Categories
Illini basketball

Buckeyes & an Elephant in the Room

Brad Underwood doesn’t want to talk about a Big Ten conference championship.

“Our guys aren’t dumb. They know what’s at stake,” he said yesterday, but added the team’s focus is “Ohio State, Ohio State, Ohio State.”

He prefaced all that by expressing relief that Duane Washington moved on to the G League while acknowledging that Washington’s replacement, Buckeye guard Malaki Branham, is “probably” the best freshman in the B1G.

Chris Holtmann still has his dynamic pair of undersized power forwards Kyle Young and EJ Liddell, two guys that have bugged Underwood throughout his Illini tenure. Young has taken on a sixth-man role this season, which provides Holtmann’s traditional 9-man rotation extra experience when the subs come in.

Sophomore wing Eugene Brown started the last four games. His role expanded when Justice Sueing went down for the season with an abdominal injury. Brown’s minutes became more important after back-up PG Meechie Johnson suffered a facial injury in practice, just before the January 13 game at Wisconsin. After missing three games, Johnson returned, wearing a protective mask. Then starting PG Jamari Wheeler went down with an ankle injury. Then, two weeks ago, Johnson rolled his ankle at Rutgers.

With Sueing and grad transfer Seth Towns both out for the season, the Buckeyes are the one B1G team that can argue with Illinois about who’s had the most roster fluctuation this year.

Theoretically, both Buckeye PGs are now healthy. Johnson played 18 minutes, and Wheeler 30 in the Buckeye’s 80-69 overtime win over Indiana on Monday, in Columbus.

Branham is the guard to watch. Underwood called him the B1G’s best pro-prospect, which satisfied the coach’s hyperbole quotient for yesterday’s press conference. But Branham’s scoring average has increased during B1G play (15 ppg), and he’s up to 46% from three on the season; so he’ll get the Trent Frazier treatment.

None of these people can guard Kofi Cockburn, but that wasn’t an issue when the Buckeyes won in Champaign last year. The Liddell pick n’ pop turned the tables on Illinois, which found its dominant low-post player … in the low post, while Liddell rained threes.

EJ is connecting on 39% of his arc shots this season. He’s connecting on Twitter at EasyE2432. It’s in the OSU pre-game notes.

The Buckeyes are a six point dog tonight, and that probably won’t change when betters find out about RJ Melendez’s emergency appendectomy.

Whether RJ could have helped against Liddell? Debatable. It’s nice to have an extra five fouls, but Underwood has pretty much stuck to a 9-man rotation, even though 12 guys are involved. (Nine play, while three DNP/CD per game.) That’s Luke Goode’s music you’re hearing.

And if Coleman Hawkins continues his aggressive defensive play, he might be just the problem Illinois needs to impose on Liddell.

But we’ll know the outcome when the Buckeyes take the court tonight. It’s Orange Out at SFC, which means the Illini will be wearing orange, perhaps the ’89 throwbacks?

If the Buckeyes dress in white, that means they’ll win. So let’s hope they don’t read Illini Report.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Everyone Hates a Spaz

After yesterday’s narrow victory over Michigan, a Buckeyes reporter asked Duane Washington to describe the feeling when a team’s “connected.” It’s the hot word of the 2021 season.

“There’s no words to describe that feeling,” said Washington. “I know exactly what you’re talking about.”

When Ohio State beat the Illini in January, we all lamented the open looks EJ Liddell got from the arc, and rationalized his 4-of-7 long-range shooting by explaining to ourselves that he’d only attempted three three-pointers through the Buckeyes’ first 13 games.

Yesterday, against an opponent known for its three-point shooting, the Illini made it look easy. And it’s not because Iowa doesn’t have a pivot-man who can shoot from long range. It’s because Illinois was a collective irritant on defense. They were the annoying kid who’s had too much sugar. They kept waving their hands and shouting. It’s irksome.

The best moment to underline this defensive gnatery was Andre Curbelo hovering over a fallen Jordan Bohannon. Bohannon still had control of the ball, but needed to get rid of it. Curbelo flailed his arms in all directions to prevent Bohannon from getting a good look at any potentially open teammate.

For a chico as relaxed as Andre Curbelo, it’s tough to say whether this frenetic energy can be readily called to action. Where did it come from? Belo credited coach Underwood in particular for being in his ass, and one wonders whether physical horseradish was involved.

“You just gotta do it every day. Dive on the floor. That’s what makes Illinois special, man. Those are the little things what make Illinois special. A lot of credit to the coaches, especially Underwood. He’s always on our ass about that. And what better moment to do it than now.”

David Craan / Illinois Athletics

In this specific instance, the energy probably came from within. Moments earlier, Belo got the thrill of turning defense into offense, stripping Joe Toussaint’s ball and taking it solo to the other end for a two-handed flush. No one would have had time to stop him, but it’s interesting that no one tried, either. Instead, Toussaint complained about a no-call. Bill Raftery had just observed the same complaint from Joe Wieskamp, who allowed Ayo an undefended breakaway dunk.

What is it that makes Hawkeye players lose focus, and complain to referees? Where do they get that from?

Contrast Chris Holtmann, who gave his team two simple instructions, as told by Duane Washington after the game: “You’ve gotta move on from everything that happened. Obviously we were up twelve, they got it to one.

“The last huddle we had — before we actually turned the ball over, for them to get another shot up on the rim — coach said ‘hey, forget about everything else. We have one job. We gotta score and get a stop. And you know, we didn’t score.”

Asked to describe himself, what kind of leader he is, Washington said “positive. A positive leader.”

Illinois fans will understand that Chris Holtmann comes from a new school of thought, more modern than Underwood’s Old School. They may recall that Holtmann was roommates with John Groce at that school.

Does Holtmann’s relentless positivity contrast favorably with Underwood’s horseradish? It seems like it’s two paths to the same goal: Inspiring a team to exert all available energy during every moment its opponent has possession of the ball.

Yesterday, the Buckeyes made Juwan Howard look like an idiot on the final possession. And they made Mike Smith look like Hassan Adams.

In five hours, we’ll know who brought the energy today.