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Illini basketball

The Grinding

Jamall Walker and Ryan Pedon both know what it’s like to be Geoff Alexander right now. Both are recent Illini SPAHCs (Special Assistant to the Head Coach). Both are current assistant coaches, and both had been assistant coaches before becoming SPAHCs.

They know about the transition from a coaching role. They know how to operate as an advance scout and administrator, and then transition back to a coaching role.

Ryan Pedon, during his time at Illinois

Walker was just pulling up to the Grand Canyon Lopes Basketball offices this morning, on his way to a meeting. He had just enough time to say he was excited about Geoff’s promotion, and wishes him well.

Pedon was happy for Geoff as well. When he heard about the promotion, he dashed off a letter of congratulations to his new B1G rival.

I just wrote him a note the other day and said I was really happy for him. I admire guys who worked their way up in the profession. I’ve always felt like he was one of those guys. Respectful guy. Has a very good reputation.


I know he’s kind of grinded his way through this profession and I appreciate guys like that.

When Brad Underwood announced Alexander’s promotion to assistant coach, he denied that there’d been An Understanding between them. Alexander did not become Special Assistant to the Head Coach with the assurance that he’d get a shot, when an opening cropped up, at his current job.

Jamall Walker (top middle) and Geoff Alexander watch a huddle during the 2017-18 season.

Underwood was a SPAHC as recently as Bob Huggins’s lone year at Kansas State. Like (and occasionally with) Geoff, he’s toiled in obscurity, working his way up through the profession. So you can see why he’d want to give Alexander the chance, and also why he’d demand that Geoff earn that chance.

Are the jobs really that different? The SPAHC job doesn’t pay as much. But you get more time at home, because you’re not responsible for evaluating prospects, and then recruiting them.

Pedon said the SPAHC job is pretty labor intensive, even without the excess travel. But the recruiting assistant is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

I think it is a big change for families. There’s a really dramatic difference. All families & all wives adjust to that differently. But it’s not like you’re going from “9 to 5” to that (always on the road).

I’m sure Geoff was not anywhere close to “9 to 5,” so there is a little bit of an understanding already. But, just the travel, and the amount he’ll not be around, That’ll be fairly different. Especially at certain times of the year, like springtime on weekends, and summertime when you’re chasing 17 and 18 year-olds all over the damn country.

Pedon said the hardest part of the SPAHC job, as you might expect, is learning not to coach. The NCAA allows its member programs just three assistants. If anyone else joins in the coaching duties, whether it’s off-campus recruiting or offering verbal instructions in the practice gym; that’s a violation.

Ryan Pedon (just left of referee Terry Wymer) watches from the sidelines during the Groce Era

Instinctually, it’s the hardest. Not to speak up when you see something.  You have to be aware of what you can and can’t do.

I’m a big believer, not just in this profession, in staying in your lane. I tried to do that, as much as I could, in that role. ‘Cause I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes. And I wanted to be there as a resource, and something positive for our program. For my boss, our head coach.

I wanted to give John (Groce) exactly what he wanted out of me.
And sometimes that varies, from coach to coach. Part of my deal was trying to be an extra set of eyes and ears for him, and the rest of the coaches. And help them in their particular areas. But I didn’t necessarily need to, or want to be, the guy that Had All The Answers. That’s not what that role is for.

It’s a delicate balance. That’s just my take on it. So I tried to be aware, and respectful, of what my role was.

The Illinois program should hope that Geoff Alexander’s career mirrors Pedon’s. Their career arcs, to this point, are similar. Both played college ball, but not at the high-major level. Alexander was at Western Illinois, Pedon at College of Wooster. Both got assistant coaching gigs in competitive mid-majors conferences (Missouri Valley and MAC) before accepting the SPAHC job at Illinois.

OhioStateBuckeyes.com

Pedon is now a top candidate for a major head coaching gig, having developed Chris Holtmann’s tOSU program into a perennial B1G contender, via cunning game-planning and unexpectedly good recruiting. If Geoff Alexander can mimic that success, the Illini might keep the next E.J Liddell at home.

Pedon didn’t want to share his scouting report with IlliniReport after the Buckeyes win in Champaign this year, pointing out in the days that followed that the two teams would meet again. But he was happy to offer some observations and encouragement to a man who’ll be chasing those same 17 and 18 year-olds all around the damn country.

He’ll also get to know Geoff Alexander better. Up ’til now, it’s mostly been word of mouth.

(Do you know Geoff?)

Just a little bit. Not on a real personal level. Just having worked with some of the same guys. I’ve known of him for a long time and he’s always seemed like a really good guy to me.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Free-throws. Box out. Free-throws. Box out. Free-throws.

Before it escapes our priorities list, let’s praise Kofi Cockburn for bringing Illinois to a tie, and then giving them a lead they’d never relinquish. He connected on two free-throws. It seems simple, right? It won them a championship.

He did the same against Michigan State last year, and nobody remembers it because Ayo dropped in a pile and Alan Griffin didn’t box out Xavier Tillman.

Make your free-throws. Box out. Make your free-throws. Box out. Make your free-throws.

If you’re an Illini fan, and the term “box out” sends a chill through your spine, congratulations on reaching your golden years. You are at least forty, and despite advancing decrepitude, you’ve failed to wipe the name “Sean Higgins” from your memory.

1989 was a helluva year for making free-throws and boxing out. Or not.
The Midwest Regional Final pitted #1 seed Illinois against a loaded Syracuse team, six of whom played in the NBA. It was tight, decided in the final 30 seconds. Illinois missed a lot of free-throws, which allowed Jim Boeheim’s squad a chance.

But then, after considerable discomfort — that hollow feeling in your stomach when you know that an Illini game is slipping away and fate has cursed you yet again — Kenny Battle stepped to the line.

The lore among my high school friends holds that Battle huddled his teammates and uttered one word: “Money.”  As in “I got this.” As in “don’t worry, I’m going to put an end to the Orangemen.”

Not much has changed in 32 years. When Trent Frazier buries a three, he says “cash.” But in this case, Battle was talking about a pair of free-throws he intended to bury. Promised to bury. Knew he would bury.
He buried them. And Syracuse.

If you’re comparing great Illini teams, the 2021 version is much more like 1989 than 2005. Illini ’21 is a highlight reel of flashy passes and thunderous dunks. Even the uniforms are the same. Form-fitting jerseys emblazoned with classic scripts. Mid-thigh shorts that don’t THANK YOU JESUS resemble Moroccan culottes.

Brad Underwood is a showman. He understands that basketball is entertainment. Where 2005 was exciting for basketball coaches, 2021 is fun for basketball fans They might not know what it means to “ice a ball screen,”  but they thrill to a well-lobbed oop.

Ayo Dosunmu is the guy who put his home state team on his back, and dragged them to the finish line. The comp here is Battle, not because those other Flyin’ Illini didn’t stay home, and not because they weren’t outstanding ballers. It’s because Battle was the heart and soul of that team. When he stepped to that line and promised to bring them home, you believed he would do it.

In 2020, you hoped the Illini could overcome their tendencies. Andres Feliz gave you courage, and Alan’s shooting and rebounding gave you a chance. But you knew the Achilles Heels. Even in January of this year, you could spot the weaknesses.

And then you watched everything coalesce. All the pieces came together. Still not perfect, but enough. 

Did you believe when Kofi stepped to the line, with the Illini down a point? Underwood did. He sent the rest of the team back on defense. Kofi drained the pair. Illinois won a championship.

This team is not the Illini of 2020. This team is not the Illini of January 2021. 

Free-throws. Box out. Free-throws. Box out. Free-throws.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Mood

On Thursday, Steve Helwagen asked Buckeyes guard CJ Walker if he’d consider returning for a sixth year. CJ said, essentially “you never know.”

On Friday, Chris Holtmann didn’t wait for a question. He said Walker will not return for a sixth year. “CJ will move on and professionalize. As many people know, he’s got a young daughter, and we’re fully supportive of that.” Holtmann then immediately switched subjects, to Kyle Young. He hopes Kyle will come back for another year.

The mood in the Zoom was somber.

Spencer Holbrook asked how Holtmann felt about his nomination as Naismith Coach of the Year. Holtmann looked at the floor. “Looks like they did their voting before last week.” It’s a realistic response. tOSU has lost three in a row. It must feel like ages since they’ve had mojo at The Schott.

Illini fans might look at Kyle Young as a tough, tattooed, bouncy ball of muscles and gristle. Holtmann certainly echoed those sentiments in his Senior Day preview. But Thursday’s Q & A with Kyle, when not pondering another year in Columbus, was about his frailty.

Contrast Giorgi Bezhanishvili’s pre-game Zoom. It doesn’t seem to have gone as viral as we, the participants, seemed to expect. (I think everyone on the call Tweeted, wrote or compiled something about his infectious mood.)

Perhaps lost in the bonhomie was the deadly seriousness of Giorgi’s intention to win a “naytional” championship. Giorgi keeps things loose, but there’s a 94 x 50 foot rectangle where he’s not always friendly.

IT’S GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME

The eternally optimistic Scott Beatty floated, in another recent Zoom, the notion that most teams are getting better this time of year. Brad Underwood did not assent.

In fact, this is the wheat from chaff portion of the season. The culling of the weak. Some teams are mentally weak and some are physically worn out. Ohio State seems, as of this morning, to be both of those things.

Does that mean Illinois will win this afternoon’s game? You don’t look to Illini Report for predictions or betting tips. Sports abstractions are a billion dollar industry, and you have plenty of places to read them. I’m just telling you about the people involved. Brad Underwood seems to be holding his team together while Holtmann’s falls apart.

Hawkeyes fans lament Fran’s February Fade, a seemingly annual tradition in Iowa City. This year, much of that talk can be attributed to CJ Fredrick’s ankle. But if you had to choose between mental and physical when diagnosing Iowa’s late swoons, you’d probably guess the former.

Cellvin Samsung has borne this reputation for decades. His 2002 Oklahoma squad scrapped and scraped its way to a Final Four. That’s his only trip. Since getting his first head coaching position forty years ago — and despite perennial high-rankings, media hype and avoidance of NCAA-oriented restraints; his teams routinely limp to the finish line.

Andre Curbelo, Jacob Grandison, Jermaine Hamlin (Illinois Athletics)

Is it a minor miracle that Underwood has this team improving, loose and confident in March? Or is it the major miracle of this season?

How much of the late season vitality should you attribute to wacky personalities like Andre Curbelo and Jermaine Hamlin? How much should you credit the toughness of Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams? What of Jacob Grandison, the guy you’d most likely describe as the team’s moral conscience?

Was the first Ohio State game the impetus for Brad to insert Grandison in the starting line-up? Brad didn’t phrase it exactly that way yesterday. He said the team was “discombobulated” and “searching for some things.” Perhaps Grandison’s quiet leadership has merely coincided with the mid-season relaunch. Maybe it laid the foundation.

If Illinois does win a naytional championship, books will be written about all these personalities and the confluence of their circumstances. If not, maybe it doesn’t matter.

As 3 PM central approaches, it’s nice to feel optimistic that Illinois is in the position to do something special.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Ayo’s nose

The question everybody’s asking is when Ayo will return. The question everyone should be asking is what Ayo will return.

Trauma changes people. It’s a fact of evolutionary biology.

Jason Heyward & Dickie Thon didn’t recoil from inside fastballs because they’re cowards. After he got hit in the face with a fastball, Heyward’s brain sent him a signal based on that learned trauma. Thon’s beaning changed the way he saw fastballs because an orbital fracture changed his depth perception.

It’s possible that Ayo will be exactly the same old Ayo when he returns, but it’s not likely.

Tiny physical changes can alter the perception, and consequently the muscle memory, that he’s developed since infancy. And then there’s the subconscious psychology of his trauma. The PTSD.

Again, Ayo doesn’t need to know that he’s been traumatized to be changed by the trauma. He can have all the confidence in the world, and still recoil, unconsciously, from contact.

We haven’t heard much about Ayo’s treatments, except that Brad Underwood used the word “doctors” rather than the word “doctor.” We can assume an otolaryngologist is involved. We should hope ophthalmology wasn’t necessary. But what about a Bad Memories doctor? The National Institutes of Health have studied drug-induced amnesia for at least a decade. If Ayo’s brain is rendered incapable of learning from his trauma, he’d be better off. You’d want Ayo to know that he can drive to the bucket without a tiny part of his brain telling him he’d better not.

If you’ve heard Brad answering questions about Ayo’s treatment, you’ll know it’s not worth asking whether any particular therapy is involved.

HDTV

It’s interesting that you & I knew about Ayo’s nose before Trent Frazier did. Or anyone else on the team for that matter. You’ll recall that Brad was nearly giddy after his first loss in 8 games. Trent seemed sincere in saying “he’s fine.”

They didn’t see the play from the angle we did. They didn’t see the replay. They didn’t see the Breslin Kliegs casting an unusual shadow from a swelling bulge.

I’ve attended zero games this season, so I’ve had little to write about. You saw it yourself. We’re in the same boat. There’s nothing I can tell you that you didn’t already know.

Because Illini Report is written for people who watched all the games and know all the details, the only thing I can share that’s worth your time is something I saw but you didn’t.

(I continue to report straight news for people who didn’t watch the game.)

You’ll notice, in the writing and questions from the Illini media pool, that journalists instinctively work this way. They ask about something that happened off camera, on the sidelines. Perhaps it involved reserve players on the bench, or coaches yelling in the tunnel. It’s something only they can tell you. It justifies the travel expenses. It’s the reason to read them, no matter whom else you read.

I can write about Ayo’s nose not just because I saw it on TV, but because I had my own nose smashed into my face, during a game.

It was the day Mitchell Brookins caught that long TD and Illinois beat Iowa 33-0. I headed the soccer ball, watched it sail away, and then saw Aaron Libman’s face as his tooth penetrated my nose. Dr. Robert K. Kuramoto fixed it surgically, but my nasal passages still keep me awake too often.

I was my team’s best player when that happened. Then everything fell apart. I was never able to slide-tackle again. I quit soccer, and started playing football, where they give you a facemask.

SORRY NOT SORRY

Let’s not pretend that Tom Izzo didn’t send his goons to pester, poke and ultimately batter the Illini. If Mady Sissoko weren’t playing to foul, he’d have defended Ayo’s drive with both arms straight in the air. That’s how the game is coached these days. So either Izzo is a lousy coach, or Sissoko hammered Ayo with both arms because that’s what he was told to do. (You’ll find, if you spend a week researching everything this author/commentator/social media participant has ever written, that superlatives about B1G coaches mention Beilein and Bo Ryan. It’s not an error of omission.)

If you’re like me, you were already frustrated — well before Ayo’s clubbing — from watching Sissoko bother Kofi Cockburn. There was nothing subtle about it. That’s why Kofi eventually snapped, and swatted Sissoko’s arm away — a moment which gleeful sadists among the Spartan fandom cited in bothsidesing the violence.

Brad’s spent a good portion of the past two weeks talking about Kofi’s patience despite the incessant pounding he puts up with. So far, nobody at conference headquarters has noticed.

If the Big Ten cares, it’s done nothing to deter the bludgeoning. So MSU continues to bludgeon. In the Spartans next game, Chris Holtmann watched in horror as Josh Langford tackled Duane Washington to prevent a game-tying shot.

Slo-mo replay showed the Spartans did it again on the subsequent play. Why allow a team to score if you can just knock them to the ground instead?

The bothsidesers will tell you that everyone does it. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it. And besides, what’s the big deal?

And then there’s the segment of the Michigan State fanbase that doesn’t merely rationalize Izzo’s brand of tackle basketball.

They celebrate it.

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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

The Mausoleum

Brad Underwood says the new Nittany Lions (Jim Ferry’s squad) press their opponents more than the old Nittany Lions (Pat Chambers’ squad) and that does not bode well for this Illini team in its second B1G road adventure. So far, Penn State has beaten VMI, VCU and VT. Non-Virgina Schools fared better. Seton Hall and Michigan aren’t as great as they were in 1989, but they had enough to manhandle this year’s Lions.

Jim Ferry was an assistant last year, now he’s the interim head coach

Bright siding tonight’s game, Underwood likes fake crowd noise. Penn State invented fake noise.

The Bryce Jordan Center was sold out when Lucas Johnson, or maybe it was Brian Johnson, and his Big Ten Champion teammates rolled into University Park, PA.

As far as I know, that was the last BJC sellout. Or at least, that was the last time the upper deck was filled with actual people.

Apart from the piped lion, it’s sedate.

The media workroom sits across the hall. In past years, you’d find Steven Bardo serving himself from the steamtable buffet. But recently, PSU stopped catering to its guests, choosing to follow Iowa’s lead by providing $10 food vouchers for use at BJC concessions stands. Or maybe it’s “stand.” I’ve seen only the one.

No, I’m not complaining about free food. A ten dollar voucher got me a ten dollar hamburger, and it was okay.

The BJC sits on the edge of town, like the State Farm Center. A massive football stadium is nearby, and then there’s pasture, also like the SFC, but without all the people that you’d find at an SFC basketball game. It feels like a glacier. Serene, and slightly windblown.

PSU’s Materials Science Building is cool lookin’

It’s not that PSU fans don’t care about sports, of course. Across the street, on the campus side (as opposed to the pasture side) an ice hockey rink bustles with fans. When the team isn’t playing, it bustles with community skaters (in non-Covid times). The Nittany Lacrosse Team practices nearby. Its stadium reminds B1G visitors that PSU has an athletics program.

Just look at all their sports!

But they don’t care about basketball.

State College is arguably my favorite place to cover B1G basketball. But it’s not because of the crowd, the team or the game.

I know how to get & stay there, cheap. I thrive on reports of its inaccessibility and cost. I’m usually the only Illini reporter, which affords me more interaction with the team and coaches. The Hotel State College has three restaurants and two bars in the building, and I can walk to the arena. Vicky Lumpkin hooks me up with my favorite room. Dave Staab awaits in the basement, and draws fresh ideas from the Zeno’s tap when I need inspiration.

The Hotel State College

To me, State College is about individual people I can get to know, with whom I work.

Most importantly, since the Sandusky scandal, PSU hired PR staff who connect with people on a human level. That sounds like corporate speak, but it’s not.

A lot of SIDs are self-satisfied assholes. They think/know that you need them more than they need you. It heightens one’s appreciation for guys like Patrick Herb (Wisconsin) and Tom Wyrot (Michigan) who remain down-to-earth and accessible, despite their teams’ enormous success.

When the old PSU staff bailed (tired of scandal) PSU brought in the relatable Alissa Clendenen, who wore Chuck Taylors at the end of her black hose. Punk rock, not business casual. When she left for Pitt, the boisterous Rose Carter took over. She’s a force of nature, passionate and compassionate. That’s her voice encouraging John Harrar when he says he wants “peace” for Christmas.

When the News-Gazette scrambled to locate a photographer a couple of years ago, Rose found me in the media lounge, and asked if I’d like to help them. I emailed a couple of pics to Matt Daniels, for the Sunday Sports Section. Everybody wins!

She’s not a pushover, though. When Myreon Jones struggled with “illness” last season, Rose made it clear that undisclosed would not be disclosed.

I thought I might play it cool. “Do we know the nature of this Myles Dread ‘illness?'” I asked, having gleaned from the TV commentary that “illness” was the company line.

“Illness!” she answered, smiling brightly.

Rose Pietrzak Carter, emphasis on the Pietrzak

BJC is an intimate setting. A couple of old guys wait at the media door, just off the loading dock. There’s another pair of guys down the hallway, sitting outside the visitor’s locker room. Last year, erstwhile Champaign County Sheriff candidate Allen Jones was also there, having been hired as Underwood’s body man.

Yes, there’s a student section. Yes, there’s a mascot. Yes, four thousand people show up to watch. There’s nothing like it anywhere in the B1G.

So tonight’s game will feel just like a Penn State home game. The fake lion growl will be no more audible. Unfortunately, it will be no less audible. The fake crowd noise might not sound like the usual fake enthusiasm of the student section, but its insincerity will come across. And Brad Underwood will enjoy it.

Tune in at 5:30 on the BTN.

Categories
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.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Braggin’ & Hatin’

Watching Cuonzo Martin’s pre-Braggin’ Zoom, I felt a familiar bonhomie. Here I go again, I thought to myself. I can’t help myself, I thought.

I like Cuonzo Martin.

That’s great! Right? I like Brad Underwood too. Isn’t it great to like things?

Listening to the pre-game hoopla surrounding Braggin’ Rights 2020, I was struck by the prompting: How much do you hate Cuonzo? Or Mark, Jeremiah, Javon?

How much does Xavier Pinson hate Illinois?

I think I wrote about tribal hate during my Smile Politely tenure. It still bothers me. Yes, there are people in college basketball who hate other people in college basketball. But it’s way less common than the hatred among tribal fans.

Mark Smith committed to Missouri before he committed to Illinois. Jeremiah Tilmon’s dad wanted Jeremiah to go with Cuonzo. Cuonzo knew Javon Pickett’s family since forever.

It’s great that all three of those guys found a home in Columbia. Mark had already been beaten out of the starting spot he’d been given on the basis of reputation. Jeremiah & Javon might compete for minutes on this year’s Illini team, but only because the rotation is so limited. Last year, you’d be hard pressed to play either one over Kofi and Alan Griffin.

It makes sense that those guys played with a chip on their shoulder. The self-doubt was enough. Sports fans should approve that that chip propelled Mizzou to victory last year (along with Mitchell & Dru Smith playing out of their minds).

(not) The Smiths

Mark’s dad Anthony had seen enough after that Maryland game where Da’Monte supplanted Mark, then threw the ball away. Both Smiths are now happier.

Da’Monte seemed to relish the renewed opportunity to compete with post-transfer Mark. From an individual standpoint, you could say Da’Monte won.

But because Monte is way more more old school than the dazzling hoopster who sired him, Monte doesn’t care about individual battles. He wants the W.

Last year, Mizzou wanted the W. Does that mean the team with the most floor burns will win 2020’s Braggin’ Rights game? Well, it is 2020. That means people must suffer.

It’s conceivable that Mizzou will out-dog the Illini again tonight. Andres Feliz is not walking through that door. But it also seems likely that Ayo & Co. will bring their A-game.

The bright side is that Missouri can claim victory even if they score fewer points. It’s all the rage these days, especially in SEC country.

Categories
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.
Categories
Illini Basketball

Big Softies

Kofi Cockburn is a monster in the minds of people who’ve never met Kofi Cockburn. Brad Underwood is a monster in the minds of people who get their opinions from social media.

In fact, Brad Underwood is a reflective person. One of the things he reflects on, frequently in recent weeks, is that Kofi Cockburn is a freshman, and a minor.

Tyler did not cry.

We and Brad sometimes forget — because Kofi is an intimidating physical specimen — that inside the cranium crowning 290 lbs. of lean muscle is a youthful, playful mind just discovering the outside world, as we all did if we were lucky enough to have a freshman year.

On Sunday, as Kofi battled an intensely, historically talented B1G man, Nico Haeflinger marveled at a moment of video he’d just captured for his nightly sportscast. I was sitting next to Nico, so he shared it with me. We sat on the north baseline, under the Home basket. But this was the first half, so Nico’s footage took place 94 feet south of us.

The gist: Kofi was angry, or at least seemed angry.

After a particular play under the south basket, the quiet, polite, shy, deferential, reserved and demonstrably pacifist BEAST-IN-WAITING emoted in way that Nico had never seen. He shared the slo-mo of Kofi’s facial expression, expanding.

It started as defiance. It ended in roar.

Kofi executed, finished, successfully completed a set. Choose your verb, and strive for strength. Alliteration if possible. Onomatopoeic CRASH! in an ideal world.

Or, if you prefer, forget the prose.

Something magical happened. Appreciated simply: Kofi Cockburn scored on Luka Garza.

In doing so, Kofi passed a milestone in an extremely personal, intimate and perhaps indescribable growth step.

For all his plaudits, Kofi remains as humble & surprised as you’d expect him to be if you knew his biography rather than his press clippings.

Of course, all these impressions were formed before his official coronation as B1G Freshman 2020. But the reality of Kofi is that he doesn’t react to plaudits. People have told him that he’s god’s gift.

The important thing to know is that he learned how to play against Iowa, and Luka Garza. In the grand scheme of things, it’s the only thing he’ll ever need to know, because Luka Garza is the best B1G he’ll ever see.

When they face each other on Friday, Kofi will know that he’s answered the Garza challenge.