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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Actually, Don’t Show Me

Midway through his postgame press conference, Cuonzo Martin got his Bret Beherns Moment. From the back of the room, a reporter asked what Cuonzo would say to fans after being blown out in both rivalry games (102-65 in Lawrence on December 11th).

His response was much better than John Groce’s “goodness gracious, Bret. What kind of question is that?”

Cuonzo said “stay the course. We will continue to get better. We will continue to grow.” Trouble is, he didn’t just lose to Kansas. He lost to Kansas City, too. And Liberty. Moreover, Cuonzo is not a course-stayer. He’s developed a talent for getting out of town.

On the brink of getting fired at Tennessee, he parlayed two lucky weekends into a Pac-12 job in Berkeley. First, he beat a Brad Underwood-less South Carolina team in the SEC Tournament (before losing to top-ranked Florida). That moved him into the NCAA First Four (beating out, for example, John Groce’s second Illini squad) where he conquered The Frans in overtime. His Volunteers handled 6-seed Massachusetts. But Duke and Coach K awaited.

Or not! Mercer gave their all to beat the Blue Devils, and thus spent, had nothing left for UT. Hence, Cuonzo made it to the second weekend. He knew the temperature of his seat in Knoxville, and he got OUT.

Mizzou must be an awful job. Since Norm Stewart retired, no one can manage it. Or if they keep afloat, they get out. Remember Frank Haith? He made a lateral (?) move to Tulsa. Mike Anderson, their best coach of the century, jumped to Arkansas. Quin Snyder’s career was almost ruined in Columbia. Kim Anderson enjoyed three D-II Final Fours, including a championship, before killing his career in Columbia.

If Cuonzo isn’t looking elsewhere, he’s lost his edge.

On the other hand, kudos to him for starting freshman Trevon Brazile, who’d previously played in a total of 3 games, against Kofi Cockburn. Brazile earned Brad Underwood’s praise in the postgame cameras on/microphones live session, but Andre Curbelo jumped off the bench *during* the game and yelled “Kofi, go at him. LOOK AT HIM!”

He (23) is pretty skinny.

There’s really not much to report about the actual Braggin’ Rights game. It featured one team on the rise, and another in a death spiral. The crowd wasn’t 50-50, but perhaps 80-20. By the time Illinois had a 30 point lead, all the yellow shirts were missing, and orange people had moved from the nosebleeds to take their seats. Apart from the assistant football coaches (sitting on the court), this reporter didn’t spy celebrities. The courtside spot generally reserved for recruits featured only Belo.

Also, Marlee’s moving to Grand Rapids

Illini alums were sparse as well. Steve Bardo was there because he was working. Drew Cayce and Bubba Chisholm were the only former players I spotted. Oh, and Nate Mast providing play-by-play with Brian Barnhart, because Deon and Doug were unavailable.

It was fun, but it wasn’t Braggin’ Rights.

The best part was watching Mark Jones honored for 33 years of photography (and insolence). He’s a gem.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Mizzou preview 2021

Last year, Illini fans expected a cakewalk in the non-Braggin’ Rights game at Mizzou. But karma chose otherwise.

From the tedious Coin Flip Show which determined that Columbia, not Champaign would host the contest; to the listless performance by an eventual #1 seed: Everything sucked for Illini fans.

Mizzou guard Mark Smith (13). Mizzou Tigers vs. Illinois Illini at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo. on Saturday, December 12, 2020. Hunter Dyke/Mizzou Athletics

Ironically, because Mizzou is crap this year, the pressure is again on the Illini this year. Favored by fifteen points, Illinois simply can’t lose to a Tigers team that’s already lost to UMKC, Liberty and Wichita State.

Mark Smith is gone. Mitchell Smith is gone. Dru Smith is gone. Jeremiah Tilmon is gone.

Brad Underwood identified point-forward Kobe Brown and Illini nemesis Javon Pickett as the Tigers to watch for.

Brown is hitting 56% from the floor, and leading Mizzou with 15 points per game. He’s listed at 6’8″ and 250 lbs., thus making him one of the few Tigers that could offer any resistance to Kofi Cockburn. Underwood expects Mizzou to throw multiple defenders at Kofi.

Illinois forward Kofi Cockburn (21). Mizzou Tigers vs. Illinois Illini at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo. on Saturday, December 12, 2020. Hunter Dyke/Mizzou Athletics

So maybe you can expect a defense-by-irritant approach against Kofi. It worked well for Marquette and Arizona. But it also gives Kofi the opportunity to improve his passing game, which is the most amazing aspect of this young Illini season in my arrogant opinion.

Mizzou lacks size, and the guys with size lack experience. De Smet Jesuit grad Yaya Keita, a 6’9″ 240 lb. freshman, will spell the veterans, but you cab expect Cuonzo Martin to throw him at BBV and Omar Payne, while Kofi’s getting a breather.

Coach Tim Anderson counsels Kofi Cockburn.

Apart from Brown, the Tigers can’t shoot. They’re abysmal from the arc, connecting on 25% to 27% among those that have launced more than five attempts on the season. Brown leads the way at 27.3%. Pickett is 21% for the year.

Naturally, they’ll have career nights against the Illini, right?

Other Tigers to watch for are DaJuan Gordon, whose initial defensive instruction came from Chris Lowery and Bruce Weber. Those dudes can teach defense (if nothing else). K-State traded Gordon for Mark Smith during the off-season, and despite how also-ran Smith has been for the Wildcatters, it’s hard to argue that Gordon is better. The 15/17 assist-to-turnover ratio is telling. He has 13 steals on the year, second on the team only to Brown (19). He’s 35% from the floor, and 26% from the arc.

Cuonzo Martin was exasperated by Illini freshman Trent Frazier (Vashoune Russell)

Nine Tigers play, and six Tigers play 30 minutes. It’s exactly the rotation paradigm you’d expect from the Keady Tree. Sophomore swingman Ronnie DeGray seems like the kind of match-up nightmare that Underwood likes to moan about. The 6’6″ sophomore is averagind 9 points and 6 rebounds per game. He’s played in all 11 for the 6-5 Tigers, starting three. You see his role expanding as the season develops, and you fear him having his break-out game against Illinois.

But that’s because you’re an Illini fan. Fear is home to you. It’s practically your safe space.

Also, if Illinois doesn’t win tonight, shut it all down.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Braggin’ & Hatin’

Watching Cuonzo Martin’s pre-Braggin’ Zoom, I felt a familiar bonhomie. Here I go again, I thought to myself. I can’t help myself, I thought.

I like Cuonzo Martin.

That’s great! Right? I like Brad Underwood too. Isn’t it great to like things?

Listening to the pre-game hoopla surrounding Braggin’ Rights 2020, I was struck by the prompting: How much do you hate Cuonzo? Or Mark, Jeremiah, Javon?

How much does Xavier Pinson hate Illinois?

I think I wrote about tribal hate during my Smile Politely tenure. It still bothers me. Yes, there are people in college basketball who hate other people in college basketball. But it’s way less common than the hatred among tribal fans.

Mark Smith committed to Missouri before he committed to Illinois. Jeremiah Tilmon’s dad wanted Jeremiah to go with Cuonzo. Cuonzo knew Javon Pickett’s family since forever.

It’s great that all three of those guys found a home in Columbia. Mark had already been beaten out of the starting spot he’d been given on the basis of reputation. Jeremiah & Javon might compete for minutes on this year’s Illini team, but only because the rotation is so limited. Last year, you’d be hard pressed to play either one over Kofi and Alan Griffin.

It makes sense that those guys played with a chip on their shoulder. The self-doubt was enough. Sports fans should approve that that chip propelled Mizzou to victory last year (along with Mitchell & Dru Smith playing out of their minds).

(not) The Smiths

Mark’s dad Anthony had seen enough after that Maryland game where Da’Monte supplanted Mark, then threw the ball away. Both Smiths are now happier.

Da’Monte seemed to relish the renewed opportunity to compete with post-transfer Mark. From an individual standpoint, you could say Da’Monte won.

But because Monte is way more more old school than the dazzling hoopster who sired him, Monte doesn’t care about individual battles. He wants the W.

Last year, Mizzou wanted the W. Does that mean the team with the most floor burns will win 2020’s Braggin’ Rights game? Well, it is 2020. That means people must suffer.

It’s conceivable that Mizzou will out-dog the Illini again tonight. Andres Feliz is not walking through that door. But it also seems likely that Ayo & Co. will bring their A-game.

The bright side is that Missouri can claim victory even if they score fewer points. It’s all the rage these days, especially in SEC country.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Trent Transformation

Discussion of Trent Frazier’s defense is all the rage these days. It’s all anyone’s talking about. But who knew Trent would be offended if one asked about his offensive outburst against Purdue.

I suppose it makes sense. Offense is offensive.

Cuonzo Martin was exasperated by Illini freshman Trent Frazier (Vashoune Russell)

Erich Fisher and I asked different versions of did coach tell you to be more aggressive with the ball after that game. Trent dismissed the notion.

Then Derek Piper posed the same question to Brad Underwood. He said yes.

It seemed pretty obvious. But whatever the case, thank goodness it’s happening. The Complete Trent is much better than Defensive Specialist Trent. The Illini need those buckets. In a handful of losses this year, an extra 10 to 15 points from Frazier would have dramatically changed circumstances.

Cuonzo Martin made it clear in his 2019 postgame observations that taking the ball from Trent changed the whole nature of the Illini offense.

When Brad gave the ball back, Illinois walloped the Boilermakers. Cause and effect can be pretty simple sometimes.

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Illini basketball

Saturday Live with Mark Smith & Jeremiah Tilmon

Illinois’ best recruiting period of the last decade came during a time when the Illini’s on-court performance had reached a record-setting nadir.  D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Joseph Bertrand pulled the trigger in a 48-hour span at the start of the dreadful 2007-08 season. Meyers Leonard came aboard at the end.

So it didn’t seem odd to watch Jeremiah Tilmon cracking jokes with Mark Smith while Minnesota pantsed the Illini. These two high school superstars expect to improve their college teams. They don’t doubt that they’ll be successful. Failure is not their concern.

Talking to them about their relationship, I couldn’t keep the names “Bruce Douglas and Efrem Winters” out of my mind.

It’s hard not to think of Mark Smith when thinking about Mark Smith, but Douglas is obviously the better Illini analog. Peoria Richwoods’ Mark Smith was a small forward, not a PG. Bruce was a PG. But he was also big and quick, just like Mark Smith 2.0.

Bruce’s alley-oops to Winters remain at the top of iconic Illini moments, way more efficient than the vaunted “15 pass possession.”

Illinois’ hi-lo could use some work.

Brandon Paul’s Illini recruitment began with Tracy Webster. Mark Smith’s recruitment may end with Tracy Webster. The Thornton grad was All-Big Ten at Wisconsin. He’s an assistant to Cuonzo Martin at Cal, for now. He attended Friday’s game between Tilmon’s ESL and Smith’s Edwardsville squads.

Smith’s burgeoning cachet means he’ll be able to choose his college come April 12. Illinois has two advantages in this recruitment. First, it’s easy driving distance for his parents, who remain very involved in his life and his recruitment. Two, Jeremiah Tilmon is signed to play here next year. Tilmon and Smith have been friends since sixth grade.

Smith will also be considering the academic aspect of his future school. He and parents Anthony & Yvonne were all interested in talking more about that aspect of his recruitment. Anthony said “yes, he’s qualified” when I raised the subject of academics.

But that’s not the question. The question is what Mark wants to study, and whether he aspires to advanced degrees. When Chasson Randle chose Stanford over Illinois, it wasn’t because he wanted to inconvenience his parents, Gwen and Willie, from seeing him play college ball in person. It’s because Chasson already knew he’d want to go to medical school when basketball was over.

Because Chasson graduated at the top of his class at Rock Island High School,  his family thought he could withstand a fiercely competitive academic environment. For those aspiring to a career in medicine, Stanford is better than Illinois. Sorry loyalists, it just is.

We don’t know what Mark wants from an academic standpoint, but we do know he’s thinking about it.

One thing that doesn’t matter re: Mark Smith is “coaches on the hot seat.” John Groce is a miracle removed from being gone. Tom Crean is being e-burned in e-effigy. Bruce Weber is doing enough to keep his job for another year at K-State, but since when did we take Bruce Weber seriously?

The uncertainty doesn’t end with coaches who lose too much. Smith acknowledged on Saturday that Duke got in the mix recently. But who’d be his coach at Duke? K will turn 70 next week, while he recovers from his second major back surgery. Jeff Capel already failed at the P5 level. Maybe Chris Collins is the successor? That means Duke and Northwestern are uncertain as well.

Kansas seems like the best bet for the Smith family. It’s not a horrible drive from Edwardsville, and Bill Self is not likely to be fired. If they have an open spot for him, it’s unlikely he could do worse. As with any & all blue blooded programs, they’ll have other options for his position. Competitive recruits are rarely dissuaded by this eternal truth.

Dave Leitao might be the surest choice Mark Smith has when it comes to basketball, for both PT & continuity purposes. DePaul has been terrible since Leitao departed his first stint. Tracy Webster was unable to revive it as interim coach.

Leitao failed at Virginia, now arguably the best program in the nation. So he’s not a sure bet, either.

Frankly, it’s weird to be Mark Smith the recruit, A year ago, he figured to be a starting pitcher, not a point guard. But if it weren’t for him, there’d be very little optimism available for Illini basketball fans.

Hope springs eternal, and Mark Smith won’t have the opportunity to sign an LOI until Spring, by which time all these coaching situations will be determined.

And now, here’s that Minnesota game in a nutshell: