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Illini basketball

Defense, travels

What a stupid way to win a championship. Aaaaaaaand we’ll take it, AMIRITE?!?!?

First, the #LuckyBadgers find they’ve spent all their tokens. Then, the Murray Twins can’t buy a free-throw, while Belo spends twenty minutes throwing the ball away. And when the dust settles, a trophy.

As your hangover recedes, you’re already forgetting how the game unfolded. Twenty years from now, you’ll have no idea.

It doesn’t matter.

#Champions

Andre Curbelo regrets that pass

The feeling you had throughout the championship-winning game was probably something like “BELO WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?” or perhaps “COLEMAN WHY DID YOU SHOOT THAT?!?!?”

Honestly, this game felt like a lifetime. And most of the time, you felt like you were dying.

And then, at the other end of the court, Joe Toussaint moved his feet too much while trying to find a passing lane.

Defense. Travels. It was the theme of the game. And Illinois won it, and a championship.

Everything matters. Every single thing.

We remember the Derek Harper three that got Illinois into the 1983 tourney, but we have no idea what the ’84 Illini did to tie Purdue for the conference championship.

*consults internet*

Ah, yes. They lost at Mackey.

I mean, that’s one way to look at it. You could also sayIllinois beat B1G doormat Wisconsin to clinch the deal.

Or don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter.

Illinois was in position, Saturday, to win a Big Ten Championship on Sunday. It didn’t seem likely, but fundamentally, it’s the putting yourself in position that matters.

Coleman Hawkins says no.

The 2002 Illini championship (or 2001? … nah, not even finna Google this time) had a similar less than triumphant, come-from-behind, all dominoes must collapse in this order feel to it. And that’s how those dominoes fell. I think there was an unlikely Wisconsin loss there too, but I ain’t lookin’ it up.

#Champions

Brad Underwood said something important in the PSU postgame, which was about four nights and a lifetime ago. He said he told his team they’d have four or five games in the NCAA Tournament that were like that.

Scrap, scrape, bang, bend. Don’t break.

Don’t brake.

There’s a lot of pressure on this guy, all the time.

It’s been alarming and unnerving to watch Illini basketball these past two months, and yet here you are, celebrating a championship. How should you feel about that? How should you feel about their tourney chances?

1989 was a lot more fun. 2005 felt too easy. 1998 was five wastrels against the Big Bad Izzoes, a genuine David/Goliath story.

2001 was a tragedy, but maybe it helped the Big Ten’s front office recognize that referees should penalize players for fouling other players.

The gritty 2022 championship-winning Illini men’s basketball team feels like an offhand remark that’s been weighted down by the gravity of situation: If it keeps scrapping, it might win a championship. You know, like it just did last night.

“I told them they’d have four or five games like this in the NCAA Tournament” became “I’d like to play nine more.”

That was Brad’s postgame observation about his time with Trent and Da’Monte.

You’re smart. Do the math.

Categories
Illini basketball

The Hottest Team

It’s hard to see how Illinois wins on Senior Night ’22.

Iowa’s win streak is the best in the B1G (equaling Wisconsin). The Hawkeyes can’t miss from three. They’ve got the best pro prospect in the league* and they’ve finally, in Fran’s 12th season, learned how to play defense.

Andre Curbelo has a lot of untested theories about breaking Iowa’s press.

But if Illinois does win, you couldn’t have a better launch to the postseason. It would be like 2020, when Illinois pulled off an impossible win over Iowa, on Senior Day, against the odds.

The reason it might happen is explained in Life, the Universe and Everything: Distraction.

Illini players, maybe even their coach, will be so overwhelmed by their emotions that their basketball game won’t get overthought. They’ll be on autopilot.

That’s good. They know what to do instinctively, so at this point, thinking would counterproductive.

Just sayin’ is all.

Is it foolhardy to suggest #EveryDayGuys will be distracted by their emotions? Brad Underwood was pretty adamant after the Penn State game that, yes, he gets nervous in those last minute situations. Were you expecting that answer, or the conviction and forthrightness with which he proclaimed it? (If no, how great is it to be surprised by your head coach after all these years?)

Underwood’s pre-Iowa presser continued in that direction: “I wear my emotions on my sleeve, as you guys know,” said Brad. And yeah, I’d say we (the dozen-ish people who spend half an hour with him 4x/week during the season) do know it.

He cries on Senior Day. We’ve seen it.

Everybody was loose during Saturday’s media availability. Yes, we talked about Iowa, but mostly the focus was on culture and growth and vomiting and gaining maturity and learning from experience, including vomiting.

Life lessons.

Brad opened his presser eating an apple, which he didn’t bring into camera view on the direction of DIA media handlers. They also seem to have turned off his microphone while he talked about the Harry & David fruit box he receives every month from a friend at Stephen F. Austin, whom he described as a business partner with whom he still does business.

Hence the 50 seconds of silence right after he walked within mic range , here:

Was it the “business partner” aspect that spooked them? Do they not like pears? Piper and Doug also captured videos, but I already checked: The Harry & David portion isn’t there.

Well, we can form conspiracy theories if we want to. The important point is that the team was loose, and its coach was relating at a personal level. Just like human beings.

At this point of the season, @IlliniMBB knows everything about basketball that #EveryDayGuys can be taught. They’ll need to bring a defensive intensity if they want to win against the B1G’s hottest team. Maybe that’s innate now, too. Who knows.

What we do know is that defense wins championships, until said mantra is properly rejected as horseshit. It’s actually the team that scores the most points. Iowa is good at scoring points.

First one to 90 wins.

*This accolade varies depending on Illinois’s opponent. The best player in the Big Ten on Sunday, March 6, is Iowa’s Keegan Murray; because Illinois plays Iowa on Sunday.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Eff All the Bruce Pearls

The following rant is mostly emotional, and features little analysis — outside of the pictures — of the 87-83 Illini win over Iowa, Monday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Maybe I’ll write that column on Wednesday.

The two things that I’m bursting to tell you about are Andre Curbelo’s coaching & cheerleading during the win, and how hard it is to bring you, the fan, good material from an @Iowa game.

First, Belo.

He sat on the floor for most of the game, at the end of the Illini bench, next to trainer Paul Schmidt.

He carried a big Ziploc bag filled with Fun Size packets of Haribo gummi bears. A bit of instant fructose infusion for any teammate who might need a boost.

He called out defensive plays, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish, depending (duh) on the target of his advice. He wailed about his teammates’ inability to break the Iowa press, yelling “JUST GO!” as Trent Frazier got bogged down in a double team, five feet short of the ten second line, with those ten seconds expiring. Belo saw the open court ahead of Trent. Trent didn’t see it.

Trent gets inside his own head a lot, and this was one of those times.

In defense of Trent, the Iowa defense was violent, and the referees incompetent.

Belo was up and active for most of the game. But there came a time in the second half, a media timeout, where he stayed hunched on the floor, looking at his feet, as the team left the bench to form the NCAA-mandated Huddle Square (the time for team managers to shine, by snappily opening those round-top stool seats).

Schmidt reached out an arm, and pulled Belo to his feet. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. Everyone needs a helping hand sometimes.

No foul called.

Illini fans enjoy insulting Iowa, and there are plenty of insults to yield. The B1G’s whitest fanbase is stuck in 1952, although Eisenhower was surely too liberal for their liking. Listening to Iowa’s AM radio (Iowa Basketball Radio Network affiliate) on the drive in, I understood why so much of middle America believes the craziest things.

He even chases long rebounds. You gotta love this guy, for real.

Iowa is the worst place to cover Big Ten basketball. The people who work at Carver-Hawkeye are all very friendly and accomodating, but the facilities are decades behind. So on the one hand, you’ll get great pictures and video from an @Iowa game, because Iowa provides photographers and videographers good spots and good lighting. The Wi-Fi works, and that’s important.

As a representaive of the Illini basketball media pool, I apologize for all the materials we uploaded last night. It’s not our fault. It’s effing Iowa.

Jake hoisted this one as soon as he touched it, knowing the shot clock situation. He’s smart. (It went in.)

They offer no media workroom. They offer no sound system. They offer no hospitality area (eating).

It’s the #B1G’s last unreconstructed facility. Even Williams Arena has more modern tech, and it’s older than Bob Dole (a fine American, may he rest in peace). Trying to report from Carver-Hawkeye in 2021 is like a Tardis to the newspaper era, and a lot of you noticed how poor our product was. (I’m sorry.)

The most important takeaway from Monday night’s game, if you read the non-weird reporters, is perhaps that Illinois won. But I’ma take a big picture persepective. The Belo thing has all of us worried, and Iowa’s trapping, three-quarter court press demonstrated that Brad’s team needs a healthy Belo.

It was great to see Belo engaged, enthusiastic. He saw, from the most distant corner of the hardwood, what needed to be done.

Perhaps he’ll be ready to do it, sooner than later. Fingers crossed.

#ISupportBelo

That said, Plummer’s minutes are working oout pretty well.
Categories
Illini Basketball

The Fighting Frans

When Brad Underwood starts rolling, the elite, elite barrage can grow somnolescent. Every team that happens to be next on the schedule is the best team they’ll face all year. Or maybe it just feels that way.

But because Iowa came close to upsetting Purdue, at Mackey, without their best player, on Friday; we must regard Sunday’s warning as stark realism. The Frans are good.

Yes, Connor McCaffery is still there.

Losing Luka Garza, Joe Wieskamp and CJ Fredrick should’ve hurt more. But now that Fran is in year twelve, his teams have managed the Stay Old part of basketball’s favorite success formula.

Specifically, Joe Toussaint got old while you were worrying about other Hawkeyes. Toussaint has always been a pain in the ass, but evidently he’s now learned how to shoot, too. Watching him battle Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams should be one of the most entertaining aspects of tonight’s game.

They’re all scrappy and tough. One assumes some amount of blood will spill, even if it’s only scraped knuckles.

Unfortunately, Andre Curbelo won’t be available to get in Toussaint’s head. Brad said “same status” to a Sunday question seeking an update on Belo’s well-being. Here’s what Belo did to Joe last year.

The breakout star for Iowa is Keegan Murray, whose press began glowing while Luka Garza’s cot was still occupied.

Murray had one other scholarship offer, according to Brad, from Western Illinois. And now he’s in the Lottery discussion.

His twin brother Kris doesn’t get the same press, but Brad suggested he’s purty durn good too. Patrick McCaffery, Connor’s younger brother, also got a mention from Brad.

Finally, there’s Jordan Bohannon. He’s the guy you love to hate, and would hope to have on your team. In a way, Illinois does have him on its roster this year, except that his name is Alfonso Plummer.

Bohannon and Plummer are among the most dangerous marksmen in college basketball. Both are slightly shorter than you are. Both are better at creating their own shots than their reputations suggest.

This is how long Jordan Bohannon has been at Iowa.

There are some differences. Bohannon will chuck it from 30 feet, successfully. Plummer hasn’t shown that tendency. As far as we know, Plummer is not hated by his fellow students.

It’s been a while since Illinois won at Iowa. Monday feels like a good time to do it. The Frans aren’t good at defense, historically. But ball-handling has been Illinois’s Achilles Heel this season. We’ll see how well Trent and Da’Monte fare against an aggressive trapping press.

Of note to fans of great basketball players: Illini WBB wing Kendall Bostic grabbed 22 rebounds in Sunday afternoon’s 71-57 win over Eastern Kentucky.

That’s the third-best performance in Illinois WBB history.

  • 1. 30 rebounds – Betty Anderson vs. Eastern Illinois (1/23/75) 
  • 2. 23 rebounds – Martha Hutchinson vs. Indiana St. (1/24/80) 

She’s smart, and fun to watch.

Kendall Bostic grabs a rebound
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.

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?