Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Second Dimension

Listening to outsiders — basketball fans who aren’t Illini fans, sports media that’s not Illini sports media — you’d know the common wisdom about this 2021 Illini basketball team.

It’s the Ayo Show, featuring Kofi.

For the first time since forever, Illinois has a dominant hi-lo combo. If we can’t kill you from the inside, we’ll kill you from the outside. It’s a treat to have both weapons, but probably not enough to win a championship.

That’s why Saturday’s win over Purdue was the third significant game of the season, and the first significant game Illinois won this season.

It signifies because Ayo was normal. Not normal for Ayo, but normal for mortals. While the Boxing Day win over Indiana led to the obvious conclusion this team is screwed without Ayo, the Purdue win showed that, yes, Illinois has other options. It’s an important building block.

The 2005 team needed Jack Ingram to win at Wisconsin. It needed Roger Powell to beat Louisville. The Deron-Dee-Luther three-headed dragon was enough for 25 wins. The team needed other weapons to reach 37. It’s important that Da’Monte Williams and Andre Curbelo were the guys in that postgame presser.

The best part about this block is that Illinois notched a victory while building it. The two previous significant games were Baylor — in which the lads witnessed a near-flawless team defense — and Rutgers, where Coach Underwood showed them that ungoverned individual effort (Paul Mulcahy) can be the difference in a game (and not necessarily because it scores a lot).

Matt Painter put it this way after Saturday’s game: “You want to learn from the games that you lose, and you’ve got to be able to earn that right.”

Painter’s press conferences are always an elucidation in basketball philosophy. It almost doesn’t make sense that he can be so professorial within minutes of being so … well, angry.

Ayo’s getting out of the way allowed Belo and Da’Monte to embrace a challenge they wouldn’t face if Ayo carried the team on his back. They played lead roles in a contested game, with consequences.

Da’Monte’s sharp-shooting is a story in itself. His rebounding is what you’d expect. But he does both quietly. He’s the perfect foil for Belo, who’s entertainingly out-of-control.

The Belo/Kofi oop game has potential to develop a Douglas-Winters mythos (ask your dad).

The coaching staff will need to decide if reining Belo is worth the risk of ruining him. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate their coaching chops. But any (perceived) negative outcome will be talked about. You like your chances in this scenario, as an Illini fan. For all the brilliance its shown in landing Cokburn, Belo, Feliz (Orlando Antigua) and Ayo and Adam (Chin Coleman); this staff has plenty to prove.

Chin Coleman, masked appropriately

Antigua took the dangerous step that a lot of comfortably compensated assistants don’t dare: After his Kentucky success, he stepped out on his own. It didn’t work at South Florida. If you’re a religious Illini fan, thank god for that. His suffering is your redemption.

Chin finally worked his way into the P5 coaching ranks with the Promise of Ayo. He delivered, thus sealing Paris Parham’s demise at Illinois. (Jamall Walker was kept on for the same reason that Parham wasn’t — to secure recruits from his territory.)

The next chapter in the Chin story is his to write. Wrangling this group together, to execute as a disciplined unit, is how this author would write it (given a choice).

It’s early January, and Brad Underwood has already bestowed sophomore status on his freshman guards. But that’s premature. They’re playing like freshmen.

That’s okay. It’s expected.

You get the idea that Ayo is willing to wait in the corner, ready to take over if needed. That’s an amazing quality, but it fits with his big brother viewpoint.

The development of this team will be entertaining no matter what. It will be especially fun to watch if they win games while they’re developing.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Here We Go, Yo

Miller & Curbelo becomes a reality in a few hours, presuming everybody’s saliva stays COVID-free as it was today. All the multi-team eventers are in town, tested and negative (so far). So here’s my version of the pre-season write-up.

Despite unanswerable questions regarding unseen players, we know a lot about the 2021 Illini. It’s still the Ayo & Kofi show. Da’Monte Williams remains the Dirty Worker. Trent might connect on a higher percentage of threes this season. Giorgi might adjust to the four spot.

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

Coach Underwood’s interest in spreading the floor, establishing a hi-lo game, and passing/shooting over shorter opponents has grown since last year. It’s why he recruited Coleman Hawkins and Luke Goode. Thus, the current state of Illini Basketball should recall turn of the century teams moreso than the Flyin’ Illini, or the Deron-Dee experience.

What role will the newcomers play? I’ve read a lot of speculation about these new guys. You’ve read the same things. I don’t know if I learned anything.

I write only about first-hand experiences, and I’ve never seen any of the new Illini play an actual live game. Practices and hype videos don’t tell me much. Will anyone bring the tenacity lost when Andres Feliz matriculated?

Feliz kept Illinois in games when Kofi was neutralized and Ayo was off. That Minnesota game, pictured above, was a prime example.

Can Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo fight like Dre fought? That’s what I’m eager to see. The Illini were not great last year. They were improving. It’s comparable to the 2004 version of Deron-Dee. Lots to be embarrased about, but coming together at the end. And you know what happened the year after that.

The Michigan game will be remembered for this shot. But it was the Wolverines’ game to win, and they choked.

An ongoing confusion, for me, is the conflation of Hutcherson and Grandison. Presumably it’s the shared Scandinavian patronymic. People meld the two. In written accounts, they’re interchangeable. That’s weird. Hutcherson is tiny, and seemingly breakable. Grandison has a man’s body. One is a forward. The other is a guard.

Jacob Grandison is a forward

I’ve never had a conversation with Hutcherson. He’s a nearly blank slate for me. All I know is that he’s really skinny, and when people quote Underwood as saying he’s the best athlete on the team, they should remember that Underwood described Mark Smith as having “it” and “the It factor” about a week before saying Da’Monte Williams had “it” and “whatever It is.”

Here’s a Zoom with Austin from September. I wasn’t on the call. I’m watching it for the first time, too.

Jacob is the son of high-achieving academics, and he speaks like a graduate student. Because he’s 6’6″ and swole, you want to envision him on the wing, knocking opponents to the ground with a solid screen before slipping to the arc and draining threes. Because he’s not as tall as a typical 4, I’ll be curious to see his rebounding technique.

Austin is known as a shooter, and he says he’s gained 10-15 lbs. since arriving last year. Because he’s been out with back spasms, and won’t play in the MTE, he’s the obvious Enigma of the ’21 Illini.

The recently sung, formerly undersung freshman is Coleman Hawkins. Earlier today, Underwood expressed surprise that Hawkins is already solidifying his role on the wing. Despite Coleman’s assertion that he’s NOT A POINT GUARD, that judgment is really up to you. Was Earvin Johnson a point guard? What is a point guard?

Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, like Hutcherson, will sit out the MTE. So you’re likely to see Hawkins and Grandison early and often, probably feeding Kofi from the top of the key.

But none of these guys is likely to start. Unless Underwood keeps his promise of picking names from a hat, it’ll be five familiar faces when the ball goes up Wednesday at 1 p.m.

Here we go. It begins.