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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.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Mood

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.

Andre Curbelo, Jacob Grandison, Jermaine Hamlin (Illinois Athletics)

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.

Categories
Illini Basketball

The Second Foul – A History

A hot topic after back-to-back losses is whether a player should sit after committing two fouls in a first half. Brad Underwood benched Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams for long stretches of the Iowa and Maryland first halves because each had committed a second foul.

Trent Frazier garnered an unfortunate foul at Iowa.

It’s not, by any means, the first time this Second Foul Rule has been hemmed-n-hawed among Illini observers.

Illini basketball has vast experience with the stodgy & inflexible. His name is Bruce Weber, and he’s notoriously hidebound in his approach to game management. The Second Foul Rule is a glaring example, and last March it cost him his second-best and probably last chance at a national title. Chester Frazier abandoned ship after watching Weber coach himself out of the NCAA tournament, losing to 13th-seed Irvine.

Weber needlessly sat first-team all-Big 12 guard Barry Brown for the rest of the first half after he picked up his second foul less than six minutes into the game. – Jeff Eisenberg

https://sports.yahoo.com/how-a-misguided-decision-its-coach-contributed-to-kansas-states-early-exit-223753384.html

Barry Brown finished that game with two fouls, as did Demetri McCamey on March 1, 2011. In that game, Illinois led Purdue by 13 in the first half. Then McCamey picked up his second foul.

Bruce Weber chastens Demetri McCamey

(While searching for these quotes, I found a classic example of Bruce Weber backhanded compliment concerning his best player/favorite target: “He’s grown up a lot. He’s learned how to play, he’s learned how to read defenses, all the things we’ve fought with him about over the years.”)

without McCamey, who was on his way to what might have been one of his best games of the year, the feeling changed instantly. -Mark Tupper

https://herald-review.com/blogs/mark_tupper/a-tough-loss-but-renewed-hope/article_4bb85b30-ac3b-5fb0-ba5d-2895340c8f19.html

With McCamey on the bench, Illinois (8-9 in the Big Ten, 18-12 overall) went scoreless for more than four minutes, plenty of time for the Boilermakers (14-3, 25-5) to seize momentum in front of 14,123 fans. – Stu Durando

https://www.stltoday.com/sports/college/illini/illini-start-fast-then-stumble-at-purdue/article_99ebb23a-f47e-5f33-8663-27db9a597b01.html

That 31-18 lead devolved to a 37-37 tie at halftime. Everyone wrote about McCamey’s benching, including me. I wrote about it again two years ago. I’m sort of obsessed with that game as a prime example of Bruce Weber’s inflexibility, and failure to learn from his mistakes.

This photo is not related to the story. I just couldn’t not publish it.

I also like to point out, at every available opportunity, that Brad Underwood is the anti-Weber.

This week, he addressed the Second Foul Rule twice. I asked in the pre-game press conference, and Brad Sturdy asked in the postgame. Here’s a mashup of those moments.

In short, yes. He will generally pull a player after a second foul in the first half.

But yes, he analyzes each situation and adjusts:

I do that a lot. I think the situation determines that.

I would prefer to have guys have more opportunities to stay aggressive in the second half. Yet that doesn’t always work.

If you feel like a game’s slipping and you need that guy … if you feel like you’re not getting quite the performance you need from the guy that replaced him, you may go back (to the pulled player).

I try to do that in very short stints when I put a guy back in (so) as to not let them get fatigued and commit a lazy foul. Not necessarily have them in there where the opponent can isolate a situation to try and pick up a third. I know we look to try to do that sometimes, depending on the situation.

My main premise for it is to be able to have the three fouls going into the second half, and then and be able to stay aggressive when you play in the second half and the game comes down to the end.

So that’s that’s why I do that. It’s not a everytime deal. But it’s completely based on the flow of the game from that aspect.

-Brad Underwood

So, maybe Underwood isn’t making the split-second decision you want. Maybe he’s not second-guessing himself at the times you’d like. But at least he’s always thinking about whether he can improve and adjust his strategy.

That’s what we want, yes?