COVID-19 Illini Basketball

We Are All Rutgers Fans

It’s almost 2 pm in New York. Michigan/Wisconsin just reached halftime, tied at 31. I know, because I turned on the 19” Philips TV to channel 2.1, on a hunch.

If yesterday’s Illini game hadn’t been moved forward in time – a rescheduling prompted by COVID postponements in other league programs – it would have been broadcast on Fox rather than ESPN. I could have watched it on this tiny TV.

The antenna, between window & screen, gets 30+ over-air channels.

Yes, I’m still in New York. I’ve been in two ice-related accidents as an Illini basketball reporter. The totaled Dodge hemi wasn’t mine, and nobody was killed, so walking away after climbing up & out through the driver’s side window felt slightly triumphant. The other slip-n-slide broke a tie-rod, cost $600 and featured no spectacular flips and rolls. Not as exciting.

Point is, I don’t mess with ice storms anymore. Winter Storm Miles moved through Illinois, so Midway closed. Then Miles moved to Michigan, so I couldn’t go directly there. Then Miles came here, and the storm squalls have been howling for two days.

At least I have old TV shows. Star Trek TOS is on six nights a week, on channel 9.4. Then every other Star Trek brand runs until 2 AM. (I’d never even heard of Enterprise.) Yesterday, a Six Million Dollar Man marathon on Cozi prompted me to wonder how John Groce is faring in the MAC this year. All boys born in 1971 owned a Steve Austin action figure, with arm skin that could be rolled back to reveal the bionics inside.

But now I want to watch basketball. The B1Gest game of the year tips off at 4:30 CT, and it’s not on broadcast TV. It’s on FS1. I won’t be able to see it unless I go down to the lobby and watch online. (The apartment has been vacant since 2018. There’s no internet.)

I might go.

Perching a Surface is cumbersome, and a 6” Android screen is not ideal. But I watched Illini @ Minnesota there, the last time a snowstorm stopped me from leaving New York, two years ago. Of course, there was no mask requirement in the lobby back then.

I might go down. I want to watch Rutgers/Purdue. I really hope Ron Harper’s finger is healed.

The ball just landed wrong, I guess.

He seemed to jam it on a rebound. The quizzical grimace didn’t change, it’s always plastered across his face. But could it now mean “what just happened, and why does it hurt so much?”

It’s easy to root for Rutgers. Harper is a likeable chubster. You remember him from college. The funny, big-boned guy who keeps the girls amused but isn’t really competition. Paul Mulcahy is also unlikely to steal your girlfriend, but he’s tremendous threat to steal your basketball, because he never stops trying. You like to root for that guy, too (when it’s not your team opposing him).

And you have to appreciate, as a basketball fan, what Steve Pikiell did for a program that has a single season to remember, and decreasing numbers of people alive to remember it. I can’t recall the name of the elderly 1976er honored during a media timeout on Wednesday. I didn’t recognize his name at the time, either.

Imagine trying to recruit to a program that hasn’t seen success since Jimmy Carter was a maverick pipedream.

I wanna know what they talked about.

Pikiell makes his team play defense. His personal humility allows him to ask 100% effort from his players. They know they can’t outwork him, and they know he’s doing it for them. So they’ll sprint to Jacob Grandison in the corner. They’ll stay in front of Alfonso Plummer. They’ll hack-a-Kofi until B1G officials decide that whistle-hesitancy has become too obvious.

Illinois is not easy to defend. It takes a lot of hard work and effort. But there’s a formula, and anyone can do it.

Grandison spent a lot of RAC pre-game time practicing his shot from the arc. Grad assistant Marcus Anderson counted off his makes. When Jake got five in a row from the top of the key, he could move to the wing, and hit another five in a row. Then move to the corner.

Presumably, Jake did something similar six hours later, in Champaign. But his 3 AM workout with team managers was equally effective at prepping him for B1G defenses as was running a Princeton offense for Bill Carmody: Not at all.

Watching Jake shoot alone, you begin to understand the mechanics. He looks like your grandmother on TV. It’s almost a set shot. The low delivery makes it easy to block, and that’s something B1G opponents have noticed.

If RJ not kicking out has been preying on your mind, stop worrying. He probably couldn’t see Trent.
He doesn’t have a lot of experience with defenders as aggressive as Mulcahy & Caleb McConnell.

But it looks really smooth when he’s shooting uncontested. There’s a slight curveball action to his mechanics. It’s like watching a slider break over the inside corner. Jake can make 75% of his shots when defenders aren’t closing in. Same for Fonz. Maybe more.

When Illini media, social and traditional, cried out for Brad Underwood to shake-up the rotation, it’s this scoutability that prompted a call for change. What once surprised opponents no longer surprises opponents.

It’s not the starters’ fault, and replacing them isn’t the answer. Underwood needs to introduce some new actions, so opponents can’t call out the plays, like Trent does to them.

Tom Izzo was unable to motivate his players to defend Jake effectively. But MSU doesn’t match-up as well, either. Smaller guards, slower forwards. So Jake made 6-of-10 in East Lansing. That’s why Illinois won there. It’s why they lost at the RAC.

Purdue was successful against Illinois because it brought the effort on the wings, and DJ Carstensen called both games. Hack-a-Kofi was allowed.

Props to Cliff Omoruyi, tho. This block was clean.

I like Matt Painter. I don’t blame him for taking advantage. He gets paid to win basketball games. You use the tools available.

I like Steve Pikiell, too. I’d heard about Pikiell greeting & thanking everyone in the room after his RAC pressers finish, but I’d never seen it before Wednesday. We’re typically outside the Illini locker room while he’s speaking.

Kofi’s family was in town that night, so we cut that interview short. Hence, I was able to get back to the media room in time for Pikiell’s closing remarks. He came around and shook our hands. He knows we’re getting the word out: There’s a basketball program in Piscataway.

Today, we’ll all be rooting for Pikiell. Not just people in Champaign and New Brunswick. Everybody.

The Badgers and Wolverines have concluded with a brawl, which is apt given their respective mascots. The Wolverines proved more vicious, and the Badgers more cunning. It figures.

I’m in the elevator now. The lobby has good WiFi.

New Yorkers have cable and satellite options, and those providers are now paying the BTN because, according to both Uncle Jim’s logic and NJ Transit timetables, Rutgers is part of the New York metropolitan area. At 4:30 pm, dozens if not hundreds of tri-state sets will be tuned to FS1,assuming there’s not an Islanders game, or LaCrosse on a different channel.

Go Knights.

Illini basketball

One Moment from Lahaina

Wanting some clicks, I waited a while to write about Maui. Now that Illinois has the week off, and you’re feeling happy about Samba Kane, I’m going to share a funny story about referees. It’s the story of a very bad missed call.

But first, some Samba porn.

Iowa State doesn’t spring to mind when Illini fans think about rivals.  Maybe they should. The very first memorable Maui moment came 30 seconds after I walked into the Lahaina Civic Center gym, right into George Conditt and Talen Horton-Tucker.

Brad Underwood wanted those guys. Steve Prohm got them.

Speaking of Prohm. I’ve always wondered what head coaches do before tip-off.  You never see them. The assistants drill the players in warm-ups, but the heads are always hidden behind closed doors, presumably Thinking Big Thoughts. It’s one of the nearly religious traditions of college basketball.

An hour before the Iowa State game, at the Sheraton Ka’anapali Resort, Steve Prohm perched on the edge of his deck chair, looking at his phone. Assistant Daniyal Robinson sat two chairs away. Neither seemed anxious. They weren’t reviewing game plans. Just chillin’.

Ed Corbett explains an out-of-bounds call to a thoroughly perplexed Ayo Dosunmo

Anyway, the bad call.

Ed Corbett is and/or was a college basketball referee. I have no particular opinions and/or grudge toward Ed Corbett.

The Koch Brothers are notorious industrialists. Everyone has opinions about them.

The Koch Brothers are not known to be Iowa State Cyclones fans, so I assume the guys in these photos are merely Koch cousins.  But the one on the left looks a lot like David and Charles.

These two angry loudmouths must have contributed tall dollars to the Cyclones program. Regular tickets to the Maui Invitational cost something like $700 apiece. Courtside seats are, one suspects, available only to people who’ve already invested at least a hundred times that amount in a given program. Illinois’ million dollar donor John Giuliani had a seat behind me, with the Chancellor Joneses.

With money comes privilege. These two knew they could get away with whatever they wanted. They were warned by referee Ed Corbett against doing what they wanted, but they persisted.

Ed Corbett warns the Koch Brothers they’ll get the heave-ho if they don’t shaddap

Their ire was not misplaced. The officiating crew, and Corbett in particular, were the only three people in the building who didn’t see Andres Feliz, a good four feet out-of-bounds, bat a loose ball back into play. The entire Cyclones fan base went ballistic, but the Koch cousins were close enough that the refs could hear the insults verbatim.

Honolulu photographer Michael Sullivan caught these images of the moment, and emailed them to me — thanks Michael!

Corbett is looking right at Feliz’s feet. How did he miss it? It’s really remarkable.

November 17, 2018 – during a game between the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Iowa State Cyclones at the Lahaina Civic Center in Lahaina, Maui, HI – Michael Sullivan/CSM

Courtesy of Michael Sullivan/Guava Press Media 

In the second photo, you see Feliz gets a toe inside the baseline after batting the ball, then quickly lands on his heel — still out-of-bounds.

Every single one of Iowa State’s 1,300 fans jumped up and yelled. The Koch Cousins must have laid it on thick, because Corbett warned them they’d be thrown out. 

They didn’t shut up.

Ed Corbett calls to an usher/security dude

Referee Paul Szelc, ostensibly the crew chief, took over from there.  

Specifically, Szelc told tournament chief Dave Odom “they don’t have to leave the building but they can’t stay there.”

They stayed there.

Paul Szelc said: “They don’t have to leave the building, but they can’t stay there.”

Odom, the one who coached Tim Duncan, visited with the pair and doled some southern charm upon them. His top security guy, an ex-New York cop type named George, also sweet-talked the pair.

Whatever they talked about, Odom seemed to enjoy it.

Odom was sitting immediately behind Michael Sullivan, just to my right. So he almost certainly saw the play, too.

In his decades of coaching, one can assume he’s seen some bad calls. Perhaps none as egregious as that one. And maybe that’s why he sided with the blowhards, and overruled the officiating crew.

After considerable Georgesplaining, the privileged white men were allowed to remain in their million dollar seats. 

George also splained to Szelc, who immediately folded, and amenably.  No one likes to be shown up, publicly. On the other hand, an expenses paid trip to paradise is a good gig. One assumes the stripes would like to return. These guys fly nearly every day during the season, so staying put for three days straight, with a view of the beach, is worth a certain amount of indignation.

Odom is not insensitive to the needs of his hired whistles. He mentioned to his wife that a couple of them had tight deadlines for travel back to the frozen mainland. He wanted to do the best for them. But he couldn’t uphold their ultimate ruling. He’d seen the play.

I witnessed those tight deadlines myself. Earl Walton, who called the Xavier game, was on my return flight. It departed at 10:10 pm that evening.  Eric Curry, who called the UNLV game in Champaign this Saturday, was on a flight that left slightly earlier, with the entire Cyclones team aboard.

I asked both of them how they would feel about being overruled in such a situation. “Well, not good” admitted Curry.  (He was wearing Golden Gophers gear, so he’s obviously not afraid to share his preferences when off-the-clock.)

Ed Corbett’s top Google hits include a story about a blown out-of-bounds call, and the story of his retirement (perhaps he should have).


Are you frustrated by holiday shopping?  Out of gift ideas for the Illini fan who has everything? Here’s my recommendation: The Friendly Orange Glow, by Brian Dear.

Out in the middle of that fruited Illinois plain there’s a place where a lot of the future we take for granted today got started, long ago. The town is Urbana, and the place is one of the largest universities in theUnited States: the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign. On UI’s campus there’s one particular building that is at the very heart of our story. Most of the events chronicled in the pages that follow took place in this particular building, or if they took place elsewhere (sometimes clear across the world), they did so only because of prior things that had taken place in this building. What went on in this building changed lives. It may have changed yours and you don’t even realize it

Brian Dear, The Friendly Orange Glow, Penguin Random House

If you lived in Champaign-Urbana in the 70s or 80s, you probably know someone in this book. Don Cohen and Jerry Glynn, from The Math Project, are in it.  Erstwhile Champaign County Board member Brendan McGinty appears as a computers-obsessed teenager. My Trademarks professor Peter Maggs and his son Bruce are there.

A funny vignette features  Leonard Nimoy visiting and being perplexed by the technology (and having regular-sized ears). There’s a history of the Boneyard Creek, and lots of juicy university politics (spoiler alert: administrators were idiots back then, too.)

If you have no relationship to technology, it’s still an engaging history of Champaign-Urbana. Reader friendly.

My favorite moment occurs in the upstairs spare bedroom at the house next door to my own.

Access was so important, sometimes PLATO users would go to extreme lengths to get it. Bob Rader, one of CERL’s senior systems staffers, had a PLATO terminal at home. “One time,” says Rader, “I came home, and found not my son, but a friend of his,” using the terminal. “And he was the only person in the house!”

Brian Dear, The Friendly Orange Glow, Penguin Random House

I’m four and seven years younger than the Rader kids, Alison and Stephen respectively, but they let me play on that PLATO terminal. The modem looked like this:

That’s all for today. If I get bored tomorrow, I’ll write about the most recent out-of-bounds mystery.

How did Aaron Jordan persuade Lewis Garrison to award this call to Illinois?

There’s no way he knocked the ball backward, right?
Illini basketball

Just in time: The Game of the Year

Kiwane Garris, Jack Ingram & Roger Powell saw nothing unusual in Illinois’ 86-60 beatdown of Northwestern. For them, a 26 point win over the Wildcats is the norm. That’s how Northwestern games should go.

Maybe this was the one game of the 2015 season that resembled John Groce’s vision of the 2015 season. The Illini connected on 48% of their 3FGs and 47.4% from two. They assisted 15 of 27 made field goals. The offense clicked, the defense stuck together as if it had been glued.

There’s not much more to say. It was pretty. So I’ll say it with pictures. If you want to see Alex Austin’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle socks, you’ll have to look at all of them.