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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Enter Glass Man

Contemplating a return match with the B1G’s enigmatic Indiana Hoosiers, you should focus on rebounding and how the Hoosiers approach it.

Angry white trash fans will tell you — between calls for Archie Miller’s head — that their team has been pretty damn good on defense this year. The offense stalls for massive dead periods, predictably, if not every single game.

As for boards, Indiana is not good. Or at least, they’re not as good as conference opponents. Here’s a chart of recent Illini opponents, and how they perform on the glass in B1G games.

Some obvious points here: Iowa has the most rebounds per game because they play fast. Ohio State has the most rebounds overall because they’ve played 12 games. Rutgers has more O-bounds than its opponents, and fewer overall. Maryland does not compete for offensive rebounds. Not always, anyhow.

Not crashing the O-boards was key to Maryland’s win in Champaign. By sending their guys the other way, Maryland’s defense allowed itself to fend off Ayo and the blitzkrieg Illini transition game.

Deconstructing that game, Terps coach Matt Brady said this of the Illini “7 seconds” plan:

“Transition is such a big deal for them, We lost to Illinois (the Tevian Jones game) when they beat us in transition. And even though they got 18 points in transition (this January), we said we’re gonna send three if not four guys back. We’re not even going to try to get an offensive rebound unless we have a great chance to get a rebound. It’s another one of the things, if you’re going to beat them, you have to keep them out of transition. It was part and parcel of what we tried to do.”

Contrast Friday’s Iowa game. Every time the Hawkeyes made a bucket, Ayo immediately sprinted through their “defense” for a lay-up.

Ohio State won in Champaign because they did something unusual — or at least unusual for them: They relied on three-point shooters who hadn’t previously been successful from the arc.

It’s hard to scout for things that never happen, and it’s not worth scouting for things that rarely happen. That’s why Illini fans perseverate about the unknown bench player who “goes off” against Illinois. In truth, that happens to every team. It’s the nature of the game.

Like Ohio State, Indiana is small-ish on the interior. Like EJ Liddell, Trayce Jackson-Davis is a natural power forward who plays somewhat out of position. But unlike EJ Liddell, Trayce Jackson-Davis has not attempted a three-pointer this year. Not even during Indiana’s three non-conference blowouts.

So the key thing to watch for tonight is how Indiana sets up on the defensive end. Will they get back before Ayo takes off for the races? Will they keep the ball out of Kofi’s hands? That’s been an Achilles heel for Illinois this year. You’d want Kofi to get more than 10 touches per game, but so far, Brad Underwood’s scheming has not produced more touches. A few Zooms ago, he chuckled at the notion that any scheming could achieve a more open, or less harassed, Kofi.

But if it weren’t possible, you’d never have heard of Aloysius Anagonye. There’s a list of famous Spartans from Zach Randolph to Kelvin Torbert to the supersoft Paul Davis whose interior efforts were greatly advanced by Aloysius Anagonye felling defenders left and right around them.

So far in the Underwood tenure, Illinois has employed the butt-screen for its little guys, rather than as flack protection for its bigs.

Giorgious

When Kofi does get the ball, he’ll need to keep it high. away from help defenders.

Jackson-Davis is a good shot blocker, and he has a thick base. His shoulders aren’t as broad as you’d expect if you only got a chance to look at his lower trunk. But he knows how to use his hands in low-post defensive situations. But if Kofi can muscle the ball upward, he (or a teammate) will get slightly more than one chance per shot to achieve ball-through-ring.

Indiana doesn’t rebound well, and Jacob Grandison has launched himself into a prominent role largely because his natural instinct is to rush the offensive glass (90% according to Underwood).

If Kofi gets 15 touches, Indiana loses. If Grandison gets four second-chance buckets, Indiana loses.

But teams don’t need to rebound, certainly not offensively, if they never miss. Quod erat demonstrandum. If Rob Phinisee and Aljami Durham drain their threes*, and if Kofi gets twelve touches or fewer, Indiana wins.

*Armaan Franklin will make his, if he plays. He’s shooting 46% this season. Durham is 32% & Phinisee is 35%

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Illini Basketball

Snowy Centre

Jim Ferry made an interesting point in his postgame Q&A session. Illinois has two NBA players, he said. Which is nice, he said.

But that’s not the reason his team lost.

Ayo and Kofi combined for 53 points, and did it pretty efficiently — Kofi on 11-of-13 shots in the paint, and Ayo on 50% shooting from farther away.

But it was laziness, he didn’t quite say, that lost the game for his interim Lions. Little Things, he said, as if talking about Da’Monte Williams, were the difference. But big things (guarding your man, rebounding) and not fouling left and right were also the difference.

Ferry pointed out that the stats were fairly even, and everybody performed well offensively.

But Illinois attempted 28 FTs while the home team attempted SEVEN.

TOTAL.

It’s almost as if Brad Underwood got angry after the Rutgers game, and Mentioned It to his team. Yes, the game at Penn State was the complete Bizarro 180° reversal of the game at Rutgers. Just like last year!

But let’s get back to that initial observation: Ayo & Kofi combine for 53 points, and that wasn’t the difference in the game, according to the guy who lost it.

It’s an important point to keep in mind. If opposing teams are willing to let Ayo get his 30, and Kofi his 23 while they focus on Mulcahying the rest of the team into submission, Illinois should be worried.

So yeah, that’s why all of you and all of us knew Jake Grandison would be the guy proffered as postgame spokesman last night. And oh my those offensive rebounds.

The supporting cast of this Tale of 2021 has yet to be written into the script. We know the leads. We know the ensemble. We don’t know who’s going to provide the comic relief, as it were.

No, sorry, that’s obviously Curbelo.

We don’t know who the Ervin Small is going to be. The guy who disrupts the other team, because they weren’t expecting him, nor the fight he brought to the contest.

Good on Jake for being that guy last night. It will be Adam Miller in February. It might be Coleman Hawkins playing the (taller) P.J Bowman role in a crucial March game. Last night it was Jake, and you should feel good about that, because Jake is a good guy.

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Illini Basketball

Here We Go, Yo

Miller & Curbelo becomes a reality in a few hours, presuming everybody’s saliva stays COVID-free as it was today. All the multi-team eventers are in town, tested and negative (so far). So here’s my version of the pre-season write-up.

Despite unanswerable questions regarding unseen players, we know a lot about the 2021 Illini. It’s still the Ayo & Kofi show. Da’Monte Williams remains the Dirty Worker. Trent might connect on a higher percentage of threes this season. Giorgi might adjust to the four spot.

Da’Monte Williams swats the ball from Minnesota’s Alihan Demir on the would-be game tying shot, sealing the win

Coach Underwood’s interest in spreading the floor, establishing a hi-lo game, and passing/shooting over shorter opponents has grown since last year. It’s why he recruited Coleman Hawkins and Luke Goode. Thus, the current state of Illini Basketball should recall turn of the century teams moreso than the Flyin’ Illini, or the Deron-Dee experience.

What role will the newcomers play? I’ve read a lot of speculation about these new guys. You’ve read the same things. I don’t know if I learned anything.

I write only about first-hand experiences, and I’ve never seen any of the new Illini play an actual live game. Practices and hype videos don’t tell me much. Will anyone bring the tenacity lost when Andres Feliz matriculated?

Feliz kept Illinois in games when Kofi was neutralized and Ayo was off. That Minnesota game, pictured above, was a prime example.

Can Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo fight like Dre fought? That’s what I’m eager to see. The Illini were not great last year. They were improving. It’s comparable to the 2004 version of Deron-Dee. Lots to be embarrased about, but coming together at the end. And you know what happened the year after that.

The Michigan game will be remembered for this shot. But it was the Wolverines’ game to win, and they choked.

An ongoing confusion, for me, is the conflation of Hutcherson and Grandison. Presumably it’s the shared Scandinavian patronymic. People meld the two. In written accounts, they’re interchangeable. That’s weird. Hutcherson is tiny, and seemingly breakable. Grandison has a man’s body. One is a forward. The other is a guard.

Jacob Grandison is a forward

I’ve never had a conversation with Hutcherson. He’s a nearly blank slate for me. All I know is that he’s really skinny, and when people quote Underwood as saying he’s the best athlete on the team, they should remember that Underwood described Mark Smith as having “it” and “the It factor” about a week before saying Da’Monte Williams had “it” and “whatever It is.”

Here’s a Zoom with Austin from September. I wasn’t on the call. I’m watching it for the first time, too.

Jacob is the son of high-achieving academics, and he speaks like a graduate student. Because he’s 6’6″ and swole, you want to envision him on the wing, knocking opponents to the ground with a solid screen before slipping to the arc and draining threes. Because he’s not as tall as a typical 4, I’ll be curious to see his rebounding technique.

Austin is known as a shooter, and he says he’s gained 10-15 lbs. since arriving last year. Because he’s been out with back spasms, and won’t play in the MTE, he’s the obvious Enigma of the ’21 Illini.

The recently sung, formerly undersung freshman is Coleman Hawkins. Earlier today, Underwood expressed surprise that Hawkins is already solidifying his role on the wing. Despite Coleman’s assertion that he’s NOT A POINT GUARD, that judgment is really up to you. Was Earvin Johnson a point guard? What is a point guard?

Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, like Hutcherson, will sit out the MTE. So you’re likely to see Hawkins and Grandison early and often, probably feeding Kofi from the top of the key.

But none of these guys is likely to start. Unless Underwood keeps his promise of picking names from a hat, it’ll be five familiar faces when the ball goes up Wednesday at 1 p.m.

Here we go. It begins.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Every Little Thing

Brad Underwood name-checked Da’Monte Williams 36 seconds into his opening statement. In fact, Da’Monte was the first person he praised.

Having done this “reporting” thing for more than ten years, I can guarantee you that half of the Wolverine media pool thought “who?” Another 48% recognized the name, but had not considered it while writing the first draft of their stories.

credit: Vashoune Russell

“I can’t say enough about Da’Monte Williams and the job he did today. I think he guarded every player on the floor for them.”

This is the kind of money quote that lands in newspapers.

For the kill shot, Underwood added “his value doesn’t show in the stat sheet,” which the reporters were at that very moment scouring in hopes of finding the name he’d just said before they forgot what name he’d just said. ” but it sure does to winning basketball.”

A few minutes later, Ayo Dosunmu allowed himself a diversion from answering questions about himself & his fellow stars.

“I also wanna give kudos not only to the guys who played but to The Fun Bunch as well.”

Ayo rolled off the names of his non-star teammates, here at 3:16

“Tyler Underwood, Austin Hutcherson, Jay (Jacob Grandison), Sammy (Oladimeji), Zima (Zach Griffith).

“They don’t get any recognition, but at the end of the day, those are guys that’s pushin’ us each & every day in the gym. Making the scout team. Making it tough for us. Pushing us defensively. Making us lock in. Those guys are a huge part of our success and it’d be selfish of me not to give them credit.”

Alan Griffin didn’t play, of course. But he was very much involved in the win. Just before the second half began, Alan worked his way down the bench, dapping every teammate.

Alan’s B1G suspension kept him from hitting the big shot. But when Ayo got the ball with ten seconds remaining, Alan leapt from the bench and slapped two fingers against the easy access vein on his right forearm.

Fortunately, these Illini shoot only basketballs. Alan’s gesture referenced Ayo’s cold-bloodedness. Two jukes later, Ayo proved him right.

This game was the epitome of every little thing. When Ayo slipped on an unwiped wet spot, he turned the ball over. If Illinois had lost by a point or two, fans could rightly blame Michigan’s game day crew for failing to wipe it up.

And then there were the free-throws.

credit: Vashoune Russell

I feel terrible for Austin Davis, especially.

Everyone knows Zavier Simpson is a lousy free-throw shooter, so his misses are swallowed with a grain of salt. He’s been outstanding for the Wolverines, in every way but one.

I’ve never met Franz Wagner, and I couldn’t hear what he said (could you?) in that grainy, out-of-focus postgame scrum you and 980 others watched after Saturday’s game (thank$).

But he’d converted 20-of-23 FT attempts coming into that game. The fact that he missed both of his coulda-been-game-clinching attempts is inexplicable. He’ll kick himself about it, but the fact is, he’s good. And shit happens.

But Austin Davis needed a good bounce, and he didn’t get it.

In his third year of active duty, the RS-junior center has played a total of 260 minutes.

On Saturday, he was the energy guy who rallied his team to take the lead after Isaiah Livers aggravated that groin injury. After sitting out a year, playing 50 and 93 total minutes in his next two seasons, and seeing action in only 12 games so far this year; this was Austin Davis’s moment.

Frankly, he was great. Unfortunately, his effort and energy will be, in his mind, completely eclipsed by the fact that when he stood at the charity stripe for the fifteenth time in his career, he missed for the eighth.

I have a super-soft spot for these Wolverines. I didn’t want them to beat the Illini Saturday. They’ve had enough victories over Illinois to last them a while. But John Beilein is the best coach I’ve ever watched, and he was also an earnest, honest and comprehensible communicator. He instilled those values in his players.

I got to know them a little during their run to the 2017 B1G Tourney championship run, and just now discovered that the commemorative documentary I made of their harrowing travel misadventures was ruined by a faulty video card!

Why doesn’t anybody ever tell me these things?