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COVID-19 Illini basketball

Was That What We Were Expecting?

The Trent Frazier Show was rolling in fifth gear all night. Luke Goode rebounded. Coleman Hawkins drained threes. Austin Hutcherson made a 90° turn in mid-air, to shoot a ball that he’d already rebounded while already in-air.

I guess that’s what we expected to see in a contest featuring the state’s worst basketball team versus the state’s best basketball team. (I’m including JV teams from the IHSA.)

The unexpected performance came from Andre Curbelo, who was really … um … bad? And amazing? But we expected amazing. We didn’t expect five turnovers.

D’oh!

Brad Underwood won’t lose much sleep over it. He explained that Belo was, frankly, nervous. After a freshman year of balling for 200 people, he’d found himself on display for a few thousand, including a rowdy student section.

This is why we schedule exhibition games.

And we shouldn’t forget that he was also amazing, as expected.

The challenge for Brad Chet Tim Geoff is to rein in Belo’s exuberance without crushing it. Or am I being too control-ly?

Maybe Belo just needs a couple of exhibition games under his belt, and he’ll be fine?

He was, after all, amazing.

Coleman Hawkins is the other free spirit whose playmaking thrilled fans and burst capillaries in his coach’s face. Should he be throttled?

Coleman seems to know that it’s a matter of picking his spots. Knowing when to play it straight. Knowing when to get creative.

Surely the surprise of the night was RJ Melendez, who didn’t get in the game ’til the fourth quarter. That late entry was expected, because RJ’s performance in the Open Practice suggested he was a few years away from comprehending the defensive principles that Underwood’s staff requires of its rotation players.

But RJ found his spots against USF-Joliet. He didn’t get backdoor-ed. He hedged correctly. He didn’t look afraid.

RJ was fun on offense, hitting a three and converting a reverse lay-up. But that was the expected part for him. We knew he could rebound, too. But what about his defensive positioning? Will he be instant offense for the other team?

He did not look lost against USF.

The rest of the veterans displayed rust here and there, among moments of grace. Da’Monte Williams best play was batting a ball from a Saint and simultaneously knocking it off his victim, out of bounds. He nearly emoted in celebration.

Kofi had a somewhat frustrating game, of the sort he’ll experience every night over the next five months, as teams study his every move, and do their utmost to stop him.

He’s a kind, sensitive person. So you hope he can keep that good nature while opponents do their best to ruin his future.

Hutch did not miss.

We still can’t be sure that Hutch is ready for P5 competition, because he certainly didn’t face it Saturday. But he looked a lot more like the super-hyped Hutch than he did the skinny Division III kid we saw two years ago.

It still looks like Podz and RJ won’t see a lot of floor time this year, a vibe that Underwood conveyed in his season kickoff press conference. Podz didn’t have the opportunity to show us anything worth knowing. He didn’t have time.

The ball was in his hands as time ran out on the game, so he was in position to score the hundredth point. He did it.

Trent was already laughing, Brad was already angry.

RJ’s brief tick was a lot flashier, but he faces the same general problem: Which three veterans will he replace?

Maybe we’ll know more after Exhibition #2, just six days from now.

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Illini Basketball

Lighting Up Francis

Did you know there was a University of Saint Francis in Illinois?

Yes? Congratulations! You’re from Joliet!

University of Saint Francis (IL) is the fifth biggest University of Saint Francis in the United States; after PA, Fort Wayne, Brooklyn and Steubenville.

Compared to other scismic branches of papist basketball, Franciscan hoops suffers — just as it should, given its namesake — versus Jesuit powerhouses like Georgetown & Gonzaga. St. Bonaventure is probably the best Franciscan basketball program. The second-best might be Saint Francis-PA*, which tied for last in the mighty Northeast Conference last year. (If you don’t have a sense of the NEC’s might, know that Robert Morris abandoned its affiliation in 2020, to join the Horizon League.)

Against Pennsylvania’s Franciscans, which Illinois hosts on December 18, Brad Underwood will foist a rotation of Illini which will, by that 13th contest, have grown familiar.

But who?!?!?!? you wail.

That’s your nine-man rotation. But will Brad use a nine-man rotation?

Tim Anderson says the coaching staff is working on ways to employ a Twin Towers set, with Omar Payne and Kofi Cockburn blocking all sunlight from penetrating the lane.

That mission seems counterintuituve given the obvious 4-out nature of this roster. “Positionless” basketball demands that the parts be interchangeable, and that’s not the case when you put Omar and Kofi in the same five.

Ben Verdonk

What about Podz and Goode? Will Underwood try a two sets of five approach, like John Calipari did in 2014?

Underwood wants to run. He wants transition baskets and threes. That suggests that “ten starters” is possible. And we know that Underwood is willing to tinker, to experiment. (Such an emmeffing breath of fresh air.)

On the other hand, if you’re starting from the simplest of recipes (Belo to Kofi) it feels unecessary to get weird. Replacing Ayo with shooters gives away the game plan.

Or does it?

Hutch with coach Tim Anderson

Coleman Hawkins says the Hutch Game isn’t so much a steady diet of three-pointers as it is using ball-screens to create a pull-up jumper. Hutch’s much reported near-posterization during the Open Practice suggests that he’s willing to drive like Ayo, but perhaps not finish like Ayo. (Ayo’s use of the glass, the oldest of old school basketball, is nearly extinct among young players. They could learn from Ayo’s example.)

Brad Underwood watches Andre Curbelo during a drill.

Is Underwood so devious that he’ll run two completely different offenses during the same season? That’s the kind of departure from the norm that gets books published, even dissertations.

It doesn’t seem likely, does it?

Then again, a low-post offense doesn’t require more than a few option plays. If Geoff Alexander wants to drill his bigs on a few different sets, and some of those sets incorporate a double-post presence … well, isn’t that the type of advanced education these scholar-athletes expect from a world class institution?

As Omar said, “I’m a scholar.”

Omar Payne & Ben Verdonk

Because Illinois scheduled two exhibition games, rather than a secret scrimmage, one might conclude that Brad wants to learn more about his rotations. How do these guys interact when facing unfamiliar opponents? Which fivesomes mesh?

It’s not unfair to predict a 126-42 final score in an imbalanced match-up against the nation’s worst Francis. But it would be more fun, and more useful, to use the game for experimentation. The “starters” already know what to do. You can put a fivesome of

  • Belo
  • Trent
  • ‘Monte
  • Jake
  • Kofi

on the floor, and expect them to run like clockwork.

NOTE – Two minutes of this video were muted by YouTube, for copyright purposes.

What happens when it’s

  • Belo
  • Plummer
  • Hutch
  • Coleman
  • Omar?

What happens when you mix and match those fives, or put Goode on the wing?

Personally, I’d rather see Podz, Verdonk and Goode get the maxium PT. We need to know what those guys can do, and whether they’re ready to help.

Podziemski gives a Matt Heldman vibe. It’s difficult to keep the Matt Heldman types of the floor. Goode looks ready, and might challenge veterans for tick.

RJ Melendez meets team IR photo by Mark Jones, who is hilarious

You’d want to see RJ Melendez and Brandon Lieb get some minutes, just because it’s fun to play, and they’re unlikely to play in non-exhibition games. Not unless Brandon puts on 30 lbs. and RJ grasps defensive positioning.

RJ is, according to his coaches & teammates, the athletic freak among them. That implies Fan Favorite potential. But it’s almost painfully obvious when talking to him that he’s the youngest, or most youthful, of this Illini team. Acclimating to a huge American campus — via a second language — while also trying to compete with crafty fifth-year seniors, all while realizing that the wind can be uncomfortably cold sometimes … it’s a lot.

He seems bright and cheerful, though. So who knows? Maybe he’ll get his footwork in order by December.

*Francisan hoops completists will want to know that, while Brooklyn fared better in last year’s NEC, it split its games with PA. PA has put three (THREE!) guys in the NBA and, unlike the Terriers in New York, played in The Tourney once.

Once.
Categories
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.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Free-throws. Box out. Free-throws. Box out. Free-throws.

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. 

Free-throws. Box out. Free-throws. Box out. Free-throws.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Coach Who Cried Wolf

Greg Gard prefaced his complaint by saying “I didn’t see the replay.” He added that his view was blocked. For these reasons, we must remember that Gard knows not of what he speaks. He’s not the best witness for the defense.

But because Gard ended his post-Iowa Zoom by demanding an apology from the Big Ten, and simultaneously divulged that he’d already demanded and received an apologies from an ESPN producer and Bob Wischusen and Dick Vitale; you’d have a much better argument that he’s not a witness at all, but a co-conspirator. He told you, right there, that he’s made a formal application to silence criticism of his program.

Brad Davison knows how to keep his arms up.

Maybe it’s the current political environment in Wisconsin, where witness intimidation is still popular.

Gard is a quietly funny man, and an intense if non-showy bench coach. Middle-aged white men from the Midwest understand him.

But yesterday, his team lost a basketball game because he’s failed to address a problem within his program. The problem is not that people perceive Brad Davison to be dirty. The problem is not that people poke fun at Brad Davison for being dirty. The problem is that Brad Davison is dirty.

A simple “Brad needs to stop punching people in the balls, and we’re going to take care of that internally” would have done wonders to ameliorate the perception problem. But Gard actually needs to actually stop Davison from actually punching people in the actual balls.

Has Gard considered that maybe, just maybe, continual complaints about Brad Davison might indicate a problem with Brad Davison?

Consider his jeremiad toward the B1G, in the back half of this video. He says players can get a review any time they point at an opponent, and it’s ruining the game. Any time they urge referees to check the monitor, referees check the monitor. And it’s ruining the game.

Was Gard’s view blocked when Davison pointed at his opponent, and urged referees to check the monitor?

This column neither holds nor professes a Good Guys Wear White Hats viewpoint. Brad Davison is undoubtedly a good guy in practice and while sitting for interviews. And he definitely punches people in the nuts.

His teammate D’Mitrik Trice is a model citizen in those former examples, and he pushed-off on Jordan Bohannon at a crucial moment in the Iowa game.

Next time you pass a moving object, see if you’re arm doesn’t instinctively draw closer to your body. Conversely, if you frequently bruise your shoulder on door jambs, it might be time to visit a neurologist.

Trice can be an earnest student and get whistled for trying to throw an opponent off-balance while rising for a jumpshot. It’s not a good versus evil value judgment. Similarly, fans can laud his mother for not aborting him and kick her out of the building for annoying an entire network TV audience.

Bo Ryan can be a world-class coach and romance a woman who isn’t his wife.

The Wisconsin program is the epitome of class and humanity in its response to Howard Moore’s tragedy. Howard Moore himself is graciousness personified. Thus, we can rest assured that good people exist and good things happen within the Badger community.

And every time Brad Davison’s arm extends toward a player from a different team, and every time Brad Davison’s arm clamps another player and pulls him downward as happened to Keegan Murray, no matter what Gard thinks; Bo Boroski and the entire B1G officiating contingent should check the monitor.

Repeat offenders draw scrutiny. Or, as Wisconsin’s favorite witness intimidator would say “you knew he was a snake.”

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Battle of the Unexpected Warriors

Nobody predicted Michigan would win the B1G this season. No one foresaw Mike Smith and Hunter Dickinson rocketing from unknown & under-recruited to prime time stardom.

If none of you predicted the 76-53 final score of Illini at Wolverines 2021, you’re forgiven. Weird things happen when you remove a primary character from a plot. The story veers off its predicted path. And here we are: Illinois without Ayo Dosunmu is playing like Michigan without Bill Frieder.

All photos from the UM game by Kelsea Ansfield, who is great.

The Chaundee Brown airball free-throw was Michigan’s night in a nutshell. Unexpected, embarrassing and not living up to the earned reputation. It seemed as though the god of basketball squatted over Crisler’s domed roof and squeezed off a giant fart.

How the hell did this team fool the entire United States into believing? How did they wipe the Schott with Ohio State? Where the fuck did this game come from?

H/T Dan O’Brien

SILENCING THE CRITICS

It was fair, as of Tuesday morning, to criticize this Illini team as overrated. You could say they hadn’t earned the lofty seeding “experts” project for The Tournament. After all, they played a cakewalk B1G schedule and barely survived some of those cupcakes. They got trounced by Baylor. They beat Iowa with one Fredrick tied behind its back. They lost to four middling league teams. They played the bottom five teams twice each, and won all ten games.

So they’re 5-4 against the B1G’s not worst teams.

But fair’s fair. The B1G standings say Iowa and Michigan are the top two teams not named ILLINOIS. The Illini beat fourth-place Purdue in their only contest, and Ohio State has lost seven times in conference, including stinkers at Northwestern and Minnesota.

You now have Illini Report’s permission to believe in this team. #YouGoGirl #DoIGetACookie

THE SALARIES, UNCAPPED

And so let us now face an elephant that has finally, at long last, wandered into our room. For the first time in Andre Curbelo’s memory, other teams will want to poach from the Illini coaching staff. (Does Belo even know that three Big 12 coaches once led this program, and that two of them left town of their own volition?)

Rumors began circulating this week about teams who’d like to hire Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman for head coaching positions. And thus, it’s time for Josh Whitman to decide whether he wants Illinois to compete off the court.

Let’s say NIU offers Chin $450,000 to take over from Mark Montgomery. Assuming a five year contract, that would be enough to pay a few tuitions and retire to a modest home. The risk of ruining a career in DeKalb is significant, so it’s not a no-brainer that Chin would go. The DIA response should be to equal whatever NIU offers, with some added performance bonuses. Give Chin reason to stay until a competitive program comes ‘a callin’. Big Boy programs lose assistants to mid-majors, as Montgomery and Howard Moore have shown. But the Blue Bloods also keep their staves intact & cohesive by paying them a lot of money.

Pay these men whatever they ask.

Orlando Antigua will be offered more money than Chin. He’s already been fired from a head coaching position, but athletic directors will have noticed Andre Curbelo, Kofi Cockburn and Andrez Feliz — three drastically different players who all, in their own way, changed the Illini program dramatically.

How much is it worth to have Ayo, Kofi & Belo in Champaign? Is it worth $2 Million per year? That seems like a bargain. I suggest the figure is more like $20 million. #1 seeds are worth a shitload of money. Teams that consistently compete for top talent and conference championships can, essentially, print their own cash. If it takes another few million to keep this staff intact, and they’re all into it, Josh should forget everything he learned from Ron Guenther, and find his checkbook.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Consider Ricky Blanton

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.

Andy Wenstrand – Illini Athletics

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.

Michael Glasgow / Illinois Athletics

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.

ON CURBELO

“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.”

Darryl Morsell guards Ayo during simpler times.

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?

Michael Glasgow – Illinois Athletics

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.

Give it time. They’re young.

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.

Michael Glasgow / Illinois Athletics

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.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Better Part of Valor

When I asked Marcus Carr about Illini guards and the trouble they caused him, I employed the second person singular, “you.” Unfortunately, in the English language, the same word addresses second person plurals. Or is it second persons plural?

His response made clear that he interpreted “you” as his team. He said that while the guards were very quick, it was really Kofi who caused the problems. His tone made clear that he’d rather be anywhere else.

I pivoted. I decided against clarifying. I didn’t say “no, no I’m talking about how Trent took you out of the game.” I didn’t see the point. Instead, I asked a bland question about Ayo, the kind of boring workaday tripe that you hear in most boring Q&As with athletes.

The trouble I’m having now, as I attempt to conjure a meaningful, relevant set of paragraphs capturing the zeitgeist of Illini Basketball circa December 2020; I need to know whether Marcus Carr felt thoroughly dominated by Trent Frazier.

Also, I need to know whether Carr felt confined by the help defense provided by Trent’s teammates. Did the bigs step up to fill the gaps? Did everyone rotate in sync? How has Ayo improved defensively since last year?

Nope, I just copped out entirely.

Michael Glasgow / Illinois Athletics

Gabe Kalscheur seemed sunnier. So I asked him how all the new parts were coming together for his team. He said everything was great and everybody super, or something along those lines.

“But you (plural) just completely fell apart and got plowed, ” I didn’t follow-up, again thinking that discretion is the better part of something. And so is not insulting people.

I took the same (easy way) out a day earlier, when Kofi offered a breezy reply to my question about his own rotations on defense. Kalscheur and Kofi were both easy on themselves.

But on the bright side — or, more accurately, the extremely gloomy side — you don’t have to worry about Kofi not worrying. It’s really amazing how openly self-critical he is. If he were an American, raised on Big Boys Don’t Cry and similar idioms; you’d never see this side of him. Presumably, you’d never see the real him.

Hunter Dyke/Mizzou Athletics

Josh Whitman and Randy Ballard keep talking about the mental health aspect of student-athlete well being, and they couldn’t ask for a better face/spokesperson/poster child. By evincing physical dominance and a childlike curiosity, laughing with his teammates while also confessing his angst and obstacles; Kofi demonstrates a truth that pastors, therapists and 12-step sponsors have counseled for decades: You can be successful and generally happy and yet never completely overcome your continual struggles, whatever they may be.

It’s damn noble for Kofi to air it all out as he does. Some kid is listening, worshipping his idol, and feeling relieved that he’s not alone in his moments of darkness and doubt.

So when Kofi spoke confidently about quarterbacking the defense, reading and rotating; I didn’t push him with the third variable of my original question: Where does he have room for improvement?

It’s an open-ended question, not as confrontational as “why do you suck so badly” or even “you’ve been struggling lately, how come?” Kofi’s defensive rotations were not perfect. It’s okay. He’ll continue to improve in that area.

Just look at his improvement on offense! His low post moves had been few and of limited efficacy. He rewrote that narrative in just one night, and it was awesome.

He was, nevertheless, reflective in his postgame remarks. Especially the ones that weren’t asked by sports dudes.

I’m glad I was on the other line, as it were, when that Q&A unrolled. Sometimes it’s best just to listen.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Braggin’ & Hatin’

Watching Cuonzo Martin’s pre-Braggin’ Zoom, I felt a familiar bonhomie. Here I go again, I thought to myself. I can’t help myself, I thought.

I like Cuonzo Martin.

That’s great! Right? I like Brad Underwood too. Isn’t it great to like things?

Listening to the pre-game hoopla surrounding Braggin’ Rights 2020, I was struck by the prompting: How much do you hate Cuonzo? Or Mark, Jeremiah, Javon?

How much does Xavier Pinson hate Illinois?

I think I wrote about tribal hate during my Smile Politely tenure. It still bothers me. Yes, there are people in college basketball who hate other people in college basketball. But it’s way less common than the hatred among tribal fans.

Mark Smith committed to Missouri before he committed to Illinois. Jeremiah Tilmon’s dad wanted Jeremiah to go with Cuonzo. Cuonzo knew Javon Pickett’s family since forever.

It’s great that all three of those guys found a home in Columbia. Mark had already been beaten out of the starting spot he’d been given on the basis of reputation. Jeremiah & Javon might compete for minutes on this year’s Illini team, but only because the rotation is so limited. Last year, you’d be hard pressed to play either one over Kofi and Alan Griffin.

It makes sense that those guys played with a chip on their shoulder. The self-doubt was enough. Sports fans should approve that that chip propelled Mizzou to victory last year (along with Mitchell & Dru Smith playing out of their minds).

(not) The Smiths

Mark’s dad Anthony had seen enough after that Maryland game where Da’Monte supplanted Mark, then threw the ball away. Both Smiths are now happier.

Da’Monte seemed to relish the renewed opportunity to compete with post-transfer Mark. From an individual standpoint, you could say Da’Monte won.

But because Monte is way more more old school than the dazzling hoopster who sired him, Monte doesn’t care about individual battles. He wants the W.

Last year, Mizzou wanted the W. Does that mean the team with the most floor burns will win 2020’s Braggin’ Rights game? Well, it is 2020. That means people must suffer.

It’s conceivable that Mizzou will out-dog the Illini again tonight. Andres Feliz is not walking through that door. But it also seems likely that Ayo & Co. will bring their A-game.

The bright side is that Missouri can claim victory even if they score fewer points. It’s all the rage these days, especially in SEC country.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Cameron Streak

It doesn’t matter that this year’s Duke team is overrated because its name is Duke. It doesn’t matter that it’s inexperienced and young.

Illinois is in the middle of a win streak at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and that streak is heading into its 26th year. That’s the important thing.

Whether it’s Chris Collins or Shaun Livingston or even John Scheyer; some Illinoisans need to be reminded that there’s only one team that’s undefeated in a quarter-century at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It’s the Illinois Fighting Illini.*

Also important is that any uncertainty following the Baylor loss is now forgotten by the people whose haunted memories matter most: Illini players.

Yes, it’s also nice that AP Top 25 voters will regard the Triumph at Cameron as proving something something undeniable pedigree.

A week after Baylor’s pre-game prep and in-game execution pantsed the Illini for 89 consecutive seconds, Illinois pounded Duke for about 37 minutes, while still committing enough boneheaded errors to provide the coaching staff with talking points, and keep practice interesting.

At most, two or three of those AP voters will remember that Kofi was inconsistent around the rim. Some of them know who Andre Curbelo is, but as long as the Illini narrative begins and ends with Ayo; Belo won’t be praised for igniting the offense, nor blamed for his wild rampages through Duke’s press.

Brad Underwood said Belo’s never faced a press. By the same token, Kofi and Giorgi have rarely battled defenders who combine freakish height with freakish athleticism.

Duke was a great lesson in that sense. The Illini bigs learned they can’t rely on low-post moves that lesser opponents were physically incapable of stopping.

Can one declare a coming out party for a chap as taciturn as Da’Monte Williams? Before a crowd of dozens, with millions more watching on TV, Monte continued his recent Arc Odyssey, swatted & recovered an alley-oop, and perpetrated Little Things on unsuspecting Dukies.

People should start comparing Monte to Lucas Johnson. He gets in people’s heads. And armpits.

Ayo won praise for an all-around effort, and he wasn’t humble about it. He blew off the notion that beating Duke means something, but accepted the suggestion that he played a complete game.

If you’ve seen any references to Bryant Notree, Matt Heldman or Chris Gandy over the last ten days, you can rest assured that Tuesday’s game at Cameron has already cemented itself a place in Illini lore.

It doesn’t matter whether it was a good game. It was A Great Game.

*Even if this statistic is not true, it’s true anyway. You know it in your heart.