Illini basketball


As Juwan Howard stood to leave the postgame press conference, a youthful visiting reporter turned to another youthful visiting reporter and began verbalizing, at full volume, his talking points.

This cub didn’t notice, a moment later, when Kofi Cockburn & Trent Frazier strode silently into the room, and sat down on the rasied platform. He didn’t hear Kent Brown call for questions. He didn’t hear a question coming from the aide of the room. He just kept talking.

You can hear it in the Room Audio version of the postgame video.


This youngster knows that when Juwan Howard stands up and leaves the room, the press conference is over. That’s when everyone starts talking. He failed to foresee that procedures might differ outside of Crisler Arena.

A moment later, he finally noticed the snapping fingers and glanced to his left, where Brad Sturdy, Jeremy Werner, your humble servant and perhaps a few other more experienced reporters were dagger-eyeing him to STFU.

He STFUed.

DeVante Jones took Da’Monte’s ball

Inexperience bared its ass throughout Friday’s festivities. Michigan’s inexperienced freshmen played their 14th game, and they have a long way to go before acclimating to the realities of B1G basketball.

Caleb Houstan hasn’t competed against defenders of Illinois’ competence, and it showed. Moussa Diabate hasn’t defended 290 lbs. of pure muscle, and it showed.

When confronted with Omar Payne, Caleb Houstan forgot about Da’Monte Williams

DeVante’ Jones is playing his fifth season of college basketball, and it showed.

Jones’s defense against Trent Frazier was a joy to watch, and Trent not exploding in frustration was even more fun.

Kelly Pfeifer was forced to blow his whistle when Jones pushed Frazier over the line.

Less fun was watching Jones abuse Da’Monte Williams. Five years into his college career, Da’Monte should not be susceptible to pickpocketing, or wrestling. But Jones straight up took Da’Monte’s ball.

Yes, ‘Monte is a small forward playing point by necessity. It’s unreasonable to expect him to execute the PG role at the highest P5 level. But as long as Andre Curbelo is out, ‘Monte will handle the ball. His inexperience is morphing into a practiced understanding of the position. But it would be nice to get Belo back.

Experience doomed the Wolverines, eventually.

The Illini coaching staff was certainly aware that Moussa Diabate is a fouling machine. It’s common for a freshman big.

The triple-team was unsustainable.

Without Hunter Dickinson’s five fouls, without Brandon Johns’s five fouls, and with Jaron Faulds (a guy who’d averaged 5 minutes per game going into Friday night’s match-up against the nation’s most dominant interior beast) the remaining option in the paint, Michigan was in grave danger of going small by process of elimination.

Trent Frazier recognized that Diabate simply couldn’t afford to defend his drives. So Trent drove. And Diabate got out of the way.

By this point, the writing was on the wall for the Wolverines. Had Johns and Dicksinson been available, things might have been different.

And so Michigan dropped to 7-7 on the season. They’ll be good when Illinois visits Crisler on the last weekend in February. They’ll be better still by the Big Ten Tournament.

Eli Brooks popped the ball out of Kofi’s hands. That requires strength.

It was kind of stupid for voting media to anoint a youthful Michigan team in the pre-season, especially because its best defender was also new to Ann Arbor.

But a lot of those guys are recruiting analysts. They’re not wrong in thinking Houston and Diabate are going to be pretty fun, eventually.

The Wolverine faithful thinks Juwan Howard is over his head. But Juwan Howard knew he’d be outmatched by the likes of Tom Izzo, Greg Gard, Mark Turgeon and Fran McCaffery. That’s why he hired Phil Martelli, a guy with decades of head coaching experience.

Juwan isn’t an idiot, but he’s inexperienced. Having Martelli gives him a second set of eyes, and 24 years of institutional memory. They’ll be a pain in the ass in March.

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.

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.