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Illini basketball

Buckeyes & an Elephant in the Room

Brad Underwood doesn’t want to talk about a Big Ten conference championship.

“Our guys aren’t dumb. They know what’s at stake,” he said yesterday, but added the team’s focus is “Ohio State, Ohio State, Ohio State.”

He prefaced all that by expressing relief that Duane Washington moved on to the G League while acknowledging that Washington’s replacement, Buckeye guard Malaki Branham, is “probably” the best freshman in the B1G.

Chris Holtmann still has his dynamic pair of undersized power forwards Kyle Young and EJ Liddell, two guys that have bugged Underwood throughout his Illini tenure. Young has taken on a sixth-man role this season, which provides Holtmann’s traditional 9-man rotation extra experience when the subs come in.

Sophomore wing Eugene Brown started the last four games. His role expanded when Justice Sueing went down for the season with an abdominal injury. Brown’s minutes became more important after back-up PG Meechie Johnson suffered a facial injury in practice, just before the January 13 game at Wisconsin. After missing three games, Johnson returned, wearing a protective mask. Then starting PG Jamari Wheeler went down with an ankle injury. Then, two weeks ago, Johnson rolled his ankle at Rutgers.

With Sueing and grad transfer Seth Towns both out for the season, the Buckeyes are the one B1G team that can argue with Illinois about who’s had the most roster fluctuation this year.

Theoretically, both Buckeye PGs are now healthy. Johnson played 18 minutes, and Wheeler 30 in the Buckeye’s 80-69 overtime win over Indiana on Monday, in Columbus.

Branham is the guard to watch. Underwood called him the B1G’s best pro-prospect, which satisfied the coach’s hyperbole quotient for yesterday’s press conference. But Branham’s scoring average has increased during B1G play (15 ppg), and he’s up to 46% from three on the season; so he’ll get the Trent Frazier treatment.

None of these people can guard Kofi Cockburn, but that wasn’t an issue when the Buckeyes won in Champaign last year. The Liddell pick n’ pop turned the tables on Illinois, which found its dominant low-post player … in the low post, while Liddell rained threes.

EJ is connecting on 39% of his arc shots this season. He’s connecting on Twitter at EasyE2432. It’s in the OSU pre-game notes.

The Buckeyes are a six point dog tonight, and that probably won’t change when betters find out about RJ Melendez’s emergency appendectomy.

Whether RJ could have helped against Liddell? Debatable. It’s nice to have an extra five fouls, but Underwood has pretty much stuck to a 9-man rotation, even though 12 guys are involved. (Nine play, while three DNP/CD per game.) That’s Luke Goode’s music you’re hearing.

And if Coleman Hawkins continues his aggressive defensive play, he might be just the problem Illinois needs to impose on Liddell.

But we’ll know the outcome when the Buckeyes take the court tonight. It’s Orange Out at SFC, which means the Illini will be wearing orange, perhaps the ’89 throwbacks?

If the Buckeyes dress in white, that means they’ll win. So let’s hope they don’t read Illini Report.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Mood

On Thursday, Steve Helwagen asked Buckeyes guard CJ Walker if he’d consider returning for a sixth year. CJ said, essentially “you never know.”

On Friday, Chris Holtmann didn’t wait for a question. He said Walker will not return for a sixth year. “CJ will move on and professionalize. As many people know, he’s got a young daughter, and we’re fully supportive of that.” Holtmann then immediately switched subjects, to Kyle Young. He hopes Kyle will come back for another year.

The mood in the Zoom was somber.

Spencer Holbrook asked how Holtmann felt about his nomination as Naismith Coach of the Year. Holtmann looked at the floor. “Looks like they did their voting before last week.” It’s a realistic response. tOSU has lost three in a row. It must feel like ages since they’ve had mojo at The Schott.

Illini fans might look at Kyle Young as a tough, tattooed, bouncy ball of muscles and gristle. Holtmann certainly echoed those sentiments in his Senior Day preview. But Thursday’s Q & A with Kyle, when not pondering another year in Columbus, was about his frailty.

Contrast Giorgi Bezhanishvili’s pre-game Zoom. It doesn’t seem to have gone as viral as we, the participants, seemed to expect. (I think everyone on the call Tweeted, wrote or compiled something about his infectious mood.)

Perhaps lost in the bonhomie was the deadly seriousness of Giorgi’s intention to win a “naytional” championship. Giorgi keeps things loose, but there’s a 94 x 50 foot rectangle where he’s not always friendly.

IT’S GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME

The eternally optimistic Scott Beatty floated, in another recent Zoom, the notion that most teams are getting better this time of year. Brad Underwood did not assent.

In fact, this is the wheat from chaff portion of the season. The culling of the weak. Some teams are mentally weak and some are physically worn out. Ohio State seems, as of this morning, to be both of those things.

Does that mean Illinois will win this afternoon’s game? You don’t look to Illini Report for predictions or betting tips. Sports abstractions are a billion dollar industry, and you have plenty of places to read them. I’m just telling you about the people involved. Brad Underwood seems to be holding his team together while Holtmann’s falls apart.

Hawkeyes fans lament Fran’s February Fade, a seemingly annual tradition in Iowa City. This year, much of that talk can be attributed to CJ Fredrick’s ankle. But if you had to choose between mental and physical when diagnosing Iowa’s late swoons, you’d probably guess the former.

Cellvin Samsung has borne this reputation for decades. His 2002 Oklahoma squad scrapped and scraped its way to a Final Four. That’s his only trip. Since getting his first head coaching position forty years ago — and despite perennial high-rankings, media hype and avoidance of NCAA-oriented restraints; his teams routinely limp to the finish line.

Andre Curbelo, Jacob Grandison, Jermaine Hamlin (Illinois Athletics)

Is it a minor miracle that Underwood has this team improving, loose and confident in March? Or is it the major miracle of this season?

How much of the late season vitality should you attribute to wacky personalities like Andre Curbelo and Jermaine Hamlin? How much should you credit the toughness of Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams? What of Jacob Grandison, the guy you’d most likely describe as the team’s moral conscience?

Was the first Ohio State game the impetus for Brad to insert Grandison in the starting line-up? Brad didn’t phrase it exactly that way yesterday. He said the team was “discombobulated” and “searching for some things.” Perhaps Grandison’s quiet leadership has merely coincided with the mid-season relaunch. Maybe it laid the foundation.

If Illinois does win a naytional championship, books will be written about all these personalities and the confluence of their circumstances. If not, maybe it doesn’t matter.

As 3 PM central approaches, it’s nice to feel optimistic that Illinois is in the position to do something special.