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COVID-19 Illini basketball

The Dodgers

As Kentucky’s 8th-seeded runners-up proved in 2014, a young team can lose a lot of games before hitting its stride. That’s the problem facing Illinois tonight: When will this talented, underperforming Michigan team click?

The Hunter Dickinson-Kofi Cockburn match-up is more media hype than reality. They like each other well enough, and as Coleman Hawkins said Thursday, Kofi’s better.

More intriguing for Illini fans who enjoy worrying : Caleb Houstan. The five-star recruit has started every game at the wing, but he’s shooting just 31% from the arc. In 32 minutes per game, he’s averaging 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds. His 21-28 assist-to-turnover ratio isn’t terrible for a 6’8″ freshman. But it’s not great.

Another five-star, Francophone freshman Moussa Diabaté has started six games. Basically, journeyman Brandon Johns kept his seat warm while Diabaté got acclimated. Johns has returned to his role as spot filler. Diabaté’s minutes have gone up steadily.

MOO-suh DEE-yuh-BAH-tay

A 6’11” PF, he’s the Wolverines’ second-leading rebounder with 6.1/game in just under 21 minutes per contest.

His 25 personal fouls is the same as Houstan’s, and just 6 fewer than Dickinson’s, despite playing a total of 250 minutes to their 400. Look for him to be disqualified. Coleman Hawkins will try his damndest to make that happen.

Grad transfer DeVante’ Jones came over from Coastal Carolina to replace Mike Smith in the one year PG role. He leads the team in assists (50 total, 3.8/game) and personal fouls (36) in 27 minutes per game.

He’s also the most accurate shooter from three at 46%, but he’s attempted only 24 on the season. That’s fourth-place on the team, with the center Dickinson not far behind at 17. Houstan has 64 attempts. Super-senior Eli Brooks has launched 65.

Brooks is the last Wolverine of note. At 44 years old, he’s one of those guys who’s “shown flashes” throughout his career. Also a guy who’s earned the trust of two head coaches, because he understands what they want him to do defensively.

Brooks is hitting 37% of his three-pointers this season. It’ll be interesting to see which of Michigan’s guards gets Trent Frazier. Brooks is the more experienced, but disrupting Jones might cause worse outcomes for every Wolverine possession.

Another freshman, SG Kobe Bufkin was B1G Co-Freshman of the Week (with Nebraska’s Bryce McGowens) in mid-December, but pummeling Southern Utah doesn’t prove much. (Tevian Jones scored 4 points in 22 minutes, shot 0-4 from the arc and 2-8 overall. One rebound. Two turnovers.)

The 8 points Bufkin scored against Central Florida might seem more impressive, but Michigan got slaughtered (85-71), so it’s hard to praise anything about that performance.

Bufkin has played in 10 of 13 games, averaging 11 minutes. On the season, he’s made 4-of-14 shots from deep (28.6%). A whole lotta meh.

In short, it’s impossible to predict tonight’s outcome. You just never know when freshman phenoms will have that “breakthrough” game.

Also, we don’t know who’ll suit up, if anyone.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

A gathering of friends

The obvious story line was Hunter Dickinson versus Illinois.

It’s tricky to perpetuate this line with a straight face, because Hunter made plain that he likes Kofi Cockburn and feels no personal animosity toward the Illini team.

On the other hand, you could take offense at Juwan Howard’s refusal to acknowledge Illinois as a rival, because it tends to diminish the Illinois brand. Since Howard rebuffed his home state’s school for the Maize & Blue, way back in 1991 (in the midst of Bruce Pearl-induced sanctions), some Illini fans have correctly felt jilted, even disrespected.

In fact, Illinois is a second-tier B1G school. University of Michigan is better than University of Illinois, by almost every conceivable metric.

Ann Arbor has a cooler downtown. It’s closer to major metropolitan attractions. The academic programs are equal or better. Their airport will get you to Munich or Tokyo and Chicago and Dallas.

Michigan’s football success allows the school to field 29 varsity sports teams. Illinois has just 21. (Ohio State has a whopping 36, including a rifle team. Penn State funds 31.)

So it must be at least slightly infuriating that Howard’s team hasn’t defeated Brad Underwood yet. But Howard, in his #B1GMediaDays availability, couldn’t have praised Underwood more effusively. His refusal to acknowledge Illinois as a rival was also a refusal to disrespect any B1G team.

Yesterday afternoon on the Conseco Banker’s Gainbridge hardwood, Greg Gard bantered with Trevion Williams, Sasha Stefanovic & Eric Hunter — his theoretical enemies.

The day before, it was Maryland’s Donta Scott and Eric Ayala yucking it up with Rutgers’s Ron Harper, Geo Baker and Caleb McConnell. These meetings occurred on the same 20′ square of court, certainly visible to anyone watching BTN while Mike Hall interviewed coaches and players from the xx-chromosome half of B1G hoops.

They’re all friends, whether you hate them or not.

We/Them is a dichotomy that exists only in minds. But it’s an important distinction. Among the B1G, all players, coaches and staff is a We. You are a Them. So am I.

I know I’m a Them because I was on the other side of the stanchions & ropes that protected players & coaches from media. They’re all vaccinated. Are we?

I brought my vaccination card, because the emailed event instructions said someone from the conference might ask, at any time, to see it (or a negative PCR test result from the previous 72 hours). I don’t think that actually happened. The B1G staff was extraordinarily helpful and attentive. Competent and friendly.

Legacy media gained a huge advantage through Covid protocols. It wasn’t hard to hear the coaches and players, who sat fifteen feet away from us. But smartphone mics can’t capture worthwhile audio from that distance. The guys who transcribe words to text, and the guys who plug XLR cables into a mult box (multiple audio jacks, that is), had no problems with the set up. So newspapers and TV stations got the materials they needed.

It was worth going, for me and probably every attendee. Because it was a gathering of friends, and it was nice to see them after a long, lonely winter.

But for you, the fan … well, I hope you got some good coverage from TV and newspapers.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Battle of the Unexpected Warriors

Nobody predicted Michigan would win the B1G this season. No one foresaw Mike Smith and Hunter Dickinson rocketing from unknown & under-recruited to prime time stardom.

If none of you predicted the 76-53 final score of Illini at Wolverines 2021, you’re forgiven. Weird things happen when you remove a primary character from a plot. The story veers off its predicted path. And here we are: Illinois without Ayo Dosunmu is playing like Michigan without Bill Frieder.

All photos from the UM game by Kelsea Ansfield, who is great.

The Chaundee Brown airball free-throw was Michigan’s night in a nutshell. Unexpected, embarrassing and not living up to the earned reputation. It seemed as though the god of basketball squatted over Crisler’s domed roof and squeezed off a giant fart.

How the hell did this team fool the entire United States into believing? How did they wipe the Schott with Ohio State? Where the fuck did this game come from?

H/T Dan O’Brien

SILENCING THE CRITICS

It was fair, as of Tuesday morning, to criticize this Illini team as overrated. You could say they hadn’t earned the lofty seeding “experts” project for The Tournament. After all, they played a cakewalk B1G schedule and barely survived some of those cupcakes. They got trounced by Baylor. They beat Iowa with one Fredrick tied behind its back. They lost to four middling league teams. They played the bottom five teams twice each, and won all ten games.

So they’re 5-4 against the B1G’s not worst teams.

But fair’s fair. The B1G standings say Iowa and Michigan are the top two teams not named ILLINOIS. The Illini beat fourth-place Purdue in their only contest, and Ohio State has lost seven times in conference, including stinkers at Northwestern and Minnesota.

You now have Illini Report’s permission to believe in this team. #YouGoGirl #DoIGetACookie

THE SALARIES, UNCAPPED

And so let us now face an elephant that has finally, at long last, wandered into our room. For the first time in Andre Curbelo’s memory, other teams will want to poach from the Illini coaching staff. (Does Belo even know that three Big 12 coaches once led this program, and that two of them left town of their own volition?)

Rumors began circulating this week about teams who’d like to hire Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman for head coaching positions. And thus, it’s time for Josh Whitman to decide whether he wants Illinois to compete off the court.

Let’s say NIU offers Chin $450,000 to take over from Mark Montgomery. Assuming a five year contract, that would be enough to pay a few tuitions and retire to a modest home. The risk of ruining a career in DeKalb is significant, so it’s not a no-brainer that Chin would go. The DIA response should be to equal whatever NIU offers, with some added performance bonuses. Give Chin reason to stay until a competitive program comes ‘a callin’. Big Boy programs lose assistants to mid-majors, as Montgomery and Howard Moore have shown. But the Blue Bloods also keep their staves intact & cohesive by paying them a lot of money.

Pay these men whatever they ask.

Orlando Antigua will be offered more money than Chin. He’s already been fired from a head coaching position, but athletic directors will have noticed Andre Curbelo, Kofi Cockburn and Andrez Feliz — three drastically different players who all, in their own way, changed the Illini program dramatically.

How much is it worth to have Ayo, Kofi & Belo in Champaign? Is it worth $2 Million per year? That seems like a bargain. I suggest the figure is more like $20 million. #1 seeds are worth a shitload of money. Teams that consistently compete for top talent and conference championships can, essentially, print their own cash. If it takes another few million to keep this staff intact, and they’re all into it, Josh should forget everything he learned from Ron Guenther, and find his checkbook.