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COVID-19 Illini basketball

The Fractured Path

Ben Verdonk personifies the Good Guy. Da’Monte Williams epitomizes coachable selflessness. You want to root for them.

When ‘Monte drove from wing to paint during that 40 Year Desert of Illini scoring on Tuesday, you and I cringed. His forte has never been finishing in the lane.

Ben was the only guy available for a dump-off. Illinois really needed a bucket.

You & I don’t want Da’Monte driving to the low-post, and we don’t want Ben taking passes in the low-post. We want Andre Curbelo dribbling, and Kofi waiting for the lob.

We can’t have nice things. We’re Illinois.

Or that’s the meme, anyhow. In fact, Illinois remains in great position to win the B1G. Wisconsin and Michigan State jumped from middling pre-season expectations to the top of the standings, almost as if they were Wisconsin and Michigan State. (When will people learn?) But Illinois is right there, like 2007-2019 hadn’t happened.

Olds remember conversations including the Illini, right up there with Badgers and Spartans.

Trent drew the defense out of bounds while passing to Ben. Ben converted.

Purdue, the all-time leader in Big Ten Conference titles, is in good shape to capture a 25th.

But between COVID rescheduling, inevitable injuries and off nights; there’s plenty of opportunity for Illinois to scrape & claw its way to a title. And even though Da’Monte’s penetration produced no points on Tuesday, I’m glad Brad Underwood allowed it to happen.

No baskets, one loose ball & one poke in the eye

After complaining about Bruce Weber’s micromanaging for all of 2010-12, I feel ashamed for questioning Brad Underwood’s patience.

Illinois did not, as history won’t remember, get that bucket. As it happens, they didn’t need it. By the slimmest of margins, and possibly because Williams and Verdonk were on the floor, the Illini held off a vastly overrated but still defensively sound Michigan State team.

I was reminded once again that between you, me and Brad Underwood; one of us gets paid three million dollars to run the Illini basketball program. When that final two-tenths of a second had finally ticked, that guy had beaten yet another Top 10 team.

Malik Hall’s first of two free-throws bounced out

History will probably also forget that no one expected Illinois to beat MSU on Thursday, with the notable exception of Las Vegas. Illini fans watched the previous game, at Maryland, and decided that the dream had died. Illinois basketball was a mirage, a fantasy. They’d just woken up with a hangover and regretted ever investing emotional capital in this squad.

Luke Goode’s forearm rebound

How did Brad Underwood turn the hive mind of his team, the same team that lacked urgency in College Park, into a ramshackle collection of scrappers that beat a ranked team while BOTH of its most heralded players sat out?

This is why I was disappointed, in hindsight, that Matt Stevens didn’t cover the Maryland game for IlliniGuys.

Larry Smith was the IlliniGuy covering the game at Maryland, accompanied by his beautiful wife Rita. It was great seeing them, and Larry is both the consummate professional and a gregarious colleague.

But Matt Stevens would have been useful to have there. Among the regular Illini media pool, he’s the best at probing sports psychology issues. He’s subtle about it. He knows how to ask meaningful questions without making people uncomfortable.

Whatever happens going forward this season, the Maryland game was some kind of turning point. And I’d like to figure out how Underwood managed it. The path to a championship veered off course there. How did he get it back?

We learned later, of course, that Belo was sick and Trent injured. That’s part of the problem. But another reason for the “lack of urgency” was that guys were playing unfamiliar roles. Ben isn’t accustomed to starting Big Ten games. Da’Monte hasn’t been a “scorer” since his high school days.

If Underwood cultivated hesitancy in these guys, at this point, he’d be shooting himself in the foot. So whether he cringed along with you and me, he didn’t show it. That’s the important thing.

(credit: U of I Archives)

NOT ABOUT BASKETBALL

This afternoon in Champaign, the mortal remains of Associate Vice Chancellor Emeritus, former Dean of Students and noted martini quaffer Clarence Shelley will lie in repose at the Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church.

If you ever set foot in Champaign, you were probably friends with Shelley. If you were a black UIUC student trying to acclimate to campus life in the latter half of the 20th century, he counseled you, supported you, and kept you on the straight & narrow.

The author & Clarence Shelley, circa 1996

You can read about Shelley at WCIA, at Smile Politely, in the News-Gazette and its offshoot publication about homes. His obituary is here.

My mother had a friendship with Shelley in the 1970s. He steered black students toward her literature classes when she was a TA before earning her PhD. in 1974. I learned about that in the 1990s, when I befriended Shelley in a reviving downtown Champaign. We were both martini traditionalists.

To the extent that Illinois Basketball needs urban black people to spend their college years among the soybeans & hogs, Dean Shelley was the man who paved a path through the corn. But you didn’t have to play basketball for Shelley to be important. You didn’t even have to be a student, or black.

Very few of us will have an impact on so many lives. So if you can’t make it to the visitation, pour one out for Shelley tonight.

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Illini basketball

Paint War

Ben Verdonk is the perfect MSU Spartan, and if he were playing for them, he’d be their latest Hutson or Anagonye — a guy who sets screens, rebounds, passes and converts enough put-backs to maintain a scoring average.

But if Ben is tonight’s starting center, MSU can shift its defensive focus to the perimeter. That’s why we’re all hoping Kofi Cockburn will pull a Curbelo-esque surprise tonight.

Intriguingly, Tomm Izzo expects Kofi to play.

Trent Frazier strips Fatts Russell

Lithe MSU center Marcus Bingham has never been an offensive threat, but he’s capable of bothering opposing bigs on defense.

His slight build means a muscular butt and a well placed elbow can shift him on the low post, but he still has those gangly arms. He’s blocked 50% more shots this season than Kofi & Omar Payne combined.

The MSU offense is spread around in an annoyingly even fashion. You know that the point & the pivot are not their primary scoring positions, and that’s nice and old school. But anyone among Gabe Brown, Malik Hall and Max Christie might be the hot-hand/leading scorer on any given night.

Brown and Christie are less effective than Hall, but they get a lot more tick and launch a lot more shots. Harassing Brown defensively probably won’t get him to stop shooting, but certainly has the potential to ruin his evening. 30 minutes of the Da’Monte Williams treatment could make it a fun night for Illini fans.

Siccing Luke Goode on opponents is legal and fair.

Unlike Illinois, the Spartans can win without heaving a lot of three-pointers. Where the Illini launch 26 threes per game, MSU shoots only 19. It’s not because they’re bad at it. They convert 39%.

Contrast Purdue, which shoots 24/game and hits 40%. MSU is pretty good, but more reliant on turning defense into offense as the saying goes. Rebounding & transition remains The Izzo Way.

The surefire way to beat these Spartans is to get hot from three, which means Alfonso Plummer needs to hit about 7-of-10, Jacob Grandison 5-of-7 and Trent Frazier 5-of-9. Seventeen makes in twenty-six tries will get the job done, assuming everyone learned his lesson on defensive gaps — the Achilles Heel against Donta Scott and the Terps.

Andre Curbelo is sick, so even if he plays tonight, he won’t be Andre the Magician. Illinois needs to keep turnovers at 10 or below to have a chance; so a feverish, disoriented Belo won’t help the cause.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Jacob’s Ladder

During the first half of Saturday’s 106-48 blowout, a Da’Monte Williams three glanced off SFC’s south rim, and caromed into the hands of Jacob Grandison, strangely alone on the low post’s near side.

I turned to Nico Haeflinger, sitting beside me on the north baseline. “He’s always in the right place at the right time.” I think I said.

“He’s got an old man game,” Nico agreed, and added that highlights of Slim Jake rarely make his game reel, because Grandison is so rarely spectacular. You barely notice him scoring 20 points and grabbing 8 rebounds. He moves like a cat.

This was pretty spectacular, but the ref’s ass blocked Nico’s view.

Jake’s stat line, 11 games into the season, is instructive. It tells you about the other people on the team.

Compared to Omar, Coleman and even Da’Monte, Jake doesn’t accrue personal fouls or turnovers. His three-point delivery looks a bit awkward. It’s almost like a set shot. But so far, he’s made half of them. The Fonz is only 43.8% by comparison.

You can see why Omar’s minutes have been reduced to relieving Kofi’s panting. There’s no room at the 4, and Kofi will only be out to the extent that he needs to be out. (That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be intrigued by the Kofi/Omar twin towers set, which finally made its debut, which the coaching staff continues to dream about, and which threatens any team that relies on interior scoring.)

The re-emergence of Jacob Grandison drives home a stark reality about the future of Illini basketball: Oh shit, what happens when the olds are gone. Brad keeps pointing it out, because he knows that losing all those guys undercuts the foundation, everything he’s built.

If Coleman doesn’t figure it out real quick, Underwood’s get old, stay old plan might require an infusion of JUCO or transfer olds.

Luke Goode and Benjamin-Bosmans-Verdonk are interested in rebounding.

Getting old got a little easier against St. Francis, with Luke Goode earning almost 14 minutes of tick. He made 2-of-3 threes, assisted on Alfonso Plummer’s trey in the Five Pass Possession and grabbed three rebounds.

Luke provides the same team leadership, intelligence, grit and rebounding that Jake provides. He’s 10-of-23 (43.5%) from the floor, and 8-18 (44.4%) from the arc this year. Fine numbers, but not on par with Jake’s 46-of-85 (54.1%) and 23-of-46.

It’s no secret that he’s ahead of his fellow freshmen, but is it enough to slide into a 30 minute roll in 2023?

SUPERTRENT

The StFrPa game offered Trent Frazier another fantastic opportunity to demonstrate Brad Underwood’s proclamation that SuperTrent is the best defender in the US.

Trent Frazier checks Ramiir Dixon-Conover

Brad always characterizes this argument by pointing out that Trent doesn’t garner flashy defensive data (blocks, steals) to buttress his standing among elite, elite defenders. Trent simply renders one’s existence intolerable.

Trent Frazier is a hands-on defender.

Ramiir Dixon-Conover scored 10 points against Illinois. He was 3-of-11 from the floor. Trent’s harassment took its toll on him as the game progressed. Those first three possessions were fantastic for the Red Flashes, with Dixon-Conover draining a three in the opening set, then kicking out from a double-team on the third.

Trent Frazier is a legs-on defender.
And if you get past Trent, there’s this guy.

From that point on, St. F-PA was 13-of-58 from the floor.

It’s not just the physical harassment that wears opponents down. Trent Frazier is an unabashed trash talker. He’ll tell you how bad you are while making you worse.

He doesn’t care who’s listening.

Dixon-Conover is a career 72% free-throw shooter, and entered the Illinois game at 73% this season. He converted 2-of-5 against the Illini.

He was rattled.

FRESH MEN

RJ Melendez continued building his highlight reel against Saint Francis. Although he’s a persistent rebounder, his game is not a mirror of Jacob Grandison. RJ is flashy. He’s already becoming a fan favorite thanks to his leaping, fancy passes, windmill dunks, and 67% shooting from the arc.

RJ drives to the bucket.

That last stat probably won’t survive another ten attempts. He’s 4-of-6 on the season.

To my utter shame, I didn’t capture an image of the Podz dunk in Saturday’s game. I’d just captured a few images of SFU freshman Brendan Scanlon, and had set my camera down so I could ask Twitter if it remembered the last time a 12 year-old competed in a regular-season Illini basketball game.

Maybe 10?

The answer, of course, is Little Lick. There’s no better way to get fired from a D-1 job than to give playing time to your own pudgy 5’8″ kid. It just looks bad, even in Iowa.

ENJOYING THEMSELVES

It’s been a harrowing season, and we still haven’t reached Christmas. The Saint Francis game offered every Illini a chance to let his hair down, get his stats up, and just have fun.

The bench shares a laugh after a Brandon Lieb dunk.

The biggest laugh for the team was a Brandon Lieb dunk. The dunk itself wasn’t funny, and the team wasn’t laughing at Brandon, who’s one of those guys that works hard in practice and gets little opportunity in games.

Brandon Lieb dunks against Saint Francis-PA

This was a laugh of relief, of having worked hard and got the job done right. This was a thank god the Flashes aren’t another Marquette, or Loyola.

The crowd’s biggest laugh came when Kofi mistook Da’Monte for an opponent, and ripped a defensive rebound from his smaller teammate’s grasp.

Monte thought it was funnier than anyone, and couldn’t help but laugh all the way down court as the Illini set up their offense.

Kofi’s biggest laugh was at himself. He executed a typical Kofi-esque low-post move, shifting toward the center of the cleared-out lane, dribbling with his right hand, pinning his man with the left.

He rose up for a right-handed baby hook, but missed from 30 inches away.

Kofi Cockburn clears some space with his left elbow

Kofi got his own rebound, power-dribbled, pushed a pair of St, Francis defenders away from the basket with his big old butt and left elbow, then brought the ball up with both hands for a bank into the bucket and-1.

Whether it was the miss from point blank, or the ease with which he moved two gnats from his path, Kofi thought it was hilarious.

Coleman Hawkins got back in the groove, and that might be a turning point for the entire Illini season.

Coach Underwood said he has more confidence in Coleman than Coleman has in Coleman. It’s a quirk of Illinois’s cockiest player. But given an opportunity to score against an inferior opponent, Coleman made it easy on himself by starting with a simple drive & lay-up.

Seeing the ball go through the net opened things up for Coleman, and he later drained a pair of threes from the corner.

Underwood’s management of Coleman will inevitably be a talking point when this season is deconstructed.

FIVE PASS POSSESSION

The coach’s favorite moment of the game was, of course, the five pass sequence that ended with an open three for Alfonso Plummer.

It began with Fonz dribbling to the baseline, then dumping to Kofi in the paint. Eventually, the ball made it all around the horn, and back to Fona, who ran back to the corner immediately upon releasing his pass.

Plummer to Cockburn
Cockburn to Frazier, Plummer runs back to corner
Frazier to Willams
Williams to Goode
Goode to Plummer
Fonz drains a three
Brad jumped up and ran to half court, cheering and pumping his fists.

THE OMICRON DELTA

So, it’s nice that the Illini got to enjoy this final game of their season.

Or maybe they’ll play in Braggin’ Rights Wednesday, as scheduled. Perhaps even after that.

As the Omicron variant swarms New York City, Midwestern know-nothings continue their Covid is Over behavior. Shopping at Champaign’s home improvement stores on Sunday, it was easy to identify the Faux News & Trump voters. The camo clothing and F-150s are often a sign, but their unmasked faces are the giveaway.

The team modeled mask-wearing more than ever.

Omicron is less susceptible to the immune response generated by mRNA vaccines. Just today, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced that he’s positive despite being triple-vaxxed. My vaxxed niece in NYC got it by sharing a meal with co-workers in a break room. An NYU sophomore on winter break, she’s already spread it to ten people, and is suffering through Day 6 of feeling like shit.

Another niece in California got the contact tracing text on Friday. She’d joined her fellow teaching staff in the school’s faculty holiday party. Someone brought The Vid.

Delta continues to rage in the United States. But as the US passed 800,000 deaths, the anti-science cohort — those who never participated in abatement measures while complaining about abatement measures, and seem to think that knowing how to install a serpentine belt gives equal/better understanding of viral pathology than a medical degree — continue their tribal resistance to simple measures.

Before Saturday’s tip-off, the major donors (many of whom do abide COVID protocols) were moved two feet back from Lou Henson Court. Perhaps the thinking holds that these 24 extra inches will provide a total of six feet distance from the players. Campus, like check-out lanes at grocery stores, boasts a bunch of six-foot markers.

But the aerosols generated by 15-thousand people, in one confined space, will not stop at six feet. So far, few of the attendees at Illini home games have abided the mask rule, and the DIA/SFC staff doesn’t enforce it.

Underwood declined the opportunity to offer a potentially controversial statement about his fans ennui with COVID precautions. Meanwhile, the medical community predicts a million new cases tomorrow, and exponential spread through the holidays.

I’m glad my Zoom room has a fireplace. I’m just sitting here, enjoying the warmth, and waiting for the Braggin’ Rights cancellation email.

Merry Giftsmas.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Journal of the Plague Year

If five Illini basketball players are still standing by 8 pm tonight, there will probably be a basketball game at State Farm Center. That’s pretty much how Brad Underwood laid it out in his Sunday press conference.

Ben is out. That much we know. Scott Richey’s persistent questioning yielded as much. Trent, Belo and Jake might be available. Brad said he doesn’t know. Trent’s problem is a deep bone bruise. Belo’s problem should be the subject of a dissertation. The O-shaped suction marks on his neck recall Star Trek (the original series).

The rest of the team seems to be troubled by a respiratory virus. In the 2021 season, the team was protected from respiratory viruses. This year, not so much. For one thing, classes are in-person. For another, they live in an enormous apartment building with a thousand strangers. (It’s the building whose construction necessitated the demolition of Trito’s Uptown/Campus Crusade, Chin’s Wok n’ Roll/Eddie’s/Clybourne, RR Sportsgrill/Firehaus and the Sixth & Daniel Espresso Royale.)

Open this picture in a new tab. Look at their faces.

Respiratory virus you say? That rings a bell. Is it influenza? Maybe. Scott persisted about that, too. He won Sunday’s Actual Journalist award.

It seems the flu is carving its way through the entire campus, not just the basketball team. It’s not Covid, unless the current strain mimics influenza’s bone pain, fever and listlessness.

The last two pre-game availabilities have been among the most frank of Underwood’s career. Perhaps by necessity. Maybe because he feels the pressure of two unexpected, early season losses.

In fairness, he’s generally straightforward, and you can literally see him thinking when a question veers on territory that DIA handlers have cautioned him against addressing. You can also tell, if you spend a lot of time around him, that he’d much rather shoot from the hip. (If he leaves the University of Illinois before he retires, it probably won’t be because the University of Illinois micromanaged him. It’s merely one of the irritants.)

So what about tonight’s basketball game, assuming there is one? What should you expect? Nobody knows. Even Brad Underwood doesn’t know.

If Illini basketball has a successful season, the narrative will begin with this hellish month of injuries and illness, and how the team came together despite them.

Let’s hope you’re reading that narrative in mid-March.

^^^ Lucas Johnson
Categories
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.

Categories
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.