Categories
Illini Basketball

Here We Go, Yo

Miller & Curbelo becomes a reality in a few hours, presuming everybody’s saliva stays COVID-free as it was today. All the multi-team eventers are in town, tested and negative (so far). So here’s my version of the pre-season write-up.

Despite unanswerable questions regarding unseen players, we know a lot about the 2021 Illini. It’s still the Ayo & Kofi show. Da’Monte Williams remains the Dirty Worker. Trent might connect on a higher percentage of threes this season. Giorgi might adjust to the four spot.

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

Coach Underwood’s interest in spreading the floor, establishing a hi-lo game, and passing/shooting over shorter opponents has grown since last year. It’s why he recruited Coleman Hawkins and Luke Goode. Thus, the current state of Illini Basketball should recall turn of the century teams moreso than the Flyin’ Illini, or the Deron-Dee experience.

What role will the newcomers play? I’ve read a lot of speculation about these new guys. You’ve read the same things. I don’t know if I learned anything.

I write only about first-hand experiences, and I’ve never seen any of the new Illini play an actual live game. Practices and hype videos don’t tell me much. Will anyone bring the tenacity lost when Andres Feliz matriculated?

Feliz kept Illinois in games when Kofi was neutralized and Ayo was off. That Minnesota game, pictured above, was a prime example.

Can Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo fight like Dre fought? That’s what I’m eager to see. The Illini were not great last year. They were improving. It’s comparable to the 2004 version of Deron-Dee. Lots to be embarrased about, but coming together at the end. And you know what happened the year after that.

The Michigan game will be remembered for this shot. But it was the Wolverines’ game to win, and they choked.

An ongoing confusion, for me, is the conflation of Hutcherson and Grandison. Presumably it’s the shared Scandinavian patronymic. People meld the two. In written accounts, they’re interchangeable. That’s weird. Hutcherson is tiny, and seemingly breakable. Grandison has a man’s body. One is a forward. The other is a guard.

Jacob Grandison is a forward

I’ve never had a conversation with Hutcherson. He’s a nearly blank slate for me. All I know is that he’s really skinny, and when people quote Underwood as saying he’s the best athlete on the team, they should remember that Underwood described Mark Smith as having “it” and “the It factor” about a week before saying Da’Monte Williams had “it” and “whatever It is.”

Here’s a Zoom with Austin from September. I wasn’t on the call. I’m watching it for the first time, too.

Jacob is the son of high-achieving academics, and he speaks like a graduate student. Because he’s 6’6″ and swole, you want to envision him on the wing, knocking opponents to the ground with a solid screen before slipping to the arc and draining threes. Because he’s not as tall as a typical 4, I’ll be curious to see his rebounding technique.

Austin is known as a shooter, and he says he’s gained 10-15 lbs. since arriving last year. Because he’s been out with back spasms, and won’t play in the MTE, he’s the obvious Enigma of the ’21 Illini.

The recently sung, formerly undersung freshman is Coleman Hawkins. Earlier today, Underwood expressed surprise that Hawkins is already solidifying his role on the wing. Despite Coleman’s assertion that he’s NOT A POINT GUARD, that judgment is really up to you. Was Earvin Johnson a point guard? What is a point guard?

Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, like Hutcherson, will sit out the MTE. So you’re likely to see Hawkins and Grandison early and often, probably feeding Kofi from the top of the key.

But none of these guys is likely to start. Unless Underwood keeps his promise of picking names from a hat, it’ll be five familiar faces when the ball goes up Wednesday at 1 p.m.

Here we go. It begins.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Every Little Thing

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

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

credit: Vashoune Russell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there were the free-throws.

credit: Vashoune Russell

I feel terrible for Austin Davis, especially.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why doesn’t anybody ever tell me these things?