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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.

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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.

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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.

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Illini Basketball

Wednesday After Dark

Swift decapitation seems like the best option if one must be executed. But in basketball, the bleed out still takes 40 minutes.

Kudos to Baylor assistant Alvin Brooks for recognizing that Illinois can be neutralized simply by shutting down its top three scoring options simultaneously. His scouting report proved deadly.

Rattling Adam Miller into an 0-for-4 get-go — and two turnovers in the first 69 seconds — allowed the Bears to effectively triple-team Ayo when he dared to penetrate. Jonathan Chumbawamba wasn’t planning to let Kofi catch a pass, and the rest of Baylor’s defense somehow encouraged Trent Frazier to kick or hoist the ball toward an abandoned baseline whenever an open opportunity seemed ready to brew.

Brooks coached with Bruce Weber and Chester Frazier at Kansas State before recognizing, as did Chet, that the turd was about to sink. His move to Waco kept him in Brad Underwood’s home conference. Let’s go out on a limb and speculate that he’s scouted Brad before.

Alvin Brooks III, in the brown suit

Combobulating this team in time for Duke, following two deflating performances, would move Underwood to the top of COY lists. And if your aunt had a penis, she’d be your uncle.

Given modern technology, neither of these outcomes is beyond our ken. But reassignment surgery might be easier than teaching freshmen to execute like seniors. Miller might not see such a smothering defense for the rest of the season, but Ayo is likely to get every opponent’s best 1-2 punch. Finding the open man is Rule One in besting a double-team, and Ayo threaded that needle last season in memorable situations. Alan Griffin was good at being found.

Ayo hasn’t developed the same rhythm with Adam, and Da’Monte —despite his alarming improvement from the arc — is still locked in Little Things mode when you might prefer him floating to the wing.

Andre Curbelo played the Warren Carter role on Wednesday. “Instant Offense!” cried the fans. “For the other team!” retorted Weber.

‘Belo handled the ball well (4/1 ATO). He made his shots. And he finished with a team worst -17 scoring differential. The metric invites scrutiny and skepticism. Who else did Andre play with during those sixteen minutes? Nevertheless, there it is, glaring from the box score.

‘Belo’s success, and Giorgi’s, were perhaps a side-effect of the Bears focus on Ayo and Kofi. Even if Brooks’s scouting report emphasized their tendencies, it’s hard for players to remember all the fine points. And really, it didn’t matter. Baylor cruised to this win.

Big Ten teams will already know Giorgi, and they’ll learn about Andre. Some won’t have the advantage of Baylor’s quick guards and energetic bigs. But they’ll all have one more game’s worth of video to study.

As Davion Mitchell said of Ayo: “We listened to the scout. We didn’t let him get to that right hand.” It’s not really that simple. But he added “it wasn’t just me, it was our other guards … we all locked up.”

And that’s the barrel this year’s team is looking down.

On the bright side, Ayo now has an opportunity to show fans and NBA scouts that he can turn a double-team into double-digit assists.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Ready for Prime Time Players?

One game into the season (sic), it’s hard to know whether a top-five ranking is merited for this pesky squad of veterans and newcomers.

Monte’s back-screen and Ayo’s read made it look easy, 39:53 into Ohio’s making it look hard. Trent’s interception demonstrated, as with last year’s final game-winning play, that defense is about spacing and reacting without thinking.

Trent wants to play cornerback for Lovie

No matter how great Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller might be, they have not chunked this information into instinctive behavior. Some of the defensive weak spots you saw against the Bobcats were the product of inexperience. If guys don’t rotate immediately, a well-oiled offense can exploit them in real time.

This morning, Ayo acknowledged that a video review revealed some spacing issues, and that the younger players were more likely to make these mistakes. But he also said everyone missed their spots, including himself.

His relaxed demeanor exudes a confidence that his teammates will need from him when the going gets tough, tomorrow and beyond. Ayo embraces the leadership role.

Contrast Kofi Cockburn, whose forthright description of his own struggles with “energy” is a welcome window into the mindset of a COVID-era collegian. Massive dunks & monstrous roars can lead us to forget that Kofi — despite his dimensions — is still a young person dealing with young person things, far away from home and family, and feeling just as isolated as everybody.

Kofi was SOOOOO happy to see his family

For this reason, Illini fans should give mad props to the team’s own bundle of warmth & encouragement — Kelsea Ansfield. She’s the one who conceived the Families Introduction last week. You could see the genuine surprise on the players’ faces. But the joy was especially clear on Kofi. who hasn’t seen his family in ages.

They’re supportive, but it’s not like having 15,000 crazies

Champaign-Urbana, normally buzzing with excitement this time of year, is a ghost town. The BMOC factor is missing for the Illini. Droves of supportive well-wishers simply aren’t there to provide emotional fuel.

The few students walking across Campustown don’t stop to chat. They’re very sensibly avoiding each other.

Telltale signs show the economic devastation of the pandemic. When tenants get evicted, landlords throw apartments-full of belongings into Campustown dumpsters. It’s hard not to see it.

Both Ayo and Coach Underwood were very much aware that this season, with all its potential, could fall apart at any moment.

We rescued all this food.

On Thanksgiving Day, Heather and I went for a long walk & came across a dumpster that had a car load of food in it. Two bags of apples, two jugs of grapefruit juice, three pounds of walnuts, ten pounds of dried beans, a case of canned beans, eight pounds of long grain brown rice, two cases of canned fruit, shredded wheat, buns & rolls, 26 cans of Campbell’s soup, three 12-packs of Bubly.

A couple of the items bore labels from nearby food banks. These people were too poor to buy food, and too poor to take it with them.

It’s a lot to deal with, even if you’re one of the lucky ones who gets three squares and regular testing. That’s another reason the Illini will continue to rely on their elders, to hold things together.

Da’Monte holds the key to the season.
Categories
Illini Basketball

Big Softies

Kofi Cockburn is a monster in the minds of people who’ve never met Kofi Cockburn. Brad Underwood is a monster in the minds of people who get their opinions from social media.

In fact, Brad Underwood is a reflective person. One of the things he reflects on, frequently in recent weeks, is that Kofi Cockburn is a freshman, and a minor.

Tyler did not cry.

We and Brad sometimes forget — because Kofi is an intimidating physical specimen — that inside the cranium crowning 290 lbs. of lean muscle is a youthful, playful mind just discovering the outside world, as we all did if we were lucky enough to have a freshman year.

On Sunday, as Kofi battled an intensely, historically talented B1G man, Nico Haeflinger marveled at a moment of video he’d just captured for his nightly sportscast. I was sitting next to Nico, so he shared it with me. We sat on the north baseline, under the Home basket. But this was the first half, so Nico’s footage took place 94 feet south of us.

The gist: Kofi was angry, or at least seemed angry.

After a particular play under the south basket, the quiet, polite, shy, deferential, reserved and demonstrably pacifist BEAST-IN-WAITING emoted in way that Nico had never seen. He shared the slo-mo of Kofi’s facial expression, expanding.

It started as defiance. It ended in roar.

Kofi executed, finished, successfully completed a set. Choose your verb, and strive for strength. Alliteration if possible. Onomatopoeic CRASH! in an ideal world.

Or, if you prefer, forget the prose.

Something magical happened. Appreciated simply: Kofi Cockburn scored on Luka Garza.

In doing so, Kofi passed a milestone in an extremely personal, intimate and perhaps indescribable growth step.

For all his plaudits, Kofi remains as humble & surprised as you’d expect him to be if you knew his biography rather than his press clippings.

Of course, all these impressions were formed before his official coronation as B1G Freshman 2020. But the reality of Kofi is that he doesn’t react to plaudits. People have told him that he’s god’s gift.

The important thing to know is that he learned how to play against Iowa, and Luka Garza. In the grand scheme of things, it’s the only thing he’ll ever need to know, because Luka Garza is the best B1G he’ll ever see.

When they face each other on Friday, Kofi will know that he’s answered the Garza challenge.