Before it escapes our priorities list, let’s praise Kofi Cockburn for bringing Illinois to a tie, and then giving them a lead they’d never relinquish. He connected on two free-throws. It seems simple, right? It won them a championship.
He did the same against Michigan State last year, and nobody remembers it because Ayo dropped in a pile and Alan Griffin didn’t box out Xavier Tillman.
Make your free-throws. Box out. Make your free-throws. Box out. Make your free-throws.
If you’re an Illini fan, and the term “box out” sends a chill through your spine, congratulations on reaching your golden years. You are at least forty, and despite advancing decrepitude, you’ve failed to wipe the name “Sean Higgins” from your memory.
1989 was a helluva year for making free-throws and boxing out. Or not. The Midwest Regional Final pitted #1 seed Illinois against a loaded Syracuse team, six of whom played in the NBA. It was tight, decided in the final 30 seconds. Illinois missed a lot of free-throws, which allowed Jim Boeheim’s squad a chance.
But then, after considerable discomfort — that hollow feeling in your stomach when you know that an Illini game is slipping away and fate has cursed you yet again — Kenny Battle stepped to the line.
The lore among my high school friends holds that Battle huddled his teammates and uttered one word: “Money.” As in “I got this.” As in “don’t worry, I’m going to put an end to the Orangemen.”
Not much has changed in 32 years. When Trent Frazier buries a three, he says “cash.” But in this case, Battle was talking about a pair of free-throws he intended to bury. Promised to bury. Knew he would bury. He buried them. And Syracuse.
If you’re comparing great Illini teams, the 2021 version is much more like 1989 than 2005. Illini ’21 is a highlight reel of flashy passes and thunderous dunks. Even the uniforms are the same. Form-fitting jerseys emblazoned with classic scripts. Mid-thigh shorts that don’t THANK YOU JESUS resemble Moroccan culottes.
Brad Underwood is a showman. He understands that basketball is entertainment. Where 2005 was exciting for basketball coaches, 2021 is fun for basketball fans They might not know what it means to “ice a ball screen,” but they thrill to a well-lobbed oop.
Ayo Dosunmu is the guy who put his home state team on his back, and dragged them to the finish line. The comp here is Battle, not because those other Flyin’ Illini didn’t stay home, and not because they weren’t outstanding ballers. It’s because Battle was the heart and soul of that team. When he stepped to that line and promised to bring them home, you believed he would do it.
In 2020, you hoped the Illini could overcome their tendencies. Andres Feliz gave you courage, and Alan’s shooting and rebounding gave you a chance. But you knew the Achilles Heels. Even in January of this year, you could spot the weaknesses.
And then you watched everything coalesce. All the pieces came together. Still not perfect, but enough.
Did you believe when Kofi stepped to the line, with the Illini down a point? Underwood did. He sent the rest of the team back on defense. Kofi drained the pair. Illinois won a championship.
This team is not the Illini of 2020. This team is not the Illini of January 2021.
You’re having a sad, and that’s okay. Your team just lost to a 1-and-5 Maryland squad whose point guard sat out, and whose best veteran played with half a face. You then thought you’d take your frustrations out on the former Mayor of Ames, Iowa; but your guaranteed win got cancelled.
My job this season seems — if I’m reading me correctly — to consist of regurgitating two themes:
Tempering your enthusiasm
Encouraging you to be encouraged
Remember, the 2020 Illini were getting better, but they weren’t great. Then you lost Andres Feliz and Alan Griffin, the fighter and the shooter. Nobody will replace Griffin’s shooting and rebounding. Maybe Adam Miller can replace his shooting. He got a little of that mojo back the other night.
No one has filled — and perhaps no one can fill — the Feliz-shaped hole left in the team’s je ne sais quoi. Intangibles are hard to tangib.
This 2021 team remains a work in progress, and the individual parts aren’t currently symbiosing toward a greater whole. So when a team like Maryland holds Kofi to 10 FG attempts — and Ayo misses 14 of his own 23 — well, yes, this group becomes susceptible to mischief.
Maryland had the intellectual advantage in that its scouting report came from former Marist and James Madison head coach Matt Brady, who had an opportunity to expose Illini newcomers in a way that Duke’s staff didn’t. More games = more video clips.
Where Baylor’s Alvin Brooks III exploited weaknesses from known players, Brady was able to focus on Andre Curbelo, and take note of Belo’s tricky kick-outs.
Mark Turgeon might be underrated by Maryland fans, but he’s not underrated by his colleagues. You may recall that UMD beat Illinois twice last year, en route to a B1G Championship. Adding a veteran tactician like Matt Brady, first as a non-recruiting-but-definitely-hands-on assistant* before Brady’s elevation to an unrestricted role, should be seen as an obvious move. It’s the same with Phil Martelli at Michigan, and Ed Conroy at Minnesota. You get these guys on staff when you can.
Brady had an opportunity to talk about his Illini scouting report because the Terps had this week off, and won’t face the Illini again during the regular season.
“He’s a marvelous player and I think he’s got a chance to be one of the best point guards in this league, in time. He is elite at driving and getting into the lane and making shots at the rim, and making other players better with his penetration — but that pre-supposes that he’s going to get in the lane.
“We started with ‘we gotta keep him in front of us, and out of the lane.’ And if it meant helping off of him, and giving up a couple of shots, then we were willing to live with a couple of his made shots. But we had to keep him in front.
“He still got to the lane. In fact, he got one on a turnover where he beat everybody on the court — he just missed the shot.
Some of that, we were fortunate. He didn’t play as well as he normally has … but it was a big deal that we stayed in front of him, no doubt.
ON DEFENDING AYO
“We have an elite on-ball defender in Darryl Morsell. He probably hasn’t made an all-defensive team here, in his four years, But when there’s a perimeter guy who can really score, Darryl is as close as a “closer” in this league … he doesn’t have the length of some other guys in this league that are elite defensively, he’s only 6’4″ but he is an outstanding defensive perimeter guard, and he loves the challenge of taking on the best players in this league.”
Brady reflected on a pair of games between Maryland and Purdue, when Carsen Edwards was still in the league (dropping 40 on Illinois, for example). Edwards got his points against Maryland, but it took him a boatload of shots to do it. In a December 2018 match-up at Mackey, Morsell harassed Edwards into 4-of-15 shooting. Edwards was 9-of-9 from the free-throw line, but Morsell finished the game with only two fouls.
“We decided not to switch at all. Darryl wanted him and Darryl guarded him. Darryl’s been able to do that in his time.”
Purdue won the first of those two match-ups when Anthony Cowan’s game-winner was blocked as time expired.
It was the closest Purdue — eventual B1G champions that season — came to losing at home. The Terrapins converted all those missed Edwards attempts into a 39-29 rebound advantage.
Two months later, in College Park, they repeated that formula to great success. Edwards got his points, but his 8-of-27 shooting (3-for-13 from the arc) was ridiculously inefficient, and cost Purdue better opportunities. Maryland won 70-56.
It worked against Illinois, too.
Forcing Ayo and ‘Belo into bad shots didn’t just result in them hitting 4-of-12 and 9-of-23 respectively. It meant Kofi got fewer opportunities.
ON SLOWING KOFI
“A lot of it was the mentality of our group, that we were going to fight him for space,” said Brady, “and not let him get deep post touches.
“We have a grad-transfer in Galin Smith who’s not an excellent offensive player, but like Darryl Morsell he’s very prideful. I grabbed him before the game and said ‘we’re going to need an extraordinary effort, defensively … and it can’t be after the catch.’ It’s kind of like turf warfare. He’s going to have to fight for low-post position. And Galin did an extraordinary job of just fighting with him on every possession, particularly in the second half.
“Most of the baskets Kofi had in the first half — I think he was 6-for-8 — were against Chol Marial, who’s not built for that kind of hand-to-hand combat. But Galin Smith was really up to the challenge. He knew that we couldn’t be in the game unless he brought it defensively.
“After the game, each of us coaches had something to say to the team. The only thing I said to the team in the locker room was ‘there’s no way we win that game without Galin’s extraordinary effort.’
“I was glad Galin was able to take a bow for our group, because he’s a really unsung player for us.”
It feels unlikely that any squad which continually bares its soft underbelly would, could … might put together a stretch run, or a March Maddening. But then again, you never thought a loosely organized brood of underemployed motorcycle mechanics and fulfillment clerks would overrun the United States government, didya?
It would be best if Brad Underwood’s fifth Illini team just put it all together, and won out. But it’s more likely that they’ll grow gradually, both individually and as a unit, and be pretty good on Saint Patrick’s Day.
Is that enough to win four games in four days? (Or, knock on wood, three?) Can this team play consistently six times in a row?
Of course it can. Weird things happen in March.
This crossroads, where a rising Illini team was felled by a Maryland squad that’s past its due date, but still has some capable veterans, reminded me of another Illini team on the rise.
I don’t remember the above game, but I’ll never forget Ricky Blanton’s name, especially because he was so ugly and inspirational.
We were all Ricky Blanton fans in March of 1986, when 11th-seeded Louisiana State made an historic and unlikely run to the Final Four. They kept getting the right breaks. The ball dropped when they needed it to drop.
Contrast Blanton’s Cinderella slipper with his pummeling, at the hands of your Flyin’ Illini — who came, saw & conquered Le Baton Rouge in December of 1988.
By that point, LSU had added the artist formerly known as Chris Jackson, but not the Illini recruit Shaquille O’Neal. Jackson’s passes were too quick for Blanton and his teammates. They hadn’t gelled as a unit. Illinois, on the other hand, was the best team in college basketball. That was especially true because they’d already played together for a full season.
When March of 1989 finally arrived, a recovered Kendall Gill (greenstick fracture, foot) had rejoined an Illini team that went undefeated with him, and had lost four games without him. But then Kenny Battle slipped on a patch of water from the leaky Humphreydome roof, and sprained his knee. What might have been?
The Illini had vanquished both Indiana (Big Ten champs) and Michigan (national champs) during the regular season. But by the last weekend, the Wolverines had come together. Without Battle at 100%, Michigan did to Illini dreams what Illinois did to Ricky Blanton’s.
It left a bad taste in your mouth at the time, but it should give you hope in 2021, especially if Trent’s shoulder and Da’Monte’s ankle aren’t as consequential as the publicity-squelched Battle hobbling.
Darryl Morsell should have played for a national title last year. He deserves it, given all the hard work he’s put in. But COVID wiped his only chance. Anthony Cowan ran out of eligibility, and Jalen Smith decided to go pro. The best laid plans fell apart.
Curbelo is not yet Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and he’s not even Chris Jackson. But let’s enjoy seeing who he becomes once he’s adjusted to B1G scouting adjusting to him. After all, Jackson — exciting as he was in that December ’88 game — fouled out even before Illinois crossed the century mark.
You should always have been emotionally prepared for these early losses. This team is not like the 1989 Illini, nor 2005. Too many new parts are coming together. You can fret about that if you like to fret. But as Ayo said, it’s just a step in the journey.
Temper your enthusiasm. Be encouraged.
*Brady served a six-game paid suspension at the start of the 2019 season because, like a lot of Illinois “non-coaching” assistants, he was coaching.
Once upon a time, Illinois basketball ws incompetent in the face of zone defense. Now that everyone’s zoning all the time, the Illini have become zone busters.
It’s man-to-man defense that freaks them out.
Against a 13-16 Nebraska team, losers of seven straight and winless in B1G road games, the Illini managed only 9 assists. Illinois opened each half with a major cold-streak, the ball sticking to Ahmad Starks’s hands as if glued there. All that nifty passing we saw against Northwestern reverted to reluctance. Nebraska jumped to a 9-3 lead in the first half, and scored the first 11 points of the second.
On the bright side, Illinois converted on 43.8% of its three-point attempts. Rayvonte Rice was 4-7 from the arc, bringing him to 46.5% for the season, and adding weight to the notion that his nine game absence didn’t affect his rhythm. Illinois’ overall shooting was, once again, less accurate than its long-distance marksmanship, at 42.9%. Converting 20 of 23 free-throws = 87% from the stripe.
The difference in the game was Terran Petteway’s 1-of-9 incompetence from the arc. Petteay shoots only 31% from three, but you can imagine how different the final minute would have been if he’d connected on those other two. We’d not have seen Ryan Schmidt.
Cornhusker big man Leslee Smith enjoyed a career night against the Illini. His nifty post moves continually fooled Illinois’ defense. He finished with season highs of 8 points and 9 rebounds.
Fortunately, he’s a senior, so he’ll not likely haunt the Illini in the future. The reason you don’t remember him from previous games is that he’s normally a sub, and a JUCO transfer at that. Starter Walter Pitchford didn’t make the trip, after injuring a hip in practice on Monday.
THE NEAR FUTURE
So, here we are. It’s March, the final week of the season, and we still don’t know whether Illinois will play in the NCAA Tournament. It’s an unsettling feeling.
We got rid of Bruce Weber because we were bored with this feeling. But if you’re tiring of John Groce, remember that it’s Year Three. The Illini have a great opportunity at Mackey Arena on Saturday, and whatever people say about Purdue’s resurgence, the Illini match up with the Boilers better than any team in the B1G.
The Boilers aren’t even a paper tiger. Their paper looks lousy. Their best win in conference was Iowa, at home. They also nipped OSU 60-58 at Mackey. But Rutgers gave t hem a game there. They lost all the games they were expected to lose, and achieved zero surprise wins, unless you think beating Indiana at Bloomington is an accomplishment.
Purdue’s embarrassing losses include Kansas State, Gardner-Webb, Vanderbilt and something called North Florida. (What’s the point of North Florida? Humidity and bugs?) The Ospreys other big win this season was Elon. In fairness, they did win the Atlantic Sun conference, despite a loss to South Carolina Upstate.
Purdue lacks the fire in the belly that previous Boilermaker teams displayed. There’s no Lewis Jackson to punch you in the mouth. They don’t even have a Ryne Smith. PG Jon Octeus might be their best match-up against Illinois, when going position by position. Rapheal Davis is a success story for them, but you’d rather have Malcolm Hill.
Yes, Isaac Haas is huge, but he didn’t seem to adapt well to Illinois’ dribble-penetration last time. AJ Hammons continues to confound Purdue fans, who feel less confident about the game than Illini fans, for good reason. Matt Painter won’t go big with twin towers, which would stymie Illinois (a team that fares poorly among the trees). Painter is also philosophically opposed to switching defenses within a possession, which is the sort of thing that confuses the Illini.
Purdue definitely has more to lose on Saturday, and they know it.
THE FUTURE FUTURE
Melvin Nunn had to work in the morning, and D.J. Williams had to school in the morning. But they came down for the season finale anyhow.
Nunn met Piankhi Lands for the first time. Lands attended his first ever Illini game in Champaign, as did elder son Jalen Coleman-Lands. (Their first ever Illini game was January 3rd, in Columbus.)
Nunn told Lands to be prepared, as a father, for the mental turmoil his son will endure as a freshman. Learning college defensive schemes, Nunn said, is a trial for all freshman, no matter how talented and experienced. Lands understood that there would be a learning curve for basketball. He seemed more leery of the forthcoming media onslaught.
“Get used to it,” advised Nunn Sr.
Piankhi Lands is an amiable guy, who chose to forgo a college basketball career of his own. But he’s bullish about his sons careers. (Younger son Isaiah, a point guard at LaLumiere, and daughter Sincere joined the family trip to Champaign. Both Isaiah and Jalen are on Spring Break until March 11.)
Lands Sr. says LaLumiere expects to compete for a national championship, to be played in New York City this spring. He also expects Jalen to compete for the nation’s high school three-point shooting title, which competition will occur over Final Four week in Indianapolis.
Before making my way to the media room, to cover John Groce’s post-game remarks, I introduced Lands Sr. to Kenny Battle, whom Lands recalls from his Flyin’ days. Lands told Battle that his son was a hard worker, and Battle says he hopes Jalen will compete for the Kenny Battle Award.
I thought that was hilarious. It also reminded me how fortunate I am to have this gig. It’s an honor to talk about basketball with that man.
People don’t click links after losses. They don’t want to re-live the sorrow.
So I’ll just mention a couple of things you might not have known from watching the Michigan State game on TV. And if you learn something worthwhile, you can tell your friends. This article features no traumatic rehashing of what might have been.
Jaylon Tate played Sunday’s game with a 100°+ fever. It was higher Sunday morning, and higher still on Saturday. There was a contingency plan to have him hospitalized if the medical staff hadn’t been able to bring it down. So it’s surprising that he played at all, and astonishing that he played a full 19 minutes.
It’s not surprising that Jaylon missed all his shots from the floor, failed to assist a single bucket, and committed four fouls. But Illinois didn’t lose because of Jaylon. They lost for the simplest of basketball reasons: Ball not go in bucket.
Open this image in a new tab to see Malcolm Hill’s pained expression at missing yet another shot.
Illinois shot <29% from the floor.
You move on. Ideally to a post-season tournament that begins with N but does not end with T.
I’d wager you’ve seen the last of the pre-game fireworks. They left a terrible amount of smoke in the arena, for the Indiana and Michigan games. The DIA recognized as much.
The DIA then consulted with the pyrotechnicians in charge, and changed the combination of explosives. So this time, the smoke went straight up to the catwalk.
But then, about five minutes into the game, it descended into the arena. By that point, I’d already congratulated Mike Thomas on the smoke fix. At halftime, I asked his wife Jeni to retract the compliment.
Hey, they tried.
I spied Bruce Douglas, Doug Altenberger and Anthony Welch in attendance on Sunday. I assumed there must be some kind of reunion.
During Tuesday’s Hall of Fame nomination press conference, Lou Henson was asked about the Flyin’ Illini. That makes sense. They were his Final Four team at Illinois. (He had one at New Mexico State, as well.)
Lou chose to speak about his 1984 team, instead. He thought that team had a shot at a national championship. And of course, they did. They got jobbed at Kentucky, which forced the NCAA to change its entire tournament, eliminating home court advantage. (Illinois more recently prompted the video review policy in the tourney, after getting jobbed in Austin, TX.)
I recently discovered a full 1984 Illini game on YouTube. They beat Len Bias and Maryland in the Sweet Sixteen. Those were the days, yo.
I tried to find out about future NCAA plans for YouTube distribution. Last week’s game at Wisconsin, for example, went up immediately, because it’s a CBS property. (CBS and NCAA are thick as thieves, as you know.)
Would other Illini games follow?
NCAA media specialist Cameron Schuh referred me to NCAA specialerist Nate Flannery, who asked me which game I was talking about, and whether I could share a link. Then he asked me for a link to the Wisconsin game I’d referenced. I haven’t heard from him since. So I suggest you EagleGet those games before something happens to them. (UPDATE: as of Monday noon, Flannery responds that the NCAA does not control the above linked YouTube channel. He did not yet respond to my query about future plans for distribution of full game videos.)
Welch said there was no reunion, just coincidence. He added that he came to see a great basketball game, noting that he’s a Michigan native (Grand Rapids).
Larry Smith and Kenny Battle sat together for a second consecutive game. Afterward, they visited with Byron Irvin, of the Irvin Family. Mac Irvin Fire coach Mike Irvin was also expected for the MSU game, but I didn’t actually see him.
IZZO AND WEBER
After dispatching his media responsibilities, Tom Izzo hung out in the #SFC tunnel, visiting with Paris Parham and a handful of non-coaching persons. Michigan State continues to offer the only open locker room in the Big Ten, and Izzo himself is accessible, and personable.
He was thankful (i.e. he said thanks) when I asked about his 2012-era support of Bruce Weber, and whether he’s stayed in touch with Weber during this most recent trying time (Kansas State is now 13-15 on the year).
That super annoying whoop-whoop sound you heard as Illinois shot free-throws? Kinda like a cartoon parody of an American Indian war call? That was Gavin Schilling’s mom, Lisa.
I complained about it to my fellow cesspoolers while watching MSU @ Michigan on Tuesday. It was so annoying I had to mute the TV. When I heard it at #SFC, I realized it was coming from the MSU family section. From that point, I kept an eye on them. And despite the fact that I sit at the opposite end of the court, I recognized Lisa. I met her when Jay Price brought Gavin for an unofficial visit.
I didn’t even ask for Jalen’s name that day, because he was obviously very young. (I don’t pick on recruits before junior year, unless they’re presented to me by the people who want to publicize them.*) So I have only now, by searching for that article, discovered that Price had him on campus as well. Bravo Jay Price.
Anyway, I remembered really liking Lisa. She was a strong woman, smart and determined. I told Jason Lener as much when I recommended that she be banned from the State Farm Center.
I didn’t find the sound nearly as annoying on Sunday, in person. I know where the visiting families sit at Crisler Arena, so I suspect Lisa was directly behind ESPN’s play-by-play and color team. Their microphones amplified the experience.
Still, it was pretty annoying.
I hope Lisa and I can remain friends, even though I recommended her banishment. I expect we can. After all, I’m great friends with Kathi LaTulip, whatever the Internet thinks.
*I’ll never forget the time Kevin Farrell Sr. persuaded me to take a picture of his son. I had no idea who “Yogi” was. I’m pretty obtuse about these things, frankly.
The “story” from the Rutgers game, if there is one, must be the obvious point-shaving. There’s no other explanation for the Scarlet Knights’ dribbling out the clock, down eight points, with 1:20 to go.
The spread was 11 points. Rutgers lost by 12.
Now, let’s talk about the non-controversial stuff
Darius Paul was driven to drink by the NCAA. He tested positive for a substance that’s known for its non-toxic medicinal properties. Given a dire warning to stay away from this natural, herbal tonic, he took to a poison that’s legal and toxic. How does that make sense?
I’m not an advocate of marijuana. I’ve tried it. It makes me paranoid, dizzy, uncomfortable.
It works much better for my brother-in-law, who’s 12 years into his multiple sclerosis diagnosis. He gets it legally, by prescription. It helps with pain and muscle tension.
Marijuana, and the stupid laws restricting it, have made a huge impact here in C-U, just recently.
If you don’t live in Champaign-Urbana, you may not know the news that gripped campus over the last few days. A student named Vicente Mundo was shot in the back of the head, and killed. His body was dumped north of Tolono. A vigil — and a massive effort to locate him, in the days preceding the discovery of his body — were the talk of the town.
On Tuesday, news broke that two men had been arrested & arraigned for first-degree murder.
Vicente Mundo was murdered for a small amount of marijuana, and a small amount of money. If marijuana sales were legal in Illinois, he’d be alive.
New Governor Bruce Rauner is doing what he can to facilitate sales & distribution of marijuana in Illinois. The general assembly voted medical marijuana legal last year. Urbana (and Ann Arbor and Madison) decriminalized marijuana long ago, reducing harsh penalties to wrist-slaps that cost users less than a craft beer or premium cocktail.
Having charged the alleged killers, and after joining a press conference featuring all the local law-enforcement agencies involved in the investigation; State’s Attorney Julia Rietz attended the Rutgers game, and said it was the perfect way to cap a long day. (Perhaps she meant sleep-inducing. The game was like marijuana, in that sense.)
Given all this tumult, it seemed like a good time to speak up about marijuana and the student-athlete.
There’s conjecture that Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby were suspended for using marijuana. If they had, they’d be typical college students. They’d also be typical medical patients, recovering from injuries.
But in fact, Ray and Cos were not smoking doobies. Their suspension has nothing to do with illegal drugs. They enjoyed some nightlife at a time when they were expected to set a good example for their younger teammates, by staying in, perhaps watching some scouting materials, and getting a great night’s sleep.
Neither Rice nor Cosby had any possibility of seeing action in a game at the time of the “infraction,” so perhaps a bit of R&R felt to them like a harmless change of pace.
If you read the Steve Bardo book on 1989’s Flyin’ Illini, you’ll know that some of the guys on that team decided to go out partying in East Lansing, the night before a game. They were hungover the next day, according to Bardo, and got pummeled by a well-rested Spartans team.
It’s comparing apples to orange basketballs. Staying up all night and getting drunk may not lead to great athletic performance. But it’s had negligible impact on athletes’ ability to sit on a bench.
John Groce got a freebie for Message Sending purposes, because the duration of the “indefinite suspension” will fit nicely with the recovery time for each player’s injury. By the time John Beilein brings his Caris LeVert-less Woverines to town for a bit of revenge, you can expect Ray and Cos to be part of that ass whoopin’.
COULDN’T BE HAPPIER FOR KENNY BATTLE
Bardo’s Flyin’ Illini teammate Kenny Battle (whose individual flyin’ led to the moniker, let’s be honest) was on hand Tuesday.
Battle is famous for his effort. A yearly award is given, in his name, to the Illini player who displays the greatest hustle. True to that nature, Battle has kept working on his latest cause. It’s his daughter, Ty. He wants you all to know how proud he is of Ty, now a sophomore in Joliet.
Ty’s dad says she’s averaging a double-double, and has her choice of an all-expenses-paid college education. “Everybody wants her.”
I was thrilled to capture a picture of Battle and Rayvonte Rice together. They are kindred Illini. Perhaps the best players of their era, both started as under-appreciated, thought to be undersized mid-majors. Battle at NIU of the MAC, and Rice at Drake of the Valley.
NOW, ABOUT THAT BORING GAME
The reason BTN2GO stuck you with a 9:30 p.m. slot on a Tuesday night, dear Rutgers basketball fan, is that you don’t exist.
The reason you, Illinois fan, were stuck with a late Tuesday game is that you fall into two categories. You will either do anything to see the Illini play, or you are waiting for Illinois to return to relevance. They’ve got you either way.
Tens, possibly dozens of you descended upon the State Farm Center on Tuesday. Hundreds more watched the game on TV.
They saw a balanced scoring attack, a future NBA project, Gene Steratore making friendly with the Orange Krush, and Austin Colbert.
Ahmad Starks took fewer off-balance shots. He made more shots.
Leron Black collected the garbage. He connected on 5-of-6 shots, for 12 points. Intriguingly, he grabbed only two rebounds in 21 minutes.
Kendrick Nunn grabbed six rebounds. He was the alpha and the omega of this game, converting all his free-throws, and adding four assists (five if you count the beautiful post-entry pass that Nnanna Egwu kicked).
Nnanna, by the way, played through an injury that required special attention from trainer Paul Schmidt. It happened on the defensive possession that (unfairly) resulted in Nnanna’s second foul (when a Scarlet Knight tripped over Nnanna’s prone body).