As the game-clock dipped below 20 seconds, and the beaten Irish forced another stoppage, a weary Andre Curbelo limped away from the Illini bench and propped himself against the wall of State Farm Center’s lower bowl.
His eyes weren’t glazed, but they lolled from side-to-side in the way that Andre Curbelo’s eyes loll for various reasons. Sometimes it’s because he’s just owned an opponent. Sometimes he’s just told a joke. This time, as in recent days, it’s because he wasn’t feeling well.
He was tired. He was ready for the game to be over. Most Illini fans were ready for the game to be over. The game was, in fact, over. But Notre Dame hadn’t stopped pretending, yet.
Belo had stopped pretending.
In the first half, he was excited, sociable. By the end, he just wanted it to be done.
Belo has an expressive face, and the way he expresses himself is not American (except for the fact that Puerto Ricans are Americans, despite their lack of representation in Congress).
As with Kofi Cockburn’s genuousness & sensitivity, Belo’s demeanor is disarming to Midwesterners. We’re accustomed to hating people. Our chosen news sources and algorithms have not prepared us for moments when we’re asked to assess the humanity & vulnerability of fellow humans.
It works for us when analyzing Da’Monte Williams. He’s a legitimate badass. He’s from Peoria. His entire identity is directed by his intensity.
It doesn’t work when we’re trying to understand our Californians, of which we have three. It doesn’t help us to understand our Caribbeans, of which we have five.
If you’re as cynical as I am, you could read the last few days/weeks of Illini tribulations as a script that Brad Underwood concocted in preparation for the viral video of his postgame speech to the team, in the locker room, after all of them overcame injuries and gastrointestinal distress just long enough to dispatch Mike Brey’s lanky leprechauns.
We’re living in an age of conspiracy theories, so I wouldn’t be surprised if many Illini fans disbelieve everything that’s factual about the current state of Illini basketball.
But even the facts, for those interested, aren’t immediately available to the insiderest of insiders. Brad Effing Underwood didn’t know his starting line-up 44 minutes before tip-off.
He named this 82-72 win among the best in his career.
Yes, he’s hyperbolic. Yes, he’s a fabulist. But despite AI, deep fake technology and Elite, Elite prose; Brad Underwood has no power to invent the legitimate quandary that’s stymied his team for two devastating/empowering weeks. The knee bent. The vomit projected.
The team overcame.
It’s a wonderful narrative, and it offers even us cynical writers a George Bailey moment.
But then we realize that Steve Pikiell has analyzed all of Monday’s video, that Belo appears to need Chicago’s finest neurologists and that Trent, back or not, still can’t shoot.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
“He one a dem guys who sacrifice, and get it done, because that’s what we need to win.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You’re looking for a Silver Lining after watching a game that was both a blowout and a Cautionary Tale. Rest assured, it’s here.
Da’Monte Williams is unlikely to shoot 2-for-11 in future games. He’s unlikely to find himself running the point during B1G play. And even if he does, his experience Tuesday guarantees that he’ll be more comfortable in that role.
Coleman Hawkins will probably get fewer technical fouls & taunting warnings. Probably.
His mouth is as big as California, and his current confidence level might not fit in the entire Pacific Time Zone. No complaints here, but Brad Underwood is already assessing the value of ColeHawk’s assessments. (He wants fewer T’s assessed.)
Omar Payne will probably find himself comfortable on offense. His defense is entertaining enough to merit some amount of PT. He’s an intellectual, so he’s probably overthinking everything right now, as he adjusts to new information overload. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? (Excluding the 247 free board people, obviously.)
Ramses Melendez fears nothing. You were like that too, once. What happened to you?
Let’s hope it doesn’t happen to RJ. On the other hand, Brad Underwood ripped a new asshole for him after RJ’s three-point celebration became a defensive breakdown.
Alfonso Plummer had a better stat line than his social media response would suggest. You didn’t seem to like his game. He was fine.
Playing the most minutes of anyone from either team, Plummer failed to assassin down the avenue. But he converted 3-of-7 shots. His A-to-TO ratio was in the plus range. He rebounded from the two-spot. He stole three balls.
This win counts toward rankings and post-season slotting. Embrace it.
The Trent Frazier Show was rolling in fifth gear all night. Luke Goode rebounded. Coleman Hawkins drained threes. Austin Hutcherson made a 90° turn in mid-air, to shoot a ball that he’d already rebounded while already in-air.
I guess that’s what we expected to see in a contest featuring the state’s worst basketball team versus the state’s best basketball team. (I’m including JV teams from the IHSA.)
The unexpected performance came from Andre Curbelo, who was really … um … bad? And amazing? But we expected amazing. We didn’t expect five turnovers.
Brad Underwood won’t lose much sleep over it. He explained that Belo was, frankly, nervous. After a freshman year of balling for 200 people, he’d found himself on display for a few thousand, including a rowdy student section.
This is why we schedule exhibition games.
And we shouldn’t forget that he was also amazing, as expected.
The challenge for Brad Chet Tim Geoff is to rein in Belo’s exuberance without crushing it. Or am I being too control-ly?
Maybe Belo just needs a couple of exhibition games under his belt, and he’ll be fine?
Coleman Hawkins is the other free spirit whose playmaking thrilled fans and burst capillaries in his coach’s face. Should he be throttled?
Coleman seems to know that it’s a matter of picking his spots. Knowing when to play it straight. Knowing when to get creative.
Surely the surprise of the night was RJ Melendez, who didn’t get in the game ’til the fourth quarter. That late entry was expected, because RJ’s performance in the Open Practice suggested he was a few years away from comprehending the defensive principles that Underwood’s staff requires of its rotation players.
But RJ found his spots against USF-Joliet. He didn’t get backdoor-ed. He hedged correctly. He didn’t look afraid.
RJ was fun on offense, hitting a three and converting a reverse lay-up. But that was the expected part for him. We knew he could rebound, too. But what about his defensive positioning? Will he be instant offense for the other team?
He did not look lost against USF.
The rest of the veterans displayed rust here and there, among moments of grace. Da’Monte Williams best play was batting a ball from a Saint and simultaneously knocking it off his victim, out of bounds. He nearly emoted in celebration.
Kofi had a somewhat frustrating game, of the sort he’ll experience every night over the next five months, as teams study his every move, and do their utmost to stop him.
He’s a kind, sensitive person. So you hope he can keep that good nature while opponents do their best to ruin his future.
We still can’t be sure that Hutch is ready for P5 competition, because he certainly didn’t face it Saturday. But he looked a lot more like the super-hyped Hutch than he did the skinny Division III kid we saw two years ago.
It still looks like Podz and RJ won’t see a lot of floor time this year, a vibe that Underwood conveyed in his season kickoff press conference. Podz didn’t have the opportunity to show us anything worth knowing. He didn’t have time.
The ball was in his hands as time ran out on the game, so he was in position to score the hundredth point. He did it.
RJ’s brief tick was a lot flashier, but he faces the same general problem: Which three veterans will he replace?
Maybe we’ll know more after Exhibition #2, just six days from now.
Did you know there was a University of Saint Francis in Illinois?
Yes? Congratulations! You’re from Joliet!
University of Saint Francis (IL) is the fifth biggest University of Saint Francis in the United States; after PA, Fort Wayne, Brooklyn and Steubenville.
Compared to other scismic branches of papist basketball, Franciscan hoops suffers — just as it should, given its namesake — versus Jesuit powerhouses like Georgetown & Gonzaga. St. Bonaventure is probably the best Franciscan basketball program. The second-best might be Saint Francis-PA*, which tied for last in the mighty Northeast Conference last year. (If you don’t have a sense of the NEC’s might, know that Robert Morris abandoned its affiliation in 2020, to join the Horizon League.)
Against Pennsylvania’s Franciscans, which Illinois hosts on December 18, Brad Underwood will foist a rotation of Illini which will, by that 13th contest, have grown familiar.
That’s your nine-man rotation. But will Brad use a nine-man rotation?
Tim Anderson says the coaching staff is working on ways to employ a Twin Towers set, with Omar Payne and Kofi Cockburn blocking all sunlight from penetrating the lane.
That mission seems counterintuituve given the obvious 4-out nature of this roster. “Positionless” basketball demands that the parts be interchangeable, and that’s not the case when you put Omar and Kofi in the same five.
What about Podz and Goode? Will Underwood try a two sets of five approach, like John Calipari did in 2014?
Underwood wants to run. He wants transition baskets and threes. That suggests that “ten starters” is possible. And we know that Underwood is willing to tinker, to experiment. (Such an emmeffing breath of fresh air.)
On the other hand, if you’re starting from the simplest of recipes (Belo to Kofi) it feels unecessary to get weird. Replacing Ayo with shooters gives away the game plan.
Or does it?
Coleman Hawkins says the Hutch Game isn’t so much a steady diet of three-pointers as it is using ball-screens to create a pull-up jumper. Hutch’s much reported near-posterization during the Open Practice suggests that he’s willing to drive like Ayo, but perhaps not finish like Ayo. (Ayo’s use of the glass, the oldest of old school basketball, is nearly extinct among young players. They could learn from Ayo’s example.)
Is Underwood so devious that he’ll run two completely different offenses during the same season? That’s the kind of departure from the norm that gets books published, even dissertations.
It doesn’t seem likely, does it?
Then again, a low-post offense doesn’t require more than a few option plays. If Geoff Alexander wants to drill his bigs on a few different sets, and some of those sets incorporate a double-post presence … well, isn’t that the type of advanced education these scholar-athletes expect from a world class institution?
As Omar said, “I’m a scholar.”
Because Illinois scheduled two exhibition games, rather than a secret scrimmage, one might conclude that Brad wants to learn more about his rotations. How do these guys interact when facing unfamiliar opponents? Which fivesomes mesh?
It’s not unfair to predict a 126-42 final score in an imbalanced match-up against the nation’s worst Francis. But it would be more fun, and more useful, to use the game for experimentation. The “starters” already know what to do. You can put a fivesome of
on the floor, and expect them to run like clockwork.
What happens when it’s
What happens when you mix and match those fives, or put Goode on the wing?
Personally, I’d rather see Podz, Verdonk and Goode get the maxium PT. We need to know what those guys can do, and whether they’re ready to help.
Podziemski gives a Matt Heldman vibe. It’s difficult to keep the Matt Heldman types of the floor. Goode looks ready, and might challenge veterans for tick.
You’d want to see RJ Melendez and Brandon Lieb get some minutes, just because it’s fun to play, and they’re unlikely to play in non-exhibition games. Not unless Brandon puts on 30 lbs. and RJ grasps defensive positioning.
RJ is, according to his coaches & teammates, the athletic freak among them. That implies Fan Favorite potential. But it’s almost painfully obvious when talking to him that he’s the youngest, or most youthful, of this Illini team. Acclimating to a huge American campus — via a second language — while also trying to compete with crafty fifth-year seniors, all while realizing that the wind can be uncomfortably cold sometimes … it’s a lot.
He seems bright and cheerful, though. So who knows? Maybe he’ll get his footwork in order by December.
*Francisan hoops completists will want to know that, while Brooklyn fared better in last year’s NEC, it split its games with PA. PA has put three (THREE!) guys in the NBA and, unlike the Terriers in New York, played in The Tourney once.
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.
IT’S GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Sunday’s Piscatawegian misadventure serves as the fourth installment in this season’s ongoing reality play Experienced Teams Will Beat Young Teams. Yes, four. You’re forgetting the Cameron Indoor episode, because you’re depressed and agitated.
As a basketball fan, you should be delighted by Sunday’s game. You should cherish everything about it excepting the crucial fact that your team lost.
Steve Pikiell’s reinvention of the Rutgers program is One Of The Great Basketball Stories. With Beilein and Bo gone, the mantle of Big Ten’s Best Coach was there for the grabbing. Pikiell’s in the running. If he maintains his current mojo, he’ll be in the conversation about Who Should Replace K?
You should also be impressed by the other coach in Sunday’s game, for his leadership. Brad Underwood Is A Human Person I wrote upon meeting the brooding heavy from KState. He looked like a 40s movie villain and GoEmaw regarded him as a badass, so I was surprised as anybody.
The humanity came across again yesterday, as youthful reporters pressed him with questions such as why does your team suck and the more invidious have you determined why your team sucks so hard? That’s not the precise phrasing, but you could see that these eager youngsters were channeling hard lessons from JOUR 210, and holding Underwood’s feet to the fire.
Because Brad’s job is to redirect youthful energy toward constructive pathways, he patiently parried these insinuations with only a hint of disdain. By the time his defense of Adam Miller (the ball is round and the basket is ten feet high, but that’s the only similarity to high-school BB) arrived, Brad was rolling. His build up/tear down of Andre Curbelo (best player on the floor/ too bad he couldn’t stay there) was great too.
Miller told the media on Saturday that he gets yelled at. It doesn’t faze him. He embraces the lessons, and likes the learning. He’ll enjoy this week
Eight games into their freshman season, the Illini freshmen are playing like freshmen. Yesterday in Piscataway, a talented group of veterans made them look like freshmen. Until this Illini team gels as a unit, such outcomes are inevitable.
Illini veterans weren’t perfect, either. Ayo not helping when Da’Monte got screened at the top of the key — that was a key defensive error in Illinois’ snowballing failure to finger the dike. But the veterans’ mistakes weren’t insurmountable & can’t be blamed for the outcome (whatever Da’Monte did to Paul Mulcahy was most assuredly deserved, and as far as I could tell, he didn’t do anything).
Illinois will drop to #18 in a few hours. Or maybe #22. Or perhaps only #15. Who knows? AP voters saw a three-point loss on the road against a Top 20 opponent. Unless they’ve paid attention to the season’s minutiae, they won’t know what we know: that this team really shouldn’t be ranked at all until February, assuming it’s grown together as a unit and proved something by then.
Yesterday demonstrated that Brad Underwood has the capacity to lead, and understands that these things take time.