CHAMPAIGN — A break in the Chicago Public Schools City tournament schedule meant 2020 Illinois commit Adam Miller could make the drive to Champaign on Friday night for the Illini’s top 25 showdown with Maryland. Miller, a five-star guard, has Morgan Park in the quarterfinals of the city tournament after putting up 19 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds Thursday in the Mustangs’ second round win against Westinghouse.
“I feel like my game is at its peak right now,” Miller said. “I feel like I’m playing every game like it’s my last. I always go 100 percent, but now it’s 110 percent, 120 percent. I’m always locked in. I’m always playing mad. I’m always playing with a chip on my shoulder.
Morgan Park will face Whitney Young on Tuesday in the city quarterfinals. It’s a rematch from both teams’ season opener the Mustangs won against the Dolphins, who have their own five-star guard in Duke-bound DJ Steward.
“Hopefully we can win every game from here on out,” Miller said.
Miller officially got some good news earlier Friday. While news of the Team USA roster for the April 10 Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, Ore., broke Thursday, Miller’s inclusion on the 12-man roster was announced Friday.
“Everybody was like, ‘You didn’t make the McDonald’s game.’ For me, it’s really not about accolades,” Miller said. “I try to get them all, but that’s, to me, the biggest thing. Playing for Team USA is one of the things I always wanted to do as a kid, being able to put the USA jersey on. With perseverance and being able to push through and stay strong going through all the minicamps — all the time and effort — I’m just proud to be a part of that team.”
Miller has played with several of his future Team USA teammates in previous junior national team minicamps. Miller also might wind up facing a future Illinois teammate if Andre Curbelo makes the World team. The Puerto Rican point guard was one of three 2020 recruits on the World roster last year.
“I’m going to be talking so much smack before we can get down here,” Miller said about the potential to face Curbelo in Portland. “Hopefully I can beat him, and I can hold that against him when I come here. I just want to go out, play my hardest and him play his hardest. There’s going to be NBA scouts out there. I hope he does his thing, and I hope I do, too.”
Da’Monte Williams entered Friday night’s game shooting 0 of 10 from three-point range in 2020 and just 4 of 29 for the season. Then the Illinois junior guard knocked down the first two three-pointers he attempted against Maryland.
“The kid shoots a million balls,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “I’ve never told him not to shoot shots because I know how hard he works at it. When you work at it, you want to have that freedom to go make them. It was nice to see those go down.”
Williams ultimately didn’t attempt another shot in the game. The two he took — and made — were shots Maryland coach Mark Turgeon wasn’t all that displeased with his team for allowing.
“They made some shots early we didn’t think they could make,” Turgeon. “Guys we really want shooting the ball, and they made them all.”
Just eight Division I coaches treat two fouls by their starters in the first half as as immediate of an “auto sit” as Underwood. Illinois’ two-foul participation is just 2.7 percent per KenPom. Belmont ranks last in the country with a two-foul participation at 0.5 percent.
First-year Belmont coach Casey Alexander has changed in that regard, since he had a 14.6 percent two-foul participation last year at Lipscomb.
Underwood has his reasons for holding his starters on the bench until the second half if they pick up two quick fouls. Trent Frazier sat the final 12 minutes of the first half during Friday night’s loss to Maryland.
“My main premise for it is to be able to have the three fouls going into the second half when the game comes down to the end,” Underwood said. “That’s why I do that. It’s not an every time deal, but it’s completely based on the flow of the game from that aspect.”
It’s not a perfect science, though. Some situations dictate Underwood deviating from his main plan. Like he did when Kofi Cockburn picked up a second foul against the Terrapins (sitting the final 5 minutes), and Giorgi Bezhanishvili had to come off the bench with two.
“If you feel like a game is slipping and you need that guy or if you feel like you’re not getting quite the performance from the guy that replaced him, you may go back with that,” Underwood continued. “I try to do that in very short stints when I put a guy back in as to not let them get fatigued and make a lazy foul. Not necessarily have them in there where an opponent can isolate a situation to try to pick up a third. I know we look to try to do that sometimes.”
Underwood is mostly pleased with the number of touches Bezhanishvili gets. Heading into Friday’s game against Maryland, the 6-9 sophomore forward was averaging just more than six shots per game in the new year. Certain matchups — like against zone defenses — are where Underwood would like to see Bezhanishvili be utilized more for his passing and shooting ability from 12 to 15 feet.
“I think every matchup is a little different and every game is a little different, but I’ve got a lot of confidence when Giorgi catches the ball something good is going to happen,” Underwood said. “We’ve got to be able to exploit those matchups when they’re in our favor.”
Illinois’ bench has been its sixth man trio for most of the season now. Or at least once Andres Feliz was moved out of the starting lineup and back into the role where he experienced success during the 2018-19 season. Underwood, though, doesn’t consider Feliz, Alan Griffin and Kipper Nichols “bench players.”
“Their minutes all bunch up for me,” Underwood said. “Those guys know they’re going to play, and they’re going to play a lot of minutes. They’re productive pieces to us. Some nights, they’re our best players. That’s a nice problem to have when you bring guys off the bench and know you’re getting that kind of productivity.”
Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk has missed the last 11 games with a right foot injury. Said injured foot has been both in and out of a protective boot in the past couple weeks. The 6-8 freshman forward was in the boot for the third straight game Friday.
“He had an MRI (Wednesday), so we’ll wait to se how that is — the results of that — and making sure he’s completely healed,” Underwood said. “Beyond that, he’ll continue to stay in the boot to maximize the speed of his healing.”
Illinois has been ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 for the past four weeks. That uptick in national attention has had a corollary when the Illini coaches have been out on the recruiting trail. There’s simply more positive feedback.
“The greatest tool you have in recruiting is winning,” Underwood said. “When people start seeing your name more, whether it’s running across the ticker — FOX, ESPN, CBS — and they see your highlights and see players they may know from the circuit or the summer time and see they’re name up there and they’re doing well, that impacts recruiting at a very, very high level.
“Kids pay attention today on social media. Obviously we’ve got a lot to be proud of here at the University of Illinois. Hopefully that continues.”