Basketball Is Life
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Homecoming Saturday dawned crisp and clear in Champaign. Brilliant sunshine outlining those first shades of orange appearing on tree leaves under an impossibly blue sky. It was one of those classic autumn mornings. A perfect day for…BASKETBALL!
Unless you REALLY are one of the 17, you almost certainly already know that the Illini hoops team held an open practice/scrimmage at the State Farm Center on Saturday morning. You also probably already consumed more than your fair share of the scrimmage recaps which began floating around the internet even before the session was completed. In fact, there was a particularly excellent recap from a subscriber on our very own Illiniboard Slack channel. Nice work Zeeman.
If you haven't yet read anything on how things looked, here is my 10 cent recap:
Andre Curbelo is a wizard. He uses what can only be described as basketball magic to get anywhere he wants to on the court, and he does so with a perpetual smile on his face. He is the basketball version of Dani Rojas from Ted Lasso. His jump shot looked improved, but I'm not quite sure I would call it a "strength" at this point in time. Just hoping he doesn't fall in love with it too much.
Kofi Cockburn was Kofi Cockburn and that's going to be plenty good enough. Good enough to be a 1st team preseason All-American and the odds on favorite for Big Ten POY.
The Super Seniors were super reliable. Having Trent Frazier and DaMonte Williams on the floor will be the basketball equivalent of a cozy blanket on a cold winter night. You will feel warm and comfortable anytime they are on the floor - which will be often. DMW was also making a concerted effort to get to the rim during this scrimmage which may not actually translate to game speed, but then again, we said the same thing about his three point shot last preseason.
At some point during the early part of the season you will mistake Alfonso Plummer for Trent Frazier. Their games are mirror images - although you might see Plummer in more of a spot up catch and shoot role.
Coleman Hawkins has ALL the skills, but probably needs to rein it in a bit. He made a bunch of "wow" plays but he also coughed it up a few times and you can't have your big guys turning the ball over.
Omar Payne is super springy and held his own on defense against Kofi, but I'm not ready to buy the notion that he and Kofi will share time on the court by the time Big Ten play is rolling.
Austin Hutcherson spent most of his minutes in the scrimmage running the point. I think that's a "file this away for future reference" nugget as I'm not convinced there will be very many lead guard minutes available on a team with Curbelo and Frazier. His athleticism plays though.
Of the three freshmen, Luke Goode was the most visible by a wide margin. He looked more than comfortable and has the most D-1 ready frame. Both his three point and mid-range jumpers looked silky smooth, and he had no issues mixing it up in the paint either. Spots in the rotation on this veteran heavy team will be at a premium, but based on the scrimmage I would peg Goode as the leader in the freshman clubhouse.
My big picture takeaway was that we are going to let Curbelo and Kofi pick and roll teams into submission and then dare opposing teams to leave our perimeter shooters on the arc to help defend that. It is a deliciously simple - yet lethal plan of attack. On defense this roster looks to have plenty of solid on-ball perimeter defenders and length for days in the paint.
Brad Underwood played at being mad throughout the scrimmage, but you got the impression that he was doing so while hiding a little smile. You can tell he knows what he has with this team. His comments during recent interviews betray that as well.
In October of 1988, I was on the practice floor with a group of guys who would eventually fly their way to becoming the most loved team in Illinois basketball history. If any of you had also watched a single practice that fall - then you already knew what was coming.
I didn't have the luxury of watching the 04-05 team practice in the preseason, but I do remember watching them in their season opener against Delaware State and knowing right then I was watching something special.
The scrimmages this past Saturday were partitioned off into four minute segments and it took about one and a half of those segments for me to get that same feeling.
I have little doubt this team is going to be very good, but how about better than last year? Is it heresy to suggest that? Because I think this team just might be. My big picture takeaway was that we are going to let Curbelo and Kofi pick and roll teams into submission and then dare opposing teams to leave our perimeter shooters on the arc to help defend that. A deliciously simple yet lethal plan of attack. On defense the roster looks to be stacked with solid on-ball perimeter defenders and length for days in the paint. More on that coming in our basketball preview.
Of course, "better" may depend on how one chooses to define that word. If this team finishes third in the Big Ten, but makes it to the Elite 8 as a three seed - is that "better" than last year? I can't answer that. Greatness lies in the eyes of the beholder.
History is perhaps the harshest of those beholders. As such, we must wait to learn if this team will reach the heights of other great Illini teams. As the loss to Loyola proved, historical greatness is far from promised. Injuries, grade issues, suspensions, Cameron Krutwigs, global pandemics - all happen. Life happens.
That said, what I witnessed on Saturday was a tasty little amuse bouche to whet the appetite for what promises at the very least to be an immensely entertaining season and I am here for every step of the journey. Give me ALL the story lines. Hunter Dickinson is so mad at us. Jordan Bohannon is so mad at us. Did we just become the villains of the Big Ten?? Yes, please.
In fact, I'm just waiting for the game when Andre Curbelo skips toward a TV camera after a no-look behind the back wrap around pass for a Kofi dunk and with a wink say "Basketball is Life".
I would be remiss if I also didn't point out that it was cool to finally have fans back in the State Farm Center once again. As enjoyable as last season was, it was altogether too weird during home games. The most recent SFC memory any fan can access was from the last game we played in 2020 - that electric regular season finale against Iowa. Does that not seem like forever ago? Well it kind of was. 19 months ago to be exact.
But now here we are just NINE DAYS away from those fans finally returning to the State Farm Center to watch an Illinois team match up against a real opponent. Even though it's merely the scheduled execution of an NAIA school from Joliet, this game can't get here fast enough for a fanbase deflated by the moribund start to the football season.
A fanbase which for the most part has missed living and dying in person with their beloved for over a year and a half. This feels like the perfect team to breathe sweet air back into the building. A team which brings with it the promise of a winter full of memories. Basketball is Life.