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Illini Basketball

The Third Side

Following that tirade at 16:08, the Illini might have felt motivated to execute. But they didn’t.

We don’t know whether a set was called during all that yelling. If Brad Underwood drew up an action, it must have planned for a low-post feed.

For whatever reason, the team did nothing better, or well, once they broke that huddle. The Illini suffered through one of their worst offensive possessions of the season. It seemed as if they were trying to compile a highlight reel of bad tendencies.

Succinctly, they failed to reverse the ball. It’s been a talking point all year, and something they still get wrong. For every “we need to fix that” in a postgame remark to the media, there are as many further iterations of “stickiness” as the lads like to say. The ball “sticks.”

Missouri foisted an intense defensive effort, certainly the most insistent, unrelenting 40 minutes of defensive pressure these Illini have faced all year. And this one possession showed just how effective that type of effort can be against a young team that’s still trying to learn its reads.

The major combatants were centers Reed Nikko and Kofi Cockburn. Nikko won.

At this crucial moment in the game, and after spending a precious timeout, Illinois fails to convert. Instead, it’s another turnover and a foul.

And although Reed Nikko’s defensive footwork was superb, and deserves a lot of credit; it’s also true that Illinois helped him immensely by not reversing the ball to the left wing (the second side), forcing Nikko to establish a different defensive posture. And then, ideally, reverse the ball again (the third side) while Kofi seals Nikko with his big ole butt, creating a drive for Trent from the short corner.

The Underwood administration has seen some fantastic back screens and butt screens. Jermaine Hamlin had a great one for that Samson Oladimeji alley-oop.

Jermaine’s screen is quick, simple and effective.

Adonis de la Rosa executed a beautiful butt screen at Northwestern last year. Giorgi did one for Kipper just a couple of games ago.

It’s a really effective maneuver, but it doesn’t work against a well-coached team that’s already established its defensive position. you’ve got to get them out of position to make it work, and you get them out of position by reversing the ball.

Perhaps the problem against Mizzou was simply that Kofi Cokburn was, as Underwood pointed out, ten games into his college career. He might have popped backward sooner, when he felt Nikko release for the double-team. But it seems likely that Da’Monte would’ve been smothered regardless.

And while Kofi did struggle all game against Missouri’s bigger, quicker defenders (i.e. bigger and quicker than he’s accustomed to playing, so far), reversing the ball would have afforded Kofi the opportunity to re-position himself for screening a backdoor cut.

Some people scoff at the notion that this team is “young.” But they really are young. More importantly, they haven’t played together as a unit in the way that, say, Dee-Deron-Luther-Roger-James did.

If you’ll recall, those guys looked pretty bad in January of 2004. They’d lost in the B1G-ACC to North Carolina. They got clocked by Providence in the Jimmy V Classic. They scraped by a 16-14* Mizzou team in Braggin’ Rights 71-70. Then they started the conference schedule at 3-3.

Things looked bleak. Disjointed. And then that team didn’t lose again until the B1G Tournament’s championship game.

So be patient. Let’s see how this comes together.

*Mizzou’s website credits that team with a 20-14 record, including two wins over themselves in pre-season intrasquad games and a 0-0 win over the Blissless Baylor Bears. You should laugh at them, point fingers, and dump popcorn on their heads.

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.

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Illini basketball

Cosby & Starks down Mizzou (with a little help from Rayvonte)

With about six minutes to go in the annual Braggin’ Rights game, longtime Illini athletic deparment photographer Mark Jones said “wow, what a game.”

With about four minutes to go, Decatur Herald-Review photographer Stephen Haas said “wow, what a game.”

To anyone stationed overseas, or just working on the weekend; if you didn’t get a chance to see Illinois-Mizzou live, you might be worried about Illinois needing a last-second shot to beat a 5-6 team. Don’t be. Not today anyway.

‘Tis the season to be grateful for Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby. Cosby made his usual 1 shot, and thus finished with two points. It was arguably his best game as an Illini. He equaled Rayvonte Rice for a team high seven rebounds, and as John Groce pointed out, he pulled a lot of those boards away from Missouri’s big guys, especially when the Illini went small.

Wherever Illinois needed a guy to do something on the floor, Aaron Cosby was there, being that guy.

Starks put the team on his back in the midway point of the second half, when it seemed as if the Tigers would run away with the game (literally run away … they killed Illinois in transition). Starks used spacing, and the teardrop he practiced all last year, to score three consecutive buckets for Illinois.

Rice was also an important factor in the outcome. But considering his career-long heroics, it almost feels ho-hum that he merely stroked a game-winner as time expired, and scored a measly 19 points.

Ray’s best bucket of the day may have been his first three-pointer, the one that capped a grinding possession in which Malcolm Hill fought Missouri’s press, broke it, drove the lane against stern defense, dribbled to the elbow, moved toward the wing, lost his dribble, regained it, charged back toward the paint, and then kicked to Ray for the dagger.

That had to hurt.

Shots included, Ray’s assist to Nnanna Egwu, for the go-ahead basket at 1:53 may have been the play of the game.

You decide.

Missouri played its best game of the year, by a large margin.  The only cause for worry is how well the Tigers scouted Illinois, and exploited Illini weaknesses and tendencies.

Wes Clark found the chink of Illinois’ perimeter defensive armor. Johnathan Williams III demonstrated how to drive the baseline against Illinois’ post defense.

You could almost feel the satisfaction of Missouri’s coaching staff. You could almost hear them saying “yep, that’s just how it looked in the scouting report.

If Illinois wants to win more games this year, they’ll take a good long look at this game, and not the thrilling last minute.

In a way, it’s refreshing that Illinois’ defense has such obvious flaws. If Bruce Weber were still coaching the Illini, you’d probably be wondering what Malcolm Hill could do with a basketball, were he ever to get in a game.

You’d also be wondering why that feisty local pro-baller Rayvonte Rice was never offered a scholarship to his hometown team.

So go ahead and feel satisfied that John Groce is  on the sideline. Think of it as a Giftsmas present to yourself. You can worry about Groce again in 2015, if you so choose.

Groce also showed great patience with Leron Black on Saturday. And he worked Ted Valentine and Mark Whitehead effectively, to keep Leron in the game.

LERON THE VIOLENT

Malcolm Hill predicted it. He said Leron Black would probably get in some fights this year, that’s just how hard he plays.

Going against Leron every day in practice, Malcolm understands better than Leron himself just how violent Leron can be.

On Saturday, Ted Valentine and Mark Whitehead noticed as well. Whitehead called Leron for a Flagrant I in the first half, and a dead ball technical a few minutes later.

The fact that Leron wasn’t ejected suggests that Whitehead saw no malice in Leron’s demeanor, just a lot of violence. Whether Groce deserves any credit for that outcome, he certainly campaigned for it.

THE RETRO UNIFORMS

Behind the Illini bench, 1989 team manager Ryan Baker sat in the second row, with Jessica and their new-ish born bundle of joy. Dana Howard sat a few spaces away. But as far as I know, the only actual member of the 1989 team in attendance was Travis Smith.

I hope the rest of the guys got to see their old uniforms on display. They looked fantastic.

CHAMINADE’S JAYSON TATUM, TYLER COOK & TREY COLLINS ATTENDED

It’s funny how  recruiting gossip works. When you talk to the actual recruit, it’s just a lot different from what you might read online.

Take Jayson Tatum, considered by some the #1 recruit in the country (Class of 2016). If you look at recruiting websites, you’d think Tatum is off the Illinois radar. You might think he’s interested in only the blue bloods … Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, etc.

But on Saturday, Tatum said the reason Illinois doesn’t find itself included in his list is because the people asking the questions don’t ask about Illinois. So in response, he doen’t mention Illinois. And consequently, they don’t write about Illinois.

But Tatum says Illinois is right there in the mix. He added that he doesn’t care how many small forwards (e.g. D.J. Williams) the Illini recruit: That will have no bearing on his judgment.

Jayson’s teammate Tyler Cook also has an offer from Illinois.

He’s a 6’8″ power forward, with a body that’s already grown to about 240 pounds. His 247Sports page says he’s 50/50 between Kansas & Mizzou, which again shows how little those guys know.

Jamall Walker is the primary recruiter for both these guys. He was also the point man for the successful recruitments of Leron Black and Jalen Coleman-Lands. That means Paris Parham, who turns 43 on Sunday, needs to bring the Bright Lights to Champaign, just to balance things out.

Wish him luck.