CHAMPAIGN — The idea of a Giorgi Bezhanishvili-Kofi Cockburn frontcourt for Illinois men’s basketball was more of a one and then the other strategy in Tuesday night’s season opener against Nicholls State. The Illini big men simply didn’t play all that much together in the first half before Illinois coach Brad Underwood turned primarily to his starters during the final 20 minutes as the Colonels tried — and nearly succeeded in — engineering an upset before Illinois prevailed 78-70 in overtime.
Even when Bezhanishvili and Cockburn were on the court together Tuesday, they weren’t able to run the, at times, successful high-low game they showed off in Illinois’ exhibition game against Lewis last Friday night.
Nicholls State didn’t allow it Tuesday night at State Farm Center. The Colonels’ defense — essentially the aggressive, denial-based scheme Underwood ran his first two seasons at Illinois — was built to limit post play.
“It makes it really, really hard to enter the ball to the post and can negate post play,” Underwood said Wednesday morning before the Illini (1-0) departed for Arizona and their upcoming two-game road trip this weekend that starts at 8 p.m. Friday against Grand Canyon (0-1). “They did a lot of that (Tuesday) night. They bothered us. They knocked us off our spots. Our execution wasn’t very good offensively — especially late.”
That’s not to say Bezhanishvili and Cockburn weren’t productive. Bezhanishvili finished with 11 points and four rebounds. Cockburn had a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds in his college debut. But that frontcourt pairing is still a work in progress.
Just look at Bezhanishvili’s final line. The 6-foot-9 sophomore forward was a perfect 2 of 2 from the three-point line and 2 of 7 from everywhere else. Essentially a 180 from what made Bezhanishvili so successful as a freshman, when his dazzling array of post moves was the base of his offensive production.
Underwood made a point of mentioning that pairing Bezhanishvili with Cockburn in the Illinois frontcourt was going to be just as much of an adjustment for the former as the latter. Inserting Cockburn into the lineup — all 7 feet and 286 pounds of him — meant it was Bezhanishvili’s role that would change the most.
The Rustavi, Georgia, native spent more time on the perimeter against Nicholls State than he did in the high post or on the block. The made three-pointers were a positive. The lengthy stretches of dribbling without much in the way of a plan and four turnovers were not.
The latter is what struck Underwood the most.
“The thing that we’ve got to get out of him is the turnovers,” Underwood said. “There should be collisions at the rim — it should be freight trains at the rim — on rebounds, on contests, on blocked shots with he and Kofi in there. At times we had some of those things. I think everybody saw (Tuesday) he could make a three. He’s practiced them, and they happened to be big shots.
“If I’m disappointed with Giorgi in anything it’s quite simply the turnovers. Giorgi is way too good a player to have four turnovers.”
The pair of made three-pointers, though? Those were flashes that Bezhanishvili had at least added that option to his offensive arsenal. He shot 16.7 percent from three-point range last season on limited attempts.
More three-point opportunities will come this season with Bezhanishvili on the perimeter. Nicholls State didn’t respect him as a shooter. He made them pay — twice.
“He’s pretty comfortable out there,” Underwood said. “I told him the other day, ‘You’ve shot a million of them this summer. You’ve got to let it go. I’m not going to tell you not to shoot them. You’re a high IQ guy. Make those right decisions.’ His confidence is such that he made those shots.”
Underwood’s concerns from Tuesday night, though, circled back to Nicholls State essentially cutting post play from Illinois’ game plan. Bezhanishvili missed three shots inside the arc in the final 3 1 / 2 minutes. Cockburn didn’t even get a shot after he finished an alley-oop from Da’Monte Williams by slamming home a dunk with 14:33 to play.
“I was more alarmed by their ability to just take us out of everything,” Underwood said. “We saw that (defense) against South Carolina, and we got the ball where we wanted. We got the ball to Kofi. We got the ball to Giorgi in the paint. Give them credit. We were not very dialed in offensively.”