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Illini Basketball

Practice thoughts, October 2018

Homecoming weekend included a basketball practice at Ubben, first thing this morning. Unlike last time, there were no Official Visitors. So the team wasn’t focused on throwing lobs to 17 year-olds.

Spectators numbered about one-third the size of the Tshiebwe-Liddell-Shannon crowd. That is, they lined the catwalk one-deep rather than three.

They learned that Giorgi Bezhanishvili is not a goofball all the time. He’s a shittalker. Giorgi’s shit was mostly directed at Samba Kane, who might have wilted on the spot. When teammates and coaches talk about Samba, the sentence usually begins with “he’s had a hard time because …” and usually continues with the themes like “arrived late” and “new to the game.”  Piling on psychologically doesn’t seem fair, but it’s hard to imagine prospective opponents treating Samba more deferentially.

Mike LaTulip, Brandon Paul and Steve Bardo joined the team for a Homecoming photo, after practice

Giorgi should be raw too, but he’s not. He moves fluidly, and finishes at the rim. That might change when a competent defender over 6’6″ challenges him. This Illini team has no such defender. Adonis de la Rosa dressed for practice, but did not participate. Anthony Higgs began the session looking at an iPad, reclining on a cushioned table, in the training room. He didn’t enter the Corzine Gym for the first 20 minutes, and then rode the stationary bike for the next 20. Samson Oladimeji and Zach Griffith did their best (Oladimeji’s rejection on a Tevian Jones lay-up was a highlight of the day), but neither is big enough to present a B1G-caliber post-presence.

So, we might not know what Georgi can’t do for another month or three. As of now, he’s a definite starter.

If the season began today, the starting five would be

  • 1 – Andres Feliz
  • 1 – Ayo
  • 1 – Trent
  • 4 – Kipper
  • 4 – Giorgi

That’s no slight to Aaron Jordan. He continues to burnish his coach-on-the-floor bona fides, spreads the defense and drains threes. In that regard, he’s the quintessential sixth man. Brad Underwood might need to start him, but ideally Aaron would enter the game after assessing what’s happening. 

Da’Monte Williams continues to make unforced errors, the kind Underwood claimed he never commits at the beginning of last year (before the Maryland game). Because Feliz offers doggish on-ball defense, and Ayo’s impersonation of a six-foot spider will, arguably, compensate for Monte’s absence, Williams will need to clean up his little mistakes to challenge them for PT. The three-headed PG attack is just too hard to defend. Feliz pushes the ball, and finds the open man. When left alone on the perimeter, he buries his threes.

Saturday’s practice

The wing-to-be-named-later continues to be Alan Griffin. Like many wings of the three-point era, Alan seems comfortable pitching a tent on the arc. Underwood stopped live action to holler at him about another option from the Triple Threat  “Alan!” he called, arms aloft and sweeping downward to indicate an open path to the basket,  “Drive!”

From the sidelines, ex-perimeters Mike LaTulip and Brandon Paul agreed with the assessment. “When your defender is that close up on you, you can always dribble past him,” observed LaTulip.

Also in town for Homecoming were 89ers Steve Bardo and Ryan Baker. Bardo relayed the story of his Bobblehead mishap. He was in Atlanta working on a non-sports TV production (cooking) and missed the deadline for signing his release. Hence, no Steve Bardo Bobblehead.

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Illini basketball

Psychological Warfare: Purdue’s mastery of Illini basketball

The Purdue Boilermakers are still the winningest program in B1G basketball history. Their most recent conference championship came five years ago.

Illinois hasn’t won a championship in ten years. And in that time, Purdue holds a 12-5 advantage over the Illini. Two of those wins came the Big Ten Tournament. Two came in the 2009 regular season. Since then, Purdue has won 9-of-10.

During that onslaught, Matt Painter drove his mentor Bruce Weber out of a job. Weber’s most notorious player-trashing came after losing to Purdue. That’s when Weber said he’d failed to build a culture at Illinois, and instead coached “not to lose.”

It was hard to decipher the substance of that distinction, but that’s Weber all over. His meaning was never clear, but you could generally infer that he was insulting someone. (FWIW, I’ve always preferred the subtler player-trashing Weber performed after the Northwestern loss in 2010.)

Weber was never good at explaining things, which is — whatever he believes — the actual reason he failed at Illinois.

Matt Painter is very good at explaining things. Among conference coaches, he’s a top communicator. (Thad Matta is right there, as is Fran McCaffery.) Listening to Painter speak, one gleans the modus operandi, the Keady Tree philosophy.  It’s what Weber could never express through vagueries and colloquy, or outright dodges. (Seriously, who was it that invented the “Weber is too honest” narrative? That’s nonsense.)

Right now, January 2015, is a fascinating time to analyze Matt Painter’s coaching style, from an Illini perspective.  He hasn’t been successful recently, but he’s been more successful than John Groce when the two go head-to-head. Their philosophies on player development may be exactly the same, or totally different. It’s harder to tell why Groce doles out PT the way he does, or rewards individual players for performance based on one set of metrics (e.g. rebounds) while not penalizing for another set (e.g. field goal percentage).

Painter talked about yanking his young guys during both Monday’s B1G teleconference and his own pre-Illinois teleconference on Tuesday. You can infer that Weber shares  this philosophy, if not the ability to express it.

This year at Kansas State, Weber stanched a slide that could easily have seen him canned in March, and he did it by sticking to his principles. He’s “building a culture of toughness” rather than “coaching not to lose.” That’s bad news for fans of entertaining basketball, because it suggests 58-57 grudge matches might ugly the game for years to come.

As for his mastery over Illinois, Painter spoke Tuesday about the psychological weapons he’s deployed over the years. The most obvious one, it turns out, was unintentional.  Painter said his staff did not intentionally not guard Chester Frazier.

Painter acknowledged (and perhaps wistfully pined for) Lewis Jackson’s mental ownership of Illini guards, a key factor in establishing the 9-outta-10 streak.

Painter also acknowledged the key factor for beating Illinois this year, but did not say whether it’s something an Illini opponent can effect or control. For Illini fans, it’s obvious: Make sure Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby have one of their 1-for-9 shooting nights, rather than one of their 5-for-7 shooting nights.

You can bet that Purdue’s staff is crunching video right now, trying to determine whether any defensive actions prompt these offensive reactions, one way or the other.

But as of Tuesday morning, Painter did not have an immediate response to the question of how to beat Illinois psychologically. And it’s not because he isn’t a straight-shooter.

(For context, understand the format of Boiler teleconferences: Painter calls out the names of all the people on the line, in order, and then answers all of each individual’s questions in a row before moving on to the next person.)

Cosby is more typical, from a sports psychology perspective, than Starks. Cosby said after the Northwestern game that he tried to keep his head up during his shooting slump. He credited the Illini coaching staff for insisting that he keep firing away.

Starks is an unusual character, from a sports psychology standpoint. He’s a little guy, and a loner. He’s quiet and introspective. Although probably kind to small, defenseless animals; Starks will ruthlessly attack you on a basketball court. And despite a number of statistically terrible games this year; he doesn’t need a coaching staff to buck him up. He’ll keep attacking as long as he’s on the court.

It’s for this reason that Starks is much more dangerous to the Boilermakers. They’re an unusually tall team. Starks is the mouse to their elephant. And worse for Painter, Starks seems invulnerable to mental antagonism.

Whether you prefer John Groce’s demanding without demeaning, or Painter’s short leash for underclassmen who haven’t earned the right to make mistakes, both philosophies are more comprehensible than anything Bruce Weber ever expressed.

What’s odd is that Painter will tell you what he’s doing. He shows his cards. But he still finds a way to outmaneuver Illinois, psychologically.

As Bobby Knight once said, “I’m fuckin’ tired of losing to Purdue.”