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Illini basketball

46 Turnovers

For people who’ve never seen these fresh-faced Illini cagers, the newcomers were certainly the most interesting thing about Friday’s Wesleyan exhibition. Now you know why Andres Feliz will be a starter, and why Giorgi Bezhanishvili will be a fighter.

For those of us who’ve seen them a few times, the box score was the eye-opener.

After years, perhaps decades of following a same-old formula, the official stat sheet has added new concepts. That’s why we know that Feliz not only committed zero fouls, but drew five from the Titans. Same stat for Trent Frazier.

We also know the plus/minus points tally for each individual’s playing time. And the playing time is more exact. For example:

That’s also a great example of how the +/- might mislead a person who reads box scores instead of watching games. Da’Monte’s impact on the game must be described as positive.

Three assists to zero turnovers, four rebounds and solid defense. He also made the play of the game (as judged by crowd reaction) with a dramatic shot rejection.

Still, it’s a metric. Da’Monte was -3. So was Alan Griffin. So was Tyler Underwood.

Yes, Tyler Underwood played 8 minutes and 44 seconds. Trent Frazier was +25 in 25:34 at the same position. Absolutely no one is shocked by this contrast, I presume. 

Feliz was +15. Like Griffin, he’s considered a superior on-ball defender. Like Griffin, he was posterized by a group of amateur Methodists, none of whom earned an athletic scholarship.

These things happen. Brad Underwood’s job is to make sure they don’t happen again.

Only Ayo Dosunmu played more minutes than Frazier, totaling 28:49. Ayo was the primary ball-handler for some of that time, but not much. So it’s not surprising that he managed a solitary assist. It’s more surprising that he booted the ball five times. The 1-to-5 turnover ratio might be explained by his inexperience at the college level. Frazier’s ATO was 5-to-4.

Seventeen turns is more than any college coach will accept, but on the other hand, Ayo garnered four steals. That evens things out. Likewise Aaron Jordan. His turnover was countered by two steals and two assists, plus a game-high seven rebounds. Dude was clearly feeling possessive about ball security.

Those numbers will keep him on the court. His 3-of-7 shooting is less than ideal, but AJ was +18 in his 21:10. It’s hard to argue with numbers.

Obviously this “contest” was not, in Brad Underwood’s mind, a proving ground for his eventual 200 minute distribution. Other than the two cripples, everybody played.

Samba Kane showed fans why he was recruited (height, mobility) and why they won’t see him again for quite some time (everything else). Drew Cayce and Samson Olademeji played. Team manager-cum-forward Zach Griffith got floor time.

The only omen one might read in the PT tea leaves is that Tevian Jones earned less tick than Kid Underwood. And, during that tick, one could see why.

Jones was the best example of freshman inexperience. The game was waaaaay too fast for him. He performed well when standing still (3-for-3 FTs), but needs the Team Underwood concepts to settle into instincts rather than second-guessings.

Why was Brad Underwood so generous with his PT? Probably because he wants the freshmen and walk-ons to feel rewarded for all the work they’ve put in since June. And also because he knows the newcomers can’t be hurried. They’re going to keep playing like freshmen until everything clicks for them. 

Finally, he’s probably realized, after having major parts of his body removed and replaced, that life is short, and must be lived in the present.

Perhaps he also wanted to show visiting Class of 2019 PF Chris Payton that everyone gets a chance here at Illinois.

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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

Practice thoughts, October 2018

Homecoming weekend included a basketball practice at Ubben, first thing this morning. Unlike last time, there were no Official Visitors. So the team wasn’t focused on throwing lobs to 17 year-olds.

Spectators numbered about one-third the size of the Tshiebwe-Liddell-Shannon crowd. That is, they lined the catwalk one-deep rather than three.

They learned that Giorgi Bezhanishvili is not a goofball all the time. He’s a shittalker. Giorgi’s shit was mostly directed at Samba Kane, who might have wilted on the spot. When teammates and coaches talk about Samba, the sentence usually begins with “he’s had a hard time because …” and usually continues with the themes like “arrived late” and “new to the game.”  Piling on psychologically doesn’t seem fair, but it’s hard to imagine prospective opponents treating Samba more deferentially.

Mike LaTulip, Brandon Paul and Steve Bardo joined the team for a Homecoming photo, after practice

Giorgi should be raw too, but he’s not. He moves fluidly, and finishes at the rim. That might change when a competent defender over 6’6″ challenges him. This Illini team has no such defender. Adonis de la Rosa dressed for practice, but did not participate. Anthony Higgs began the session looking at an iPad, reclining on a cushioned table, in the training room. He didn’t enter the Corzine Gym for the first 20 minutes, and then rode the stationary bike for the next 20. Samson Oladimeji and Zach Griffith did their best (Oladimeji’s rejection on a Tevian Jones lay-up was a highlight of the day), but neither is big enough to present a B1G-caliber post-presence.

So, we might not know what Georgi can’t do for another month or three. As of now, he’s a definite starter.

If the season began today, the starting five would be

  • 1 – Andres Feliz
  • 1 – Ayo
  • 1 – Trent
  • 4 – Kipper
  • 4 – Giorgi

That’s no slight to Aaron Jordan. He continues to burnish his coach-on-the-floor bona fides, spreads the defense and drains threes. In that regard, he’s the quintessential sixth man. Brad Underwood might need to start him, but ideally Aaron would enter the game after assessing what’s happening. 

Da’Monte Williams continues to make unforced errors, the kind Underwood claimed he never commits at the beginning of last year (before the Maryland game). Because Feliz offers doggish on-ball defense, and Ayo’s impersonation of a six-foot spider will, arguably, compensate for Monte’s absence, Williams will need to clean up his little mistakes to challenge them for PT. The three-headed PG attack is just too hard to defend. Feliz pushes the ball, and finds the open man. When left alone on the perimeter, he buries his threes.

Saturday’s practice

The wing-to-be-named-later continues to be Alan Griffin. Like many wings of the three-point era, Alan seems comfortable pitching a tent on the arc. Underwood stopped live action to holler at him about another option from the Triple Threat  “Alan!” he called, arms aloft and sweeping downward to indicate an open path to the basket,  “Drive!”

From the sidelines, ex-perimeters Mike LaTulip and Brandon Paul agreed with the assessment. “When your defender is that close up on you, you can always dribble past him,” observed LaTulip.

Also in town for Homecoming were 89ers Steve Bardo and Ryan Baker. Bardo relayed the story of his Bobblehead mishap. He was in Atlanta working on a non-sports TV production (cooking) and missed the deadline for signing his release. Hence, no Steve Bardo Bobblehead.