Illini basketball

DePaul was Not Really Demonic

It would be nice if Dave Leitao could do at DePaul what Dave Leitao once did at DePaul. The Blue Demons were irrelevant for ages. He brought them back to prominence, and then bolted Charlottesville, where he had one good year.

Now back in Lincoln Park, he’s in his third miserable year. After losing to Illinois Friday, he grimly conceded that an ongoing rivalry is not likely.

If Leitao could make DePaul a contender, a regular home-and-home would be great for the Illini. Brad Underwood says he wants a stronger schedule. There’s no reason Illinois should spend a month tuning up against directional schools.

Now, some observations from the DePaul game.

LT Williams

You didn’t realize, prior to Friday night, that Illinois has a guy on the team named LT. His name is Little T. Williams. Or perhaps, L. Things Williams. “Things” for short, or just LT.

Underwood has described both Mark Smith and LT as having “the ‘it’ factor, whatever ‘it’ is.” But only LT  has been praised for a comprehensive understanding of “the little things.”

Williams’s perseverance in a 1-on-3 drive found him rebounding his own miss, tricking three Blue Demons into performing a childhood dance, and then banking in his rebound.


He stymied DePaul’s second comeback with a crucial tip in. It was so quick that a few people didn’t see what happened.

LT again sacrificed his chances of fatherhood to the God of Player-Control Fouls.

This time, it was impossible to see whether LT was grinning afterward. Probably not. This time, it looked painful. And then a fight broke out between Kipper Nichols and Jaylen Butz, whose name is almost certainly the title of a gay porn DVD.

But I digress.

Remember how Doug Altenberger loved to take a charge? Remember how pumped Matt Heldman got when the ref wrapped a hand around the back of his own head?

LT is like that.


In the Bruce Weber era, some guys never attempted a dozen free-throws in a season.  Weber was revulsed by contested shots. He never seemed to reach the next logical step: Contested shots lead to shots where people aren’t even allowed to defend the shooter!

Illinois now has a coach whose charges charge. They attack.

So yeah, maybe it doesn’t matter that Illinois can’t hit a three.

Mark Smith attempted twelve free-throws. He converted twelve free-throws.  The twelfth rolled around the rim before dropping in. That suggests Mark was fatigued. The eleventh grazed the rim. There’s nothing odd about that.

What struck me as strange was the way the ball snapped the net on his first ten attempts. Maybe I was distracted, and missed one. But it seemed to me that Mark’s trajectory was exactly the same on each of those shots.

I sit close enough that I can hear the net snap, and it made the same sound every time. The bottom of the net moved in a straight line, backward, as the ball pulled it toward the stanchion. Then it snapped back

Mark has distinctly deliberate free-throw routine. He takes quite a bit of time to deliver the ball toward the goal. To my way of thinking, the long pause should detract from the efficiency of his muscle memory. But it doesn’t The pause itself may be a component of Mark’s nearly flawless delivery.

Is he always like this?  I wondered.

The Supporting Cast

You wonder, would this rotation expand if Brad Underwood had more available bodies? Does Underwood employ the standard nine man rotation because that’s how many guys are available?

Greg Eboigbodin saw spot minutes. Matic Vesel got none.  Vesel’s tentative debut suggests that he might need more time to feel comfortable on offense, ostensibly his strong suit.

Everyone else has played a vital role.

Trent Frazier provided crucial minutes at the point when Te’Jon Lucas (again) got in foul trouble. Aaron Jordan grabbed nine rebounds and hit a comebackbreaking three-pointer to throttle DePaul’s second second-half surge.

Last year, Aaron couldn’t get on the floor. He watched Malcolm Hill and Jalen Coleman-Lands play many minutes of basketball. So it might seem surprising that JCL transferred, and Jordan didn’t.

Friday night, the tables were turned. JCL watched from the bench as Jordan thrust the dagger.


Jalen Coleman-Lands the Untold Story

An unmentioned factor in JCL’s decision to transfer, perhaps irrelevant, is that Paul Magelli died during the last academic year.

Magelli and Jewell White were two prominent personalities in the JCL recruitment. John Groce specifically named White as a key figure in attracting JCL’s non-athletic interests.

Piankhi Lands and JCL spent an afternoon in Magelli’s office as the elderly don mapped out JCL’s academic course in the College of Business. COB’s association with the College of Engineering was key, because JCL showed a keen interest in micro-devices.

Magelli’s office at the BIF overlooked the fancypants atrium where future tax avoiders quaff Espresso Royale and embellish their LinkedIn profiles.

Malcolm Hill liked to hang out in Magelli’s office, too. The old guy was, frankly, a hoot. His connection to Illini basketball predates modern record keeping.  In 1985, as president of Metro State University in Denver, Magelli recruited Lou Henson assistant Bob Hull to lead the Roadrunners basketball program into Division I That never happened, but it was probably a necessary step in bringing Hull’s wife Cindy Klose to national prominence.

The atrium of the Business Instructional Facility often hosts the TechMix, where business and engineering students pitch one another on start-up ideas.

Losing mentors from both the academic and athletic aspects of his life left JCL with few familiar faces in Champaign. Conveniently though, Dave Leitao had just recruited a whole bunch of JCL’s friends to Lincoln Park. Former LaLumiere coach Shane Heirman is now on staff.

And JCL has even found a new vessel for his whimsicality fix.

Magelli was about 5’5″ and good humored. Pantelis Xidias is about that height, and free spirited.  Another  LaLu transplant (like Drew Cayce, and also like Cayce, a non-scholarship member of his team) Xidias is the guy who keeps it unreal on DePaul’s bench.

JCL  didn’t say how he got to Champaign Friday night, but he hawked balls during warm-ups and sat on the team bench, which is uncharacteristic for road games. NCAA rules prohibit transfers from traveling with the team. (That’s why Tyler Underwood sat with his family at EIU.)

If there’s any animosity between JCL and the program, it’s on an individual basis. Kipper Nichols got a big hug from JCL (which, as you know, is vital to Illinois’ on court success). JCL slapped Cayce on the ass during warm-ups. Sports Info Director Derrick Burson shared a laugh with JCL at mid-court.

Pantelis Xidias kept an eye on the Orange Krush

Aaron Jordan is arguably more likely to thrive in the charging, attacking offensive system that Underwood hopes to develop. Meanwhile, JCL can shoot threes for the Roman church, which has already provided him one paid education at an idyllic lakeside school.

DePaul might not be as good at engineering, but they do have a College of Business. Taking classes in downtown Chicago will certainly enhance JCL’s business prospects.

Basically, everybody wins.

Illini basketball

One Down, One To Go

Once upon a time, Illinois basketball ws incompetent in the face of zone defense. Now that everyone’s zoning all the time, the Illini have become zone busters.

It’s man-to-man defense that freaks them out.

Against a 13-16 Nebraska team, losers of seven straight and winless in B1G road games, the Illini managed only 9 assists. Illinois opened each half with a major cold-streak, the ball sticking to Ahmad Starks’s hands as if glued there. All that nifty passing we saw against Northwestern reverted to reluctance. Nebraska jumped to a 9-3 lead in the first half, and scored the first 11 points of the second.

On the bright side, Illinois converted on 43.8% of its three-point attempts. Rayvonte Rice was 4-7 from the arc, bringing him to 46.5% for the season, and adding weight to the notion that his nine game absence didn’t affect his rhythm. Illinois’ overall shooting was, once again, less accurate than its long-distance marksmanship, at 42.9%. Converting 20 of 23 free-throws = 87% from the stripe.

The difference in the game was Terran Petteway’s 1-of-9 incompetence from the arc. Petteay shoots only 31% from three, but you can imagine how different the final minute would have been if he’d connected on those other two. We’d not have seen Ryan Schmidt.

Cornhusker big man Leslee Smith enjoyed a career night against the Illini. His nifty post moves continually fooled Illinois’ defense. He finished with season highs of 8 points and 9 rebounds.

Fortunately, he’s a senior, so he’ll not likely haunt the Illini in the future. The reason you don’t remember him from previous games is that he’s normally a sub, and a JUCO transfer at that. Starter Walter Pitchford didn’t make the trip, after injuring a hip in practice on Monday.


So, here we are. It’s March, the final week of the season, and we still don’t know whether Illinois will play in the NCAA Tournament. It’s an unsettling feeling.

We got rid of Bruce Weber because we were bored with this feeling. But if you’re tiring of John Groce, remember that it’s Year Three. The Illini have a great opportunity at Mackey Arena on Saturday, and whatever people say about Purdue’s resurgence, the Illini match up with the Boilers better than any team in the B1G.

The Boilers aren’t even a paper tiger. Their paper looks lousy. Their best win in conference was Iowa, at home. They also nipped OSU 60-58 at Mackey. But Rutgers gave t hem a game there. They lost all the games they were expected to lose, and achieved zero surprise wins, unless you think beating Indiana at Bloomington is an accomplishment.

Purdue’s embarrassing losses include Kansas State, Gardner-Webb, Vanderbilt and something called North Florida. (What’s the point of North Florida? Humidity and bugs?) The Ospreys other big win this season was Elon. In fairness, they did win the Atlantic Sun conference, despite a loss to South Carolina Upstate.

Purdue lacks the fire in the belly that previous Boilermaker teams displayed. There’s no Lewis Jackson to punch you in the mouth. They don’t even have a Ryne Smith. PG Jon Octeus might be their best match-up against Illinois, when going position by position. Rapheal Davis is a success story for them, but you’d rather have Malcolm Hill.

Yes, Isaac Haas is huge, but he didn’t seem to adapt well to Illinois’ dribble-penetration last time. AJ Hammons continues to confound Purdue fans, who feel less confident about the game than Illini fans, for good reason. Matt Painter won’t go big with twin towers, which would stymie Illinois (a team that fares poorly among the trees). Painter is also philosophically opposed to switching defenses within a possession, which is the sort of thing that confuses the Illini.

Purdue definitely has more to lose on Saturday, and they know it.


Melvin Nunn had to work in the morning, and D.J. Williams had to school in the morning. But they came down for the season finale anyhow.

Nunn met Piankhi Lands for the first time. Lands attended his first ever Illini game in Champaign, as did elder son Jalen Coleman-Lands. (Their first ever Illini game was January 3rd, in Columbus.)

Nunn told Lands to be prepared, as a father, for the mental turmoil his son will endure as a freshman. Learning college defensive schemes, Nunn said, is a trial for all freshman, no matter how talented and experienced. Lands understood that there would be a learning curve for basketball. He seemed more leery of the forthcoming media onslaught.

“Get used to it,” advised Nunn Sr.

Piankhi Lands is an amiable guy, who chose to forgo a college basketball career of his own. But he’s bullish about his sons careers. (Younger son Isaiah, a point guard at LaLumiere, and daughter Sincere joined the family trip to Champaign. Both Isaiah and Jalen are on Spring Break until March 11.)

Lands Sr. says LaLumiere expects to compete for a national championship, to be played in New York City this spring. He also expects Jalen to compete for the nation’s high school three-point shooting title, which competition will occur over Final Four week in Indianapolis.

Before making my way to the media room, to cover John Groce’s post-game remarks, I introduced Lands Sr. to Kenny Battle, whom Lands recalls from his Flyin’ days. Lands told Battle that his son was a hard worker, and Battle says he hopes Jalen will compete for the Kenny Battle Award.

I thought that was hilarious. It also reminded me how fortunate I am to have this gig. It’s an honor to talk about basketball with that man.

Illini basketball

Jalen Coleman-Lands attends his first Illini game

Saturday’s game in Columbus was not entirely disastrous for Illinois.

For one thing, Rayvonte Rice continued to prove himself a deadly shooter, which was decidedly not his M.O. as a state champion high school tweener. Ray connected on 7-of-8 from the field, including 4-of-5 from downtown. When his non-shooting hand heals from Wednesday’s surgery, we can all hope his muscle-memory remains intact.

Ray’s replacement as dead-eye-two-guard-who’ll-sometimes-play-point, Jalen Coleman-Lands, was in attendance for The Rayvonte Show.

Behind the Ohio State bench, the entire La Lumiere team watched the game, along with coach Shane Heirman and assistant headmaster Kevin Kunst, who is also Jalen’s A.P. Econ instructor.

Jalen’s brother Isaiah is a member of the La Lumiere team as well. He sat to Jalen’s right, in the row of folding chairs immediately behind the Buckeye bench. Their parents, Dionne Coleman Lands and Piankhi Lands, sat to Jalen’s left.

Finding all the Coleman-Landses in one spot is a little bit like stumbling upon a pack of snow leopards. Their reputation among the Illini media pool has developed entirely in their absence.  They’re just not all that interested in talking to sports reporters. That’s why you never read interviews from Jalen.

Another reason you’ve not read/viewed many interviews with JC-L is that, as far as we know, he’s never attended an Illini game before Saturday. I asked John Groce if that game in Columbus was Jalen’s first. He wasn’t sure. News-Gazette beat writer Marcus Jackson said “I think so.”

Heck, most of us didn’t even know his name was Coleman-Lands until the day he committed to Illinois.

Piankhi Lands pointed out that his family is not averse to media. He contrasted his son to a different variety of high school phenom, the type that loves the hype. “He just doesn’t need that,” said Lands Sr.

Jalen’s only question regarding a potential interview was “how long will it take?” And he asked it twice.

That’s not to be read as implying a sense of ennui. Rather, Jalen’s team had a tight schedule, and as Heirman said, La Lumiere needed to hang out with the Ohio State people, because they were hosting his team.

Isaiah and his parents’ primary post-game responsibilities also involved the OSU program. Assistant coach Jeff Boals was their tour guide for an unofficial visit, which began with a look at the facilities in the bowels of Value City Arena. (Illinois is not recruiting the younger Coleman-Lands.)

La Lumiere is, like Chicago Simeon, a school that attracts great basketball players. You might even say it poaches them from other schools. Jalen Coleman-Lands might still be playing for Indianapolis Cathedral this year. But La Lu offered a full ride for both brothers, which Cathedral couldn’t match.

So Jalen & Isaiah study, eat and sleep in LaPorte, Indiana. Kunst also lives on the La Lu campus. “My house is right behind my office.”

To Americans, it might seem odd to send one’s teenagers away to a dormitory boarding school.

But the English upper-class have been doing it for centuries. And honestly, what parents wouldn’t want to get their teenagers out of the house? If there’s a first rate education and free meals involved, it’s a difficult proposition to turn down.

On the other hand, Heirman describes the family as a cohesive unit. “They’re phenomenal people. You’re not going to find parents giving a better message to their kids. You go back to their house, they’re playing board games, they’re hanging out and talking about life & current events. They’re watching documentaries.

“It’s a pretty cool household.”

For what it’s worth, Illinois basketball has now played a game in front of the entire Simeon and La Lu rosters, this season. Although the Groce Administration has cast a wider net than any previous Illinois coaching staff, they could stock Big Ten contenders just by recruiting these two schools.

Simeon’s freshman phenom point guard Marquise “Kezo” Brown has already visited, unofficially, this season. He arrived late to that game, but his assistant coach Melvin Nunn had the BTN2Go streamcasting all the way down I-57, so Kezo didn’t actually miss any of the game.

Now we’ll just have to wait and see whether La Lu’s Nolan Narain makes the trip to Champaign.