When college basketball finally ends — giving way to Twitch, or similar things you’ve never heard of* — clever analysts and their publishers may finally have the opportunity to figure out what happened.
Why was college basketball so popular? So lucrative? Why did people invest so much of their time & emotions in college basketball?
To this point, we’re all kinda wondering.
Historians probably won’t question why Brad Underwood brought Omar Payne to Illinois. But that’s one of those subjective details that makes college basketball so fascinating.
Omar Payne might forever remain the least appreciated Illini recruit.
Lousy on offense (without Andre Curbelo to feed him dunkable lobs) and a defensive menace, he’s a liability to those who see value only on the former end of the court.
For a few months, social media geniuses have been asking each other why Illinois recruited Payne, whose 9:47 of tick at Nebraska bumped his average to 8.3 minutes per game. Is it his 1.9 points or his 1.9 rebounds?
The man who’s paid $3.5 million to make these decisions has maintained, throughout, that Omar Payne’s performance has been nearly flawless. Measured in the way Underwood’s staff grades defense, Omar is an A student.
That’s just in games. Omar’s major contributions have always been off the court (he’s a scholar, and a glue guy) and most significantly, in practice.
Omar is the pain-in-the-ass defensive presence that Kofi Cockburn needed. They’re great friends and mortal combatants. The former aspect is important, although not necessary. Omar would be making Kofi better if they hated each other. But it’s nicer when guys can be friends after they’ve had their showers and cooled off.
Omar isn’t the only reason Illinois beat Nebraska on Tuesday. Of course not. But the game was a great example of getting enough from the pieces you have. Guys fulfilled their roles.
Omar’s role expanded a bit when Kofi got his fourth foul. He added scoring to his rim protection and rebounding.
Jacob Grandison’s four assists and 12 points will disappear from public consciousness by the time you finish this sentence. Trent Frazier’s dominant offensive effort (mostly as a dribble-driver, not a spot-up shooter) will likely provoke more questions than satisfaction. Where has this been all these years?
But Trent’s performance was an excellent example of his discipline. He took what the defense gave him. He recognized the openings, and followed the path they presented to him.
Omar said as much about Nebraska’s choice to hedge rather than ice. He knew what opportunities that strategy would open in the paint.
Although closer than you might have expected, the outcome at Nebraska was perfect for an Illini team that wants to learn. The fact that it won Omar some plaudits, finally, is gravy. The best thing that happened is that Illinois was challenged, and it overcame.
*because you’re not 18-24/male and therefore not a market worth exploiting
The Maryland game might not, when it’s all said & done, prove to be a Battle of the Bigs.
Maybe Eric Ayala will go off from three. Maybe every Illini perimeter player will do the same. But it feels like this game should be decided down low, and that Kofi Cockburn should be The Decider.
Maryland has a legendary Big at the helm. Maryland has an excellent Big at the 4 spot.
But the guys who’ll defend Kofi Cockburn are not Donta Scott. It would be a waste of fouls to put the Terps’ 6’8″ scorer on Illinois’s 7’0″ double-doubler.
Interim coach Danny Manning says 6’9″ freshman JuJu Reese will participate in the Kofi defense. And, you know, good luck to him.
If he’s successful, that means Manning wasn’t just coachspeaking about all his players getting better. (Manning also addressed coachspeaking in his pre-game availablity.)
Mostly, it’ll be Georgetown transfer Qudus Wahab defending the #B1G’s pre-season POTY. That Wahab left Patrick Ewing to play for Danny Manning says something about Wahab’s personality: Manning is nicer than Ewing. Wahab has probably never heard of Leo Durocher.
If the Terrapins weren’t arguably awful, the talking point wouldn’t be Mark Turgeon’s negotiated departure. Democrats of Prince George’s & Anne Arundel Counties might not even care that Darryl Morsell chose to live in Em-Efffing Wisconsin rather than continue to toil on their behalf.
The talking point would be balanced scoring.
It’s hard to defend when all five guys can burn you. Maryland’s starters average double-figures. 6’8″ wing Hakim Hart barely makes the cut-off with 9.5/game, but he’s the Turtle to Fear.
A disruptive defender with a 2:1 ATO, he’s also a 52% shooter. His only problem in Champaign will be Da’Monte Williams, until it’s Jacob Grandison.
It’s an eight-man rotation, and six of them are there to put a ball through a hoop. Only Xavier Green and Ian Martinez play for primarily defensive purposes.
Grad-transfer Green made plain that he doesn’t expect anyone to guard Kofi one-on-one, and that’s the correct response. Kofi becomes vulnerable when Smalls join Bigs in defending him. Adding active hands, especially below the waist, causes problems for Kofi.
Kofi’s spin move (from elbow to block) at The Barn was intriguing to watch because it was sui generis.
It didn’t work.
Kofi has not reached that rare level of sophistication where the big man sees the short corner while his back is turned. Ideally, he’ll return for Year 4 to figure that out. On Tuesday, he got his pocket picked.
That’s the video clip that Xavier Green is visualizing when he talks about helping against Kofi.
Illini fans can satisfy their worrying habit by contemplating how these 8-and-5 Terps got to 8-and-5: They lost by only five points at Iowa, and Iowa is pretty good-ish, yes?
Maryland lost to George Mason by only five points, and George Mason almost beat James Madison in its subsequent contest!
Maryland lost to Louisville, lost to Virginia Tech, lost to Northwestern. Then they beat #20 Florida. Double you, tee eff?
Maryland beat Hofstra by 2, and HOFSTRA BEAT ARKANSAS!
Yes, the all-caps is necessary because Illinois couldn’t even get to the Arkansas game in Kansas City.
Sure, a lot has changed since then. Coleman Hawkins has a new role. Andre Curbelo decided to get well instead of faking it. Alfonso Plummer bloomed.
Until Illinois can beat Maryland consistently, you’ll need to regard this as a trap game. The Illini should win, but Maryland has shown flashes kinda thing. Terps assistant coach Matt Brady has the Illini scout, and he’s one of those intellectual analysts that can rape a team of all its advantages just by explaining details. Loyola did it, so can they.
But because Darryl Morsell left for pastures, you’ll want to know whether Fatts Russell (whose name is actually “Daron”) can tandem with Eric Ayala to impose the kind of defensive pervasiveness that stops otherwise capable shooters, dribblers, passers & penetrators from enjoying Mr. Naismith’s winter exercise.
There’s no reason to believe he can. There’s less reason to believe that Maryland will win on Thursday. If they do, you can make spring break plans.
Brad Underwood already lost to a terrible Danny Manning team in his Illini career. If you think he’s forgotten about that, thanks for checking out IlliniReport dot info. I’ll assume this is your first time here.
Rutgers controlled Friday night’s game from the get go. The Scarlet Knights prevented Kofi Cockburn any post touches. They ran offense, got great looks, and jumped out to an early lead.
This point should be remembered, because it’s in danger of being lost in the telling of Illinois’s massive ass whooping. By the time the Illini lead reached 30 points, most of the fans probably forgot how awful things looked in the early minutes.
Everything changed when Omar Payne replaced Kofi Cockburn at 16:05. Illini substitution patterns are certainly known to the Rutgers coaching staff, and Payne’s entry happened right on time. So why did the Knights fall apart at this particular point?
Omar altered shots and grabbed the rebounds those alterations produced. The Rutgers game plan, in other words, hit an Omar-shaped wall. He doesn’t have a whole lotta offense, but he shut an entire team down on their own end of the court.
Brad Underwood reserved special praise for Omar in his postgame remarks.
By the time Nnanna Egwu graduated, Illini fans had come to appreciate what he could do defensively, despite his failure to learn low-post moves throughout a four-year career. Omar has that same intmidation factor. But he can also jump four feet into the air, which is a lot to deal with when the guy swatting your shot is already 6’10”.
The other thing that happened at U16 was Jacob Grandison. Like Da’Monte Williams, he’s been a team leader, and an indispensable part of recent Illini success.
His intellectual and leadership gifts can be overstated sometimes, but only because those conversations might make you forget that he’s good at basketball, too.
Smart & fearless. It makes him dangerous.
Brad Underwood’s strategy of not starting his best players, but using them as surprise attackers, continues to pay dividends. Most infamously, this strategy saw Richard Pitino not seeming to know who “Da’Monte Williams” was just 15 minutes after Da’Monte Williams had vanquished Pitino’s Gophers.
Williams was probably on that scouting report, but because he wasn’t a starter, he probably didn’t figure prominently on that scouting report.
Grandison might not be an obscurity to this year’s #B1G opponents, but the thing that makes him a tough assignment is that he knows how to pick his spots.
Omar provides a different kind of stealth. There’s no question that Kofi is better than Omar, but Omar’s defensive instincts (and wing-span) are difficult to appreciate on film. It’s only when your shot lands in the eighth row that you’ll truly appreciate Omar.
Illinois defense was fun to watch on Friday. We’ve all been waiting for Coleman Hawkins to get out of his own head and focus on applying his natural talents to disciplined domination of opponents. It happened Friday.
Brad compared his work/battle with Coleman to two rams butting heads. He said he told Coleman that Ron Harper dreams of him (Coleman) every night, and pictures him in a pink tutu.
As in “Coleman is a little girl, and I can dominate him.”
It worked. Coleman played with a defensive intensity that Illini fans haven’t seen before.
There’s always been the flashy two-handed slam guy. There’s always been the flashy shot-blocking guy.
It’s the stolid, stern defender that you hadn’t seen.
Coleman is a thinker. He’s analytical. He thinks too much sometimes, and that’s not something that can be undone.
But Friday proved that he can focus his analytical skills.
Given his lateral quickness, size & outside shooting, he already had NBA written all over him. The thing that seemed doubtful in Friday’s first half was whether Coleman could feed the low post.
He rejected many opportunities to get Kofi the rock. Illini fans jeered. “Come on!” screamed one of them, loud enough for Coleman to hear it.
The second half was a reversal. It was as if coaching occurred in the locker room. And maybe Coleman settled into himself, after realizing that he’d done to Harper what he’d deeply desired to do to Harper (his good friend, by the way).
Coleman fed the beast.
Dan O’Brien captured it in GIF form. This is the perfect Illini basketball possession of 2021-22. This is what Illini basketball can be, this season, if everyone gets healthy, and if everyone understands his role.
We learned after the game that Trent Frazier hasn’t been practicing much. He’s been recovering. He’s been in physical therapy. So you shouldn’t be surprised that his shot is off.
With all the new harnesses he’s been wearing since wrecking his shoulder and knee, the fine tuning of muscle memory hasn’t had sufficient repetitions to adjust.
But his defensive principles remain intact, and that’s why he’s playing starter minutes.
Alfonso Plummer has taken over the Trent Frazier Role as contemplated in 2017. Trent Frazier has become, with Chester Frazier’s help, Chester Frazier.
The fact that Chester Frazier is still, at 35, playing stern defense in practice, has undoubtedly helped the younger Illini to recognize that there’s serious peril awaiting them in the #B1G. It’s kept Trent Frazier in shape, defensively.
Friday night was a celebration of Illinois basketball. Everything went right for Our Side. You’d be disappointed by the game if you didn’t know how great a coach Steve Pikiell is, and how good the individual Scarlet Knights can be.
The fact that they’re missing their point guard should seem familiar. Missing a point guard has ruined many a basketball team’s unit productivity since the days of Steve Lanter. Possibly even earlier.
The fact that Illinois basketball has recovered from losing Andre Curbelo is … well, is it surprising? Is it predictable? I certainly don’t have the expertise to declare either of those descriptions.
The Illini offense looked good for the final 34-ish minutes of Friday night’s game. Curbelo enjoyed watching it. The national audience probably included a few AP voters, maybe a committee member or two.
The early going of this season was tough, especially for Belo. But it seems as if the Illini might find their way.
You can help. Tweet #ISupportBelo if you want to tell Andre that you have his back.
Kofi Cockburn was the player made available for Sunday’s pre-Cincinnati Zoom, and that makes sense. He’s the pre-season #B1G POTY, and the Cincy game is his first of the season.
Kofi’s presence was felt long before tip-time, though. It put Andre Curbelo’s mind to rest, for one thing. The debacle at Marquette demonstrated that Belo-to-Kofi doesn’t work when half the ingredients are missing. Curbelo can play his game now that Kofi’s back.
Doubters of the Underwood Administration multiplied in numbers during those final seven minutes of the Fiasco in Milwaukee. It’s the nature of the beast.
Time and again Belo charged into the lane. Time and again Kofi failed to clear a path, or anticipate a lob.
Because he was sitting on the bench.
Kofi wasn’t completely distressed as the game unfolded. He found moments to laugh with Pittsburgh’s finest (cop-cum-referee) Larry Scirotto, whose mere presence at games annoys Illini fans as much as it delights Kofi. The gentle giant and the aggressive Napoleon enjoy an off-court rapport.
Larry has a boisterous personality, like all the mouthy cops you remember from mouthy cop shows like The Wire or Law & Order. He’s cocky and good-natured. Kofi continued to banter with him throughout the game.
Kofi’s suspension provided some much-needed PT for his back-up, Omar Payne. Payne was fantastic against Marquette.
Unlike Cockburn, he’s not an offensive threat, but the problems he creates at the other end give opposing coaches fits. Payne didn’t quite pull a Darryl Morsell on the Golden Eagles, but he made them plenty uncomfortable.
And that’s exactly why he’s playing at Illinois. But it’s not just oppponents he’s here to bother. It’s his frend Cockburn: Having Omar defend Kofi on a daily basis will do more for this team than anybody will ever appreciate.
Coach Underwood said Omar’s defensive grade-out was excellent for the game at Marquette, and that’s what you would expect having seen the number of blocked and altered shots Omar provoked.
The Golden Eagles prospered in the mid-range game, where Justin Lewis picked-n-popped and exploited lazy close-outs to hit Nigel Hayes-style mid-range jumpers. You could live with Morsell going off on the Illini. It’s what he does. Lewis’s 17 points hurt.
Trent Frazier cried after the Marquette game. We know that because Brad said so in his postgame. And then moments later, we were sticking cameras & microphones up Trent’s snout, and the bright lights showed that he’d definitely just finished an hour’s swim in a heavily chlorinated pool, or been crying.
Trent is smarter than he knows, which is to say he’s smart, and he doesn’t know it. Not always. In a very human way, Trent has doubts and anxieties, and loyalties He defended Belo against perceived criticism after that game, because he had his guard up. He didn’t realize that our questions about Belo’s first time in front of a hostile crowd and Belo playing without Kofi weren’t necessarily dumping on Belo, but instead trying to grasp why Belo faltered.
It’s a reminder that these celebrities are still growing, and experience the same moments of fragility we all face, especially when we’re young & trying to figure things out.
There’s usually a story behind a non-conference scheduling.
Lon Kruger brought Texas – Pan American to Champaign, because he coached there. He liked the people there. He wanted them to get paid.
Bruce Weber scheduled Vanderbilt because he liked having a couple of beers with Kevin Stallings, his old benchmate from Gene Keady’s glory years.
Brad Underwood scheduled Arkansas State because he’s friends with Red Wolves coach Mike Balado. He didn’t use the word “beers” in describing their friendship, but feel free to draw your own conclusions. Florida was involved.
Trent Frazier wore a big black harness on his right arm during Thursday’s practice. It looked like the thigh pads that basketball players wore under their baggy pants in recent years. It looked like the thigh pads that football players wore until fashion became more important than practicality. It didn’t look like a shoulder harness. If there was a shoulder component, it was obscured by Trent’s practice jersey.
Talking to Omar Payne and Alfonso Plummer before today’s practice, we got the feeling that both Illini were aware that Arkansas State has a couple of talented guards, and possibly some bigs that know how to basketball.
The unspoken point was that these two Illini players will be auditioning their skills against the best opponent they’ve faced so far in this nascent Year ’22. Plummer wants to showcase his PG skills because he knows the NBA isn’t interested in SGs my height. And although both Trent Frazier and Andre Curbelo are likely to play Friday, Plummer has been practicing at PG in preparation for the game.
Brad Underwood said the coaching staff was surprised by Plummer’s adjustment to the role, and his adeptness with the unique skill set involved in directing an offense.
This may have been an Elite. Elite on Brad’s part, but he did seem genuinely surprised.
Payne gets another chance to swat shots and possibly integrate himself into the Illinois offense. This is a good thing. Kofi Cockburn’s suspension was a godsend in this regard. And although Kofi got a raw deal from the NCAA, it’ll almost certainly help the team in the long run.
You want Omar to succeed. He’s exactly the kind of student-athlete that you want to root for, both in life and on the court.
You’re looking for a Silver Lining after watching a game that was both a blowout and a Cautionary Tale. Rest assured, it’s here.
Da’Monte Williams is unlikely to shoot 2-for-11 in future games. He’s unlikely to find himself running the point during B1G play. And even if he does, his experience Tuesday guarantees that he’ll be more comfortable in that role.
Coleman Hawkins will probably get fewer technical fouls & taunting warnings. Probably.
His mouth is as big as California, and his current confidence level might not fit in the entire Pacific Time Zone. No complaints here, but Brad Underwood is already assessing the value of ColeHawk’s assessments. (He wants fewer T’s assessed.)
Omar Payne will probably find himself comfortable on offense. His defense is entertaining enough to merit some amount of PT. He’s an intellectual, so he’s probably overthinking everything right now, as he adjusts to new information overload. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? (Excluding the 247 free board people, obviously.)
Ramses Melendez fears nothing. You were like that too, once. What happened to you?
Let’s hope it doesn’t happen to RJ. On the other hand, Brad Underwood ripped a new asshole for him after RJ’s three-point celebration became a defensive breakdown.
Alfonso Plummer had a better stat line than his social media response would suggest. You didn’t seem to like his game. He was fine.
Playing the most minutes of anyone from either team, Plummer failed to assassin down the avenue. But he converted 3-of-7 shots. His A-to-TO ratio was in the plus range. He rebounded from the two-spot. He stole three balls.
This win counts toward rankings and post-season slotting. Embrace it.
Did you know there was a University of Saint Francis in Illinois?
Yes? Congratulations! You’re from Joliet!
University of Saint Francis (IL) is the fifth biggest University of Saint Francis in the United States; after PA, Fort Wayne, Brooklyn and Steubenville.
Compared to other scismic branches of papist basketball, Franciscan hoops suffers — just as it should, given its namesake — versus Jesuit powerhouses like Georgetown & Gonzaga. St. Bonaventure is probably the best Franciscan basketball program. The second-best might be Saint Francis-PA*, which tied for last in the mighty Northeast Conference last year. (If you don’t have a sense of the NEC’s might, know that Robert Morris abandoned its affiliation in 2020, to join the Horizon League.)
Against Pennsylvania’s Franciscans, which Illinois hosts on December 18, Brad Underwood will foist a rotation of Illini which will, by that 13th contest, have grown familiar.
That’s your nine-man rotation. But will Brad use a nine-man rotation?
Tim Anderson says the coaching staff is working on ways to employ a Twin Towers set, with Omar Payne and Kofi Cockburn blocking all sunlight from penetrating the lane.
That mission seems counterintuituve given the obvious 4-out nature of this roster. “Positionless” basketball demands that the parts be interchangeable, and that’s not the case when you put Omar and Kofi in the same five.
What about Podz and Goode? Will Underwood try a two sets of five approach, like John Calipari did in 2014?
Underwood wants to run. He wants transition baskets and threes. That suggests that “ten starters” is possible. And we know that Underwood is willing to tinker, to experiment. (Such an emmeffing breath of fresh air.)
On the other hand, if you’re starting from the simplest of recipes (Belo to Kofi) it feels unecessary to get weird. Replacing Ayo with shooters gives away the game plan.
Or does it?
Coleman Hawkins says the Hutch Game isn’t so much a steady diet of three-pointers as it is using ball-screens to create a pull-up jumper. Hutch’s much reported near-posterization during the Open Practice suggests that he’s willing to drive like Ayo, but perhaps not finish like Ayo. (Ayo’s use of the glass, the oldest of old school basketball, is nearly extinct among young players. They could learn from Ayo’s example.)
Is Underwood so devious that he’ll run two completely different offenses during the same season? That’s the kind of departure from the norm that gets books published, even dissertations.
It doesn’t seem likely, does it?
Then again, a low-post offense doesn’t require more than a few option plays. If Geoff Alexander wants to drill his bigs on a few different sets, and some of those sets incorporate a double-post presence … well, isn’t that the type of advanced education these scholar-athletes expect from a world class institution?
As Omar said, “I’m a scholar.”
Because Illinois scheduled two exhibition games, rather than a secret scrimmage, one might conclude that Brad wants to learn more about his rotations. How do these guys interact when facing unfamiliar opponents? Which fivesomes mesh?
It’s not unfair to predict a 126-42 final score in an imbalanced match-up against the nation’s worst Francis. But it would be more fun, and more useful, to use the game for experimentation. The “starters” already know what to do. You can put a fivesome of
on the floor, and expect them to run like clockwork.
What happens when it’s
What happens when you mix and match those fives, or put Goode on the wing?
Personally, I’d rather see Podz, Verdonk and Goode get the maxium PT. We need to know what those guys can do, and whether they’re ready to help.
Podziemski gives a Matt Heldman vibe. It’s difficult to keep the Matt Heldman types of the floor. Goode looks ready, and might challenge veterans for tick.
You’d want to see RJ Melendez and Brandon Lieb get some minutes, just because it’s fun to play, and they’re unlikely to play in non-exhibition games. Not unless Brandon puts on 30 lbs. and RJ grasps defensive positioning.
RJ is, according to his coaches & teammates, the athletic freak among them. That implies Fan Favorite potential. But it’s almost painfully obvious when talking to him that he’s the youngest, or most youthful, of this Illini team. Acclimating to a huge American campus — via a second language — while also trying to compete with crafty fifth-year seniors, all while realizing that the wind can be uncomfortably cold sometimes … it’s a lot.
He seems bright and cheerful, though. So who knows? Maybe he’ll get his footwork in order by December.
*Francisan hoops completists will want to know that, while Brooklyn fared better in last year’s NEC, it split its games with PA. PA has put three (THREE!) guys in the NBA and, unlike the Terriers in New York, played in The Tourney once.