UI 62, MInnesota 49: Notebook

UI 62, MInnesota 49: Notebook

MINNEAPOLIS — Few have seen as much Illinois basketball in the last three weeks as Shon Morris. The former Northwestern big man and current BTN analyst has been on the telecast for six of the last seven Illini games, so he’s as qualified as anyone to break down the team’s struggles.

“It hasn’t been a lack of effort. They’re playing hard; they’re just struggling to score. Last Saturday was a great example. Ohio State doesn’t score for seven-plus minutes, and you’re only up three at the half. You knew they were going to make a run,” Morris said.

One constant for the Illini on the offensive end this season has been guard Rayvonte Rice, the team’s top scorer. But opposing defenses have figured the best way to stop Illinois is to take driving lanes away from Rice and force other guys to beat them.

“If someone makes a jump shot, that’s the way it goes. Teams are OK with taking that chance,” Morris said. “People will see next year when they get (Ahmad) Starks and (Aaron) Cosby, he’ll be able to get in there and kick, and those driving angles will be there. They just really struggle scoring.”

Despite Illinois losing all but one of the recent games he had called entering Thursday, Morris hasn’t been asked to stay away.

“I get that enough at home with my wife,” he said. “I’ll be there next week for the Nebraska game, too.”

✰ ✰ ✰

Last year when Illinois knocked off Minnesota at Williams Arena, the typically polite folks from the Twin Cities weren’t shy about letting then-coach Tubby Smith know how they felt about the job he was doing.

What a difference a year makes. With 31-year-old Richard Pitino in charge this season, the Gophers fans are rejuvenated.

“It’s been a serious burst of energy, both from a player perspective as well as the fan base. People are starting to really understand how good of a coach Richard really is, how sharp he is, how well he motivates,” former Gophers and current radio analyst Spencer Tollackson said. “Now it’s going to come down to recruiting and if he’s going to be able to get some players here. He’s got the intangibles. He’s energized the fan base and the players.”

Tollackson, 28, wasn’t sure what to expect from such a young coach taking over a Big Ten program so soon in his career. Pitino’s bloodlines — his dad is Louisville coach Rick Pitino — make him a bit older than what his age might indicate.

“When I first heard that he was going to get it, I thought they would go that route of a younger guy with some more energy than the previous staff. He certainly coaches and conducts himself not like he’s 31,” Tollackson said. “I can never envision myself leading a Big Ten program at that age. He’s ready for it. The guy grew up around major college basketball and even the NBA. It’s a lot like dating when you say age is just a number; that’s the feeling it is with him now.”

✰ ✰ ✰

Under Pitino and his staff, the Minnesota big men have improved at an eye-opening rate. Elliott Eliason, Oto Osenieks and Maurice Walker all averaged 2.2 points per game last season.

Eliason has upped his average to 5.9, Walker to 7.4 and Osenieks to 6.0.

Tollackson, the former big man at Minnesota, has taken notice.

“The weight loss of Mo Walker has helped his game and his production a lot. He’s able to play significant minutes in long stretches,” Tollackson said. “Elliott Eliason has clearly improved his game. I just think they flourish and play better in this system. He’s done a great job of defining their roles, making them simpler. They’re playing well, and I expect them to even get better as their careers progress.”

The rebounding numbers for each have improved, too. Osenieks is up from 1.7 to 3.0, Eliason from 3.5 to 7.4 and Walker from 2.0 to 4.1.

✰ ✰ ✰

Former Illini D.J. Richardson has spent time around the current Illinois team this week upon his return home from Venezuela after suffering an ankle injury before playing for his pro club down there.

He got hurt in the first practice in Venezuela and tried to fight through the pain to remain in action, making the injury worse.

Another former Illini who played in that league told Richardson it’s tough to stay there when you’re injured.

“Cory Bradford was telling me when he played there in 2009, he said it was definitely a cutthroat place. He said if you get hurt or play bad they’ll be fast to release you,” Richardson said. “I was hurt, trying to get back to playing, and they released me two weeks later.”

Richardson has been working out with the Illini and rehabbing his injury in Champaign with the hopes of resuming his professional career.

“I’m going to get back. The GM talked to me and said it wasn’t about my talent or my performance, they just wanted a healthy player going into the season,” Richardson said. “It’s a tough league. Blessed for the experience to get the chance to play over there. Hopefully they sign me back to play over there.”

Richardson said if he doesn’t return to Venezuela, he might have opportunities in Mexico or New Zealand.

Marcus Jackson