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Illini Basketball

Talking Points

It’s Finals Weeks. Braggin’ Rights looms. One fourth of the way through the season, where does this Illini team stand?

Great teams don’t rest on their laurels. They analyze their mistakes, and their successes. They seek to improve every aspect of performance. There’s plenty of good and bad to think about on the way to Saint Louis. A few key match-ups should provide the best talking points, and might decide the game.

Da’Monte Williams

Is there a more polarizing Illini player? Almost certainly. But it’s worth noting that if you do have an opinion about Da’Monte Williams, you either think he’s the guy who holds it all together, or you’re calling for his benching.

You don’t have to like Clarence Thomas to be impressed by the effect he had on the US Supreme Court from day one. Da’Monte is like that.

Thomas arrived when the court was split 4-4 on a particular case. His vote would determine the outcome. Yet at the end of debate, Thomas found himself in the minority. Whatever happened in that conference room, he made an impression on his colleagues.

Likewise, Williams sat out his first summer as his ACL healed. On the first day he joined practice, according to Brad Underwood, he changed the team “because of his basketball IQ.”

Da’Monte’s intelligence would be useless if he didn’t have a lot of dog in him. But he’s from Peoria. Wimps don’t make it out of Peoria.

Da’Monte rips the ball from Mark Smith, last year

Williams will be the player to watch Saturday at the Checkerdome (or whatever it’s called these days). He probably won’t score much. That’s not the question.

The question is how will Mark Smith fare? Da’Monte hopes to answer with his defensive performance: not very well.

Last year, Smith scored 5 points in 35 minutes in his first game against his old team. It was pretty clear that Da’Monte enjoyed his part in that futility.

He enjoyed taking Smith’s ball

The other guy in all Sunday’s pictures of Smith will be Andres Feliz, who wouldn’t be here if Mark Smith chose to stay. In hindsight, Illini fans are probably okay with that trade. Feliz will want to prove it to them, nonetheless.

If you don’t think Andres Feliz plays with a chip on his shoulder, you haven’t met Andres Feliz.

It’s not a bad thing. He plays with pride, and as if his life depends on it, which it kind of does. That goes for his wife and kid, too.

Kofi Cockburn is a machine, and should be treated like one. His underuse might be this team’s most obvious problem. Watching from the bench during two heartbreaking losses was remedied by a dominant performance over ranked (overrated?) Michigan.

Against Old Dominion, Kofi attempted six shots. He finished with three field goals. Maybe he didn’t need the extra practice, but it would be nice to see the team go to that well continuously, until it becomes second-nature. He converts 59% of his shots. If you fould him, he’ll make his free-throws.

Maybe Kofi doesn’t know it, and maybe it’s not fair; but his match-up with Jeremiah Tilmon will be the talking point of Braggin’ Rights. Tilmon abandoned the Illini when Underwood came aboard. Instead, the Illini have Kofi and Giorgi Bezhanishvili.

Tilmon is averaging 9.7 points and 4.7 rebounds in 22.6 minutes/game on the season. Contrast Giorgi with 9.6 points and 5.7 boards in 25.9 minutes.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili rebounds

Kofi also gets 25.9 minutes, is averaging 15.4 points and 10.5 rebounds in those minutes. Foul trouble can limit minutes for any of them. Tilmon leads the way with 2.8 per game. Giorgi and Kofi accrue less than 2.5/game.

(Watch for Mizzou’s transfer guard Dru Smith to foul out. He averages 3.3 fouls per game.)

Alan Griffin

When Brad Underwood says “I don’t remember anyone stripping my ball” in college, he’s talking about Alan Griffin.

To Alan’s credit, Giorgi got his ball stripped a bunch of times in the Michigan game. It doesn’t mean you’re terrible. It means you haven’t played against the very best, and your habits are not attuned to playing the very best. It also means you’ve been distracted.

Alan is, by far, the most yelled at player of the Underwood tenure. Number 2 is Kipper Nichols, whom Underwood yelled at a lot during last Saturday’s game against Old Dominion. When the dust settled, Kipper was sitting in the media room, in front of a microphone. That’s always a sign that the coach thinks you done good.

Underwood doesn’t yell at you unless he thinks you’re worth yelling at. With Alan Griffin, the athletic ability is obvious. The talent is there. It’s the processing that frustrates Underwood. Alan is more cerebral than most, which sometimes slows him a step. Being too smart and being too thoughtful are enviable problems. In sports, it’s described as “spacy.”

Alan’s game translates well to the Mizzou defense, which is also spacy.

BTW: Underwood also spent a good amount of energy yelling at Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk during his moment of PT last Saturday, which suggests BBV might be worth the time & effort.

Note: Inquiries to the B1G office yielded no update on the health of Lewis Garrison. The ODU game was refereed by Brandon Cruz, I don’t know that Brandon Cruz had ever refereed an Illini game previously.

Categories
Illini basketball

The Cheerful

Everybody associated with Illini basketball seems pretty happy these days. Was it the long road trip where they increased their conference losing streak to four games, puked a lot, and shuttled around in temperatures that hovered around 0° the entire time?

Maybe.

Is it that they competed with the four teams picked  3-through-6 in the pre-season? Probably not. Like a lot of athletes, they prefer to win.

Something about the new coach, the new system, the improvement they see in themselves and each other — all of that seems to buck them up. Wednesday afternoon, after prepping for Iowa, everybody seemed pretty enthusiastic.

The coach is sanguine, too.  After Saturday’s loss, Bret Beherns asked whether Brad Underwood planned to make major changes, like he did after an 0-6 start in the Big 12 last year.

Nope.

Maybe we should all be glad that Brad has this team loose after an 0-4 conference start. He’ll need to keep these players committed. He’ll need them emotionally available. He’ll need their attention.

Underwood talks about “listening” a lot. He knows when guys are doing it (Williams, always) and when they’re not (Kipper, sometimes).

Underwood is not so Old School that he can’t see the value in a guy like Kipper, whose basketball “faults” are aspects of a genial personality.

You could reduce Kipper to a cold-blooded killer via techniques employed by the 20th century’s most ruthless armies, but your end goal wouldn’t be worth the sacrifice.

Kipper is a warm, smart, funny guy. We need more of those, not fewer.

Brad’s challenge is to bring out the killer in Kipper while he’s on the court, without damaging Kipper’s inner Smoove B.

After losing a game that didn’t seem competitive in the second half, Kipper boarded the team bus with a hot, fresh pizza box in his hand. He got to choose his toppings, chicken & peppers.

Kipper was in a good mood. His mom & grandma were there, which is not unusual. They travel a lot.  But Kipper had just tallied game highs in points and rebounds, and that hadn’t happened much lately.

Underwood had a pizza as well, but he didn’t know what was on it. “Whatever Joey (Biggs) got me. I’ll eat anything, Rob.”

The post-game feed is as much of a tradition as the shootaround, or the halftime speech. Fortunately, it seems more susceptible to evolution than those two strictures. Thus, when Greg Eboigbodin decided he didn’t want pizza, he was allowed to choose a pasta dish instead.

Progress.

Of course, Greg had plenty of reasons to be cheerful. He’d just shattered all expectations for his college career by playing two straight games of  … is dominant too strong a word?

Chin Coleman bridled, in his introductory interview, at the notion that he’d be recruiting a different level of player to UIUC than he’d been recruiting to UIC. Chin might be right. Greg appears ready for prime time.

Greg still makes a lot of common Big Man mistakes, usually the consequence of being hit in the hands by a pass.

But he recovers so quickly from his mistakes that they sometimes don’t have a chance to be charted. Underwood mentions his speed and quickness every time someone asks about Greg.

But the other factor, the thing that allows him to play, is his mindset.  Greg is either oblivious to the millions of people watching him, or he’s built of iron and nails. I think it’s the former, and hope it’s both. (Contrast Matic Vesel, who’s way too aware that he’s landed at a Big Time basketball program.)

For the record, it’s not fair to use Greg as an example of athletes who are cheerful despite …

Greg might experience moments of gloom, bad moods, even severe depression. If so, he hides it well.  He seems, perhaps more so than any major college athlete I’ve met, to be Living The Dream. (He’s also the only Illini I’ve known who rides a bicycle to practice, as do I. So I’m biased.)

’tis the season for PT constriction. This time of year, coaches are generally slashing minutes, tightening the rotation. The youngsters don’t see much floor time. Experimental big men return to project status.

Not here in east central Illinois. The minutes were damn near socialist Saturday. Everybody got the same. Da’Monte Williams tallied a near-bourgeois 27 segments of tick while nobody else exceeded 22.

The veterans aren’t completely washed up, though. Leron Black and Mark Alstork were felled by a Norovirus. Michael Finke had to leave the team for a day because his grampa died.

There are no column-inch restrictions here at Illini Report, so let’s take a moment to remember David Langendorf.

Michael Finke, David Langendorf, Tim Finke

 

His name was David Langendorf, born in Highland, Illinois and was married to my mom’s mom, Barbara. His birthday was March 30, 1953. He died on December 24, 2017. He served in Vietnam and then was a police officer in Champaign for a number of years. He was currently “retired” but he was always staying busy. Loved doing yard work for people. Mowed all of his neighbors yards and was always lending a helping hand to whoever needed it. He loved fishing and was always wanting to take me and my siblings out to fish. He and Mike Thorne actually got really close over the couple of years Mike was here. They went fishing all the time, just the two of them. He was a guy that cared about others. Put other people before himself all the time. A really selfless guy.

So while you’re steaming about the 0-for-2 road trip, keep in mind that these young men have Things Going On that you may not have considered.

And despite all that, they played pretty well (for stretches).

If you’ve been frustrated by Illini basketball lately, whether you’re throwing your remote at your screen, or throwing your screen remotely, you’ll be delighted, possibly stunned to know that Michael Finke is averaging about the same number of rebounds-per-game as Leron Black (5.4 to 5.7).

You might also be delighted to know that Black is smoking Finke on threes,  .444 to .317, because it bodes well for Leron’s future as a long-distance shooter.

Aaron Jordan has cooled to a near-normal 53% from the arc, and it’s just about time for Brad Underwood to talk with AJ about mechanics. Where Underwood fixed Trent Frazier’s FT tendencies, he might be able to straighten AJ’s Spinning Globe.

Old School by nature, Brad will probably wait until Aaron’s percentage drops below 50 before interceding. That’s fine. But Brad is also a long-holdout-cum-believer in Analytics. At his disposal, he’s got the best proprietary analytics money can buy. Those data, plus the video collected, incessantly & tirelessly by DIA staff, will determine whether AJ’s shot has changed during these last weeks.

An Argument for Cheerfulness Re: Illini basketball

Basketball will need to change if it hopes to keep the attention of people who are now 30 and under.  The fact that Brad Underwood is the Illini coach, and Bruce Weber is not, should demonstrate that someone has recognized a tectonic shift in the human attention span. We can’t stand to watch methodical basketball. Like our social media addiction, we need basketball to enhance our experience at an ultra high refresh rate.

Bruce Weber didn’t compete for offensive rebounds, nor did John Groce. Brad Underwood wants to compete all the time.  Hence, every moment of Illini basketball is suddenly more interesting to watch.  If the NCAA eliminated the Alternate Possession rule, you can imagine an Underwood team gaining a win per year, simply because he wants to contest everything.

Overall, Underwood’s relaxed demeanor throughout the Michigan game and afterword reminded this Illini observer that Michigan Curbstomping Illinois is not a tradition to him. Brad doesn’t know that Michigan surpassed Illinois in 2009, after a lovely pair of decades in which the Wolverines simply couldn’t solve Illini riddles.

We’ll concede football to them. Irksomely, Michigan also holds the title deed to Illini basketball. It’s less egregious than Ed DeChellis’s ownership of your favorite team.  Michigan is a storied program, with a banner. (Grrr.)

John Beilein beat Brad by four points last year, if you exclude that last second prayer (as I do). As far as Brad knows, he’s competitive with Michigan. But for both coaches, there’s another significant factor responsible for their sanguinity: After years of toil, they Made It.

Like Beilein, Brad’s peace-of-mind is age-based. After years of getting by, and more recently making money that could put his kids through college, Brad Underwood is a multi-millionaire.

You can imagine him at 43, having enjoyed greater success as a JUCO coach in Florida than he had as a JUCO coach in Kansas, thinking I might be able to make ends meet.

The weather is better too you can also imagine him thinking.

If Bob Huggins hadn’t called, he might still be in Florida. Brad said as much. One phone call changed everything.

If Huggins hadn’t called, Brad’s mortgage situation would be different. He’d be driving a car that he owns, and it would have significantly more miles than the late model he’s driving now. His daughter’s cracked iPhone screen would be something he perhaps couldn’t afford to replace, rather than a teachable moment.

You can see why Brad Underwood isn’t at his wits’ end.  Everything has come together for him.

For the young people, this is only the beginning. There’s no reason to think it’s not the beginning of something good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
Illini basketball

The Finishers

Brad Underwood has said it all along. It doesn’t matter who starts.

During crunch time Saturday, Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams were on the floor. Practice rotations have never suggested that Brad Underwood planned to move them into the starting line-up. And yet, it’s never been more clear that these two are finishers. Especially Williams.

Frazier was the social media darling of Christmas week, and Underwood wants everyone to know that Trent noticed. It went to his head. Underwood said the team worked all week on a specific ball-screen action, and Trent blew it three or four times during the game.

Trent Frazier defends against Longwood (Vashoune Russell)

The coaching staff had determined that this particular ball-screen action would draw GCU’s defense in such a way that the Illini wing would be ignored in the weak-side corner. They were right. It worked. But Trent failed to convert the opportunity.

So the really interesting thing about Underwood’s observation is that he put the ball in Trent Frazier’s hands in crunch time, despite Trent’s repeated failure to read and react.

Here’s what happened.

Sure enough, after Leron set the ball screen, Trent found his wing.  Da’Monte snapped the net, and Illinois held on to beat a team that played, frankly, much better than the Illini did.

Disappearing Illini , A/K/A The Players You Hate

Mark Smith is still putting it all together, defensively. I can relate.

I’m a life-long slow learner. I needed to see everything on a systemic level, and that need always set me behind kids who could compartmentalize tasks. Eventually I’d pass them, because understanding systems is complete knowledge. It’s why engineers get paid more than machinists.

Consequently, I have no doubts about Mark Smith. I’m not even worried about him. And at the same time, I understand why he’s a starter and not a finisher.

Mark Smith is learning his defensive positioning errors on a systemic level, with each mistake building his knowledge base. He knows it. The staff knows it.

During the GCU game, the most interesting thing that happened to Mark Smith was a foul call. He boxed out, and earned a foul. Brad Underwood thought it was a crazy call, too. So he probably can’t learn anything from that particular experience.

But there’s no doubt that right now, Mark Smith is the second-most-likely Illini to find himself out-of-position on defense, and Matic Vesel doesn’t play at all.

Maybe, having typed the full Mark Smith seven times now, I’ll start referring to him simplay as Mark. There’s another Mark on the team, of course, But everyone calls him Mookie. Maybe I’ll do that.

Matic had family was in town for the holidays, BTW. His mother and a sister got to see him watch a basketball game in front of 14,000 people.  I hope they’re as patient as he is.  Vesel has the highest ceiling of any player on the team. His court vision and passing continue to stun observers at Illini practices. And yet, you can see why he’s not playing at all.

Mookie Alstork does continue to play, and he continues to start and finish.  If you listen to the WDWS postgame, or read message boards, you’d think Alstork would have been benched by now.

But head coaches really like rebounding. They LOVE guys who expend all their energy on defense.

Whether Alstork is trying to get into The League by playing defense, or has simply been coached at the college level for four years; he’s kicking ass at Things Coaches Want.

What the coaches wanted to do against GCU was force them to drive. “No middle!” they yelled, meaning keep the ball out of the paint.

Illinois’ pressure defense is designed to keep the ball out of the lane, so they didn’t have to learn anything new. Brad Underwood’s goal was to force a dribble-drive, and he succeeded.

Kipper Nichols’ new mop-top makes him look like a Beatle and/or a mop.

Unfortunately, it’s killed his game. Where Aaron Jordan’s haircut revived his career, Kipper’s barberism quashed all momentum. GCU was his worst game as an Illini, posterizing him at both ends of the court.

 

REFS ARE “LETTING THEM PLAY”

If the NCAA were a government agency rather than a pretend government agency, they’d be susceptible to FOIA, sunshine laws, etc.

Unfortunately, we can’t ask them why they do what they do, and they won’t tell us.

Illinois seems to be the progenitor of rules improving the regulation of college basketball. The Kentucky Rule (1984) deemed that NCAA tournament games should not afford a home-court advantage. The Miami Rule (2013) allowed for review of bullshit officiating rulings that cost teams a trip to the Sweet 16.

Now, here comes the Malcolm Hill Rule.

Watch for it.

 

And now a digression.

Speaking of the WDWS postgame show: My friend Michael Kiser fielded an anti-Lucas phone call after the Grand Canyon game. He defended Te’Jon by making a comparison to Jaylon Tate. He said Jaylon couldn’t penetrate.

Jaylon Tate had limitations to be sure. Driving was not one of them.

Jay’s grandmother texted recently to share some good news.

Those of you who aren’t THaters will appreciate knowing that Jaylon is finding success at the professional level.

 

Categories
Illini basketball

Weekend 4: Things I’ve Never Seen Before

It took me an extra long time to collect my thoughts this week, largely because I still can’t believe my eyes. I waited to meet with the participants, to ask if I really saw what I think I saw.

They said yes.

Tuesday afternoon, Brad Underwood emerged from the film session and told a small group of reporters that his team had just watched Te’Jon’s oop over and over.

He ran us (the reporters) through a number of hypothetical situations. What to do with the ball if you have 10 seconds left and a two-point lead. When to foul.  How do those situations change with each additional 5 seconds, or each additional point in your favor. These are things he coaches.

At no point was a 40-foot oop mentioned.

(Photo of Te’Jon Lucas by Vashoune Russell)

Then, as Fletch finished the team’s stretching, Underwood got back to coaching. You’ll never believe what the team focused on Tuesday.

Oh, did you say inbounding plays? How did you guess?

Maryland was probably the most exciting Illini game I’ve seen in my life, for better and worse.

  • I watched @Indiana with my dad in 1989, and we both leaped into the air when Nick hit The Shot
  • I was in the last row of C section when Frank beat Michael Redd’s Buckeyes
  • I sat under the basket for the Tyler Griffey lay-up

That Indiana game was sloppy. It wasn’t artful. I feel in my gut that the 1989 Georgia Tech game was much better, but it’s not replayed incessantly, so I haven’t seen it in 28 years.

I don’t remember anything about the 2000 tOSU game, apart from Frank’s three. Perhaps it was the best ever example of competitive basketball. If so, please excuse my faulty recollection.

The Tyler Griffey lay-up will forever be remembered for Tyler Griffey’s lay-up, rather than D.J. Richardson’s amazing performance. That’s how these things work.

I attended a 1987 game in which Illinois led Iowa 61-39 at the half. I met Dick Vitale that night. I said he should have a “Windex Award”  for the guy who best cleaned the glass each game. He liked the idea. I never got paid for that.

Anyway, Iowa’s victory may have been more impressive than the 22-point comeback Sunday. I just don’t remember it that way. I think I was annoyed by Jeff Moe.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Sunday was hearing a referee say “we screwed up.”

That’s never happened before, to my knowledge.

Terry Oglesby & Kelly Pfeifer were the two stripes closest to the goaltending that wasn’t. Pfeifer has always been a chummy guy, which is unusual for the stripes.  Few interact with others.

Oglesby always seems solid to me. I will say that he was the first game participant whose performance really stood out on Sunday, even before Anthony Cowan.

I watched Oglesby swallow his whistle on a number of plays where heavy contact, audible contact, occurred. “Wow, they’re really letting them play,” I observed to a pair of fellow camerapersons.

Sure, they called fouls. But they let a lot of stuff go.

Flopping might not be a concern against Austin Peay, but legitimate charge-taking will be a big part of tonight’s game, according to Underwood.

 

Whistle-swallowing is okay with me. For one thing, it allowed Leron Black to be Leron Black. He needed some time to adjust, but by the second half, Leron recognized the parameters, and exploited them effectively.

Apart from the fact that Tom Eades-Pfiefer-Oglesby cost Illinois the game by missing one seemingly obvious call, it was a well-officiated game.

How did 12,735 people see Trent Frazier’s lay-in swatted away while three professional observers didn’t?  It’s unfathomable.

But it’s also not reviewable according to current NCAA rules. Terry Oglesby felt bad about that. So he did the unthinkable. He apologized to the heckling fan.

Here’s Jeff Butler, yelling at the refs.

Jeff and his son Connor both told me that Terry Oglesby apologized to them for screwing up, and said he’d make up for it. That’s astonishing, and discomfiting.  I spent the rest of the game watching for Oglesby to retaliate.

Jeff Butler is a member of Dave Downey’s Club 53. Butler paid enough to get his name affixed to a plaque, which itself is affixed to a wall in the bowels of the State Farm Center. There’s a lounge, snacks, booze. You won’t get to see it, sorry.

The New Aaron Jordan is actually The New Brad Underwood

The new AJ is allowed to shoot even when he’s double-teamed by tall dudes. (He made it.)

Brad Underwood might be the most intellectually nimble Illini basketball coach of my lifetime. He seems predisposed to conservatism, with a progressive demon perched on his shoulder, constantly reminding him that he needs to adapt, to keep up with new trends.

(Photo of Brad Underwood at Allstate Arena by Vashoune Russell)

Conservatism and liberalism are not at odds, despite what you’ve heard. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But when you realize it’s not working anymore, be open to new ideas.

Underwood is stodgy and open to new ideas. He proved that at OKState, when he abandoned his defensive principles and adjusted to what works for this group.

You could see that intellectual progression this week. At Northwestern, the nation’s leading three-point shooter attempted one three-point shot.

Days earlier, Aaron scored 20 on 4-of-6 from the arc. But he also opted against shooting in a number of situations where he seemed open-ish, or open enough.

I asked Brad whether Aaron was too hesitant (here at 2:30). Brad said AJ is the best three-point shooter for a reason. That’s not a cop-out. It’s a logical response.

But Illinois lost.

When AJ launched a single three versus the NUrds, Illinois lost again.

(Photo by Vashoune Russell)

And then, Brad Underwood evolved.  He stopped defending AJ’s caution, and took the responsibility upon himself to see that Aaron gets more shots, more minutes, more open looks.

It began Monday night in the first installment of The Brad Underwood Show, at BW3 in Savoy. It continued in his Tuesday presser.

Underwood shared another personal moment with the media, after Tuesday’s presser, and before the Te’Jon-centric film session. He spoke (again) about the culture of losing, and how he’s never been around a group of guys who just seemed to accept it the way this group accepts it.

I don’t think John Groce enjoyed losing. Groce prepared his teams for life lessons, and part of life lessons is failure.

Underwood is not unsympathetic. But he’s a lot more aggressive, basketball and otherwise. He’s more human, less robotic, and a lot funnier than Groce.

You can already see that dynamism within this team. It was Groce’s team, but it’s becoming Underwood’s team.

Maryland beat Illinois 92-91, the same score that ended Underwood’s season in Stillwater.   A week before that NCAA Tournament game, the Illini folded against the same Michigan team that beat Underwood. That score was 75-55.

Look for a pattern here. The Illini are likely, during Underwood’s tenure, to give up more points than they did under Bruce Weber, or any other coach of Boring Basketball That Hurts To Watch.

If this were Weber’s team, that lob would never have been thrown. In fact, nothing exciting would have happened.

The future should look like the Lon Kruger era. His teams were so exciting that we hardly noticed how great a coach we had.

Categories
Illini basketball

Some blew it, some wouldn’t blow

Somehow, this writer has covered Illini basketball for nine years without seeing a game in the Tarheel state. South Carolina? Yes. Georgia? Multiple times. Oklahoma, Texas, Washington (state and district)? Yep.

Even Hawai’i and Quebec.

But never North Carolina, ’til Tuesday.

 

And boy what a disappointment it was. The game was okay I guess. But it was just depressing to visit the college basketball state and find such a lackluster crowd.

The Deacons attempted to revive their faithful by shooting catalytically unconverted toxins at the opposing bench, but even that couldn’t wake the Wake.

Lawrence Joel Coliseum announced a crowd of 5,782. Let’s hope that many people paid, then went to bed early.  But that would be more than a third of capacity, and there’s no way it was more than a quarter full.

I don’t think all of Wake’s fans had to get up bright and early to manufacture cigarettes. I think they’ve given up on their program. Remember when Wake fired Dino Gaudio after consecutive trips to the tourney? Remember when they then hired a charmless tactician who’d just suffered three consecutive losing seasons? Of course you don’t. But if you lived in Winston-Salem, it would burn in your memory.

Jeff Bzdelik’s head coaching record

If you want to know what an utterly destroyed basketball program looks like …

Everyone noticed the foul discrepancy. Brad Underwood took all the fun out of the postgame by praising the officiating crew as one of the best in the business. That observation effectively closed the door on the topic. We didn’t know what he’d told the radio crew moments earlier. It was a lot different.

Brian Dorsey has officiated a lot of Illini games. I think I recall Tim Nestor’s name, but maybe I’m just thinking of the long-eared Christmas donkey. Ron Groover has never worked an Illini game that I can recall.

The 31-to-14 advantage in free-throw attempts certainly helped the home team. But the Illini out-shot the Deacs 62-to-47 from the floor. Each and every one of those 15 extra shots missed. i.e. Illinois and Wake Forest each made 24 field goals.

The game was decided, as so often happens, by the ability to get a synthetic leather ball through a metal hoop. Whether it was missing shots, or turning the ball over 19 times before even attempting a shot, Illinois didn’t hoop the ball enough.

Wake Forest’s shots looked like this.

Illini shots also had that same guy in the frame. In fact, he often took up most of the space.

Both Josh Whitman and Paul Kowalczyk attended, along with compliance analyst Evan Taylor. This might suggest that the DIA took this game pretty seriously. “Yes we do,” said Kowalczyk.

Big Mike Thorne, recently returned to the states from Slovenia, attended. So did Mark Morris, the DOBO under John Groce.  Thorne says he’s healthy and hoping to play more basketball.

If I didn’t have photographic evidence of Adam Fletcher smiling, no one would believe it happened. I’ve certainly never seen him smile before. I’ve seen him leap from his seat, fists pumping, roaring a barbarian yawp.

It’s not that he doesn’t emote. It’s just never been the upturned mouth-corners variety.

Nice to know, then, that he can be kind and charitable to the little ones. Fletch took a moment to engage one of the ten year-olds who stayed up past bedtime to wipe perspiration from the court. He even helped out with the wiping.

I’m sitting in the Landmark Diner, in Atlanta, Romelda Jordan’s favorite town. As usual, I allowed myself an extra day to edit photos and collect my thoughts. The obvious conclusion is that our tiny team will get zoned by every taller team for the rest of the year. But that’s probably not true.

Brad Underwood explained that his team knows how to attack a zone. They simply didn’t follow their instructions.

Except, maybe once.

Nightmares about consistent rejection should take care of that.

But yes, the officiating was awful.

Categories
Illini basketball

The Frosh We Have

Apart from Orlando Antigua’s hot pink socks, there wasn’t much excitement at State Farm Center Wednesday night.

Oh wait, that’s not true. There was that time when Chin Coleman started dancing to the great perplexion of everyone else.

And of course, there was the time the ribbon display malfunctioned.

But the basketball game was pretty boring. The outcome was never in doubt.  Augustana kicked & bobbled its way to 29 turnovers.

Even the lob dunks were mildly dull.

That’s okay. Brad Underwood wanted this game as a learning tool.  And afterward, he said he learned a lot.  I learned one thing: Matic Vesel desperately needs to make his first basket.

On this sunny Thanksgiving afternoon, someone should take Matic on a jog so he can grow accustomed to the sight of his own shadow. Then, perhaps, he won’t be so scared of it.

Okay, that might be a little harsh. But Matic is definitely playing scared right now. He looks more uncomfortable on the court than any Power 5 scholarship player I’ve ever seen.

Matic doesn’t present this posture in practice, but things are different under the bright lights with a few thousand people urging “shoot it!.”

I have no doubt that Matic will be a joy to watch in a few years, maybe even a few months. Right now, he just really needs to make that first basket. Then everything will settle down for him.

Underwood got to run some sets Wednesday. He saw how his team executed, and how an unknowing defense responded.

In the case of the inbound clear-out for Trent, everything worked perfectly.

The Frosh We Don’t Have

Keep this point in mind: If Jordan Goodwin hadn’t surprised everyone, and chosen Travis Ford over John Groce, Mark Smith would be in East Lansing.

Goodwin is shooting 5% from three-point range, and 23% overall. Smith isn’t lighting it up from distance (2-of-16) but he’s 20-of-35 from two-point range, which actually seems a bit low considering he attempts most of his shots from point-blank. Goodwin converted 16-of-25 free-throws to this point. Smith is 23-for-24.

In the long run, we’ll know which Metro St. Louis combo guard proves more valuable. Goodwin will probably improve. But I doubt Illini fans will be disappointed.

Jeremiah Tilmon is averaging four fouls per game at Mizzou. Again, that’s not an outrageous stat …

… until you realize that “per-game” is not the same as “per-40 minutes.”

Tilmon is seventh in minutes-played among the Tigers.  He’s averaging four fouls per 15.4 minutes.

Greg Eboigbodin & Matic Vesel would not be here if John Groce were still the coach. They’d be at UIC and wherever Orlando Antigua were coaching, respectively.

It’s silly to say that Illini fans should prefer either project to the top-rated recruit of the Groce era. But again, time will tell. Telmon seems as likely to become the next Cliff Alexander as he does the next Moses Malone. Vesel probably isn’t the next Dirk Nowitzki, but that’s the skill set we’re looking at.

Categories
Illini basketball

Thundering Heard

The Dan D’Antoni Show overshadowed a non-competitive basketball game Sunday evening, and rightly so. Spectator sports are, for most people in the building, an entertainment rather than a pursuit or a professional concern. D’Antoni is an entertainer. If he seemed familiar, it’s because you’ve seen his act before. Last season, his analytics rant went viral.

But his repartee is not merely for your amusement. It’s a tool.  D’Antoni’s acerbic wit surfaced in the first half when Kipper Nichols barreled through the free-throw lane, knocking point guard Jon Elmore to the floor. Referee Owen Short assessed a blocking foul against Elmore.

D’Antoni turned to the baseline photog pool.

D’Antoni: Did you guys get a shot of that? We may need it as evidence in the criminal investigation.

Owen Short:  Move on.

D’Antoni: I’m just kidding. You’ll know when I’m being serious.

Short is not a humorless man. He suppressed a smile when courtside Illini fans got an especially clever dig at Marshall. But he also awarded a loose ball to the home team, on a play that appeared to favor the Herd.

It’s not absurd to observe that referees can be emotionally swayed by their interactions with coaches. And it’s not crazy to say that a coach’s machinations might backfire.

Friday night, Dave Leitao persistently reminded the officiating crew that DePaul had racked up three times as many fouls as the Illini. By the end of the half, the tally had evened somewhat, at 16 to 9. In the second half, the crew assessed more fouls against the Illini than the Blue Demons.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes you get steamrolled by a team that knows how to drive the ball to the bucket.

When was the last time an Illini shot chart looked like this?

It’s apropos that at least one team involved in Sunday’s game is named after cattle on the move.  With Brad Underwood’s new offense in town, there’s a stampede toward the basket.

You’d hardly notice that Illinois can’t shoot a lick. They finished the night at 44%, which isn’t terrible but doesn’t suggest that a team finished with 91 points.

It’s because the Illini are taking a whole lotta high-percentage shots, which makes up for missing 73% of their three-pointers (which is up from 23% after the team connected on 7-of-15 Sunday).

As Underwood acknowledged, that compensation would be even more impressive if the Illini had actually converted all those bunnies. If there was a downside to his team’s offensive performance, the shot chart shows that as well. They missed a lot from point blank range.

Underwood’s remark came while he was loving on the assist-to-turnover ratio of 19:6. He wondered out loud how those numbers might have looked if his team converted near the basket.

Underwood said Marshall was difficult to scout because their offense eschews sets in favor of reads (like the 2005 Illini). The Herd read Illinois especially well in the first half, when Jarrod West connected on 4-of-4 three-pointers.

Underwood shared a few choice words with his team. Kipper Nichols said you probably wouldn’t want to hear those particular words.

In the second half, the Illinois defense tightened. Through increased effort, they held West to 1-of-2 from the arc. At mid-court, foxy Aaron Jordan raided West’s chicken coop, and then took his lunch money.

D’Antoni said his team’s mental problems were of their own creation, and not a product of Illini aggression.  He’s welcome to that opinion. But people who play against Leron Black rarely come away unchanged.

We don’t know how many need counseling afterward, but even Leron’s teammates have consistently said he’s painful. It’s one of the first things they noticed about him.

Da’Monte Williams might not hurt as much, but he’s surely getting inside some opponents’ heads, too.

And then there’s Kipper.

Though charming and debonair in person, Kipper Nichols seems to have a mean streak when he’s between the lines. You saw it Friday when he earned a T defending Williams from DePaul’s Blue Meanies.

You kinda wonder whether Kipper’s Mr. Hyde is the monster Brad Underwood has been trying to provoke. The “hugging Kipper” meme sounds touchy-feely, but the hug itself is a final punctuation. It’s the denouement that resolves a persisting agitation. Underwood is the antagonist.

 

It almost seemed unfair.

 

 

Categories
Illini basketball

Irrelevant observations from EIU

You probably know most of the relevant details of the 80-67 EIU triumph at Charleston last Friday. Jay Spoonhour and Brad Underwood agreed to hold an informal scrimmage, and use it as a practice.

Then, they each abandoned that plan and found themselves in a competitive brawl.

Now, here are the irrelevant details.

Before the game, Josh Whitman and Tommy Michael stood courtside, talking about various things. These two were the top contenders for the job Whitman eventually got. Michael was an associate athletic director before taking the top job at Eastern. He was an academic advisor in the DIA before that. It was good to see that no hard feelings came between the two re: that job search.

 

Michael was in a good position to know exactly what happened with Matt Bollant at Illinois.

He chose to hire Bollant to lead EIU women’s basketball.  Keep that in mind when remembering Bollant’s tenure, if you think about women’s basketball at all.

An unexpected member of the audience was Machanda Hill, Malcolm’s mom. It turns out that she hasn’t seen enough Illini basketball, yet.

She sat in the corner of the upper deck along with Kipper’s mom Tanicia Porter and Aaron’s dad Rob Jordan. Rob didn’t enjoy the scrimmage as much as, say, Eastern Illinois fans.

Also sitting in an upper corner were Bob and Cheryl Easter, who had great seats when he was university president.

Cheryl continues to be a huge basketball fan. She didn’t mind sitting in the corner.  Truth is, Lantz Arena doesn’t really have bad seats. Both Leron Black and Kipper Nichols said it felt like a high school gym.

That setting, and the backdrop it brings, might be the cause Illinois’ shooting woes.

Because EIU also hosted a women’s scrimmage, also for charity, there was no opportunity for an Illini shootaround in Charleston. Instead, the pre-game meal and shootaround took place in Champaign. The Illini then hopped on a bus for Charleston.

They never got a chance to acclimate to Lantz sightlines.

Perhaps the meal wasn’t enough, either. Mark Smith resorted to eating D’Angelo Jackson alive, both literally & figuratively.

Everyone reported that Lou Henson attended the game with lifelong friend Loren Tate (and Champaign golfer Joe Thompson).

But perhaps no one noticed the touching scene of Josh Whitman assisting Henson out of the building, late in the game (before the rush). With Whitman’s help. Lou beat the rush (and the court storming).

Tyler Underwood didn’t sit with the team. He sat behind the team.

He didn’t travel with the team. He traveled with the head coach’s family.

That’s because NCAA rules forbid transfers from traveling during their sit-out year, the same reason Rayvonte Rice watched that Gonzaga game in Champaign.

Greg Eboigbodin, Matic Vesel, Da’Monte Williams, Adam Fletcher, Aaron Jordan, Brad Underwood, Kipper Nichols, Patrick Shulte, Jamall Walker, Orlando Antigua, Chin Coleman plus Susan Underwood, Tyler Underwood, Josh Whitman, Lou Henson and Loren Tate.

Tyler is appealing to the NCAA so he can play this year. If that doesn’t work out, he’ll probably travel to away games with his family, not his team.

Categories
Illini basketball

Introducing Matic Vesel



Illinois basketball fans have had lots of opportunities to  read interviews & watch video of Mark Smith and Trent Frazier. People in east central Illinois actually saw Da’Monte Williams play basketball, frequently.

But after Brad Underwood took the big office at Ubben, the Illini suddenly had two freshmen bigs nobody had ever heard of. Greg Eboigbodin has been in America for four years, playing high school ball in Detroit. So there’s at least some documentation of his history, online and in English.

Matic Vesel had been in America exactly one time before he arrived at the start of the fall semester: his Official Visit to Illinois.  He’s not a complete unknown. They have the Internet in Ljubljana, his hometown. You can watch a highlight video where he dunks a lot.

Orlando Antigua was coaching the Dominican National team when he discovered Vesel, playing for Slovenia, on the Greek island of Crete. A whirlwind recruitment ensued, and now Matic is an American college student.

He’s a big soccer fan, and an Arsenal supporter “because the Champions League is the best soccer in the world … for now.” But Vesel only played indoor soccer (goalkeeper), and that lasted only a little more than a year.   At that point, he had to decide between basketball and …

 

… wait for it …

 

 

… equestrian.

 

Vesel decided to focus his energies on basketball because he realized he was going to be unusually tall.  Smart kid.

Adapting to American culture, American food and American college life all during the same month was probably not easy. He seems to enjoy hanging around his freshman teammates, and especially likes the eternal optimism & high-energy of Trent Frazier.

That was September.

Now he’s got a drill sergeant whipping his ass on a daily basis, and it hasn’t been easy. Vesel gets a lot of praise for his offensive skills, but he also hears a lot of flak about defense & deportment (which seems a little unfair considering he’s from an entirely different culture).

It would conceivably be too much, given all the other stressful adjustments he’s had to make over a few short weeks.  But Matic recognizes that he’ll have to work “systematically, day-per-day” and make a lot of sacrifices, including “many times you have to say ‘no’ to the people who … you love them. That’s a big decision to make.”

Leaving Slovenia for a corn field might seem like an obvious choice for the those of us who love flat & boring, but it’s got to be hard when you’re accustomed to this:

So if you see Matic around campus, please welcome him and tell him that there’s more here than just soybeans.

Someone could teach him, for example,  about good pizza and good Mexican food, both available in Champaign-Urbana. So far he’s had only Pizza Hut and Chipotle.

And thank him for choosing to resurrect your favorite basketball program. Like Damir Krupalija, he’s a young Balkan who’s found himself in middle America, right when Illinois decided to be relevant again.

Categories
Illini basketball

Basketball practice 10-16-17

Te’Jon Lucas returned to practice today for the first time since taking a Mark Smith elbow to the eye socket. His vision may still be a bit blurry. In the team’s first drill, he dropped a pass on the wing, one of “two fumbles in the first 30 seconds!” which is what Brad Underwood roared moments later. It was like that for much of the afternoon. Underwood used more four-letter words today than John Groce did in five years at Illinois. It’s tough love, and sometimes the love is hard to glean. The tough comes across clearly. Underwood is old school. He reminds me of the best coach I ever had, Urbana’s Wayne Mammen. You’ll recall Groce borrowing the Tony Dungy phrase “we want to be demanding without demeaning.” Well, Underwood doesn’t worry about demeaning. Or demanding. Mammen was my football coach, but his best prospect was younger son Kirk, who won two state wrestling titles at 189 lbs. before an All-American career at Oklahoma State. When Tyler Underwood followed his dad from Oklahoma State, no one might have guessed how important his role would be. Coach Underwood is just as hard on Tyler as everyone else. Maybe that’s the reason Tyler’s on the roster: To demonstrate that Brad Underwood still loves you even while he’s tearing you a new asshole. Underwood does what Groce didn’t do and Bruce Weber couldn’t do. He puts the fear of god into his players. Or at least the fear of hell. Whether it’s effort or execution,  Underwood does not allow lapses. When the Illini practiced zone offense, Trent Frazier skipped a pass to a verboten area of the court and Underwood stopped play to explain why that particular angle will never work. Underwood had previously, expressly forbidden this kind of pass in that particular situation. This was a teaching moment, reminding the youngsters why they’re taught what they’re taught. The pack line is gone. Since Dick Bennett’s Green Bay teams unleashed it on unsuspecting mid-major offenses, the pack line lost its element of surprise. Disorienting a team’s screening actions is part of Underwood’s plan, and according to his theory, that requires defenses to disrupt traditional passing lanes. Expect defensive intensity to extend beyond the pack line’s imaginary boundary. The Groce administration changed its high-hands philosophy midstream, so the overall look of that scheme changed over the years. But Underwood will challenge ball-handlers deep in the back court, and before the first pass. And then, of course, it gets harder. Big man coach Orlando Antigua chimed in: “Defensively you don’t have a man after the first pass. You’ve got to work harder because of that.”   Underwood continued on that theme:  “When I was at Kansas State, Jacob Pullen scored 46 straight points in this drill. Defense can’t stop, ever.” “This is unbelievable. I’m used to Rodney McGruder,” he finished, name-dropping another K-State protégé who, evidently, also tried hard and listened. Chin Coleman helped position the defensive perimeter players at the lane’s elbows, and Underwood made sure Greg Eboigbodin knew exactly how to align his feet vis-à-vis his man. Underwood stressed that “height doesn’t matter” when defending the low post, so long as the perimeter help is doing its job. “Our post defense is great because our perimeter defense is good.” It wasn’t enough. You’ve heard about a player “in the doghouse” but you know that doghouse is simply a phrase. Not with Underwood. His doghouse sits in the southwest corner the the Corzine Gym. When an Illini screws up, he runs the treadmill. Today’s treadmill, in quick succession: AJ, Finke, Greg, Matic, Da’Monte, Kipper & Smith. “Holy #### are you going to look good waving that towel on the sidelines,” Underwood called to a player who seemed a bit too enthusiastic about successive execution failures.  “Starched uniform and everything!” And that’s one of the greatest aspects of Brad Underwood. You can’t be a hardass coach all the time without a good sense of sarcasm, irony, even cynicism.  A sense of humor is a relatable quality. It lets people know you’re human, that you see life for what it is. The freshmen bigs had the worst of it today. If things go well for Matic Vesel, he may never again turn as red as he did when Underwood stopped a drill to single-out the Slovenian newcomer. “These guys didn’t come here to see you lollygagging in the corner,” yelled the coach, only he didn’t use the word “lollygagging.” These guys were a small group of NBA scouts who watched the entire practice. Matic spent the last hour of practice with his right foot elevated, in a compression boot. He’d landed awkwardly, with an entire Michael Finke on top of him. After practice, he limped to the locker room unaided, but slowly. Don’t expect him to be too active for the rest of the week. Matic and Greg are both way, way too gentle & kind to kick ass and take names the way Underwood demands. Matic is still adjusting to America, which he regards as remarkably laid back. So maybe he’s just trying to fit in.  Greg is just super, duper polite. Greg’s bad day began when he attempted a spin move on the baseline. First of all, he stepped out of bounds, but nobody saw that. Then, he pivoted to dunk. That’s when he encountered Leron Black, whose one-handed rejection made a clapping sound like thunder, but more expressive. NO YOU AIN’T it seemed to say. Perhaps chastened, Greg’s next offensive move saw him spin away from the basket, to launch an 8-foot fadeaway that barely grazed the rim. Underwood stopped the drill again. “You left that move at Jesuit High School.” Antigua chastised the move as well. “You take it in there strong and pick up a foul,” he admonished. Where were these guys when Nnanna Egwu was playing here? If Greg and Matic aren’t ready for B1G level ball by December, well, they’re freshmen. It’s not an indictment of their character or potential. So who will guard those spots? Leron wears a big brace on his shooting arm. He’s still recovering from the elbow surgery which fixed what Underwood described as “imagine you got hit in the funny bone, but it feels like that all the time.” His rebounding hasn’t changed. It’s fantastic. But his three-point shooting has not improved. It’s probably worse than the 29.7% he accomplished last year. Underwood likes stats, and he heeds them. He’s also not afraid (so he says) to tell his players which among them can shoot from where, when,  and in what circumstances. That leads us to the next undersized big man. Kipper Nichols seems to spend most of his time on the wing, but he’s usually in the fight for a rebound, and he’s got a post-up game which Leron frankly does not have. You can see Kipper defending the 4 while creating an offensive mismatch at the other end. Does that mean you should pencil Leron Black in at the five spot?   It worked okay for Daryl Thomas, whose physique and skill set were similar. But things worked even better for Thomas when he had Dean Garrett by his side. So Illini fans should hope someone becomes Dean Garrett. But more likely, Illini fans should hope Underwood finds a Dean Garrett for next year. CLOSING THOUGHTS It’s especially stupid to project starters given all the recovering injuries, newcomers, dearth of returning talent. Furthermore, Illini fans should hope that “starting” means little in the scheme Brad Underwood conjures. But if we can take him at his word, Underwood has decided on one starter for Sunday’s “secret scrimmage.” It’s Da’Monte Williams. After a spectacularly aggressive rebound in traffic, Underwood stopped play again. “Do you know who’s leading this team in rebounds through all these practices?” He pointed to the quietest guy on the team. “It’s him. That’s why he’s starting on Sunday.” Practice finished with a lay-up drill in which players could approach the basket only from the left-hand side, and a final  half-court five-on-zero passing drill. The team missed a lot of free-throws today — including Tyler, Te’Jon and Finke — the guys everyone is counting on to keep them from extra wind sprints. So they ran a lot. Kipper, AJ, Te’Jon,  Tyler, Samson Oladimeji and Mark Alstork hung around for extra shooting while staff socialized. Don’t be upset that Alstork wasn’t mentioned previously in this post. It means he avoided the coach’s ire. He again paced the team in wind sprints.