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Illini basketball

The Grinding

Jamall Walker and Ryan Pedon both know what it’s like to be Geoff Alexander right now. Both are recent Illini SPAHCs (Special Assistant to the Head Coach). Both are current assistant coaches, and both had been assistant coaches before becoming SPAHCs.

They know about the transition from a coaching role. They know how to operate as an advance scout and administrator, and then transition back to a coaching role.

Ryan Pedon, during his time at Illinois

Walker was just pulling up to the Grand Canyon Lopes Basketball offices this morning, on his way to a meeting. He had just enough time to say he was excited about Geoff’s promotion, and wishes him well.

Pedon was happy for Geoff as well. When he heard about the promotion, he dashed off a letter of congratulations to his new B1G rival.

I just wrote him a note the other day and said I was really happy for him. I admire guys who worked their way up in the profession. I’ve always felt like he was one of those guys. Respectful guy. Has a very good reputation.


I know he’s kind of grinded his way through this profession and I appreciate guys like that.

When Brad Underwood announced Alexander’s promotion to assistant coach, he denied that there’d been An Understanding between them. Alexander did not become Special Assistant to the Head Coach with the assurance that he’d get a shot, when an opening cropped up, at his current job.

Jamall Walker (top middle) and Geoff Alexander watch a huddle during the 2017-18 season.

Underwood was a SPAHC as recently as Bob Huggins’s lone year at Kansas State. Like (and occasionally with) Geoff, he’s toiled in obscurity, working his way up through the profession. So you can see why he’d want to give Alexander the chance, and also why he’d demand that Geoff earn that chance.

Are the jobs really that different? The SPAHC job doesn’t pay as much. But you get more time at home, because you’re not responsible for evaluating prospects, and then recruiting them.

Pedon said the SPAHC job is pretty labor intensive, even without the excess travel. But the recruiting assistant is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

I think it is a big change for families. There’s a really dramatic difference. All families & all wives adjust to that differently. But it’s not like you’re going from “9 to 5” to that (always on the road).

I’m sure Geoff was not anywhere close to “9 to 5,” so there is a little bit of an understanding already. But, just the travel, and the amount he’ll not be around, That’ll be fairly different. Especially at certain times of the year, like springtime on weekends, and summertime when you’re chasing 17 and 18 year-olds all over the damn country.

Pedon said the hardest part of the SPAHC job, as you might expect, is learning not to coach. The NCAA allows its member programs just three assistants. If anyone else joins in the coaching duties, whether it’s off-campus recruiting or offering verbal instructions in the practice gym; that’s a violation.

Ryan Pedon (just left of referee Terry Wymer) watches from the sidelines during the Groce Era

Instinctually, it’s the hardest. Not to speak up when you see something.  You have to be aware of what you can and can’t do.

I’m a big believer, not just in this profession, in staying in your lane. I tried to do that, as much as I could, in that role. ‘Cause I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes. And I wanted to be there as a resource, and something positive for our program. For my boss, our head coach.

I wanted to give John (Groce) exactly what he wanted out of me.
And sometimes that varies, from coach to coach. Part of my deal was trying to be an extra set of eyes and ears for him, and the rest of the coaches. And help them in their particular areas. But I didn’t necessarily need to, or want to be, the guy that Had All The Answers. That’s not what that role is for.

It’s a delicate balance. That’s just my take on it. So I tried to be aware, and respectful, of what my role was.

The Illinois program should hope that Geoff Alexander’s career mirrors Pedon’s. Their career arcs, to this point, are similar. Both played college ball, but not at the high-major level. Alexander was at Western Illinois, Pedon at College of Wooster. Both got assistant coaching gigs in competitive mid-majors conferences (Missouri Valley and MAC) before accepting the SPAHC job at Illinois.

OhioStateBuckeyes.com

Pedon is now a top candidate for a major head coaching gig, having developed Chris Holtmann’s tOSU program into a perennial B1G contender, via cunning game-planning and unexpectedly good recruiting. If Geoff Alexander can mimic that success, the Illini might keep the next E.J Liddell at home.

Pedon didn’t want to share his scouting report with IlliniReport after the Buckeyes win in Champaign this year, pointing out in the days that followed that the two teams would meet again. But he was happy to offer some observations and encouragement to a man who’ll be chasing those same 17 and 18 year-olds all around the damn country.

He’ll also get to know Geoff Alexander better. Up ’til now, it’s mostly been word of mouth.

(Do you know Geoff?)

Just a little bit. Not on a real personal level. Just having worked with some of the same guys. I’ve known of him for a long time and he’s always seemed like a really good guy to me.

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Illini Basketball

Varese, Day 3 – Gazzada

First, the good news. Alan Griffin is “playing above the rim,” as they say.

Has anyone compared him to Kendall Gill yet? No? Well, they will. He’s bigger and stronger and still bouncy and suddenly recognizing that, despite a non-hyped recruiting experience; he can play with these guys.

Italy has been good for Tevian Jones, too. Like Griffin, he’s displaying a good balance of triple-threat capabilities. In Gazzada, Jones scored 18 points, in various ways.

Last year, people didn’t get to know Tevian as well as they might, were it not for 1933’s cult classic Reefer Madness, and the McCarthyism it engendered among Americans. Fortunately, a violation of team rules is now legal in Illinois, and the NCAA should adapt to the new legal landscape within a quarter-century, judging by their previous progressive acumen.

Tevian spent a lot of his downtime in long talks with his mentors. These sessions were observable from afar, so I did. He spent a lot of time after practice, before games, etc. in deep. It happened again last night, when Coach O spent his pizzatime offering wisdom.

Everyone seems to be having a good time, although this reporter suspects they aren’t getting enough sleep. Dragged out of bed for a bus ride through thunderstorms to a boat ride through thunderstorms is not what I would have done (and, in fact, didn’t). But later that night the lads pwn3d another local team, which included a few elements of the previous night’s local team.

The families were glad to have the opportunity, although they too would have liked to have known the games weren’t in pricey Milan but instead small towns where the rooms are dirt cheap. Lali Bezhanishvili paid only $80 for a round trip from Wien, but stayed in Milan rather than Varese. She had to go back to work today.

The Dosunmu posse has been touring northern Italy for ten days already, led by experienced traveler and recovering attorney Jamenda McCoy. They’re having a good time either way. Meanwhile, Ayo has attained cult status. Middle-aged Italian men swarmed him after the Gazzada game, to ask about his NBA plans.

People paid to get in at Gazzada (despite all pre-game information to the contrary), and at least 3/4 of the crowd was rooting for the home team, although not antagonistically. They appreciated the artistry & athleticism of our American lads.

Afterward, they all asked for (and got) pictures with the Illini.

This poster hung at the front door to the Gazzada gym

Jamall Walker also didn’t sleep yesterday, despite arriving at 9 a.m. on an overseas flight. He said he got in a little work-out and walked around town a bit, adding that naps are for *******.

It’s too bad that he had to walk around Milan. Milan is, as civic engineering goes, as close to Soviet central planning as Italians get. Lifeless apartment blocks stretch for miles from the city center. The next Rudy Guede cycles aimlessly through the tourist zones, harassing local women in a way that would floor #MeToo activists (which is his goal, but not metaphorically).

That brings us to the bad news.

The Italian Trip will provide lifelong memories for the individuals. It’s a disaster for the program. This was meant to be the testing ground for new players. To get Kofi Cockburn integrated in the system, while Giorgi adapts to the four-spot.

Instead, the flagship campus continues a years long tradition of asking its willing joiners to play out-of-position, because it’s incapable of getting its own roster on the court.

The reaction from the DIA, when asked for comment on the “visa situation” from a reliable spokesperson (such as the Athletics Director, the coaching staff, its overseeing Faculty Representative; all of whom were within 25 yards) was to ridicule the suggestion that this blunder merits any ink.

That’s always a sign. When PR people tell you there’s no story here, there’s always a really interesting story.

Speaking of non-stories, and the lengths PR people go to stop them, here’s a picture of the beer truck outside the Gazzada venue. After last nights win, Brad Underwood and the entire coaching staff lined up to patronize these guys. It’s just their way of showing thanks. I didn’t stick around to take any pictures. I had a train to catch. And although Brad loves to tell stories about beer (and even Zima) with cameras rolling, sometimes it’s best to allow people to be themselves off-camera.

Livorno is a significantly more Italian city. I’m here now. The team probably won’t see it, except for the inside of its gym. We’ll find out tomorrow,

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Illini basketball

Basketball practice 10-23-17

Monday’s basketball practice was held at the State Farm Center. Returning to the scene of the crime, if you will.

Losing to Indiana State in Sunday’s “secret scrimmage” will likely be remembered as the first milestone on the road to recovery. The phrase “change the culture” is 2017’s version of “it is what it is,” 2012’s favorite cliché among young ballers. But there’s no better phrase for describing Brad Underwood’s current mission. He took over a club that was accustomed to losing. He thinks they’ve just accepted it. He won’t.

Underwood’s staff learned a lot about their team Sunday. Most of it is intangible, and can’t be translated into data. Sure, they kept track of missed shots. They tracked rebounding. They even know how many times the lads missed an opportunity to set a screen.

But mostly, they learned about posture, effort and mindset. Fundamentally, this team is inexperienced. Most of these guys have never played college basketball. None of them has played for Underwood.

Except one.

If it seems preposterous to keep mentioning a walk-on in these reports, I say pshaw. Until there’s a practice where Tyler Underwood doesn’t do something exceptional, I’ll keep mentioning him. It’s like his dad vis-à-vis Thomas Walkup. I have not once been in the same room with Brad Underwood when he didn’t mention Thomas Walkup. Monday’s practice was no exception, in both cases. Tyler Underwood directed his teammates through drills, and his dad told a story about Thomas Walkup. I hadn’t heard this particular Walkup story before. It was harrowing. I wonder whether he’ll ever tell it in front of cameras.

Cameras were rolling throughout Monday’s practice.  Jason Marry & Zach Altfillisch of Fighting Illini Productions were on hand, and Coach Underwood was mic’d up.  You should hope that you’ll be allowed to hear his speech about the secret scrimmage. It was gripping.

Marry also recorded the post-practice huddle at center court, which seemed to last about fifteen minutes.

It’s possible that these moments will be shared with the public. On the other hand, maybe not. Talking to Underwood off-camera last Thursday in New York, I learned he’s not eager to share everything about his practices. He wants to maintain a teaching atmosphere, which is something John Groce said, too. Fighting Illini Productions publishes only those segments of video which the program wants published. So just hope that Underwood isn’t too humble to allow those moments to see daylight.

Apart from Tyler Underwood, the top coach-on-the-floor was Cameron Liss, also a walk-on. On more than one occasion, Liss heeded a coach’s call to help a teammate into the proper positioning & posture during defensive drills. He’s one of only three fourth-year Illini, so his senior leadership is a dire necessity to the team.

These guys are never going to see a whole lot of tick, so I’d like to highlight their contributions to making this team better.

The other two senior leaders are Michael Finke and Leron Black. (Like Liss, they’re technically R-Jr.’s.)  The coaching staff doesn’t spend a whole lot of time instructing either of them, which is a good sign. It makes one suspect they’re fundamentally sound.

The other fundamentally sound player is Da’Monte Williams.

Brad Underwood continually draws attention to Da’Monte’s defensive stance, positioning or effort as an example to the rest of the team. This might come as a surprise to people who’d assume Da’Monte is a carbon copy of his father.

You’ll recall  Lon Kruger and Bill Self inevitably calling Frank out in the media. You’ll remember Billy Packer’s infamous slight.

I think Frank was misunderstood. But whatever the case, it seems Da’Monte inherited exactly none of those traits which naysayers attributed to his father.

Also surprising are Da’Monte’s decision-making and the mechanical precision of his jump shot. He squares up and delivers like a coach’s son, not a street baller. Defensively, he deflects a lot of passes, a stat Underwood celebrates as much as John Groce did (i.e. Underwood seems to regard an opponent’s pass no differently than a launched shot, or indeed a jump ball — it’s an opportunity for possession).

Photo by Tony Pomonis

But Underwood’s defensive philosophy recalls Bruce Weber more than John Groce.  It’s about denial, a word that meant something completely different for Weber during his Illini heyday.

There were two times when Weber completely lost his shit while I was in attendance at practice.  One featured a lecture about over-emphasising on-ball defense.  Weber was apoplectic about the selfish attitude a player implicitly demonstrates when bragging “I shut my man down” or “my man didn’t score.”

“BUT OUR TEAM LOST!” Weber screamed louder than I ever heard him before or later. Underwood feels the same way.

If this year’s Illini squad has trouble with weak-side help defense, blame inexperience rather than misdirected playground swagger.  The newcomers will need a while before they shift defensively without thinking about it. That’s why Underwood said “we’ll be a different team on January First. We’ll be different from that January First team when we get to March.” It will be a long slog before Underwood sees something resembling his offense.

It’s worth the wait. Underwood’s option offense should lead to some highly entertaining playmaking. As players learn their reads, you’ll see nifty interior passing,  lob dunks when the defense reacts, open jumpers when it refrains.

And then there’s defense, which is harder.

If things go perfectly, Underwood might not need to revert to a familiar pack line defense, as his OK State team forced him to do after an 0-6 conference start last season. But when have things gone perfectly with a team of newcomers?

The difference between Underwood and his predecessors is that Underwood seems less likely to lose his team, mentally. In different ways, Weber and Groce were caricatures susceptible for ridicule. You could attribute respect to them, but they didn’t command it. That’s not the case with Underwood.

Will the newcomers “get it” before the team finds itself buried in the B1G standings?

Matic Vesel is back at full go, after spraining an ankle last week. His quickness to the rim cannot be overstated. It’s hard to believe, and impresses even his teammates, who’ve seen it again and again. He’ll cause a lot of headaches for opponents if his defense reaches a level of competence that affords Underwood the confidence to play him.

Greg Eboigbodin might also be an opponent’s nightmare in the future, but his menace will be seen on the defensive end, where he’ll force shooters to alter shot-trajectory. His instinct for defense is typically African, i.e. you see his footwork, you notice he’s responding to the whole-court flow of the game, and you think “this guy played a lot of soccer.”

It will take time for the lessons to sink in for these freshmen, before they can defend instinctively.  Maybe January First. Maybe by March.

The coaching staff realizes they’ll have to be patient.

At the scorer’s table, a shiny silver man-purse overflowed with packs of Extra chewing gum, in at least four flavors. Coaches and players reached in throughout practice to retrieve a stick. “We chew a lot of gum,” said Jamall Walker. “It stops us from yelling so much.”

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Illini basketball

Basketball practice 9-30-17

As long as Brad Underwood allows media access to his practices, I’ll try to figure out something interesting to say about them. If I can’t think of anything interesting to write, I won’t waste your time. (This is the advantage of running a website rather than a daily newspaper.)

The most obvious difference between Underwood and John Groce is that Groce wore a headset microphone in practice. Underwood doesn’t even have a whistle. But despite his smooth, soft speaking voice, he does yell like the angry badass you were expecting.  He’s the coach you remember from the good old days before political correctness, who told you when your effort/execution wasn’t going to cut it, and indeed exactly how your opponent would carve your ass up.

Orlando Antigua does use a whistle, which shows that Underwood doesn’t impose his style on his colleagues. And “colleague” is an apt term for describing this staff.  At various moments, Antigua was the only person speaking. At a different moment, it was Chin Coleman conducting the lesson.

Practice began with a short speech from Mannie Jackson. He told the team “It’s not about you. It’s about the guys around you.”

That was followed by Jerry Colangelo, who asked the team which among them came from Chicago. (Cameron Liss sort of raised his hand.) If Colangelo was flustered by the dearth of Windy talent, he didn’t flinch. He said of the city “the further north you go, the more money you have. Well, I’m from about 25 miles south of Chicago.”

The thing that stood out most, in observing individual players, was Mark Alstork’s speed and conditioning. The team ran a set of wind sprints (full court, up and back twice) and by the third leg, Alstork had a five yard lead on the next closest guy.

There were no laggers, and no other leaders. Everyone else was more or less grouped together. But Alstork was way, way ahead.

The last time I saw such a distinct speed differential, it was D.J. Richardson leaving Alex Legion in the dust, also during wind sprints. That was before everyone realized that Legion was a bust.

If Dee Brown didn’t teach you how important speed can be in this game, Kalin Lucas probably did — the hard way.

Mark Alstork (24)

The other intriguing individual performance was Matic Vesel.  He can shoot. It might seem like a necessary faculty for a basketballer, yet so many are are no better than you are, just taller.

Matic is taller than you are, and he can shoot better than you can.

American kids evidently don’t know about the mid-range jumper. In Slovenia, I guess they’re still teaching it. Matic does not miss.

(Illini Sports Information Director Derrick Burson, right,  is fascinated by Da’Monte Williams’s hands. They do indeed look just like Frank’s hands.)

I had a conversation with Brad Sturdy in the Memorial Stadium press box Friday night. We agreed that Matic was not built for boxing out. He won’t play with his back to the basket.

But Brad says Vesel can play the four in Underwood’s offense, stretching the floor.

Lukas Kisunas, on the other hand, would flatten anyone guarding him in the paint. He watched this morning’s practice, too, as part of his official visit.

Why was the media allowed inside a practice featuring an official visitor? Probably because Brad Underwood has a less-than-chickenshit response to NCAA rules. The Illini basketball program never promoted Kisunas’s presence. The University of Illinois made no mention of Lukas Kisunas.

This photo of an Official Visitor was captured without the advice, consent or obstruction of the University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics

Lukas Kisunas was not made available for interviews (and neither was Mark Smith). Hence, the U of I did not violate NCAA rules.  John Groce and Bruce Weber would have convulsed in fear at the notion of inviting the media during an official visit.

Kisunas was present even as Underwood spoke to the media. You might be able to see it here, assuming I panned my device accurately.

The most memorable lesson from Underwood during this morning’s session concerned fast break defense.

Brad championed his recent Oklahoma State team for its ability to force turnovers. He choreographed a fairly simple set of stances taken by offensive and defensive players in a particular fast break situation.

But he also spoke of the psychological state of the actors in these situations — what one might expect and what one must expect in a defensive posture, and what the driving offensive player is reading.

It seemed like an obvious lesson. But then it occurred to me that, like a lot of obvious lessons, no one ever mentioned it before. There was nuance, mostly to do with geometry (i.e. angles) but that didn’t impede its comprehensibility.

I understood, from the catwalk, how to read an offense in that situation. I knew what Underwood was getting at. I think the players did, too.

It was at this moment that Derrick Burson mentioned that voices are more easily understood on the court than on the catwalk. This was an important point, historically. Bruce Weber and John Groce were often, to a catwalk audience, incomprehensible.

But Underwood is easier to understand than Weber or Groce. His voice, and his way of communicating, are more clear.

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Illini basketball

Banquet 2017

Before the Illini Basketball Banquet began Monday night at the i-Hotel, Rob Jordan said players’ families were wondering who’d show up.

Would John Groce return as Bruce Weber had in 2012?  No.

Paris Parham also didn’t attend, despite his continuing residence in Champaign. Dustin Ford and Darren Hertz weren’t there, but they have new jobs in Ohio.

Brad Underwood, who lives in the i-Hotel, was there. And he stayed as long as anyone.

One idiot was in attendance, and because he forgot to check whether he’d packed the batteries for his expensive camera, the following pictures will be blurry.

Rob Jordan takes a picture of Aaron Jordan and girlfriend Dawn Failla

Paul Schmidt and Adam Fletcher were the only remaining staff sitting at the coaches table. Underwood, Josh Whitman and Chancellor Robert Jones joined them. You wouldn’t call it the head table necessarily. It was off to the side. Really, everything about the event was low key. Unlike years past, the players never spoke.

Josh Whitman spoke twice. The first time around, he profusely praised the previous staff.  “I can’t say enough good things about our outgoing coaching staff.” (listen to full speech here).

He told of dark, difficult days throughout the 2016-17 season, and especially public opinion of the program. He promised better times ahead. The public perception of Whitman seems largely if not hugely favorable, and his comportment Monday night did nothing to change that perception.

Kipper Nichols, Alex Austin, Leron Black and Tracy Abrams pose with Julie Pioletti

Jamall Walker and Brian Barnhart emceed. Barnhart and a series of sponsors from the community announced individual awards (link to video) and Walker thanked all the people behind the program who’s names you rarely hear (link to video), then handed out  goodies to the players (link to video) which were fitted letterman jackets for the freshmen, and blankets for the upperclassmen. Jalen Coleman-Lands regarded the blanket as high-level swag.

Kipper Nichols, who said his body fat is 5%, acknowledged that someone measured his sculptured physique rather than guessing his jacket size.

Jaylon Tate and Mike Thorne were absent. Tate had a family issue, and Thorne is out somewhere looking for a basketball job. That’s how Walker explained it, anyhow. (The family issue seems to be that Tate’s family was pissed off about the way Jaylon’s career ended.)

Two players who were distinctly present, and seated at what you might call the head table, were Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams.

Te’Jon Lucas and his mother Marie were also at that table. The Lucas parent are divorced, and Thomas Lucas sat at a table on the other side of the room. He lives in Milwaukee. She lives in Texas. Both parents are engaging people, and it’s not hard to see what brought them together. And it’s not hard to see why it fell apart.

Marie is brimming with personality and opinions, you might even say attitude, but in a good way. She’s the type of mother often found behind a D-1 athlete. Laura Finke and Machanda Hill are likewise women to be reckoned with, but again, in a good way. Strong women.

Thomas Lucas is mellow and approachable. In conversation with Underwood, he gracefully accepted frothing praise from this reporter, with agreement from the coach, that his three-piece houndstooth suit and tie elevated him into competition for best-dressed attendee. He’s almost sixty, but after changing his diet and losing 25 lbs. over the last year, he’s now back to playing competitive basketball. He’s eating less meat, and more ginger and garlic.

It gives us hope, especially the idiot, who gained 25 lbs. in the last year after his aging knees forced him to stop running six miles every other day, and is basically falling apart physically.

2016-17 Fighting Illini Basketball Awards

Most Outstanding Player: Malcolm Hill

Matt Heldman “Matto” Award: Maverick Morgan

Lou Henson Courage Award: Tracy Abrams

Orange Krush 3-Point Shooting Award: Tracy Abrams, 40.2 percent (51-127, min. 3 att./g)

Illini Rebounders Award: Leron Black, 6.3 rpg (196)

Ralf Woods Free Throw Trophy: Malcolm Hill, 80 percent in Big Ten play (76-95)

Malcolm Hill doesn’t really need any more accolades at this point. He just needs what Rayvonte Rice should have had two years ago. He needs the NBA to recognize that, whatever his physical limitations, he finds a way to get the ball in the hole.

Malcolm’s AAU coaches Patrick Smith and Doug Sitton attended his final banquet. And Patrick observed that Malcolm is not the next Michael Jordan. But maybe he’s the next Larry Bird. He has crafty old-man moves.

Smith and Sitton have been part of Malcolm’s life since third grade. “Seriously, you could tell when he was …” I queried.

“Oh yeah,” said Patrick.

“We knew,” agreed Doug.

That seems odd, but it doesn’t conflict with anything we’ve known about Malcolm all these years. You’ll recall that even during his freshman year, his teammates universally recognized him as the gym rat of the team (video link).

The second-best part of the evening was a tag team by Underwood and Whitman, in which they simultaneously praised & roasted Tracy Abrams and Malcolm Hill.

The best part of the evening was watching Malcolm greet a very young man with forceful enthusiasm, complimenting him on a particular sartorial choice.

Malcolm gets that he’s a star, and on these last two Illini teams, the star. But he’s also motivated by human kindness. He gained no advantage by showering attention on a pre-teen with a sharp outfit, but he expressly acknowledged the kid not just for looking good, but for having earned the outfit himself (paper route?).

Jamall Walker emphasized that Malcolm never thought Illini basketball was about him.

One current roster member expressed shock about John Groce’s closed-door media policy. On Day One,  Groce said practice would be closed to the media because he wanted to maintain a teaching atmosphere.  But as the players  know,  the Groce practice was a revolving door of Willie Hortonesque proportions.  Basically, the only people who weren’t watching were reporters.

Underwood is unfazed by the media. He doesn’t use the amplified headset Groce relied on. He doesn’t even use a whistle. That’s probably the reason his teams execute so well. They understand what he’s saying, and aren’t subconsciously trying to block-out the onslaught of sounds.

One final, gratuitous observation from the banquet, along as the topic of not understanding what people are saying, here’s Maverick Morgan mouthing syllables while an elderly crowd sings Hail to the Orange

At the end of the night, Walker said Trent Frazier’s dad  was in a tizzy about the Portillo’s beef story from last month.  Walker had to explain “no, Trent is not in trouble and no, you are not in trouble.”

It’s just another example of silly NCAA rules creating anxiety. Look here for more of that in the next couple of weeks.

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Illini basketball

What’s the NCAA’s beef with Trent Frazier?

What’s Trent Frazier’s beef with the NCAA? The answer is “Portillo’s.”

On August 19, 2016, the University of Illinois men’s basketball program committed an NCAA recruiting violation when Dustin Ford, Jamall Walker and Paris Parham drove Frazier and his parents from O’Hare Airport to Portillo’s Hot Dogs, and bought them some dinner.

[Courtesy of Matt Colin]
The Fraziers’ flight from Florida had been delayed, significantly. The three Illini coaches hopped into a car and drove from Champaign to O’Hare, knowing the Fraziers would miss the last connecting flight to Willard Airport, and not wanting them to be stranded.

The coaches met the Fraziers and Trent’s high school coach Matt Colin at baggage claim, just as everyone learned the bags would be delayed too, by about 45 minutes. Colin and the Fraziers hadn’t eaten in seven hours.

So everyone got in the car and drove the 7.6 miles to the corner of Dempster & Western, in Niles (not 6.6 miles to the Portillo’s at Busse & Greenleaf in Elk Grove Village, mind you).

They were in the restaurant for 15 to 20 minutes (significant). Then they went back to the airport, collected their bags,  and drove to Champaign.

It was about 1:30 a.m. when the Frazier entourage finally checked-in at the i-Hotel.

Transportation, lodging and meals are all legit expenses for Official Visit purposes. So why was this $80.29 impermissible? Because the NCAA is the second-dumbest organization in the world.

Meals are okay. Transportation is okay. But meals during transportation? That invokes a particular sub-chapter. It’s okay, but only if the food is carry-out.

Seriously.

IF you sit down while you’re eating, if you’re not trying to swallow that delicious dipped, hot & sweet gooey mess while in motion, the NCAA has sees red.

The other “problem” with this series of events, judged using the demented logic of the NCAA, is how it affected the imaginary clock which times an Official Visit. That clock can’t or does start to pretend-tick based on particular triggering events, like proximity to campus.

I’d explain the rule further, but nobody really understands it. You wouldn’t understand it. I don’t.

Because the flight was delayed, the Fraziers were expected to fend for themselves in an unfamiliar city <–or–> because they arrived on campus so late in the day, they should have paid for their hotel. There’s a magical hour at which the feisty, opinionated little clock prefers to wait ’til morning to begin pretend-ticking.

That’s the NCAA’s logic.

On the other hand, the NCAA doesn’t especially care whether this impermissible benefit is granted or not. If it did, there would be penalties. Instead, a letter of admonishment went into John Groce’s file (perhaps because he was the only staff member not present?) and the three assistant coaches all got some extra training. (What was that training? We don’t know. Let’s assume it took fewer than 90 seconds to convey.)

Trent Frazier’s eligibility was not affected. His parents were not forced to repay the university for the strawberry shortcake, small fries or beeves.*

In the end, some work was generated for administrators and administrative assistants, some of whom will still have jobs if Bruce Rauner and Mike Madigan ever agree to pass a budget.

 

*In reading the receipt, you’ll be surprised to find that no one ordered a combo.

 

 

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Illini basketball

Jamall Walker – Driving Mr. Jackson

Episode 2 of Infractions From The Groce Era.

Here’s another story of the NCAA and its silly rules.

On August 30th 2012,  Jamall Walker drove Demetrius Jackson & Quron Marks 208 miles from their home in Mishawaka, Indiana to Champaign.  It was a Thursday.

Unfortunately (?) Quron Marks was a high school athlete.  That means, as far as the NCAA is concerned, that he was a prospect. Driving him to campus was an NCAA violation.

Jackson’s adoptive family, the Whitfields, came to town on Saturday, September 1st, and watched some of the football game against Western Michigan. Then they drove the two boys home.  The story of Jackson and the Whitfield family is very well documented. Basically, they took him in when he needed a home.

Quron Marks paid for all his meals “and entertainment” during his visit. But that’s immaterial. Walker gave him a ride valued at $106.08 ($.51 per mile), so unless and until Marks reimbursed the university, he was ruled ineligible to receive an athletic scholarship (that wasn’t offered).

Ryan Squire — then in charge of compliance at the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, now its Chief Integrity Officer – says this wouldn’t be the case if the recruit were Michael Finke, and the addition guest his brother Tim.

That is going back a little ways, but I don’t recall the other prospect being a foster brother. I thought it was just his good friend from Mishawaka. It would absolutely have been different if the other person was his relative as NCAA rules give us some relief when a brother or sister is a prospect and wants to be part of the official visit.

So, for example, we could transport Michael Finke’s brother to campus along with Michael and his family for the official visit. We could not, however, transport one of Michael’s high school teammates to campus for the official visit.

Marks eventually enrolled at Bethel College, and then Holy Cross College (NAIA). Jackson played for Notre Dame, beating John Groce and the Illini in the grand reopening of State Farm Center on December 2, 2015. He’s now playing for the Boston Celtics.

Jackson’s eligibility to play for Illinois was not affected by this infraction. Only Marks’s was. And lots of paperwork was generated.

Categories
Illini basketball

The Help?

There’s still no official word that Jamall Walker will remain with Brad Underwood’s staff. There’s no reason to believe he won’t.

The other positions? We don’t know.

Walker’s retention was considered vital to the retention of St. Louis-area recruits. That’s part of his territory, as is Texas, where Brad Underwood already has plenty of contacts.

Has Walker been the best Illini recruiter over the past five years?

The two breakout players this season were scouted by Paris Parham and Dustin Ford. Ford’s assigned territory includes Ohio. Parham’s area includes Wisconsin.

As America’s coaching fraternity packs for a trip to Phoenix this week, many of them don’t know where they’ll be working next week. But they’ll probably find out soon.

Parham will be in Phoenix and, until anyone tells him otherwise, he says he’ll be there as a representative of the University of Illinois. The airfare and accommodations were booked long ago, but the staff is not traveling together.

Should Parham be retained based on his contacts with up-and-coming recruits? If not, who else would be Illinois basketball’s “Chicago Guy?”

Stephen Bardo cautions Illini fans eager to bring back one of their own.

It’s tough for anyone to hire another coach if they don’t have an existing relationship.  That’s one of the reasons why Jamall was kept, he had a really good previous relationship with Underwood.  We’ll see what happens but in the meantime it would be wise for Deon, Roger Powell, Jerrance Howard, and Dee Brown to start to develop a relationship with Josh Whitman and Brad Underwood.

Walker downplayed the earlier relationship. “We knew each other but it wasn’t like we were boys. However, we knew some of the same people back in Kansas.”

Who are those folks back in Kansas? Well, if you didn’t know, Jamall Walker is a Wichita native. Underwood recruited his older brother.

Underwood remembers it differently, at least for public consumption. i.e. he didn’t talk about meeting Jamall’s brother.

He talked about recruiting Jamall himself.

Walker didn’t name names, but he offered this observation about the forthcoming Underwood staff:

We have talked a little about the assistant coaches and he is going to hire who he thinks gives us the best chance to win and get good players from the state and in other regions that a guy can tap into. You have Bret Just on your side and that is key.

If you haven’t been following every bit of Underwood minutiae, here’s what Jamall means by “Bret Just.”

According to a source within the program, the “Chicago Guy” probably won’t be Dennis Gates, either. Whatever level of interest Illinois expressed, it doesn’t seem to have been reciprocated

Two names that have come up are Emanuel Dildy &  UIC assistant Ronald “Chin” Coleman.

Dildy is the cousin of Chicago State’s head coach Tracy Dildy. The Dildy name is well-known in Chicago Hoops circles.  Emanuel spent three years as an assistant at Loyola Chicago before joining Kim Anderson for one last disastrous season in Columbia. Like Walker, Dildy is a guards coach. But don’t be surprised if the next staff, like the Groce administration, features four point guards. (Note though that UIC’s bio for Coleman says that during his first season at UIC, Coleman helped sophomore forward/center Tai Odiase “develop into one of the top rim protectors in the country.”)

Coleman interviewed with John Groce for Isaac Chew‘s job in the summer of 2012. That job went to Parham.

Coleman instead joined Tim Miles at Nebraska for six months, as Director of Player Development. (He’d been an assistant coach for Miles at Colorado State.) Then he joined Dustin Ford’s brother Geno for one year in Peoria, orchestrating the final demolition of Bradley Braves basketball. Coleman worked with Thomas for a year under Steve McClain at UIC   From 2005-11, Coleman was the head coach of Chicago’s Mac Irvin Fire AAU team.

And speaking of Steve McClain, his assistant coaching position at Indiana was filled by former Illini star Rob Judson, who is also available for hire. Judson is arguably the most successful assistant of the last quarter century, having helped both Lon Kruger and Bill Self to B1G championships.

The assistant positions might be finalized by this afternoon. Maybe they’ll be finalized in Phoenix, over the weekend.

Then again, remember how this worked five years ago. The Illini athletic director promoted the ace recruiter to the interim position. The new head coach did not retain him. Two of the new head coach’s initial hires departed Champaign almost immediately. A third left within a year.

Whatever happens in Phoenix doesn’t stay in Phoenix.

Categories
Illini basketball

Rumors – Why do people keep falling for them?

After 24 hours of conjecture about Jamall Walker’s machinations, a weary, emotional Walker stepped in front of a small group of reporters Sunday afternoon.

Has he been in secret contract negotiations with Cuonzo Martin? Did Josh Whitman lock him up with a long term contract and pay raise? Does he have Smith & Tilmon in his pocket?

These are the things people people have been saying in social media. The truth, according to Walker, is that he took his wife to Scotty’s Brew Pub on Saturday night, having long ago promised her a dinner date. He had the shrimp tacos.

Jamall & Braylon back in the day

How does Rebekah Walker feel about staying in Champaign? Simply put “it’s home” said Jamall Walker, noting that their boys were born here. It’s where they’ve raised their kids.

Has he talked to Brad Underwood about the future of the Illini coaching staff? He has not. What’s he been doing during the week? Has he been out recruiting, or keeping tabs on the Class of ’17 signees?  Walker made no mention of either. He talked only about prepping the team for Monday night’s game against Boise State.

Basically, everything you’ve read about Illini basketball in the past week was untrue. Most of what you’re reading today is untrue. It’s like Coach K looking to buy land near Mahomet all over again.

So the narrative about Walker keeping recruits remains just that. It’s a storyline with no known relationship to the truth.

The good news is that, according to Michael Finke, the current players like the idea of playing for Brad Underwood. They’re excited about his offense, and feeling upbeat about the hire.

But they didn’t have insider info either. Michael Finke says the players learned about Brad Underwood about five minutes before the rest of the world did, when they all got an email from Josh Whitman.

Categories
Illini basketball

Scrimmage notes

When I arrived, a little before 2 p.m. Tuesday, Alex Austin was the lone player in Ubben #2, the men’s gym. He was shooting threes with The Gun. Later in the day, he would be the top three-point shooter among his teammates, and the only player to hit more than one.

Tracy Abrams (Bruce Douglas Jersey winner) and Malcolm Hill (Augustine Jersey Winner) were the next players on the court.

Jaylon Tate came next. He worked extensively on his three-point shooting, but without The Gun. Instead, team managers wrangled the rebounds and Jamall Walker fed the passes. Tate hit about 60% from the arc. Really.  I have video to prove it.

The team’s practice began with a walk-through of the Dribble Hand Off, which John Groce calls “hippo.” At last week’s open practice, this terminology confused Larry Brown, who refers to it as D-H-O, just like the rest of the basketball world.

Groce asked the team whether anyone would like to add something to his lesson, Maverick Morgan piped up. He said it’s hard for big men to recover defensively after a high ball screen hand-off, because you have to run through somebody to do it.

Of the media that showed up, only Derek Piper and Scott Richey stayed for the whole show. I suppose the others had to be back at the station by airtime. Josh Whitman and Warren Hood each watched a portion of the practice. A small group of (ostensibly Orange Krush) students observed from the balcony.

Whitman came over to say hello. I asked about the mark under his right eye. He said it dates back to sixth grade, and that you can tell when he’s tired because it grows increasingly red. He added that it’s been red a lot lately.

At the south end, erstwhile DePaul coach Joey Meyer joined Machanda Hill and her mom (Malcolm’s grandmother “Miss Hardin”) and Ramon Williams, who was John Groce’s first Special Assistant to the Head Coach at Illinois (for about 15 minutes) before accepting an assistant coaching job at Virginia Tech. He’s now a major gifts officer at his alma mater, Virginia Military Institute.

On the day, Kipper Nichols, Te’Jon Lucas, Aaron Jordan, Malcolm, Tracy, Michael Finke and DJ Williams all connected once from distance. Abrams’s three came as time expired in the third scrimmage, from about 25 feet. Jordan and Jalen Coleman-Lands each airmailed a three. JCL’s right hand was wrapped and padded. He made some great passes.

In the second scrimmage, Tracy Abrams moved to the PG position after playing only the 2 in the first round. Kipper Nichols got his first court action, spelling Leron Black at PF.

Mike Thorne Jr. didn’t play much in the third scrimmage, and didn’t appear in the fourth scrimmage until late. His repaired knee was wrapped with the kind of brace one normally sees on a football lineman. Three things to keep an eye on with Big Bo:

In the 5-on-0 drills, he frequently dribbled the ball two or three times after catching a pass at the free-throw stripe. If he ever dribbles in the high-post, the ball will be stolen.

Thorne invariably pumps the ball (brings it down to the level of his abdomen) before attempting a short jumper. Keeping the ball high would be preferred.

Thorne used his left hand to connect on short hook shots. Everybody agreed that he should expand that usage, because it’s really hard to guard.

And speaking of unnecessary flourishes at the Five Spot, Maverick Morgan was mid-dunk when he instead chose a dainty finger roll for his second bucket of Quarter Three. The ball was already in the cylinder when Mav opted for his theatrics. Lou Henson would have benched him immediately.

I screwed up the math in this quarter. The final was 23-20 Blue, with Tracy Abrams nailing a long three as time expired. My marks and notations, kept in a GMail draft on my phone, don’t add up. It could be that I put Jaylon Tate on the wrong roster. There’s no 0 or B in my notes to demarcate his team. I’ve already forgiven myself. It’s hard keeping stats.

 

Te’Jon Lucas looked really good in transition, but what about playing within the system? He’s got a lot to learn. His best performance came in the latter half of the four scrimmages.

Who played the Five when Thorne was out in Quarter Four? In my notes, I have Mav and Finke on the Orange team for this one. So the answer is “Leron.”

Referees Dave Cronin, Mike Kashirsky and Bo Boroski performed not only normal officiating duties, but also explained rulings to players where possible (e.g. dead ball). At the conclusion of the four 8 minute scrimmages, Boroski stood at center court, with the team in a circle around him, and explained the NCAA’s new tweaks to various rules. Especially important this year, Boroski explained, is the “cylinder” that rises from a player’s feet. That cylinder must not be breached by a defender, but must also not be exploited by the offensive player.

Jaylon Tate, JCL and Tracy Abrams were all whistled for push-offs (raising an arm to move a defender away from the ball). Maverick Morgan (and I think Aaron Jordan) were penalized for illegal screens. Leron Black continues to be a rebounding fool and a fouling machine. He too was whistled for pushing-off, on the low block.

Jamall Walker may have used the word “shitshow” to assess the afternoon’s display of missed shots, turnovers and fouling. I don’t actually remember. But that was the sentiment. Finke agreed it was pretty bad, but considering it’s the first time the entire roster was available (i.e. cleared to play), their inability to mesh is understandable.

D.J Williams is #2 at the wing, lock it up. Aaron Jordan is playing the two, and you might see Abrams playing a lot there as well. D.J should see some action this year, and maybe that means having him on the court at the same time as Malcolm. In the Groce offense, it really doesn’t matter who’s labeled the 2 or the 3. The PF and C positions are also interchangeable.

Despite connecting on a three-pointer, Kipper Nichols is confined to the PF position for now.  That’s odd, because during Media Day, everyone insisted Kipper is a three, including Kipper.

It would be great to see D.J. and Finke at PG, just to screw with the opponent. And I’m not kidding about that. They’ve both played the position, and DJ especially has the quickness to defend an opposing PG.

Does John Groce think outside that particular box? It would be awesome if he did.