CHAMPAIGN — The list of Illinois men’s basketball letterwinners from New York before Brad Underwood became coach and hired assistant Orlando Antigua was a short one.
As in just two players — Brooklyn native Bill Burwell (1961-63) and Pittsford’s Ryan Blackwell (1996) — hailed from The Empire State before 2017.
Antigua’s east coast ties have opened up that new avenue of recruiting, and Illinois has reaped the benefits. The Illini added Alan Griffin out of Archbishop Stepinac in their 2018 class and signed Kofi Cockburn from Christ the King (with a one-year stop at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia) for this season.
Friday morning’s commitment from four-star guard Andre Curbelo kept the streak going. While Curbelo is originally from Puerto Rico — and has represented his home country in international play — he plies his regular basketball trade in New York at Long Island Lutheran.
The Illinois name and brand is starting to gain a little traction in the Tri-State Area.
“I think this will really give it even more energy — definitely more so than it was,” Long Island Lutheran coach John Buck said. “It was kind of maybe a non-factor in kids’ minds around here. With those two commitments and now Andre, I think it definitely is a program when kids hear there will be a recognition instead of, ‘Where’s Illinois?’”
While Illinois’ remaining 2020 recruiting has a more Midwest vibe — see Morgan Park four-star guard Adam Miller — the Illini are looking to New York and the East Coast in future classes as well. Among the 30-plus offers in the 2021 class are the likes of five-star forward Jonathan Kuminga, who’s now at The Patrick School in Hillside, N.J., after playing in New York his first two high school seasons, five-star wing A.J. Griffin (Alan Griffin’s younger brother) at Archbishop Stepinac and Curbelo’s Long Island Lutheran teammate Drissa Traore, an unranked forward.
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Illinois played its lone exhibition game Friday against Division II Lewis with just 10 available scholarship players. Sophomore guard Tevian Jones remained suspended indefinitely for a violation of team academic policies, and junior guards Jacob Grandison and Austin Hutcherson truly began their sit-out seasons after transferring from Holy Cross and Division III Wesleyan, respectively.
Several transfers have received waivers in the last two weeks and will play immediately. The list of now eligible players includes some higher profile guards like Quentin Grimes (Kansas to Houston), Jemarl Baker (Kentucky to Arizona) and Quade Green (Kentucky to Washington), while former five-star guard Jahvon Quinerly (Villanova to Alabama) was denied.
Illinois didn’t seek a waiver for either Grandison or Hutcherson. The former might have had a case given now former Holy Cross coach Bill Carmody retired in June, but Underwood said the decision to seek a waiver or not was left to the players themselves.
“We feel like we’ve got our program in a place where it’s very helpful to have a couple guys sitting out and learning our system and getting better every day,” Underwood said. “Those situations are solely the student-athletes, and we’ve been good with that.”
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Giorgi Bezhanishvili was Illinois’ rebounding leader in 2018-19, hauling in 5.2 per game. That mark put him outside the top 20 in the Big Ten. As a team, the Illini ranked last in the conference with 33 rebounds per game. They were also 13th in the Big Ten giving up 36.5 rebounds per game.
Suffice it to say, pursuing the ball off the rim, backboard and other places was a point of emphasis this offseason. The addition of 7-foot, 286-pound freshman center Cockburn could have a positive effect on Illinois’ rebounding performance.
Bezhanishvili is already seeing a difference.
“Everybody boxes Kofi out now,” Bezhanishvili said. “He’s just so huge, and he gets every rebound if you don’t box him out. It creates more space for me to still run in and grab boards. It’s just a blessing to have him on my team — our team.”
Cockburn’s impact on the offensive end has also been notable in the lead up to the 2019-20 season.
“He’s successful with all my lobs,” Illinois sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu said. “I’m going to keep throwing it to him.”
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Friday’s exhibition was the second opportunity for Illinois — following its “secret” scrimmage at South Carolina last Sunday — to see what it has in a frontcourt featuring both Bezhanishvili and Cockburn. Plenty of focus so far has been on how Cockburn will fare in his first season. Underwood made a point of noting its new for Bezhanishvili, too.
“It’s also a pretty nice adjustment for Giorgi having to guard a little more on the perimeter, having to guard athletics 4s,” Underwood said. “He did very well in that area (against South Carolina). We looked a lot at the offensive end at some things that were very, very positive with both those guys. We know Giorgi can really pass.
“The one thing we know is Kofi’s going to make some mistakes. He’s a freshman, but his effort was great and he was effective on the glass. If we can get both those guys rebounding the basketball, we can be a legit force.”
Bezhanishvili said playing alongside Cockburn has allowed him to display more of his game. The 6-9 sophomore forward said he can show off his passing more, and the high-low game with Cockburn could be successful.
Bezhanishvili will also have to show growth as a shooter when he finds himself on the perimeter when Cockburn is taking up space in the paint. The Rustavi, Georgia, native shot just 16.7 percent from three-point range last season as a freshman.
“In the workout, it’s always great,” Bezhanishvili said of his three-point shot. “I may make 10 in a row. That’s a workout. For me, it’s all mental. My form is great. My footwork is great. It’s just a mental thing. Once I think I get that right, I’ll be able to knock down threes in a game.”
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Underwood mixed and matched lineups during the month’s worth of practices leading up to the season. That continued in the scrimmage at South Carolina and in Friday’s exhibition against Lewis.
“I think that’s one of the things we’re looking for is to see what that big lineup looks like and how effective it can be and what a smaller lineup looks like,” Underwood said. “Those are the things we have to continue to see as the season develops. … I’m still trying to figure out around media timeouts how I want to substitute. I like doing that a lot. We’re still playing with a lot of that.”
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Illinois put real value in its scrimmage at South Carolina and exhibition against Lewis. Those matchups allowed the Illini to see what they have against unfamiliar opponents and served as the final two tuneups for the 2019-20 season that starts Tuesday with a 7 p.m. home game against Nicholls State. That first week also sees Illinois hit the road to play at Grand Canyon and Arizona.
“We have been practicing against each other the whole entire time,” Bezhanishvili said. “We saw how we do stuff against people that we don’t know how they play and we don’t know what they’re running. It was great to see how we reacted to that and how we played.”
Even if it was just a scrimmage, playing at South Carolina was the stiffer of the two preseason challenges for Illinois. Underwood was pleased with how his team handled it.
“You face a Frank Martin team, and you know exactly what you’re going to get in terms of the effort and rebounding and defensive tenacity,” Underwood said. “That was great for our team to see that and to grow. Then it was a great opportunity for us to also go on the road, which we have to do here in a week, and kind of get that feeling out of the way. That scrimmage was very beneficial for us in more ways than one.”
Next up is Nicholls State on Tuesday. The season is finally, truly, here.
“Very fun to put all the ifs and what ifs and all of that (aside),” Dosunmu said. “Now, it’s here. It’s time to produce. It’s time to come out and play.”