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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Journal of the Plague Year

If five Illini basketball players are still standing by 8 pm tonight, there will probably be a basketball game at State Farm Center. That’s pretty much how Brad Underwood laid it out in his Sunday press conference.

Ben is out. That much we know. Scott Richey’s persistent questioning yielded as much. Trent, Belo and Jake might be available. Brad said he doesn’t know. Trent’s problem is a deep bone bruise. Belo’s problem should be the subject of a dissertation. The O-shaped suction marks on his neck recall Star Trek (the original series).

The rest of the team seems to be troubled by a respiratory virus. In the 2021 season, the team was protected from respiratory viruses. This year, not so much. For one thing, classes are in-person. For another, they live in an enormous apartment building with a thousand strangers. (It’s the building whose construction necessitated the demolition of Trito’s Uptown/Campus Crusade, Chin’s Wok n’ Roll/Eddie’s/Clybourne, RR Sportsgrill/Firehaus and the Sixth & Daniel Espresso Royale.)

Open this picture in a new tab. Look at their faces.

Respiratory virus you say? That rings a bell. Is it influenza? Maybe. Scott persisted about that, too. He won Sunday’s Actual Journalist award.

It seems the flu is carving its way through the entire campus, not just the basketball team. It’s not Covid, unless the current strain mimics influenza’s bone pain, fever and listlessness.

The last two pre-game availabilities have been among the most frank of Underwood’s career. Perhaps by necessity. Maybe because he feels the pressure of two unexpected, early season losses.

In fairness, he’s generally straightforward, and you can literally see him thinking when a question veers on territory that DIA handlers have cautioned him against addressing. You can also tell, if you spend a lot of time around him, that he’d much rather shoot from the hip. (If he leaves the University of Illinois before he retires, it probably won’t be because the University of Illinois micromanaged him. It’s merely one of the irritants.)

So what about tonight’s basketball game, assuming there is one? What should you expect? Nobody knows. Even Brad Underwood doesn’t know.

If Illini basketball has a successful season, the narrative will begin with this hellish month of injuries and illness, and how the team came together despite them.

Let’s hope you’re reading that narrative in mid-March.

^^^ Lucas Johnson
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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Coleman Show

Such a quiet second-half from Coleman Hawkins. It’s almost like he wanted to tone it down a notch, get other people involved, focus on his passing game.

Dude was everywhere, all the time, in the first period.

He can’t help it. He gets excited.

The 92-53 blowout lost money for people who bet on outcomes. It made money for Coleman. Whether it’s immediate NIL offers, or the attention of NBA scouts, and even without traditional TV bringing the game to people outside State Farm Center; word is going to leak about the lithe yet thunder-dunking point-forward

And then, after scoring 14 points, grabbing 8 rebounds (five offensive) drawing 8 eight fouls (committing one), dishing three assists and blocking two shots, Coleman became normal. He played 10 minutes in the second half, and 17 in the first. But he also relaxed a little, and not in a bad way.

Coleman has been the team’s hothead so far this season, but he chilled on Friday, perhaps recognizing the volatile atmosphere around him. The Arkansas State bench taunted Andre Curbelo into a technical foul.

Belo said they were talking about his mother. He took the bait.

It was worth it. The team won by 39 points, beating the spread by 25. It’s hard to argue with that, no matter how you got there.

Brad Underwood decided he’d get a technical, too. And that also worked. The team swarmed on defense, launching an 18-2 run.

“Don’t poke the bear,” Curbelo advised after the game. “I’m gonna stick up for my guy,” added Underwood.

How does a team score 92 points on a bad shooting night? By following its shot. 24 offensive rebounds, and a quick recognition of weak spots left in the Red Wolves defense following a shot attempt. Jacob Grandison and Da’Monte Williams see those things, and react.

Brandon Lieb cleverly missed a dunk so he could enjoy his own o-bound putback.

Ben Verdonk grabbed 10 rebounds again. Hawkins finished with a dozen, half on offense, and 17 points.

Red Wolves are probably waking up this morning, on their West Bomphoc campus, and wondering what happened.

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Illini Basketball

Nobody Got Killed

You’re looking for a Silver Lining after watching a game that was both a blowout and a Cautionary Tale. Rest assured, it’s here.

Da’Monte Williams is unlikely to shoot 2-for-11 in future games. He’s unlikely to find himself running the point during B1G play. And even if he does, his experience Tuesday guarantees that he’ll be more comfortable in that role.

Ben is the Boss, man. (See what I did there?) We could also probably figure out a basketball meme for verDONKing the ball.

Coleman Hawkins will probably get fewer technical fouls & taunting warnings. Probably.

His mouth is as big as California, and his current confidence level might not fit in the entire Pacific Time Zone. No complaints here, but Brad Underwood is already assessing the value of ColeHawk’s assessments. (He wants fewer T’s assessed.)

Coleman Hawkins explains to referee Chad Barlow that he wasn’t pushing off.

Omar Payne will probably find himself comfortable on offense. His defense is entertaining enough to merit some amount of PT. He’s an intellectual, so he’s probably overthinking everything right now, as he adjusts to new information overload. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? (Excluding the 247 free board people, obviously.)

Dudes were sidelined. Belo caoched the whole game.

Ramses Melendez fears nothing. You were like that too, once. What happened to you?

Let’s hope it doesn’t happen to RJ. On the other hand, Brad Underwood ripped a new asshole for him after RJ’s three-point celebration became a defensive breakdown.

Jake got his chance to shine.

Alfonso Plummer had a better stat line than his social media response would suggest. You didn’t seem to like his game. He was fine.

Playing the most minutes of anyone from either team, Plummer failed to assassin down the avenue. But he converted 3-of-7 shots. His A-to-TO ratio was in the plus range. He rebounded from the two-spot. He stole three balls.

This win counts toward rankings and post-season slotting. Embrace it.

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COVID-19 Illini basketball

Was That What We Were Expecting?

The Trent Frazier Show was rolling in fifth gear all night. Luke Goode rebounded. Coleman Hawkins drained threes. Austin Hutcherson made a 90° turn in mid-air, to shoot a ball that he’d already rebounded while already in-air.

I guess that’s what we expected to see in a contest featuring the state’s worst basketball team versus the state’s best basketball team. (I’m including JV teams from the IHSA.)

The unexpected performance came from Andre Curbelo, who was really … um … bad? And amazing? But we expected amazing. We didn’t expect five turnovers.

D’oh!

Brad Underwood won’t lose much sleep over it. He explained that Belo was, frankly, nervous. After a freshman year of balling for 200 people, he’d found himself on display for a few thousand, including a rowdy student section.

This is why we schedule exhibition games.

And we shouldn’t forget that he was also amazing, as expected.

The challenge for Brad Chet Tim Geoff is to rein in Belo’s exuberance without crushing it. Or am I being too control-ly?

Maybe Belo just needs a couple of exhibition games under his belt, and he’ll be fine?

He was, after all, amazing.

Coleman Hawkins is the other free spirit whose playmaking thrilled fans and burst capillaries in his coach’s face. Should he be throttled?

Coleman seems to know that it’s a matter of picking his spots. Knowing when to play it straight. Knowing when to get creative.

Surely the surprise of the night was RJ Melendez, who didn’t get in the game ’til the fourth quarter. That late entry was expected, because RJ’s performance in the Open Practice suggested he was a few years away from comprehending the defensive principles that Underwood’s staff requires of its rotation players.

But RJ found his spots against USF-Joliet. He didn’t get backdoor-ed. He hedged correctly. He didn’t look afraid.

RJ was fun on offense, hitting a three and converting a reverse lay-up. But that was the expected part for him. We knew he could rebound, too. But what about his defensive positioning? Will he be instant offense for the other team?

He did not look lost against USF.

The rest of the veterans displayed rust here and there, among moments of grace. Da’Monte Williams best play was batting a ball from a Saint and simultaneously knocking it off his victim, out of bounds. He nearly emoted in celebration.

Kofi had a somewhat frustrating game, of the sort he’ll experience every night over the next five months, as teams study his every move, and do their utmost to stop him.

He’s a kind, sensitive person. So you hope he can keep that good nature while opponents do their best to ruin his future.

Hutch did not miss.

We still can’t be sure that Hutch is ready for P5 competition, because he certainly didn’t face it Saturday. But he looked a lot more like the super-hyped Hutch than he did the skinny Division III kid we saw two years ago.

It still looks like Podz and RJ won’t see a lot of floor time this year, a vibe that Underwood conveyed in his season kickoff press conference. Podz didn’t have the opportunity to show us anything worth knowing. He didn’t have time.

The ball was in his hands as time ran out on the game, so he was in position to score the hundredth point. He did it.

Trent was already laughing, Brad was already angry.

RJ’s brief tick was a lot flashier, but he faces the same general problem: Which three veterans will he replace?

Maybe we’ll know more after Exhibition #2, just six days from now.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Lighting Up Francis

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

Yes? Congratulations! You’re from Joliet!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Verdonk

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

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

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

Or does it?

Hutch with coach Tim Anderson

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

Brad Underwood watches Andre Curbelo during a drill.

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

It doesn’t seem likely, does it?

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

As Omar said, “I’m a scholar.”

Omar Payne & Ben Verdonk

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

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

  • Belo
  • Trent
  • ‘Monte
  • Jake
  • Kofi

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

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

What happens when it’s

  • Belo
  • Plummer
  • Hutch
  • Coleman
  • Omar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once.
Categories
Illini Basketball

Talking Points

It’s Finals Weeks. Braggin’ Rights looms. One fourth of the way through the season, where does this Illini team stand?

Great teams don’t rest on their laurels. They analyze their mistakes, and their successes. They seek to improve every aspect of performance. There’s plenty of good and bad to think about on the way to Saint Louis. A few key match-ups should provide the best talking points, and might decide the game.

Da’Monte Williams

Is there a more polarizing Illini player? Almost certainly. But it’s worth noting that if you do have an opinion about Da’Monte Williams, you either think he’s the guy who holds it all together, or you’re calling for his benching.

You don’t have to like Clarence Thomas to be impressed by the effect he had on the US Supreme Court from day one. Da’Monte is like that.

Thomas arrived when the court was split 4-4 on a particular case. His vote would determine the outcome. Yet at the end of debate, Thomas found himself in the minority. Whatever happened in that conference room, he made an impression on his colleagues.

Likewise, Williams sat out his first summer as his ACL healed. On the first day he joined practice, according to Brad Underwood, he changed the team “because of his basketball IQ.”

Da’Monte’s intelligence would be useless if he didn’t have a lot of dog in him. But he’s from Peoria. Wimps don’t make it out of Peoria.

Da’Monte rips the ball from Mark Smith, last year

Williams will be the player to watch Saturday at the Checkerdome (or whatever it’s called these days). He probably won’t score much. That’s not the question.

The question is how will Mark Smith fare? Da’Monte hopes to answer with his defensive performance: not very well.

Last year, Smith scored 5 points in 35 minutes in his first game against his old team. It was pretty clear that Da’Monte enjoyed his part in that futility.

He enjoyed taking Smith’s ball

The other guy in all Sunday’s pictures of Smith will be Andres Feliz, who wouldn’t be here if Mark Smith chose to stay. In hindsight, Illini fans are probably okay with that trade. Feliz will want to prove it to them, nonetheless.

If you don’t think Andres Feliz plays with a chip on his shoulder, you haven’t met Andres Feliz.

It’s not a bad thing. He plays with pride, and as if his life depends on it, which it kind of does. That goes for his wife and kid, too.

Kofi Cockburn is a machine, and should be treated like one. His underuse might be this team’s most obvious problem. Watching from the bench during two heartbreaking losses was remedied by a dominant performance over ranked (overrated?) Michigan.

Against Old Dominion, Kofi attempted six shots. He finished with three field goals. Maybe he didn’t need the extra practice, but it would be nice to see the team go to that well continuously, until it becomes second-nature. He converts 59% of his shots. If you fould him, he’ll make his free-throws.

Maybe Kofi doesn’t know it, and maybe it’s not fair; but his match-up with Jeremiah Tilmon will be the talking point of Braggin’ Rights. Tilmon abandoned the Illini when Underwood came aboard. Instead, the Illini have Kofi and Giorgi Bezhanishvili.

Tilmon is averaging 9.7 points and 4.7 rebounds in 22.6 minutes/game on the season. Contrast Giorgi with 9.6 points and 5.7 boards in 25.9 minutes.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili rebounds

Kofi also gets 25.9 minutes, is averaging 15.4 points and 10.5 rebounds in those minutes. Foul trouble can limit minutes for any of them. Tilmon leads the way with 2.8 per game. Giorgi and Kofi accrue less than 2.5/game.

(Watch for Mizzou’s transfer guard Dru Smith to foul out. He averages 3.3 fouls per game.)

Alan Griffin

When Brad Underwood says “I don’t remember anyone stripping my ball” in college, he’s talking about Alan Griffin.

To Alan’s credit, Giorgi got his ball stripped a bunch of times in the Michigan game. It doesn’t mean you’re terrible. It means you haven’t played against the very best, and your habits are not attuned to playing the very best. It also means you’ve been distracted.

Alan is, by far, the most yelled at player of the Underwood tenure. Number 2 is Kipper Nichols, whom Underwood yelled at a lot during last Saturday’s game against Old Dominion. When the dust settled, Kipper was sitting in the media room, in front of a microphone. That’s always a sign that the coach thinks you done good.

Underwood doesn’t yell at you unless he thinks you’re worth yelling at. With Alan Griffin, the athletic ability is obvious. The talent is there. It’s the processing that frustrates Underwood. Alan is more cerebral than most, which sometimes slows him a step. Being too smart and being too thoughtful are enviable problems. In sports, it’s described as “spacy.”

Alan’s game translates well to the Mizzou defense, which is also spacy.

BTW: Underwood also spent a good amount of energy yelling at Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk during his moment of PT last Saturday, which suggests BBV might be worth the time & effort.

Note: Inquiries to the B1G office yielded no update on the health of Lewis Garrison. The ODU game was refereed by Brandon Cruz, I don’t know that Brandon Cruz had ever refereed an Illini game previously.

Categories
Illini basketball

A Happy Blood Bath

Just what the doctor ordered; a rampage through a hapless patsy.

Things had been going pretty well for the Illini, especially if his name were Kofi Cockburn. But as the team’s focus shifted, appropriately, to feeding its Monster in the Middle, individual stats suffered.

Saturday night, everybody got a chance.

Was it more important for Alan Griffin or Ayo Dosunmu? That’s the sort of question sports people ask, because sports people are incessantly looking for any available over/under. For better or worse, and it’s arguably for worse, sports is about winners & losers.

The answer is that it was better for Ayo Dosunmu and Alan Griffin. The answer is that Illinois basketball got a shot in the arm by allowing everybody to bask in the glory of a slaughter.

Scoring 20 and 19 points respectively, Ayo and Alan almost visibly swelled with confidence. And they got their points quickly enough to allow plenty of minutes for the guys who don’t usually get to play.


Brad Underwood name-checked both Ayo and Alan in his postgame comments, and didn’t say they’d been struggling.

Ayo enjoyed the opportunity to run an open (or at least disorganized) floor against the Pirates. Alan got open looks, converted 3-of-7 from the arc, and made one spectacular tip-in which is almost certainly susceptible to Search, now that everything is recorded.

Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of it. (It happened at the other end from me, as did Da’Monte’s alley-oop dunk.) But I did get a good picture of Alan.

Ben Bosmans-Verdonk dished four assists during his ten minutes of PT. He also grabbed two rebounds and two steals, and scored four points (and committed three fouls). Tevian Jones watched from the bench, and seemed to enjoy the performance despite the obvious point that he could have enjoyed those minutes himself.

Tevian Jones watches BBV getting all his minutes

Jermaine Hamlin got nine minutes of tick, and converted a pair of FGAs. The first was a left-handed hook shot. The second was a dunk that kept going and going and going.

No-nonsense referee Keith Kimble, who has never smiled, finally grew bored with watching Hamlin hanging from the rim, and assessed a T.

Categories
Illini Basketball

In with the old, In with the new

It seemed like old times when Illini basketball fell behind Lewis 14-2 Friday night. After all, my first-ever write up of an Illini basketball contest was titled Illinois almost Lewis-es.

Then there was Chaos and Lewis.

The new.

Friday’s exhibition featured new faces prompting new story lines. The youngsters deserve the spotlight. They performed.

Kofi Cockburn tallied a double-double. His footwork seemed natural. He looked comfortable on the floor. He didn’t panic under pressure, but instead found Da’Monte Williams for an open three.

Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk converted three of three attempts from three. He converted two of two attempts from one.

Eleven points in eight minutes. Three rebounds. No fouls. And Brad Underwood was even more impressed by his defense than his O.

That last point is significant for two reasons. As Underwood pointed out, BBV has been fully cleared to practice for a total of five days in his career. And more importantly, what freshman big man was ever praised for his defense in a first-ever appearance?

Cockburn was so reliable in the paint, he was almost boring to watch. The hi-lo didn’t work right away because, as Underwood reported, Giorgi was a little too excited to get it going. i.e. Giorgi forced things. i.e. Giorgi was enthusiastic about passing to another guy so the other guy could score. It’s an excellent problem to have.

But Kofi didn’t show nerves. He merely executed.

Kofi Cockburn celebrates a forced three-second turnover against Lewis.

Eventually the hi-lo worked. Giorgi and Kofi both finished with points, and Giorgi and Kofi both finished with assists. Kofi had 16 & 3. Giorgi had 12 & 2.

Kipper Nichols played the hi-lo as well. He threw two dimes, called out defenses, and rebounded/converted a missed Alan Griffin lay-up, despite much harassment.

Fellow old man Da’Monte Williams was up to his old man tricks. Even older Underwood mentioned these two in his postgame comments, and he probably wasn’t simply throwing a bone to the Groce recruits, who’ve been bypassed in the starting line-up.

Underwood can count on Williams in the same way that he counts on his son Tyler. And he did on Friday, when flashier players’ turnovers mounted.

Brad Underwood likes turnovers as much as the average basketball coach. Possibly less. He also enjoys watching his players shift out of position, reach in, foul jumpshooters, etc. just as much as the average coach.

When Alan Griffin had another Alan Griffin Moment, Underwood gave Griffin another Alan Griffin Brad Underwood Moment.

If Underwood is as hard on any other single player as he is on Alan Griffin, it hasn’t happened in public moments. It’s therefore almost impossible to avoid assuming that Underwood wouldn’t be so hard on Griffin if

  1. Underwood didn’t see enormous potential waiting to be tapped
  2. Griffin’s dad were not also a hard-nosed coach

Contrast Underwood’s praise for Jermaine Hamlin, whose performance was statistically the worst of any Illini. Five minutes, two rebounds – one of which was immediately stripped by a tiny D-II guard.

Underwood said he didn’t know how Hamlin could help the team this year, which should get Redshirt talk churning. But Underwood said he’d like Hamlin to be involved this year. Does that mean in games, or just practice?

The oldest guy in the house was Aaron Jordan.

He was present for the last Illini game at State Farm Center, of course. But that seems like ages ago, for a lot of reasons.

Aaron was working for money on Friday, not just for your enjoyment. He was part of the DIA marketing team. More fundamentally, Aaron attended his first Illini game where Rob Jordan wasn’t also in attendance.

People who didn’t know Rob Jordan might assume that his attendance streak would have ended with Aaron’s eligibility. People who knew Rob Jordan understand that he would have been there Friday night, not just to cheer Aaron’s new job, but only about 85% to cheer Aaron’s new job.

Had Rob Jordan not died suddenly this year, he would have continued to attend Illini games even after Aaron moved on and up in the world. Fundamentally, Rob was put on earth to yell at referees, to buy Cracker Jack (and tip the hawkers who brought it to his seat) and to socialize and enlighten people through networking. He was, after all, the Fiber Guru.

Rob Jordan was more important to Illini basketball than almost anyone understands, so it was especially nice to see his scion in attendance Friday. If you’re bored with reading about him, don’t check back next week. It’ll only get worse for you.