. Frazier both screamed and signaled for a time-out, which Oglesby granted.

Indiana fans melted the Internet and phone lines for post-game call-in shows, arguing that Trent’s leg had committed a punishable act.

It’s an interesting theory. Should Oglesby have called tripping? Did Trent have a right to stand where he was planted? Might it be a charge?

Maybe Oglesby just didn’t see the contact. It happened pretty quickly.

In general, I think complaints about officiating are a waste of time. Fans often misinterpret calls (e.g. yes it was a clean block, but the defender bumped the shooter with his hip), and too many fans vocally express displeasure at all calls, creating a Boy Who Cried Wolf vibe with the refs.

That said, the officiating on Sunday was worth discussing.

The most obvious gaffe was a foul not called on Devonte Green. Andres Feliz drove to the basket, Joey Brunk and Green closed in, and Green hacked Feliz on his shooting arm, visibly changing the shot and Feliz’s follow-through.

Feliz was so stunned by the non-call that he failed to get back on defense (which is, as you know, quite unlike Feliz).

The other remarkable call that went against Illinois saw Oglesby whistling Alan Griffin for helping an off-balance Justin Smith fall out-of-bounds.

Did Alan touch Smith? Did he give Smith a gentle push? That’s obviously what Oglesby saw.

I was at the far end, so I asked my fellow reporters if anyone got a good look. Erich Fisher said something along the lines of where there’s smoke there’s fire.

Brian Dorsey must have agreed with Alan, because his make-up call arrived as soon as he could find a potential infraction. It’s easy to call traveling in any situation, so traveling is a common tool for make-up calls.

Some Hoosier grad student might inquire about a grant to study how officiating affected the outcome of this game. Surely some donors would fund it. I’d like to know myself.

As far as deserving to win. Indiana definitely deserved this game for all but 6.4 seconds. And then Illinois deserved it more.

Ayo’s third major end-game gaffe (Miami, MSU) nearly handed the Hoosiers their win. But Ayo also drilled the big three that pushed the lead to 65-60. He drained his two free-throws. i.e. he redeemed himself, and snatched back the win.

They say ball don’t lie. It seems about right that at the end of the game, Illinois had one point more than Indiana. They deserved it more.

Categories
Illini Basketball

The Lock

Your favorite team is going to your favorite tournament.

Ayo hasn’t finished his business, and Tuesday night he made a statement to that effect.

Penn State’s defense was every bit as stifling as MSU’s, or Rutgers or Iowa. But they didn’t stop Ayo from penetrating the way Iowa did. They don’t have a Sticks Smith or a Myles Johnson anchoring the D.

No Rob, I hear you say, they have a Mike Watkins!

Tuesday night in State College, Mike Watkins was AWOL. He didn’t start. He played 18 minutes, including just five in the second half. The Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Nominee was not in foul trouble. He had Kofi problems. Or he had Ayo problems.

Really, it was his choice.

Illinois’ spacing problem resolved itself in State College. Well, enough anyway.

Ayo and Andres Feliz made the right decisions on a sufficient number of occasions to keep the Illini a few points ahead, keep the crowd nervous, and the Lions on their heels.

Two specific plays changed the tone, and perhaps the outcome of the game. One involved Ayo & Da’Monte, just as you’d expect. (It makes sense from a narrative perspective, see?) The other demonstrated Kofi’s mid-game tutelage.

Kofi had already committed his second shot clock violation in as many games, getting caught with the ball in his hands and no idea that time was running out. He learned from that experience.

With the Nittany hosts seeking a late-game comeback, it happened again.

But this time, Kofi got the ball in the basket, dampening the hosts’ hopes.

The other play happened a few moments earlier.

Ayo had hit the ground for the second time, as he often does. He was slow to get up, and assuming the TV camera was on him, I suspect some of you feared the worst.

He did get up, but he was late getting back on D. It turned out serendipitously well.

It’s a game of inches, and this time, the Illini punch had greater reach.

The bid was already locked in, so this column’s title is shameless clickbait. But the Illini are no longer the 12 seed. Now they’re playing for a four.

Categories
Illini Basketball

The Low-Percentage Shot

Step back from the ledge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s getting hard to score.

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

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

Alan started.

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

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

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

That was the only half-second Ron Harper needed.

When the parts come together, it looks effortless.

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

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

Look for that tomorrow.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Limbo

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

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

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

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

How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Illini Basketball

The 12 Seed

Sweeping Michigan and Purdue seemed impressive, right?

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

Is that good?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Illini Basketball

Los Feliz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was big.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even assistant coach Stephen Gentry got excited.

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

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

They all went in the basket.

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

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

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

That guy has grit.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Off-Night Warriors

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

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

Fortunately, Illinois had two someones answering that call.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, survive and move on. Iowa awaits.

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

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

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

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

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

Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Illini Basketball

Everybody’s Talkin’

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

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

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

credit: Vashoune Russell

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

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

He takes pictures of EVERYTHING.

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

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

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

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

Vashoune Russell & Tayshaun Prince

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

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

Team Dosunmu knows what’s up, too.

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

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

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

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

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

credit: Vashoune Russell

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

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

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

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

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

Help a brother, yes?
Categories
Illini Basketball

The Third Side

Following that tirade at 16:08, the Illini might have felt motivated to execute. But they didn’t.

We don’t know whether a set was called during all that yelling. If Brad Underwood drew up an action, it must have planned for a low-post feed.

For whatever reason, the team did nothing better, or well, once they broke that huddle. The Illini suffered through one of their worst offensive possessions of the season. It seemed as if they were trying to compile a highlight reel of bad tendencies.

Succinctly, they failed to reverse the ball. It’s been a talking point all year, and something they still get wrong. For every “we need to fix that” in a postgame remark to the media, there are as many further iterations of “stickiness” as the lads like to say. The ball “sticks.”

Missouri foisted an intense defensive effort, certainly the most insistent, unrelenting 40 minutes of defensive pressure these Illini have faced all year. And this one possession showed just how effective that type of effort can be against a young team that’s still trying to learn its reads.

The major combatants were centers Reed Nikko and Kofi Cockburn. Nikko won.

At this crucial moment in the game, and after spending a precious timeout, Illinois fails to convert. Instead, it’s another turnover and a foul.

And although Reed Nikko’s defensive footwork was superb, and deserves a lot of credit; it’s also true that Illinois helped him immensely by not reversing the ball to the left wing (the second side), forcing Nikko to establish a different defensive posture. And then, ideally, reverse the ball again (the third side) while Kofi seals Nikko with his big ole butt, creating a drive for Trent from the short corner.

The Underwood administration has seen some fantastic back screens and butt screens. Jermaine Hamlin had a great one for that Samson Oladimeji alley-oop.

Jermaine’s screen is quick, simple and effective.

Adonis de la Rosa executed a beautiful butt screen at Northwestern last year. Giorgi did one for Kipper just a couple of games ago.

It’s a really effective maneuver, but it doesn’t work against a well-coached team that’s already established its defensive position. you’ve got to get them out of position to make it work, and you get them out of position by reversing the ball.

Perhaps the problem against Mizzou was simply that Kofi Cokburn was, as Underwood pointed out, ten games into his college career. He might have popped backward sooner, when he felt Nikko release for the double-team. But it seems likely that Da’Monte would’ve been smothered regardless.

And while Kofi did struggle all game against Missouri’s bigger, quicker defenders (i.e. bigger and quicker than he’s accustomed to playing, so far), reversing the ball would have afforded Kofi the opportunity to re-position himself for screening a backdoor cut.

Some people scoff at the notion that this team is “young.” But they really are young. More importantly, they haven’t played together as a unit in the way that, say, Dee-Deron-Luther-Roger-James did.

If you’ll recall, those guys looked pretty bad in January of 2004. They’d lost in the B1G-ACC to North Carolina. They got clocked by Providence in the Jimmy V Classic. They scraped by a 16-14* Mizzou team in Braggin’ Rights 71-70. Then they started the conference schedule at 3-3.

Things looked bleak. Disjointed. And then that team didn’t lose again until the B1G Tournament’s championship game.

So be patient. Let’s see how this comes together.

*Mizzou’s website credits that team with a 20-14 record, including two wins over themselves in pre-season intrasquad games and a 0-0 win over the Blissless Baylor Bears. You should laugh at them, point fingers, and dump popcorn on their heads.