Staying old requires getting old, and RJ Melendez got older in Evanston. So did Podz.
RJ demonstrated an understanding of geometry that older Illini teammates might wish to study. He used the glass to score a much-needed bucket from an unfortunate angle, and within a pack of Wildcats.
Brad Underwood said he’d planned to play RJ against Michigan State, but somehow the match-ups weren’t right. After Saturday’s win, Underwood was unable to refrain from describing RJ as “bouncy,” which sounds cute and Tigger-ish, but also describes one of RJ’s most important functions: He can rebound without having worked himself into position. i.e. he jumps over people.
RJ is instant offense, and he’s unafraid to throw himself into the mix. For a team that’s run heartburn-inducing offense in recent games, RJ is the Rolaids.
The Podz substitution was obviously a response to Alfonso Plummer’s fourth foul. Would Underwood have inserted him otherwise?
It doesn’t matter. When his number was called, Podz was ready. He scored a lay-up on the next possession.
The box score shows no rebounds, steals or blocked shots for Brandin. But if statisticians tracked floor burns, he would have been team leader. Coaches track floor burns. They track hockey assists, and box-outs.
Brandin acquitted himself in those crucial six minutes and 19 seconds, when the Illini turned a deficit into victory.
That reliability means Underwood can trust him again in the future. It didn’t go unnoticed that Podz, like Da’Monte, can defend multiple positions.
Kofi Cockburn confirmed (after the Northwestern game) that he appealed (during the Purdue game) to referee DJ Carstensen about Zach Edey’s elbow.
When that elbow whiplashed Kofi’s head, none of Carstensen, Bo Boroski or Brian Dorsey saw any problems. It might have been ruled a flagrant foul. They saw it as incidental contact. Or maybe they didn’t see it at all.
The Big Ten knows its officiating hasn’t been up to snuff lately. That’s why Dr. Ed Hightower sat on the aisle, about ten rows up from the Wildcats bench. He was there, he said, on behalf of the commissioner.
Hightower wore a conference issued All-Access pass. He was in the locker rooms before the game, talking to coaches from both teams. He said he’d have follow-up conversations after the game as well.
“We will get better,” he promised.
THE MAN OF THE HOUR
Da’Monte Williams really does love defense. Unflappable as usual, he emoted not at all about his game-saving heroics in Evanston. But as a matter of analysis, he was perfectly willing to engage the topic of Da’Monte Williams All-Time Highlights. Was it that block against Minnesota? How about last year’s three-point daggers against the Buckeyes?
He picked Minnesota, dryly noting that he didn’t get a lot of tick in that game. (Maybe that’s why Richard Pitino didn’t know who we were talking about.)
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.
The Trent Frazier Show was rolling in fifth gear all night. Luke Goode rebounded. Coleman Hawkins drained threes. Austin Hutcherson made a 90° turn in mid-air, to shoot a ball that he’d already rebounded while already in-air.
I guess that’s what we expected to see in a contest featuring the state’s worst basketball team versus the state’s best basketball team. (I’m including JV teams from the IHSA.)
The unexpected performance came from Andre Curbelo, who was really … um … bad? And amazing? But we expected amazing. We didn’t expect five turnovers.
Brad Underwood won’t lose much sleep over it. He explained that Belo was, frankly, nervous. After a freshman year of balling for 200 people, he’d found himself on display for a few thousand, including a rowdy student section.
This is why we schedule exhibition games.
And we shouldn’t forget that he was also amazing, as expected.
The challenge for Brad Chet Tim Geoff is to rein in Belo’s exuberance without crushing it. Or am I being too control-ly?
Maybe Belo just needs a couple of exhibition games under his belt, and he’ll be fine?
Coleman Hawkins is the other free spirit whose playmaking thrilled fans and burst capillaries in his coach’s face. Should he be throttled?
Coleman seems to know that it’s a matter of picking his spots. Knowing when to play it straight. Knowing when to get creative.
Surely the surprise of the night was RJ Melendez, who didn’t get in the game ’til the fourth quarter. That late entry was expected, because RJ’s performance in the Open Practice suggested he was a few years away from comprehending the defensive principles that Underwood’s staff requires of its rotation players.
But RJ found his spots against USF-Joliet. He didn’t get backdoor-ed. He hedged correctly. He didn’t look afraid.
RJ was fun on offense, hitting a three and converting a reverse lay-up. But that was the expected part for him. We knew he could rebound, too. But what about his defensive positioning? Will he be instant offense for the other team?
He did not look lost against USF.
The rest of the veterans displayed rust here and there, among moments of grace. Da’Monte Williams best play was batting a ball from a Saint and simultaneously knocking it off his victim, out of bounds. He nearly emoted in celebration.
Kofi had a somewhat frustrating game, of the sort he’ll experience every night over the next five months, as teams study his every move, and do their utmost to stop him.
He’s a kind, sensitive person. So you hope he can keep that good nature while opponents do their best to ruin his future.
We still can’t be sure that Hutch is ready for P5 competition, because he certainly didn’t face it Saturday. But he looked a lot more like the super-hyped Hutch than he did the skinny Division III kid we saw two years ago.
It still looks like Podz and RJ won’t see a lot of floor time this year, a vibe that Underwood conveyed in his season kickoff press conference. Podz didn’t have the opportunity to show us anything worth knowing. He didn’t have time.
The ball was in his hands as time ran out on the game, so he was in position to score the hundredth point. He did it.
RJ’s brief tick was a lot flashier, but he faces the same general problem: Which three veterans will he replace?
Maybe we’ll know more after Exhibition #2, just six days from now.
Did you know there was a University of Saint Francis in Illinois?
Yes? Congratulations! You’re from Joliet!
University of Saint Francis (IL) is the fifth biggest University of Saint Francis in the United States; after PA, Fort Wayne, Brooklyn and Steubenville.
Compared to other scismic branches of papist basketball, Franciscan hoops suffers — just as it should, given its namesake — versus Jesuit powerhouses like Georgetown & Gonzaga. St. Bonaventure is probably the best Franciscan basketball program. The second-best might be Saint Francis-PA*, which tied for last in the mighty Northeast Conference last year. (If you don’t have a sense of the NEC’s might, know that Robert Morris abandoned its affiliation in 2020, to join the Horizon League.)
Against Pennsylvania’s Franciscans, which Illinois hosts on December 18, Brad Underwood will foist a rotation of Illini which will, by that 13th contest, have grown familiar.
That’s your nine-man rotation. But will Brad use a nine-man rotation?
Tim Anderson says the coaching staff is working on ways to employ a Twin Towers set, with Omar Payne and Kofi Cockburn blocking all sunlight from penetrating the lane.
That mission seems counterintuituve given the obvious 4-out nature of this roster. “Positionless” basketball demands that the parts be interchangeable, and that’s not the case when you put Omar and Kofi in the same five.
What about Podz and Goode? Will Underwood try a two sets of five approach, like John Calipari did in 2014?
Underwood wants to run. He wants transition baskets and threes. That suggests that “ten starters” is possible. And we know that Underwood is willing to tinker, to experiment. (Such an emmeffing breath of fresh air.)
On the other hand, if you’re starting from the simplest of recipes (Belo to Kofi) it feels unecessary to get weird. Replacing Ayo with shooters gives away the game plan.
Or does it?
Coleman Hawkins says the Hutch Game isn’t so much a steady diet of three-pointers as it is using ball-screens to create a pull-up jumper. Hutch’s much reported near-posterization during the Open Practice suggests that he’s willing to drive like Ayo, but perhaps not finish like Ayo. (Ayo’s use of the glass, the oldest of old school basketball, is nearly extinct among young players. They could learn from Ayo’s example.)
Is Underwood so devious that he’ll run two completely different offenses during the same season? That’s the kind of departure from the norm that gets books published, even dissertations.
It doesn’t seem likely, does it?
Then again, a low-post offense doesn’t require more than a few option plays. If Geoff Alexander wants to drill his bigs on a few different sets, and some of those sets incorporate a double-post presence … well, isn’t that the type of advanced education these scholar-athletes expect from a world class institution?
As Omar said, “I’m a scholar.”
Because Illinois scheduled two exhibition games, rather than a secret scrimmage, one might conclude that Brad wants to learn more about his rotations. How do these guys interact when facing unfamiliar opponents? Which fivesomes mesh?
It’s not unfair to predict a 126-42 final score in an imbalanced match-up against the nation’s worst Francis. But it would be more fun, and more useful, to use the game for experimentation. The “starters” already know what to do. You can put a fivesome of
on the floor, and expect them to run like clockwork.
What happens when it’s
What happens when you mix and match those fives, or put Goode on the wing?
Personally, I’d rather see Podz, Verdonk and Goode get the maxium PT. We need to know what those guys can do, and whether they’re ready to help.
Podziemski gives a Matt Heldman vibe. It’s difficult to keep the Matt Heldman types of the floor. Goode looks ready, and might challenge veterans for tick.
You’d want to see RJ Melendez and Brandon Lieb get some minutes, just because it’s fun to play, and they’re unlikely to play in non-exhibition games. Not unless Brandon puts on 30 lbs. and RJ grasps defensive positioning.
RJ is, according to his coaches & teammates, the athletic freak among them. That implies Fan Favorite potential. But it’s almost painfully obvious when talking to him that he’s the youngest, or most youthful, of this Illini team. Acclimating to a huge American campus — via a second language — while also trying to compete with crafty fifth-year seniors, all while realizing that the wind can be uncomfortably cold sometimes … it’s a lot.
He seems bright and cheerful, though. So who knows? Maybe he’ll get his footwork in order by December.
*Francisan hoops completists will want to know that, while Brooklyn fared better in last year’s NEC, it split its games with PA. PA has put three (THREE!) guys in the NBA and, unlike the Terriers in New York, played in The Tourney once.
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