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COVID-19 Illini basketball

Paper Tigers

Illinois proved one thing last night in Minneapolis: You shouldn’t trust anyone’s opinion about college basketball until mid-February at the earliest.

Jacob Grandison guards Eylijah Stephens (GopherSports)

Everyone said Minnesota would suck. Okay, they were right about that. There’s zero reason to analyze Tuesday’s cakewalk.

But everyone said Michigan State would be pretty lousy, too. Okay, they’re probably right about that, as well. It depends on whether Max Christie proves to be the kind of dynamo who can carry an entire team.

Everyone said Michigan would be awesome, and I still can’t figure out why they said that. Especially because “everyone” is a smallish group of wonky sportswriters. I stood among them at B1G Media Days, as we all tried to provoke Hunter Dickinson to say something scurrilous, for cheap thrills. The other player-made-available was Eli Brooks, which should have told you something.

Eli Brooks is fine. But he’s a role player. (pic – Kelsea Ansfield)

The 2022 B1G championship seemed likely to be determined by COVID policy rather than on-court competition. That changed last week, when governance entities both federal & sportsy recognized that vaccines work, that COVID is endemic, and that reality-based people can continue intermingling whether or not they have active coronaviruses living in their nasal passageways.

Just like 2019.

Now that 2019 is back, and a fully vaccinated Illini team has just added 10x natural immunities, the path to a B1G championship looks so easy that you hate & curse yourself for even thinking that it looks easy.

It’s possible that Kur Kuath and Darryl Morsell will be the best defensive duo the Illini face this season.

In truth, this B1G is a lousy B1G. It makes one admire Greg Gard and the entire Wisconsin juggernaut, which seems to have survived (again) rumors of its demise. Johnny Davis and a guy named Chucky Hepburn didn’t attend B1G Media Days, which certainly confused those wonky writers, who were easily fooled into thinking that Brad Davison was the only remaining Badger.

Brad Davison is the last Badger you’ve heard of. You’ll soon hear about the new ones.

This Badger reload should remind everyone that our national recruiting hype-machine depends on networks of communication, and that college coaches will not necessarily tell the Rivals & 247 dudes that they’ve found an unmentioned gem.

247Sports ranked Davis the 28th best Shooting Guard in his class. It will be interesting to see if the NBA draft rates him at a lower number.

Hepburn got a #19 at Point Guard, good for 125th overall in his class. You can imagine that if a guy survives high school while named Chucky Hepburn, he ain’t gonna give two shits about your so-called “stars.”

This picture is not relevant to today’s story. But it was right there, on GopherSports.com.

Wisconsin’s win at Purdue doesn’t necessarily tell us that the Badgers are a contender. It does tell us that Purdue is not a contender.

That’s likely to be the most interesting story of the ’22 B1G: What happened to Matt Painter?

Trevion Williams has a lot to think about.

Trevion Williams can be purty good at executing offensively, and he’s a coachable player playing for a coach who’s developed a reputation for producing Bigs. The Hype Machine loves Jaden Ivey. Purdue has a reputation as “a program” that instills values and instincts.

So why does it suck so much?

You won’t get an answer. Nobody cares. Outside of Kentland & Waynesboro, Purdue’s failure is a blip on the screen. The Boilermakers are historically the best program in the B1G, but only for conference purposes. Nobody on the national stage is interested in Purdue’s history.

Alan Griffin is gone. But Purdue hasn’t recovered.

Because Illinois won at Iowa in early December, and beat Rutgers handily at home, it’s hard to think of a B1G opponent who poses a threat to the Illini in their quest for a conference championship.

But Izzo is still there. And Wisconsin has somehow remained Wisconsin, a full six years after Bo Ryan stepped aside.

Mark Turgeon is not still there, and that’s the immediate concern. But the remainder of this season should be fun.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Must Win

If you bet on the ’22 Illini to win a #B1G championship, you’re already suffering indigestion from Tuesday’s game in Minneapolis. And you still have hours of sweating palms to go.

Your discomfort began when the Gophers, the pre-season’s unanimous pick for last place, beat Michigan.

Jamison Battle, who is not Talor Battle, shoots with his left hand.

But is Minnesota, currently Receiving Votes and formerly, briefly Ranked, good?

Eh. Maybe.

It doesn’t matter. Your quest is the Illini quest. The Illini quest is to win the B1G. Winning the B1G means winning at Minnesota. It’s a proven fact.

The 1984 Illini did it, and they won the B1G. The ’89 team lost its first game of the season in Minneapolis (after Kendall Gill went down with the greenstick fracture in his foot) and finished second to the Indiana team that it beat twice.

Lon Kruger’s scrappy 98ers didn’t have to go to Mpls. They beat Izzo in Champaign, and thus tied MSU for a conference title.

The 2001 champs beat a lowly Gophers team at Williams. The 2002 Illini clinched a B1G championship with that frenzied finish that you still watch on YouTube when you’re drunk, even though it’s low-def and blurry.

WHO THEY DON’T HAVE

If addition-by-subtraction had a poster, it would be the 2021 Golden Gophers. They all bailed, making their ex-program better.

Gabe Kalscheur is raining buckets in Ames, second only to ex-Penn State Izaiah Brockington in leading TJ Otzelberger’s miracle turnaround. Brandon Johnson, who gave Illinois fits last year, joined Paris Parham in their mutual hometown. (Rob Judson is there, too!)

Jamal Mashburn Jr. followed Richard Pitino to Albuquerque. Both Gach transferred to Utah. Liam Robbins went to Vanderbilt.

Marcus Carr just dropped 20 on Bob Huggins, having moved from 80s music hot spot Minneapolis to 90s music hotspot Austin.

What is it with the Gold & Maroon?

WHO THEY HAVE

Payton Willis left Minnesota. Payton Willis returned to Minnesota.

After a vacation year at College of Charleston, this erstwhile trumpeted Gopher is, again, a trumpeted Gopher. You can understand why he didn’t want to compete with Kalscheur & Carr for PT, but he might be better than either of them.

With an ATO of 45-to-21, shooting 46% from the arc and 50% overall, you’d like to think that his weak point is defense.* Unfortunately, dudes seem to get better at defense as they mature. Payton was born at the front end of 1998. He played at Vanderbilt for his first two seasons, and Vanderbilt is uppity about admitting dummies.

Minnesota’s other threat is Jamison Battle, whom Brad identified as “Talor Battle” in Monday’s presser. So you know it’s bad news. Talor Battle haunted the B1G from an underdog spot. That was ten years ago. Brad’s still recovering, and he wasn’t even a B1G coach back then.

Jamison Battle scores and rebounds. He’s a “tough guard” as the kids like to say, because he can post up and hit from three (36%).

6’7″ and 225 lbs., motivated, chip on his shoulder for having to leave town (two years at GW Colonials) before coming home to play for the team he’d always wanted to lead, this kid is trouble.

OVERSOLD STAT

In the pre-game presser, Minnesota’s three-point defense was a point of emphasis among the Askers. Brad Underwood said Michigan connected on 9 of them and MSU on ten. The latter stat is correct. MSU was 10-for-21 from the arc. The Wolverines managed 3-of-18.

It’s immaterial.

There’s no evidence that this Minnesota team can compete with legitimate squads. Beating Illinois would help their cause, but the Illini aren’t a proven commodity either. If you’re prepared to reject The Myth of Juwan Howard (and I know you want to) the Gophers’ only win over a quasi-legit team was beating Ben Howland in Starkville.

But Mississippi State is 10-3. They beat Arkansas on December 29, and that’s their only good win. (The previously mentioned MSU’s Rocket Watts is now in Starkville, and played 8 minutes in that game. He’s averging 13.6/game. Tom Izzo once had great hopes for him.)

They lost to Louisville and Colorado State. They needed overtime to top Richmond. (I know you think Richmond is a mid-major super-power, but they haven’t made the tourney since Jereme Richmond was skipping class.)

*LIKE* BEN JOHNSON

Unless you’re playing against him, and until further notice, you want Minnesota’s new coach to succeed, for all kinds of reasons. But certainly, the best part is that he faced the lowest expectations, acknowledged them, and then kept on keeping on.

*His weakness is free-throws.

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Better Part of Valor

When I asked Marcus Carr about Illini guards and the trouble they caused him, I employed the second person singular, “you.” Unfortunately, in the English language, the same word addresses second person plurals. Or is it second persons plural?

His response made clear that he interpreted “you” as his team. He said that while the guards were very quick, it was really Kofi who caused the problems. His tone made clear that he’d rather be anywhere else.

I pivoted. I decided against clarifying. I didn’t say “no, no I’m talking about how Trent took you out of the game.” I didn’t see the point. Instead, I asked a bland question about Ayo, the kind of boring workaday tripe that you hear in most boring Q&As with athletes.

The trouble I’m having now, as I attempt to conjure a meaningful, relevant set of paragraphs capturing the zeitgeist of Illini Basketball circa December 2020; I need to know whether Marcus Carr felt thoroughly dominated by Trent Frazier.

Also, I need to know whether Carr felt confined by the help defense provided by Trent’s teammates. Did the bigs step up to fill the gaps? Did everyone rotate in sync? How has Ayo improved defensively since last year?

Nope, I just copped out entirely.

Michael Glasgow / Illinois Athletics

Gabe Kalscheur seemed sunnier. So I asked him how all the new parts were coming together for his team. He said everything was great and everybody super, or something along those lines.

“But you (plural) just completely fell apart and got plowed, ” I didn’t follow-up, again thinking that discretion is the better part of something. And so is not insulting people.

I took the same (easy way) out a day earlier, when Kofi offered a breezy reply to my question about his own rotations on defense. Kalscheur and Kofi were both easy on themselves.

But on the bright side — or, more accurately, the extremely gloomy side — you don’t have to worry about Kofi not worrying. It’s really amazing how openly self-critical he is. If he were an American, raised on Big Boys Don’t Cry and similar idioms; you’d never see this side of him. Presumably, you’d never see the real him.

Hunter Dyke/Mizzou Athletics

Josh Whitman and Randy Ballard keep talking about the mental health aspect of student-athlete well being, and they couldn’t ask for a better face/spokesperson/poster child. By evincing physical dominance and a childlike curiosity, laughing with his teammates while also confessing his angst and obstacles; Kofi demonstrates a truth that pastors, therapists and 12-step sponsors have counseled for decades: You can be successful and generally happy and yet never completely overcome your continual struggles, whatever they may be.

It’s damn noble for Kofi to air it all out as he does. Some kid is listening, worshipping his idol, and feeling relieved that he’s not alone in his moments of darkness and doubt.

So when Kofi spoke confidently about quarterbacking the defense, reading and rotating; I didn’t push him with the third variable of my original question: Where does he have room for improvement?

It’s an open-ended question, not as confrontational as “why do you suck so badly” or even “you’ve been struggling lately, how come?” Kofi’s defensive rotations were not perfect. It’s okay. He’ll continue to improve in that area.

Just look at his improvement on offense! His low post moves had been few and of limited efficacy. He rewrote that narrative in just one night, and it was awesome.

He was, nevertheless, reflective in his postgame remarks. Especially the ones that weren’t asked by sports dudes.

I’m glad I was on the other line, as it were, when that Q&A unrolled. Sometimes it’s best just to listen.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Off-Night Warriors

Minnesota was the kind of game losers lose & champions win.

On a night when Ayo Dosunmu converted 4-of-12 shots, Trent Frazier managed 4-of-13 and Giorgi Bezhanishvili 2-of-7, you can see how desperately the Illini needed someone else to lead the way.

Fortunately, Illinois had two someones answering that call.

Da’Monte Williams swats the ball from Minnesota’s Alihan Demir on the would-be game tying shot, sealing the win.
At the other end of the court, Andres Feliz put the team on his back & carried them over the finish line.

In years past, John Groce would begin his postgame remarks by saying obviously, if you’d told me we’d hold them to 48 points or obviously, if you told me we’d limit ourselves to 8 turns and keep the rebound margin close or obviously if you told me we’d get production from all eight guys who played, I’d like our chances.

Things are better now. Illinois had an off-night and still found a way to win its seventh straight game.

It was a knife fight in a dark alley. Or a dogfight. Luckily for Illini fans, Andres Feliz and Da’Monte Williams are fighters.

Kofi Cockburn tallied a **yawn** double-double with 13 & 10 and managed, with the help of some deft coaching maneuvers, to avoid fouling-out despite challenging all-conference favorite Daniel Oturu throughout the night.

If Cockburn can stay toe-to-toe with Luka Garza on Sunday, he’ll earn his **yawn** eighth B1G Freshman of the Week.

Giorgi feeds the beast.
Giorgi feeds the beast, again.

So, survive and move on. Iowa awaits.

And now to the non-basketball aspects of Thursday night. If you take a head in the sand approach, this is your cue to stop reading.

In the top-middle of that second Giorgi feed, you’ll notice the rainbow “Pride Night” banner.

The Illini men wore long-sleeved Pride Night shirts over their jerseys, and State Farm Center was illuminated with rainbow colors rather than the traditional Orange & Blue.

The “Pride” movement and its various parades was created to make LGBT persons feel okay about themselves.

the promotion of the self-affirmation, dignity, equality, and increased visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people as a social group … as opposed to shame and social stigma

Wikipedia

According to the U.S Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.

Of course, Pride Night can be a tough sell when the audience is mostly white, small-town conservatives. Cleverly, the DIA took the Hobby Lobby approach, championing not LGBT rights, but “religious freedom,” the last constitutionally approved method for suppressing the uncomfortably different.

At the same time, the DIA announced the Robert Archibald Student-Athlete Health and Wellness Fund. Archibald’s funeral is today in Barrington.

So far, nobody has used the word “suicide” in relation to his death. Mentions of “demons” and “struggles” are as far toward that word as the discussion has ventured. It’s just coincidence that Pride Night aligned with the creation of a fund to support mental heath & wellness, even more coincidental that they landed on the same day that DJ Carton “stepped away” from the Ohio State basketball program for mental heath reasons.

Everyone who knew Arch is now questioning themselves about whether there was something they could have said or done to help. His last gift to the program is the wake-up call that addressing depression, anxiety & all forms of mental wellness issues must be a proactive pursuit. That young people should not be shamed against confiding their emotional identity.

It was the first Pride Night for men’s basketball. Volleyball and WBB have done it before, perhaps because the existence and occasional greatness of LGBT athletes has been acknowledged in those sports.

MBB has not crossed that bridge, and it’s yet to be noted that the Illini’s greatest alpha-male of the last decade was raised by lesbians.

Maybe next time, if DIA decides to have a next time; they’ll give the cheerleaders a less euphemistic slogan to promote.

Instead of the Hobby Lobby approach, why not just come out and say it: “It’s okay to be gay.”