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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.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Second Dimension

Listening to outsiders — basketball fans who aren’t Illini fans, sports media that’s not Illini sports media — you’d know the common wisdom about this 2021 Illini basketball team.

It’s the Ayo Show, featuring Kofi.

For the first time since forever, Illinois has a dominant hi-lo combo. If we can’t kill you from the inside, we’ll kill you from the outside. It’s a treat to have both weapons, but probably not enough to win a championship.

That’s why Saturday’s win over Purdue was the third significant game of the season, and the first significant game Illinois won this season.

It signifies because Ayo was normal. Not normal for Ayo, but normal for mortals. While the Boxing Day win over Indiana led to the obvious conclusion this team is screwed without Ayo, the Purdue win showed that, yes, Illinois has other options. It’s an important building block.

The 2005 team needed Jack Ingram to win at Wisconsin. It needed Roger Powell to beat Louisville. The Deron-Dee-Luther three-headed dragon was enough for 25 wins. The team needed other weapons to reach 37. It’s important that Da’Monte Williams and Andre Curbelo were the guys in that postgame presser.

The best part about this block is that Illinois notched a victory while building it. The two previous significant games were Baylor — in which the lads witnessed a near-flawless team defense — and Rutgers, where Coach Underwood showed them that ungoverned individual effort (Paul Mulcahy) can be the difference in a game (and not necessarily because it scores a lot).

Matt Painter put it this way after Saturday’s game: “You want to learn from the games that you lose, and you’ve got to be able to earn that right.”

Painter’s press conferences are always an elucidation in basketball philosophy. It almost doesn’t make sense that he can be so professorial within minutes of being so … well, angry.

Ayo’s getting out of the way allowed Belo and Da’Monte to embrace a challenge they wouldn’t face if Ayo carried the team on his back. They played lead roles in a contested game, with consequences.

Da’Monte’s sharp-shooting is a story in itself. His rebounding is what you’d expect. But he does both quietly. He’s the perfect foil for Belo, who’s entertainingly out-of-control.

The Belo/Kofi oop game has potential to develop a Douglas-Winters mythos (ask your dad).

The coaching staff will need to decide if reining Belo is worth the risk of ruining him. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate their coaching chops. But any (perceived) negative outcome will be talked about. You like your chances in this scenario, as an Illini fan. For all the brilliance its shown in landing Cokburn, Belo, Feliz (Orlando Antigua) and Ayo and Adam (Chin Coleman); this staff has plenty to prove.

Chin Coleman, masked appropriately

Antigua took the dangerous step that a lot of comfortably compensated assistants don’t dare: After his Kentucky success, he stepped out on his own. It didn’t work at South Florida. If you’re a religious Illini fan, thank god for that. His suffering is your redemption.

Chin finally worked his way into the P5 coaching ranks with the Promise of Ayo. He delivered, thus sealing Paris Parham’s demise at Illinois. (Jamall Walker was kept on for the same reason that Parham wasn’t — to secure recruits from his territory.)

The next chapter in the Chin story is his to write. Wrangling this group together, to execute as a disciplined unit, is how this author would write it (given a choice).

It’s early January, and Brad Underwood has already bestowed sophomore status on his freshman guards. But that’s premature. They’re playing like freshmen.

That’s okay. It’s expected.

You get the idea that Ayo is willing to wait in the corner, ready to take over if needed. That’s an amazing quality, but it fits with his big brother viewpoint.

The development of this team will be entertaining no matter what. It will be especially fun to watch if they win games while they’re developing.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Arch Support

What a great day to be a basketball fan. You can hardly wait to see Matt Painter’s gang bludgeoned at the RAC, right? And what if Northwestern beats a top 10 Iowa team at Carver?

May we live in Interesting Times.

B1G standings – December 29, 2020

Yes, MSU is the worst team in the Big Ten. Yes, Northwestern is alone in first place. The times they are a-changin’.

Beilein and Bo, the best coaches in the conference, are gone. Tom Izzo turns 66 in a month. Juwan Howard has proved he can recruit, but can he coach a team to consistency? Steve Pikiell revived a program last relevant in the Ford Administration. He’ll be getting job offers in three months. If Chris Collins keeps it rolling in Evanston … well, Mike Krzyzewski turns 74 in February.

In simpler times, people crowded around Chris Collins in person

Fran McCaffery will never have a batter team unless he can land every single white kid in America.

Painter continues to churn away with a system that’s worked for four decades. But starters Nojel Eastern & Matt Haarms had enough of it. When your senior leaders bail, people start to whisper & mutter.

So to be specific, it’s a great day to be an Illini basketball fan. Last week was a great example of where we stand, and where the conference is headed. Pikiell rallied his team to execute. Penn State is falling apart. And Indiana is drowning in a swamp of angry fans.

Justin Smith had enough of Indiana. Same with Nojel Eastern and Purdue.

Looking back at four years of Illinois-Indiana, you could make an argument for which school hired the better coach in 2017. And assuredly, cynical fans of each program will tell you: They did.

The teams split their 2017-18 games. Looking back at that Hoosiers roster, you’ll think “oh yeah – him.” They finished 16-15 which is no better than Illinois, which finished 14-18. Good seasons end with single-digit losses. If your coach leads you to enough 12-loss seasons, and their accompanying 8-ish seed berths in the tournament, you’ll be anxious for the next coach.

In 2019, Illinois was full rebuild, and Indiana crushed any promising signs of life with March 7’s 92-74 drubbing at SFC. It was one of the most depressing games in recent memory, which is why you’ve forgotten it. The Hoosiers won both games that year, but haven’t beaten the Illini since.

Saturday’s game buttressed all the arguments against Archie. The offense stalled for two significant stretches. His substitution patterns and line-ups created mismatches and weak spots for his team. He benched his star player for a fourth of the game because Trayce Jackson-Davis committed a second foul, and subsequent to that, a third foul. Trayce Jackson-Davis finished the game with three fouls.

Tyler, Edgar and Ayo were thrilled with Archie’s strategic decisions

Hoosier fans comfort themselves with Beckmanesque rationalizations. These two teams would be equal, but Romeo left and Ayo stayed. The loudest critics are FREAKING OUT because all of Archie’s top recruiting targets went elsewhere. So did Brad’s of course. But Brad has a pair of touted freshmen who will also be freshmen next year.

Can Archie win enough games to fend off the clamoring Banners Pointers? Lots of summertoothed holler-dwellers still believe Indiana is a blue blood. They’re unparalleled at running coaches out of town on a rail. Meanwhile, Purdue hasn’t fired a basketball coach in over forty years. Maybe fifty. Nobody’s really sure.

Purdue tried to Guenther Lee Rose after his 1980 Final Four run. It didn’t work then, either.

Illini fans still haunted by nightmares of Weberball don’t ever again want to watch a well-coached defensive team that hasn’t really worked on offense yet and auto-benches its best player after two fouls. Benching one’s best player is the epitome of inflexible coaching, a hallmark of the Weber philosophy. Indiana fans might accept stodgy inflexibility for old time’s sake, but not of it finishes 9-11 in conference.

Underwood critics say he doesn’t have a system. That he keeps changing his defense. That he keeps trying new things. You know, as if that’s a problem.

THE LONE WOLF

Adam Miller started the Indiana game, as usual. He scored zero points and grabbed zero rebounds, with two turnovers and no assists in 17:38. Afterward, Brad Underwood said he’d keep starting Miller. Underwood said Miller’s been great.

We’re seeing sports psychology in action.

Miller was practically invisible against Indiana while his roommate was everywhere, all the time. Andre Curbelo again ignited the team, turning a scoreless start into a thrilling rally. The Illini raced through the first eighth of the game without converting a field goal. Belo came in, and the team converted three of them within about 15 seconds of whirling dervish.

Underwood has coached for a few minutes, though. He knows that benching Adam might break a delicate psyche that’s undergoing some painful adjustments and a whole lotta learning process. So Underwood will keep saying that Adam is great. He’ll keep Adam in the starting five. Curbelo played 29:41 — thirdmost court time after Ayo and Trent.

The dynamics of the Miller-Curbelo-Underwood relationship are one of the underrated storylines of the season. And the supporting cast is important, too. Orlando Antigua, Chin Coleman, Da’Monte Williams and Ayo Dosunmu play key roles. Even Edgar Padilla Jr. can’t be ignored in telling the story.

It’s one of the great reasons to look forward to 2021.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

My Opponent’s Youth & Inexperience

Sunday’s Piscatawegian misadventure serves as the fourth installment in this season’s ongoing reality play Experienced Teams Will Beat Young Teams. Yes, four. You’re forgetting the Cameron Indoor episode, because you’re depressed and agitated.

As a basketball fan, you should be delighted by Sunday’s game. You should cherish everything about it excepting the crucial fact that your team lost.

Steve Pikiell’s reinvention of the Rutgers program is One Of The Great Basketball Stories. With Beilein and Bo gone, the mantle of Big Ten’s Best Coach was there for the grabbing. Pikiell’s in the running. If he maintains his current mojo, he’ll be in the conversation about Who Should Replace K?

You should also be impressed by the other coach in Sunday’s game, for his leadership. Brad Underwood Is A Human Person I wrote upon meeting the brooding heavy from KState. He looked like a 40s movie villain and GoEmaw regarded him as a badass, so I was surprised as anybody.

The humanity came across again yesterday, as youthful reporters pressed him with questions such as why does your team suck and the more invidious have you determined why your team sucks so hard? That’s not the precise phrasing, but you could see that these eager youngsters were channeling hard lessons from JOUR 210, and holding Underwood’s feet to the fire.

Because Brad’s job is to redirect youthful energy toward constructive pathways, he patiently parried these insinuations with only a hint of disdain. By the time his defense of Adam Miller (the ball is round and the basket is ten feet high, but that’s the only similarity to high-school BB) arrived, Brad was rolling. His build up/tear down of Andre Curbelo (best player on the floor/ too bad he couldn’t stay there) was great too.

Miller told the media on Saturday that he gets yelled at. It doesn’t faze him. He embraces the lessons, and likes the learning. He’ll enjoy this week

Eight games into their freshman season, the Illini freshmen are playing like freshmen. Yesterday in Piscataway, a talented group of veterans made them look like freshmen. Until this Illini team gels as a unit, such outcomes are inevitable.

This time, Giorgi was unable to distract Myles Johnson

Illini veterans weren’t perfect, either. Ayo not helping when Da’Monte got screened at the top of the key — that was a key defensive error in Illinois’ snowballing failure to finger the dike. But the veterans’ mistakes weren’t insurmountable & can’t be blamed for the outcome (whatever Da’Monte did to Paul Mulcahy was most assuredly deserved, and as far as I could tell, he didn’t do anything).

Illinois will drop to #18 in a few hours. Or maybe #22. Or perhaps only #15. Who knows? AP voters saw a three-point loss on the road against a Top 20 opponent. Unless they’ve paid attention to the season’s minutiae, they won’t know what we know: that this team really shouldn’t be ranked at all until February, assuming it’s grown together as a unit and proved something by then.

Yesterday demonstrated that Brad Underwood has the capacity to lead, and understands that these things take time.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Cameron Streak

It doesn’t matter that this year’s Duke team is overrated because its name is Duke. It doesn’t matter that it’s inexperienced and young.

Illinois is in the middle of a win streak at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and that streak is heading into its 26th year. That’s the important thing.

Whether it’s Chris Collins or Shaun Livingston or even John Scheyer; some Illinoisans need to be reminded that there’s only one team that’s undefeated in a quarter-century at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It’s the Illinois Fighting Illini.*

Also important is that any uncertainty following the Baylor loss is now forgotten by the people whose haunted memories matter most: Illini players.

Yes, it’s also nice that AP Top 25 voters will regard the Triumph at Cameron as proving something something undeniable pedigree.

A week after Baylor’s pre-game prep and in-game execution pantsed the Illini for 89 consecutive seconds, Illinois pounded Duke for about 37 minutes, while still committing enough boneheaded errors to provide the coaching staff with talking points, and keep practice interesting.

At most, two or three of those AP voters will remember that Kofi was inconsistent around the rim. Some of them know who Andre Curbelo is, but as long as the Illini narrative begins and ends with Ayo; Belo won’t be praised for igniting the offense, nor blamed for his wild rampages through Duke’s press.

Brad Underwood said Belo’s never faced a press. By the same token, Kofi and Giorgi have rarely battled defenders who combine freakish height with freakish athleticism.

Duke was a great lesson in that sense. The Illini bigs learned they can’t rely on low-post moves that lesser opponents were physically incapable of stopping.

Can one declare a coming out party for a chap as taciturn as Da’Monte Williams? Before a crowd of dozens, with millions more watching on TV, Monte continued his recent Arc Odyssey, swatted & recovered an alley-oop, and perpetrated Little Things on unsuspecting Dukies.

People should start comparing Monte to Lucas Johnson. He gets in people’s heads. And armpits.

Ayo won praise for an all-around effort, and he wasn’t humble about it. He blew off the notion that beating Duke means something, but accepted the suggestion that he played a complete game.

If you’ve seen any references to Bryant Notree, Matt Heldman or Chris Gandy over the last ten days, you can rest assured that Tuesday’s game at Cameron has already cemented itself a place in Illini lore.

It doesn’t matter whether it was a good game. It was A Great Game.

*Even if this statistic is not true, it’s true anyway. You know it in your heart.

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Illini Basketball

Wednesday After Dark

Swift decapitation seems like the best option if one must be executed. But in basketball, the bleed out still takes 40 minutes.

Kudos to Baylor assistant Alvin Brooks for recognizing that Illinois can be neutralized simply by shutting down its top three scoring options simultaneously. His scouting report proved deadly.

Rattling Adam Miller into an 0-for-4 get-go — and two turnovers in the first 69 seconds — allowed the Bears to effectively triple-team Ayo when he dared to penetrate. Jonathan Chumbawamba wasn’t planning to let Kofi catch a pass, and the rest of Baylor’s defense somehow encouraged Trent Frazier to kick or hoist the ball toward an abandoned baseline whenever an open opportunity seemed ready to brew.

Brooks coached with Bruce Weber and Chester Frazier at Kansas State before recognizing, as did Chet, that the turd was about to sink. His move to Waco kept him in Brad Underwood’s home conference. Let’s go out on a limb and speculate that he’s scouted Brad before.

Alvin Brooks III, in the brown suit

Combobulating this team in time for Duke, following two deflating performances, would move Underwood to the top of COY lists. And if your aunt had a penis, she’d be your uncle.

Given modern technology, neither of these outcomes is beyond our ken. But reassignment surgery might be easier than teaching freshmen to execute like seniors. Miller might not see such a smothering defense for the rest of the season, but Ayo is likely to get every opponent’s best 1-2 punch. Finding the open man is Rule One in besting a double-team, and Ayo threaded that needle last season in memorable situations. Alan Griffin was good at being found.

Ayo hasn’t developed the same rhythm with Adam, and Da’Monte —despite his alarming improvement from the arc — is still locked in Little Things mode when you might prefer him floating to the wing.

Andre Curbelo played the Warren Carter role on Wednesday. “Instant Offense!” cried the fans. “For the other team!” retorted Weber.

‘Belo handled the ball well (4/1 ATO). He made his shots. And he finished with a team worst -17 scoring differential. The metric invites scrutiny and skepticism. Who else did Andre play with during those sixteen minutes? Nevertheless, there it is, glaring from the box score.

‘Belo’s success, and Giorgi’s, were perhaps a side-effect of the Bears focus on Ayo and Kofi. Even if Brooks’s scouting report emphasized their tendencies, it’s hard for players to remember all the fine points. And really, it didn’t matter. Baylor cruised to this win.

Big Ten teams will already know Giorgi, and they’ll learn about Andre. Some won’t have the advantage of Baylor’s quick guards and energetic bigs. But they’ll all have one more game’s worth of video to study.

As Davion Mitchell said of Ayo: “We listened to the scout. We didn’t let him get to that right hand.” It’s not really that simple. But he added “it wasn’t just me, it was our other guards … we all locked up.”

And that’s the barrel this year’s team is looking down.

On the bright side, Ayo now has an opportunity to show fans and NBA scouts that he can turn a double-team into double-digit assists.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Ready for Prime Time Players?

One game into the season (sic), it’s hard to know whether a top-five ranking is merited for this pesky squad of veterans and newcomers.

Monte’s back-screen and Ayo’s read made it look easy, 39:53 into Ohio’s making it look hard. Trent’s interception demonstrated, as with last year’s final game-winning play, that defense is about spacing and reacting without thinking.

Trent wants to play cornerback for Lovie

No matter how great Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller might be, they have not chunked this information into instinctive behavior. Some of the defensive weak spots you saw against the Bobcats were the product of inexperience. If guys don’t rotate immediately, a well-oiled offense can exploit them in real time.

This morning, Ayo acknowledged that a video review revealed some spacing issues, and that the younger players were more likely to make these mistakes. But he also said everyone missed their spots, including himself.

His relaxed demeanor exudes a confidence that his teammates will need from him when the going gets tough, tomorrow and beyond. Ayo embraces the leadership role.

Contrast Kofi Cockburn, whose forthright description of his own struggles with “energy” is a welcome window into the mindset of a COVID-era collegian. Massive dunks & monstrous roars can lead us to forget that Kofi — despite his dimensions — is still a young person dealing with young person things, far away from home and family, and feeling just as isolated as everybody.

Kofi was SOOOOO happy to see his family

For this reason, Illini fans should give mad props to the team’s own bundle of warmth & encouragement — Kelsea Ansfield. She’s the one who conceived the Families Introduction last week. You could see the genuine surprise on the players’ faces. But the joy was especially clear on Kofi. who hasn’t seen his family in ages.

They’re supportive, but it’s not like having 15,000 crazies

Champaign-Urbana, normally buzzing with excitement this time of year, is a ghost town. The BMOC factor is missing for the Illini. Droves of supportive well-wishers simply aren’t there to provide emotional fuel.

The few students walking across Campustown don’t stop to chat. They’re very sensibly avoiding each other.

Telltale signs show the economic devastation of the pandemic. When tenants get evicted, landlords throw apartments-full of belongings into Campustown dumpsters. It’s hard not to see it.

Both Ayo and Coach Underwood were very much aware that this season, with all its potential, could fall apart at any moment.

We rescued all this food.

On Thanksgiving Day, Heather and I went for a long walk & came across a dumpster that had a car load of food in it. Two bags of apples, two jugs of grapefruit juice, three pounds of walnuts, ten pounds of dried beans, a case of canned beans, eight pounds of long grain brown rice, two cases of canned fruit, shredded wheat, buns & rolls, 26 cans of Campbell’s soup, three 12-packs of Bubly.

A couple of the items bore labels from nearby food banks. These people were too poor to buy food, and too poor to take it with them.

It’s a lot to deal with, even if you’re one of the lucky ones who gets three squares and regular testing. That’s another reason the Illini will continue to rely on their elders, to hold things together.

Da’Monte holds the key to the season.
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Illini Basketball

Ayo whaaaa?!?

You should probably feel less depressed about Ohio State if you feel depressed about Ohio State.

You should probably feel less anxiety about Iowa if you feel anxiety about Iowa.

This Illini team has demonstrated, throughout this season, that you can’t predict what this Illini team will do this season. Your source of anxiety shall henceforth parrot the reality of March: This team can lose to anybody.

Luckily, your glass is half full: This team can beat anybody, and has already proven its propensity to win seven-in-a-row.

Ayo mentioned winning seven-in-a-row just the other day, but he was talking about a state title, not a national title.

Ayo is voracious about titles. The chip on his shoulder is practically visible. His deference toward teammates & oft-stated respect for opponents belies a singular, individual drive to prove to you and your mom and everyone else that he, Ayo IS YOUR DADDY.

Ayo’s love of competition is infectious, and he’s contaminated an entire team and fanbase.

There have been two hints in recent Ayo Availabilities which should, at the very least, drive conspiracy theories about Ayo returning for a third year.

The most obvious was when he said he was contemplating Journalism as a major.

The other came after that, and I can’t remember which pregame availability it was, but you should probably just click on all the IlliniReport videos anyway.

But the good news about Ayo is that he wants to be The Guy who returned Illinois to jersey-popping status. If His Team doesn’t win three-in-a-row next weekend, or six-in-a-row after that; you can imagine him making another Consequential Decision in your favor.

#UnfinishedBusiness

The alternative is that you celebrate a championship.

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

A Good Night for a Bad Night

When this Illini team is great, it feels like a rebirth of history and tradition. When this Illini team is bad, it feels like the last 14 years of kicks to the nads.

Illinois was terrible Monday. They won a game against a team that arrived in Champaign with a 7-19 record. It was uncomfortably close. Thank your favorite deity that the final minutes weren’t excruciating. Thank goodness it was an awful opponent.

What if Ayo hadn’t decided to play through the pain?

Ayo connected on 9-of-16 FGAs. That’s a solid number in hindsight.

At the time, his misses felt like a bad omen. He was missing shots you expect him to drill.

The rest of the team was much, much worse.

It might go unnoticed, as this game desolves from memory, that lowly Nebraska overcame a ten-point deficit. They were rolling. They had all the momentum. They’d tied the game. The crowd was silent.

Then Trent Frazier connected from three. It was the team’s third make in eleven attempts from the arc.

After that, Nebraska threatened a bit in the second half, but Alan Griffin and Kipper Nichols made key defensive plays to suck the wind from Cornhusk sails.

Alan wanted it more.

Kipper’s steal made a spectacular moment, and a major buzzkill for the Huskers. But it shouldn’t go unnoticed that he fought for, and garnered, the offensive rebound that followed a failed Illini attempt to beat an elapsing (3 seconds) shot clock on an inbound play.

This was the single play that changed the direction of the game. From this point on, Nebraska never felt competitive.

So, crisis averted. For now.

Nebraska reminded us that Illinois has beaten three good teams. The first was Rutgers, without Geo Baker. The second was Penn State, without Myreon Jones.

Now, a third can be added to the list. Wisconsin got to 10-6. Whatever they did to get there, they got there. The win at Madison now feels like a win at Madison.

So yeah, tourney lock. Illinois is in. Woo-hoo!

But there’s plenty to worry about.

Let’s hope someone tells Josh Whitman — who spent the dark days in Wisconsin and Missouri — that his model of DIA leadership, Ron Guenther, is the guy who didn’t offer Bill Self a double, treble, quadruple increase in salary.

Brad Underwood will be a hot commodity on the upcoming coaching carousel. Orlando Antigua is not paid enough, even at the standard academic salary commensurate with experience.

It’s 2003 again, and all the cutlery is in the drawer, or on its way. Can the DIA get it right this time?