Everything seemed so great when Illinois faced short, Division III opponents. The question lingered, though: “How will they perform against tall people?”
The sound of a basketball batted by shot-blockers, banging the side of the backboard, bounding away as time ran expired, will stick with me for a while.
Giorgi Bezhanishvili, with three Georgetown defenders looming, was unlikely to score the needed 7 points in those final five seconds. But the futility of that moment was punctuated by the unusual sound. It was something you’d hear in an automotive repair shop. Air-pressure versus rubber. It sounded like a tennis ball caught in a ceiling fan.
That sound represents the end of our disillusion re: this Illini team. The lack of height was always going to be a problem. Is it insurmountable?
To overcome the interior deficit, Illini guards must be nearly perfect, and Adonis de la Rosa must NOT be Mike Thorne.
Thorne is a smart, kind, gentle and funny. De la Rosa is smart, funny, conversational and pedagogical. Neither of them deserves to be insulted by any Illini watcher. But it’s important to know that Thorne’s relativism about field-goal percentage is the reason John Groce lives in Akron, Ohio.
When Thorne took the ball on the low-post, he should have converted 60% of his FG attempts, or passed to a wing. He did neither. He’d usually fling the ball toward the basket and hope for the best. That’s unacceptable.
One game into his Illini career, Adonis is following the Thorne blueprint.
De la Rosa got the ball in the low-post during the first half of Tuesday’s game against Georgetown. He lumbered around for a while, moving slowly, feeling out the defense. The defense collapsed.
One sensed an intake of breath from the crowd. No one knew what to expect, and hoped for the best.
The best didn’t happen.
Instead, an errant 12-footer sailed within three feet of its intended target, the Hoyas grabbed the rebound, and a possession ended without a basket. Statisticians tally one missed FG in these situations. It feels like a turnover. Not getting a good look from the low post is bad basketball.
In the second half, Adonis got the ball at the usual pinch-post position that Brad Underwood prefers, took another shot at lumbering, plowed and hooked his man simultaneously, fell to the floor, dropped the ball, never attempted a shot AND drew a charging call.
Illinois led the game at that point. But Georgetown gained a lot of confidence from that possession. The Hoyas went on a 20-8 run from that point, and that was that.
Adonis can do good things with his big body. Just a simple back screen with that big ole butt can open a pathway from the wing
In practice, he connects on a high percentage of jumpers from the elbow. That should be his bread and butter, if Illini guards can learn the pick n’ pop.
Creating space for Illini ball-handlers should be Priority One for the bigs.
Illinois’ three-headed monster was down a head against Georgetown, and maybe that was the difference. Without Trent Frazier’s minutes, Andres Feliz and Ayo Dosunmu got tired. Before we knew it, Tyler Underwood was running the point.
Feliz rallied the troops in the second half, but ran out of gas. He tugged his shirt to signal the bench that he needed out.
Overall, Andres was great in one way, and disappointing in two ways. He demonstrated a fearless disregard for defenders. But he air-balled his threes, and he took bad angles on lay-ups.
For Illinois to be successful this season, Feliz will need to fix those two problems. At Ubben, his three-point shooting is solid. Can we assume he’s still adjusting to the depth-perception of a 15,000-seat arena? Does that man he’ll be automatic at Lahaina’s high school gym-sized Civic Center?
The bad angles were outnumbered by the good. Still pictures from the Georgetown game recall Tracy Abrams from the time of Illinois’s last Maui trip.
Abrams was cutting angles back then. He had not yet developed the tendency to go right at opposing defenses. Feliz did both against the Hoyas. The latter is a remnant of his successes against JUCO and Dominican competition. It won’t work against seven-footers.
Feliz is a guy you should trust in the closing minutes. You can put the ball in his hands, but you need him out there because he’s a pain in the ass on defense. The Illini need him to be flawless, superhuman, to compensate for interior shortcomings.
Ayo’s the guy you really want to have the ball in crunchtime. But for all the celebration of his 25-point performance, for all the glowing media coverage; one guy, Ayo, knew that he let his team down.
Ayo’s owning the loss impressed Brad Underwood, who also seemed to think it ridiculous that Ayo blamed himself. But if nothing else, it’s important to acknowledge that Ayo acknowledged it.
You want your team leader to feel unsatisfied by his performance in a loss. You want him to recognize his mistakes in a win, too. You want him to keep learning.
Ayo and Andres might adjust. They have time.
Adonis doesn’t have time. If he hasn’t learned by now, he’s unlikely to learn. So the question is whether Brad Underwood wants to rein him in. So far, the Underwood leash seems long.
On the other hand, we know that Underwood chose to hire an officiating crew for every 2018-19 Illini practice specifically because he knows specific players need to overcome specific bad habits.
Illini fans should consider whether they want another coach who restricts his players’ freedom. it didn’t work for Weber or Groce. Discouraging Brandon Paul from driving, or yanking Aaron Jordan after a missed shot, had obvious negative psychological affects on Brandon Paul and Aaron Jordan. It took a lot of undoing to revert their learned behaviors.
But you’d think that a fifth-year senior, hired for a specific role, might be different.
Adonis de la Rosa should never again dribble the ball twice in a single possession. He certainly shouldn’t dribble the ball around the lane, looking for something to open up.
Maybe this problem won’t find a fix before the Gonzaga game on Monday, but Brad Underwood had better fix it if he wants the season to end well.
The rest of the team has flaws, but it’s the execution by these three guys that turned the spotlight on Illinois’ Achilles Heel.
AJ was a ghost against the Hoyas, but as a decoy, he was pretty effective in the first half. Kipper made great plays against Georgetown, perhaps offset by his play in crunchtime. Fans complained about his execution, but Kipper was among the best at taking the pinch-post hand-off. His strength and height make him a tough cover from the wing.
That Underwood continues to build Kipper, rather than tear him down, gives us an insight on Underwood’s psychological methods.
Da’Monte Williams was solid, and Giorgi looked better than most freshmen. You got what you expected from those guys. The daunting thing for Illinio players and fans is the thin margin for error. If you don’t get what you expect from those guys, Illinois loses. No one can have an off-night.
The good news is that Gonzaga is up next, and as everyone knows, Gonzaga rarely features annoying white guys.