Illini basketball


You never doubted these Illini, right?

As football scores of 14-3 and 20-7 conjured unpleasant memories of Tim Beckman; you never for one moment hoped that Brad Underwood was, indeed, looking for property near Manhattan, KS.

Defense wins championships. Defense travels. D-D-D-Defense.

When you read accounts of this game, a 54-53 slog, scribes will tell you Lamont Paris apprenticed under Bo Ryan and Greg Gard, which is why Chattanooga plays slow.

Thus, Dick Bennett’s legend continues to infect the uninvolved. Wisconsin’s 21st century teams score plenty. The reason Illinois & Chattanooga scored only 107 total points is all about Illinois.

Illinois is really, really good at defense.

“Brad Underwood assembled a team that’s deadly inside & out.” Or that’s the rap, anyhow. And that’s all anybody talks about. But Illinois wins because Trent Frazier & Da’Monte Williams get in your business and force you to shoot 4-of-20 from the floor.

You will always enjoy beatdowns like the Wake Forest game in December 2004. But the games that live in legend are awful. The Arizona Game was awful. ’89 Bloomington was awful.

Yes, we all want 40 minutes of highlight reel, including six or seven dunks and about 15-for-19 from the arc. Cross your fingers, and the next five games might be like that.

But probably not.

Illinois survived, and moved on. In doing so, the Illini advanced the cause of Brad to KSU. But it also helped Lamont Paris, who should be strongly considered for any open P5 job. IN fact, let me launch the Lamont Paris to KSU meme right here. We need to get this guy away from B1G openings.

Sunday’s early lunch involves a more traditional Illini nemesis, and possibly the best coach in college basketball history.

Cellvin Samsung is like Bruce Pearl: Irritatingly good at coaching, regardless of whether he’s destroying the NCAA’s Rulebook. You should feel less great, after the Chattanooga performance, to know that Houston doesn’t compete in a lot of Q1 games.

They’re favored to win, and will probably win.


COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Mood

On Thursday, Steve Helwagen asked Buckeyes guard CJ Walker if he’d consider returning for a sixth year. CJ said, essentially “you never know.”

On Friday, Chris Holtmann didn’t wait for a question. He said Walker will not return for a sixth year. “CJ will move on and professionalize. As many people know, he’s got a young daughter, and we’re fully supportive of that.” Holtmann then immediately switched subjects, to Kyle Young. He hopes Kyle will come back for another year.

The mood in the Zoom was somber.

Spencer Holbrook asked how Holtmann felt about his nomination as Naismith Coach of the Year. Holtmann looked at the floor. “Looks like they did their voting before last week.” It’s a realistic response. tOSU has lost three in a row. It must feel like ages since they’ve had mojo at The Schott.

Illini fans might look at Kyle Young as a tough, tattooed, bouncy ball of muscles and gristle. Holtmann certainly echoed those sentiments in his Senior Day preview. But Thursday’s Q & A with Kyle, when not pondering another year in Columbus, was about his frailty.

Contrast Giorgi Bezhanishvili’s pre-game Zoom. It doesn’t seem to have gone as viral as we, the participants, seemed to expect. (I think everyone on the call Tweeted, wrote or compiled something about his infectious mood.)

Perhaps lost in the bonhomie was the deadly seriousness of Giorgi’s intention to win a “naytional” championship. Giorgi keeps things loose, but there’s a 94 x 50 foot rectangle where he’s not always friendly.


The eternally optimistic Scott Beatty floated, in another recent Zoom, the notion that most teams are getting better this time of year. Brad Underwood did not assent.

In fact, this is the wheat from chaff portion of the season. The culling of the weak. Some teams are mentally weak and some are physically worn out. Ohio State seems, as of this morning, to be both of those things.

Does that mean Illinois will win this afternoon’s game? You don’t look to Illini Report for predictions or betting tips. Sports abstractions are a billion dollar industry, and you have plenty of places to read them. I’m just telling you about the people involved. Brad Underwood seems to be holding his team together while Holtmann’s falls apart.

Hawkeyes fans lament Fran’s February Fade, a seemingly annual tradition in Iowa City. This year, much of that talk can be attributed to CJ Fredrick’s ankle. But if you had to choose between mental and physical when diagnosing Iowa’s late swoons, you’d probably guess the former.

Cellvin Samsung has borne this reputation for decades. His 2002 Oklahoma squad scrapped and scraped its way to a Final Four. That’s his only trip. Since getting his first head coaching position forty years ago — and despite perennial high-rankings, media hype and avoidance of NCAA-oriented restraints; his teams routinely limp to the finish line.

Andre Curbelo, Jacob Grandison, Jermaine Hamlin (Illinois Athletics)

Is it a minor miracle that Underwood has this team improving, loose and confident in March? Or is it the major miracle of this season?

How much of the late season vitality should you attribute to wacky personalities like Andre Curbelo and Jermaine Hamlin? How much should you credit the toughness of Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams? What of Jacob Grandison, the guy you’d most likely describe as the team’s moral conscience?

Was the first Ohio State game the impetus for Brad to insert Grandison in the starting line-up? Brad didn’t phrase it exactly that way yesterday. He said the team was “discombobulated” and “searching for some things.” Perhaps Grandison’s quiet leadership has merely coincided with the mid-season relaunch. Maybe it laid the foundation.

If Illinois does win a naytional championship, books will be written about all these personalities and the confluence of their circumstances. If not, maybe it doesn’t matter.

As 3 PM central approaches, it’s nice to feel optimistic that Illinois is in the position to do something special.

Illini basketball

Why the referees were wrong at Breslin

Ah the Breslin Student Events Center, our home away from home.

Illinois “didn’t do enough to win” on Saturday in East Lansing. Luckily, Michigan State ‘didn’t do enough to win” worse.

Illinois shot a measly* 29.4% from the arc, and missed a quarter of their free-throws, including two straight misses by Ahmad Starks as the game went to the wire.

Three crazed blind referees tried but failed to steal the game for the Spartans, but MSU refused to grab victory from the jaws of defeat. They missed so many free-throws that their home crowd jumped to a standing ovation when Bryn Forbes connected on two straight.

By game’s end, Forbes would join Travis Trice as goat, incapable of converting. So the most outrageous screw job since Jim Bain won’t generate much more than an entertaining online pissing match.

You can read about that below. First, here are three reasons Illinois did win Saturday at Breslin.


People like to complain about Nnanna Egwu for all kinds of reasons.

  • He hedges too high on double-teams.
  • He shoots threes, and generally loiters around the high post.
  • He grabs fewer rebounds than some people expect from the center position.

On Saturday, Egwu’s high hedges were especially effective at stymieing Denzel Valentine — the only Spartan who seemed able to generate offense. (The MSU sports info people assign photogs to each team’s offensive end, for each half. Otherwise I’d have some good shots of Egwu hedging Valentine.)

On Saturday, Egwu buried 2-of-3 3FGs, which he launched when open, in the natural flow of the offense.

On Saturday, Egwu grabbed 9 rebounds (3 offensive) against a team — or in fact, a program — that’s considered untouchable on the boards.  He led all players in this category, keeping Illinois within one carom of a dead heat (35-34).

Nnanna appeared to be an entirely different player on Saturday.  But it’s not because he doesn’t have that aggressor in him. It’s because he does what he’s told to do, without question.

John Groce phrased it as “never complains.” But Groce seemed to be recognizing, even as he said it, that Egwu could be a violent rebounding force if he (Groce) simply gave the directive.

Matt Costello, Gavin Schilling and Branden Dawson are not subtle about grabbing boards (or opponents’ jerseys for that matter). Egwu roughed them up.

Maverick Morgan played alongside Egwu once again. Morgan’s low-post presence frees Egwu to do all the perimeter stuff people hate so much. Unfortunately for Mav, the low-post was once again a bizarro version of Bozo’s Grand Prize Game, in which Mav is unable to lay the ball in the bucket from a foot away.


Tom Izzo was so pissed at his team, he couldn’t even recognize the thorn in their collective side. Or maybe he just didn’t remember the first ten minutes of the first half. In my seven years experience of covering college basketball, I’ve learned that coaches usually remember exactly the moment you’re asking about. But sometimes they think you’re asking a different question entirely. And sometimes they don’t want to give a direct answer, for whatever reason.

I asked Izzo about the first ten minutes. MSU jumped all over Illinois, and then lay supine as Illinois didn’t quite jump all over them, back.

What happened to change that momentum?

Izzo didn’t have an answer apart from the old stand-by “making shots.”

A 10-2 Michigan State lead slowly devolved (from their perspective, but also kinda from our perspective as well) into 11-11.

The guy who changed the momentum was Ahmad Starks. His unfazed demeanor corrupted the Spartan’s aggression-oriented defensive scheme. His shooting forced them to alter defensive rotations. His size and speed played mouse to their transition elephant.

“If I were wearing green, I’d be really pissed right now,” I said to IPHD’s Jason Marry, sitting to my left, as Leron Black gave Illinois its first lead, 12 minutes into a blowout-turned-grudge-match.

Then I asked Graham Couch, sitting behind us on press row, what was wrong with MSU today? He said they’d been this way all year. No interior offense, no perimeter offense. If they ain’t got transition offense, they got nada.


He’s back.

KNunn has been gone, or partially present, all year. On Saturday, his persistent drives to the basket demonstrated that his knee is fixed, physically and mentally.

Nunn and Malcolm Hill found a weakness in the Spartan’s defensive line. It was basically the same weakness that Malcolm exploited for the game-winner against Penn State.

When starting from the top of the key, both Malcolm and KNunn have figured out that their perimeter defender will push them out but not up, and cheat slightly toward the left (to block the lane and the right-hander’s dominant hand). The low-post help defender will push down, but not out (to protect the rim), and also cheat left.

Malcolm uses his left well, and Kendrick is left-handed (except when signing autographs).

KNunn also used a floater, and his mad hops, to exploit the Spartans in the low-post.


I don’t know how Jaylon Tate’s box-out non-foul looked on live TV. What you may not have seen was the extent to which Spartans Travis Trice, Matt Costello, Gavin Schilling, the Izzone etc. biased persons campaigned for some kind of call.

It was all an act, a pantomime, a feint. It was pretense. And it was, in person, so obviously pretense. It’s unconscionable that this hamming nearly stole a win for the home team.

The officiating crew ruled that Jaylon had committed a dead ball foul against Travis Trice. They gave MSU (Forbes) a pair of extra free-throws that might have changed a deficit into a lead, with less than a minute to go.

It was probably Trice’s acting that made the three men — all of whom probably have testes if not cojones — sympathize.

After the game, they probably realized they’d screwed up.  But refs never admit a mistake. So to double-down on their bad judgment, they released a statement about the ruling.

Nobody misinterpreted the rule. The rule was inapplicable to the situation.  Jaylon Tate’s box-out was thoroughly unremarkable, completely ordinary.

Yes, Jaylon Tate’s movements are a bit herky-jerky, as I’ve written here before.  Earlier in that very game, Tate hit himself in the crotch while playing with his typical abandon. Did the referees think that contact was intentional?

Here’s why the call was wrong: The ball was not dead.

There are two ways the ball could have been a “dead ball,” and for Jaylon Tate’s “foul” to be a “dead ball foul.”  If the ball had gone through the hoop, as the Wymer statement claims, it would have been a “dead ball.” If the free-throw had been the first of two, rather than a one-and-one, the ball would have been “dead.”

Tate’s contact  occurred before the ball went through the hoop. That much is plain from the replay. Wymer, Valentine and  Perone made an error of fact.

Because it was a one-and-one, Tate was boxing-out his man. This error should have been seen and reversed on review. Slow-motion makes it clear to see, as millions now have.

Of course, this was not the first time a referee has botched an obvious call.

But most botched calls don’t take place in the final minute. Those that do are subject to video review. The remarkable quality of this botch is that the officiating crew reviewed the play, and then fabricated a defense to justify a clearly erroneous ruling.

My hunch is that one of the referees blew his whistle in the grip of a senior moment, forgetting that rules for lane violation changed years ago.

For absolute beginners, here’s a pedantic explanation of rules known to every basketball player and referee, from 3rd grade up.

When Ahmad Starks fouled Travis Trice with 33.2 seconds remaining in the game, that foul was Illinois’ 8th “team foul” of the second half. A team’s 7th foul in either half triggers a free-throw for the other team. If the other team makes the first free-throw, it’s awarded a second free-throw. This battery in potentia is known as the “one-and-one.”

A team’s 10th foul of either half triggers two foul shots — another term for “free-throws.”

The other way to trigger two foul shots is to foul one’s opponent in the act of shooting. And if one fouls one’s opponent in the act of shooting a three-point shot, that shooter is awarded three free-throws (unless the shot attempt is successful).

It was not a shooting foul. i.e. Starks did not foul Trice in the act of shooting. Per NCAA rules, then, when Travis Trice stepped to the free-throw line, he was shooting the “front end” of a “one-and-one.”

Here’s a screen shot of, and a link to (.pdf), the NCAA rule on lane violations.

The call would have been correct, by both rule and fact, if the contact were of the “unnecessary, unacceptable and excessive” manner (all three, mind you) required by the cited rule and the lane violation rule were different, as it once was.

Under the old rules, players could not enter the lane until the ball hit the rim. The state of Maine still used this rule for high school basketball, right up through last season.

Here’s rule 10-3.1

The ruling was based on a sequence of events that never occurred. The evidence is demonstrable.

So if the refs whistled Jaylon because his man crumpled at the crotch, here’s the question for that officiating crew, Rick Boyages and Jim Delaney: If contact is deemed “unnecessary, unacceptable and excessive” based on the reaction of the contacted player; shouldn’t someone from Indiana’s Hoosiers be permanently disqualified for knocking Aaron Cosby’s eyeball out?

I mean, he was actually injured.


Over the years, I’ve written on message boards (under my own name, as always) that Dan Dakich is awful. I’ve never seen the need to tell him in person. And now, I don’t have to.  Everybody knows it.

Presumably Canadian whisky influenced Dakich’s online argument with noted sports fan Don Gerard. (I presume not only that Dakich was drunk, but that he prefers awful forms of drink.)

The Dakich-Gerard e-fracas may help keep the botched call in the public’s memory. The botched call may help remind the public how awful Dan Dakich is. It’s a win-win.

Dakich has experience at cheering for terrible officiating which seeks to steal a win for the home team, but fails. In the 2008 B1G Tournament, Dakich watched from the sidelines of Indianapolis’s Canseco Fieldhouse as Ted Hillary, Zelton Steed & Sid Rodeheffer awarded Indiana’s Hoosiers three extra attempts at a winning basket.

The Hoosiers, like the Spartans on Saturday, were able to connect on just one of those three.  And amazingly, as with MSU on Saturday, the Hoosiers lost despite all the help.

You’ll remember that Dakich wasn’t hired to be Indiana’s coach. They brought him in as a schoolmarm, to be the (hopefully?) guileless, ruly killjoy that would, ostensibly, check Cellvin Samsung’s incorrigible urge to cheat.

Dakich became interim head when Sampson volunteered to leave town in exchange for money. As interim head, Dakich delivered a 3-4 record, losing Indiana’s opening games in both B1G and NCAA tournaments.

The only time Dakich was hired to be a head coach was when Jim Larrañaga left Bowling Green. Larrañaga had done so well building that program that he was hired away by George Mason. He did so well at George Mason that he was hired away by Miami.

Dakich did well enough with Larrañaga’s recruits, but he couldn’t sustain the program. Perhaps that’s the reason he says Illini fans should rue the day they fired Bruce Weber.

The year after Larrañaga took George Mason to the Final Four, Dakich was fired. His record over the final two years was 22-39, 8-26 in the MAC.

Weber’s Kansas State team is about to lose its 13th game of the year. K-State’s fans don’t expect to win a 13th game.


*I hope it’s OK with Jenny McCarthy that I employ the epithet “measly.”  I assume she’s immune to criticism.