Categories
COVID-19 Illini basketball

The Dodgers

As Kentucky’s 8th-seeded runners-up proved in 2014, a young team can lose a lot of games before hitting its stride. That’s the problem facing Illinois tonight: When will this talented, underperforming Michigan team click?

The Hunter Dickinson-Kofi Cockburn match-up is more media hype than reality. They like each other well enough, and as Coleman Hawkins said Thursday, Kofi’s better.

More intriguing for Illini fans who enjoy worrying : Caleb Houstan. The five-star recruit has started every game at the wing, but he’s shooting just 31% from the arc. In 32 minutes per game, he’s averaging 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds. His 21-28 assist-to-turnover ratio isn’t terrible for a 6’8″ freshman. But it’s not great.

Another five-star, Francophone freshman Moussa Diabaté has started six games. Basically, journeyman Brandon Johns kept his seat warm while Diabaté got acclimated. Johns has returned to his role as spot filler. Diabaté’s minutes have gone up steadily.

MOO-suh DEE-yuh-BAH-tay

A 6’11” PF, he’s the Wolverines’ second-leading rebounder with 6.1/game in just under 21 minutes per contest.

His 25 personal fouls is the same as Houstan’s, and just 6 fewer than Dickinson’s, despite playing a total of 250 minutes to their 400. Look for him to be disqualified. Coleman Hawkins will try his damndest to make that happen.

Grad transfer DeVante’ Jones came over from Coastal Carolina to replace Mike Smith in the one year PG role. He leads the team in assists (50 total, 3.8/game) and personal fouls (36) in 27 minutes per game.

He’s also the most accurate shooter from three at 46%, but he’s attempted only 24 on the season. That’s fourth-place on the team, with the center Dickinson not far behind at 17. Houstan has 64 attempts. Super-senior Eli Brooks has launched 65.

Brooks is the last Wolverine of note. At 44 years old, he’s one of those guys who’s “shown flashes” throughout his career. Also a guy who’s earned the trust of two head coaches, because he understands what they want him to do defensively.

Brooks is hitting 37% of his three-pointers this season. It’ll be interesting to see which of Michigan’s guards gets Trent Frazier. Brooks is the more experienced, but disrupting Jones might cause worse outcomes for every Wolverine possession.

Another freshman, SG Kobe Bufkin was B1G Co-Freshman of the Week (with Nebraska’s Bryce McGowens) in mid-December, but pummeling Southern Utah doesn’t prove much. (Tevian Jones scored 4 points in 22 minutes, shot 0-4 from the arc and 2-8 overall. One rebound. Two turnovers.)

The 8 points Bufkin scored against Central Florida might seem more impressive, but Michigan got slaughtered (85-71), so it’s hard to praise anything about that performance.

Bufkin has played in 10 of 13 games, averaging 11 minutes. On the season, he’s made 4-of-14 shots from deep (28.6%). A whole lotta meh.

In short, it’s impossible to predict tonight’s outcome. You just never know when freshman phenoms will have that “breakthrough” game.

Also, we don’t know who’ll suit up, if anyone.

Categories
Illini Basketball

St Fran PA preview

If you’re a Chief Illiniwek stalwart, perhaps you’d want to open an SFU preview with “What the hell is a Red Flash?” Otherwise, “balanced scoring” is the obvious place to begin.

Four guys average between 11.3 and 14.4 points. Three guys play 30+ minutes per game, and that includes leading scorer Ramiir Dixon-Conover, who’s about to go through a Trent Frazier-shaped hell.

Ramiir Dixon-Conover

Dixon-Conover is a Criminal Justice major, so he’ll probably understand the restraints Frazier employs, and the reason Trent employs them. He’s listed at 6’3″, shorter than Dalen Terry, whom Trent checked in the Arizona game.

Admittedly, this is not a photo of Trent checking Dalen Terry.

The low post might be a problem for SFU. Redshirt sophomore Josh Cohen is steadily eating up the minutes that might otherwise go to redshirt senior Mark Flagg. Neither of them will be able to defend Kofi Cockburn.

Maxwell Land is SFU’s most frequent launcher of threes. He’s 12 of 32 on the season. As a 6’4″ swingman, he’s likely to see Da’Monte Williams in his grill. It’s not a pleasant prospect for anyone, so let’s sympathize with him.

Da’Monte Williams swats the ball from Minnesota’s Alihan Demir on the would-be game tying shot, sealing the win

Myles Thompson is another swingman for the Red Whatevers, and so far their best volume shooter. He’s at 42.3% on 26 attempts. He’s started every game for SFU, but plays on 25 minutes per game. Marlon Hargis is the final outside threat for the visitors. He’s the best overall shooter, but with a small sample size, and getting just 14 minutes/game, it’s hard to predict what he might do against the Illini.

Coleman Hawkins and Jacob Grandison will rotate against these two. Coleman presents more problems from a trash talking perspective, but either Illini is capable of perimeter defense.

Jake, by the way, has three stitches in his head, and plays the violin. These two facts are not necessarily related.

That leaves toreador Alfonso Plummer to check SFU’s second leading scorer, Ronell Giles.

Just a sophomore, Giles takes the most shots of any Red Guy, and he’s more of a slasher than a spot-up threat.

Ronell Giles Jr.

Plummer’s red cape might take some abuse here. On the other hand, The Fonz was uncommonly bold in dismissing a Red Threat. (Obviously the communications staff failed to warn him against downplaying opponents.)

Tip time is noon Saturday on the BTN.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Season on a Brink

Michigan stinks. Minnesota’s good.

Eric Hutcherson, who flew from SoCal to Champaign every few days in November, has a lot of flights to unbook.

Coleman Hawkins, the only #Illini to start every game, appears hesitant on offense. Da’Monte Williams can’t buy a three, again (26.3%).

Alfonso Plummer joined the team as an undersized three-point specialist. Now he’s playing an oversized role, sometimes manning the point, and driving for buckets.

This is not the 2022 you expected. So what is it?

Seriously, what’s going on here?

“Did you have fun?” asked Bret Beherns, as he and Andy Olson exited the State Farm Center after last Saturday’s Arizona game.

I did. It was an exciting atmosphere.

He still hasn’t missed from the line.

Illinois basketball can now host legit contenders with the added possibility of beating them. After a decade in the wilderness of irrelevance, it’s good to be here.

As the abortive 2021-22 dream evolves to a December reality, your interest in Illinois basketball might diminish. I find it fascinating. I think The Jacob Grandison story, alone, is worth a season’s worth of literary deconstruction.

He’s shooting 48% from the arc, but that hasn’t stopped him from driving.

I think the Curbelo story is fascinating, and I can’t help but love the fact that Andre Curbelo has chosen to be the fourth assistant coach on this team, even while I try to understand (as do you, as does he) the neurological problems that keep him off the court.

I love watching the Brad Underwood story play out. And I recognize that threes, possibly fives of you are wondering why I haven’t published a column about Underwood trashing his players, which he certainly did after the Arizona game.

If there’s anything I’ve accomplished as a quirky sportswriter, it’s getting after a coach for trashing his players.

Once in a while, people ask me what I do. After I tell them, and if they ask for more information; I always send them this column, where I got after a coach for trashing his players.

(I can’t, now that I’m old, remember any other columns that I liked. I remember I wrote one titled “DJ is a helicopter” and another titled “8” which had to be configured manually within the CMS, so thanks to SP’s managing editor Patrick Singer for that. But I can’t remember whether I liked them.)

Brad Underwood doesn’t like ball-taking.

Point is, I turned on Bruce Weber when he turned on his players. Why am I not writing that column about Brad Underwood?

I guess the difference between Bruce Weber trashing his Illini players and Brad Underwood trashing his Illini players is that Underwood exudes toughness, while Weber is a whiny, lisping dork.

As a sensitive new-age man, I’m not allowed to say things like that in polite company. But you’re sports fans. You have no such sensibilities.

Basketball is violent, yet artful.

Underwood continues to remind me of Wayne Mammen, the best coach I ever had. That guy abused us left and right, but like Underwood, it was clear that he cared. We knew he was building us up while he tore us down.

Weber couldn’t instill that confidence because he was so visibly insecure himself.

It’s subjective. I can’t prove the point with data. But Underwood’s promise of “consequences” and challenging practices doesn’t rub me the wrong way.

Persistence.

WHEN THEY’VE GOT YOU BY THE BALL

That said, it was a little unfair for Underwood to rant about Arizona’s persistent ball-thieving when his biggest, baddest brute tried mightily, within the rules, to prevent ball theft.

Kofi got no help from his teammates (passes to his shoelaces) nor the stripey shirt guys.

Jake’s pass got to Kofi. So there’s that.

Lewis Garrison has officiated a few Illini games lately, and a pattern has emerged. He treats Kofi Cockburn differently.

I don’t think it’s intentional or malicious. After being clobbered by Kofi, I think Garrison suffers unconscious post-traumatic effects.

Lewis Garrison & Tommy Lloyd

The consequence, against Arizona, was that Garrison allowed the Wildcats to molest Kxng_Alpha rather violently. The theory goes like this: Kofi is superhuman, therefore these wasps & gnats will merely irritate him.

What would you do with this pass?

If Garrison treated Kofi like a normal person, he’d probably assess fouls against those wasps & gnats. It’s something to keep an eye on, if the B1G continues to assign Garrison to Illini games.

Kofi is kind and sensitive. Garrison is a little nerdy, and if not quite effeminate, then at least scholarly. These two should get along like a house on fire. Let’s hope they do in the future.

Kofi had his worst game against Arizona, but he continued to kick the ball to the wing effectively. If Garrison hadn’t treated him as a superhuman force, Kofi’s stats would have regressed to the superb.

I wonder whether average Illini fans feel the same way I do about Kofi. He’s so impressive as a physical specimen/athletic freak that I sometimes forget how freakishly athletic and physical he is.

And also that he developed a jumpshot, and the ability to pass.

It’s a remarkable basketball story, and must be underscored by the hundreds of enormous people you’ve watched over the years, thrust into basketball because of their size, and despite their lack of agility, work ethic & dexterity.

“I think not” – Kxng_Alpha

Just watching the Kofi story unfold is reason enough to invest yourself in this Illini team (unless they lose to Cuonzo’s awful Mizzou team, in which case you’re allowed to cut bait and move on, emotionally, to MLB spring training).

It’s been a few days since the thrilling melodrama with Tommy Lloyd’s lithe internationals, and like you, I’m getting itchy to see what happens next with the ’22 Illini. I especially want to watch the Plummer story’s next chapter.

I’m excited to see what happens to Coleman Hawkins. His flashes of potential hold the promise of stardom and/or Kris Wilkes-ish disappointment.

But because he’s a thinker, you shouldn’t be surprised that he’s suffering exactly the setback that he’s suffering right now, while he crunches everything.

Sometimes Coleman seems like a face in the crowd. But he’ll be special.

Smart, analytical people need extra time. (You’d think it was the opposite, right?) Given that time, it’ll all look different to Coleman. And then he’ll be the most entertaining & dangerous Illini.

I can’t wait.

And then there are all these new kids to be excited about. So yeah, it stinks that Illini basketball has three losses and continually changing circumstances, but after a distinctly depressing era of incompetence, you should have the feeling that it’s going places.

*I don’t actually care what their sex organs look like, or how they identify. It’s the toughness that matters.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Eff All the Bruce Pearls

The following rant is mostly emotional, and features little analysis — outside of the pictures — of the 87-83 Illini win over Iowa, Monday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Maybe I’ll write that column on Wednesday.

The two things that I’m bursting to tell you about are Andre Curbelo’s coaching & cheerleading during the win, and how hard it is to bring you, the fan, good material from an @Iowa game.

First, Belo.

He sat on the floor for most of the game, at the end of the Illini bench, next to trainer Paul Schmidt.

He carried a big Ziploc bag filled with Fun Size packets of Haribo gummi bears. A bit of instant fructose infusion for any teammate who might need a boost.

He called out defensive plays, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish, depending (duh) on the target of his advice. He wailed about his teammates’ inability to break the Iowa press, yelling “JUST GO!” as Trent Frazier got bogged down in a double team, five feet short of the ten second line, with those ten seconds expiring. Belo saw the open court ahead of Trent. Trent didn’t see it.

Trent gets inside his own head a lot, and this was one of those times.

In defense of Trent, the Iowa defense was violent, and the referees incompetent.

Belo was up and active for most of the game. But there came a time in the second half, a media timeout, where he stayed hunched on the floor, looking at his feet, as the team left the bench to form the NCAA-mandated Huddle Square (the time for team managers to shine, by snappily opening those round-top stool seats).

Schmidt reached out an arm, and pulled Belo to his feet. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. Everyone needs a helping hand sometimes.

No foul called.

Illini fans enjoy insulting Iowa, and there are plenty of insults to yield. The B1G’s whitest fanbase is stuck in 1952, although Eisenhower was surely too liberal for their liking. Listening to Iowa’s AM radio (Iowa Basketball Radio Network affiliate) on the drive in, I understood why so much of middle America believes the craziest things.

He even chases long rebounds. You gotta love this guy, for real.

Iowa is the worst place to cover Big Ten basketball. The people who work at Carver-Hawkeye are all very friendly and accomodating, but the facilities are decades behind. So on the one hand, you’ll get great pictures and video from an @Iowa game, because Iowa provides photographers and videographers good spots and good lighting. The Wi-Fi works, and that’s important.

As a representaive of the Illini basketball media pool, I apologize for all the materials we uploaded last night. It’s not our fault. It’s effing Iowa.

Jake hoisted this one as soon as he touched it, knowing the shot clock situation. He’s smart. (It went in.)

They offer no media workroom. They offer no sound system. They offer no hospitality area (eating).

It’s the #B1G’s last unreconstructed facility. Even Williams Arena has more modern tech, and it’s older than Bob Dole (a fine American, may he rest in peace). Trying to report from Carver-Hawkeye in 2021 is like a Tardis to the newspaper era, and a lot of you noticed how poor our product was. (I’m sorry.)

The most important takeaway from Monday night’s game, if you read the non-weird reporters, is perhaps that Illinois won. But I’ma take a big picture persepective. The Belo thing has all of us worried, and Iowa’s trapping, three-quarter court press demonstrated that Brad’s team needs a healthy Belo.

It was great to see Belo engaged, enthusiastic. He saw, from the most distant corner of the hardwood, what needed to be done.

Perhaps he’ll be ready to do it, sooner than later. Fingers crossed.

#ISupportBelo

That said, Plummer’s minutes are working oout pretty well.
Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Knights Dismembered

Rutgers controlled Friday night’s game from the get go. The Scarlet Knights prevented Kofi Cockburn any post touches. They ran offense, got great looks, and jumped out to an early lead.

This point should be remembered, because it’s in danger of being lost in the telling of Illinois’s massive ass whooping. By the time the Illini lead reached 30 points, most of the fans probably forgot how awful things looked in the early minutes.

Everything changed when Omar Payne replaced Kofi Cockburn at 16:05. Illini substitution patterns are certainly known to the Rutgers coaching staff, and Payne’s entry happened right on time. So why did the Knights fall apart at this particular point?

Omar altered shots and grabbed the rebounds those alterations produced. The Rutgers game plan, in other words, hit an Omar-shaped wall. He doesn’t have a whole lotta offense, but he shut an entire team down on their own end of the court.

Brad Underwood reserved special praise for Omar in his postgame remarks.

By the time Nnanna Egwu graduated, Illini fans had come to appreciate what he could do defensively, despite his failure to learn low-post moves throughout a four-year career. Omar has that same intmidation factor. But he can also jump four feet into the air, which is a lot to deal with when the guy swatting your shot is already 6’10”.

Jacob Grandison connects.

The other thing that happened at U16 was Jacob Grandison. Like Da’Monte Williams, he’s been a team leader, and an indispensable part of recent Illini success.

His intellectual and leadership gifts can be overstated sometimes, but only because those conversations might make you forget that he’s good at basketball, too.

Smart & fearless. It makes him dangerous.

Jacob saw a path to the basket after an offensive rebound.

Brad Underwood’s strategy of not starting his best players, but using them as surprise attackers, continues to pay dividends. Most infamously, this strategy saw Richard Pitino not seeming to know who “Da’Monte Williams” was just 15 minutes after Da’Monte Williams had vanquished Pitino’s Gophers.

Williams was probably on that scouting report, but because he wasn’t a starter, he probably didn’t figure prominently on that scouting report.

Grandison might not be an obscurity to this year’s #B1G opponents, but the thing that makes him a tough assignment is that he knows how to pick his spots.

Omar provides a different kind of stealth. There’s no question that Kofi is better than Omar, but Omar’s defensive instincts (and wing-span) are difficult to appreciate on film. It’s only when your shot lands in the eighth row that you’ll truly appreciate Omar.

Kofi is also capable of 8th row rejections.

Illinois defense was fun to watch on Friday. We’ve all been waiting for Coleman Hawkins to get out of his own head and focus on applying his natural talents to disciplined domination of opponents. It happened Friday.

Brad compared his work/battle with Coleman to two rams butting heads. He said he told Coleman that Ron Harper dreams of him (Coleman) every night, and pictures him in a pink tutu.

As in “Coleman is a little girl, and I can dominate him.”

It worked. Coleman played with a defensive intensity that Illini fans haven’t seen before.

Coleman hassled Harper all night long.

There’s always been the flashy two-handed slam guy. There’s always been the flashy shot-blocking guy.

It’s the stolid, stern defender that you hadn’t seen.

The DIA’s masking enforcement efforts are an abject failure.

Coleman is a thinker. He’s analytical. He thinks too much sometimes, and that’s not something that can be undone.

But Friday proved that he can focus his analytical skills.

Given his lateral quickness, size & outside shooting, he already had NBA written all over him. The thing that seemed doubtful in Friday’s first half was whether Coleman could feed the low post.

He rejected many opportunities to get Kofi the rock. Illini fans jeered. “Come on!” screamed one of them, loud enough for Coleman to hear it.

The second half was a reversal. It was as if coaching occurred in the locker room. And maybe Coleman settled into himself, after realizing that he’d done to Harper what he’d deeply desired to do to Harper (his good friend, by the way).

Coleman didn’t let a little thing like friendship interfere with holding Ron Harper Jr. to 1-of-9 shooting from the field.

Coleman fed the beast.

Dan O’Brien captured it in GIF form. This is the perfect Illini basketball possession of 2021-22. This is what Illini basketball can be, this season, if everyone gets healthy, and if everyone understands his role.

We learned after the game that Trent Frazier hasn’t been practicing much. He’s been recovering. He’s been in physical therapy. So you shouldn’t be surprised that his shot is off.

With all the new harnesses he’s been wearing since wrecking his shoulder and knee, the fine tuning of muscle memory hasn’t had sufficient repetitions to adjust.

But his defensive principles remain intact, and that’s why he’s playing starter minutes.

Alfonso Plummer has taken over the Trent Frazier Role as contemplated in 2017. Trent Frazier has become, with Chester Frazier’s help, Chester Frazier.

The fact that Chester Frazier is still, at 35, playing stern defense in practice, has undoubtedly helped the younger Illini to recognize that there’s serious peril awaiting them in the #B1G. It’s kept Trent Frazier in shape, defensively.

Chester Frazier, at right.

Friday night was a celebration of Illinois basketball. Everything went right for Our Side. You’d be disappointed by the game if you didn’t know how great a coach Steve Pikiell is, and how good the individual Scarlet Knights can be.

The fact that they’re missing their point guard should seem familiar. Missing a point guard has ruined many a basketball team’s unit productivity since the days of Steve Lanter. Possibly even earlier.


Riendo en Español

The fact that Illinois basketball has recovered from losing Andre Curbelo is … well, is it surprising? Is it predictable? I certainly don’t have the expertise to declare either of those descriptions.

The Illini offense looked good for the final 34-ish minutes of Friday night’s game. Curbelo enjoyed watching it. The national audience probably included a few AP voters, maybe a committee member or two.

The early going of this season was tough, especially for Belo. But it seems as if the Illini might find their way.

You can help. Tweet #ISupportBelo if you want to tell Andre that you have his back.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Journal of the Plague Year

If five Illini basketball players are still standing by 8 pm tonight, there will probably be a basketball game at State Farm Center. That’s pretty much how Brad Underwood laid it out in his Sunday press conference.

Ben is out. That much we know. Scott Richey’s persistent questioning yielded as much. Trent, Belo and Jake might be available. Brad said he doesn’t know. Trent’s problem is a deep bone bruise. Belo’s problem should be the subject of a dissertation. The O-shaped suction marks on his neck recall Star Trek (the original series).

The rest of the team seems to be troubled by a respiratory virus. In the 2021 season, the team was protected from respiratory viruses. This year, not so much. For one thing, classes are in-person. For another, they live in an enormous apartment building with a thousand strangers. (It’s the building whose construction necessitated the demolition of Trito’s Uptown/Campus Crusade, Chin’s Wok n’ Roll/Eddie’s/Clybourne, RR Sportsgrill/Firehaus and the Sixth & Daniel Espresso Royale.)

Open this picture in a new tab. Look at their faces.

Respiratory virus you say? That rings a bell. Is it influenza? Maybe. Scott persisted about that, too. He won Sunday’s Actual Journalist award.

It seems the flu is carving its way through the entire campus, not just the basketball team. It’s not Covid, unless the current strain mimics influenza’s bone pain, fever and listlessness.

The last two pre-game availabilities have been among the most frank of Underwood’s career. Perhaps by necessity. Maybe because he feels the pressure of two unexpected, early season losses.

In fairness, he’s generally straightforward, and you can literally see him thinking when a question veers on territory that DIA handlers have cautioned him against addressing. You can also tell, if you spend a lot of time around him, that he’d much rather shoot from the hip. (If he leaves the University of Illinois before he retires, it probably won’t be because the University of Illinois micromanaged him. It’s merely one of the irritants.)

So what about tonight’s basketball game, assuming there is one? What should you expect? Nobody knows. Even Brad Underwood doesn’t know.

If Illini basketball has a successful season, the narrative will begin with this hellish month of injuries and illness, and how the team came together despite them.

Let’s hope you’re reading that narrative in mid-March.

^^^ Lucas Johnson
Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Plane, trains, automobile

This is not a UTRGV preview, except for the following Brad Underwood media Zoom, in which he mentions his longtime friend Matt Figger, who took over the Vaqueros head coaching position after Lew Hill died suddenly this year.

I’m publishing this column to share some pictures from Kansas City, but the text will chronicle my Thanksgiving week travels to-and-from Kansas City. As far as I know, only one person died.

Take me out, coach. I’m not ready to play.

The Groce Staff liked to quiz me about the dollars & time my road trips cost. It became a regular routine when I strode on to the court at Bryce Jordan, the RAC, The Barn or Madison Square Garden.

I got from Champaign to the latter for $2. It took about 20 hours. Unfortunately, Megabus no longer serves Champaign. Miami cost more. There was an extra dollar to get north to Orlando. Then another dollar to get to Atlanta, and finally a third dollar to get to Champaign.

I don’t remember how long it took. I was asleep for quite much of it. And to be honest, you’d need to factor in the money I spent at Landmark Diner on Luckie Street if you wanted a true evaluation of the cost.

So anyway, here’s what happened this week

Monday, 5:45 am: Heather and I get in the Mazda 3 and drive to Illinois Terminal. The train is only about 10 minutes late. (It’s never on time, ever.)

Chet knows. Listen to Chet.

City of New Orleans ($22 because I waited) gets to Chicago at 8:30. It’s 45 minutes early. They added that extra 45 minutes as a pretense, because it’s always late.

Blue Line from Clinton to O’Hare (Ventra card, $2.25). 1 pm flight on United ($77). RideKC bus from airport is free, it picks me up about 8 minutes after I arrive, and takes about an hour to get to downtown. From there I could walk to Home2Suites, but the Streetcar comes every ten minutes, so I hop on that. It’s free too.

Home2Suites gave me a free late check-out. I asked if I could pay for one. That got me to 1:30. Starbucks would have filled the void ’til 3 pm doors at T-Mobile Center, but their pandemic closing time is 2 pm. So I sat on the steps enjoying the 60° weather until Scott Richey arrived, and we bantered for the final ten minutes.

The little market across the street from Home2 had a bottle of Two Buck Chuck for $3.50. It cost $3.50 because it’s a convenience store, and the brand name was Spring Creek but let’s face it, they all come from the same factory in Lodi. The merlot is innocuous, not too acidic, and gets the ideas flowing.

I’d decided against booking a second night at Home2, because the bus station was walking distance from the arena, and a Greyhound for Saint Louis was leaving at 1:20 am. After an 8:30 pm game (oh how optimistic we were back then, in the halcyon days of October), I’d have just enough time to finish my radio piece before walking over.

But then I waited too long, and the price went up to $88. But wait! There’s a 1:30 Trailways that goes to Omaha, where I can transfer to the Champaign bus! Trailways is the worst travel option in America, but I suppose I’d forgotten that point.

I can never sleep after a game/editing pictures and audio, so another hotel night seemed wasteful.

The TMC Director of Operations basically insisted on driving me to the station. The bus boarded on time. The driver, Dave, told everybody that Federal Law required him to read an admonition about mandatory masking. But he added that we could see where his own mask was (a gaiter, around his neck) and that he’d probably get in trouble for saying so.

Wincing, he took a seat on the bench.

The ride was quiet and uneventful until about 3 am when a two year-old girl launched into an uncontrollable coughing fit. Not old enough for a vaccination. I had little doubt about the root cause. No face covering blocked her aerosols, but perhaps they didn’t make it all the way to Dave at the front.

The elderly Chinese couple to my left were both wearing surgical masks. My N95 was held in place by a more stylish fabric mask. I’m 3x-Pfizered, so I should be okay.

Unfortunately, the guy across the aisle from the little girl died at this point.

We arrived in Omaha a few minutes early. About 5:41 am. My transfer was scheduled for 6:10 and arrived at about 6:40. That gave me plenty of time to watch the firetrucks arrive. Then the police. Then an ambulance. Then more police. Then another ambulance. More police.

Firetrucks left. Ambulance left. The forensic van arrived. The other ambulance left.

Dave was probably not going to finish the drive to Sioux City. He’d surpass his TSA maximum hours mandate. Despite his maskholishness, Dave was the friendliest of the drivers. He stayed outside near his bus as various law enforcement and medical people shuffled on & off. That’s for the best, because the coughing two year-old had gone into the building. There were two other wee ones with persistent cough in that small space. The Mesoamerican one year-old had the same cough. It sounded wet, from deeply congested lungs. The other was about 18 months, a little black boy.

The girl was white. She had straight brown hair to her shoulders, and honestly looked pretty happy for a toddler who’d been coughing since 3 am before arriving in a dingy Nebraskan bus depot.

It was nice to see the Covid spread among the demographics, rather than a single Boogeyman. I suppose Fox will still blame the Mesoamericans, though. They didn’t seem especially legal.

Our next driver (Omaha to Burlington, Iowa) was curt, and that may have been his name too. I didn’t catch it. He made unnecessarily long and frequent announcements over the PA. Everytime a batch of new passengers alighted, he thanked all the veterans on board, and especially the Gold Star Families.

Burlington Trailways is a bunch of small-town, conservative white people who provide terrible yet expensive service to a predominantly black clientele, and treat them like shit. “Curt” yelled at me for not having a paper ticket, and not remaining in the depot. The two people behind the sales window were black, and extremely friendly despite a roomful of fugue & fog. I hope the space behind that window had separate ventilation. But then again, what are the odds that these two haven’t already had The Vid?

People who ride the bus are not always the world’s smartest. Many of them just got out of jail, and are still dressed in gray jump suits. I like traveling this way now and then, because it reminds me that there’s another America out there, and I rarely share a glass of merlot with it.

You shouldn’t be so surprised. He used to make a lot of them.

The final bus was hell. The driver was the dumbest guy on the journey. His name was almost certainly not Dunning-Kruger, because that would be too perfect. He yelled at absolutely every single passenger. He yelled at me for not having a paper ticket. For the second station in a row, I had to find a second staff person to explain PDF downloads to a bus driver.

Bobby Gikas has grown a mustache.

One of the convicts explained to Dunning-Kruger that “curt” had taken his ticket and given him a reboarding pass instead. Dunning-Kruger said there’s no way “curt” would have done that, and only barely backed down when every single other passenger said the same thing.

A thirtysomething named Juh-MEE-qua (that’s the phonetic, I wouldn’t want to guess the actual spelling) walked into the building and Dunning-Kruger immediately yelled at her to get out of the hallway. She wasn’t going to take his shit. She’d paid $140 to ride this hellish bus. (Pro-tip: Buy early, Juh-MEE-qua.) I commiserated with her. She had long curly extensions, a big butt & fake eyelashes. You meet all kinds of people out there.

Dunning-Kruger played the Burlington Trailways promo/safety movie after every stop. Galesburg, Peoria, Bloomington and presumably Champaign. So I got it four times. Because the loudspeakers were behind him, and facing the passengers, he cranked the volume until he could hear it loud and clear. That meant 11 in Spinal Tap terms.

The movie featured the Burlington Trailways president (a hunch, but I’m pretty sure this hunch would pay off) telling people how to sit down, how to strap on a seatbelt, how to open a restroom door. Every single person in the video was not just white, but old and white. I looked around at my predominantly black cohort and thought “of course they’re not surprised. Just like January 6 didn’t surprise them.”

One camera angle caught the president as he pretended to steer a moving bus. He smiled, looked confidant. The freshly pressed suitcoat. The epaulettes.

One understood immediately that he’d made this movie to satisfy his own sense of vanity, and that people on Greyhound can find their way into the bathroom without an explanatory video.

One understood that his yesmen all praised the work. He looked great in this movie, they assured him. Maybe some of them realized that forcing it upon 55 human sardines would not make them feel safer, but remind them NEVER TO FUCKING RIDE GOD-DAMNED BURLINGTON TRAILWAYS EVER AGAIN. The passengers literally covered their ears with their hands because it was so loud.

I had planned to sleep a while on this bus, but a four minute video every 45 minutes eliminated that possiblity. Dunning-Kruger also played satellite radio from his dashboard, as if people wanted to listen to Hot Country.

Fortunately, it kept me awake for the Underwood availability. But given the lack of sleep, and the need to locate an elderly parent, and then put some turkey, sides and yes, merlot into him; I never had time to research the UTRGV Vaqueros.

Just kidding. It was a 2018 Dry Creek cab.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Tell Me Why!

You’d want to know who this Illini team thinks it is.

You’d want to know what the coaching staff has been drilling in practice.

You’d want to know when Trent Frazier & Da’Monte Williams forgot how to shoot.

Only five TOs for Belo this time.

You’d want to know where Andre Curbelo thought he was headed when he barrelled into pairs & threes of taller defenders.

You’d want to know why this team looks so uninspired, and how Brad Underwood lost control of them.

Assistant coach Tim Anderson asks for focus from the Illini bench.

This is one of those articles that nobody will read, because you don’t want to think about Illini basketball right now. Maybe, in a few months, Illini basketball will have rekindled your interest, and you’ll be scrolling the web, trying to find as much content as possible. Let’s hope so. You’ll be happier, and all of us who report on Illini basketball will earn some money from your clicks.

It was easier against just one defender.

Right now, every upcoming opponent is studying video from the Bearcats’ Trouncing. They’ll see how Kofi Cockburn dominated the game for the first eight minutes, and what adjustments Wes Miller made at the Under-12 timeout.

A lot of the upcoming job Brad Underwood has in front of him — a job which could, ideally, result in those familiar His Best Coaching Job accolades that TV commentators gush during conference tournaments — involves Reining Wild Horses.

Andre Curbelo and Coleman Hawkins have All-American potential. Each is exactly the kind of player that gets fans excited to watch. And together, especially in the form of a perfect half-court lob to two-handed slam, basketball cannot get more fun.

But both Curbelo and Hawkins are out-of-control right now. Belo did better with Kofi in the line-up, but he’s nowhere near solid enough to be a starting PG in the B1G. His sixth-man role worked last year because he introduced an element of chaos into the game. You can’t rely on chaos for 36 minutes. It giveth and taketh away. Right now, taketh is winning.

Both Hawkins and Curbelo are becoming the focus of refereeing, which industry is attempting, per NCAA direction, to clean up the ungentlemanly aspects of the college game. That’s why Belo and ColeHawk get technicals for taunting.

Brad calmly signaled for a time-out. He was only pretending to be calm.
Brad Underwood rips Coleman Hawkins a new asshole.

Underwood looked calm when he called a time-out from the Illini bench. But as soon as he’d disappeared into the huddle, he exploded. “We told you this was coming!” or some variant on that theme was the most coherent of the phrases, which could be heard, if not intelligibly, in the upper deck.

Chester Frazier offers positive reinforcement to a new-assholed Coleman Hawkins.

It seems the team — and Coleman in particular — hadn’t followed the scouting report, or wasn’t prepared for the ferocity of Cincinnati’s defensive pressure.

This point, after a week of post-Marquette practices, should discourage the reader. On the other hand, it’s difficult to replicate Darryl Morsell and David DeJulius in practice. Not until they’re picking your pocket does one understand how intense their defensive prowess can be.

On the bright side, both of those guys might still be playing for B1G teams, and they’re not. Instead, they’re helping Illinois to understand what’s coming before conference play starts.

Thus, Coleman got 22 minutes of tick. Da’Monte got 27, shoring up the defense, but keeping the offensively spectacular Hawkins on the bench.

It turns out Hutch is real, not merely a legend. True to form, he was injured in Monday’s game.

Brad’s coaching was not all top-down on Monday. It wasn’t all rage-filled. He also shared a beautiful moment with Kofi, when they discussed low-post strategy and movement.

Kofi gets along well with others.

Kofi has a way to go before he understands the center position in a way that, say, Moses Malone did. But his demeanor doesn’t need a complete rebuild. Curbelo and Hawkins shouldn’t be completely robbed of their wildness. That would make them easier to scout, and less exciting to watch.

But that fine-tuning, finding the sweet-spot in between wild and controlled, is Underwood’s daunting task. You should hope that those TV commentators are talking about it in March.

Categories
Illini Basketball

The Omar Addition

Kofi Cockburn was the player made available for Sunday’s pre-Cincinnati Zoom, and that makes sense. He’s the pre-season #B1G POTY, and the Cincy game is his first of the season.

Kofi’s presence was felt long before tip-time, though. It put Andre Curbelo’s mind to rest, for one thing. The debacle at Marquette demonstrated that Belo-to-Kofi doesn’t work when half the ingredients are missing. Curbelo can play his game now that Kofi’s back.

The defense collapsed, time and again.

Doubters of the Underwood Administration multiplied in numbers during those final seven minutes of the Fiasco in Milwaukee. It’s the nature of the beast.

Time and again Belo charged into the lane. Time and again Kofi failed to clear a path, or anticipate a lob.

Because he was sitting on the bench.

Kofi wasn’t completely distressed as the game unfolded. He found moments to laugh with Pittsburgh’s finest (cop-cum-referee) Larry Scirotto, whose mere presence at games annoys Illini fans as much as it delights Kofi. The gentle giant and the aggressive Napoleon enjoy an off-court rapport.

Larry has a boisterous personality, like all the mouthy cops you remember from mouthy cop shows like The Wire or Law & Order. He’s cocky and good-natured. Kofi continued to banter with him throughout the game.

Kofi explains to Larry Scirotto that he’s gonna need his money by midnight.

Kofi’s suspension provided some much-needed PT for his back-up, Omar Payne. Payne was fantastic against Marquette.

Unlike Cockburn, he’s not an offensive threat, but the problems he creates at the other end give opposing coaches fits. Payne didn’t quite pull a Darryl Morsell on the Golden Eagles, but he made them plenty uncomfortable.

And that’s exactly why he’s playing at Illinois. But it’s not just oppponents he’s here to bother. It’s his frend Cockburn: Having Omar defend Kofi on a daily basis will do more for this team than anybody will ever appreciate.

Omar and Coleman Hawkins make it hard on the interior.

Coach Underwood said Omar’s defensive grade-out was excellent for the game at Marquette, and that’s what you would expect having seen the number of blocked and altered shots Omar provoked.

The Golden Eagles prospered in the mid-range game, where Justin Lewis picked-n-popped and exploited lazy close-outs to hit Nigel Hayes-style mid-range jumpers. You could live with Morsell going off on the Illini. It’s what he does. Lewis’s 17 points hurt.

Trent Frazier cried after the Marquette game. We know that because Brad said so in his postgame. And then moments later, we were sticking cameras & microphones up Trent’s snout, and the bright lights showed that he’d definitely just finished an hour’s swim in a heavily chlorinated pool, or been crying.

Trent is smarter than he knows, which is to say he’s smart, and he doesn’t know it. Not always. In a very human way, Trent has doubts and anxieties, and loyalties He defended Belo against perceived criticism after that game, because he had his guard up. He didn’t realize that our questions about Belo’s first time in front of a hostile crowd and Belo playing without Kofi weren’t necessarily dumping on Belo, but instead trying to grasp why Belo faltered.

It’s a reminder that these celebrities are still growing, and experience the same moments of fragility we all face, especially when we’re young & trying to figure things out.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Player of the Game: Da’Monte Williams

“He one a dem guys who sacrifice, and get it done, because that’s what we need to win.”

Da’Monte Williams

On the stat sheet you’ll find that Da’Monte led all rebounders with 11. He tossed a pair of dimes. Two steals. One turnover. 31 minutes off the bench.

Trent found ‘Monte. It seemed easy.

But if you had the opportunity to focus solely on ‘Monte during Monday night’s slog, you saw a clinic. He moved like molasses on defense when it didn’t matter. He saved his outbursts for moments when catlike reflexes slapped a lulled opponent in its proverbial face, and stole its milk money, and the ball.

On a night when Illinois’s “best” players couldn’t keep their temperatures under a thousand, ‘Monte was cold-blooded.

After the first few times, you hoped he’d figure it out.

Putting quote marks around “best” doesn’t mean that Andre Curbelo and Coleman Hawkins don’t have the best stardom potential among this group. It means that they played recklessly, and allowed a fervent Marquette student section to get right up in their heads.

Coleman didn’t get a T this time, but Brad Underwood ran down the sidelines to stop Coleman from trying. Coleman’s emotions are part of the joy, but like Belo’s turnovers, they’ve been on display every single gotdamn game, and the entertainment value is wearing off.

C’mon. The guy is literally a foot taller than you.

It’s such a great opportunity for Brad. If he can refine these two rough diamonds, legitimate sports columnists will notice (because they’ll have read all us local columnists writing about it).

Belo’s repeated failures at attacking the Marquette defense is possibly the craziest thing I’ve seen on a basketball court. But that’s exactly why Belo is so great: He’s crazy.

Live by the sword, etc.

But there’s also the question of Belo’s post-concussion functioning. He hurt his head again Monday, and you’ve got to wonder how a shaken brain affected his depth perception, reasoning, impulse control.

A pair of G-League Two-Ways were there to catch him when he fell, but he didn’t get up for a while.

Andre Curbelo hurt his head again.

Coleman was amazing again, by the way. And Trent needed the ball in his hot hand in those final minutes, something Brad assured his press conference that Illinois tried to accomplish.

They were great, and they weren’t great enough. Trent admitted it immediately. He got picked and his team lost.

Coleman said yeah, of course he and Belo are still adjusting. It’s literally their first road game.

So with all that drama, it’s basically expected that a solid, selfless performance by Da’Monte Williams will probably go unnoticed. Except by his coaches, and the student managers who crunch the efficiency numbers.

What a game.