The Italian word for basketball is "pallacanestro". This is weird to me. I don't know why, but I guess I assumed the Italian word for basketball would just be "basketball" - but pronounced with a cool Italian accent. Admittedly, though, "pallacanestro" is way cooler. So then, the Illinois "squadra di pallacanestro" spent 10 days in Italy this past August - playing four games on the trip.
After the Illini returned home, I accepted the challenge of binge watching all four of the games in Italy. I'm not going to lie to you here - this was no small task. 243 minutes of no audio, no replay, and questionable quality You Tube videos. That's a rough watch. Yet watch them I did, and here's what stood out to me:
+ Overall the gameplay was RAGGED. Underwood did not technically coach any of the games - opting to sit in a folding chair on the baseline and allow a different assistant to coach each game - but I'm guessing he was seething at almost 15 turnovers per game from what is now a pretty veteran group. Still - better against Cinema Paradiso in August than against Arizona in November.
+ The international three point line distance did not seem to bother this team AT ALL. Led by Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois shot 41% from the arc (42/102) over the four games. Ayo's jump shot looks as quirky as ever, but just about any time he got his feet set it was three points. They cooled off a bit as the competition stiffened with each game, but this certainly bodes well in anticipation of the newly extended three point line distance coming into play.
+ Besides the outside shooting, the other facet of the game which really stood out over the course of the four games was how well the Illini crashed the offensive glass. Offensive rebounding was not a strength of last year's team, but it has been a traditional staple of good Underwood teams in the past. Illinois averaged over 17 offensive rebounds per game on this trip - and this was without Kofi Cockburn.
+ Leading the way on the offensive glass was...Alan Griffin. In fact, Griffin was pretty fantastic for the majority of the four games. Besides his eye-popping rebound numbers (7.5 per game), he shot the ball well from deep and was very active on defense. The competition for minutes on the wing promises to be fierce between Griffin, Tevian Jones, and Kipper Nichols, but based on play in Italy, Griffin appears to be the leader in the clubhouse. Stay tuned.
+ Regarding Jones - who also played quite well for stretches in Italy - if nothing else, make sure you watch the last few minutes of Game 3 against Gazzada to appreciate his one man dunk contest.
+ Trent Frazier was quiet in Italy, but I'm not sure that's a bad thing. His main issue has been one of offensive efficiency, but if the games on this trip are any indication, he seems to have settled into a nice comfort zone with his game and role on this team. One where he is no longer relied upon to score, but where he'll still likely put up double digits most nights.
+ Kipper's jump shot form looks better. I don't know what happened between his sophomore and junior seasons that caused him to start corkscrewing his jumper up there last season, but at least on film it looks much better. I don't know if that will translate to the season - but it's something.
+ On the other hand - Giorgi's outside shot is not yet a thing. He only took three shots from behind the arc over all four games, missed all three of them, and looked tentative on every attempt. One potential "leap" area for Giorgi going into this season was to expand his perimeter game - we'll file that under "work still in progress".
+ Illini played a fair amount of zone (1-2-2) on this trip. Not prepared to say just yet that this is an indication of things to come - but I get a feeling this is worth filing away for future reference.
+ A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum. The Illini travelled to Rome for the last game on the trip and looked tired and disinterested in losing by double digits to that euro-juggernaut otherwise known as the Netherlands "B" team. It's disingenuous to be encouraged by all the good on the trip and then dismiss the bad stuff out of hand, so I won't. The outcome itself was not so concerning - the Illini were short three key players in Cockburn, BBV, and Andres Feliz, and so walkons Zach Griffith, Tyler Underwood, and Samson Oledeji were pressed into actual minutes. However, what did concern me was the reappearance of the all too familiar woes that plagued Illinois on defense the last two seasons - poor on-ball coverage, back door layups, and an opponent shooting exceptionally well on two point opportunities. Let's not do this again please.
So as I closed out this basketball binge, I'll admit this last game left a bitter taste - kind of like a limoncello shot after dinner, but I'm guessing Underwood might have been secretly pleased. At the very least it gave him plenty of coaching ammunition to use as official practice begins this week. Ciao!