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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Must Win

If you bet on the ’22 Illini to win a #B1G championship, you’re already suffering indigestion from Tuesday’s game in Minneapolis. And you still have hours of sweating palms to go.

Your discomfort began when the Gophers, the pre-season’s unanimous pick for last place, beat Michigan.

Jamison Battle, who is not Talor Battle, shoots with his left hand.

But is Minnesota, currently Receiving Votes and formerly, briefly Ranked, good?

Eh. Maybe.

It doesn’t matter. Your quest is the Illini quest. The Illini quest is to win the B1G. Winning the B1G means winning at Minnesota. It’s a proven fact.

The 1984 Illini did it, and they won the B1G. The ’89 team lost its first game of the season in Minneapolis (after Kendall Gill went down with the greenstick fracture in his foot) and finished second to the Indiana team that it beat twice.

Lon Kruger’s scrappy 98ers didn’t have to go to Mpls. They beat Izzo in Champaign, and thus tied MSU for a conference title.

The 2001 champs beat a lowly Gophers team at Williams. The 2002 Illini clinched a B1G championship with that frenzied finish that you still watch on YouTube when you’re drunk, even though it’s low-def and blurry.

WHO THEY DON’T HAVE

If addition-by-subtraction had a poster, it would be the 2021 Golden Gophers. They all bailed, making their ex-program better.

Gabe Kalscheur is raining buckets in Ames, second only to ex-Penn State Izaiah Brockington in leading TJ Otzelberger’s miracle turnaround. Brandon Johnson, who gave Illinois fits last year, joined Paris Parham in their mutual hometown. (Rob Judson is there, too!)

Jamal Mashburn Jr. followed Richard Pitino to Albuquerque. Both Gach transferred to Utah. Liam Robbins went to Vanderbilt.

Marcus Carr just dropped 20 on Bob Huggins, having moved from 80s music hot spot Minneapolis to 90s music hotspot Austin.

What is it with the Gold & Maroon?

WHO THEY HAVE

Payton Willis left Minnesota. Payton Willis returned to Minnesota.

After a vacation year at College of Charleston, this erstwhile trumpeted Gopher is, again, a trumpeted Gopher. You can understand why he didn’t want to compete with Kalscheur & Carr for PT, but he might be better than either of them.

With an ATO of 45-to-21, shooting 46% from the arc and 50% overall, you’d like to think that his weak point is defense.* Unfortunately, dudes seem to get better at defense as they mature. Payton was born at the front end of 1998. He played at Vanderbilt for his first two seasons, and Vanderbilt is uppity about admitting dummies.

Minnesota’s other threat is Jamison Battle, whom Brad identified as “Talor Battle” in Monday’s presser. So you know it’s bad news. Talor Battle haunted the B1G from an underdog spot. That was ten years ago. Brad’s still recovering, and he wasn’t even a B1G coach back then.

Jamison Battle scores and rebounds. He’s a “tough guard” as the kids like to say, because he can post up and hit from three (36%).

6’7″ and 225 lbs., motivated, chip on his shoulder for having to leave town (two years at GW Colonials) before coming home to play for the team he’d always wanted to lead, this kid is trouble.

OVERSOLD STAT

In the pre-game presser, Minnesota’s three-point defense was a point of emphasis among the Askers. Brad Underwood said Michigan connected on 9 of them and MSU on ten. The latter stat is correct. MSU was 10-for-21 from the arc. The Wolverines managed 3-of-18.

It’s immaterial.

There’s no evidence that this Minnesota team can compete with legitimate squads. Beating Illinois would help their cause, but the Illini aren’t a proven commodity either. If you’re prepared to reject The Myth of Juwan Howard (and I know you want to) the Gophers’ only win over a quasi-legit team was beating Ben Howland in Starkville.

But Mississippi State is 10-3. They beat Arkansas on December 29, and that’s their only good win. (The previously mentioned MSU’s Rocket Watts is now in Starkville, and played 8 minutes in that game. He’s averging 13.6/game. Tom Izzo once had great hopes for him.)

They lost to Louisville and Colorado State. They needed overtime to top Richmond. (I know you think Richmond is a mid-major super-power, but they haven’t made the tourney since Jereme Richmond was skipping class.)

*LIKE* BEN JOHNSON

Unless you’re playing against him, and until further notice, you want Minnesota’s new coach to succeed, for all kinds of reasons. But certainly, the best part is that he faced the lowest expectations, acknowledged them, and then kept on keeping on.

*His weakness is free-throws.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Better Part of Valor

When I asked Marcus Carr about Illini guards and the trouble they caused him, I employed the second person singular, “you.” Unfortunately, in the English language, the same word addresses second person plurals. Or is it second persons plural?

His response made clear that he interpreted “you” as his team. He said that while the guards were very quick, it was really Kofi who caused the problems. His tone made clear that he’d rather be anywhere else.

I pivoted. I decided against clarifying. I didn’t say “no, no I’m talking about how Trent took you out of the game.” I didn’t see the point. Instead, I asked a bland question about Ayo, the kind of boring workaday tripe that you hear in most boring Q&As with athletes.

The trouble I’m having now, as I attempt to conjure a meaningful, relevant set of paragraphs capturing the zeitgeist of Illini Basketball circa December 2020; I need to know whether Marcus Carr felt thoroughly dominated by Trent Frazier.

Also, I need to know whether Carr felt confined by the help defense provided by Trent’s teammates. Did the bigs step up to fill the gaps? Did everyone rotate in sync? How has Ayo improved defensively since last year?

Nope, I just copped out entirely.

Michael Glasgow / Illinois Athletics

Gabe Kalscheur seemed sunnier. So I asked him how all the new parts were coming together for his team. He said everything was great and everybody super, or something along those lines.

“But you (plural) just completely fell apart and got plowed, ” I didn’t follow-up, again thinking that discretion is the better part of something. And so is not insulting people.

I took the same (easy way) out a day earlier, when Kofi offered a breezy reply to my question about his own rotations on defense. Kalscheur and Kofi were both easy on themselves.

But on the bright side — or, more accurately, the extremely gloomy side — you don’t have to worry about Kofi not worrying. It’s really amazing how openly self-critical he is. If he were an American, raised on Big Boys Don’t Cry and similar idioms; you’d never see this side of him. Presumably, you’d never see the real him.

Hunter Dyke/Mizzou Athletics

Josh Whitman and Randy Ballard keep talking about the mental health aspect of student-athlete well being, and they couldn’t ask for a better face/spokesperson/poster child. By evincing physical dominance and a childlike curiosity, laughing with his teammates while also confessing his angst and obstacles; Kofi demonstrates a truth that pastors, therapists and 12-step sponsors have counseled for decades: You can be successful and generally happy and yet never completely overcome your continual struggles, whatever they may be.

It’s damn noble for Kofi to air it all out as he does. Some kid is listening, worshipping his idol, and feeling relieved that he’s not alone in his moments of darkness and doubt.

So when Kofi spoke confidently about quarterbacking the defense, reading and rotating; I didn’t push him with the third variable of my original question: Where does he have room for improvement?

It’s an open-ended question, not as confrontational as “why do you suck so badly” or even “you’ve been struggling lately, how come?” Kofi’s defensive rotations were not perfect. It’s okay. He’ll continue to improve in that area.

Just look at his improvement on offense! His low post moves had been few and of limited efficacy. He rewrote that narrative in just one night, and it was awesome.

He was, nevertheless, reflective in his postgame remarks. Especially the ones that weren’t asked by sports dudes.

I’m glad I was on the other line, as it were, when that Q&A unrolled. Sometimes it’s best just to listen.