Fewer fouls for Bezhanishvili gives Illini offense options

Fewer fouls for Bezhanishvili gives Illini offense options

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois planned for an Ohio State double team on Giorgi Bezhanishvili ahead of Thursday's game.

For two reasons.

That's how the Buckeyes try to keep Kaleb Wesson out of foul trouble, and Bezhanishvili was just five days removed from unleashing an array of post moves on Rutgers for a record-setting career-high 35-point performance.

"We've spent some time here talking about that and putting some stuff in to counter that," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said about the expected double teams likely to come Bezhanishvili's way the rest of the season. "That's one of the things that plays right into Giorgi's hands. He's an excellent passer, and he's very unselfish. We've thought all along we could run offense through him. We hope that makes our other guys better."

Ohio State went a little off script, though, to start Thursday's game at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio. The Buckeyes went zone early. It was effective in slowing down Bezhanishvili, who had just two points in the first half on 1 of 3 shooting.

The second half? It at least started with a look reminiscent of the Illini's win against Rutgers. They looked to establish Bezhanishvili on the block, and the 6-foot-9 freshman forward scored seven of Illinois' first 10 points after halftime.

Then the double team came.

Ohio State sophomore forward Kyle Young left his man wide open to double the defensive pressure on Bezhanishvili. The results were mixed for the Illini. Bezhanishvili added to his five turnovers for the game during that stretch — not always able to escape the double team unscathed.

"I could have done better, but I dribbled it out and passed it out well," Bezhanishvili said. "I have to expect (the double team) more and more. I'll work on it and go over it with the coaches — watch film and try to get better on it. And if teams don't double, I'll be happy."

Bezhanishvili finished Thursday's game with 13 points, seven rebounds, a career-high four blocks and a lone assist. The last of those stats could make a significant jump should he figure out ways around double teams. Bezhanishvili's career-high assist total was four in Illinois' 88-80 loss to Georgetown on Nov. 13.

"We haven't really worked on it a lot yet, so I couldn't really see a lot yet," Bezhanishvili said of Thursday's game. "We can make cuts from it. We can get good shots from it once we work on it. We'll watch film on it, and we'll see what we've got."

Ayo Dosunmu knows what he'd like to see Illinois get from teams doubling Bezhanishvili on a more regular basis. The Illini freshman guard can see the potential opportunities it would create not only for himself but the rest of the Illinois guards.

"I told Giorgi, 'I'm so happy you had that big game now,'" Dosunmu said about Bezhanishvili's 35-point effort against the Scarlet Knights. "(Opposing defenses) can't help on me too much and can't help on (sophomore guard Trent Frazier) too much. They've got to double him now, so when they double him now, they're in rotation and it helps me and Trent's game out way better. And everybody else."

Taking advantage of what Bezhanishvili can provide offensively — both as a go-to option and perhaps a decoy to draw double teams and free up his teammates on the perimeter — has been easier as the season has progressed. The 6-foot-9 freshman forward is simply spending more time on the court than on the bench.

Bezhanishvili hasn't fouled out since Jan. 26 against Maryland, and although he's had four or more fouls five times in the last 12 games, he hasn't been in as much foul trouble. It's a departure from when Bezhanishvili totaled 21 fouls in his first 10 games of the season. He committed just one foul Thursday against Ohio State, while helping limit Wesson to 11 points on 3 of 7 shooting.

"We're keeping him on the court a lot more — knock on wood," Underwood said. "I'm not as worried about him once he picks up his first immediately collecting his second. His positioning has always been good. He's so solid with that he avoids it."