Illini basketball

Introducing Matic Vesel

Illinois basketball fans have had lots of opportunities to  read interviews & watch video of Mark Smith and Trent Frazier. People in east central Illinois actually saw Da’Monte Williams play basketball, frequently.

But after Brad Underwood took the big office at Ubben, the Illini suddenly had two freshmen bigs nobody had ever heard of. Greg Eboigbodin has been in America for four years, playing high school ball in Detroit. So there’s at least some documentation of his history, online and in English.

Matic Vesel had been in America exactly one time before he arrived at the start of the fall semester: his Official Visit to Illinois.  He’s not a complete unknown. They have the Internet in Ljubljana, his hometown. You can watch a highlight video where he dunks a lot.

Orlando Antigua was coaching the Dominican National team when he discovered Vesel, playing for Slovenia, on the Greek island of Crete. A whirlwind recruitment ensued, and now Matic is an American college student.

He’s a big soccer fan, and an Arsenal supporter “because the Champions League is the best soccer in the world … for now.” But Vesel only played indoor soccer (goalkeeper), and that lasted only a little more than a year.   At that point, he had to decide between basketball and …


… wait for it …



… equestrian.


Vesel decided to focus his energies on basketball because he realized he was going to be unusually tall.  Smart kid.

Adapting to American culture, American food and American college life all during the same month was probably not easy. He seems to enjoy hanging around his freshman teammates, and especially likes the eternal optimism & high-energy of Trent Frazier.

That was September.

Now he’s got a drill sergeant whipping his ass on a daily basis, and it hasn’t been easy. Vesel gets a lot of praise for his offensive skills, but he also hears a lot of flak about defense & deportment (which seems a little unfair considering he’s from an entirely different culture).

It would conceivably be too much, given all the other stressful adjustments he’s had to make over a few short weeks.  But Matic recognizes that he’ll have to work “systematically, day-per-day” and make a lot of sacrifices, including “many times you have to say ‘no’ to the people who … you love them. That’s a big decision to make.”

Leaving Slovenia for a corn field might seem like an obvious choice for the those of us who love flat & boring, but it’s got to be hard when you’re accustomed to this:

So if you see Matic around campus, please welcome him and tell him that there’s more here than just soybeans.

Someone could teach him, for example,  about good pizza and good Mexican food, both available in Champaign-Urbana. So far he’s had only Pizza Hut and Chipotle.

And thank him for choosing to resurrect your favorite basketball program. Like Damir Krupalija, he’s a young Balkan who’s found himself in middle America, right when Illinois decided to be relevant again.

Illini basketball

Basketball practice 10-23-17

Monday’s basketball practice was held at the State Farm Center. Returning to the scene of the crime, if you will.

Losing to Indiana State in Sunday’s “secret scrimmage” will likely be remembered as the first milestone on the road to recovery. The phrase “change the culture” is 2017’s version of “it is what it is,” 2012’s favorite cliché among young ballers. But there’s no better phrase for describing Brad Underwood’s current mission. He took over a club that was accustomed to losing. He thinks they’ve just accepted it. He won’t.

Underwood’s staff learned a lot about their team Sunday. Most of it is intangible, and can’t be translated into data. Sure, they kept track of missed shots. They tracked rebounding. They even know how many times the lads missed an opportunity to set a screen.

But mostly, they learned about posture, effort and mindset. Fundamentally, this team is inexperienced. Most of these guys have never played college basketball. None of them has played for Underwood.

Except one.

If it seems preposterous to keep mentioning a walk-on in these reports, I say pshaw. Until there’s a practice where Tyler Underwood doesn’t do something exceptional, I’ll keep mentioning him. It’s like his dad vis-à-vis Thomas Walkup. I have not once been in the same room with Brad Underwood when he didn’t mention Thomas Walkup. Monday’s practice was no exception, in both cases. Tyler Underwood directed his teammates through drills, and his dad told a story about Thomas Walkup. I hadn’t heard this particular Walkup story before. It was harrowing. I wonder whether he’ll ever tell it in front of cameras.

Cameras were rolling throughout Monday’s practice.  Jason Marry & Zach Altfillisch of Fighting Illini Productions were on hand, and Coach Underwood was mic’d up.  You should hope that you’ll be allowed to hear his speech about the secret scrimmage. It was gripping.

Marry also recorded the post-practice huddle at center court, which seemed to last about fifteen minutes.

It’s possible that these moments will be shared with the public. On the other hand, maybe not. Talking to Underwood off-camera last Thursday in New York, I learned he’s not eager to share everything about his practices. He wants to maintain a teaching atmosphere, which is something John Groce said, too. Fighting Illini Productions publishes only those segments of video which the program wants published. So just hope that Underwood isn’t too humble to allow those moments to see daylight.

Apart from Tyler Underwood, the top coach-on-the-floor was Cameron Liss, also a walk-on. On more than one occasion, Liss heeded a coach’s call to help a teammate into the proper positioning & posture during defensive drills. He’s one of only three fourth-year Illini, so his senior leadership is a dire necessity to the team.

These guys are never going to see a whole lot of tick, so I’d like to highlight their contributions to making this team better.

The other two senior leaders are Michael Finke and Leron Black. (Like Liss, they’re technically R-Jr.’s.)  The coaching staff doesn’t spend a whole lot of time instructing either of them, which is a good sign. It makes one suspect they’re fundamentally sound.

The other fundamentally sound player is Da’Monte Williams.

Brad Underwood continually draws attention to Da’Monte’s defensive stance, positioning or effort as an example to the rest of the team. This might come as a surprise to people who’d assume Da’Monte is a carbon copy of his father.

You’ll recall  Lon Kruger and Bill Self inevitably calling Frank out in the media. You’ll remember Billy Packer’s infamous slight.

I think Frank was misunderstood. But whatever the case, it seems Da’Monte inherited exactly none of those traits which naysayers attributed to his father.

Also surprising are Da’Monte’s decision-making and the mechanical precision of his jump shot. He squares up and delivers like a coach’s son, not a street baller. Defensively, he deflects a lot of passes, a stat Underwood celebrates as much as John Groce did (i.e. Underwood seems to regard an opponent’s pass no differently than a launched shot, or indeed a jump ball — it’s an opportunity for possession).

Photo by Tony Pomonis

But Underwood’s defensive philosophy recalls Bruce Weber more than John Groce.  It’s about denial, a word that meant something completely different for Weber during his Illini heyday.

There were two times when Weber completely lost his shit while I was in attendance at practice.  One featured a lecture about over-emphasising on-ball defense.  Weber was apoplectic about the selfish attitude a player implicitly demonstrates when bragging “I shut my man down” or “my man didn’t score.”

“BUT OUR TEAM LOST!” Weber screamed louder than I ever heard him before or later. Underwood feels the same way.

If this year’s Illini squad has trouble with weak-side help defense, blame inexperience rather than misdirected playground swagger.  The newcomers will need a while before they shift defensively without thinking about it. That’s why Underwood said “we’ll be a different team on January First. We’ll be different from that January First team when we get to March.” It will be a long slog before Underwood sees something resembling his offense.

It’s worth the wait. Underwood’s option offense should lead to some highly entertaining playmaking. As players learn their reads, you’ll see nifty interior passing,  lob dunks when the defense reacts, open jumpers when it refrains.

And then there’s defense, which is harder.

If things go perfectly, Underwood might not need to revert to a familiar pack line defense, as his OK State team forced him to do after an 0-6 conference start last season. But when have things gone perfectly with a team of newcomers?

The difference between Underwood and his predecessors is that Underwood seems less likely to lose his team, mentally. In different ways, Weber and Groce were caricatures susceptible for ridicule. You could attribute respect to them, but they didn’t command it. That’s not the case with Underwood.

Will the newcomers “get it” before the team finds itself buried in the B1G standings?

Matic Vesel is back at full go, after spraining an ankle last week. His quickness to the rim cannot be overstated. It’s hard to believe, and impresses even his teammates, who’ve seen it again and again. He’ll cause a lot of headaches for opponents if his defense reaches a level of competence that affords Underwood the confidence to play him.

Greg Eboigbodin might also be an opponent’s nightmare in the future, but his menace will be seen on the defensive end, where he’ll force shooters to alter shot-trajectory. His instinct for defense is typically African, i.e. you see his footwork, you notice he’s responding to the whole-court flow of the game, and you think “this guy played a lot of soccer.”

It will take time for the lessons to sink in for these freshmen, before they can defend instinctively.  Maybe January First. Maybe by March.

The coaching staff realizes they’ll have to be patient.

At the scorer’s table, a shiny silver man-purse overflowed with packs of Extra chewing gum, in at least four flavors. Coaches and players reached in throughout practice to retrieve a stick. “We chew a lot of gum,” said Jamall Walker. “It stops us from yelling so much.”

Illini basketball

Basketball practice 9-30-17

As long as Brad Underwood allows media access to his practices, I’ll try to figure out something interesting to say about them. If I can’t think of anything interesting to write, I won’t waste your time. (This is the advantage of running a website rather than a daily newspaper.)

The most obvious difference between Underwood and John Groce is that Groce wore a headset microphone in practice. Underwood doesn’t even have a whistle. But despite his smooth, soft speaking voice, he does yell like the angry badass you were expecting.  He’s the coach you remember from the good old days before political correctness, who told you when your effort/execution wasn’t going to cut it, and indeed exactly how your opponent would carve your ass up.

Orlando Antigua does use a whistle, which shows that Underwood doesn’t impose his style on his colleagues. And “colleague” is an apt term for describing this staff.  At various moments, Antigua was the only person speaking. At a different moment, it was Chin Coleman conducting the lesson.

Practice began with a short speech from Mannie Jackson. He told the team “It’s not about you. It’s about the guys around you.”

That was followed by Jerry Colangelo, who asked the team which among them came from Chicago. (Cameron Liss sort of raised his hand.) If Colangelo was flustered by the dearth of Windy talent, he didn’t flinch. He said of the city “the further north you go, the more money you have. Well, I’m from about 25 miles south of Chicago.”

The thing that stood out most, in observing individual players, was Mark Alstork’s speed and conditioning. The team ran a set of wind sprints (full court, up and back twice) and by the third leg, Alstork had a five yard lead on the next closest guy.

There were no laggers, and no other leaders. Everyone else was more or less grouped together. But Alstork was way, way ahead.

The last time I saw such a distinct speed differential, it was D.J. Richardson leaving Alex Legion in the dust, also during wind sprints. That was before everyone realized that Legion was a bust.

If Dee Brown didn’t teach you how important speed can be in this game, Kalin Lucas probably did — the hard way.

Mark Alstork (24)

The other intriguing individual performance was Matic Vesel.  He can shoot. It might seem like a necessary faculty for a basketballer, yet so many are are no better than you are, just taller.

Matic is taller than you are, and he can shoot better than you can.

American kids evidently don’t know about the mid-range jumper. In Slovenia, I guess they’re still teaching it. Matic does not miss.

(Illini Sports Information Director Derrick Burson, right,  is fascinated by Da’Monte Williams’s hands. They do indeed look just like Frank’s hands.)

I had a conversation with Brad Sturdy in the Memorial Stadium press box Friday night. We agreed that Matic was not built for boxing out. He won’t play with his back to the basket.

But Brad says Vesel can play the four in Underwood’s offense, stretching the floor.

Lukas Kisunas, on the other hand, would flatten anyone guarding him in the paint. He watched this morning’s practice, too, as part of his official visit.

Why was the media allowed inside a practice featuring an official visitor? Probably because Brad Underwood has a less-than-chickenshit response to NCAA rules. The Illini basketball program never promoted Kisunas’s presence. The University of Illinois made no mention of Lukas Kisunas.

This photo of an Official Visitor was captured without the advice, consent or obstruction of the University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics

Lukas Kisunas was not made available for interviews (and neither was Mark Smith). Hence, the U of I did not violate NCAA rules.  John Groce and Bruce Weber would have convulsed in fear at the notion of inviting the media during an official visit.

Kisunas was present even as Underwood spoke to the media. You might be able to see it here, assuming I panned my device accurately.

The most memorable lesson from Underwood during this morning’s session concerned fast break defense.

Brad championed his recent Oklahoma State team for its ability to force turnovers. He choreographed a fairly simple set of stances taken by offensive and defensive players in a particular fast break situation.

But he also spoke of the psychological state of the actors in these situations — what one might expect and what one must expect in a defensive posture, and what the driving offensive player is reading.

It seemed like an obvious lesson. But then it occurred to me that, like a lot of obvious lessons, no one ever mentioned it before. There was nuance, mostly to do with geometry (i.e. angles) but that didn’t impede its comprehensibility.

I understood, from the catwalk, how to read an offense in that situation. I knew what Underwood was getting at. I think the players did, too.

It was at this moment that Derrick Burson mentioned that voices are more easily understood on the court than on the catwalk. This was an important point, historically. Bruce Weber and John Groce were often, to a catwalk audience, incomprehensible.

But Underwood is easier to understand than Weber or Groce. His voice, and his way of communicating, are more clear.

Illini basketball

Lewis preview

Many miles away there’s a shadow on the door
Of a cottage on the shore
Of a dark Scottish lake the Illini men’s basketball program

After a lousy open scrimmage, and a disorganized exhibition against Division III Wash U, the Illini are just as curious as their dwindling fan base: Will this team be any good?

Before practice Thursday, The Star acknowledged that he’ll see a lot of double-teams, etc., in an attempt by every opponent on the schedule to keep him from taking over games.

Illinois needs a one-two punch. But who, after Malcolm, will be the second punch? The Star said things will look different when Leron Black returns from his suspension, but he also acknowledged that Leron remains a fouling machine. Perhaps Leron’s rebounding will earn him the Augustine Jersey for practices. Will he, like Augustine, need three years of regular PT before he figures out how to defend without fouling?

Malcolm also says you Cubs fans really annoyed him Wednesday night. (He’s from Saint Louis. ’nuff said.)

Friday’s opponent is Lewis University, where Jaylon Tate’s mom Arisa was once the Flyers’ number 1 singles tennis player.  The Flyers always give Illinois a hard time.

Paris Parham has the scout. He says this years Flyers team will bother Illinois’ perimeter players, disrupting the Illini goal of getting the ball inside, and reducing the percentage of shots Illinois takes from beyond the arc. What John Groce refers to as “paint touches.”

Paris says watch out for Delaney Blaylock & Capel Henshaw.

While Parham and Groce fret about “paint touches,” Groce is not as worried about “paint conversions” as, perhaps, the rest of us are.

But he acknowledged that missed bunnies and dropped passes were a problem against Wash U.

Aaron Jordan expects to start at shooting guard for a second consecutive contest. Jalen Coleman-Lands might be the starter later in the season, but he’s still recovering from the broken pinkie.

Jordan says the biggest weakness in his game is being vocal on defense. He’s working on it.

Maybe the most exciting thing about Friday’s Lewis exhibition will be our second chance to see Te’Jon Lucas.

The freshman QB was the most exciting passer in all Illini sports last week, and he’s only improved in practices since. Lucas dished 10 assists in practice yesterday, and by team policy should have worn the Bruce Douglas Jersey this afternoon.

But instead, Samson Oladimeji wore the Douglas Jersey, because Illini team managers don’t have another jersey for him to wear.

Oladimeji is a wing from Fremd. He’s in the midst of a ten day tryout with the Illini. He’d be the team’s fifth walk-on, although Drew Cayce and Cameron Liss are both sitting out this year (Cayce because of transfer rules, and Liss just because).

The other QB (and/or shooting guard) is, of course, Tracy Abrams.  He chastised himself Thursday for a lack of leadership on the toughness & togetherness front versus Wash U.

But he was perfectly happy that you Cubs fans kept him awake.

Illini basketball


The Wash U exhibition was hard to watch. If you didn’t see the game, but feel, based on second-hand accounts that Illinois played badly; I’m here to tell you it was worse.

Illinois stumbled out of the gate with a starting line-up of

  1. Tracy Abrams
  2. Aaron Jordan
  3. Malcolm Hill
  4. Michael Finke
  5. Maverick Morgan

It was heartening to see Abrams return to Lou Henson Court, which wasn’t named Lou Henson Court last time he played a game there. But almost immediately Abrams charged the lane, just like the old days, without looking for kick-out targets on the wings.

Following an off-balance runner that missed (reminiscent of the last-second miss in the 2014 Big Ten Tournament) and a drive to the basket that found him under the goal without an angle (reminiscent of 2014, generally),

Abrams righted himself and looked for others in subsequent transition situations. He found a trailing D.J. Williams for a nifty no-look/behind-the-back bounce pass for a lay-up. He charged toward two defenders under the basket, but then stopped on a dime and bounced the ball around them to Michael Finke, for a dunk.

It’s this version of Tracy Abrams, not the old one, that Illinois must have to be successful.

Mike Thorne Jr. shot 50% (3-for-6) from the floor. That might seem like a respectable percentage, but considering all those shots came from three feet out, it’s unconscionably low. Big Bo still refuses to use the glass, and his touch is no silkier than before. He hoists the ball into the airspace of the orange ring. It goes in half the time. Illini fans will be hugely frustrated by missed inside shots this year.

Thorne missed both ends of his only trip to the foul line. He averaged one foul every three minutes.

On the bright side, Thorne was careful to observe the cylinder rule (described last week by referee Bo Boroski) in wrangling his lone offensive rebound of the contest.

Big Bo played without the enormous knee brace he wears in practice. He dived to the floor for a loose ball, and managed to pull it away from a pack of Bears. It was scary to watch.  But evidently he didn’t break anything.

Te’Jon Lucas can pass, and may be a necessary component to success in 2017.  Unfortunately, his teammates couldn’t catch his passes. So Te’Jon finished the game with a 1-to-3 assist-to-turnover ratio.

He didn’t attempt a field goal. He connected on 4-of-6 free-throws.

Tracy Abrams committed zero turnovers.

Michael Finke was fun to watch, despite his three turnovers. His post-entry passes are fun. He’s one of the team’s best shooters and one of the best ball-handlers.

His 4-of-8 FG performance is better than Thorne’s 50% because three of those shots came from beyond the arc. (He made one.)  Finke was perfect from the foul stripe. Abrams and Hill were also perfect from the line, but the team shot 67.6% overall.

Maverick Morgan was the team’s leading scorer. He also tied Thorne’s team-high four turnovers. But his 8-of-10 performance from the floor is closer to what Illini fans should expect from the center position. John Groce talks a lot about paint touches. But once the ball-handlers do the hard work of feeding the low post, Illini fans should expect a field goal most of the time.

Morgan was 4-of-6 from the line, with only 4 rebounds in 25 minutes. He blocked two shots and garnered a steal.

The one obvious advantage of playing Morgan at center, as opposed to Thorne, is the Mav can run in transition.

Jalen Coleman-Lands had a bad night shooting (1-for-6 from deep) but he penetrated well, and moved well without the ball.

Once the medical staff clears him to play without his right-hand wrapped, it’s hard to imagine a starting line-up without him.

But apart from JCL, there’s only one clear starter on this team.

Malcolm Hill had, if you ignore his 4-for-12 (0-for-3) shooting performance, the best stat line. He led the team in rebounds with six, and added a pair of steals and a pair of assists, with only one turnover.

His technical foul was undeserved. Malcolm finished a fast-break dunk at an odd angle, he straightened himself out on the rim before dropping to the floor. Steve McJunkins should not have T’d him up.

Is it crazy to suggest that Tracy Abrams is not a sure fire starter?

Well, recall again the spring of 2014, when John Groce praised Jon Ekey and Joe Bertrand for accepting  back-up roles. Groce said the team would need more sacrifice the next year. If Te’Jon Lucas continues to move the ball as effectively as he did Sunday, and if his teammates learn to catch it, it’s not hard to imagine a similar role for Abrams.

Starting is not the be-all, end-all of course.  Jon Ekey continued to play a starter’s role after relinquishing his starting role. John Groce is slightly less hidebound about rotations than was Bruce Weber. But he’s still fairly traditional.

Will Groce change the line-up based on match-ups? That question might be irrelevant, until the Michigan State game. (They’ll be playing small ball, a good match-up for Illinois if you consider a line-up of Finke + four guards.)

Have we seen all the role players yet? Definitely not. Leron Black remains suspended. Kipper Nichols won’t be eligible ’til December. Alex Austin played for three seconds on Sunday. The other walk-ons never stood up, and Cameron Liss will take a redshirt year in 2017.

There’s a lot that remains to be seen. Let’s hope it becomes prettier to look at.

Illini basketball

Newcomer: Ahmad Starks

The Illini men’s basketball team has six newcomers this year. Two are walk-ons Cameron Liss and Alex Austin. Two are Michael Finke and Aaron Cosby, already profiled in the Illini Report “newcomer” series.

At some point, you’ll get a humorous glimpse at Liss and Austin. It probably won’t get a lot of hits. Web traffic works like this

  • recruits
  • scandal
  • enormous victories
  • current players
  • losses
  • walk-ons

Perhaps Leron Black is most intriguing to Illini fans, because we know so little about him. But the newcomer most likely to determine the outcome of the 2014-15 season is tiny, quiet Ahmad Starks.

Asking about Starks, of the guys who’ve played with him for over a year, reveals some things we didn’t know. For one, he drives fearlessly at and over guys twice his height. He dunks. He has a knack for theatrical shots that somehow go in the basket. He rebounds.

Most interestingly, he’s considered to be a ball-handler and distributor. Contrast this opinion with conventional wisdom that Starks is primarily a shooter, and you see just how little the typical fan understands what happens inside John Groce’s program.

In fact, the perception of Starks as a typical point guard has so permeated the inner Illini mindset that Alex Austin answered the tell me something most people don’t know about Ahmad Starks question by saying that Starks is a really good shooter, whereas most people probably think of him primarily as a ball-handler.

That’s the mindset inside the program.

Illini basketball

Newcomer: Aaron Cosby

Media Day 2014 seemed less exciting than previous years. Maybe it’s just me. I was exhausted from traveling the previous day.

But there was something else missing. The staff wasn’t around. Mike Basgier was just leaving as we filed into the Corzine Gym. “There’s no team photo today because the coaches are out recruiting,” he  said.

The hardest working staff in American college basketball is playing Terminator to all the Sarah Connors among 17 year-old point guards. They’re relentless. When John Groce finished with his media obligations, he abandoned the sport jacket he borrowed, one assumes, from some friendly giant, donned a tight-fitting white jumper, got in his SUV, and headed out to track that kid down.

But on the otherwise gloomy cold Thursday, two people seemed especially, even unusually cheerful. One was Malcolm Hill, who enters his second year unafraid, and unabashed. He freely admitted that he was nervous through much of last year. And who can blame him, he was seventeen years old, and had left the house for the first time. It happens to many if not most college kids. And in Malcolm’s case, he had an audience in the millions of people, watching his every step.

The other surprisingly cheerful guy was Aaron Cosby. Last spotted smiling in the early autumn of 2013, Cosby is now free to do what he does best: play basketball. That freedom seems to have bucked him up.

I asked his teammates about Aaron. What do they know about him as a person, and as a baller, that we didn’t know?

It turns out that he’s more than just a shooter.