When you read accounts of this game, a 54-53 slog, scribes will tell you Lamont Paris apprenticed under Bo Ryan and Greg Gard, which is why Chattanooga plays slow.
Thus, Dick Bennett’s legend continues to infect the uninvolved. Wisconsin’s 21st century teams score plenty. The reason Illinois & Chattanooga scored only 107 total points is all about Illinois.
Illinois is really, really good at defense.
“Brad Underwood assembled a team that’s deadly inside & out.” Or that’s the rap, anyhow. And that’s all anybody talks about. But Illinois wins because Trent Frazier & Da’Monte Williams get in your business and force you to shoot 4-of-20 from the floor.
You will always enjoy beatdowns like the Wake Forest game in December 2004. But the games that live in legend are awful. The Arizona Game was awful. ’89 Bloomington was awful.
Yes, we all want 40 minutes of highlight reel, including six or seven dunks and about 15-for-19 from the arc. Cross your fingers, and the next five games might be like that.
But probably not.
Illinois survived, and moved on. In doing so, the Illini advanced the cause of Brad to KSU. But it also helped Lamont Paris, who should be strongly considered for any open P5 job. IN fact, let me launch the Lamont Paris to KSU meme right here. We need to get this guy away from B1G openings.
Sunday’s early lunch involves a more traditional Illini nemesis, and possibly the best coach in college basketball history.
Cellvin Samsung is like Bruce Pearl: Irritatingly good at coaching, regardless of whether he’s destroying the NCAA’s Rulebook. You should feel less great, after the Chattanooga performance, to know that Houston doesn’t compete in a lot of Q1 games.
Trayce Jackson-Davis is a great ambassador for college basketball. I’m happy that he’ll finally play in the NCAA Tournament. That it took an Illinois loss to get him there? That doesn’t bother me either.
The Illini need a weekend off. You got the feeling that they were willing to win another B1G Tourney if that’s how the chips fell. But they made it clear that their sights are scoping a different tourney.
Their ability to win six in a row hasn’t changed because of Friday’s umpteenth consecutive uncomfortable performance. They still have the defense & rebounding. It’s much more likely that non-B1G opponents won’t have sussed Plummer, won’t comprehend — even after watching a boatload of videos — the intensity and (sorry to say) violence required to stymie Kofi in the low-post.
Brad Underwood was funny, but not joking, when he said he’s tired of playing this league. He should be. Giving Micah Shrewberry a three-month head start on scouting Illinois demonstrated just how effective B1G scouting can be.
So how great is it, from an Illini fan’s perspective, that if Illinois had to lose a game during this stretch, that it wasn’t one of the next six, nor one of the last three? Beating Michigan, Penn State and Iowa damn near killed you, so aggravating and trying were those games. But in the end, you got a shiny trophy. Win the next six, you get another trophy.
Lose Friday, and you get a weekend off to heal. Even the guys not recovering from a sprained shoulder will benefit.
We all wish Andre Curbelo were 100%, and that a 100% Belo will someday launch the type of unexpected 8-foot floaters that won him B1GS1Xth last year. He’s still launching unexpected floaters, and they still catch defenses offguard. But because they travel only 6 feet beefore landing, defenses aren’t as bothered.
The 100% Belo probably won’t emerge this year. And maybe not during his time at Illinois. But it feels too soon to say, given that we’re still just weeks from his hibernation. With every practice and game, he gets closer to his groove.
Thing is, Belo cares. If you think he’s just enjoying the circus, don’t.
After his game-winning drive that didn’t, Belo collapsed in horror, hands to cheeks, and crouched in disbelief on the baseline.
Nobody noticed. The camera pulled away to follow live action. If he hadn’t sat there in my lap for a solid 30 seconds, I mightn’t have noticed either.
#ISupportBelo remains an important concept because, as the young man recovers from an unexpectedly serious neurological problem, he’s also trying to figure out whether he can still basketball, and why all his tricks are broken.
Basketball got him off the island, and holds the potential for enormous riches. But if he can’t trust muscle memory and well-honed instincts to function at crunch time, his past stops being prologue. He’s just a kid who payed basketball when he was younger. Like us.
Coleman Hawkins got out of his Coleman Hawkins funk, so we know it can be done. And the fact that last Sunday happened, that all the stars aligned, shows that it can happen to Illinois (despite what seems like a Goat-shaped curse).
You’ll probably root for Illinois in the tourney, andyou’ll probably invest some amount of your emotional health in their performance.
It’s just possible that this team has all the tools. So aren’t you glad that they took this loss, and can now focus on the goal?
As confetti streamed downward from Honored Jerseys to Lou Henson Court, priority recruits joined (their future fellow?) students at the center I, jamming together in a mass of humanity that constituted by far the best super-spreader event of the COVID years, as far as Illini basketball is concerned.
Stoic, taciturn Adam Fletcher, known to you all as “Fletch,” literally danced on the baseline and smiled while doing it. Brad Underwood found Fran McCaffery through the crowd, and congratulated him on a game well fought.
Chester Frazier ran around the entire crowd, along the edge of the SFC bowl, navigating the least obstructed path to Sarah, his wife. He called to her over the crowd. Somehow, she heard him. And despite carrying a toddler on her hip, she too navigated the crowd to meet him at the final balustrade/cattle fence.
It’s a good lesson: Remember what’s important. Prioritize. Accentuate the positive.
Illini basketball had just frustrated all its fans en route to an incredibly lucky, mathematically improbable #B1G championship.
Now, five days later, Illini fans will sweat through morning coffee until the ’22 Illini tip off against the B1G’s least predictable team. OR, if you’re in Indianapolis and connected to the DIA, perhaps you’ll be drunk by tip time.
The B1G’s hottest team, Iowa, continued its offensive romp on Thursday, dropping 112 points on Chris Collins’s purty good Northwestern defense.
Iowa had won five in a row before stubbing its toe on Coleman Hawkins, a seven-footer guarding the perimeter, a crazy Puerto Rican whose passes seemed wild as his defense was sound.
When not playing Illinois, Iowa is pretty great. They were pretty great against Illinois, too. At the end, Illinois had more points. Despite everything.
Defense wins championships. On Sunday last, defense won a championship. It certainly wasn’t Belo’s passing or ‘Monte’s free-throws. But those two were instrumental in the lockdown, and ‘Monte again saved the game with an offensive rebound that drove the Hawkeyes Radio Network crew crazy.
Friday morning, Illinois will play a team that lacks confidence. As Trayce Jackson-Davis said after Indiana overcame an error-prone Michigan team, he’s never played on the #B1GTourney Friday before.
Indiana could win, and it wouldn’t matter. Brad would like “back-to-back on something,” and #B1GTourney championships are his best opportunity. We’d all prefer it.
But the pressure is off here. Winning any games in Indianapolis is unlikely to affect Illinois’s seed in the dance. Losing won’t help or hurt in that regard.
The team can play for the enjoyment of the game, and to work on coverages, and to implement sets that haven’t been scouted.
What a stupid way to win a championship. Aaaaaaaand we’ll take it, AMIRITE?!?!?
First, the #LuckyBadgers find they’ve spent all their tokens. Then, the Murray Twins can’t buy a free-throw, while Belo spends twenty minutes throwing the ball away. And when the dust settles, a trophy.
As your hangover recedes, you’re already forgetting how the game unfolded. Twenty years from now, you’ll have no idea.
It doesn’t matter.
The feeling you had throughout the championship-winning game was probably something like “BELO WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?” or perhaps “COLEMAN WHY DID YOU SHOOT THAT?!?!?”
Honestly, this game felt like a lifetime. And most of the time, you felt like you were dying.
And then, at the other end of the court, Joe Toussaint moved his feet too much while trying to find a passing lane.
Defense. Travels. It was the theme of the game. And Illinois won it, and a championship.
We remember the Derek Harper three that got Illinois into the 1983 tourney, but we have no idea what the ’84 Illini did to tie Purdue for the conference championship.
Ah, yes. They lost at Mackey.
I mean, that’s one way to look at it. You could also sayIllinois beat B1G doormat Wisconsin to clinch the deal.
Or don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter.
Illinois was in position, Saturday, to win a Big Ten Championship on Sunday. It didn’t seem likely, but fundamentally, it’s the putting yourself in position that matters.
The 2002 Illini championship (or 2001? … nah, not even finna Google this time) had a similar less than triumphant, come-from-behind, all dominoes must collapse in this order feel to it. And that’s how those dominoes fell. I think there was an unlikely Wisconsin loss there too, but I ain’t lookin’ it up.
Brad Underwood said something important in the PSU postgame, which was about four nights and a lifetime ago. He said he told his team they’d have four or five games in the NCAA Tournament that were like that.
Scrap, scrape, bang, bend. Don’t break.
It’s been alarming and unnerving to watch Illini basketball these past two months, and yet here you are, celebrating a championship. How should you feel about that? How should you feel about their tourney chances?
1989 was a lot more fun. 2005 felt too easy. 1998 was five wastrels against the Big Bad Izzoes, a genuine David/Goliath story.
2001 was a tragedy, but maybe it helped the Big Ten’s front office recognize that referees should penalize players for fouling other players.
The gritty 2022 championship-winning Illini men’s basketball team feels like an offhand remark that’s been weighted down by the gravity of situation: If it keeps scrapping, it might win a championship. You know, like it just did last night.
“I told them they’d have four or five games like this in the NCAA Tournament” became “I’d like to play nine more.”
That was Brad’s postgame observation about his time with Trent and Da’Monte.
It’s hard to see how Illinois wins on Senior Night ’22.
Iowa’s win streak is the best in the B1G (equaling Wisconsin). The Hawkeyes can’t miss from three. They’ve got the best pro prospect in the league* and they’ve finally, in Fran’s 12th season, learned how to play defense.
But if Illinois does win, you couldn’t have a better launch to the postseason. It would be like 2020, when Illinois pulled off an impossible win over Iowa, on Senior Day, against the odds.
The reason it might happen is explained in Life, the Universe and Everything: Distraction.
Illini players, maybe even their coach, will be so overwhelmed by their emotions that their basketball game won’t get overthought. They’ll be on autopilot.
That’s good. They know what to do instinctively, so at this point, thinking would counterproductive.
Is it foolhardy to suggest #EveryDayGuys will be distracted by their emotions? Brad Underwood was pretty adamant after the Penn State game that, yes, he gets nervous in those last minute situations. Were you expecting that answer, or the conviction and forthrightness with which he proclaimed it? (If no, how great is it to be surprised by your head coach after all these years?)
Underwood’s pre-Iowa presser continued in that direction: “I wear my emotions on my sleeve, as you guys know,” said Brad. And yeah, I’d say we (the dozen-ish people who spend half an hour with him 4x/week during the season) do know it.
He cries on Senior Day. We’ve seen it.
Everybody was loose during Saturday’s media availability. Yes, we talked about Iowa, but mostly the focus was on culture and growth and vomiting and gaining maturity and learning from experience, including vomiting.
Brad opened his presser eating an apple, which he didn’t bring into camera view on the direction of DIA media handlers. They also seem to have turned off his microphone while he talked about the Harry & David fruit box he receives every month from a friend at Stephen F. Austin, whom he described as a business partner with whom he still does business.
Hence the 50 seconds of silence right after he walked within mic range , here:
Was it the “business partner” aspect that spooked them? Do they not like pears? Piper and Doug also captured videos, but I already checked: The Harry & David portion isn’t there.
Well, we can form conspiracy theories if we want to. The important point is that the team was loose, and its coach was relating at a personal level. Just like human beings.
At this point of the season, @IlliniMBB knows everything about basketball that #EveryDayGuys can be taught. They’ll need to bring a defensive intensity if they want to win against the B1G’s hottest team. Maybe that’s innate now, too. Who knows.
What we do know is that defense wins championships, until said mantra is properly rejected as horseshit. It’s actually the team that scores the most points. Iowa is good at scoring points.
First one to 90 wins.
*This accolade varies depending on Illinois’s opponent. The best player in the Big Ten on Sunday, March 6, is Iowa’s Keegan Murray; because Illinois plays Iowa on Sunday.
Penn State stinks, right? They have a losing record. Micah Shrewsberry has 26 games worth of head-coaching experience. Dozens of fans attend their homes games
Illinois should win this game for the same reason they won at Michigan and lost to Ohio State: John Harrar won’t get a lot of help in the post.
In the 2/8 game against Michigan, PSU rarely doubled Hunter Dickinson. Hunter isn’t necessarily a good comp for Kofi, because he spends so much time in the high-post. But when he played low-post, PSU gave no special effort to collapse on him defensively. That could/should change given the amount of video evidence that Kofi’s worst performances occur when he’s the subject of active triple-teamers.
But will it? Is Shrewberry trying to win games or build a culture?
HAIR-uh is a coach’s favorite, correctly regarded as a diligent and talented bright spot for a team that doesn’t win frequently. That’s true of Dickinson, too. Shrewsberry and Juwan Howard (and Phil Martelli) are accustomed to competing favorably at the 5-spot. They throw their bigs at opponents, and assume good outcomes.
Against Illinois, that’ll cost ya. Kofi Cockburn likes a good one-on-one.
So again, you’d have to ask yourself whether PSU is looking for short term solutions. They could win this game, but do they care to try?
Nine cats average meaningful minutes for Shrewsberry. That includes Canisius transfer Jalanni White, a fifth-year guy who’ll play 11 of the minutes that HAIR-uh (phonetic pronunciation) doesn’t play. It’s possible that 10th man Jevonnie Scott, a JUCO transfer, will also see limited action against Cockburn.
Penn State’s guards are more familiar. Myles Dread is another #B1G stalwart whose career, in your memory, began in the Obama Administration. The first one.
You know about Sam Sessoms too, and perhaps recognize him as the Vinnie Johnson of State College. He’s their Instant Offense, but also one of the smaller guys who might help on Kofi in the paint.
Jalen Pickett is their new guy. A 2021 Lou Henson Award watchlistee at Siena, he’s compiled a 110-45 A/TO for the Lions. Not a great shooter (30% 3FG, 40% FG) he’s probably the reason PSU is 12-14 rather that 16-10.
The problem for Illinois, assuming Kofi does well with PSU’s standard defense, would be be that all the Lions go off from three while none of the Illini do. It’s possible. Sessoms is a 44% guy, and he plays about the same minutes as Dread. (27-ish. Sam has 10 starts in PSU’s 26 games while Dread started 18 of 16. They both played in every game.)
Dallion Johnson is a 43% bomber for the Lions. That’s significantly better than Seth Lundy, whose 26 starts are not necessarily a product of his offensive capabilities. But Lundy, Sessoms, Harrar and Pickett are the four Lions averaging double-figures. Pickett scores the most at 12.8/game.
Illini Report does not make predictions, and that won’t matter if Illinois loses this game, because you will be focused on acquiring a new television and beer mug (having thrown the latter through the former).
Ten minutes of unsustainable bliss. Twenty-five minutes of hell. One moment of recognition.
The championship-squelching loss to Ohio State was the best & most important game of the 2021-22 Illini basketball season. Best because it featured amazing performances by future NBA players, plus a scrappy comeback by Every Day Guys. Most important because it allowed the Illini coaching staff, finally, to see what they need to do.
Brad Underwood’s perspective changed when his view changed. Maybe he’d already thought about giving opponents a different look. But it wasn’t until he’d been ejected, and Kofi fouled out, that Illinois basketball actually tried something different.
Instead of Kofi + threes, it was …
Actually, the alternative doesn’t matter. Anything different does & will ruin opponents’ scouting reports and strategies.
Was it Underwood’s decision to go small? He said he was still coaching in the locker room. Does that mean he was texting Zach Hamer or Bobby Gikas with ideas? Did Chester, Tim or Geoff finally get his way while Big Mean Boss Man was sequestered?
Probably not. Illinois had to go small. Kofi fouled out, and Omar Payne can’t score. When you’re down by 14 with a couple of minutes left, you’re not thinking about rim protection.
But again, it didn’t really matter what Illinois did differently. It just mattered that they did something different. Underwood said they’d worked on their 5-out offense a lot in the early part of the season. That’s important. They were ready to employ it.
The thing that I’ve always liked about Brad Underwood is his quest. He’s never satisfied. He’s certainly not hidebound. He doesn’t sleep, and he loves a challenge.
And he drinks wine, which makes people creative. Especially late at night, when they can’t sleep.
The offense that worked against Mizzou stopped working by February, when #B1G opponents compiled enough scouting materials to scientifically, systematically shut down Kofi + threes.
So Illinois won’t win a B1G this year. Intriguingly, it’s never been a goal. Kofi talked about a national championship during a recent-ish availability. Trent mentioned it in the tOSU postgame. Even Brad, who generally reserves his word x 4 pronouncements to “elite” said it Thursday night: “March, March, March, March.”
After Thursday’s loss, Underwood said he’s asked his assistants to identify his team’s vulnerabilities in preparation for the NCAA Tournament. He didn’t say they’re working on new actions/different sets to render well-trained teams defenseless. But if they aren’t studying different looks, they should all be shitcanned. Illinois’s obvious vulnerability is the facility with which its offense is scouted and stymied by opponents.
But that’s only true of #B1G opponents, and that’s why Illinois is much likelier to win the NCAA than the B1G.
Not all the #B1G foes scouted the ’22 Illini effectively, of course, Some of them don’t work as hard. Some aren’t as smart as others. Some probably figured it out and explained it well to their players, but the players didn’t execute. Some probably aren’t as good at explaining.
If a pattern emerges, it’s that Matt Brady (Maryland) and Ryan Pedon (Ohio State) are pretty good at scouting, explaining, and getting their players to adhere to the scouting report.
Other teams have had success against Kofi, but that’s because #B1G officials have decided, seemingly, to ignore most of the hard fouls that prevent him from scoring.
DJ Carstensen can’t see, and Lewis Garrison holds a grudge. Or maybe I’m imagining that. I don’t know how else to explain the B1G’s inability to officiate games.
Carstensen seemed oblivious to elbows until Kyle Young lost consciousness, or maybe just his footing (?) while defending Kofi on Thursday.
Despite Cockburn pleading for Carstensen’s personal attention, while actually concussed during the first Purdue game, Carstensen took no notice of #EdeyElbows during that game. Nor the second.
SHOUT OUT TO KEVIN WARREN
The Hightower Commission has failed.
Or maybe it’s a long-term study, designed to root-out the bad referees by 2025. I didn’t ask Dr. Hightower those specifics. Alls I know is that Ed Hightower, a retired schools superintendent and top-notch referee was commissioned (by the commissioner, who commissions things) to fix a problem that the Big Ten conference recognized.
It probably won’t help Kofi in 2022. Not in conference play, anyhow. But now that Illinois is dropping to 4+ seed territory, it won’t necessarily face B1G referees in the tourney.
Losing to Ohio State wasn’t fun. But at this point, the Illini could lose all their remaining games in the regular season. It doesn’t matter. The system was rigged against them, whether it’s officiating or scheduling.
But they don’t seem to care. They won the B1G last year. They have different goals now.
Brad Underwood doesn’t want to talk about a Big Ten conference championship.
“Our guys aren’t dumb. They know what’s at stake,” he said yesterday, but added the team’s focus is “Ohio State, Ohio State, Ohio State.”
He prefaced all that by expressing relief that Duane Washington moved on to the G League while acknowledging that Washington’s replacement, Buckeye guard Malaki Branham, is “probably” the best freshman in the B1G.
Chris Holtmann still has his dynamic pair of undersized power forwards Kyle Young and EJ Liddell, two guys that have bugged Underwood throughout his Illini tenure. Young has taken on a sixth-man role this season, which provides Holtmann’s traditional 9-man rotation extra experience when the subs come in.
Sophomore wing Eugene Brown started the last four games. His role expanded when Justice Sueing went down for the season with an abdominal injury. Brown’s minutes became more important after back-up PG Meechie Johnson suffered a facial injury in practice, just before the January 13 game at Wisconsin. After missing three games, Johnson returned, wearing a protective mask. Then starting PG Jamari Wheeler went down with an ankle injury. Then, two weeks ago, Johnson rolled his ankle at Rutgers.
With Sueing and grad transfer Seth Towns both out for the season, the Buckeyes are the one B1G team that can argue with Illinois about who’s had the most roster fluctuation this year.
Theoretically, both Buckeye PGs are now healthy. Johnson played 18 minutes, and Wheeler 30 in the Buckeye’s 80-69 overtime win over Indiana on Monday, in Columbus.
Branham is the guard to watch. Underwood called him the B1G’s best pro-prospect, which satisfied the coach’s hyperbole quotient for yesterday’s press conference. But Branham’s scoring average has increased during B1G play (15 ppg), and he’s up to 46% from three on the season; so he’ll get the Trent Frazier treatment.
None of these people can guard Kofi Cockburn, but that wasn’t an issue when the Buckeyes won in Champaign last year. The Liddell pick n’ pop turned the tables on Illinois, which found its dominant low-post player … in the low post, while Liddell rained threes.
EJ is connecting on 39% of his arc shots this season. He’s connecting on Twitter at EasyE2432. It’s in the OSU pre-game notes.
The Buckeyes are a six point dog tonight, and that probably won’t change when betters find out about RJ Melendez’s emergency appendectomy.
Whether RJ could have helped against Liddell? Debatable. It’s nice to have an extra five fouls, but Underwood has pretty much stuck to a 9-man rotation, even though 12 guys are involved. (Nine play, while three DNP/CD per game.) That’s Luke Goode’s music you’re hearing.
And if Coleman Hawkins continues his aggressive defensive play, he might be just the problem Illinois needs to impose on Liddell.
But we’ll know the outcome when the Buckeyes take the court tonight. It’s Orange Out at SFC, which means the Illini will be wearing orange, perhaps the ’89 throwbacks?
If the Buckeyes dress in white, that means they’ll win. So let’s hope they don’t read Illini Report.
It feels presumptuous to write a pre-game essay in mid-February. By this point, you know the Scarlet Knights as well as they know themselves. Not only did you see this Rutgers team play Illinois already, you’ve seen at least five of their games since then,* because what else were you going to do?
The Purdue finish was amazing. Basketball nerds might argue that the tOSU finish was even more amazing. And nobody bet against Wisconsin.
So why is Illinois favored to win at Submarine SandwichDome?
Steve Pikiell’s job at Rutgers should, and probably will, result in the publication of books. However great Tommy Lloyd does at Arizona, he was handed an amazing job. Pikiell took over a never-ran has, shockingly, established itself in the upper-half of the #B1G. i.e. the Tourney half.
They’ve built a new media workroom (the old one was fine). Their arena, still smallish by P5 standards, was built for watching basketball, and it’s loud. (And has frequent shuttle buses because the Boston-Washington corridor is civilized.)
For our purposes (you and me both), this info will help us figure out whom to follow on Twitter tonight. The best information actually does come from the color & play-by-play teams, because they have the best access, instant stats reports, and courtside view.
But there’s always something going on elsewhere, in the stands and on the sidelines. It’s good to know who’s watching it.
Three B1G teams stink. Losing to any of those three teams should embarrass you, the fan. Northwestern is not one of those teams.
On the other hand, Illinois already lost to Maryland, one of the icky three. And yet, here remain the Illini, alone in first place.
It’s a brutal league, and the Wildcats compete with everyone. They’re especially tough defensively. And that’s why Illini fans can feel good about Sunday’s dogfight.
Ryan Young’s offense is the reason NU is under .500 in league play, but his defense is terrific. Robbie Beran is worse at the former, and even better at the latter. That’s why he’s remained a mainstay of the Chris Collins era, despite averaging 6 & 4.
These two defenders and their coach calculated that hacking Kofi Cockburn for 40 minutes might give them a chance to win. Adding Elyjah Williams’s five fouls to their arsenal, the Wildcats probably figured they could finish regulation with one big undisqualified.
Of course, that strategy required some hacking from the wings, too. And Chase Audige obliged. He and Beran fouled out. Young and Williams finished with three PFs apiece.
Bert Smith, Keith Kimble and Lewis Garrison reported 22 Northwestern fouls to the official scorekeeper. The Illini committed, as far as those three were concerned, just 14.
Kofi officially drew 11 fouls, and unofficially drew two or three per possession.
That NU’s free-throw attempts lagged the Illini just 18 to 19 demonstrates that the ‘Cats did a lot of hacking in non-shooting situations. That Illinois reached 20 turnovers for just the second time this season (Marquette, 26) shows that the hacking worked.
Expect more hacking. Paul Mulcahy will certainly bruise Kofi’s forearms on Wednesday. Caleb McConnell will be the triple-teamer who forces held-balls.
Kofi is among the most emotionally balanced players ever to feel the bright lights, elbows & fingernails descend upon him. That’s the reason Illinois fans can hope for some success in the NCAA Tournament this year, regardless of their B1G Championship aspirations.
The B1G has clearly decided that its referees won’t stop play every time someone hacks-a-Kofi. But as James Augustine can tell you, it’s different in the post-season.
Sunday’s 73-66 verdict demonstrated a championship-caliber persistence in an Illini team whose stars have been saddled by ever-developing scouting report information. Grandison and Plummer surprised some people early in the season.
There are no surprises in February. Not among foes whose budgets afford top salaries for human scouting, plus plenty $$ remaining for proprietary analytics.
On the other hand, the tendencies of Casey Simmons and RJ Melendez haven’t been compiled to the point that dribbles right on 97 % of ball screens at the top of the key can be deduced from previous performances.
And, of course, they’re both surprisingly bouncy.
Simmons was fantastic for the Wildcats, mostly on defense. Perhaps because, as a freshman, he hasn’t learned to play conservatively. He gambled and won time and again, most obviously when he intercepted Illini passes, and returned them for touchdowns.
RJ’s play, offensively, was the same thing he’s shown at every opportunity this season. It’s the reason Illini social media clamors for additional Ramses every time he gets tick. As Geoff Alexander promised in the pre-season, “he’s exciting.”
Whether RJ’s defense was any good in November, it wasn’t as good as Da’Monte’s defense. Whether RJ’s defense is better in February … still maybe not the point. Melendez minutes don’t require RJ to displace a veteran. As legs tire, as the gauntlet of a 20 game conference season reaches its trench warfare phase, RJ’s minutes will, ideally, provide exactly the kind of difference-making spark that beat Northwestern Sunday.
As Belo keeps Trent fresh, and provides a disorientingly unTrent-ish vibe on offense, so RJ can disrupt opponents simply by being unpredictable.
The weird thing about both these Puerto Ricans, however, is how cool they remain under pressure, despite their manic offensive explosiveness.
And if RJ remains as unflappable as he’s seemed throughout his brief Illini tenure, you can feel good about putting the ball in his hands at crunch time. For a guy who won’t be able to buy beer legally for another 10 months, that’s a remarkable quality.
Brad Underwood deviated from a standard 9-man rotation only to the extent that Ben Verdonk played two extremely meaningful minutes, keeping Kofi from committing a third foul before halftime.
That Luke Goode is sometimes the ninth man, that Coleman Hawkins sometimes doesn’t play meaningful minutes: These are indications that Brad is balancing PT based on match-ups, and doing his best to keep everyone involved.
It doesn’t mean that 10 or 11 guys will see meaningful tick in any game. It means that Podz will be ready the next time Trent hurts his knee. It means Coleman will be available to extend a packed defense.