Bye-Week Basketball Slapdash
Soooo...anyone else in the mood for a little basketball Slapdash? I've got a bunch of basketball stuff rattling around in my brain, and it seems like this bye week would be a good time to let that Nebraska game angst cook down a little bit and check in on Illini hoops.
Remember circling your calendar for October 15th? The official first day of college basketball practice kicking off with Midnight Madness events all over ESPN? Well those have gone the way of the two point jump shot, as practice can now officially begin six weeks prior to a team's first game. The Illini open the season against Nicholls State on November 5, and by my math that is six weeks from well...now! Six weeks ago was just mid-August and that barely seems like yesterday!
The Illini aren't going to hit full speed on the practice court for a bit as Brad Underwood wanted to ease into practice this fall due to the heavy workload his guys had this past summer. Still, it won't be long until we are knee deep into the annual tradition of practice reports assuring us that every last player on the roster is tearing it up in preseason workouts.
It hardly seems possible that it's been just six months since Underwood and company walked off the United Center floor last March, but somehow we find ourselves here once again - the start of another Illini basketball season. The 115th season for those counting at home. Let's not mince words here - it's a crucial one for the Illini program and its head coach. I'm not ready to categorize Underwood's third season as "make or break" just yet, but without question this upcoming campaign will be his first at Illinois with the burden of expectations attached.
These expectations represent a welcome change - hopefully serving to wake this long slumbering program. It's been far too long since Illini fans' thoughts of an NCAA Tournament bid have come with any legitimacy. Underwood has spent the last two years tearing down and rebuilding this roster with the express goal of creating these expectations. And so here we are.
After that final loss to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament, Underwood stood outside the Illini locker room before a small contingent of local media and reflected on his second season as Illinois head coach. He also took the opportunity to look ahead to the 2019-20 season -a season which will almost certainly define his tenure at Illinois. Three themes emerged from this informal media session post-mortem:
1. The two year quest to establish culture was at long last successful.
2. The team was hamstrung all year by a lack of frontcourt size and this needed to be addressed via recruiting.
3. We're going to Italy!
In the official post-game media session Underwood stated that one key positive he was taking from an otherwise unremarkable 12-21 season was the successful establishment of the culture and identity he had strived for since arriving in Champaign. He then doubled down on this assertion to the assembled local media. This concept of culture is an elusive concept to quantify, but whatever Underwood's definition, he believes this group finally has it hardwired.
Although he believed his players had finally transcended that astral plane, one wonders if he felt the same about his coaching staff. After all, the coaching staff are the primary drivers of said culture, and as such, it is impossible to ignore the coaching staff shake up that took place late this summer.
On September 1, it was announced that Stephen Gentry would be rejoining the Illinois staff as one of Underwood's primary assistants while Jamall Walker would be reassigned to "assistant head coach". Gentry was a integral part of Underwood's staff at both SFA and OSU, and was also part of Underwood's initial staff here at Illinois before moving to Gonzaga for the past two seasons. This was spun as an opportunity for Walker to gain additional skills to prepare him for future head coaching opportunities, but let's be real - this was a demotion. He is no longer in a recruiting position on the staff. Gentry is known for his coaching acumen moreso than his recruiting chops, so it's certainly a gamble, but as Underwood has repeatedly stressed the notion of culture for his players - it appears this move was designed to change the culture of his coaching staff as well.
Underwood also stressed how important recruiting was going to be in the offseason to address the lack of size on the roster, but unfortunately, apart from the signing of Kofi Cockburn (who committed in early January) Illinois mostly whiffed on the the Spring recruiting season. This included some high profile recruiting misses (TJ Holyfield, Oliver Robinson-Nakamura, Tomas Woldenstae), the de-commitment of Antwan January, the transfer of Anthony Higgs, and also the weird saga of Bernard Kouma, who signed a financial tender agreement with Illinois in April, but ultimately failed to meet NCAA qualification standards.
The summer - now a de facto third recruiting season - was however a different story.
Illinois kicked off the summer by dipping once more into international waters to sign forward Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk out of Belgium. BBV (as he will hence be known in this space) certainly looks the part - with a Big Ten ready 6'7" frame and gigantic hands (never underestimate the importance of this in basketball). Unfortunately he sustained a foot injury in summer workouts and was not able to participate in games on the Italy tour. I would still bet on him figuring prominently in the front court mix this season.
Underwood did his best to further make up for the Spring misfires (and the July transfer of Samba Kane) with a flurry of August (??) recruiting. This included the signings of sit one/play two transfers Austin Hutcherson (from D-III Wesleyan University) and Justin Grandison (from Holy Cross), as well as class of 2019 big man Jermaine Hamlin from Lincoln, IL - all over the course of three weeks. Although all three players project as "down the road" guys, they do fit some definite 2020-2021 needs with respect to size and wing scoring/shooting.
However, there is no question that size did indeed arrive for this upcoming season - in the form of one Kofi Cockburn (sorry children - it's pronounced "Coe-burn"). This dude is a massive human being - every bit of 7'0" and 290 pounds. His offensive game is still a bit raw, and he was not really known as a defensive rim protector in high school or the AAU circuit, but he still establishes a presence that Illinois basketball has not had the luxury of since Meyers Leonard.
I'm more than a little interested in seeing how Underwood uses Cockburn - and specifically how he uses he and Giorgi together, but in what turned out to be a total bummer, Visa issues prevented Cockburn (and Andres Feliz) from joining the team on the summer trip to Italy so unfortunately that will have to remain a wait and see proposition.
So now what about that Italy trip? Well Robert sent me a case of Mountain Dew and charged me with watching every last minute of the four games from that trip. So coming soon is another bye week basketball post in which I look back on the good, the bad, and the brutto (that's ugly in Italian) I took away from my viewing.