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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Consider Ricky Blanton

You’re having a sad, and that’s okay. Your team just lost to a 1-and-5 Maryland squad whose point guard sat out, and whose best veteran played with half a face. You then thought you’d take your frustrations out on the former Mayor of Ames, Iowa; but your guaranteed win got cancelled.

Andy Wenstrand – Illini Athletics

My job this season seems — if I’m reading me correctly — to consist of regurgitating two themes:

  • Tempering your enthusiasm
  • Encouraging you to be encouraged

Remember, the 2020 Illini were getting better, but they weren’t great. Then you lost Andres Feliz and Alan Griffin, the fighter and the shooter. Nobody will replace Griffin’s shooting and rebounding. Maybe Adam Miller can replace his shooting. He got a little of that mojo back the other night.

No one has filled — and perhaps no one can fill — the Feliz-shaped hole left in the team’s je ne sais quoi. Intangibles are hard to tangib.

Michael Glasgow / Illinois Athletics

This 2021 team remains a work in progress, and the individual parts aren’t currently symbiosing toward a greater whole. So when a team like Maryland holds Kofi to 10 FG attempts — and Ayo misses 14 of his own 23 — well, yes, this group becomes susceptible to mischief.

Maryland had the intellectual advantage in that its scouting report came from former Marist and James Madison head coach Matt Brady, who had an opportunity to expose Illini newcomers in a way that Duke’s staff didn’t. More games = more video clips.

Where Baylor’s Alvin Brooks III exploited weaknesses from known players, Brady was able to focus on Andre Curbelo, and take note of Belo’s tricky kick-outs.

Mark Turgeon might be underrated by Maryland fans, but he’s not underrated by his colleagues. You may recall that UMD beat Illinois twice last year, en route to a B1G Championship. Adding a veteran tactician like Matt Brady, first as a non-recruiting-but-definitely-hands-on assistant* before Brady’s elevation to an unrestricted role, should be seen as an obvious move. It’s the same with Phil Martelli at Michigan, and Ed Conroy at Minnesota. You get these guys on staff when you can.

Brady had an opportunity to talk about his Illini scouting report because the Terps had this week off, and won’t face the Illini again during the regular season.

ON CURBELO

“He’s a marvelous player and I think he’s got a chance to be one of the best point guards in this league, in time. He is elite at driving and getting into the lane and making shots at the rim, and making other players better with his penetration — but that pre-supposes that he’s going to get in the lane.

“We started with ‘we gotta keep him in front of us, and out of the lane.’ And if it meant helping off of him, and giving up a couple of shots, then we were willing to live with a couple of his made shots. But we had to keep him in front.

“He still got to the lane. In fact, he got one on a turnover where he beat everybody on the court — he just missed the shot.

Some of that, we were fortunate. He didn’t play as well as he normally has … but it was a big deal that we stayed in front of him, no doubt.

ON DEFENDING AYO

“We have an elite on-ball defender in Darryl Morsell. He probably hasn’t made an all-defensive team here, in his four years, But when there’s a perimeter guy who can really score, Darryl is as close as a “closer” in this league … he doesn’t have the length of some other guys in this league that are elite defensively, he’s only 6’4″ but he is an outstanding defensive perimeter guard, and he loves the challenge of taking on the best players in this league.”

Darryl Morsell guards Ayo during simpler times.

Brady reflected on a pair of games between Maryland and Purdue, when Carsen Edwards was still in the league (dropping 40 on Illinois, for example). Edwards got his points against Maryland, but it took him a boatload of shots to do it. In a December 2018 match-up at Mackey, Morsell harassed Edwards into 4-of-15 shooting. Edwards was 9-of-9 from the free-throw line, but Morsell finished the game with only two fouls.

“We decided not to switch at all. Darryl wanted him and Darryl guarded him. Darryl’s been able to do that in his time.”

Purdue won the first of those two match-ups when Anthony Cowan’s game-winner was blocked as time expired.

It was the closest Purdue — eventual B1G champions that season — came to losing at home. The Terrapins converted all those missed Edwards attempts into a 39-29 rebound advantage.

Two months later, in College Park, they repeated that formula to great success. Edwards got his points, but his 8-of-27 shooting (3-for-13 from the arc) was ridiculously inefficient, and cost Purdue better opportunities. Maryland won 70-56.

It worked against Illinois, too.

Forcing Ayo and ‘Belo into bad shots didn’t just result in them hitting 4-of-12 and 9-of-23 respectively. It meant Kofi got fewer opportunities.

ON SLOWING KOFI

“A lot of it was the mentality of our group, that we were going to fight him for space,” said Brady, “and not let him get deep post touches.

“We have a grad-transfer in Galin Smith who’s not an excellent offensive player, but like Darryl Morsell he’s very prideful. I grabbed him before the game and said ‘we’re going to need an extraordinary effort, defensively … and it can’t be after the catch.’ It’s kind of like turf warfare. He’s going to have to fight for low-post position. And Galin did an extraordinary job of just fighting with him on every possession, particularly in the second half.

“Most of the baskets Kofi had in the first half — I think he was 6-for-8 — were against Chol Marial, who’s not built for that kind of hand-to-hand combat. But Galin Smith was really up to the challenge. He knew that we couldn’t be in the game unless he brought it defensively.

“After the game, each of us coaches had something to say to the team. The only thing I said to the team in the locker room was ‘there’s no way we win that game without Galin’s extraordinary effort.’

“I was glad Galin was able to take a bow for our group, because he’s a really unsung player for us.”

It feels unlikely that any squad which continually bares its soft underbelly would, could … might put together a stretch run, or a March Maddening. But then again, you never thought a loosely organized brood of underemployed motorcycle mechanics and fulfillment clerks would overrun the United States government, didya?

Michael Glasgow – Illinois Athletics

It would be best if Brad Underwood’s fifth Illini team just put it all together, and won out. But it’s more likely that they’ll grow gradually, both individually and as a unit, and be pretty good on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Is that enough to win four games in four days? (Or, knock on wood, three?) Can this team play consistently six times in a row?

Of course it can. Weird things happen in March.

This crossroads, where a rising Illini team was felled by a Maryland squad that’s past its due date, but still has some capable veterans, reminded me of another Illini team on the rise.

I don’t remember the above game, but I’ll never forget Ricky Blanton’s name, especially because he was so ugly and inspirational.

We were all Ricky Blanton fans in March of 1986, when 11th-seeded Louisiana State made an historic and unlikely run to the Final Four. They kept getting the right breaks. The ball dropped when they needed it to drop.

Contrast Blanton’s Cinderella slipper with his pummeling, at the hands of your Flyin’ Illini — who came, saw & conquered Le Baton Rouge in December of 1988.

By that point, LSU had added the artist formerly known as Chris Jackson, but not the Illini recruit Shaquille O’Neal. Jackson’s passes were too quick for Blanton and his teammates. They hadn’t gelled as a unit. Illinois, on the other hand, was the best team in college basketball. That was especially true because they’d already played together for a full season.

Give it time. They’re young.

When March of 1989 finally arrived, a recovered Kendall Gill (greenstick fracture, foot) had rejoined an Illini team that went undefeated with him, and had lost four games without him. But then Kenny Battle slipped on a patch of water from the leaky Humphreydome roof, and sprained his knee. What might have been?

The Illini had vanquished both Indiana (Big Ten champs) and Michigan (national champs) during the regular season. But by the last weekend, the Wolverines had come together. Without Battle at 100%, Michigan did to Illini dreams what Illinois did to Ricky Blanton’s.

Michael Glasgow / Illinois Athletics

It left a bad taste in your mouth at the time, but it should give you hope in 2021, especially if Trent’s shoulder and Da’Monte’s ankle aren’t as consequential as the publicity-squelched Battle hobbling.

Darryl Morsell should have played for a national title last year. He deserves it, given all the hard work he’s put in. But COVID wiped his only chance. Anthony Cowan ran out of eligibility, and Jalen Smith decided to go pro. The best laid plans fell apart.

Curbelo is not yet Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and he’s not even Chris Jackson. But let’s enjoy seeing who he becomes once he’s adjusted to B1G scouting adjusting to him. After all, Jackson — exciting as he was in that December ’88 game — fouled out even before Illinois crossed the century mark.

You should always have been emotionally prepared for these early losses. This team is not like the 1989 Illini, nor 2005. Too many new parts are coming together. You can fret about that if you like to fret. But as Ayo said, it’s just a step in the journey.

Temper your enthusiasm. Be encouraged.

*Brady served a six-game paid suspension at the start of the 2019 season because, like a lot of Illinois “non-coaching” assistants, he was coaching.

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Illini Basketball

The 12 Seed

Sweeping Michigan and Purdue seemed impressive, right?

Historically, and recently, Michigan and Purdue are B1G contenders. But what about this year? Purdue is 13-10 overall. Michigan is 4-7 in conference.

Is that good?

Memories of Caleb Swanigan and John Beilein are fresh, but Trevion Williams is not Caleb Swanigan. Beilein is gone. So is Bo Ryan. Wisconsin is also 13-10 on the year.

Looking at the schedule on February 8 gives the viewer a different impression of this Illini season than s/he might have had on October 29. Did you predict that Penn State and Rutgers would be the hard games?

And yet, arguably, Rutgers is the only good team that Illinois has beaten this season.

Last night’s loss looked a lot like its predecessor in Iowa City. Maryland employed an aggressive zone defense to completely emasculate the Illini. You can readily envision the Terps coaching staff slow-forwarding through video sequences of that Iowa game, identifying known weaknesses and capabilities.

Likewise, you can imagine the Iowa staff presenting video clips from the Braggin’ Rights embarrassment while telling its team if you challenge them with all your energy and effort; they will fold.

Special credit goes to Terps guard Darryl Morsell, who latched on to Ayo Dosunmu and didn’t let go. Perhaps he watched the Miami game.

If Ayo gets past you, it’s over. And Ayo is extremely good at getting past you. But if you keep him in front, hands high, Ayo’s arsenal diminishes.

Some fans seemed to think Illinois had a chance in the final 10 minutes of the game.

Or at least, they didn’t start leaving in droves until Anthony Cowan drained yet another three to put the Terps up 69-60 with 2:34 remaining.

It’s sweet that they felt Illinois had a chance, after scoring a single field goal in the first 10:52 of the second half.

But the truth is that Maryland had this one safely in its grasp from the moment they initiated that press.

The good news, if you want to call it good, is that NET rankings will probably keep the Illini in the tournament even if — as seems likely — their losing streak extends to five.

On the other hand, Izzo often craps the bed versus Illinois. And he’s too inflexible to mimic another team’s winning formula. So there’s that.

The Illini defense was much better against Maryland than at Breslin. In fact, it kept them within scratching distance during their 40 day ordeal in the scoring desert.

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Illini Basketball

Shifty, scheming

Brad Underwood announced today that Tevian Jones will “suit up” for the Maryland game.

No matter what that phrasing implies, it’s top-notch trolling.

Jones, you’ll recall, is the Terrapin killer whose career-best game stunned Madison Square Garden last winter. He’s the guy they didn’t see coming, and couldn’t stop going. Mark Turgeon still has nighthorses about Tevian Jones.

Jones sat out 8 games last year, so it might seem natural that this year’s suspension is also 8 games. But we know that his sophomore suspension is academics oriented, whereas last year’s was urine-based.

Perhaps DIA penalties for academic misdemeanors include, like a second positive pee test, sitting out for a quarter of the season.

But otherwise, the timing seems weird. The semester ends next weekend, not this one.

Underwood did not say Tevian will travel with the team. He did not say Tevian will play. We hope both of those potentialities come true. But it would be hilarious if Underwood made the announcement merely to keep Turgeon and staff up all night.

Tevian Jones was arguably the most improved sophomore coming into this season. The other candidate is Alan Griffin. Both showcased their improvement in Italy. But there’s no doubt that Tevian had the most dazzling European performance.

The book is still out on Underwood. He’s going to have to reach the NCAA tournament before any Illini fan can be sure he’s The Guy. But for those still recovering from Bruce Weber Syndrome, it’s refreshing to have a leader who’s willing to shift direction, change schemes, and plant misdirection in the minds of his opponents.

Well played, coach.

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Illini Basketball

Terrapin Soup

Feel like celebrating after Illinois’ 64-57 win?

Happy they beat a ranked team?

Go ahead. Enjoy it.

In a lot of ways, it was an improvement on the last couple of games.

In one very important way, it was not. The Illini tried to puke on their shoes again, but Maryland refused to be outshittyed. The Terps saw our bad pass, and raised us a kick it out of bounds.

Where Ohio State and Michigan took advantage, Maryland fainted.

By this point in the season, all Illini fans and perhaps even John Groce have figured out that one very important way. Groce made major and minor changes on Wednesday, to forestall that way of losing games.

It sufficed.

Malcolm Hill buried most of his shots, just like he usually does.

Jaylon Tate moved the ball, and exploited defensive weaknesses, just like usual.

Nnanna Egwu hustled to fill every gap, just like he always does.

The obvious difference between this game and astonishing collapses at Ann Arbor and Columbus is this: When Illinois offered the opportunity for its opponent to crawl back into the game, it got no response, until it was too late.

Enough changed for Illinois to win.

Enough stayed the same for Illinois to win.

Maryland clearly didn’t want to win. But because Mark Turgeon is an excellent tactician, Maryland nearly completed a miraculous comeback.

At one point in the second half, the Terrapins were shooting 40% on free throws. They finished at 56%.

A late barrage from three raised the Terps’ long-range percentage to an admirable 43%.  For most of the game, Terp shots dented the rim from all distances.

Jaylon Tate’s free throws — combined with Kendrick Nunn’s and Ahmad Starks’s refusal to panic — saved the game when Turgeon’s tactics threatened a third consecutive collapse.

John Groce did enough with rotations — and especially with constant defensive switches — to allay new-found accusations of managerial incompetence.

Ahmad Starks shot his traditional 1-for-x from the floor, as did Aaron Cosby.

But Starks’s game was among his best as an Illini.

Using speed, strength and floor vision; Starks keyed the second-half pile-on by exploiting advantageous spacing, with timely passes, a steal, three rebounds, and a fuck y’all attitude toward Maryland’s antagonistic trash talkers.

Cosby was not as awful as every statistic, comment & write-up will suggest. He contributed some good things.

Still, he made little argument from the “players play players” perspective, which John Groce continues to preach while largely failing to practice.

STRIPES

Interesting back-and-forth between Mike Eades and John Groce, throughout the night.

The two spent some time together in the tunnel at Miami, after the game. Groce remarked then that Eades is a good official. There’s obviously a rapport between them.

As the touch fouls accumulated against Illinois (mostly whistled by Terry Oglesby), Groce demanded that the Illini get a call next time a Terrapin breathed on him too hard.

“John!” Eades exclaimed, getting the coach’s attention. “We got the message.”

Groce’s next apoplexy came when Ahmad Starks was not awarded two shots when fouled while passing the ball. “John, he was passing the ball” Oglesby explained. Courtside fans joined in the nonsensical, misguided harassment.

I prefer to reserve referee criticism for those moments when the referees are obviously wrong, rather than when they’re obviously right. It just seems more logical, and credible.

 

Illinois won this game because Maryland coughed up this game. That’s fair. Illinois coughed up its previous two B1G contests.

Naturally, dominance would feel more satisfying. But at this point, in a season on a brink, one takes what one can get.

John Groce continued to allow freedom to his players, did not blame them for his shortcomings, and did not fail to provide them with a game plan while simultaneously criticizing them for not having a game plan.