Kofi Cockburn is a monster in the minds of people who’ve never met Kofi Cockburn. Brad Underwood is a monster in the minds of people who get their opinions from social media.
In fact, Brad Underwood is a reflective person. One of the things he reflects on, frequently in recent weeks, is that Kofi Cockburn is a freshman, and a minor.
We and Brad sometimes forget — because Kofi is an intimidating physical specimen — that inside the cranium crowning 290 lbs. of lean muscle is a youthful, playful mind just discovering the outside world, as we all did if we were lucky enough to have a freshman year.
On Sunday, as Kofi battled an intensely, historically talented B1G man, Nico Haeflinger marveled at a moment of video he’d just captured for his nightly sportscast. I was sitting next to Nico, so he shared it with me. We sat on the north baseline, under the Home basket. But this was the first half, so Nico’s footage took place 94 feet south of us.
The gist: Kofi was angry, or at least seemed angry.
After a particular play under the south basket, the quiet, polite, shy, deferential, reserved and demonstrably pacifist BEAST-IN-WAITING emoted in way that Nico had never seen. He shared the slo-mo of Kofi’s facial expression, expanding.
It started as defiance. It ended in roar.
Kofi executed, finished, successfully completed a set. Choose your verb, and strive for strength. Alliteration if possible. Onomatopoeic CRASH! in an ideal world.
Or, if you prefer, forget the prose.
Something magical happened. Appreciated simply: Kofi Cockburn scored on Luka Garza.
In doing so, Kofi passed a milestone in an extremely personal, intimate and perhaps indescribable growth step.
For all his plaudits, Kofi remains as humble & surprised as you’d expect him to be if you knew his biography rather than his press clippings.
Of course, all these impressions were formed before his official coronation as B1G Freshman 2020. But the reality of Kofi is that he doesn’t react to plaudits. People have told him that he’s god’s gift.
The important thing to know is that he learned how to play against Iowa, and Luka Garza. In the grand scheme of things, it’s the only thing he’ll ever need to know, because Luka Garza is the best B1G he’ll ever see.
When they face each other on Friday, Kofi will know that he’s answered the Garza challenge.
Brad Underwood name-checked Da’Monte Williams 36 seconds into his opening statement. In fact, Da’Monte was the first person he praised.
Having done this “reporting” thing for more than ten years, I can guarantee you that half of the Wolverine media pool thought “who?” Another 48% recognized the name, but had not considered it while writing the first draft of their stories.
“I can’t say enough about Da’Monte Williams and the job he did today. I think he guarded every player on the floor for them.”
This is the kind of money quote that lands in newspapers.
For the kill shot, Underwood added “his value doesn’t show in the stat sheet,” which the reporters were at that very moment scouring in hopes of finding the name he’d just said before they forgot what name he’d just said. ” but it sure does to winning basketball.”
A few minutes later, Ayo Dosunmu allowed himself a diversion from answering questions about himself & his fellow stars.
“I also wanna give kudos not only to the guys who played but to The Fun Bunch as well.”
Ayo rolled off the names of his non-star teammates, here at 3:16
“They don’t get any recognition, but at the end of the day, those are guys that’s pushin’ us each & every day in the gym. Making the scout team. Making it tough for us. Pushing us defensively. Making us lock in. Those guys are a huge part of our success and it’d be selfish of me not to give them credit.”
Alan Griffin didn’t play, of course. But he was very much involved in the win. Just before the second half began, Alan worked his way down the bench, dapping every teammate.
Alan’s B1G suspension kept him from hitting the big shot. But when Ayo got the ball with ten seconds remaining, Alan leapt from the bench and slapped two fingers against the easy access vein on his right forearm.
Fortunately, these Illini shoot only basketballs. Alan’s gesture referenced Ayo’s cold-bloodedness. Two jukes later, Ayo proved him right.
This game was the epitome of every little thing. When Ayo slipped on an unwiped wet spot, he turned the ball over. If Illinois had lost by a point or two, fans could rightly blame Michigan’s game day crew for failing to wipe it up.
And then there were the free-throws.
I feel terrible for Austin Davis, especially.
Everyone knows Zavier Simpson is a lousy free-throw shooter, so his misses are swallowed with a grain of salt. He’s been outstanding for the Wolverines, in every way but one.
I’ve never met Franz Wagner, and I couldn’t hear what he said (could you?) in that grainy, out-of-focus postgame scrum you and 980 others watched after Saturday’s game (thank$).
But he’d converted 20-of-23 FT attempts coming into that game. The fact that he missed both of his coulda-been-game-clinching attempts is inexplicable. He’ll kick himself about it, but the fact is, he’s good. And shit happens.
But Austin Davis needed a good bounce, and he didn’t get it.
In his third year of active duty, the RS-junior center has played a total of 260 minutes.
On Saturday, he was the energy guy who rallied his team to take the lead after Isaiah Livers aggravated that groin injury. After sitting out a year, playing 50 and 93 total minutes in his next two seasons, and seeing action in only 12 games so far this year; this was Austin Davis’s moment.
Frankly, he was great. Unfortunately, his effort and energy will be, in his mind, completely eclipsed by the fact that when he stood at the charity stripe for the fifteenth time in his career, he missed for the eighth.
I have a super-soft spot for these Wolverines. I didn’t want them to beat the Illini Saturday. They’ve had enough victories over Illinois to last them a while. But John Beilein is the best coach I’ve ever watched, and he was also an earnest, honest and comprehensible communicator. He instilled those values in his players.
I got to know them a little during their run to the 2017 B1G Tourney championship run, and just now discovered that the commemorative documentary I made of their harrowing travel misadventures was ruined by a faulty video card!
Geoff Alexander said “That’s it. I’m retiring,” His head coaching debut was that good.
The Special Assistant to the Head Coach is not normally allowed to instruct players, much less lead a game. But Jamall Walker is stuck in Miami, looking after Kofi Cockburn and Andres Feliz, whose passports don’t work smoothly with the EU. NCAA rules allow an exception in such cases, so Alexander got the first game assignment.
His starting line-up featured Zach Griffith and Tyler Underwood. If this Illini team wins the national championship, that tidbit of lore will be noted and memorized by a generation of ten-year-olds. Otherwise, it was a sloppy start.
That’s not a diss to the walk-ons. They weren’t especially bad. In fact, Samson Oladimeji was nearly dominant in his court time. A smart, older guy, given a chance … who knew?
Things got moving when non-starters Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili entered the game. One wishes, in deference to the not-as-publicized players, that the difference weren’t so obvious.
Woof. Man did Ayo bring something special to this game. It’s not as though he’s unusually tall, or dead-eyed. It’s that he recognizes the opponent’s response, and reacts. Read & react is normally what the defense does. It sucks to be on the other end of read & react read reaction.
The gym was hot-ish at tip time. 31 degrees is normal for basketball season, but this time it was in centigrade, which makes your skin bubble. Ayo liked it, comparing it to Morgan Park.
There were two electrical outlets in the gym, and one functional pair of toilets per assigned sex identity. Oddly, no crowds ensued around these facilities. The Italians went outside at halftime, to smoke. The Americans didn’t. No one peed.
@IlliniHDProductions used the northern outlet to power the camera which may someday show reasonably good video of the Insubria game, and which may just as likely stay in the can for in-house reference. I used the southern outlet to re-charge my phone.
The crowd was small, but above capacity. Local fans started wandering in once they realized no one was stopping them, and that a game was in progress. Illini fans were limited to Extra Special Friends of the DIA. If you donated more money than my house is worth, you were on the list. Jeff and Tami Verbin were there. The State Farm Center has a wing named for their interest in the betterment of Illini sports, and that’s worth much more than my house.
Keiko Price was also in attendance, in addition to @IlliniAD. Price is the associate director of athletics responsible for oversight of the men’s basketball program. Chris Span was there as faculty representative.
Everyone came on one bus. The team came on another.
After the final horn, Orlando Antigua asked the official scorers to clear the scoreboard. The hosts didn’t need a reminder of the beatdown. CUS Insubria players hugged and asked for photos with the victors.
Price and Joey Biggs wrangled pizzas and cans of Coca-Cola for the players. (Big bottles of water were also available, although the local tap is perfectly potable.)
Tyler Underwood said players got to choose their toppings. Kipper Nichols had zucchini.
I walked back to downtown Varese, enjoying the weather and my $28/night apartment. Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues watched my progress from a head shop named Urbana Botanica.
Apart from Orlando Antigua’s hot pink socks, there wasn’t much excitement at State Farm Center Wednesday night.
Oh wait, that’s not true. There was that time when Chin Coleman started dancing to the great perplexion of everyone else.
And of course, there was the time the ribbon display malfunctioned.
But the basketball game was pretty boring. The outcome was never in doubt. Augustana kicked & bobbled its way to 29 turnovers.
Even the lob dunks were mildly dull.
That’s okay. Brad Underwood wanted this game as a learning tool. And afterward, he said he learned a lot. I learned one thing: Matic Vesel desperately needs to make his first basket.
On this sunny Thanksgiving afternoon, someone should take Matic on a jog so he can grow accustomed to the sight of his own shadow. Then, perhaps, he won’t be so scared of it.
Okay, that might be a little harsh. But Matic is definitely playing scared right now. He looks more uncomfortable on the court than any Power 5 scholarship player I’ve ever seen.
Matic doesn’t present this posture in practice, but things are different under the bright lights with a few thousand people urging “shoot it!.”
I have no doubt that Matic will be a joy to watch in a few years, maybe even a few months. Right now, he just really needs to make that first basket. Then everything will settle down for him.
Underwood got to run some sets Wednesday. He saw how his team executed, and how an unknowing defense responded.
In the case of the inbound clear-out for Trent, everything worked perfectly.
The Frosh We Don’t Have
Keep this point in mind: If Jordan Goodwin hadn’t surprised everyone, and chosen Travis Ford over John Groce, Mark Smith would be in East Lansing.
Goodwin is shooting 5% from three-point range, and 23% overall. Smith isn’t lighting it up from distance (2-of-16) but he’s 20-of-35 from two-point range, which actually seems a bit low considering he attempts most of his shots from point-blank. Goodwin converted 16-of-25 free-throws to this point. Smith is 23-for-24.
In the long run, we’ll know which Metro St. Louis combo guard proves more valuable. Goodwin will probably improve. But I doubt Illini fans will be disappointed.
Jeremiah Tilmon is averaging four fouls per game at Mizzou. Again, that’s not an outrageous stat …
… until you realize that “per-game” is not the same as “per-40 minutes.”
Tilmon is seventh in minutes-played among the Tigers. He’s averaging four fouls per 15.4 minutes.
Greg Eboigbodin & Matic Vesel would not be here if John Groce were still the coach. They’d be at UIC and wherever Orlando Antigua were coaching, respectively.
It’s silly to say that Illini fans should prefer either project to the top-rated recruit of the Groce era. But again, time will tell. Telmon seems as likely to become the next Cliff Alexander as he does the next Moses Malone. Vesel probably isn’t the next Dirk Nowitzki, but that’s the skill set we’re looking at.
It would be nice if Dave Leitao could do at DePaul what Dave Leitao once did at DePaul. The Blue Demons were irrelevant for ages. He brought them back to prominence, and then bolted Charlottesville, where he had one good year.
Now back in Lincoln Park, he’s in his third miserable year. After losing to Illinois Friday, he grimly conceded that an ongoing rivalry is not likely.
If Leitao could make DePaul a contender, a regular home-and-home would be great for the Illini. Brad Underwood says he wants a stronger schedule. There’s no reason Illinois should spend a month tuning up against directional schools.
Now, some observations from the DePaul game.
You didn’t realize, prior to Friday night, that Illinois has a guy on the team named LT. His name is Little T. Williams. Or perhaps, L. Things Williams. “Things” for short, or just LT.
Underwood has described both Mark Smith and LT as having “the ‘it’ factor, whatever ‘it’ is.” But only LT has been praised for a comprehensive understanding of “the little things.”
Williams’s perseverance in a 1-on-3 drive found him rebounding his own miss, tricking three Blue Demons into performing a childhood dance, and then banking in his rebound.
He stymied DePaul’s second comeback with a crucial tip in. It was so quick that a few people didn’t see what happened.
LT again sacrificed his chances of fatherhood to the God of Player-Control Fouls.
This time, it was impossible to see whether LT was grinning afterward. Probably not. This time, it looked painful. And then a fight broke out between Kipper Nichols and Jaylen Butz, whose name is almost certainly the title of a gay porn DVD.
But I digress.
Remember how Doug Altenberger loved to take a charge? Remember how pumped Matt Heldman got when the ref wrapped a hand around the back of his own head?
LT is like that.
In the Bruce Weber era, some guys never attempted a dozen free-throws in a season. Weber was revulsed by contested shots. He never seemed to reach the next logical step: Contested shots lead to shots where people aren’t even allowed to defend the shooter!
Illinois now has a coach whose charges charge. They attack.
So yeah, maybe it doesn’t matter that Illinois can’t hit a three.
Mark Smith attempted twelve free-throws. He converted twelve free-throws. The twelfth rolled around the rim before dropping in. That suggests Mark was fatigued. The eleventh grazed the rim. There’s nothing odd about that.
What struck me as strange was the way the ball snapped the net on his first ten attempts. Maybe I was distracted, and missed one. But it seemed to me that Mark’s trajectory was exactly the same on each of those shots.
I sit close enough that I can hear the net snap, and it made the same sound every time. The bottom of the net moved in a straight line, backward, as the ball pulled it toward the stanchion. Then it snapped back
Mark has distinctly deliberate free-throw routine. He takes quite a bit of time to deliver the ball toward the goal. To my way of thinking, the long pause should detract from the efficiency of his muscle memory. But it doesn’t The pause itself may be a component of Mark’s nearly flawless delivery.
Is he always like this? I wondered.
The Supporting Cast
You wonder, would this rotation expand if Brad Underwood had more available bodies? Does Underwood employ the standard nine man rotation because that’s how many guys are available?
Greg Eboigbodin saw spot minutes. Matic Vesel got none. Vesel’s tentative debut suggests that he might need more time to feel comfortable on offense, ostensibly his strong suit.
Everyone else has played a vital role.
Trent Frazier provided crucial minutes at the point when Te’Jon Lucas (again) got in foul trouble. Aaron Jordan grabbed nine rebounds and hit a comebackbreaking three-pointer to throttle DePaul’s second second-half surge.
Last year, Aaron couldn’t get on the floor. He watched Malcolm Hill and Jalen Coleman-Lands play many minutes of basketball. So it might seem surprising that JCL transferred, and Jordan didn’t.
Friday night, the tables were turned. JCL watched from the bench as Jordan thrust the dagger.
Jalen Coleman-Lands the Untold Story
An unmentioned factor in JCL’s decision to transfer, perhaps irrelevant, is that Paul Magelli died during the last academic year.
Magelli and Jewell White were two prominent personalities in the JCL recruitment. John Groce specifically named White as a key figure in attracting JCL’s non-athletic interests.
Piankhi Lands and JCL spent an afternoon in Magelli’s office as the elderly don mapped out JCL’s academic course in the College of Business. COB’s association with the College of Engineering was key, because JCL showed a keen interest in micro-devices.
Magelli’s office at the BIF overlooked the fancypants atrium where future tax avoiders quaff Espresso Royale and embellish their LinkedIn profiles.
Malcolm Hill liked to hang out in Magelli’s office, too. The old guy was, frankly, a hoot. His connection to Illini basketball predates modern record keeping. In 1985, as president of Metro State University in Denver, Magelli recruited Lou Henson assistant Bob Hull to lead the Roadrunners basketball program into Division I That never happened, but it was probably a necessary step in bringing Hull’s wife Cindy Klose to national prominence.
Losing mentors from both the academic and athletic aspects of his life left JCL with few familiar faces in Champaign. Conveniently though, Dave Leitao had just recruited a whole bunch of JCL’s friends to Lincoln Park. Former LaLumiere coach Shane Heirman is now on staff.
And JCL has even found a new vessel for his whimsicality fix.
Magelli was about 5’5″ and good humored. Pantelis Xidias is about that height, and free spirited. Another LaLu transplant (like Drew Cayce, and also like Cayce, a non-scholarship member of his team) Xidias is the guy who keeps it unreal on DePaul’s bench.
JCL didn’t say how he got to Champaign Friday night, but he hawked balls during warm-ups and sat on the team bench, which is uncharacteristic for road games. NCAA rules prohibit transfers from traveling with the team. (That’s why Tyler Underwood sat with his family at EIU.)
If there’s any animosity between JCL and the program, it’s on an individual basis. Kipper Nichols got a big hug from JCL (which, as you know, is vital to Illinois’ on court success). JCL slapped Cayce on the ass during warm-ups. Sports Info Director Derrick Burson shared a laugh with JCL at mid-court.
Aaron Jordan is arguably more likely to thrive in the charging, attacking offensive system that Underwood hopes to develop. Meanwhile, JCL can shoot threes for the Roman church, which has already provided him one paid education at an idyllic lakeside school.
DePaul might not be as good at engineering, but they do have a College of Business. Taking classes in downtown Chicago will certainly enhance JCL’s business prospects.
You probably know most of the relevant details of the 80-67 EIU triumph at Charleston last Friday. Jay Spoonhour and Brad Underwood agreed to hold an informal scrimmage, and use it as a practice.
Then, they each abandoned that plan and found themselves in a competitive brawl.
Now, here are the irrelevant details.
Before the game, Josh Whitman and Tommy Michael stood courtside, talking about various things. These two were the top contenders for the job Whitman eventually got. Michael was an associate athletic director before taking the top job at Eastern. He was an academic advisor in the DIA before that. It was good to see that no hard feelings came between the two re: that job search.
Michael was in a good position to know exactly what happened with Matt Bollant at Illinois.
He chose to hire Bollant to lead EIU women’s basketball. Keep that in mind when remembering Bollant’s tenure, if you think about women’s basketball at all.
An unexpected member of the audience was Machanda Hill, Malcolm’s mom. It turns out that she hasn’t seen enough Illini basketball, yet.
She sat in the corner of the upper deck along with Kipper’s mom Tanicia Porter and Aaron’s dad Rob Jordan. Rob didn’t enjoy the scrimmage as much as, say, Eastern Illinois fans.
Also sitting in an upper corner were Bob and Cheryl Easter, who had great seats when he was university president.
Cheryl continues to be a huge basketball fan. She didn’t mind sitting in the corner. Truth is, Lantz Arena doesn’t really have bad seats. Both Leron Black and Kipper Nichols said it felt like a high school gym.
That setting, and the backdrop it brings, might be the cause Illinois’ shooting woes.
Because EIU also hosted a women’s scrimmage, also for charity, there was no opportunity for an Illini shootaround in Charleston. Instead, the pre-game meal and shootaround took place in Champaign. The Illini then hopped on a bus for Charleston.
They never got a chance to acclimate to Lantz sightlines.
Perhaps the meal wasn’t enough, either. Mark Smith resorted to eating D’Angelo Jackson alive, both literally & figuratively.
Everyone reported that Lou Henson attended the game with lifelong friend Loren Tate (and Champaign golfer Joe Thompson).
But perhaps no one noticed the touching scene of Josh Whitman assisting Henson out of the building, late in the game (before the rush). With Whitman’s help. Lou beat the rush (and the court storming).
Tyler Underwood didn’t sit with the team. He sat behind the team.
He didn’t travel with the team. He traveled with the head coach’s family.
That’s because NCAA rules forbid transfers from traveling during their sit-out year, the same reason Rayvonte Rice watched that Gonzaga game in Champaign.
Tyler is appealing to the NCAA so he can play this year. If that doesn’t work out, he’ll probably travel to away games with his family, not his team.
Monday’s basketball practice was held at the State Farm Center. Returning to the scene of the crime, if you will.
Losing to Indiana State in Sunday’s “secret scrimmage” will likely be remembered as the first milestone on the road to recovery. The phrase “change the culture” is 2017’s version of “it is what it is,” 2012’s favorite cliché among young ballers. But there’s no better phrase for describing Brad Underwood’s current mission. He took over a club that was accustomed to losing. He thinks they’ve just accepted it. He won’t.
Underwood’s staff learned a lot about their team Sunday. Most of it is intangible, and can’t be translated into data. Sure, they kept track of missed shots. They tracked rebounding. They even know how many times the lads missed an opportunity to set a screen.
But mostly, they learned about posture, effort and mindset. Fundamentally, this team is inexperienced. Most of these guys have never played college basketball. None of them has played for Underwood.
If it seems preposterous to keep mentioning a walk-on in these reports, I say pshaw. Until there’s a practice where Tyler Underwood doesn’t do something exceptional, I’ll keep mentioning him. It’s like his dad vis-à-vis Thomas Walkup. I have not once been in the same room with Brad Underwood when he didn’t mention Thomas Walkup. Monday’s practice was no exception, in both cases. Tyler Underwood directed his teammates through drills, and his dad told a story about Thomas Walkup. I hadn’t heard this particular Walkup story before. It was harrowing. I wonder whether he’ll ever tell it in front of cameras.
Cameras were rolling throughout Monday’s practice. Jason Marry & Zach Altfillisch of Fighting Illini Productions were on hand, and Coach Underwood was mic’d up. You should hope that you’ll be allowed to hear his speech about the secret scrimmage. It was gripping.
Marry also recorded the post-practice huddle at center court, which seemed to last about fifteen minutes.
It’s possible that these moments will be shared with the public. On the other hand, maybe not. Talking to Underwood off-camera last Thursday in New York, I learned he’s not eager to share everything about his practices. He wants to maintain a teaching atmosphere, which is something John Groce said, too. Fighting Illini Productions publishes only those segments of video which the program wants published. So just hope that Underwood isn’t too humble to allow those moments to see daylight.
Apart from Tyler Underwood, the top coach-on-the-floor was Cameron Liss, also a walk-on. On more than one occasion, Liss heeded a coach’s call to help a teammate into the proper positioning & posture during defensive drills. He’s one of only three fourth-year Illini, so his senior leadership is a dire necessity to the team.
These guys are never going to see a whole lot of tick, so I’d like to highlight their contributions to making this team better.
The other two senior leaders are Michael Finke and Leron Black. (Like Liss, they’re technically R-Jr.’s.) The coaching staff doesn’t spend a whole lot of time instructing either of them, which is a good sign. It makes one suspect they’re fundamentally sound.
The other fundamentally sound player is Da’Monte Williams.
Brad Underwood continually draws attention to Da’Monte’s defensive stance, positioning or effort as an example to the rest of the team. This might come as a surprise to people who’d assume Da’Monte is a carbon copy of his father.
You’ll recall Lon Kruger and Bill Self inevitably calling Frank out in the media. You’ll remember Billy Packer’s infamous slight.
Also surprising are Da’Monte’s decision-making and the mechanical precision of his jump shot. He squares up and delivers like a coach’s son, not a street baller. Defensively, he deflects a lot of passes, a stat Underwood celebrates as much as John Groce did (i.e. Underwood seems to regard an opponent’s pass no differently than a launched shot, or indeed a jump ball — it’s an opportunity for possession).
But Underwood’s defensive philosophy recalls Bruce Weber more than John Groce. It’s about denial, a word that meant something completely different for Weber during his Illini heyday.
There were two times when Weber completely lost his shit while I was in attendance at practice. One featured a lecture about over-emphasising on-ball defense. Weber was apoplectic about the selfish attitude a player implicitly demonstrates when bragging “I shut my man down” or “my man didn’t score.”
“BUT OUR TEAM LOST!” Weber screamed louder than I ever heard him before or later. Underwood feels the same way.
If this year’s Illini squad has trouble with weak-side help defense, blame inexperience rather than misdirected playground swagger. The newcomers will need a while before they shift defensively without thinking about it. That’s why Underwood said “we’ll be a different team on January First. We’ll be different from that January First team when we get to March.” It will be a long slog before Underwood sees something resembling his offense.
It’s worth the wait. Underwood’s option offense should lead to some highly entertaining playmaking. As players learn their reads, you’ll see nifty interior passing, lob dunks when the defense reacts, open jumpers when it refrains.
And then there’s defense, which is harder.
If things go perfectly, Underwood might not need to revert to a familiar pack line defense, as his OK State team forced him to do after an 0-6 conference start last season. But when have things gone perfectly with a team of newcomers?
The difference between Underwood and his predecessors is that Underwood seems less likely to lose his team, mentally. In different ways, Weber and Groce were caricatures susceptible for ridicule. You could attribute respect to them, but they didn’t command it. That’s not the case with Underwood.
Will the newcomers “get it” before the team finds itself buried in the B1G standings?
Matic Vesel is back at full go, after spraining an ankle last week. His quickness to the rim cannot be overstated. It’s hard to believe, and impresses even his teammates, who’ve seen it again and again. He’ll cause a lot of headaches for opponents if his defense reaches a level of competence that affords Underwood the confidence to play him.
Greg Eboigbodin might also be an opponent’s nightmare in the future, but his menace will be seen on the defensive end, where he’ll force shooters to alter shot-trajectory. His instinct for defense is typically African, i.e. you see his footwork, you notice he’s responding to the whole-court flow of the game, and you think “this guy played a lot of soccer.”
It will take time for the lessons to sink in for these freshmen, before they can defend instinctively. Maybe January First. Maybe by March.
The coaching staff realizes they’ll have to be patient.
At the scorer’s table, a shiny silver man-purse overflowed with packs of Extra chewing gum, in at least four flavors. Coaches and players reached in throughout practice to retrieve a stick. “We chew a lot of gum,” said Jamall Walker. “It stops us from yelling so much.”
Te’Jon Lucas returned to practice today for the first time since taking a Mark Smith elbow to the eye socket. His vision may still be a bit blurry. In the team’s first drill, he dropped a pass on the wing, one of “two fumbles in the first 30 seconds!” which is what Brad Underwood roared moments later. It was like that for much of the afternoon. Underwood used more four-letter words today than John Groce did in five years at Illinois. It’s tough love, and sometimes the love is hard to glean. The tough comes across clearly. Underwood is old school. He reminds me of the best coach I ever had, Urbana’s Wayne Mammen. You’ll recall Groce borrowing the Tony Dungy phrase “we want to be demanding without demeaning.” Well, Underwood doesn’t worry about demeaning. Or demanding. Mammen was my football coach, but his best prospect was younger son Kirk, who won two state wrestling titles at 189 lbs. before an All-American career at Oklahoma State. When Tyler Underwood followed his dad from Oklahoma State, no one might have guessed how important his role would be. Coach Underwood is just as hard on Tyler as everyone else. Maybe that’s the reason Tyler’s on the roster: To demonstrate that Brad Underwood still loves you even while he’s tearing you a new asshole. Underwood does what Groce didn’t do and Bruce Weber couldn’t do. He puts the fear of god into his players. Or at least the fear of hell. Whether it’s effort or execution, Underwood does not allow lapses. When the Illini practiced zone offense, Trent Frazier skipped a pass to a verboten area of the court and Underwood stopped play to explain why that particular angle will never work. Underwood had previously, expressly forbidden this kind of pass in that particular situation. This was a teaching moment, reminding the youngsters why they’re taught what they’re taught. The pack line is gone. Since Dick Bennett’s Green Bay teams unleashed it on unsuspecting mid-major offenses, the pack line lost its element of surprise. Disorienting a team’s screening actions is part of Underwood’s plan, and according to his theory, that requires defenses to disrupt traditional passing lanes. Expect defensive intensity to extend beyond the pack line’s imaginary boundary. The Groce administration changed its high-hands philosophy midstream, so the overall look of that scheme changed over the years. But Underwood will challenge ball-handlers deep in the back court, and before the first pass. And then, of course, it gets harder. Big man coach Orlando Antigua chimed in: “Defensively you don’t have a man after the first pass. You’ve got to work harder because of that.” Underwood continued on that theme: “When I was at Kansas State, Jacob Pullen scored 46 straight points in this drill. Defense can’t stop, ever.” “This is unbelievable. I’m used to Rodney McGruder,” he finished, name-dropping another K-State protégé who, evidently, also tried hard and listened. Chin Coleman helped position the defensive perimeter players at the lane’s elbows, and Underwood made sure Greg Eboigbodin knew exactly how to align his feet vis-à-vis his man. Underwood stressed that “height doesn’t matter” when defending the low post, so long as the perimeter help is doing its job. “Our post defense is great because our perimeter defense is good.” It wasn’t enough. You’ve heard about a player “in the doghouse” but you know that doghouse is simply a phrase. Not with Underwood. His doghouse sits in the southwest corner the the Corzine Gym. When an Illini screws up, he runs the treadmill. Today’s treadmill, in quick succession: AJ, Finke, Greg, Matic, Da’Monte, Kipper & Smith. “Holy #### are you going to look good waving that towel on the sidelines,” Underwood called to a player who seemed a bit too enthusiastic about successive execution failures. “Starched uniform and everything!” And that’s one of the greatest aspects of Brad Underwood. You can’t be a hardass coach all the time without a good sense of sarcasm, irony, even cynicism. A sense of humor is a relatable quality. It lets people know you’re human, that you see life for what it is. The freshmen bigs had the worst of it today. If things go well for Matic Vesel, he may never again turn as red as he did when Underwood stopped a drill to single-out the Slovenian newcomer. “These guys didn’t come here to see you lollygagging in the corner,” yelled the coach, only he didn’t use the word “lollygagging.” These guys were a small group of NBA scouts who watched the entire practice. Matic spent the last hour of practice with his right foot elevated, in a compression boot. He’d landed awkwardly, with an entire Michael Finke on top of him. After practice, he limped to the locker room unaided, but slowly. Don’t expect him to be too active for the rest of the week. Matic and Greg are both way, way too gentle & kind to kick ass and take names the way Underwood demands. Matic is still adjusting to America, which he regards as remarkably laid back. So maybe he’s just trying to fit in. Greg is just super, duper polite. Greg’s bad day began when he attempted a spin move on the baseline. First of all, he stepped out of bounds, but nobody saw that. Then, he pivoted to dunk. That’s when he encountered Leron Black, whose one-handed rejection made a clapping sound like thunder, but more expressive. NO YOU AIN’T it seemed to say. Perhaps chastened, Greg’s next offensive move saw him spin away from the basket, to launch an 8-foot fadeaway that barely grazed the rim. Underwood stopped the drill again. “You left that move at Jesuit High School.” Antigua chastised the move as well. “You take it in there strong and pick up a foul,” he admonished. Where were these guys when Nnanna Egwu was playing here? If Greg and Matic aren’t ready for B1G level ball by December, well, they’re freshmen. It’s not an indictment of their character or potential. So who will guard those spots? Leron wears a big brace on his shooting arm. He’s still recovering from the elbow surgery which fixed what Underwood described as “imagine you got hit in the funny bone, but it feels like that all the time.” His rebounding hasn’t changed. It’s fantastic. But his three-point shooting has not improved. It’s probably worse than the 29.7% he accomplished last year. Underwood likes stats, and he heeds them. He’s also not afraid (so he says) to tell his players which among them can shoot from where, when, and in what circumstances. That leads us to the next undersized big man. Kipper Nichols seems to spend most of his time on the wing, but he’s usually in the fight for a rebound, and he’s got a post-up game which Leron frankly does not have. You can see Kipper defending the 4 while creating an offensive mismatch at the other end. Does that mean you should pencil Leron Black in at the five spot? It worked okay for Daryl Thomas, whose physique and skill set were similar. But things worked even better for Thomas when he had Dean Garrett by his side. So Illini fans should hope someone becomes Dean Garrett. But more likely, Illini fans should hope Underwood finds a Dean Garrett for next year. CLOSING THOUGHTS It’s especially stupid to project starters given all the recovering injuries, newcomers, dearth of returning talent. Furthermore, Illini fans should hope that “starting” means little in the scheme Brad Underwood conjures. But if we can take him at his word, Underwood has decided on one starter for Sunday’s “secret scrimmage.” It’s Da’Monte Williams. After a spectacularly aggressive rebound in traffic, Underwood stopped play again. “Do you know who’s leading this team in rebounds through all these practices?” He pointed to the quietest guy on the team. “It’s him. That’s why he’s starting on Sunday.” Practice finished with a lay-up drill in which players could approach the basket only from the left-hand side, and a final half-court five-on-zero passing drill. The team missed a lot of free-throws today — including Tyler, Te’Jon and Finke — the guys everyone is counting on to keep them from extra wind sprints. So they ran a lot. Kipper, AJ, Te’Jon, Tyler, Samson Oladimeji and Mark Alstork hung around for extra shooting while staff socialized. Don’t be upset that Alstork wasn’t mentioned previously in this post. It means he avoided the coach’s ire. He again paced the team in wind sprints.
Today was Media Day, so you’ll find your first interviews with Auto-Matic Vesel & Greg OingoBoingo on your favorite East Central Illinois news channel. I’ll be cutting and pasting my version for a few days, because I’m slow.
I interviewed barely half the players because, unlike years past, media had to get off the floor so the team could practice. Also unlike years past, we didn’t have to leave when the team started practicing.
Thus, here’s your practice update.
The team ran five man drills in various groupings. The grouping of Smith-Alstork-Jordan-Vesel-Black underlined the concept of positionless basketball. Yes, you could argue that those names match a typical 1-through-5 line-up, except that Vesel was mostly on the high post and the wing. Smith does seem to handle the ball at the beginning of a possession more than Alstork. If Leron Black really is going to play “center,” it will prove that Underwood has the imagination that Bruce Weber and John Groce lacked. i.e. he’ll seek to create mismatches rather than trying to compensate for them. (Can you imagine how many additional games Weber might have won if he played Mike Tisdale at small forward, and hid him in a zone? If not, go back and watch the 2010 game at Wisconsin.)
Drew Cayce (10) was the only player sent to the treadmill during the two hours I watched. I guess he didn’t cut sharply enough on a three man drill. So he had to run for a minute. And yes, they turned the speed to high. He was sprinting for that minute. Underwood didn’t yell, by the way. He just said “Drew – treadmill.”
There was one angry outburst from the coach, but it was directed at the entire team. A couple hours into practice, the body language had, perhaps, lagged a bit. Underwood lit a fire under them with a few choice words. Suddenly, the drills looked crisp again. Amazing how that works.
Brad Underwood says Greg OingoBoingo is that fastest guy on the team. Faster than Trent Frazier, even. And that proved true this afternoon. In single-trip wind sprints, Greg paced the team twice. I didn’t see any of the 2x up-and-back sprints, in which Mark Alstork separated himself from the team during September 30 practice. So we don’t know about Greg’s endurance, but his initial burst is unlike any 6’9″ dude I can recall.
Tyler Underwood will be a huge asset to this team. He talks and points constantly, whether it’s a route to run or an open man deserving a pass. In one drill, he grabbed Trent Frazier by the torso as Trent ran a curl route. Tyler flipped Trent 180° and pushed him toward the correct corner.
Some other players may be “vocal,” but Tyler’s at another level. That’s how it should be for point guards, of course. And perhaps Te’Jon Lucas has some of that quality. But Lucas was sitting out again, still abiding the concussion protocol. His right eye remains bloodshot from the blow that felled him.
Auto-Matic Vesel’s footwork will be a niche source of joy for basketball nerds. He moves like a gazelle. It’s the same as his shooting stroke. These motions seem so effortless, you wouldn’t even notice them if it weren’t for the ten other less poetically balletic dudes nearby.
You could see it when Orlando Antigua ran a pick-n-roll drill with the bigs. I was so mesmerized that I almost didn’t catch the odd thing that happened at the finish of each rep. At first I thought everyone had a crazy high release point. Then I realized what they were hoping to accomplish. i.e. using angles to evade rim protectors. The Underwood Administration has very particular opinions about angles.
In a later drill, Antigua instructed the bigs to employ a power bounce to gain position in the low post. Matic excelled here as well, because while he’s slight up top, his legs are solid and muscular. His core may be lacking, but his base is not. Matic does need to add some upper-body weight. That’s the challenge for Fletch, because Matic does not like American pizza.
Brad Underwood’s theory of rebounding is finely honed. It’s a departure from the traditional, but borne of statistical analysis. The rebounding drill he ran was unlike any rebounding drill I’ve ever seen, especially because it had nothing to do with putting a body on somebody.
Again, it was about geometry.
Underwood told the team that 76-80% of shots from a particular area will land on the weak side, somewhere between the low block and the short corner. You couldn’t possibly know that from just playing basketball.* You’d need a lot of data and a long-term analysis, plus some fancy computers, to determine that sort of thing.
But that’s where we are now. All this stuff is quantified and qualified by software companies, who get lotsa money to provide the analytics to deep-pocketed basketball programs
Official Visitor Elias Valtonen watched practice from the sidelines, with a beautiful woman who could very well have been his mother. Scandinavian women … wrowl.
*Maybe Dennis Rodman knew it instinctively, but more likely he learned it from playing basketball for years upon years, aided by an unusual memory for details.