Midway through his postgame press conference, Cuonzo Martin got his Bret Beherns Moment. From the back of the room, a reporter asked what Cuonzo would say to fans after being blown out in both rivalry games (102-65 in Lawrence on December 11th).
His response was much better than John Groce’s “goodness gracious, Bret. What kind of question is that?”
Cuonzo said “stay the course. We will continue to get better. We will continue to grow.” Trouble is, he didn’t just lose to Kansas. He lost to Kansas City, too. And Liberty. Moreover, Cuonzo is not a course-stayer. He’s developed a talent for getting out of town.
On the brink of getting fired at Tennessee, he parlayed two lucky weekends into a Pac-12 job in Berkeley. First, he beat a Brad Underwood-less South Carolina team in the SEC Tournament (before losing to top-ranked Florida). That moved him into the NCAA First Four (beating out, for example, John Groce’s second Illini squad) where he conquered The Frans in overtime. His Volunteers handled 6-seed Massachusetts. But Duke and Coach K awaited.
Or not! Mercer gave their all to beat the Blue Devils, and thus spent, had nothing left for UT. Hence, Cuonzo made it to the second weekend. He knew the temperature of his seat in Knoxville, and he got OUT.
Mizzou must be an awful job. Since Norm Stewart retired, no one can manage it. Or if they keep afloat, they get out. Remember Frank Haith? He made a lateral (?) move to Tulsa. Mike Anderson, their best coach of the century, jumped to Arkansas. Quin Snyder’s career was almost ruined in Columbia. Kim Anderson enjoyed three D-II Final Fours, including a championship, before killing his career in Columbia.
If Cuonzo isn’t looking elsewhere, he’s lost his edge.
On the other hand, kudos to him for starting freshman Trevon Brazile, who’d previously played in a total of 3 games, against Kofi Cockburn. Brazile earned Brad Underwood’s praise in the postgame cameras on/microphones live session, but Andre Curbelo jumped off the bench *during* the game and yelled “Kofi, go at him. LOOK AT HIM!”
There’s really not much to report about the actual Braggin’ Rights game. It featured one team on the rise, and another in a death spiral. The crowd wasn’t 50-50, but perhaps 80-20. By the time Illinois had a 30 point lead, all the yellow shirts were missing, and orange people had moved from the nosebleeds to take their seats. Apart from the assistant football coaches (sitting on the court), this reporter didn’t spy celebrities. The courtside spot generally reserved for recruits featured only Belo.
Illini alums were sparse as well. Steve Bardo was there because he was working. Drew Cayce and Bubba Chisholm were the only former players I spotted. Oh, and Nate Mast providing play-by-play with Brian Barnhart, because Deon and Doug were unavailable.
It was fun, but it wasn’t Braggin’ Rights.
The best part was watching Mark Jones honored for 33 years of photography (and insolence). He’s a gem.
Last year, Illini fans expected a cakewalk in the non-Braggin’ Rights game at Mizzou. But karma chose otherwise.
From the tedious Coin Flip Show which determined that Columbia, not Champaign would host the contest; to the listless performance by an eventual #1 seed: Everything sucked for Illini fans.
Ironically, because Mizzou is crap this year, the pressure is again on the Illini this year. Favored by fifteen points, Illinois simply can’t lose to a Tigers team that’s already lost to UMKC, Liberty and Wichita State.
Mark Smith is gone. Mitchell Smith is gone. Dru Smith is gone. Jeremiah Tilmon is gone.
Brad Underwood identified point-forward Kobe Brown and Illini nemesis Javon Pickett as the Tigers to watch for.
Brown is hitting 56% from the floor, and leading Mizzou with 15 points per game. He’s listed at 6’8″ and 250 lbs., thus making him one of the few Tigers that could offer any resistance to Kofi Cockburn. Underwood expects Mizzou to throw multiple defenders at Kofi.
So maybe you can expect a defense-by-irritant approach against Kofi. It worked well for Marquette and Arizona. But it also gives Kofi the opportunity to improve his passing game, which is the most amazing aspect of this young Illini season in my arrogant opinion.
Mizzou lacks size, and the guys with size lack experience. De Smet Jesuit grad Yaya Keita, a 6’9″ 240 lb. freshman, will spell the veterans, but you cab expect Cuonzo Martin to throw him at BBV and Omar Payne, while Kofi’s getting a breather.
Apart from Brown, the Tigers can’t shoot. They’re abysmal from the arc, connecting on 25% to 27% among those that have launced more than five attempts on the season. Brown leads the way at 27.3%. Pickett is 21% for the year.
Naturally, they’ll have career nights against the Illini, right?
Other Tigers to watch for are DaJuan Gordon, whose initial defensive instruction came from Chris Lowery and Bruce Weber. Those dudes can teach defense (if nothing else). K-State traded Gordon for Mark Smith during the off-season, and despite how also-ran Smith has been for the Wildcatters, it’s hard to argue that Gordon is better. The 15/17 assist-to-turnover ratio is telling. He has 13 steals on the year, second on the team only to Brown (19). He’s 35% from the floor, and 26% from the arc.
Nine Tigers play, and six Tigers play 30 minutes. It’s exactly the rotation paradigm you’d expect from the Keady Tree. Sophomore swingman Ronnie DeGray seems like the kind of match-up nightmare that Underwood likes to moan about. The 6’6″ sophomore is averagind 9 points and 6 rebounds per game. He’s played in all 11 for the 6-5 Tigers, starting three. You see his role expanding as the season develops, and you fear him having his break-out game against Illinois.
But that’s because you’re an Illini fan. Fear is home to you. It’s practically your safe space.
Also, if Illinois doesn’t win tonight, shut it all down.
During the first half of Saturday’s 106-48 blowout, a Da’Monte Williams three glanced off SFC’s south rim, and caromed into the hands of Jacob Grandison, strangely alone on the low post’s near side.
I turned to Nico Haeflinger, sitting beside me on the north baseline. “He’s always in the right place at the right time.” I think I said.
“He’s got an old man game,” Nico agreed, and added that highlights of Slim Jake rarely make his game reel, because Grandison is so rarely spectacular. You barely notice him scoring 20 points and grabbing 8 rebounds. He moves like a cat.
Jake’s stat line, 11 games into the season, is instructive. It tells you about the other people on the team.
Compared to Omar, Coleman and even Da’Monte, Jake doesn’t accrue personal fouls or turnovers. His three-point delivery looks a bit awkward. It’s almost like a set shot. But so far, he’s made half of them. The Fonz is only 43.8% by comparison.
You can see why Omar’s minutes have been reduced to relieving Kofi’s panting. There’s no room at the 4, and Kofi will only be out to the extent that he needs to be out. (That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be intrigued by the Kofi/Omar twin towers set, which finally made its debut, which the coaching staff continues to dream about, and which threatens any team that relies on interior scoring.)
The re-emergence of Jacob Grandison drives home a stark reality about the future of Illini basketball: Oh shit, what happens when the olds are gone. Brad keeps pointing it out, because he knows that losing all those guys undercuts the foundation, everything he’s built.
If Coleman doesn’t figure it out real quick, Underwood’s get old, stay old plan might require an infusion of JUCO or transfer olds.
Getting old got a little easier against St. Francis, with Luke Goode earning almost 14 minutes of tick. He made 2-of-3 threes, assisted on Alfonso Plummer’s trey in the Five Pass Possession and grabbed three rebounds.
Luke provides the same team leadership, intelligence, grit and rebounding that Jake provides. He’s 10-of-23 (43.5%) from the floor, and 8-18 (44.4%) from the arc this year. Fine numbers, but not on par with Jake’s 46-of-85 (54.1%) and 23-of-46.
It’s no secret that he’s ahead of his fellow freshmen, but is it enough to slide into a 30 minute roll in 2023?
The StFrPa game offered Trent Frazier another fantastic opportunity to demonstrate Brad Underwood’s proclamation that SuperTrent is the best defender in the US.
Brad always characterizes this argument by pointing out that Trent doesn’t garner flashy defensive data (blocks, steals) to buttress his standing among elite, elite defenders. Trent simply renders one’s existence intolerable.
Ramiir Dixon-Conover scored 10 points against Illinois. He was 3-of-11 from the floor. Trent’s harassment took its toll on him as the game progressed. Those first three possessions were fantastic for the Red Flashes, with Dixon-Conover draining a three in the opening set, then kicking out from a double-team on the third.
From that point on, St. F-PA was 13-of-58 from the floor.
It’s not just the physical harassment that wears opponents down. Trent Frazier is an unabashed trash talker. He’ll tell you how bad you are while making you worse.
Dixon-Conover is a career 72% free-throw shooter, and entered the Illinois game at 73% this season. He converted 2-of-5 against the Illini.
He was rattled.
RJ Melendez continued building his highlight reel against Saint Francis. Although he’s a persistent rebounder, his game is not a mirror of Jacob Grandison. RJ is flashy. He’s already becoming a fan favorite thanks to his leaping, fancy passes, windmill dunks, and 67% shooting from the arc.
That last stat probably won’t survive another ten attempts. He’s 4-of-6 on the season.
To my utter shame, I didn’t capture an image of the Podz dunk in Saturday’s game. I’d just captured a few images of SFU freshman Brendan Scanlon, and had set my camera down so I could ask Twitter if it remembered the last time a 12 year-old competed in a regular-season Illini basketball game.
The answer, of course, is Little Lick. There’s no better way to get fired from a D-1 job than to give playing time to your own pudgy 5’8″ kid. It just looks bad, even in Iowa.
It’s been a harrowing season, and we still haven’t reached Christmas. The Saint Francis game offered every Illini a chance to let his hair down, get his stats up, and just have fun.
The biggest laugh for the team was a Brandon Lieb dunk. The dunk itself wasn’t funny, and the team wasn’t laughing at Brandon, who’s one of those guys that works hard in practice and gets little opportunity in games.
This was a laugh of relief, of having worked hard and got the job done right. This was a thank god the Flashes aren’t another Marquette, or Loyola.
The crowd’s biggest laugh came when Kofi mistook Da’Monte for an opponent, and ripped a defensive rebound from his smaller teammate’s grasp.
Monte thought it was funnier than anyone, and couldn’t help but laugh all the way down court as the Illini set up their offense.
Kofi’s biggest laugh was at himself. He executed a typical Kofi-esque low-post move, shifting toward the center of the cleared-out lane, dribbling with his right hand, pinning his man with the left.
He rose up for a right-handed baby hook, but missed from 30 inches away.
Kofi got his own rebound, power-dribbled, pushed a pair of St, Francis defenders away from the basket with his big old butt and left elbow, then brought the ball up with both hands for a bank into the bucket and-1.
Whether it was the miss from point blank, or the ease with which he moved two gnats from his path, Kofi thought it was hilarious.
Coleman Hawkins got back in the groove, and that might be a turning point for the entire Illini season.
Coach Underwood said he has more confidence in Coleman than Coleman has in Coleman. It’s a quirk of Illinois’s cockiest player. But given an opportunity to score against an inferior opponent, Coleman made it easy on himself by starting with a simple drive & lay-up.
Seeing the ball go through the net opened things up for Coleman, and he later drained a pair of threes from the corner.
Underwood’s management of Coleman will inevitably be a talking point when this season is deconstructed.
FIVE PASS POSSESSION
The coach’s favorite moment of the game was, of course, the five pass sequence that ended with an open three for Alfonso Plummer.
It began with Fonz dribbling to the baseline, then dumping to Kofi in the paint. Eventually, the ball made it all around the horn, and back to Fona, who ran back to the corner immediately upon releasing his pass.
THE OMICRON DELTA
So, it’s nice that the Illini got to enjoy this final game of their season.
Or maybe they’ll play in Braggin’ Rights Wednesday, as scheduled. Perhaps even after that.
As the Omicron variant swarms New York City, Midwestern know-nothings continue their Covid is Over behavior. Shopping at Champaign’s home improvement stores on Sunday, it was easy to identify the Faux News & Trump voters. The camo clothing and F-150s are often a sign, but their unmasked faces are the giveaway.
Omicron is less susceptible to the immune response generated by mRNA vaccines. Just today, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced that he’s positive despite being triple-vaxxed. My vaxxed niece in NYC got it by sharing a meal with co-workers in a break room. An NYU sophomore on winter break, she’s already spread it to ten people, and is suffering through Day 6 of feeling like shit.
Another niece in California got the contact tracing text on Friday. She’d joined her fellow teaching staff in the school’s faculty holiday party. Someone brought The Vid.
Delta continues to rage in the United States. But as the US passed 800,000 deaths, the anti-science cohort — those who never participated in abatement measures while complaining about abatement measures, and seem to think that knowing how to install a serpentine belt gives equal/better understanding of viral pathology than a medical degree — continue their tribal resistance to simple measures.
Before Saturday’s tip-off, the major donors (many of whom do abide COVID protocols) were moved two feet back from Lou Henson Court. Perhaps the thinking holds that these 24 extra inches will provide a total of six feet distance from the players. Campus, like check-out lanes at grocery stores, boasts a bunch of six-foot markers.
But the aerosols generated by 15-thousand people, in one confined space, will not stop at six feet. So far, few of the attendees at Illini home games have abided the mask rule, and the DIA/SFC staff doesn’t enforce it.
Underwood declined the opportunity to offer a potentially controversial statement about his fans ennui with COVID precautions. Meanwhile, the medical community predicts a million new cases tomorrow, and exponential spread through the holidays.
I’m glad my Zoom room has a fireplace. I’m just sitting here, enjoying the warmth, and waiting for the Braggin’ Rights cancellation email.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.