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Illini Basketball

One & Done

Trayce Jackson-Davis is a great ambassador for college basketball. I’m happy that he’ll finally play in the NCAA Tournament. That it took an Illinois loss to get him there? That doesn’t bother me either.

The Illini need a weekend off. You got the feeling that they were willing to win another B1G Tourney if that’s how the chips fell. But they made it clear that their sights are scoping a different tourney.

Trayce Jackson-Davis is a good guy. It’s hard to root against him.

Their ability to win six in a row hasn’t changed because of Friday’s umpteenth consecutive uncomfortable performance. They still have the defense & rebounding. It’s much more likely that non-B1G opponents won’t have sussed Plummer, won’t comprehend — even after watching a boatload of videos — the intensity and (sorry to say) violence required to stymie Kofi in the low-post.

Brad Underwood was funny, but not joking, when he said he’s tired of playing this league. He should be. Giving Micah Shrewberry a three-month head start on scouting Illinois demonstrated just how effective B1G scouting can be.

The key with Kofi is to push his face. Meanwhile, Larry dreams of protein shakes.

So how great is it, from an Illini fan’s perspective, that if Illinois had to lose a game during this stretch, that it wasn’t one of the next six, nor one of the last three? Beating Michigan, Penn State and Iowa damn near killed you, so aggravating and trying were those games. But in the end, you got a shiny trophy. Win the next six, you get another trophy.

Lose Friday, and you get a weekend off to heal. Even the guys not recovering from a sprained shoulder will benefit.

We all wish Andre Curbelo were 100%, and that a 100% Belo will someday launch the type of unexpected 8-foot floaters that won him B1GS1Xth last year. He’s still launching unexpected floaters, and they still catch defenses offguard. But because they travel only 6 feet beefore landing, defenses aren’t as bothered.

The 100% Belo probably won’t emerge this year. And maybe not during his time at Illinois. But it feels too soon to say, given that we’re still just weeks from his hibernation. With every practice and game, he gets closer to his groove.

Thing is, Belo cares. If you think he’s just enjoying the circus, don’t.

After his game-winning drive that didn’t, Belo collapsed in horror, hands to cheeks, and crouched in disbelief on the baseline.

Nobody noticed. The camera pulled away to follow live action. If he hadn’t sat there in my lap for a solid 30 seconds, I mightn’t have noticed either.

#ISupportBelo remains an important concept because, as the young man recovers from an unexpectedly serious neurological problem, he’s also trying to figure out whether he can still basketball, and why all his tricks are broken.

Basketball got him off the island, and holds the potential for enormous riches. But if he can’t trust muscle memory and well-honed instincts to function at crunch time, his past stops being prologue. He’s just a kid who payed basketball when he was younger. Like us.

Your buddies, Bo & Donnie. They wear regular clothes, too.

Coleman Hawkins got out of his Coleman Hawkins funk, so we know it can be done. And the fact that last Sunday happened, that all the stars aligned, shows that it can happen to Illinois (despite what seems like a Goat-shaped curse).

You’ll probably root for Illinois in the tourney, andyou’ll probably invest some amount of your emotional health in their performance.

That’s fine.

It’s just possible that this team has all the tools. So aren’t you glad that they took this loss, and can now focus on the goal?

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COVID-19 Illini Basketball Illini basketball

High Noon

Trayce Jackson-Davis has three names, but Brad Underwood used only one during his pre-game Zoom. “Trayce” needs no introduction. You know who he is.

An hour later and 167.7 miles east-by-southeast, new Hoosiers coach Mike Woodson conferred the same respect on “Kofi.”

Kofi Cockburn & Trayce Jackson-Davis

This feels like a fight where the top billing, Godzilla versus King Kong, might not determine the outcome. It oughta be entertaining. But you get the feeling that it’ll be someone else who puts his team on top.

Against Purdue, that other person was Rob Phinisee. Trayce needed only 12 minutes to collect four fouls. It worked out okay for the Hoosiers, because Trevion Williams was ineffective in his 15 of the #BoilerBigs 40 minutes, and Zach Edey got only six shots in his 25.

How did Indiana hold Purdue’s Power Duo to 10 FGA? It’s something to worry about.

Perhaps he was unable to hit them in the face?

The Hoosiers committed THREE total turnovers in that game, and Trayce had two of them. Phinisee came off the bench (as usual) for twenty points, four rebounds and four steals in 26 minutes. That’s a lot of steals. Purdue had none. It’s the product of different defensive philosophies. Woodson’s Hoosiers are doing something more akin to Underwood’s Pokes (and early Illini teams), less pack-line-ish.

But Phinsee won’t pick any pockets tomorrow. Plantar Fasciitis will keep him on the bench.

This won’t happen in Bloomington.

If you looked at early Hoosier results and thought meh, consider three factors.

  1. A new coach/style
  2. Many newcomers playing significant minutes
  3. Trey Galloway’s broken wrist
Galloway is the shaggy one.

Galloway broke his wrist in mid-November. Indiana missed his irritating peppiness for almost two months. He’ll be a pain.

What about Khristian Lander, the heralded super-recruit who arrived in Bloomington and then …

He’s played nine games, starting none. He missed eight straight with a leg injury. Indiana fans still believe in him. They think he’ll be the determining force in Saturday’s contretemps. He’s a turnover machine, and he fouls a lot. We’ll see how that works out.

Xavier Johnson, Parker Stewart and Miller Kopp are the new blood. The Transfer Portal was good to Indiana is how Underwood phrased it. Johnson and Stewart started at Pitt. Stewart left to play for his dad at UT-Martin. His dad died. He left Martin.

Xavier Johnson (IU Athletics)

Johnson arrived at Pitt after Stewart’s lone season, and stayed for three years. Now running the offense in Bloomington, he’s tallied 95 assists for the Hoosiers (and 48 turnovers). Compare Trent Frazier’s 72 (39) and top-ranked Auburn’s Wendell Green’s 110 (47).

The Frazier/Johnson match-up should be as fun to watch as the Bigs Battle, especially for Illini fans.

Stewart is the shooting guard, and he converts 45% from the arc. But he’s attempted only 87 of them. Alfonso Plummer has attempted 160. Frazier’s launched 130. Jacob Grandison 95.

Jake leads Illinois at 43.2% from downtown.

Indiana has attempted 390 3FGs on the year, and their opponents 481. The Illini are up to 537.

Miller Kopp is just as boring for Indiana as he was for Northwestern. Statistically speaking, he does almost nothing but not take away opportunities from his teammates, which is something. Not touted as a defensive stopper, and a proven disappointment as a rebounder, this is the guy you want on the floor to get RJ Melendez some highlight reel.

CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE

Covering an early game in (the other) Bloomington poses some obstacles to an Illini media pool still digging out from a foot of snow.

Sure, one could drive over on Friday evening, once the day’s pre-game availabilities have been edited, transcribed, uploaded. If one survived the snow drifts and howling winds while wending the hollers, one could get a room at The Graduate for just $499. Or Hyatt Place for just $439!

Thing is, Hoosiers basketball remains insanely popular in those hollers. Cityfolk like it too! And rather than get up early and drive, these folks have chosen to drive and drink. They’ll be boozing maskless in downtown Hoosierville ten hours before tip-off. The ones who get to bed before midnight will start again before the game.

So, much to Joey’s consternation, we’ll all get up at 5:30 am, lose an hour crossing the border, and hope that Indiana’s DOT plowed the tiny roads, too.

Your trusted sources, among others.

Illini Report will not have an assigned photography spot at The Skjodt. In fact, among Illini media, only WCIA gets a spot on the floor. COVID and big donors have eaten into floor space.

Instead, Illini Report will enjoy something it hasn’t done since the Indiana blowout of 2019 — watching a basketball game. (Illini Report got so depressed during that game, that it had to walk to the very top of the real Assembly Hall’s bowl to watch Archie Miller — remember him? — rip Andres Feliz’s heart out.)

Illini Report will provide postgame coverage from both media rooms at The Skjodt. Being all fancy about basketball, IU has two of them. The opponent’s room is actually an administrative office for IU softball, and it’s never set up until after the game. No A/V equipment, though. Just chairs.

But because the Illini media pool is so butch, and travels well, IU Athletics Communications made an 11th hour decision, on Friday afternoon, to move our postgame to Suite 1820 of The Skjodt.

If we can find that vending machine, we will communicate Brad’s thoughts about the big win.

Or so we can hope.

This game has, since the schedule came out, seemed like the linchpin of Illinois’s quest for a ’22 championship. A win at Bloomington would define the season.

People who forgot how good this IU team is, perhaps because their coach got fired, need only recall the UI-IU contests of the past three years.

We’ve always known that these particular Hoosiers are dangerous. We knew it when Illinois barely beat them last year, and we knew it when Illinois barely beat them the year before that.

See you bright and early.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Enter Glass Man

Contemplating a return match with the B1G’s enigmatic Indiana Hoosiers, you should focus on rebounding and how the Hoosiers approach it.

Angry white trash fans will tell you — between calls for Archie Miller’s head — that their team has been pretty damn good on defense this year. The offense stalls for massive dead periods, predictably, if not every single game.

As for boards, Indiana is not good. Or at least, they’re not as good as conference opponents. Here’s a chart of recent Illini opponents, and how they perform on the glass in B1G games.

Some obvious points here: Iowa has the most rebounds per game because they play fast. Ohio State has the most rebounds overall because they’ve played 12 games. Rutgers has more O-bounds than its opponents, and fewer overall. Maryland does not compete for offensive rebounds. Not always, anyhow.

Not crashing the O-boards was key to Maryland’s win in Champaign. By sending their guys the other way, Maryland’s defense allowed itself to fend off Ayo and the blitzkrieg Illini transition game.

Deconstructing that game, Terps coach Matt Brady said this of the Illini “7 seconds” plan:

“Transition is such a big deal for them, We lost to Illinois (the Tevian Jones game) when they beat us in transition. And even though they got 18 points in transition (this January), we said we’re gonna send three if not four guys back. We’re not even going to try to get an offensive rebound unless we have a great chance to get a rebound. It’s another one of the things, if you’re going to beat them, you have to keep them out of transition. It was part and parcel of what we tried to do.”

Contrast Friday’s Iowa game. Every time the Hawkeyes made a bucket, Ayo immediately sprinted through their “defense” for a lay-up.

Ohio State won in Champaign because they did something unusual — or at least unusual for them: They relied on three-point shooters who hadn’t previously been successful from the arc.

It’s hard to scout for things that never happen, and it’s not worth scouting for things that rarely happen. That’s why Illini fans perseverate about the unknown bench player who “goes off” against Illinois. In truth, that happens to every team. It’s the nature of the game.

Like Ohio State, Indiana is small-ish on the interior. Like EJ Liddell, Trayce Jackson-Davis is a natural power forward who plays somewhat out of position. But unlike EJ Liddell, Trayce Jackson-Davis has not attempted a three-pointer this year. Not even during Indiana’s three non-conference blowouts.

So the key thing to watch for tonight is how Indiana sets up on the defensive end. Will they get back before Ayo takes off for the races? Will they keep the ball out of Kofi’s hands? That’s been an Achilles heel for Illinois this year. You’d want Kofi to get more than 10 touches per game, but so far, Brad Underwood’s scheming has not produced more touches. A few Zooms ago, he chuckled at the notion that any scheming could achieve a more open, or less harassed, Kofi.

But if it weren’t possible, you’d never have heard of Aloysius Anagonye. There’s a list of famous Spartans from Zach Randolph to Kelvin Torbert to the supersoft Paul Davis whose interior efforts were greatly advanced by Aloysius Anagonye felling defenders left and right around them.

So far in the Underwood tenure, Illinois has employed the butt-screen for its little guys, rather than as flack protection for its bigs.

Giorgious

When Kofi does get the ball, he’ll need to keep it high. away from help defenders.

Jackson-Davis is a good shot blocker, and he has a thick base. His shoulders aren’t as broad as you’d expect if you only got a chance to look at his lower trunk. But he knows how to use his hands in low-post defensive situations. But if Kofi can muscle the ball upward, he (or a teammate) will get slightly more than one chance per shot to achieve ball-through-ring.

Indiana doesn’t rebound well, and Jacob Grandison has launched himself into a prominent role largely because his natural instinct is to rush the offensive glass (90% according to Underwood).

If Kofi gets 15 touches, Indiana loses. If Grandison gets four second-chance buckets, Indiana loses.

But teams don’t need to rebound, certainly not offensively, if they never miss. Quod erat demonstrandum. If Rob Phinisee and Aljami Durham drain their threes*, and if Kofi gets twelve touches or fewer, Indiana wins.

*Armaan Franklin will make his, if he plays. He’s shooting 46% this season. Durham is 32% & Phinisee is 35%