Categories
Illini Basketball

The Giorgi Development

Rutgers was a good game for Giorgi, who seems to do well against Scarlet Knights.

He made half his shots, grabbed 7 rebounds in 23 minutes, connected on both free-throws, dished two assists and committed only two fouls (one of which accounted for his lone turnover).

Giorgi’s great attributes are hard to quantify. They’re so many. One that stands out is selflessness. He genuinely enjoys watching his teammates succeed, even at the expense of his own gaudy stats.

His major weakness comes simultaneously. He hasn’t refined his high-post screens to B1G standards, so he’s called for a lot of moving picks. Similarly, his understanding of the charge/block rule is a work in progress.

Giorgi was genuinely surprised when Kelly Pfeifer rang him up for the most obvious player-control foul of the 2020 college basketball season. Dozens of Rutgers fans screamed that’s a charge! the first time Giorgi thrust his shoulder into Ron Harper. When he felled Harper with a buttocks to the gut, everybody in the building knew which way the call was going.

Giorgi found his shot in Piscataway. It helped that Harper is shorter and less athletic than Jalen Smith & Xavier Tillman.

But that’s the point of playing him alongside Kofi, rather than instead of Kofi. If a team puts its big man on Cockburn, Giorgi can dominate a smaller opponent. Kofi could help clear out the paint by dragging his man to the high-post.

Problem is, Kofi hasn’t demonstrated (publicly) his ability to knock down a 17-footer. He can do it, and he does it in practice. But apart from a broken play at Mackey Arena, where Kofi surprised everyone by dropping a jumpshot; Illini fans haven’t seen that side of his game.

Giorgi has a knack for creating space, both for himself and others. But lately, Brad Underwood has not been pleased by Giorgi’s casual attitude to the stretch-four position. Giorgi is actually the team’s second-best long-range shooter, a hair ahead of Ayo at 30.6% (unless you count Tyler Underwood’s 2-of-6).

He works on his threes, and his free-throws, after every practice.

You’ll recall the elder Underwood lamenting, prior to the second MSU game, the beginning of the first MSU game. The boss man does not want to open his offense with a three from Giorgi. The next day, Giorgi opened that second game with a missed three-pointer. He didn’t play a lot after that.

This morning, Underwood praised Giorgi’s jump hook and added “we have to get him more looks down there.” (emphasis mine)

The advantage of playing Kofi and Giorgi separately, assuming Giorgi can’t improve his threes by 6-to-10 percent and Kofi doesn’t add that jumper to his arsenal, is twofold.

First, they’re each less likely to garner five fouls.

Second, the four-out look can deter zone defenses, especially if Tevian Jones gets more tick. Tevian’s advantage over every Illini (and all opponents) is that his release takes place above the heads of most defenders. Not only is Tev quick draw, but he’s a high leaper. His jump shot takes place in the clouds. That’s why it gives opponents fits.

Coach Underwood sees that he needs to open the middle, and create space for his offense. Giorgi is tool to that end. Because his attitude is pure altruism, he’s willing to do whatever it takes.

Categories
Illini Basketball

The Low-Percentage Shot

Step back from the ledge.

An eon ago, in The 12 Seed, I speculated an upcoming five-game losing streak. It felt like a safe bet.

The other day, I suggested a silver lining to Ayo’s unexpected vacation. The committee might look at this east coast swing with even less skepticism than they might have. Losing at Rutgers and Penn State is not a big deal, and there’s no penalty for tourney purposes.

The Illini must beat the remaining crap teams on their schedule. Compiled Quad 1 wins have almost guaranteed some kind of bid.

The next mission for the team and its coaching staff is to figure out how to find uncontested, or at least less contested, shots.

At Rutgers, the boys in blue got open looks from Tevian Jones. Alan Griffin had a pair of clean looks from the outside, and a lot of armpits closer to the hoop.

Kofi was harassed in the paint, and didn’t quite figure out the implication of his abuse: The refs were letting ’em play.

Would Kofi be able to shift gears if he knew he could play rough? Maybe. Maybe not. These skills develop over time.

He didn’t seem as rattled in the second half, but then, he attempted two-thirds fewer shots.

In the first half, Kofi converted 4-of-9 attempts from the floor. In the second half, he launched only three. One of them went in.

The worst shooting performance came from Trent Frazier. Trent didn’t simply miss his shots. It’s not that the rim was unkind (except for that three that spun around and out). Trent’s problem was Rutgers. They were taller than he. They were in his way.

Trent’s shots were terrible, and the results predictable.

Even his high-percentage shots were low-percentage shots. You try to make a lay-up against three taller guys. You’ll see that it affects your percentage.

Trent needs more of the above from his teammates. He’s a great offensive weapon when they keep defenders out of his way.

It might seem insulting to say that Trent can’t create his own shot, but basketball is a team sport. Moreover, Trent can create his own shot. It’s a sudden & unexpected 30-foot jumper. He’s pretty good at it.

With each new game’s worth of video, this team becomes easier to scout. Illinois’ opponents have demonstrated admirable capability & professionalism in their game-planning.

It’s getting hard to score.

Brad & staff recognize this problem. They’ve already taken steps to address it.

You may have noticed that Tevian Jones played real minutes in Piscataway.

Alan started.

These two spread the floor. Their teammates aren’t dreadful at kicking out to them once the defense collapses; they’re merely bad at it.

Both Trent and Andres Feliz know how to drive and kick, but Kofi and Giorgi are still learning when to quit fighting through a double-team.

Both still exhibit space-out moments, what Brad calls “casual.” At Rutgers, Kofi took a half-second to assess the defense.

That was the only half-second Ron Harper needed.

When the parts come together, it looks effortless.

But too much of the time, it looks labored. It’s not always easy to watch a broken play and determine, in real time, how it broke. It’s worse when you can see it break before the players do.

Giorgi’s game at Rutgers, and in general, deserves it’s own column. He seems to have got his groove back. Brad says he wants more offensive opportunities for Giorgi.

Look for that tomorrow.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Limbo

Running from the media room to the Spartans locker room, I caught a glimpse of the Dosunmu family in the training room. I made eye contact with Jamarra. I hope I cringed appropriately.

You never know what to say in these circumstances, and credentialed media aren’t welcome to poke around during medical examinations, so I hope I conveyed sympathy while also running as fast as possible.

I have a non-professional relationship with the Dosunmus. I don’t seek their input for publication purposes. I like to celebrate their highs and commiserate their lows. These are relationships you can’t help but form, especially at away games when a crowd of 15,750 contains 12 familiar faces.

I’m writing at 1:30 am. so this post may be obsolete by the time you read it. As of now, we don’t know the extent of Ayo’s injury. Everyone hopes it’s mild, of course. And if so, it could actually help the Illini.

How?

Well, as I wrote the other day, this was going to be a five-game losing streak. Illinois had beaten one good team this year (Rutgers) and came close to beating a different good team (Maryland, at their place).

The second half of Tuesday’s game was the tectonic shift of the season. The Illini changed their own narrative. A thousand moments unfolded to paint the perfect pastiche of when they turned the corner or the season turned around or the moment it all came together.

Each one deserves its own mention, whether it was Ayo ripping a rebound from some Spartan or Alan’s steals. The unyielding aggression that stymied them at Iowa and against Maryland was revved up and revisited upon a team renowned for its toughness and rebounding.

Now Illinois has an excellent chance to manipulate fate for its advantage. Let’s assume Ayo rests his knee for the week. If they lose at Rutgers and Penn State, they were going to lose at Rutgers and Penn State anyway. The supporting arguments memo to the Selection Committee will point out that Illinois was without its best player in those two losses.

Or, if Andres Feliz puts the team on his back (again) and Trent drains a dozen threes during the eastern adventure, then bully for those two. They’ll benefit from the extra opportunities either way. The team can only improve from this adversity … assuming its short-lived.

The lesser told story of Tuesday night was how everyone’s role changed. Tevian Jones went from oh, yeah I forgot about him to the first sub off the bench. Giorgi took Tevian’s spot on the bench, having perhaps not heard Brad’s pre-game admonition about starting games against Michigan State with Giorgi shooting threes.

MSU is different with Cassius Winston on the bench, and Josh Langford in a boot.

Winston’s foul trouble limited him to 25 minutes. He made a difference when he was on the court. So there’s still an asterisk qualifying any claim that this Illini team is good, or can beat good teams.

They will win enough games to get in the tournament. At that point, it will be fascinating to learn whether they’ll fix all the obvious problems. This team, more than any Illini team of my lifetime, has the potential to perform at uncharacteristic heights.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Shifty, scheming

Brad Underwood announced today that Tevian Jones will “suit up” for the Maryland game.

No matter what that phrasing implies, it’s top-notch trolling.

Jones, you’ll recall, is the Terrapin killer whose career-best game stunned Madison Square Garden last winter. He’s the guy they didn’t see coming, and couldn’t stop going. Mark Turgeon still has nighthorses about Tevian Jones.

Jones sat out 8 games last year, so it might seem natural that this year’s suspension is also 8 games. But we know that his sophomore suspension is academics oriented, whereas last year’s was urine-based.

Perhaps DIA penalties for academic misdemeanors include, like a second positive pee test, sitting out for a quarter of the season.

But otherwise, the timing seems weird. The semester ends next weekend, not this one.

Underwood did not say Tevian will travel with the team. He did not say Tevian will play. We hope both of those potentialities come true. But it would be hilarious if Underwood made the announcement merely to keep Turgeon and staff up all night.

Tevian Jones was arguably the most improved sophomore coming into this season. The other candidate is Alan Griffin. Both showcased their improvement in Italy. But there’s no doubt that Tevian had the most dazzling European performance.

The book is still out on Underwood. He’s going to have to reach the NCAA tournament before any Illini fan can be sure he’s The Guy. But for those still recovering from Bruce Weber Syndrome, it’s refreshing to have a leader who’s willing to shift direction, change schemes, and plant misdirection in the minds of his opponents.

Well played, coach.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Livorno – The Tevian Jones Show

I don’t know who won the box score, because Derrick hasn’t sent it out yet. But there’s no arguing with the gaggle of ten year-old Italian kids who followed Tevian Jones around and out of the gym after his airbound, rim-rattling performance.

They got his autograph. They got his picture. They swarmed around him as if playing the role of ten year-old kids in a Mack Sennett one-reeler.

Jones won their hearts with a series of break-away dunks. Like Derek Harper in 1982, or Battle/Gill in 1989, Tevian found himself playing the point on defense, facing Italians who’ve never met long-armed defenders before. Repeatedly, Tevian picked their pockets, dribbled four times, and launched. Watching him fly though the air over the free-throw lane, reminiscent of another Illinois transplant, gave everyone the opportunity to imagine what great, exciting things would happen when he finally landed at the rim.


Don’t you hate it when your phone stops recording to prompt a WiFi sign-in?
Can you see the gaggle of kids following Tev after the interview?

This game was close for a few minutes, and the coaching staff wasn’t thrilled about defensive execution. But for guys like Jones, Zach Griffith, and the 30-ish balding guy who wore #20 for Livorno, this was an important step in their basketball journey. Tevian’s confidence got a booster shot. Zach got to play major minutes and executed well in what will probably be his most significant role as an Illini. The old guy balled, and looked smooth doing it. There were lots of Italian women in the gym. I hope he earned something.

Ooh, the box score has just arrived. It seems Tevian was the third-leading scorer. And yet everyone knew who the star was. Jones was the only Illini made available for a postgame chit-chat.

The gym was about 85° at tip-off, and maybe got a little cooler as the sun went down, which it does here around 21:30 on an early August evening. Paul Schmidt does not, it turns out, keep a thermometer for monitoring court temps. “In America, we have this thing called air-conditioning,” he reported, as sweat beaded from every pore on his face.

The entire Illini bottled water allotment

The arena had the same amount of water fountains. Zero. On the other hand, one could get shots of Jagermeister, panini, espresso, Bailey’s Irish Cream and basically whatever booze you want in the small café, which also housed the building’s only electric fan. They even had a meat slicer. And, most importantly (?), foosball.

As predicted, the team didn’t spend any time in Livorno. They rode the hour-and-a-half both ways from Florence. With a 10 a.m. departure for the three-and-a-half-hour bus ride to Rome, and a game that finished at 10 p.m., there’s again not much time for winding down, sleeping, massages and ice baths.

Unlike Milan, there’s little argument that Florence is the city for sites. But they’re not seeing sites tomorrow in Florence. If they’d stayed in Livorno tonight, they’d have had an extra hour of sleep. And the bus ride tomorrow would have been like driving the PCH rather than the 5 (know what I’m sayin’?) They don’t have to change hotels, and there’s something to be said about that.

Livorno is a distinctly Italian coastal town. Walking home from the venue (on Via Salvador Allende for you socialists), I realized that I was the only person around. It was 10:30 p.m., and everything was closed. Finally I found a piazza where table seating suggested a restaurant serving after 22:00. Otherwise, you have to get your cigarettes and Snickers from a vending machine.

Luckily, there’s an Indian convenience store owner just around the corner from my AirBnB apartment. He’s willing to outwork all these lazy Europeans, so I was able to get my baguette, my tomato, my latte fresca and bottle of rosso (€2.50) at 23:00. Rosso makes my reports longer, and a bit winding, like this paragraph. (The rosso in Varese was €1.68, but you gotta pay the Indian for his willingness.)

Categories
Illini Basketball

Varese, Day 3 – Gazzada

First, the good news. Alan Griffin is “playing above the rim,” as they say.

Has anyone compared him to Kendall Gill yet? No? Well, they will. He’s bigger and stronger and still bouncy and suddenly recognizing that, despite a non-hyped recruiting experience; he can play with these guys.

Italy has been good for Tevian Jones, too. Like Griffin, he’s displaying a good balance of triple-threat capabilities. In Gazzada, Jones scored 18 points, in various ways.

Last year, people didn’t get to know Tevian as well as they might, were it not for 1933’s cult classic Reefer Madness, and the McCarthyism it engendered among Americans. Fortunately, a violation of team rules is now legal in Illinois, and the NCAA should adapt to the new legal landscape within a quarter-century, judging by their previous progressive acumen.

Tevian spent a lot of his downtime in long talks with his mentors. These sessions were observable from afar, so I did. He spent a lot of time after practice, before games, etc. in deep. It happened again last night, when Coach O spent his pizzatime offering wisdom.

Everyone seems to be having a good time, although this reporter suspects they aren’t getting enough sleep. Dragged out of bed for a bus ride through thunderstorms to a boat ride through thunderstorms is not what I would have done (and, in fact, didn’t). But later that night the lads pwn3d another local team, which included a few elements of the previous night’s local team.

The families were glad to have the opportunity, although they too would have liked to have known the games weren’t in pricey Milan but instead small towns where the rooms are dirt cheap. Lali Bezhanishvili paid only $80 for a round trip from Wien, but stayed in Milan rather than Varese. She had to go back to work today.

The Dosunmu posse has been touring northern Italy for ten days already, led by experienced traveler and recovering attorney Jamenda McCoy. They’re having a good time either way. Meanwhile, Ayo has attained cult status. Middle-aged Italian men swarmed him after the Gazzada game, to ask about his NBA plans.

People paid to get in at Gazzada (despite all pre-game information to the contrary), and at least 3/4 of the crowd was rooting for the home team, although not antagonistically. They appreciated the artistry & athleticism of our American lads.

Afterward, they all asked for (and got) pictures with the Illini.

This poster hung at the front door to the Gazzada gym

Jamall Walker also didn’t sleep yesterday, despite arriving at 9 a.m. on an overseas flight. He said he got in a little work-out and walked around town a bit, adding that naps are for *******.

It’s too bad that he had to walk around Milan. Milan is, as civic engineering goes, as close to Soviet central planning as Italians get. Lifeless apartment blocks stretch for miles from the city center. The next Rudy Guede cycles aimlessly through the tourist zones, harassing local women in a way that would floor #MeToo activists (which is his goal, but not metaphorically).

That brings us to the bad news.

The Italian Trip will provide lifelong memories for the individuals. It’s a disaster for the program. This was meant to be the testing ground for new players. To get Kofi Cockburn integrated in the system, while Giorgi adapts to the four-spot.

Instead, the flagship campus continues a years long tradition of asking its willing joiners to play out-of-position, because it’s incapable of getting its own roster on the court.

The reaction from the DIA, when asked for comment on the “visa situation” from a reliable spokesperson (such as the Athletics Director, the coaching staff, its overseeing Faculty Representative; all of whom were within 25 yards) was to ridicule the suggestion that this blunder merits any ink.

That’s always a sign. When PR people tell you there’s no story here, there’s always a really interesting story.

Speaking of non-stories, and the lengths PR people go to stop them, here’s a picture of the beer truck outside the Gazzada venue. After last nights win, Brad Underwood and the entire coaching staff lined up to patronize these guys. It’s just their way of showing thanks. I didn’t stick around to take any pictures. I had a train to catch. And although Brad loves to tell stories about beer (and even Zima) with cameras rolling, sometimes it’s best to allow people to be themselves off-camera.

Livorno is a significantly more Italian city. I’m here now. The team probably won’t see it, except for the inside of its gym. We’ll find out tomorrow,

Categories
Illini football

The New Model Army

Maybe the 2019 Illini will finish 13th in the B1G, just as all the Detroit and Philadelphia sportswriters predicted.

Thing is, all those busy professionals are too consumed with writing about pro sports, local sports and their own college teams. To the extent that they contemplate conference bottom-dwellers at all, it’s usually a quick study of someone else’s analysis. 

Nobody really knows.

A few thousand people have seen Ayo, Giorgi and Andres perform on the same team. A few dozen have seen them play more than twice. But even if this squad wins the next ten games, we won’t know what they’ll be like in March.

Here’s what we do know after two public contests: This team must have an unflappable Andres Feliz’s  if it’s going to succeed. Feliz had been the model of consistency. He was the rock. You could trust Andres Feliz to do the right thing. Like Dominicans in baseball, his fundamentals are not merely sound. They define him.

But not Thursday.

Feliz led the Illini in turnovers, with five. He offset that number with three assists and two steals, but it’s hard to believe he didn’t go straight home to flagellate himself with some torturous handcrafted weapon, known only to Gullahphones.

Feliz led all Illini with a +33 point-differential. The team is inarguably more successful when he’s on the floor.

Tevian Jones made the biggest single-game leap in this observer’s experience, and it makes total sense. Tevian was all over the place during the Wesleyan scrimmage. Last night, he was in the right spots.

Real game experience (competing against other teams, in front of spectators) is a big deal.  It’s not just a matter of trying harder “when the lights come on.”

Neuroscience calls it “chunking.” People whose brains have already separated learned information into “chunks” don’t need to process familiar visual experiences with the same thoroughness as people who’ve never experienced those visuals.

Instead, they can concentrate on the visual information that is actually  unique. If they’ve seen fifty games from the floor of the State Farm Center, they can concentrate entirely on the opponent’s offensive scheme.

It’s why seniors are better than freshmen. It’s why home teams beat visiting teams.

Tevian’s major freshman mistakes on Thursday took the traditional form of The Personal Foul. In 18:12 of tick, Tevian garnered a team-high four of them.

Contrast his senior counterpart, Aaron Jordan. AJ led the team in PT with 26:33. He fouled once.

Andres Feliz has a lot more experience than the Illini freshmen, but they’ll all get better with more experience playing together, and on the same court.

Even Ayo, despite gushing overnight plaudits, has lots of room for improvement. His most obvious mistake last night was fouling a jump-shooter after getting beat off the dribble.

He might have recovered from the initial mistake, but because it flustered him, he made the worse mistake.

Cherish these images. You might not get many chances to see Ayo making mistakes. His flashes of brilliance might overload the system.

It’s too bad that he can’t watch himself himself. He’s exciting.

Not surprisingly, some of Ayo’s best plays do not end in buckets. He’s too fast, and his teammates haven’t caught up yet. That’s another thing that might develop over time.

In the future, this might become an assist.

The Giorgi Show will be entertaining whether Illinois wins or not. But Giorgi is not indifferent to the score. Apart from being hilarious, he’s competitive.  This combination brings confusing outcomes: Bo Boroski assessed an official warning for Giorgi’s taunting, yet came away laughing.

Every observer that I’ve polled expects Giorgi’s technical-per-game ratio to continue unabated. Let’s hope nobody gets hurt.

Tal Brody was in the house.
Categories
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.

Categories
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.