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Illini Basketball

Talking Points

It’s Finals Weeks. Braggin’ Rights looms. One fourth of the way through the season, where does this Illini team stand?

Great teams don’t rest on their laurels. They analyze their mistakes, and their successes. They seek to improve every aspect of performance. There’s plenty of good and bad to think about on the way to Saint Louis. A few key match-ups should provide the best talking points, and might decide the game.

Da’Monte Williams

Is there a more polarizing Illini player? Almost certainly. But it’s worth noting that if you do have an opinion about Da’Monte Williams, you either think he’s the guy who holds it all together, or you’re calling for his benching.

You don’t have to like Clarence Thomas to be impressed by the effect he had on the US Supreme Court from day one. Da’Monte is like that.

Thomas arrived when the court was split 4-4 on a particular case. His vote would determine the outcome. Yet at the end of debate, Thomas found himself in the minority. Whatever happened in that conference room, he made an impression on his colleagues.

Likewise, Williams sat out his first summer as his ACL healed. On the first day he joined practice, according to Brad Underwood, he changed the team “because of his basketball IQ.”

Da’Monte’s intelligence would be useless if he didn’t have a lot of dog in him. But he’s from Peoria. Wimps don’t make it out of Peoria.

Da’Monte rips the ball from Mark Smith, last year

Williams will be the player to watch Saturday at the Checkerdome (or whatever it’s called these days). He probably won’t score much. That’s not the question.

The question is how will Mark Smith fare? Da’Monte hopes to answer with his defensive performance: not very well.

Last year, Smith scored 5 points in 35 minutes in his first game against his old team. It was pretty clear that Da’Monte enjoyed his part in that futility.

He enjoyed taking Smith’s ball

The other guy in all Sunday’s pictures of Smith will be Andres Feliz, who wouldn’t be here if Mark Smith chose to stay. In hindsight, Illini fans are probably okay with that trade. Feliz will want to prove it to them, nonetheless.

If you don’t think Andres Feliz plays with a chip on his shoulder, you haven’t met Andres Feliz.

It’s not a bad thing. He plays with pride, and as if his life depends on it, which it kind of does. That goes for his wife and kid, too.

Kofi Cockburn is a machine, and should be treated like one. His underuse might be this team’s most obvious problem. Watching from the bench during two heartbreaking losses was remedied by a dominant performance over ranked (overrated?) Michigan.

Against Old Dominion, Kofi attempted six shots. He finished with three field goals. Maybe he didn’t need the extra practice, but it would be nice to see the team go to that well continuously, until it becomes second-nature. He converts 59% of his shots. If you fould him, he’ll make his free-throws.

Maybe Kofi doesn’t know it, and maybe it’s not fair; but his match-up with Jeremiah Tilmon will be the talking point of Braggin’ Rights. Tilmon abandoned the Illini when Underwood came aboard. Instead, the Illini have Kofi and Giorgi Bezhanishvili.

Tilmon is averaging 9.7 points and 4.7 rebounds in 22.6 minutes/game on the season. Contrast Giorgi with 9.6 points and 5.7 boards in 25.9 minutes.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili rebounds

Kofi also gets 25.9 minutes, is averaging 15.4 points and 10.5 rebounds in those minutes. Foul trouble can limit minutes for any of them. Tilmon leads the way with 2.8 per game. Giorgi and Kofi accrue less than 2.5/game.

(Watch for Mizzou’s transfer guard Dru Smith to foul out. He averages 3.3 fouls per game.)

Alan Griffin

When Brad Underwood says “I don’t remember anyone stripping my ball” in college, he’s talking about Alan Griffin.

To Alan’s credit, Giorgi got his ball stripped a bunch of times in the Michigan game. It doesn’t mean you’re terrible. It means you haven’t played against the very best, and your habits are not attuned to playing the very best. It also means you’ve been distracted.

Alan is, by far, the most yelled at player of the Underwood tenure. Number 2 is Kipper Nichols, whom Underwood yelled at a lot during last Saturday’s game against Old Dominion. When the dust settled, Kipper was sitting in the media room, in front of a microphone. That’s always a sign that the coach thinks you done good.

Underwood doesn’t yell at you unless he thinks you’re worth yelling at. With Alan Griffin, the athletic ability is obvious. The talent is there. It’s the processing that frustrates Underwood. Alan is more cerebral than most, which sometimes slows him a step. Being too smart and being too thoughtful are enviable problems. In sports, it’s described as “spacy.”

Alan’s game translates well to the Mizzou defense, which is also spacy.

BTW: Underwood also spent a good amount of energy yelling at Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk during his moment of PT last Saturday, which suggests BBV might be worth the time & effort.

Note: Inquiries to the B1G office yielded no update on the health of Lewis Garrison. The ODU game was refereed by Brandon Cruz, I don’t know that Brandon Cruz had ever refereed an Illini game previously.

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Illini basketball

The Frosh We Have

Apart from Orlando Antigua’s hot pink socks, there wasn’t much excitement at State Farm Center Wednesday night.

Oh wait, that’s not true. There was that time when Chin Coleman started dancing to the great perplexion of everyone else.

And of course, there was the time the ribbon display malfunctioned.

But the basketball game was pretty boring. The outcome was never in doubt.  Augustana kicked & bobbled its way to 29 turnovers.

Even the lob dunks were mildly dull.

That’s okay. Brad Underwood wanted this game as a learning tool.  And afterward, he said he learned a lot.  I learned one thing: Matic Vesel desperately needs to make his first basket.

On this sunny Thanksgiving afternoon, someone should take Matic on a jog so he can grow accustomed to the sight of his own shadow. Then, perhaps, he won’t be so scared of it.

Okay, that might be a little harsh. But Matic is definitely playing scared right now. He looks more uncomfortable on the court than any Power 5 scholarship player I’ve ever seen.

Matic doesn’t present this posture in practice, but things are different under the bright lights with a few thousand people urging “shoot it!.”

I have no doubt that Matic will be a joy to watch in a few years, maybe even a few months. Right now, he just really needs to make that first basket. Then everything will settle down for him.

Underwood got to run some sets Wednesday. He saw how his team executed, and how an unknowing defense responded.

In the case of the inbound clear-out for Trent, everything worked perfectly.

The Frosh We Don’t Have

Keep this point in mind: If Jordan Goodwin hadn’t surprised everyone, and chosen Travis Ford over John Groce, Mark Smith would be in East Lansing.

Goodwin is shooting 5% from three-point range, and 23% overall. Smith isn’t lighting it up from distance (2-of-16) but he’s 20-of-35 from two-point range, which actually seems a bit low considering he attempts most of his shots from point-blank. Goodwin converted 16-of-25 free-throws to this point. Smith is 23-for-24.

In the long run, we’ll know which Metro St. Louis combo guard proves more valuable. Goodwin will probably improve. But I doubt Illini fans will be disappointed.

Jeremiah Tilmon is averaging four fouls per game at Mizzou. Again, that’s not an outrageous stat …

… until you realize that “per-game” is not the same as “per-40 minutes.”

Tilmon is seventh in minutes-played among the Tigers.  He’s averaging four fouls per 15.4 minutes.

Greg Eboigbodin & Matic Vesel would not be here if John Groce were still the coach. They’d be at UIC and wherever Orlando Antigua were coaching, respectively.

It’s silly to say that Illini fans should prefer either project to the top-rated recruit of the Groce era. But again, time will tell. Telmon seems as likely to become the next Cliff Alexander as he does the next Moses Malone. Vesel probably isn’t the next Dirk Nowitzki, but that’s the skill set we’re looking at.

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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.

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Illini basketball

Saturday Live with Mark Smith & Jeremiah Tilmon

Illinois’ best recruiting period of the last decade came during a time when the Illini’s on-court performance had reached a record-setting nadir.  D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Joseph Bertrand pulled the trigger in a 48-hour span at the start of the dreadful 2007-08 season. Meyers Leonard came aboard at the end.

So it didn’t seem odd to watch Jeremiah Tilmon cracking jokes with Mark Smith while Minnesota pantsed the Illini. These two high school superstars expect to improve their college teams. They don’t doubt that they’ll be successful. Failure is not their concern.

Talking to them about their relationship, I couldn’t keep the names “Bruce Douglas and Efrem Winters” out of my mind.

It’s hard not to think of Mark Smith when thinking about Mark Smith, but Douglas is obviously the better Illini analog. Peoria Richwoods’ Mark Smith was a small forward, not a PG. Bruce was a PG. But he was also big and quick, just like Mark Smith 2.0.

Bruce’s alley-oops to Winters remain at the top of iconic Illini moments, way more efficient than the vaunted “15 pass possession.”

Illinois’ hi-lo could use some work.

Brandon Paul’s Illini recruitment began with Tracy Webster. Mark Smith’s recruitment may end with Tracy Webster. The Thornton grad was All-Big Ten at Wisconsin. He’s an assistant to Cuonzo Martin at Cal, for now. He attended Friday’s game between Tilmon’s ESL and Smith’s Edwardsville squads.

Smith’s burgeoning cachet means he’ll be able to choose his college come April 12. Illinois has two advantages in this recruitment. First, it’s easy driving distance for his parents, who remain very involved in his life and his recruitment. Two, Jeremiah Tilmon is signed to play here next year. Tilmon and Smith have been friends since sixth grade.

Smith will also be considering the academic aspect of his future school. He and parents Anthony & Yvonne were all interested in talking more about that aspect of his recruitment. Anthony said “yes, he’s qualified” when I raised the subject of academics.

But that’s not the question. The question is what Mark wants to study, and whether he aspires to advanced degrees. When Chasson Randle chose Stanford over Illinois, it wasn’t because he wanted to inconvenience his parents, Gwen and Willie, from seeing him play college ball in person. It’s because Chasson already knew he’d want to go to medical school when basketball was over.

Because Chasson graduated at the top of his class at Rock Island High School,  his family thought he could withstand a fiercely competitive academic environment. For those aspiring to a career in medicine, Stanford is better than Illinois. Sorry loyalists, it just is.

We don’t know what Mark wants from an academic standpoint, but we do know he’s thinking about it.

One thing that doesn’t matter re: Mark Smith is “coaches on the hot seat.” John Groce is a miracle removed from being gone. Tom Crean is being e-burned in e-effigy. Bruce Weber is doing enough to keep his job for another year at K-State, but since when did we take Bruce Weber seriously?

The uncertainty doesn’t end with coaches who lose too much. Smith acknowledged on Saturday that Duke got in the mix recently. But who’d be his coach at Duke? K will turn 70 next week, while he recovers from his second major back surgery. Jeff Capel already failed at the P5 level. Maybe Chris Collins is the successor? That means Duke and Northwestern are uncertain as well.

Kansas seems like the best bet for the Smith family. It’s not a horrible drive from Edwardsville, and Bill Self is not likely to be fired. If they have an open spot for him, it’s unlikely he could do worse. As with any & all blue blooded programs, they’ll have other options for his position. Competitive recruits are rarely dissuaded by this eternal truth.

Dave Leitao might be the surest choice Mark Smith has when it comes to basketball, for both PT & continuity purposes. DePaul has been terrible since Leitao departed his first stint. Tracy Webster was unable to revive it as interim coach.

Leitao failed at Virginia, now arguably the best program in the nation. So he’s not a sure bet, either.

Frankly, it’s weird to be Mark Smith the recruit, A year ago, he figured to be a starting pitcher, not a point guard. But if it weren’t for him, there’d be very little optimism available for Illini basketball fans.

Hope springs eternal, and Mark Smith won’t have the opportunity to sign an LOI until Spring, by which time all these coaching situations will be determined.

And now, here’s that Minnesota game in a nutshell:

 

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Illini basketball Illini football

In hindsight, it was a pretty good day

Yeah, Illini football got walloped by a basketball school. Let it pass. Saturday was magical.

A lot of the attendees had never before seen a full Memorial Stadium. They weren’t alive when Mike White and John Mackovic’s teams were forced to build temporary bleachers to accommodate 76,000+ fans.

No Illinois undergrad was alive the last time a packed Tailgreat (look it up) celebrated perfect weather buttressed by unfettered optimism for the program’s future. The 80s Belonged to the Illini (look it up).

You might even blame excitement for the team’s mistake-prone performance. They were just that hyped up. Thirteen penalties and six fumbles might, if we’re lucky, stand as all-time records for the Lovie Administration.

Scroll down a bit and you’ll find Vashoune Russell’s pictures from the evening. This one captures Center Joe Spencer’s once in a lifetime 9 yard rush. It would have been the play of the game except that Gabe Megginson severely twisted his ankle just as Spencer was scooping the ball from the turf.

Illini center Joe Spencer nearly gained a rushing first down after picking up a fumble (Vashoune Russell)

But let’s stick to happy thoughts.

It wasn’t just a vibrant atmosphere among long-suffering tailgaters. The north end zone was packed with unofficial visitors, potential football recruits who’ve taken note of the NFL pedigree now running the Champaign show.

Garrick McGee continued to look like a 1940s leading man as he introduced priority target student-athletes to one-another. It’s the mustache, but it’s also the demeanor.

At the northeast corner of Zuppke Field, John Groce entertained FOUR Official Visitors and their families. Yes, three of these Visitors have already verballed to Illinois. But that doesn’t answer the question: Has any D-1 basketball program ever hosted FOUR Official Visitors on the same weekend?

Maybe this is the year John Groce turns things around. Even Jalen Coleman-Lands looked pumped as the team convened in the north end zone, and he’d had hand surgery just a day earlier.

So, yeah. Larry Fedora’s Flash In The Pan put a hurt on your orange for the second time in as many seasons.

Next year, he’ll be coaching somewhere else. UNC will be on probation. Lovie et al will have signed the most widely discussed recruiting class since Dwight Beverly (look it up).

Illini head coach Lovie Smith admonishes Ke’Shawn Vaughn after the latter’s personal foul Saturday night in Champaign (Vashoune Russell)

T.J. Logan eludes Illini Chris James (Vashoune Russell)

Luke Butkus and Hardy Nickerson Sr. are bemused (Vashoune Russell)

Bad form tackling by Lovie Smith versus Carolina RB Elijah Hood (Vashoune Russell)

Dawuane Smoot is not bemused (Vashoune Russell)