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Illini basketball

Dogfighting

Three B1G teams stink. Losing to any of those three teams should embarrass you, the fan. Northwestern is not one of those teams.

On the other hand, Illinois already lost to Maryland, one of the icky three. And yet, here remain the Illini, alone in first place.

It’s a brutal league, and the Wildcats compete with everyone. They’re especially tough defensively. And that’s why Illini fans can feel good about Sunday’s dogfight.

Kofi might have nightmares about Robbie Beran (+3) and Ryan Young (-3)

Ryan Young’s offense is the reason NU is under .500 in league play, but his defense is terrific. Robbie Beran is worse at the former, and even better at the latter. That’s why he’s remained a mainstay of the Chris Collins era, despite averaging 6 & 4.

These two defenders and their coach calculated that hacking Kofi Cockburn for 40 minutes might give them a chance to win. Adding Elyjah Williams’s five fouls to their arsenal, the Wildcats probably figured they could finish regulation with one big undisqualified.

Williams expended one of his fouls on Papi’s noggin.

Of course, that strategy required some hacking from the wings, too. And Chase Audige obliged. He and Beran fouled out. Young and Williams finished with three PFs apiece.

Bert Smith, Keith Kimble and Lewis Garrison reported 22 Northwestern fouls to the official scorekeeper. The Illini committed, as far as those three were concerned, just 14.

Keith Kimble explains the rules of basketball to Ryan Young.

Kofi officially drew 11 fouls, and unofficially drew two or three per possession.

That NU’s free-throw attempts lagged the Illini just 18 to 19 demonstrates that the ‘Cats did a lot of hacking in non-shooting situations. That Illinois reached 20 turnovers for just the second time this season (Marquette, 26) shows that the hacking worked.

Expect more hacking. Paul Mulcahy will certainly bruise Kofi’s forearms on Wednesday. Caleb McConnell will be the triple-teamer who forces held-balls.

Kofi is among the most emotionally balanced players ever to feel the bright lights, elbows & fingernails descend upon him. That’s the reason Illinois fans can hope for some success in the NCAA Tournament this year, regardless of their B1G Championship aspirations.

The B1G has clearly decided that its referees won’t stop play every time someone hacks-a-Kofi. But as James Augustine can tell you, it’s different in the post-season.

Ramses Melendez (+11) whips a pass to Coleman Hawkins (+17)

Sunday’s 73-66 verdict demonstrated a championship-caliber persistence in an Illini team whose stars have been saddled by ever-developing scouting report information. Grandison and Plummer surprised some people early in the season.

Chase: “How about this?” RJ: “Not today.”

There are no surprises in February. Not among foes whose budgets afford top salaries for human scouting, plus plenty $$ remaining for proprietary analytics.

On the other hand, the tendencies of Casey Simmons and RJ Melendez haven’t been compiled to the point that dribbles right on 97 % of ball screens at the top of the key can be deduced from previous performances.

Casey Simmons (+8) was a thorn.

And, of course, they’re both surprisingly bouncy.

Simmons was fantastic for the Wildcats, mostly on defense. Perhaps because, as a freshman, he hasn’t learned to play conservatively. He gambled and won time and again, most obviously when he intercepted Illini passes, and returned them for touchdowns.

RJ’s play, offensively, was the same thing he’s shown at every opportunity this season. It’s the reason Illini social media clamors for additional Ramses every time he gets tick. As Geoff Alexander promised in the pre-season, “he’s exciting.”

Whether RJ’s defense was any good in November, it wasn’t as good as Da’Monte’s defense. Whether RJ’s defense is better in February … still maybe not the point. Melendez minutes don’t require RJ to displace a veteran. As legs tire, as the gauntlet of a 20 game conference season reaches its trench warfare phase, RJ’s minutes will, ideally, provide exactly the kind of difference-making spark that beat Northwestern Sunday.

As Belo keeps Trent fresh, and provides a disorientingly unTrent-ish vibe on offense, so RJ can disrupt opponents simply by being unpredictable.

The weird thing about both these Puerto Ricans, however, is how cool they remain under pressure, despite their manic offensive explosiveness.

And if RJ remains as unflappable as he’s seemed throughout his brief Illini tenure, you can feel good about putting the ball in his hands at crunch time. For a guy who won’t be able to buy beer legally for another 10 months, that’s a remarkable quality.

RJ made 6-of-6 free throws in the last three minutes.

Brad Underwood deviated from a standard 9-man rotation only to the extent that Ben Verdonk played two extremely meaningful minutes, keeping Kofi from committing a third foul before halftime.

That Luke Goode is sometimes the ninth man, that Coleman Hawkins sometimes doesn’t play meaningful minutes: These are indications that Brad is balancing PT based on match-ups, and doing his best to keep everyone involved.

“No”-mar Payne

It doesn’t mean that 10 or 11 guys will see meaningful tick in any game. It means that Podz will be ready the next time Trent hurts his knee. It means Coleman will be available to extend a packed defense.

It’s a great time to be a fan.

Categories
Illini basketball

Notes from NUrdland

Staying old requires getting old, and RJ Melendez got older in Evanston. So did Podz.

RJ demonstrated an understanding of geometry that older Illini teammates might wish to study. He used the glass to score a much-needed bucket from an unfortunate angle, and within a pack of Wildcats.

Brad Underwood said he’d planned to play RJ against Michigan State, but somehow the match-ups weren’t right. After Saturday’s win, Underwood was unable to refrain from describing RJ as “bouncy,” which sounds cute and Tigger-ish, but also describes one of RJ’s most important functions: He can rebound without having worked himself into position. i.e. he jumps over people.

RJ is instant offense, and he’s unafraid to throw himself into the mix. For a team that’s run heartburn-inducing offense in recent games, RJ is the Rolaids.

Podz for three

The Podz substitution was obviously a response to Alfonso Plummer’s fourth foul. Would Underwood have inserted him otherwise?

It doesn’t matter. When his number was called, Podz was ready. He scored a lay-up on the next possession.

The box score shows no rebounds, steals or blocked shots for Brandin. But if statisticians tracked floor burns, he would have been team leader. Coaches track floor burns. They track hockey assists, and box-outs.

Brandin acquitted himself in those crucial six minutes and 19 seconds, when the Illini turned a deficit into victory.

That reliability means Underwood can trust him again in the future. It didn’t go unnoticed that Podz, like Da’Monte, can defend multiple positions.

Podz checks Pete Nance

CONCUSSED

Kofi Cockburn confirmed (after the Northwestern game) that he appealed (during the Purdue game) to referee DJ Carstensen about Zach Edey’s elbow.

When that elbow whiplashed Kofi’s head, none of Carstensen, Bo Boroski or Brian Dorsey saw any problems. It might have been ruled a flagrant foul. They saw it as incidental contact. Or maybe they didn’t see it at all.

Ed Hightower watched the game at Northwestern

The Big Ten knows its officiating hasn’t been up to snuff lately. That’s why Dr. Ed Hightower sat on the aisle, about ten rows up from the Wildcats bench. He was there, he said, on behalf of the commissioner.

Hightower wore a conference issued All-Access pass. He was in the locker rooms before the game, talking to coaches from both teams. He said he’d have follow-up conversations after the game as well.

“We will get better,” he promised.

THE MAN OF THE HOUR

Da’Monte Williams really does love defense. Unflappable as usual, he emoted not at all about his game-saving heroics in Evanston. But as a matter of analysis, he was perfectly willing to engage the topic of Da’Monte Williams All-Time Highlights. Was it that block against Minnesota? How about last year’s three-point daggers against the Buckeyes?

He picked Minnesota, dryly noting that he didn’t get a lot of tick in that game. (Maybe that’s why Richard Pitino didn’t know who we were talking about.)

Categories
Illini Basketball

Omar – The Perfect Addition

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 was 4-for-4 from the line at Nebraska

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.

They gave him his right hand. He used his right hand.
AND one

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

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Jacob’s Ladder

During the first half of Saturday’s 106-48 blowout, a Da’Monte Williams three glanced off SFC’s south rim, and caromed into the hands of Jacob Grandison, strangely alone on the low post’s near side.

I turned to Nico Haeflinger, sitting beside me on the north baseline. “He’s always in the right place at the right time.” I think I said.

“He’s got an old man game,” Nico agreed, and added that highlights of Slim Jake rarely make his game reel, because Grandison is so rarely spectacular. You barely notice him scoring 20 points and grabbing 8 rebounds. He moves like a cat.

This was pretty spectacular, but the ref’s ass blocked Nico’s view.

Jake’s stat line, 11 games into the season, is instructive. It tells you about the other people on the team.

Compared to Omar, Coleman and even Da’Monte, Jake doesn’t accrue personal fouls or turnovers. His three-point delivery looks a bit awkward. It’s almost like a set shot. But so far, he’s made half of them. The Fonz is only 43.8% by comparison.

You can see why Omar’s minutes have been reduced to relieving Kofi’s panting. There’s no room at the 4, and Kofi will only be out to the extent that he needs to be out. (That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be intrigued by the Kofi/Omar twin towers set, which finally made its debut, which the coaching staff continues to dream about, and which threatens any team that relies on interior scoring.)

The re-emergence of Jacob Grandison drives home a stark reality about the future of Illini basketball: Oh shit, what happens when the olds are gone. Brad keeps pointing it out, because he knows that losing all those guys undercuts the foundation, everything he’s built.

If Coleman doesn’t figure it out real quick, Underwood’s get old, stay old plan might require an infusion of JUCO or transfer olds.

Luke Goode and Benjamin-Bosmans-Verdonk are interested in rebounding.

Getting old got a little easier against St. Francis, with Luke Goode earning almost 14 minutes of tick. He made 2-of-3 threes, assisted on Alfonso Plummer’s trey in the Five Pass Possession and grabbed three rebounds.

Luke provides the same team leadership, intelligence, grit and rebounding that Jake provides. He’s 10-of-23 (43.5%) from the floor, and 8-18 (44.4%) from the arc this year. Fine numbers, but not on par with Jake’s 46-of-85 (54.1%) and 23-of-46.

It’s no secret that he’s ahead of his fellow freshmen, but is it enough to slide into a 30 minute roll in 2023?

SUPERTRENT

The StFrPa game offered Trent Frazier another fantastic opportunity to demonstrate Brad Underwood’s proclamation that SuperTrent is the best defender in the US.

Trent Frazier checks Ramiir Dixon-Conover

Brad always characterizes this argument by pointing out that Trent doesn’t garner flashy defensive data (blocks, steals) to buttress his standing among elite, elite defenders. Trent simply renders one’s existence intolerable.

Trent Frazier is a hands-on defender.

Ramiir Dixon-Conover scored 10 points against Illinois. He was 3-of-11 from the floor. Trent’s harassment took its toll on him as the game progressed. Those first three possessions were fantastic for the Red Flashes, with Dixon-Conover draining a three in the opening set, then kicking out from a double-team on the third.

Trent Frazier is a legs-on defender.
And if you get past Trent, there’s this guy.

From that point on, St. F-PA was 13-of-58 from the floor.

It’s not just the physical harassment that wears opponents down. Trent Frazier is an unabashed trash talker. He’ll tell you how bad you are while making you worse.

He doesn’t care who’s listening.

Dixon-Conover is a career 72% free-throw shooter, and entered the Illinois game at 73% this season. He converted 2-of-5 against the Illini.

He was rattled.

FRESH MEN

RJ Melendez continued building his highlight reel against Saint Francis. Although he’s a persistent rebounder, his game is not a mirror of Jacob Grandison. RJ is flashy. He’s already becoming a fan favorite thanks to his leaping, fancy passes, windmill dunks, and 67% shooting from the arc.

RJ drives to the bucket.

That last stat probably won’t survive another ten attempts. He’s 4-of-6 on the season.

To my utter shame, I didn’t capture an image of the Podz dunk in Saturday’s game. I’d just captured a few images of SFU freshman Brendan Scanlon, and had set my camera down so I could ask Twitter if it remembered the last time a 12 year-old competed in a regular-season Illini basketball game.

Maybe 10?

The answer, of course, is Little Lick. There’s no better way to get fired from a D-1 job than to give playing time to your own pudgy 5’8″ kid. It just looks bad, even in Iowa.

ENJOYING THEMSELVES

It’s been a harrowing season, and we still haven’t reached Christmas. The Saint Francis game offered every Illini a chance to let his hair down, get his stats up, and just have fun.

The bench shares a laugh after a Brandon Lieb dunk.

The biggest laugh for the team was a Brandon Lieb dunk. The dunk itself wasn’t funny, and the team wasn’t laughing at Brandon, who’s one of those guys that works hard in practice and gets little opportunity in games.

Brandon Lieb dunks against Saint Francis-PA

This was a laugh of relief, of having worked hard and got the job done right. This was a thank god the Flashes aren’t another Marquette, or Loyola.

The crowd’s biggest laugh came when Kofi mistook Da’Monte for an opponent, and ripped a defensive rebound from his smaller teammate’s grasp.

Monte thought it was funnier than anyone, and couldn’t help but laugh all the way down court as the Illini set up their offense.

Kofi’s biggest laugh was at himself. He executed a typical Kofi-esque low-post move, shifting toward the center of the cleared-out lane, dribbling with his right hand, pinning his man with the left.

He rose up for a right-handed baby hook, but missed from 30 inches away.

Kofi Cockburn clears some space with his left elbow

Kofi got his own rebound, power-dribbled, pushed a pair of St, Francis defenders away from the basket with his big old butt and left elbow, then brought the ball up with both hands for a bank into the bucket and-1.

Whether it was the miss from point blank, or the ease with which he moved two gnats from his path, Kofi thought it was hilarious.

Coleman Hawkins got back in the groove, and that might be a turning point for the entire Illini season.

Coach Underwood said he has more confidence in Coleman than Coleman has in Coleman. It’s a quirk of Illinois’s cockiest player. But given an opportunity to score against an inferior opponent, Coleman made it easy on himself by starting with a simple drive & lay-up.

Seeing the ball go through the net opened things up for Coleman, and he later drained a pair of threes from the corner.

Underwood’s management of Coleman will inevitably be a talking point when this season is deconstructed.

FIVE PASS POSSESSION

The coach’s favorite moment of the game was, of course, the five pass sequence that ended with an open three for Alfonso Plummer.

It began with Fonz dribbling to the baseline, then dumping to Kofi in the paint. Eventually, the ball made it all around the horn, and back to Fona, who ran back to the corner immediately upon releasing his pass.

Plummer to Cockburn
Cockburn to Frazier, Plummer runs back to corner
Frazier to Willams
Williams to Goode
Goode to Plummer
Fonz drains a three
Brad jumped up and ran to half court, cheering and pumping his fists.

THE OMICRON DELTA

So, it’s nice that the Illini got to enjoy this final game of their season.

Or maybe they’ll play in Braggin’ Rights Wednesday, as scheduled. Perhaps even after that.

As the Omicron variant swarms New York City, Midwestern know-nothings continue their Covid is Over behavior. Shopping at Champaign’s home improvement stores on Sunday, it was easy to identify the Faux News & Trump voters. The camo clothing and F-150s are often a sign, but their unmasked faces are the giveaway.

The team modeled mask-wearing more than ever.

Omicron is less susceptible to the immune response generated by mRNA vaccines. Just today, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced that he’s positive despite being triple-vaxxed. My vaxxed niece in NYC got it by sharing a meal with co-workers in a break room. An NYU sophomore on winter break, she’s already spread it to ten people, and is suffering through Day 6 of feeling like shit.

Another niece in California got the contact tracing text on Friday. She’d joined her fellow teaching staff in the school’s faculty holiday party. Someone brought The Vid.

Delta continues to rage in the United States. But as the US passed 800,000 deaths, the anti-science cohort — those who never participated in abatement measures while complaining about abatement measures, and seem to think that knowing how to install a serpentine belt gives equal/better understanding of viral pathology than a medical degree — continue their tribal resistance to simple measures.

Before Saturday’s tip-off, the major donors (many of whom do abide COVID protocols) were moved two feet back from Lou Henson Court. Perhaps the thinking holds that these 24 extra inches will provide a total of six feet distance from the players. Campus, like check-out lanes at grocery stores, boasts a bunch of six-foot markers.

But the aerosols generated by 15-thousand people, in one confined space, will not stop at six feet. So far, few of the attendees at Illini home games have abided the mask rule, and the DIA/SFC staff doesn’t enforce it.

Underwood declined the opportunity to offer a potentially controversial statement about his fans ennui with COVID precautions. Meanwhile, the medical community predicts a million new cases tomorrow, and exponential spread through the holidays.

I’m glad my Zoom room has a fireplace. I’m just sitting here, enjoying the warmth, and waiting for the Braggin’ Rights cancellation email.

Merry Giftsmas.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Coleman Show

Such a quiet second-half from Coleman Hawkins. It’s almost like he wanted to tone it down a notch, get other people involved, focus on his passing game.

Dude was everywhere, all the time, in the first period.

He can’t help it. He gets excited.

The 92-53 blowout lost money for people who bet on outcomes. It made money for Coleman. Whether it’s immediate NIL offers, or the attention of NBA scouts, and even without traditional TV bringing the game to people outside State Farm Center; word is going to leak about the lithe yet thunder-dunking point-forward

And then, after scoring 14 points, grabbing 8 rebounds (five offensive) drawing 8 eight fouls (committing one), dishing three assists and blocking two shots, Coleman became normal. He played 10 minutes in the second half, and 17 in the first. But he also relaxed a little, and not in a bad way.

Coleman has been the team’s hothead so far this season, but he chilled on Friday, perhaps recognizing the volatile atmosphere around him. The Arkansas State bench taunted Andre Curbelo into a technical foul.

Belo said they were talking about his mother. He took the bait.

It was worth it. The team won by 39 points, beating the spread by 25. It’s hard to argue with that, no matter how you got there.

Brad Underwood decided he’d get a technical, too. And that also worked. The team swarmed on defense, launching an 18-2 run.

“Don’t poke the bear,” Curbelo advised after the game. “I’m gonna stick up for my guy,” added Underwood.

How does a team score 92 points on a bad shooting night? By following its shot. 24 offensive rebounds, and a quick recognition of weak spots left in the Red Wolves defense following a shot attempt. Jacob Grandison and Da’Monte Williams see those things, and react.

Brandon Lieb cleverly missed a dunk so he could enjoy his own o-bound putback.

Ben Verdonk grabbed 10 rebounds again. Hawkins finished with a dozen, half on offense, and 17 points.

Red Wolves are probably waking up this morning, on their West Bomphoc campus, and wondering what happened.