MADISON, Wis. — Deon Thomas intended to spend an extra day in Madison visiting former colleague Howard Moore.
The Wisconsin assistant coach is currently on leave from the program following the fatal car accident that claimed the life of his wife, Jennifer, and daughter, Jaidyn, in May, and also injured his son, Jerell. A medical setback in July that led to cardiac arrest for Moore took him away from coaching this season.
While Thomas ultimately didn’t get a chance to see Moore, who he served as an assistant coach for at Illinois-Chicago, in his trip to Wisconsin, he did receive positive news on Moore’s rehab and recovery.
“He’s going through a very intensive rehab, and they just moved him to a new facility,” Thomas said after speaking with Moore’s mother before his trip. “She felt it was better to come see him when he gets home. They’ve kind of cut down all of the visits so he can concentrate on getting better. But thank God. She says he’s up. He’s moving. He’s had a trachea in so long that he’s now starting to talk and be able to do a lot of the things that no one really thought he was going to be able to do. It’s a miracle.”
Thomas and his family became close with the Moore family during their time at Illinois-Chicago.
“I cried like a baby when I found out about (the accident),” Thomas said. “Not just me. My wife and both of my girls did. I’ve known Howard for a very long time, but my wife and girls got very close to Jen and the kids. We were all crushed. To hear that his son, Jerell, is doing extremely well — doing well in school and really thriving — and that Howard is getting better, I’m sure that Jen and Jaidyn are definitely happy about that.”
Thomas was on the call for Wednesday night’s 71-70 win by Illinois against Wisconsin at the Kohl Center in his role as radio analyst for Fighting Illini Sports Network. The former Illini also does some analyst work for Big Ten Network. Figuring out the conference this season hasn’t been an easy task.
“This may be the first time, not just in the Big Ten, but nationally, things have been so wide open,” Thomas said. “Michigan State is probably the most complete team, and a lot of the reason is they’ve been together as long as they have. With the parity being the way it is, when it comes down to it, some of the teams people may be discounting or maybe not giving as much credit will be right there in the end. Including this Illinois team.”
Illinois’ rotation has settled in the last two weeks. The starters haven’t changed since Da’Monte Williams and Andres Feliz flipped roles, and Illini coach Brad Underwood is mostly just bringing Alan Griffin, Kipper Nichols and Feliz off the bench. A few minutes for freshman center Jermaine Hamlin is the only deviation, and that only happens if either Kofi Cockburn or Giorgi Bezhanishvili picks up two fouls in the first half and sits until the second half.
“We searched for that early,” Underwood said. “I think everybody was trying to be a scorer or everybody was trying to be this and that. We had an emphasis of trying to get the ball inside a little bit and establish our interior play.”
Who starts and who comes off the bench in that rotation, of course, doesn’t factor into Underwood’s plans.
“I don’t give two rips about who starts,” he said. “It’s about having productivity throughout a 40-minute game. To do that, you’ve got to have really good guys coming off your bench. Al’s role has been huge. Dre’s role, he excels at it. And now we’ve got Kipper playing at a very efficient level off the bench.
“You start looking, and it becomes a nice mix of what you go to when you do make substitutions. You feel more confident subbing quicker sometimes to get to those guys. That’s less minutes and harder efforts. That’s what we’re ultimately trying to get to.”
Currently without a regular place in Illinois’ rotation is Tevian Jones. The 6-foot-7 sophomore guard missed the first eight games of the season while suspended for what was deemed a violation of team academic policies and then the first two Big Ten games of the season in early December once his suspension was complete.
Heading into Wednesday’s game at Wisconsin, Jones had played a total of 27 minutes in five games with a high of 10 at Michigan State. His only three points of the season came in Illinois’ final nonconference game against North Carolina A&T.
“You’ve got to earn them,” Underwood said about Jones potentially getting more minutes. “Who’s he going to play in front of? You have to go earn those things. There’s no charity. Minutes aren’t given. They’re earned.
“Kip was tremendous (Sunday) in a long playing period where Giorgi had some foul trouble. We believe in Tev and what he’s capable of doing, but he was out and you’ve got to work your way back in to that and you’ve got to compete for those minutes in practice every day.”
Bezhanishvili’s playing time really hasn’t changed this season even though his role is as different from last season as any other returning player. Averaging 25.1 minutes per game this season after 26.1 as a freshman, the only real change is where those minutes are coming from.
Bezhanishvili still looks more comfortable on the court with his back to the basket playing at center offensively, but those opportunities only come consistenly when Cockburn’s not on the court. One of his best moves playing at power forward — his shot fake from three-point range into an entry pass for Cockburn — has been successfully scouted by several teams. Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman snatched Bezhanishvili’s only attempt at that last week.
“They’re going to do that — take away that,” Bezhanishvili said. “Now we’ve got to do something different, and we’re going to figure that out.”
Bezhanishvili is also still figuring out how he can best perform in his new role.
“It’s a growing process,” he said. “I play as hard as I can and try to make winning plays. ... It’s the same mentality in the game. I’m just trying to make winning plays if I’m at the 5 or 4 or whatever. All I want is to win the game — points or no points, it doesn’t matter.”
Illinois’ prep for Wednesday’s game at Wisconsin was a little different for its guards on the defensive end.
The Badgers’ offensive shift to post up their guards like Brad Davison and Kobe King in a post-Ethan Happ world meant the Illini guards had to work on post defense this week. Good practice for future similar matchups.
“It’s a little non-conventional that your guards are going to play post defense,” Underwood said. “It’s something we obviously spent some time on in practice. It’s not just a one-on-one matchup on the block. There’s some ball pressure responsibilities and accountability that has to happen.
“It’s something you’ve got to do your work early and get your spot before them. You’ve got to make them shoot hard shots and try to knock them off their spots a little bit.”
Underwood made some changes to his scheme this season to accommodate having a player like Cockburn at center. That meant a defense with less of an emphasis on ball denial and an offense that’s incorporated more ball screen action. Underwood will still run spread — working the ball through the pinch post — but when the Illini are struggling, he’s made an offensive shift this season like he has at his other coaching stops to the dribble weave.
“I feel like when we get a little bit stagnant that gets the ball moving,” Underwood said. “It’s not the downhill thrust that we want. It’s getting from side to side and getting the ball moved and moving the defense and changing tags once we get to the roll and the ball screen action.
“It’s always in the back of our mind and something we’ll continue to do. Depending on how the defense plays, it’s something we look for. When the ball starts sticking in guys’ hands, it’s something I look to try to exploit with that offense.”