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Illini Basketball

A Good Night for a Bad Night

When this Illini team is great, it feels like a rebirth of history and tradition. When this Illini team is bad, it feels like the last 14 years of kicks to the nads.

Illinois was terrible Monday. They won a game against a team that arrived in Champaign with a 7-19 record. It was uncomfortably close. Thank your favorite deity that the final minutes weren’t excruciating. Thank goodness it was an awful opponent.

What if Ayo hadn’t decided to play through the pain?

Ayo connected on 9-of-16 FGAs. That’s a solid number in hindsight.

At the time, his misses felt like a bad omen. He was missing shots you expect him to drill.

The rest of the team was much, much worse.

It might go unnoticed, as this game desolves from memory, that lowly Nebraska overcame a ten-point deficit. They were rolling. They had all the momentum. They’d tied the game. The crowd was silent.

Then Trent Frazier connected from three. It was the team’s third make in eleven attempts from the arc.

After that, Nebraska threatened a bit in the second half, but Alan Griffin and Kipper Nichols made key defensive plays to suck the wind from Cornhusk sails.

Alan wanted it more.

Kipper’s steal made a spectacular moment, and a major buzzkill for the Huskers. But it shouldn’t go unnoticed that he fought for, and garnered, the offensive rebound that followed a failed Illini attempt to beat an elapsing (3 seconds) shot clock on an inbound play.

This was the single play that changed the direction of the game. From this point on, Nebraska never felt competitive.

So, crisis averted. For now.

Nebraska reminded us that Illinois has beaten three good teams. The first was Rutgers, without Geo Baker. The second was Penn State, without Myreon Jones.

Now, a third can be added to the list. Wisconsin got to 10-6. Whatever they did to get there, they got there. The win at Madison now feels like a win at Madison.

So yeah, tourney lock. Illinois is in. Woo-hoo!

But there’s plenty to worry about.

Let’s hope someone tells Josh Whitman — who spent the dark days in Wisconsin and Missouri — that his model of DIA leadership, Ron Guenther, is the guy who didn’t offer Bill Self a double, treble, quadruple increase in salary.

Brad Underwood will be a hot commodity on the upcoming coaching carousel. Orlando Antigua is not paid enough, even at the standard academic salary commensurate with experience.

It’s 2003 again, and all the cutlery is in the drawer, or on its way. Can the DIA get it right this time?

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Illini basketball

Ready or not, here we go …

Welp, the 2019 Illini basketball season is here. I have an unwarranted hunch that it might turn out better than The Experts predict. That’s because I’ve seen Andres Feliz and Giorgi Bezhanishvili in action.

Sportswriters know what Illinois will  get from its veterans. Most basketball professionals have seen Ayo Dosunmu play at some level. But most of these analysts don’t hang out at Ubben, and haven’t seen Andres or Giorgi. If Illinois surpasses its low expectations this year, these two newcomers will bear significant responsibility.

So far, the only thing Illini fans know about Giorgi is that he’s weird.
His unusual (in fact, foreign) personality contrasts sharply with his reserved American teammates. Case in point: Giorgi kissed me when I arrived at practice this morning. I don’t recall being kissed by any previous Illini. I’m pretty sure it’s a first. 

The Lovers

The smiley faced singing & dancing act works to camouflage a vital point about Giorgi: He is a vicious competitor. By vicious, I mean angry, devious, even spiteful. There will be altercations this season. Giorgi will provoke them.

This Mr. Hyde side appears, as far as I know, only on court. Genial Giorgi, the off-court Dr. Jekyll, seems real.

First time observers will also be stunned by Giorgi’s passing, and the all-encompassing court vision that enables it. In a recent practice, Georgi whipped a two-handed no-look pass from the near side low-post to Feliz, in the far corner. As his defender closed in, Andres returned a similarly impressive bullet, right back to Georgi, who immediately swung the ball to the near arc for a wide-open Trent Frazier three-pointer, again with two hands and no eyes. Did an entire second elapse before the ball had crossed the court twice? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Adonis de la Rosa is ready.  Today, after practice, he stuck around to tutor Samba Kane on low-post moves. After that additional work out, he said his knee feels great and that he’d like to play tomorrow night.

Kane is perhaps the most polite human to wear an Illini uniform. After the the tutorial, he asked de la Rosa if they could have an extra session every day.  Adonis said yes.


The lesson featured advice every big man knows. You’ve got to move your defender with your lower body, never your arms. Once you land on the blue line (the exact middle of the lane, where the Underwood Administration affixes blue duct tape to the floor), you’re in the money zone, where only good things can happen. Samba Kane would know these things because he’s not a basketball player, yet.

Adonis taught Samba how his hips should rotate through a series of low-post maneuvers. Where his feet should be in relation to those hips. When to bring the ball down for the single dribble.

After Samba reached the Money Zone, he clanged a lay-up off the side of the rim. “I want to see you dunk that every time,” admonished his teacher.

You’ve heard that Da’Monte Williams morphed into a jump-shooter. It’s true. His mechanics are perfect. Even in transition, he manages to square himself to the basket, and fast.

Aaron Jordan talks about this newfound marksmanship more than anyone. Jordan’s praise for Williams is completely undeterred by the obvious threat that a sharpshooting, ball-handling, rebounding Williams poses to Jordan’s PT.

The ball-handling is key. Williams didn’t commit any head-scratching turnovers in the last scrimmage this reporter watched.

The Fistfighting Fours

It’s unfortunate that sports requires us to convert warm, thoughtful people like Kipper Nichols into cold-blooded killing machines.

On the other hand, as one Illini assistant observed after the recent Fistfight at the Fourspot, “he’s from inner-city Cleveland. He’s got some dog in him.”

You probably read about the scrum between Kipper  and Tevian Jones. Brian Binz did a fine job reporting the facts. He and Derek Piper were standing on the floor when the fight broke out, so I’m not sure that either of their accounts could accurately capture the the ferocity of the fight, because it occurred at the opposite end of the court. The fact is that Kipper threw a sincere right cross at Tevian, and missed only because a teammate was already pulling Tevian away. Tevian did not doubt the sincerity of that punch. He saw red.

At least six people held Tevian against the far wall, for a not insignificant amount of time, to keep him away from Kipper. Orlando Antigua’s belly featured prominently in the defense. He pinned Tevian to that wall.

Yes, at the end of practice, Kipper put his arm around Tevian in the huddle. Then as the huddle broke, Kipper hit Tevian, playfully, on the back of the head. Total Alpha move.

Point is, Kipper is being pushed by a younger, more athletic, and similarly debonair whippersnapper. It’s an explosive rivalry. Ideally it will make them both better. Kipper has already acknowledged Tevian’s talent. At today’s practice, he praised Tevian’s enthusiasm and potential.

It’s possible that the three best players on the team are Feliz, Ayo and Trent Frazier. But there’s no reason to speculate about that. The season begins in 25 hours. We’ll find out soon enough.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.    

Categories
Illini basketball

Basketball practice 10-11-17

Today was Media Day, so you’ll find your first interviews with Auto-Matic Vesel & Greg OingoBoingo on your favorite East Central Illinois news channel.  I’ll be cutting and pasting my version for a few days, because I’m slow.

I interviewed barely half the players because, unlike years past, media had to get off the floor so the team could practice. Also unlike years past, we didn’t have to leave when the team started practicing.

Thus, here’s your practice update.

The team ran five man drills in various groupings. The grouping of Smith-Alstork-Jordan-Vesel-Black underlined the concept of positionless basketball.  Yes, you could argue that those names match a typical 1-through-5 line-up, except that Vesel was mostly on the high post and the wing. Smith does seem to handle the ball at the beginning of a possession more than Alstork. If Leron Black really is going to play “center,” it will prove that Underwood has the imagination that Bruce Weber and John Groce lacked. i.e. he’ll seek to create mismatches rather than trying to compensate for them. (Can you imagine how many additional games Weber might have won if he played Mike Tisdale at small forward, and hid him in a zone? If not, go back and watch the 2010 game at Wisconsin.)

Drew Cayce (10) was the only player sent to the treadmill during the two hours I watched. I guess he didn’t cut sharply enough on a three man drill. So he had to run for a minute. And yes, they turned the speed to high. He was sprinting for that minute. Underwood didn’t yell, by the way. He just said “Drew – treadmill.”
There was one angry outburst from the coach, but it was directed at the entire team. A couple hours into practice, the body language had, perhaps, lagged a bit.  Underwood lit a fire under them with a few choice words. Suddenly, the drills looked crisp again. Amazing how that works.
Brad Underwood says Greg OingoBoingo is that fastest guy on the team. Faster than Trent Frazier, even. And that proved true this afternoon. In single-trip wind sprints, Greg paced the team twice. I didn’t see any of the 2x up-and-back sprints, in which Mark Alstork separated himself from the team during September 30 practice. So we don’t know about Greg’s endurance, but his initial burst is unlike any 6’9″ dude I can recall.
Tyler Underwood will be a huge asset to this team. He talks and points constantly, whether it’s a route to run or an open man deserving a pass. In one drill, he grabbed Trent Frazier by the torso as Trent ran a curl route. Tyler flipped Trent 180° and pushed him toward the correct corner.
Some other players may be “vocal,” but Tyler’s at another level. That’s how it should be for point guards, of course. And perhaps Te’Jon Lucas has some of that quality. But Lucas was sitting out again, still abiding the concussion protocol. His right eye remains bloodshot from the blow that felled him.
Auto-Matic Vesel’s footwork will be a niche source of joy for basketball nerds. He moves like a gazelle. It’s the same as his shooting stroke.  These motions seem so effortless,  you wouldn’t even notice them if it weren’t for the ten other less poetically balletic dudes nearby.
You could see it when Orlando Antigua ran a pick-n-roll drill with the bigs. I was so mesmerized that I almost didn’t catch the odd thing that happened at the finish of each rep. At first I thought everyone had a crazy high release point. Then I realized what they were hoping to accomplish.  i.e. using angles to evade rim protectors. The Underwood Administration has very particular opinions about angles.
In a later drill, Antigua instructed the bigs to employ a power bounce to gain position in the low post. Matic excelled here as well, because while he’s slight up top, his legs are solid and muscular. His core may be lacking, but his base is not.  Matic does need to add some upper-body weight.  That’s the challenge for Fletch, because Matic does not like American pizza.
Brad Underwood’s theory of rebounding is finely honed. It’s a departure from the traditional, but borne of statistical analysis. The rebounding drill he ran was unlike any rebounding drill I’ve ever seen, especially because it had nothing to do with putting a body on somebody.
Again, it was about geometry.
Underwood told the team that 76-80% of shots from a particular area will land on the weak side, somewhere between the low block and the short corner. You couldn’t possibly know that from just playing basketball.*  You’d need a lot of data and a long-term analysis, plus some fancy computers, to determine that sort of thing.
But that’s where we are now.  All this stuff is quantified and qualified by software companies, who get lotsa money to provide the analytics to deep-pocketed basketball programs
Official Visitor Elias Valtonen watched practice from the sidelines, with a beautiful woman who could very well have been his mother. Scandinavian women … wrowl.
*Maybe Dennis Rodman knew it instinctively, but more likely he learned it from playing basketball for years upon years, aided by an unusual memory for details.
Categories
Illini basketball

Basketball practice 9-30-17

As long as Brad Underwood allows media access to his practices, I’ll try to figure out something interesting to say about them. If I can’t think of anything interesting to write, I won’t waste your time. (This is the advantage of running a website rather than a daily newspaper.)

The most obvious difference between Underwood and John Groce is that Groce wore a headset microphone in practice. Underwood doesn’t even have a whistle. But despite his smooth, soft speaking voice, he does yell like the angry badass you were expecting.  He’s the coach you remember from the good old days before political correctness, who told you when your effort/execution wasn’t going to cut it, and indeed exactly how your opponent would carve your ass up.

Orlando Antigua does use a whistle, which shows that Underwood doesn’t impose his style on his colleagues. And “colleague” is an apt term for describing this staff.  At various moments, Antigua was the only person speaking. At a different moment, it was Chin Coleman conducting the lesson.

Practice began with a short speech from Mannie Jackson. He told the team “It’s not about you. It’s about the guys around you.”

That was followed by Jerry Colangelo, who asked the team which among them came from Chicago. (Cameron Liss sort of raised his hand.) If Colangelo was flustered by the dearth of Windy talent, he didn’t flinch. He said of the city “the further north you go, the more money you have. Well, I’m from about 25 miles south of Chicago.”

The thing that stood out most, in observing individual players, was Mark Alstork’s speed and conditioning. The team ran a set of wind sprints (full court, up and back twice) and by the third leg, Alstork had a five yard lead on the next closest guy.

There were no laggers, and no other leaders. Everyone else was more or less grouped together. But Alstork was way, way ahead.

The last time I saw such a distinct speed differential, it was D.J. Richardson leaving Alex Legion in the dust, also during wind sprints. That was before everyone realized that Legion was a bust.

If Dee Brown didn’t teach you how important speed can be in this game, Kalin Lucas probably did — the hard way.

Mark Alstork (24)

The other intriguing individual performance was Matic Vesel.  He can shoot. It might seem like a necessary faculty for a basketballer, yet so many are are no better than you are, just taller.

Matic is taller than you are, and he can shoot better than you can.

American kids evidently don’t know about the mid-range jumper. In Slovenia, I guess they’re still teaching it. Matic does not miss.

(Illini Sports Information Director Derrick Burson, right,  is fascinated by Da’Monte Williams’s hands. They do indeed look just like Frank’s hands.)

I had a conversation with Brad Sturdy in the Memorial Stadium press box Friday night. We agreed that Matic was not built for boxing out. He won’t play with his back to the basket.

But Brad says Vesel can play the four in Underwood’s offense, stretching the floor.

Lukas Kisunas, on the other hand, would flatten anyone guarding him in the paint. He watched this morning’s practice, too, as part of his official visit.

Why was the media allowed inside a practice featuring an official visitor? Probably because Brad Underwood has a less-than-chickenshit response to NCAA rules. The Illini basketball program never promoted Kisunas’s presence. The University of Illinois made no mention of Lukas Kisunas.

This photo of an Official Visitor was captured without the advice, consent or obstruction of the University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics

Lukas Kisunas was not made available for interviews (and neither was Mark Smith). Hence, the U of I did not violate NCAA rules.  John Groce and Bruce Weber would have convulsed in fear at the notion of inviting the media during an official visit.

Kisunas was present even as Underwood spoke to the media. You might be able to see it here, assuming I panned my device accurately.

The most memorable lesson from Underwood during this morning’s session concerned fast break defense.

Brad championed his recent Oklahoma State team for its ability to force turnovers. He choreographed a fairly simple set of stances taken by offensive and defensive players in a particular fast break situation.

But he also spoke of the psychological state of the actors in these situations — what one might expect and what one must expect in a defensive posture, and what the driving offensive player is reading.

It seemed like an obvious lesson. But then it occurred to me that, like a lot of obvious lessons, no one ever mentioned it before. There was nuance, mostly to do with geometry (i.e. angles) but that didn’t impede its comprehensibility.

I understood, from the catwalk, how to read an offense in that situation. I knew what Underwood was getting at. I think the players did, too.

It was at this moment that Derrick Burson mentioned that voices are more easily understood on the court than on the catwalk. This was an important point, historically. Bruce Weber and John Groce were often, to a catwalk audience, incomprehensible.

But Underwood is easier to understand than Weber or Groce. His voice, and his way of communicating, are more clear.