Illini basketball

The Rock

You might have a favorite Illini player. I don’t. I’m averse to the concept of favorites. I like variety.

Moreover, favorite means different things to different people. Is it an alpha or an underdog? Do you love the personality or the skill set?

This article is about The Rock of this 2020 Illini basketball team.

Giorgi is one of those once-per-generation personalities, and his skill set is so fundamental that it appeals to all ages of hoops aficionado.

Kofi is an effortless, nearly flawless once-per-generation bucket+rebound machine. His earnestness is a story in itself.

Lali Bezhanishvili attended her fourth consecutive game on Tuesday. She’s now on a plane back to Wien.

Last night, Da’Monte Williams burst forward for a career-high 18 points, and earned a moment in the spotlight. He even smiled when this reporter asked his teammates to aver that he sometimes smiles (in the absence of cameras) and, in fact, cracks jokes.

None of these guys, all indispensable to the team, is The Rock.

Da’Monte Williams

Trent Frazier hews precipitously toward rockishness. He’s got that game, and that personality. Brad Underwood, as hard-ass old school as any current Power 5 head coach, cannot find enough time to heap praise for Trent’s toughness, defensive dominance, and playmaking capabilities.

Trent Frazier is not the subject of this article.

Ayo Dosunmu finally enjoyed a night’s romp through defenses, driving to the bucket, assisting others, connecting on jumpers from the arc.

No, I’m not talking about Alan Griffin either.

To me, it’s obvious that Andres Feliz is, and has been, the foundation of this team since the moment he arrived on campus. It’s not because he keeps the team loose in the locker room. It’s not because his stature imposes Laws of Physics on opponents. It’s because his sheer determination imposes itself on everyone lucky/unfortunate enough to cross his path.

Giorgi is everything to all people, and one of the best freshmen Illini basketball has seen since freshman eligibility. Kofi, Ayo and Trent continue to be focal points for media and opponents.

Andres Feliz remains the lone Illini whose focus, effort & intensity demonstrate a ruthlessness that — for better, or very much likely worse — can’t be taught. It’s borne of a determination that Americans can’t fake and don’t experience. Not in this generation, anyhow. Andres fought his way off that island.

Since arriving in Champaign, Andres has demonstrated a sense of humor to fans. In moments when he thought he might have been unobserved, he’s taken his teammates aside for words of encouragement, hugs, and laughs. But also tough talk.

For those who might have opinions about Tyler Underwood, it might be useful to know that both Andres Feliz and Trent Frazier have intensely close relationships with Tyler Underwood.

Sports fans and sports psychologists have an understanding about toughness & determination. Maybe casual fans understand too. Maybe not. If you’re an Illini fan and reading this column, understand & appreciate this point: Andres Feliz is the first among equals on this team. He’s the terminator who absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

The best part of the Andres Feliz story, for those of us benefiting from all his determination and hard work, is that we can expect to enjoy his labors, for free, through March.

He’s married to an American woman, and has an American kid. Maybe he’ll be able to stay even after that.

Illini Basketball

Varese, Day 3 – Gazzada

First, the good news. Alan Griffin is “playing above the rim,” as they say.

Has anyone compared him to Kendall Gill yet? No? Well, they will. He’s bigger and stronger and still bouncy and suddenly recognizing that, despite a non-hyped recruiting experience; he can play with these guys.

Italy has been good for Tevian Jones, too. Like Griffin, he’s displaying a good balance of triple-threat capabilities. In Gazzada, Jones scored 18 points, in various ways.

Last year, people didn’t get to know Tevian as well as they might, were it not for 1933’s cult classic Reefer Madness, and the McCarthyism it engendered among Americans. Fortunately, a violation of team rules is now legal in Illinois, and the NCAA should adapt to the new legal landscape within a quarter-century, judging by their previous progressive acumen.

Tevian spent a lot of his downtime in long talks with his mentors. These sessions were observable from afar, so I did. He spent a lot of time after practice, before games, etc. in deep. It happened again last night, when Coach O spent his pizzatime offering wisdom.

Everyone seems to be having a good time, although this reporter suspects they aren’t getting enough sleep. Dragged out of bed for a bus ride through thunderstorms to a boat ride through thunderstorms is not what I would have done (and, in fact, didn’t). But later that night the lads pwn3d another local team, which included a few elements of the previous night’s local team.

The families were glad to have the opportunity, although they too would have liked to have known the games weren’t in pricey Milan but instead small towns where the rooms are dirt cheap. Lali Bezhanishvili paid only $80 for a round trip from Wien, but stayed in Milan rather than Varese. She had to go back to work today.

The Dosunmu posse has been touring northern Italy for ten days already, led by experienced traveler and recovering attorney Jamenda McCoy. They’re having a good time either way. Meanwhile, Ayo has attained cult status. Middle-aged Italian men swarmed him after the Gazzada game, to ask about his NBA plans.

People paid to get in at Gazzada (despite all pre-game information to the contrary), and at least 3/4 of the crowd was rooting for the home team, although not antagonistically. They appreciated the artistry & athleticism of our American lads.

Afterward, they all asked for (and got) pictures with the Illini.

This poster hung at the front door to the Gazzada gym

Jamall Walker also didn’t sleep yesterday, despite arriving at 9 a.m. on an overseas flight. He said he got in a little work-out and walked around town a bit, adding that naps are for *******.

It’s too bad that he had to walk around Milan. Milan is, as civic engineering goes, as close to Soviet central planning as Italians get. Lifeless apartment blocks stretch for miles from the city center. The next Rudy Guede cycles aimlessly through the tourist zones, harassing local women in a way that would floor #MeToo activists (which is his goal, but not metaphorically).

That brings us to the bad news.

The Italian Trip will provide lifelong memories for the individuals. It’s a disaster for the program. This was meant to be the testing ground for new players. To get Kofi Cockburn integrated in the system, while Giorgi adapts to the four-spot.

Instead, the flagship campus continues a years long tradition of asking its willing joiners to play out-of-position, because it’s incapable of getting its own roster on the court.

The reaction from the DIA, when asked for comment on the “visa situation” from a reliable spokesperson (such as the Athletics Director, the coaching staff, its overseeing Faculty Representative; all of whom were within 25 yards) was to ridicule the suggestion that this blunder merits any ink.

That’s always a sign. When PR people tell you there’s no story here, there’s always a really interesting story.

Speaking of non-stories, and the lengths PR people go to stop them, here’s a picture of the beer truck outside the Gazzada venue. After last nights win, Brad Underwood and the entire coaching staff lined up to patronize these guys. It’s just their way of showing thanks. I didn’t stick around to take any pictures. I had a train to catch. And although Brad loves to tell stories about beer (and even Zima) with cameras rolling, sometimes it’s best to allow people to be themselves off-camera.

Livorno is a significantly more Italian city. I’m here now. The team probably won’t see it, except for the inside of its gym. We’ll find out tomorrow,