Categories
Illini basketball

The Championship Game

Concussing Kofi Cockburn was a clever strategy for the first Purdue game. A stunned Kofi couldn’t maintain his footwork defensively, and the mammoth Zach Edey scored 14 points in the first half as the Boilers steamed to a 37-26 advantage.

Kofi complained to referee DJ Carstensen about the Edey Elbow. Carstensen ignored him.

Zach Edey’s uncalled Flagrant 1 knocked Kofi’s head backward.

But as #B1G officiating became the subject of social media ridicule, the conference offices realized they needed to get better. Even Matt Painter said the Illini didn’t get “a good whistle” during the teams’ first go-round.

Kofi thrust his elbow a few times, trying to get Carstensen’s attention

Brad Underwood didn’t show his hand about the #B1G’s operations, which include referee evaluation and interviews with the teams and coaches. Jacob Grandison didn’t offer a lot of information about the process either, saying he leaves that stuff to the coaches.

But a blind squirrel could find this nut: Knocking your conference preseason POY out for a number of games is bad for TV ratings. It cost the Illini a game at Maryland, too, and that ain’t right.

Edey’s improvement has been a story in itself, but he’s unlikely to get the same leeway in West Lafayette that he enjoyed in Champaign. Looking the other way while players suffer neurological issues has been deemed bad.

Hunter Dickinson scored 28 points against the Boilers in their last game. That performance demonstrates that a mobile big can do damage against 40 minutes of Edey/Trevion Williams. In that game, which Purdue won 82-76 at Mackey on Saturday, the minutes breakdown was 17/23, a deviation from Edey’s recent overtaking of the elder Williams’s playing time.

But Edey gathered three fouls against Dickinson, while Williams played the entire game without a personal foul. Dickinson stretches a defense in a way that Kofi would probably enjoy, but so far, hasn’t: the Michigan big man shot three attempts from the arc, and made a pair of them.

Mr. Cockburn did not enjoy his spectator role in game 1.

This game is Illinois’s to win. The battling bigs probably won’t be the decisive factor, just like it wasn’t at Indiana. Instead, Purdue’s #1 KenPom adjusted offense versus Illinois’s #17 KenPom adjusted defense might see Sasha Stefanovic return to form. He’s generally had a bad time against the Illini. In the first meeting, he made 5-of-8 threes.

Jaden Ivey got all the whistle in Champaign, and converted 13-of-15 from the stripe to get his 19. Three-of-ten from the floor looks less impressive, and that’s the problem that Trent Frazier inflicts on people.

The KenPom numbers strongly favor the Illini at the other end of the floor. Purdue is AdjD #106, awhile the Illini Adjusted Offense is 21st nationally. Basically, if Trent Frazier had made 3-of-9 from the arc in that first contest, rather than 2-of-9, maybe Illinois wouldn’t have needed a second overtime to beat the visitors. Trent’s increasing reliance on penetration worked against the Boiler bigs, especially Edey, who is not “cat quick.”

Against Indiana, an excellent defensive team, the Illini made 43% of their shots from the arc. Luke Goode, Jake and Da’Monte Williams should have an easier time getting looks against the Boilers. Alfonso Plummer might not. His 6-of-12 performance last time might have Painter scheming to shut him down from the arc.

Maybe the most important factor in Tuesday’s game is that Kofi and the gang like playing at Mackey, the site of his first career long-two. He also converted all six of his free-throws in the last game where the Paint Crew was there to heckle.

Illinois won.

Thing is, the #EveryDayGuys enjoy the harassment. They all fielded a lot of questions about hostile crowds since shutting up 17,000 Indianans on Saturday. Kofi in particular could not prevent himself from breaking a wide grin about the enormous BOOOOOO! he got from Hoosiers fans during team introductions.

I wouldn’t bet against them.

Categories
Illini basketball

Edeyfication

Yesterday’s thesis — that only Illinois could beat Illinois in a match-up with Purdue — did not account for the Carstensen-Boroski-Dorsey triumvirate.

They weren’t the only reason Illinois lost, but a series of bizarre calls and non-calls probably made the difference in a game that was tied at the end, twice

Bo Boroski, Brian Dorsey & DJ Carstensen

Illini Report has no personal enmity for any of these individuals. Boroski is a friendly guy. Carstensen is earnest & nerdy. Dorsey did a good job of ignoring a tirade from Nagash Cockburn.

But officiating really did hurt Illinois and help Purdue yesterday. Even Matt Painter said as much.

A sellout SFC crowd noticed, too. Every time these refs botched a call, the clever SFC production team posted a slow-motion replay on the hall’s giant video screens. Illini fans howled in outrage, their frustration growing louder with each successive injustice.

Maybe the worst calls were non-contact “fouls” that went against Illinois. But Kofi Cockburn might argue that Carstensen’s lenience toward Zach Edey’s elbows was the major problem. Cockburn repeatedly gestured to Carstensen that he’d been hooked. Carstensen offered no response or acknowledgment.

Kofi tried to get DJ’s attention.

The Illini defensive strategy mirrored its recent experience, in which Big Ten teams opted against double-teaming Kofi. The Illinois coaching staff obviously thought Kofi could guard Edey by himself. Or perhaps the staff was (reasonably) terrified by all the 40% marksmen waiting on the arc if & when the defense collapsed to help in the paint.

When Carstensen decided that Edey would have full use of his elbows, the plan crumbled. On to strategy #2: Deny Edey the ball.

That didn’t work either.

Edey scored against Cockburn at will. He scored behind Omar Payne. If Painter had allowed Edey to keep going, rather than substituting Trevion Williams at regular intervals, Edey would have converted 10 lay-ups by halftime. He made six in eleven minutes.

But the other half of the strategy was working. Purdue missed its first six attempts from the arc, and Sasha Stefanovic finished the half 0-2 on threes. Illinois had picked its poison, and the poison was killing them.

Illinois’s second half poison wasn’t as much of a choice as a necessity. They held Edey to three FGs in 13 minutes, but denying his opportunities allowed Stefanovic to go wild from the arc. Sasha drained 4-of-5 in those 20 minutes.

If Andre Curbelo hadn’t made a surprise comeback, Illinois would have lost by double-digits, in regulation.

Curbelo’s return now forces Brad Underwood to choose which starter won’t get as much tick as he’d been getting. Jacob Grandison sat for almost nine minutes in the first half against Purdue, and more than five of the second.

Da’Monte Williams played about 17:30 for each half, and every minute of overtime. Trent Frazier played even more, including all of both OTs.

Because Alfonso Plummer has been cold in B1G play, and because his defense is regarded as the worst among the starting perimeter players; he seems like the obvious choice to sit more. But he buried 6-of-12 against Purdue and remains Illinois’s second-leading scorer. Without him, Purdue wins in regulation.

Andre Curbelo started giving instructions as soon as he entered the game.

It’s always a good problem to have, or so the saying goes. But because Illinois is competing for a championship, this personnel question takes on an importance John Groce never had to contemplate, even when he repeated that a single addition changes the entire team.

Different line-ups might be capable of defeating the B1G’s top 10 teams. But the question now is whether Illinois can beat the Badgers on Groundhog’s Day, or arrive in West Lafayette, on February 10th, with a better plan of action.

Categories
Illini basketball

The Skeptic

Matt Painter stands alone among B1G coaches in a category that should be as important to you as it is to me: He explains basketball comprehensibly, comprehensively & eloquently.

John Beilein and Bo Ryan are gone. Paint is now in a league of his own in this capacity.

He’s also known for developing bigs. Even more so than Tom Izzo, whose reputation always begins & ends with the word “rebounding.”

During Illinois basketball’s 40 years in the desert (2007-2019), a lot of Purdue’s bigs ate our lunch. As did their guards. And wings.

Their cheerleaders ate our lunch. Even their pre-game hype video ate our lunch.

But you’ll have noticed that Things Changed when Brad Underwood established himself in Champaign. Purdue was 2x guaranteed losses for a while, there. That’s no longer the case.

2022 is a weird & disappointing year for the Boilermakers. Pre-season darlings, they’ve struggled to win the games they’ve won versus legit competition. Is North Carolina good this year? Is Villanova?

NC State is not, and nor is Butler. Florida State might get better.

These are the teams Purdue beat, sometimes in chinny chin chin fashion.

Somebody needs to fill the rankings, and Carolina and Villanova are media darlings. So they were ranked.

Fine.

More important is what Purdue’s done in conference, which includes a close game with Penn State, a last second home win over Iowa, and a home loss to Wisconsin.

And the Ron Harper moment.

The Robbie Hummel-JaJuan Johnson-E’Twaun Moore class bought Painter a credibility that his Keady Tree roots couldn’t give him at a time when Bruce Weber was killing Illini basketball and Steve Lavin was between jobs.

Painter’s divorce scandal and flirtation with other programs sent a ripple of doubt through the faithful. And then he rebirthed himself. He’s one of the few major college basketball coaches whose job is not in question.

But is his current team any good?

Offensively, they’re amazing, and their offensive prowess stems from the same pick-your-poison 1-2 punch that Illinois likes to employ.

First get the ball to Trevion Williams, then watch him dunk it

Trevion Williams

… or kick it to the wing, where Purdue converts forty-percent of its three-pointers as a team.

Brad Underwood calls them the best offense in the country.

It’s the other end that’s been a problem, and Underwood says the Boilers used the Christmas Break (December 18 to January 10) to shore up a defense that’s let them down in those too-close games.

With Jaden Ivey feeding Williams, and with Williams subsequently finding Ivey on the wing; you’d expect them to be pretty good on that side of the ball. And then there’s the sasquatch Zach Edey, who can be hard to get around at the other end.

But it’s the surrounding cast that should make the difference for the Boilers. Will Sasha Stefanovic finally have a good game against the Illini?

What about this Mason Gillis kid who’s connecting on 55% of his three-pointers? After redshirting as a freshman, he made almost no impact on last year’s game. He got a late start this season after serving a four game suspension for DWI in June. (He played against ‘Nova, not against UNC.)

Which of those guys will exploit Alfonso Plummer? Who will Da’Monte and Jake shut down? Or will Coleman Hawkins again check the beefy 6’6″ shooter?

Mason Gillis scored 2 points in last season’s only match-up between Illinois & Purdue

If Illinois brings its A-game, they’ll beat these guys.

Trent Frazier doesn’t want Ivey to give Fox viewers anything to talk about. Kofi Cockburn will want to show NBA scouts what he can do to a dynamic big man like Williams. And then there’s Omar, whose game seems designed specifically to shut Trevion down.

Kofi’s been great with finding open shooters on the wings, so the only problem of late is that Illinois can’t hit from the arc. If they’re 6-of-24 from deep today, Purdue will win.

Categories
COVID-19 Illini Basketball

A gathering of friends

The obvious story line was Hunter Dickinson versus Illinois.

It’s tricky to perpetuate this line with a straight face, because Hunter made plain that he likes Kofi Cockburn and feels no personal animosity toward the Illini team.

On the other hand, you could take offense at Juwan Howard’s refusal to acknowledge Illinois as a rival, because it tends to diminish the Illinois brand. Since Howard rebuffed his home state’s school for the Maize & Blue, way back in 1991 (in the midst of Bruce Pearl-induced sanctions), some Illini fans have correctly felt jilted, even disrespected.

In fact, Illinois is a second-tier B1G school. University of Michigan is better than University of Illinois, by almost every conceivable metric.

Ann Arbor has a cooler downtown. It’s closer to major metropolitan attractions. The academic programs are equal or better. Their airport will get you to Munich or Tokyo and Chicago and Dallas.

Michigan’s football success allows the school to field 29 varsity sports teams. Illinois has just 21. (Ohio State has a whopping 36, including a rifle team. Penn State funds 31.)

So it must be at least slightly infuriating that Howard’s team hasn’t defeated Brad Underwood yet. But Howard, in his #B1GMediaDays availability, couldn’t have praised Underwood more effusively. His refusal to acknowledge Illinois as a rival was also a refusal to disrespect any B1G team.

Yesterday afternoon on the Conseco Banker’s Gainbridge hardwood, Greg Gard bantered with Trevion Williams, Sasha Stefanovic & Eric Hunter — his theoretical enemies.

The day before, it was Maryland’s Donta Scott and Eric Ayala yucking it up with Rutgers’s Ron Harper, Geo Baker and Caleb McConnell. These meetings occurred on the same 20′ square of court, certainly visible to anyone watching BTN while Mike Hall interviewed coaches and players from the xx-chromosome half of B1G hoops.

They’re all friends, whether you hate them or not.

We/Them is a dichotomy that exists only in minds. But it’s an important distinction. Among the B1G, all players, coaches and staff is a We. You are a Them. So am I.

I know I’m a Them because I was on the other side of the stanchions & ropes that protected players & coaches from media. They’re all vaccinated. Are we?

I brought my vaccination card, because the emailed event instructions said someone from the conference might ask, at any time, to see it (or a negative PCR test result from the previous 72 hours). I don’t think that actually happened. The B1G staff was extraordinarily helpful and attentive. Competent and friendly.

Legacy media gained a huge advantage through Covid protocols. It wasn’t hard to hear the coaches and players, who sat fifteen feet away from us. But smartphone mics can’t capture worthwhile audio from that distance. The guys who transcribe words to text, and the guys who plug XLR cables into a mult box (multiple audio jacks, that is), had no problems with the set up. So newspapers and TV stations got the materials they needed.

It was worth going, for me and probably every attendee. Because it was a gathering of friends, and it was nice to see them after a long, lonely winter.

But for you, the fan … well, I hope you got some good coverage from TV and newspapers.