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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Journal of the Plague Year

If five Illini basketball players are still standing by 8 pm tonight, there will probably be a basketball game at State Farm Center. That’s pretty much how Brad Underwood laid it out in his Sunday press conference.

Ben is out. That much we know. Scott Richey’s persistent questioning yielded as much. Trent, Belo and Jake might be available. Brad said he doesn’t know. Trent’s problem is a deep bone bruise. Belo’s problem should be the subject of a dissertation. The O-shaped suction marks on his neck recall Star Trek (the original series).

The rest of the team seems to be troubled by a respiratory virus. In the 2021 season, the team was protected from respiratory viruses. This year, not so much. For one thing, classes are in-person. For another, they live in an enormous apartment building with a thousand strangers. (It’s the building whose construction necessitated the demolition of Trito’s Uptown/Campus Crusade, Chin’s Wok n’ Roll/Eddie’s/Clybourne, RR Sportsgrill/Firehaus and the Sixth & Daniel Espresso Royale.)

Open this picture in a new tab. Look at their faces.

Respiratory virus you say? That rings a bell. Is it influenza? Maybe. Scott persisted about that, too. He won Sunday’s Actual Journalist award.

It seems the flu is carving its way through the entire campus, not just the basketball team. It’s not Covid, unless the current strain mimics influenza’s bone pain, fever and listlessness.

The last two pre-game availabilities have been among the most frank of Underwood’s career. Perhaps by necessity. Maybe because he feels the pressure of two unexpected, early season losses.

In fairness, he’s generally straightforward, and you can literally see him thinking when a question veers on territory that DIA handlers have cautioned him against addressing. You can also tell, if you spend a lot of time around him, that he’d much rather shoot from the hip. (If he leaves the University of Illinois before he retires, it probably won’t be because the University of Illinois micromanaged him. It’s merely one of the irritants.)

So what about tonight’s basketball game, assuming there is one? What should you expect? Nobody knows. Even Brad Underwood doesn’t know.

If Illini basketball has a successful season, the narrative will begin with this hellish month of injuries and illness, and how the team came together despite them.

Let’s hope you’re reading that narrative in mid-March.

^^^ Lucas Johnson
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Illini Basketball

The Assassin assassins

After Alfonso Plummer connected on his first three-pointer, this lazy cameraman said to himself “I ought to take a picture of that, in case it turns out to be important.” These are the thoughts of an incompetent sports reporter. Fortunately, I paid attention to me.

“He’s really, really good at what he do.” – Asst. Coach Tim Anderson

There are sooo many great pictures from Tuesday, and I hope to post them by the time your tryptophan infusion forces you to have a little lie-down. Lots of them feature Bruce Weber, who contines to be a great subject for ridicule. But there are also just a whole lot of moments that you’ll want to remember about this young team. And a few that they’ll want to forget.

Paul Schmidt & Marcus Anderson carry Trent Frazier to the locker room.

Belo’s continuing head trauma seems to have escaped the secrets locker. The bright side is that he’ll probably stop playing like he’s concussed if he ever reaches the point where he’s no longer concussed.

Kofi’s passing out of the low block increases with each game, proving that those practices where he’s not allowed to shoot/dunk are improving his habits markedly.

Hutch played as a triple-threat on Tuesday. You first heard he was just a shooter, but more recently you’ve been told that “he can do it all,” and he was certainly more of a slasher in Kansas City. That should give you optimism about this team’s chance at improving its offense.

Bruce Weber, whose string of bad luck continues to not be his fault, noticed that Illinois did things to his team that they didn’t do to Cincinnati.

You almost feel for the guy.

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Illini Basketball

Tell Me Why!

You’d want to know who this Illini team thinks it is.

You’d want to know what the coaching staff has been drilling in practice.

You’d want to know when Trent Frazier & Da’Monte Williams forgot how to shoot.

Only five TOs for Belo this time.

You’d want to know where Andre Curbelo thought he was headed when he barrelled into pairs & threes of taller defenders.

You’d want to know why this team looks so uninspired, and how Brad Underwood lost control of them.

Assistant coach Tim Anderson asks for focus from the Illini bench.

This is one of those articles that nobody will read, because you don’t want to think about Illini basketball right now. Maybe, in a few months, Illini basketball will have rekindled your interest, and you’ll be scrolling the web, trying to find as much content as possible. Let’s hope so. You’ll be happier, and all of us who report on Illini basketball will earn some money from your clicks.

It was easier against just one defender.

Right now, every upcoming opponent is studying video from the Bearcats’ Trouncing. They’ll see how Kofi Cockburn dominated the game for the first eight minutes, and what adjustments Wes Miller made at the Under-12 timeout.

A lot of the upcoming job Brad Underwood has in front of him — a job which could, ideally, result in those familiar His Best Coaching Job accolades that TV commentators gush during conference tournaments — involves Reining Wild Horses.

Andre Curbelo and Coleman Hawkins have All-American potential. Each is exactly the kind of player that gets fans excited to watch. And together, especially in the form of a perfect half-court lob to two-handed slam, basketball cannot get more fun.

But both Curbelo and Hawkins are out-of-control right now. Belo did better with Kofi in the line-up, but he’s nowhere near solid enough to be a starting PG in the B1G. His sixth-man role worked last year because he introduced an element of chaos into the game. You can’t rely on chaos for 36 minutes. It giveth and taketh away. Right now, taketh is winning.

Both Hawkins and Curbelo are becoming the focus of refereeing, which industry is attempting, per NCAA direction, to clean up the ungentlemanly aspects of the college game. That’s why Belo and ColeHawk get technicals for taunting.

Brad calmly signaled for a time-out. He was only pretending to be calm.
Brad Underwood rips Coleman Hawkins a new asshole.

Underwood looked calm when he called a time-out from the Illini bench. But as soon as he’d disappeared into the huddle, he exploded. “We told you this was coming!” or some variant on that theme was the most coherent of the phrases, which could be heard, if not intelligibly, in the upper deck.

Chester Frazier offers positive reinforcement to a new-assholed Coleman Hawkins.

It seems the team — and Coleman in particular — hadn’t followed the scouting report, or wasn’t prepared for the ferocity of Cincinnati’s defensive pressure.

This point, after a week of post-Marquette practices, should discourage the reader. On the other hand, it’s difficult to replicate Darryl Morsell and David DeJulius in practice. Not until they’re picking your pocket does one understand how intense their defensive prowess can be.

On the bright side, both of those guys might still be playing for B1G teams, and they’re not. Instead, they’re helping Illinois to understand what’s coming before conference play starts.

Thus, Coleman got 22 minutes of tick. Da’Monte got 27, shoring up the defense, but keeping the offensively spectacular Hawkins on the bench.

It turns out Hutch is real, not merely a legend. True to form, he was injured in Monday’s game.

Brad’s coaching was not all top-down on Monday. It wasn’t all rage-filled. He also shared a beautiful moment with Kofi, when they discussed low-post strategy and movement.

Kofi gets along well with others.

Kofi has a way to go before he understands the center position in a way that, say, Moses Malone did. But his demeanor doesn’t need a complete rebuild. Curbelo and Hawkins shouldn’t be completely robbed of their wildness. That would make them easier to scout, and less exciting to watch.

But that fine-tuning, finding the sweet-spot in between wild and controlled, is Underwood’s daunting task. You should hope that those TV commentators are talking about it in March.

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Illini Basketball

The Omar Addition

Kofi Cockburn was the player made available for Sunday’s pre-Cincinnati Zoom, and that makes sense. He’s the pre-season #B1G POTY, and the Cincy game is his first of the season.

Kofi’s presence was felt long before tip-time, though. It put Andre Curbelo’s mind to rest, for one thing. The debacle at Marquette demonstrated that Belo-to-Kofi doesn’t work when half the ingredients are missing. Curbelo can play his game now that Kofi’s back.

The defense collapsed, time and again.

Doubters of the Underwood Administration multiplied in numbers during those final seven minutes of the Fiasco in Milwaukee. It’s the nature of the beast.

Time and again Belo charged into the lane. Time and again Kofi failed to clear a path, or anticipate a lob.

Because he was sitting on the bench.

Kofi wasn’t completely distressed as the game unfolded. He found moments to laugh with Pittsburgh’s finest (cop-cum-referee) Larry Scirotto, whose mere presence at games annoys Illini fans as much as it delights Kofi. The gentle giant and the aggressive Napoleon enjoy an off-court rapport.

Larry has a boisterous personality, like all the mouthy cops you remember from mouthy cop shows like The Wire or Law & Order. He’s cocky and good-natured. Kofi continued to banter with him throughout the game.

Kofi explains to Larry Scirotto that he’s gonna need his money by midnight.

Kofi’s suspension provided some much-needed PT for his back-up, Omar Payne. Payne was fantastic against Marquette.

Unlike Cockburn, he’s not an offensive threat, but the problems he creates at the other end give opposing coaches fits. Payne didn’t quite pull a Darryl Morsell on the Golden Eagles, but he made them plenty uncomfortable.

And that’s exactly why he’s playing at Illinois. But it’s not just oppponents he’s here to bother. It’s his frend Cockburn: Having Omar defend Kofi on a daily basis will do more for this team than anybody will ever appreciate.

Omar and Coleman Hawkins make it hard on the interior.

Coach Underwood said Omar’s defensive grade-out was excellent for the game at Marquette, and that’s what you would expect having seen the number of blocked and altered shots Omar provoked.

The Golden Eagles prospered in the mid-range game, where Justin Lewis picked-n-popped and exploited lazy close-outs to hit Nigel Hayes-style mid-range jumpers. You could live with Morsell going off on the Illini. It’s what he does. Lewis’s 17 points hurt.

Trent Frazier cried after the Marquette game. We know that because Brad said so in his postgame. And then moments later, we were sticking cameras & microphones up Trent’s snout, and the bright lights showed that he’d definitely just finished an hour’s swim in a heavily chlorinated pool, or been crying.

Trent is smarter than he knows, which is to say he’s smart, and he doesn’t know it. Not always. In a very human way, Trent has doubts and anxieties, and loyalties He defended Belo against perceived criticism after that game, because he had his guard up. He didn’t realize that our questions about Belo’s first time in front of a hostile crowd and Belo playing without Kofi weren’t necessarily dumping on Belo, but instead trying to grasp why Belo faltered.

It’s a reminder that these celebrities are still growing, and experience the same moments of fragility we all face, especially when we’re young & trying to figure things out.

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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.

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Illini Basketball

Kansans of the Ark, part 1

There’s usually a story behind a non-conference scheduling.

Lon Kruger brought Texas – Pan American to Champaign, because he coached there. He liked the people there. He wanted them to get paid.

Bruce Weber scheduled Vanderbilt because he liked having a couple of beers with Kevin Stallings, his old benchmate from Gene Keady’s glory years.

Scheyerface: It’s not just for Scheyers anymore.

Brad Underwood scheduled Arkansas State because he’s friends with Red Wolves coach Mike Balado. He didn’t use the word “beers” in describing their friendship, but feel free to draw your own conclusions. Florida was involved.

I misshopped the guy’s forehead on the right. He doesn’t actually look like a Romulan.

Trent Frazier wore a big black harness on his right arm during Thursday’s practice. It looked like the thigh pads that basketball players wore under their baggy pants in recent years. It looked like the thigh pads that football players wore until fashion became more important than practicality. It didn’t look like a shoulder harness. If there was a shoulder component, it was obscured by Trent’s practice jersey.

Talking to Omar Payne and Alfonso Plummer before today’s practice, we got the feeling that both Illini were aware that Arkansas State has a couple of talented guards, and possibly some bigs that know how to basketball.

The unspoken point was that these two Illini players will be auditioning their skills against the best opponent they’ve faced so far in this nascent Year ’22. Plummer wants to showcase his PG skills because he knows the NBA isn’t interested in SGs my height. And although both Trent Frazier and Andre Curbelo are likely to play Friday, Plummer has been practicing at PG in preparation for the game.

Brad Underwood said the coaching staff was surprised by Plummer’s adjustment to the role, and his adeptness with the unique skill set involved in directing an offense.

This may have been an Elite. Elite on Brad’s part, but he did seem genuinely surprised.

Payne gets another chance to swat shots and possibly integrate himself into the Illinois offense. This is a good thing. Kofi Cockburn’s suspension was a godsend in this regard. And although Kofi got a raw deal from the NCAA, it’ll almost certainly help the team in the long run.

You want Omar to succeed. He’s exactly the kind of student-athlete that you want to root for, both in life and on the court.

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Illini Basketball

Nobody Got Killed

You’re looking for a Silver Lining after watching a game that was both a blowout and a Cautionary Tale. Rest assured, it’s here.

Da’Monte Williams is unlikely to shoot 2-for-11 in future games. He’s unlikely to find himself running the point during B1G play. And even if he does, his experience Tuesday guarantees that he’ll be more comfortable in that role.

Ben is the Boss, man. (See what I did there?) We could also probably figure out a basketball meme for verDONKing the ball.

Coleman Hawkins will probably get fewer technical fouls & taunting warnings. Probably.

His mouth is as big as California, and his current confidence level might not fit in the entire Pacific Time Zone. No complaints here, but Brad Underwood is already assessing the value of ColeHawk’s assessments. (He wants fewer T’s assessed.)

Coleman Hawkins explains to referee Chad Barlow that he wasn’t pushing off.

Omar Payne will probably find himself comfortable on offense. His defense is entertaining enough to merit some amount of PT. He’s an intellectual, so he’s probably overthinking everything right now, as he adjusts to new information overload. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? (Excluding the 247 free board people, obviously.)

Dudes were sidelined. Belo caoched the whole game.

Ramses Melendez fears nothing. You were like that too, once. What happened to you?

Let’s hope it doesn’t happen to RJ. On the other hand, Brad Underwood ripped a new asshole for him after RJ’s three-point celebration became a defensive breakdown.

Jake got his chance to shine.

Alfonso Plummer had a better stat line than his social media response would suggest. You didn’t seem to like his game. He was fine.

Playing the most minutes of anyone from either team, Plummer failed to assassin down the avenue. But he converted 3-of-7 shots. His A-to-TO ratio was in the plus range. He rebounded from the two-spot. He stole three balls.

This win counts toward rankings and post-season slotting. Embrace it.

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COVID-19 Illini basketball

Was That What We Were Expecting?

The Trent Frazier Show was rolling in fifth gear all night. Luke Goode rebounded. Coleman Hawkins drained threes. Austin Hutcherson made a 90° turn in mid-air, to shoot a ball that he’d already rebounded while already in-air.

I guess that’s what we expected to see in a contest featuring the state’s worst basketball team versus the state’s best basketball team. (I’m including JV teams from the IHSA.)

The unexpected performance came from Andre Curbelo, who was really … um … bad? And amazing? But we expected amazing. We didn’t expect five turnovers.

D’oh!

Brad Underwood won’t lose much sleep over it. He explained that Belo was, frankly, nervous. After a freshman year of balling for 200 people, he’d found himself on display for a few thousand, including a rowdy student section.

This is why we schedule exhibition games.

And we shouldn’t forget that he was also amazing, as expected.

The challenge for Brad Chet Tim Geoff is to rein in Belo’s exuberance without crushing it. Or am I being too control-ly?

Maybe Belo just needs a couple of exhibition games under his belt, and he’ll be fine?

He was, after all, amazing.

Coleman Hawkins is the other free spirit whose playmaking thrilled fans and burst capillaries in his coach’s face. Should he be throttled?

Coleman seems to know that it’s a matter of picking his spots. Knowing when to play it straight. Knowing when to get creative.

Surely the surprise of the night was RJ Melendez, who didn’t get in the game ’til the fourth quarter. That late entry was expected, because RJ’s performance in the Open Practice suggested he was a few years away from comprehending the defensive principles that Underwood’s staff requires of its rotation players.

But RJ found his spots against USF-Joliet. He didn’t get backdoor-ed. He hedged correctly. He didn’t look afraid.

RJ was fun on offense, hitting a three and converting a reverse lay-up. But that was the expected part for him. We knew he could rebound, too. But what about his defensive positioning? Will he be instant offense for the other team?

He did not look lost against USF.

The rest of the veterans displayed rust here and there, among moments of grace. Da’Monte Williams best play was batting a ball from a Saint and simultaneously knocking it off his victim, out of bounds. He nearly emoted in celebration.

Kofi had a somewhat frustrating game, of the sort he’ll experience every night over the next five months, as teams study his every move, and do their utmost to stop him.

He’s a kind, sensitive person. So you hope he can keep that good nature while opponents do their best to ruin his future.

Hutch did not miss.

We still can’t be sure that Hutch is ready for P5 competition, because he certainly didn’t face it Saturday. But he looked a lot more like the super-hyped Hutch than he did the skinny Division III kid we saw two years ago.

It still looks like Podz and RJ won’t see a lot of floor time this year, a vibe that Underwood conveyed in his season kickoff press conference. Podz didn’t have the opportunity to show us anything worth knowing. He didn’t have time.

The ball was in his hands as time ran out on the game, so he was in position to score the hundredth point. He did it.

Trent was already laughing, Brad was already angry.

RJ’s brief tick was a lot flashier, but he faces the same general problem: Which three veterans will he replace?

Maybe we’ll know more after Exhibition #2, just six days from now.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Lighting Up Francis

Did you know there was a University of Saint Francis in Illinois?

Yes? Congratulations! You’re from Joliet!

University of Saint Francis (IL) is the fifth biggest University of Saint Francis in the United States; after PA, Fort Wayne, Brooklyn and Steubenville.

Compared to other scismic branches of papist basketball, Franciscan hoops suffers — just as it should, given its namesake — versus Jesuit powerhouses like Georgetown & Gonzaga. St. Bonaventure is probably the best Franciscan basketball program. The second-best might be Saint Francis-PA*, which tied for last in the mighty Northeast Conference last year. (If you don’t have a sense of the NEC’s might, know that Robert Morris abandoned its affiliation in 2020, to join the Horizon League.)

Against Pennsylvania’s Franciscans, which Illinois hosts on December 18, Brad Underwood will foist a rotation of Illini which will, by that 13th contest, have grown familiar.

But who?!?!?!? you wail.

That’s your nine-man rotation. But will Brad use a nine-man rotation?

Tim Anderson says the coaching staff is working on ways to employ a Twin Towers set, with Omar Payne and Kofi Cockburn blocking all sunlight from penetrating the lane.

That mission seems counterintuituve given the obvious 4-out nature of this roster. “Positionless” basketball demands that the parts be interchangeable, and that’s not the case when you put Omar and Kofi in the same five.

Ben Verdonk

What about Podz and Goode? Will Underwood try a two sets of five approach, like John Calipari did in 2014?

Underwood wants to run. He wants transition baskets and threes. That suggests that “ten starters” is possible. And we know that Underwood is willing to tinker, to experiment. (Such an emmeffing breath of fresh air.)

On the other hand, if you’re starting from the simplest of recipes (Belo to Kofi) it feels unecessary to get weird. Replacing Ayo with shooters gives away the game plan.

Or does it?

Hutch with coach Tim Anderson

Coleman Hawkins says the Hutch Game isn’t so much a steady diet of three-pointers as it is using ball-screens to create a pull-up jumper. Hutch’s much reported near-posterization during the Open Practice suggests that he’s willing to drive like Ayo, but perhaps not finish like Ayo. (Ayo’s use of the glass, the oldest of old school basketball, is nearly extinct among young players. They could learn from Ayo’s example.)

Brad Underwood watches Andre Curbelo during a drill.

Is Underwood so devious that he’ll run two completely different offenses during the same season? That’s the kind of departure from the norm that gets books published, even dissertations.

It doesn’t seem likely, does it?

Then again, a low-post offense doesn’t require more than a few option plays. If Geoff Alexander wants to drill his bigs on a few different sets, and some of those sets incorporate a double-post presence … well, isn’t that the type of advanced education these scholar-athletes expect from a world class institution?

As Omar said, “I’m a scholar.”

Omar Payne & Ben Verdonk

Because Illinois scheduled two exhibition games, rather than a secret scrimmage, one might conclude that Brad wants to learn more about his rotations. How do these guys interact when facing unfamiliar opponents? Which fivesomes mesh?

It’s not unfair to predict a 126-42 final score in an imbalanced match-up against the nation’s worst Francis. But it would be more fun, and more useful, to use the game for experimentation. The “starters” already know what to do. You can put a fivesome of

  • Belo
  • Trent
  • ‘Monte
  • Jake
  • Kofi

on the floor, and expect them to run like clockwork.

NOTE – Two minutes of this video were muted by YouTube, for copyright purposes.

What happens when it’s

  • Belo
  • Plummer
  • Hutch
  • Coleman
  • Omar?

What happens when you mix and match those fives, or put Goode on the wing?

Personally, I’d rather see Podz, Verdonk and Goode get the maxium PT. We need to know what those guys can do, and whether they’re ready to help.

Podziemski gives a Matt Heldman vibe. It’s difficult to keep the Matt Heldman types of the floor. Goode looks ready, and might challenge veterans for tick.

RJ Melendez meets team IR photo by Mark Jones, who is hilarious

You’d want to see RJ Melendez and Brandon Lieb get some minutes, just because it’s fun to play, and they’re unlikely to play in non-exhibition games. Not unless Brandon puts on 30 lbs. and RJ grasps defensive positioning.

RJ is, according to his coaches & teammates, the athletic freak among them. That implies Fan Favorite potential. But it’s almost painfully obvious when talking to him that he’s the youngest, or most youthful, of this Illini team. Acclimating to a huge American campus — via a second language — while also trying to compete with crafty fifth-year seniors, all while realizing that the wind can be uncomfortably cold sometimes … it’s a lot.

He seems bright and cheerful, though. So who knows? Maybe he’ll get his footwork in order by December.

*Francisan hoops completists will want to know that, while Brooklyn fared better in last year’s NEC, it split its games with PA. PA has put three (THREE!) guys in the NBA and, unlike the Terriers in New York, played in The Tourney once.

Once.
Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Mood

On Thursday, Steve Helwagen asked Buckeyes guard CJ Walker if he’d consider returning for a sixth year. CJ said, essentially “you never know.”

On Friday, Chris Holtmann didn’t wait for a question. He said Walker will not return for a sixth year. “CJ will move on and professionalize. As many people know, he’s got a young daughter, and we’re fully supportive of that.” Holtmann then immediately switched subjects, to Kyle Young. He hopes Kyle will come back for another year.

The mood in the Zoom was somber.

Spencer Holbrook asked how Holtmann felt about his nomination as Naismith Coach of the Year. Holtmann looked at the floor. “Looks like they did their voting before last week.” It’s a realistic response. tOSU has lost three in a row. It must feel like ages since they’ve had mojo at The Schott.

Illini fans might look at Kyle Young as a tough, tattooed, bouncy ball of muscles and gristle. Holtmann certainly echoed those sentiments in his Senior Day preview. But Thursday’s Q & A with Kyle, when not pondering another year in Columbus, was about his frailty.

Contrast Giorgi Bezhanishvili’s pre-game Zoom. It doesn’t seem to have gone as viral as we, the participants, seemed to expect. (I think everyone on the call Tweeted, wrote or compiled something about his infectious mood.)

Perhaps lost in the bonhomie was the deadly seriousness of Giorgi’s intention to win a “naytional” championship. Giorgi keeps things loose, but there’s a 94 x 50 foot rectangle where he’s not always friendly.

IT’S GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME

The eternally optimistic Scott Beatty floated, in another recent Zoom, the notion that most teams are getting better this time of year. Brad Underwood did not assent.

In fact, this is the wheat from chaff portion of the season. The culling of the weak. Some teams are mentally weak and some are physically worn out. Ohio State seems, as of this morning, to be both of those things.

Does that mean Illinois will win this afternoon’s game? You don’t look to Illini Report for predictions or betting tips. Sports abstractions are a billion dollar industry, and you have plenty of places to read them. I’m just telling you about the people involved. Brad Underwood seems to be holding his team together while Holtmann’s falls apart.

Hawkeyes fans lament Fran’s February Fade, a seemingly annual tradition in Iowa City. This year, much of that talk can be attributed to CJ Fredrick’s ankle. But if you had to choose between mental and physical when diagnosing Iowa’s late swoons, you’d probably guess the former.

Cellvin Samsung has borne this reputation for decades. His 2002 Oklahoma squad scrapped and scraped its way to a Final Four. That’s his only trip. Since getting his first head coaching position forty years ago — and despite perennial high-rankings, media hype and avoidance of NCAA-oriented restraints; his teams routinely limp to the finish line.

Andre Curbelo, Jacob Grandison, Jermaine Hamlin (Illinois Athletics)

Is it a minor miracle that Underwood has this team improving, loose and confident in March? Or is it the major miracle of this season?

How much of the late season vitality should you attribute to wacky personalities like Andre Curbelo and Jermaine Hamlin? How much should you credit the toughness of Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams? What of Jacob Grandison, the guy you’d most likely describe as the team’s moral conscience?

Was the first Ohio State game the impetus for Brad to insert Grandison in the starting line-up? Brad didn’t phrase it exactly that way yesterday. He said the team was “discombobulated” and “searching for some things.” Perhaps Grandison’s quiet leadership has merely coincided with the mid-season relaunch. Maybe it laid the foundation.

If Illinois does win a naytional championship, books will be written about all these personalities and the confluence of their circumstances. If not, maybe it doesn’t matter.

As 3 PM central approaches, it’s nice to feel optimistic that Illinois is in the position to do something special.