Beat writer Scott Richey hands out high marks for the Illini following their 85-57 home win against The Citadel on Wednesday night in Champaign.
CHAMPAIGN — The start of this Illinois men’s basketball season hasn’t been quite as clean on the court (too many turnovers) or maybe as dominant as fans expected against some of the Illini’s nonconference opponents even if the wins have come
Former Illinois guard Stephen Bardo, who was on the call for BTN for Wednesday night’s 85-57 win by Illinois against The Citadel, believes the Illini might be pressing a bit early in the season.
“I think there’s some preseason expectations on themselves and that other people have on them,” Bardo said. “They seem to be pressing shooting threes, the turnovers and everybody’s in a new role with (Kofi Cockburn’s) emergence. It’s going to take time, but I think this team has potential to be an NCAA tournament team.
“They had a stretch last year where they were playing as good as anybody in the Big Ten, and then it kind of unraveled going down the stretch. I think they came back with a mindset of, ‘Hey, if we can be more confident and more consistent, we could do some damage.’ I think it’s just a matter of time. It’s still very early. We see high-level games like Michigan State-Seton Hall, and we forget it’s only November. And these guys are still relatively young even though they’ve gotten a lot of playing experience. There’s still an adjustment period, and guys are still trying to find their roles.”
★ ★ ★
While adding Cockburn has meant some changes — particularly for sophomore forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili — the 7-foot freshman center has provided Illinois a steady presence on the block. At both ends. Bardo also said the Kingston, Jamaica, native is only just tapping into his potential.
Illini center finished with 18 points and 17 rebounds for his fourth double-double in five games
“He’s just gifted,” Bardo said. “There’s not be a big man in Illinois’ history — in our history — that’s like this young man. He’s done a great job. The game is still moving fast for him. You can see that with his turnovers, but he plays hard and goes hard. If he keeps going hard, the game will slow down a little bit for him and he can really be dominant. He’s dominant now.”
Helping Cockburn put up fairly consistent production so far this season is the fact he’s been able to avoid foul trouble. That’s not always a guarantee for big men. Bezhanishvili had those struggles last season.
“He’s bigger than Giorgi, so he can lay back a little bit and make up for mistakes because of his size,” Bardo said. “Somewhere he’s gotten an innate ability to understand, ‘OK, I don’t have to be so aggressive. I can just wall up and make guys finish.’ When you do that at his size, that’s good defense.”
★ ★ ★
Signing Andre Curbelo last week made for a fourth straight recruiting class where Brad Underwood added a top-100 player. It extended the streak started by adding Mark Smith in 2017 and following up with Ayo Dosunmu and Cockburn in the last two classes. The Illini could potentially add another — Underwood’s first class with multiple top-100 prospects — should Adam Miller pick the Illini when he announces his commitment at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Jordan Brand Store in downtown Chicago.
Underwood maintains his recruitment strategy is based more on fit than stars, but the Illini are stacking talent.
“I think it speaks volumes to our assistant coaches,” Underwood said. “I think it speaks volumes to the reputation of the University of Illinois and its basketball program. I think people are believing in what we’re building. They know that there’s been a lot of building and a lot of work going on. It’s nice to have people believe in us that they want to come be a part of it.
“We keep moving the ball forward and attracting good players like that. We don’t set out to recruit whether they’re top 100 or 353 like Giorgi. We recruit the best players that fit. It just so happens because of a great staff and because of a great school and great program, we’re able to land a few of them.”
★ ★ ★
Coleman Hawkins fit what Illinois wanted in the Class of 2020 — a versatile 6-10 forward that could rebound, defend and stretch the floor offensively.
Hawkins’ family fit, too. Underwood connected with Hawkins’ dad, Rodney, who like the Illini coach also played junior college basketball in Kansas. Underwood also knows Darin Spence, who’s the women’s basketball coach at Newman University in Wichita, Kan., where Hawkins’ sister, Bailey, is a junior forward.
“It’s a basketball family,” Underwood said. Hawkins’ other two older sisters also played in college. “That’s what they talk about. They play. That’s what recreation time is for them is playing hoops. That definitely pays off. His dad was a heck of a player.”
★ ★ ★
Illinois men’s basketball strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher respects what his football counterpart Lou Hernandez has accomplished since his return to the program ahead of this season. Fletcher also recognizes what he does is different.
“I’m not training them to be a football player,” Fletcher said about the Illini basketball players. “That’s ‘Body by Lou.’ That’s what he does. He does an unbelievable job, and we’ve seen that.
“I think there are teams we’ll play this year that may look bigger than us at times, but one of the things we focus on is movement. It’s very important that our guys move well, and it doesn’t limit their basketball game.”
Weightlifting, though, is still important and still a part of Illinois’ daily routine. Even during the season.
“It does make you more explosive,” Fletcher said. “It does make you faster. It does make you more injury resilient. Yes, there are times when guys can get too bulky. That’s something that we really address and spend a lot of time on is not allowing our guys to get to that point.”
★ ★ ★
Fletcher has Underwood’s full support. That’s why Illinois incorporated the ShotTracker technology at both Ubben Basketball Complex and State Farm Center last season. Getting that technology all started with a conversation between strength coach and basketball coach.
“We talk about a lot of that,” Underwood said. “He explains it in a way in how it’s going to help and what it’s going to do. I cater to him. I’ll adjust my practices and my times around what he wants to do in most cases. I think that it’s that important. Anything he thinks will benefit our program, we’re going to try to help him get it.”