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Illini Basketball

A Good Night for a Bad Night

When this Illini team is great, it feels like a rebirth of history and tradition. When this Illini team is bad, it feels like the last 14 years of kicks to the nads.

Illinois was terrible Monday. They won a game against a team that arrived in Champaign with a 7-19 record. It was uncomfortably close. Thank your favorite deity that the final minutes weren’t excruciating. Thank goodness it was an awful opponent.

What if Ayo hadn’t decided to play through the pain?

Ayo connected on 9-of-16 FGAs. That’s a solid number in hindsight.

At the time, his misses felt like a bad omen. He was missing shots you expect him to drill.

The rest of the team was much, much worse.

It might go unnoticed, as this game desolves from memory, that lowly Nebraska overcame a ten-point deficit. They were rolling. They had all the momentum. They’d tied the game. The crowd was silent.

Then Trent Frazier connected from three. It was the team’s third make in eleven attempts from the arc.

After that, Nebraska threatened a bit in the second half, but Alan Griffin and Kipper Nichols made key defensive plays to suck the wind from Cornhusk sails.

Alan wanted it more.

Kipper’s steal made a spectacular moment, and a major buzzkill for the Huskers. But it shouldn’t go unnoticed that he fought for, and garnered, the offensive rebound that followed a failed Illini attempt to beat an elapsing (3 seconds) shot clock on an inbound play.

This was the single play that changed the direction of the game. From this point on, Nebraska never felt competitive.

So, crisis averted. For now.

Nebraska reminded us that Illinois has beaten three good teams. The first was Rutgers, without Geo Baker. The second was Penn State, without Myreon Jones.

Now, a third can be added to the list. Wisconsin got to 10-6. Whatever they did to get there, they got there. The win at Madison now feels like a win at Madison.

So yeah, tourney lock. Illinois is in. Woo-hoo!

But there’s plenty to worry about.

Let’s hope someone tells Josh Whitman — who spent the dark days in Wisconsin and Missouri — that his model of DIA leadership, Ron Guenther, is the guy who didn’t offer Bill Self a double, treble, quadruple increase in salary.

Brad Underwood will be a hot commodity on the upcoming coaching carousel. Orlando Antigua is not paid enough, even at the standard academic salary commensurate with experience.

It’s 2003 again, and all the cutlery is in the drawer, or on its way. Can the DIA get it right this time?

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Illini Basketball

All Hands

I haven’t seen the split-screen all-access thingy*, so I don’t know whether the following news is news to you, dear reader. I do know you can’t get enough Illini Basketball at the moment, so I’m here to help.

You know that Da’Monte Williams got in Lamar Stevens’ grill, and head. Maybe you didn’t know the other member of the team who gave her all to stymie Stevens.

Kelsea (Garthoff) Ansfield is Director of Creative Media and one of the great personalities of the Illini team. On the road, she spends the first 12 minutes of each game shooting photos in furtherance of the Illini online presence. (i.e. she gets up from the baseline at the under-8 media timeout and goes to edit/upload to various Illini branded properties.)

Early on in Tuesday’s game, Kelsea was sitting in the pole position (photog spot nearest the home basket’s stanchion) when Lamar Stevens fell on her.

Something crunched.

Lamar Stevens was horrified

He’d jammed her camera right into her nose.

I was sitting two spots away, WJAC-TV’s Candace Martino was between us. I heard the crunch.

PSU’s trainer Jon Salazer rushed over to help.

Jon Salazer & Lamar Stevens attend to the felled Kelsea Ansfield

Kelsea was able to get to the locker room on her own. At halftime, Paul Schmidt inspected her swelling. It looked a lot better than it sounded, but you could tell she’d taken a blow.

So had Stevens. He was clearly rattled, and it put him a step behind. A moment later, he committed a major faux pas.

You have to love Da’Monte’s reaction to this turn of events. It’s pretty unusual to see him smile, but on Tuesday in State College, it happened at least three times.

So Lamar Stevens, the best player on the B1G’s hottest team, spent a crucial nine minutes on the bench during a first half that set the narrative for the game. Illinois led 30-26 at halftime.

Pat Chambers said he was encouraged that his team kept the game so close without Stevens. The unanswerable question is how well they would have done with him? As it was, he never found his rhythm against Da’Monte and Kipper Nichols.

While the Second Foul Rule is universally respected by college coaches, you have to wonder whether it cost the Nittany Lions a ninth-straight victory. As seems so often the case with these fateful coaching decisions, Stevens finished the game with two fouls.

*If anyone who wants to send me an MP4, I’d love to watch it.

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Illini Basketball

The Lock

Your favorite team is going to your favorite tournament.

Ayo hasn’t finished his business, and Tuesday night he made a statement to that effect.

Penn State’s defense was every bit as stifling as MSU’s, or Rutgers or Iowa. But they didn’t stop Ayo from penetrating the way Iowa did. They don’t have a Sticks Smith or a Myles Johnson anchoring the D.

No Rob, I hear you say, they have a Mike Watkins!

Tuesday night in State College, Mike Watkins was AWOL. He didn’t start. He played 18 minutes, including just five in the second half. The Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Nominee was not in foul trouble. He had Kofi problems. Or he had Ayo problems.

Really, it was his choice.

Illinois’ spacing problem resolved itself in State College. Well, enough anyway.

Ayo and Andres Feliz made the right decisions on a sufficient number of occasions to keep the Illini a few points ahead, keep the crowd nervous, and the Lions on their heels.

Two specific plays changed the tone, and perhaps the outcome of the game. One involved Ayo & Da’Monte, just as you’d expect. (It makes sense from a narrative perspective, see?) The other demonstrated Kofi’s mid-game tutelage.

Kofi had already committed his second shot clock violation in as many games, getting caught with the ball in his hands and no idea that time was running out. He learned from that experience.

With the Nittany hosts seeking a late-game comeback, it happened again.

But this time, Kofi got the ball in the basket, dampening the hosts’ hopes.

The other play happened a few moments earlier.

Ayo had hit the ground for the second time, as he often does. He was slow to get up, and assuming the TV camera was on him, I suspect some of you feared the worst.

He did get up, but he was late getting back on D. It turned out serendipitously well.

It’s a game of inches, and this time, the Illini punch had greater reach.

The bid was already locked in, so this column’s title is shameless clickbait. But the Illini are no longer the 12 seed. Now they’re playing for a four.

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Illini Basketball

The 12 Seed

Sweeping Michigan and Purdue seemed impressive, right?

Historically, and recently, Michigan and Purdue are B1G contenders. But what about this year? Purdue is 13-10 overall. Michigan is 4-7 in conference.

Is that good?

Memories of Caleb Swanigan and John Beilein are fresh, but Trevion Williams is not Caleb Swanigan. Beilein is gone. So is Bo Ryan. Wisconsin is also 13-10 on the year.

Looking at the schedule on February 8 gives the viewer a different impression of this Illini season than s/he might have had on October 29. Did you predict that Penn State and Rutgers would be the hard games?

And yet, arguably, Rutgers is the only good team that Illinois has beaten this season.

Last night’s loss looked a lot like its predecessor in Iowa City. Maryland employed an aggressive zone defense to completely emasculate the Illini. You can readily envision the Terps coaching staff slow-forwarding through video sequences of that Iowa game, identifying known weaknesses and capabilities.

Likewise, you can imagine the Iowa staff presenting video clips from the Braggin’ Rights embarrassment while telling its team if you challenge them with all your energy and effort; they will fold.

Special credit goes to Terps guard Darryl Morsell, who latched on to Ayo Dosunmu and didn’t let go. Perhaps he watched the Miami game.

If Ayo gets past you, it’s over. And Ayo is extremely good at getting past you. But if you keep him in front, hands high, Ayo’s arsenal diminishes.

Some fans seemed to think Illinois had a chance in the final 10 minutes of the game.

Or at least, they didn’t start leaving in droves until Anthony Cowan drained yet another three to put the Terps up 69-60 with 2:34 remaining.

It’s sweet that they felt Illinois had a chance, after scoring a single field goal in the first 10:52 of the second half.

But the truth is that Maryland had this one safely in its grasp from the moment they initiated that press.

The good news, if you want to call it good, is that NET rankings will probably keep the Illini in the tournament even if — as seems likely — their losing streak extends to five.

On the other hand, Izzo often craps the bed versus Illinois. And he’s too inflexible to mimic another team’s winning formula. So there’s that.

The Illini defense was much better against Maryland than at Breslin. In fact, it kept them within scratching distance during their 40 day ordeal in the scoring desert.

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Illini Basketball

Off-Night Warriors

Minnesota was the kind of game losers lose & champions win.

On a night when Ayo Dosunmu converted 4-of-12 shots, Trent Frazier managed 4-of-13 and Giorgi Bezhanishvili 2-of-7, you can see how desperately the Illini needed someone else to lead the way.

Fortunately, Illinois had two someones answering that call.

Da’Monte Williams swats the ball from Minnesota’s Alihan Demir on the would-be game tying shot, sealing the win.
At the other end of the court, Andres Feliz put the team on his back & carried them over the finish line.

In years past, John Groce would begin his postgame remarks by saying obviously, if you’d told me we’d hold them to 48 points or obviously, if you told me we’d limit ourselves to 8 turns and keep the rebound margin close or obviously if you told me we’d get production from all eight guys who played, I’d like our chances.

Things are better now. Illinois had an off-night and still found a way to win its seventh straight game.

It was a knife fight in a dark alley. Or a dogfight. Luckily for Illini fans, Andres Feliz and Da’Monte Williams are fighters.

Kofi Cockburn tallied a **yawn** double-double with 13 & 10 and managed, with the help of some deft coaching maneuvers, to avoid fouling-out despite challenging all-conference favorite Daniel Oturu throughout the night.

If Cockburn can stay toe-to-toe with Luka Garza on Sunday, he’ll earn his **yawn** eighth B1G Freshman of the Week.

Giorgi feeds the beast.
Giorgi feeds the beast, again.

So, survive and move on. Iowa awaits.

And now to the non-basketball aspects of Thursday night. If you take a head in the sand approach, this is your cue to stop reading.

In the top-middle of that second Giorgi feed, you’ll notice the rainbow “Pride Night” banner.

The Illini men wore long-sleeved Pride Night shirts over their jerseys, and State Farm Center was illuminated with rainbow colors rather than the traditional Orange & Blue.

The “Pride” movement and its various parades was created to make LGBT persons feel okay about themselves.

the promotion of the self-affirmation, dignity, equality, and increased visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people as a social group … as opposed to shame and social stigma

Wikipedia

According to the U.S Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.

Of course, Pride Night can be a tough sell when the audience is mostly white, small-town conservatives. Cleverly, the DIA took the Hobby Lobby approach, championing not LGBT rights, but “religious freedom,” the last constitutionally approved method for suppressing the uncomfortably different.

At the same time, the DIA announced the Robert Archibald Student-Athlete Health and Wellness Fund. Archibald’s funeral is today in Barrington.

So far, nobody has used the word “suicide” in relation to his death. Mentions of “demons” and “struggles” are as far toward that word as the discussion has ventured. It’s just coincidence that Pride Night aligned with the creation of a fund to support mental heath & wellness, even more coincidental that they landed on the same day that DJ Carton “stepped away” from the Ohio State basketball program for mental heath reasons.

Everyone who knew Arch is now questioning themselves about whether there was something they could have said or done to help. His last gift to the program is the wake-up call that addressing depression, anxiety & all forms of mental wellness issues must be a proactive pursuit. That young people should not be shamed against confiding their emotional identity.

It was the first Pride Night for men’s basketball. Volleyball and WBB have done it before, perhaps because the existence and occasional greatness of LGBT athletes has been acknowledged in those sports.

MBB has not crossed that bridge, and it’s yet to be noted that the Illini’s greatest alpha-male of the last decade was raised by lesbians.

Maybe next time, if DIA decides to have a next time; they’ll give the cheerleaders a less euphemistic slogan to promote.

Instead of the Hobby Lobby approach, why not just come out and say it: “It’s okay to be gay.”

Categories
Illini Basketball

Every Little Thing

Brad Underwood name-checked Da’Monte Williams 36 seconds into his opening statement. In fact, Da’Monte was the first person he praised.

Having done this “reporting” thing for more than ten years, I can guarantee you that half of the Wolverine media pool thought “who?” Another 48% recognized the name, but had not considered it while writing the first draft of their stories.

credit: Vashoune Russell

“I can’t say enough about Da’Monte Williams and the job he did today. I think he guarded every player on the floor for them.”

This is the kind of money quote that lands in newspapers.

For the kill shot, Underwood added “his value doesn’t show in the stat sheet,” which the reporters were at that very moment scouring in hopes of finding the name he’d just said before they forgot what name he’d just said. ” but it sure does to winning basketball.”

A few minutes later, Ayo Dosunmu allowed himself a diversion from answering questions about himself & his fellow stars.

“I also wanna give kudos not only to the guys who played but to The Fun Bunch as well.”

Ayo rolled off the names of his non-star teammates, here at 3:16

“Tyler Underwood, Austin Hutcherson, Jay (Jacob Grandison), Sammy (Oladimeji), Zima (Zach Griffith).

“They don’t get any recognition, but at the end of the day, those are guys that’s pushin’ us each & every day in the gym. Making the scout team. Making it tough for us. Pushing us defensively. Making us lock in. Those guys are a huge part of our success and it’d be selfish of me not to give them credit.”

Alan Griffin didn’t play, of course. But he was very much involved in the win. Just before the second half began, Alan worked his way down the bench, dapping every teammate.

Alan’s B1G suspension kept him from hitting the big shot. But when Ayo got the ball with ten seconds remaining, Alan leapt from the bench and slapped two fingers against the easy access vein on his right forearm.

Fortunately, these Illini shoot only basketballs. Alan’s gesture referenced Ayo’s cold-bloodedness. Two jukes later, Ayo proved him right.

This game was the epitome of every little thing. When Ayo slipped on an unwiped wet spot, he turned the ball over. If Illinois had lost by a point or two, fans could rightly blame Michigan’s game day crew for failing to wipe it up.

And then there were the free-throws.

credit: Vashoune Russell

I feel terrible for Austin Davis, especially.

Everyone knows Zavier Simpson is a lousy free-throw shooter, so his misses are swallowed with a grain of salt. He’s been outstanding for the Wolverines, in every way but one.

I’ve never met Franz Wagner, and I couldn’t hear what he said (could you?) in that grainy, out-of-focus postgame scrum you and 980 others watched after Saturday’s game (thank$).

But he’d converted 20-of-23 FT attempts coming into that game. The fact that he missed both of his coulda-been-game-clinching attempts is inexplicable. He’ll kick himself about it, but the fact is, he’s good. And shit happens.

But Austin Davis needed a good bounce, and he didn’t get it.

In his third year of active duty, the RS-junior center has played a total of 260 minutes.

On Saturday, he was the energy guy who rallied his team to take the lead after Isaiah Livers aggravated that groin injury. After sitting out a year, playing 50 and 93 total minutes in his next two seasons, and seeing action in only 12 games so far this year; this was Austin Davis’s moment.

Frankly, he was great. Unfortunately, his effort and energy will be, in his mind, completely eclipsed by the fact that when he stood at the charity stripe for the fifteenth time in his career, he missed for the eighth.

I have a super-soft spot for these Wolverines. I didn’t want them to beat the Illini Saturday. They’ve had enough victories over Illinois to last them a while. But John Beilein is the best coach I’ve ever watched, and he was also an earnest, honest and comprehensible communicator. He instilled those values in his players.

I got to know them a little during their run to the 2017 B1G Tourney championship run, and just now discovered that the commemorative documentary I made of their harrowing travel misadventures was ruined by a faulty video card!

Why doesn’t anybody ever tell me these things?

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Illini Basketball

Undefeated (them)

A noteworthy factoid prefacing this forthcoming week in Illini basketball: Brad Underwood has never beat Purdue. Or Wisconsin.

In fact, Greg Gard has never lost to Illinois, period. Whether Underwood or John Groce led the team, Wisconsin’s current streak (15 wins in a row) remained intact.

Matt Painter is 17-7 all-time against the Illini. Despite being the closest campus to Urbana, Purdue is not a “protected rival.” Count your lucky stars.

The Illini and Boilermakers met only once in each of Underwood’s first two years. Now they’ll face each other twice in a month.

These streaks amplify the point that Illinois doesn’t play good teams in the B1G Tournament. Playing & losing on Wednesday meant the Illini charter flight departed DC and NYC before B1G contenders left their campuses. Playing and winning last year’s Wednesday nightcap meant the best B1G teams arrived at the United Center in time to see Iowa end Underwood’s season for the second year in a row.

Tonight, the Paint Crew brings its worst team in years. Illinois has a chance to win. Both teams are 9-5 overall, but (get this) Purdue is a far worse shooting team than the Illini. Illinois is in the top 50 nationally in FG percentage. The Boilers aren’t in the top 200. More bizarre: Illinois is a better rebounding team, as seen in East Lansing, where the Illini tied habitual carom-grabbers Michigan State with 48 boards apiece.

Illinois’ low-post scoring is a strength, diminished only when Kofi Cockburn is challenged by freakishly tall, gangly shot blockers.

What could go wrong?

If the inside game isn’t working, there’s always the option of kicking out for a three-pointer.

In previewing this game, Underwood said his staff is trying to teach Kofi to use his body as the weapon it could be. As we’ve learned in the first two months of the season, Kofi Cockburn is considerably less vicious, personally, than you might assume for a beast whose Twitter handle includes the word “Alpha.” Having concussed Lewis Garrison, Kofi has been even more tentative inside. He doesn’t want to hurt people.

We’ll learn tonight whether that coaching took hold. As far as kick-outs are concerned, Underwood dismissed the idea that Alan Griffin should take over the starting wing spot. His rationale, it seems, is to make his second team as challenging as his starters.

With Da’Monte Williams, an 18% threat from the arc, Purdue can focus its attention on clogging the middle, and swarming Cockburn.

Optimists can look forward to twin developments tonight: Kofi returns to banging, and Da’Monte goes three-for-three from three. Given those two outcomes, it’s hard to see how Illinois could lose.

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Illini Basketball

The Third Side

Following that tirade at 16:08, the Illini might have felt motivated to execute. But they didn’t.

We don’t know whether a set was called during all that yelling. If Brad Underwood drew up an action, it must have planned for a low-post feed.

For whatever reason, the team did nothing better, or well, once they broke that huddle. The Illini suffered through one of their worst offensive possessions of the season. It seemed as if they were trying to compile a highlight reel of bad tendencies.

Succinctly, they failed to reverse the ball. It’s been a talking point all year, and something they still get wrong. For every “we need to fix that” in a postgame remark to the media, there are as many further iterations of “stickiness” as the lads like to say. The ball “sticks.”

Missouri foisted an intense defensive effort, certainly the most insistent, unrelenting 40 minutes of defensive pressure these Illini have faced all year. And this one possession showed just how effective that type of effort can be against a young team that’s still trying to learn its reads.

The major combatants were centers Reed Nikko and Kofi Cockburn. Nikko won.

At this crucial moment in the game, and after spending a precious timeout, Illinois fails to convert. Instead, it’s another turnover and a foul.

And although Reed Nikko’s defensive footwork was superb, and deserves a lot of credit; it’s also true that Illinois helped him immensely by not reversing the ball to the left wing (the second side), forcing Nikko to establish a different defensive posture. And then, ideally, reverse the ball again (the third side) while Kofi seals Nikko with his big ole butt, creating a drive for Trent from the short corner.

The Underwood administration has seen some fantastic back screens and butt screens. Jermaine Hamlin had a great one for that Samson Oladimeji alley-oop.

Jermaine’s screen is quick, simple and effective.

Adonis de la Rosa executed a beautiful butt screen at Northwestern last year. Giorgi did one for Kipper just a couple of games ago.

It’s a really effective maneuver, but it doesn’t work against a well-coached team that’s already established its defensive position. you’ve got to get them out of position to make it work, and you get them out of position by reversing the ball.

Perhaps the problem against Mizzou was simply that Kofi Cokburn was, as Underwood pointed out, ten games into his college career. He might have popped backward sooner, when he felt Nikko release for the double-team. But it seems likely that Da’Monte would’ve been smothered regardless.

And while Kofi did struggle all game against Missouri’s bigger, quicker defenders (i.e. bigger and quicker than he’s accustomed to playing, so far), reversing the ball would have afforded Kofi the opportunity to re-position himself for screening a backdoor cut.

Some people scoff at the notion that this team is “young.” But they really are young. More importantly, they haven’t played together as a unit in the way that, say, Dee-Deron-Luther-Roger-James did.

If you’ll recall, those guys looked pretty bad in January of 2004. They’d lost in the B1G-ACC to North Carolina. They got clocked by Providence in the Jimmy V Classic. They scraped by a 16-14* Mizzou team in Braggin’ Rights 71-70. Then they started the conference schedule at 3-3.

Things looked bleak. Disjointed. And then that team didn’t lose again until the B1G Tournament’s championship game.

So be patient. Let’s see how this comes together.

*Mizzou’s website credits that team with a 20-14 record, including two wins over themselves in pre-season intrasquad games and a 0-0 win over the Blissless Baylor Bears. You should laugh at them, point fingers, and dump popcorn on their heads.

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Illini Basketball

Talking Points

It’s Finals Weeks. Braggin’ Rights looms. One fourth of the way through the season, where does this Illini team stand?

Great teams don’t rest on their laurels. They analyze their mistakes, and their successes. They seek to improve every aspect of performance. There’s plenty of good and bad to think about on the way to Saint Louis. A few key match-ups should provide the best talking points, and might decide the game.

Da’Monte Williams

Is there a more polarizing Illini player? Almost certainly. But it’s worth noting that if you do have an opinion about Da’Monte Williams, you either think he’s the guy who holds it all together, or you’re calling for his benching.

You don’t have to like Clarence Thomas to be impressed by the effect he had on the US Supreme Court from day one. Da’Monte is like that.

Thomas arrived when the court was split 4-4 on a particular case. His vote would determine the outcome. Yet at the end of debate, Thomas found himself in the minority. Whatever happened in that conference room, he made an impression on his colleagues.

Likewise, Williams sat out his first summer as his ACL healed. On the first day he joined practice, according to Brad Underwood, he changed the team “because of his basketball IQ.”

Da’Monte’s intelligence would be useless if he didn’t have a lot of dog in him. But he’s from Peoria. Wimps don’t make it out of Peoria.

Da’Monte rips the ball from Mark Smith, last year

Williams will be the player to watch Saturday at the Checkerdome (or whatever it’s called these days). He probably won’t score much. That’s not the question.

The question is how will Mark Smith fare? Da’Monte hopes to answer with his defensive performance: not very well.

Last year, Smith scored 5 points in 35 minutes in his first game against his old team. It was pretty clear that Da’Monte enjoyed his part in that futility.

He enjoyed taking Smith’s ball

The other guy in all Sunday’s pictures of Smith will be Andres Feliz, who wouldn’t be here if Mark Smith chose to stay. In hindsight, Illini fans are probably okay with that trade. Feliz will want to prove it to them, nonetheless.

If you don’t think Andres Feliz plays with a chip on his shoulder, you haven’t met Andres Feliz.

It’s not a bad thing. He plays with pride, and as if his life depends on it, which it kind of does. That goes for his wife and kid, too.

Kofi Cockburn is a machine, and should be treated like one. His underuse might be this team’s most obvious problem. Watching from the bench during two heartbreaking losses was remedied by a dominant performance over ranked (overrated?) Michigan.

Against Old Dominion, Kofi attempted six shots. He finished with three field goals. Maybe he didn’t need the extra practice, but it would be nice to see the team go to that well continuously, until it becomes second-nature. He converts 59% of his shots. If you fould him, he’ll make his free-throws.

Maybe Kofi doesn’t know it, and maybe it’s not fair; but his match-up with Jeremiah Tilmon will be the talking point of Braggin’ Rights. Tilmon abandoned the Illini when Underwood came aboard. Instead, the Illini have Kofi and Giorgi Bezhanishvili.

Tilmon is averaging 9.7 points and 4.7 rebounds in 22.6 minutes/game on the season. Contrast Giorgi with 9.6 points and 5.7 boards in 25.9 minutes.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili rebounds

Kofi also gets 25.9 minutes, is averaging 15.4 points and 10.5 rebounds in those minutes. Foul trouble can limit minutes for any of them. Tilmon leads the way with 2.8 per game. Giorgi and Kofi accrue less than 2.5/game.

(Watch for Mizzou’s transfer guard Dru Smith to foul out. He averages 3.3 fouls per game.)

Alan Griffin

When Brad Underwood says “I don’t remember anyone stripping my ball” in college, he’s talking about Alan Griffin.

To Alan’s credit, Giorgi got his ball stripped a bunch of times in the Michigan game. It doesn’t mean you’re terrible. It means you haven’t played against the very best, and your habits are not attuned to playing the very best. It also means you’ve been distracted.

Alan is, by far, the most yelled at player of the Underwood tenure. Number 2 is Kipper Nichols, whom Underwood yelled at a lot during last Saturday’s game against Old Dominion. When the dust settled, Kipper was sitting in the media room, in front of a microphone. That’s always a sign that the coach thinks you done good.

Underwood doesn’t yell at you unless he thinks you’re worth yelling at. With Alan Griffin, the athletic ability is obvious. The talent is there. It’s the processing that frustrates Underwood. Alan is more cerebral than most, which sometimes slows him a step. Being too smart and being too thoughtful are enviable problems. In sports, it’s described as “spacy.”

Alan’s game translates well to the Mizzou defense, which is also spacy.

BTW: Underwood also spent a good amount of energy yelling at Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk during his moment of PT last Saturday, which suggests BBV might be worth the time & effort.

Note: Inquiries to the B1G office yielded no update on the health of Lewis Garrison. The ODU game was refereed by Brandon Cruz, I don’t know that Brandon Cruz had ever refereed an Illini game previously.

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Illini basketball

When Two Tribes Go to War & One Shows Up

The morning after, everyone is surveying the wreckage and wondering whether it’s worth rebuilding.

Two Hurricanes blew through town last night. Now we have to see whether the damage is superficial, if the foundation is solid.

First it was Chris Lykes, who outscored the Illini 13-11 through the first quarter of the game.

When the Illini defense noticed him, the Hurricanes found DJ Vasiljevic on the arc. He connected for 6-of-9 threes.

Bo Ryan shrugged off the Pick-n-Pop Massacre of 2010, when Mike Tisdale and Demetri McCamey took turns lobbing bombs over a principled Wisconsin defensive system. Should we feel the same way about last night’s debacle? Sometimes the ball goes in and there’s nothing you can do about it?

Well, here’s the thing: Chris Lykes didn’t hit a single three-pointer in that first half. He found weak spots in the Illini defense, and exploited them. He drove 1-on-4 against the host team, and it worked.

Vasiljevic had enough time to eat a sandwich and finish his homework before launching most of his shots.

When Ayo Dosunmu guarded Vasiljevic, the Illini earned a five-count turnover.


DJ Vasiljevic responded poorly when defended.

Lykes is 5’5″ at most. Could it be that Illini defenders simply weren’t prepared for someone so tiny? They likely haven’t seen his size since 8th grade, and might never have encountered such quickness.

Brad Underwood’s crafty tactical response was siccing Da’Monte Williams on Lykes, to get in his head. And it worked! Lykes immediately picked up two fouls (one technical, for jawing with Alan Griffin).

But it was too late. The Illini didn’t have time to dig themselves out of the 27-point hole. If it were a 48 minute game, the Illini win. It’s not. They didn’t.

I already wrote about ending the Star-Spangled Banner in favor of a reading from the U.S. Constitution (assuming the goal of this ritual, which began in the era of execrable Espionage & Sedition Acts, is to remind people that they’re in America, and why that matters).

I think this team needs to halt the pre-game light show altogether. They’re clearly enamored of their own (unoriginal) hand-slapping, biceps-flexing pre-game pageantry. But then they crawl to a 14-2 point deficit against the pride of Romeoville (Lewis), score six points in the first 10 minutes (Hawai’i) or let a football school run up a football score on their home court.

Guys like Williams and Andres Feliz don’t need to be told. Maybe that’s true of Trent Frazier as well.

The rest of them are, perhaps, too genteel in their dispositions (or satisfied being an Instagram darling). It’s a wonderful personality trait, but contrary to the competitive instinct.

Eventually, Underwood figured things out. Eventually, the Illini began “playing with a sense of urgency.” But by that point, Underwood was out of time outs. So when it came time to remind Ayo that 1-on-3 means somebody’s open, there was nothing Underwood could do about it.

It’s great that Giorgi executed a perfect backscreen. It was great that Feliz read it correctly. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the go-ahead bucket. It brought them within one.

It’s also great that Feliz has learned not to get too deep, and has become Illinois’ go-to, gut-check guy. It’s great that Trent has his groove back, offensively. It’s great that Giorgi loves creating for other guys as much as scoring buckets.

None of those guys took the last shot.

Worse, when Illinois found itself within a point, its best offensive option — the guy around whom this team was built — was on the bench, one clock-stoppage from a well-drawn, game-winning play.

Unfortunately, this didn’t happen with 2.7 seconds remaining.

Watching Kofi dunk is fun. But Underwood needs to produce wins.

The DIA cleverly abandoned #WeWillWin after three years of steady losing produced the obvious retort We Will? When?

The new slogan is #JoinThe Fight, and after an embarrassing weekend in the revenue sports, a new retort is becoming clear: What fight?