Tate | Glaring hole in roster leaves UI lagging behind


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Matchups. Bad matchups. Overpowered. Outmuscled.

These words best explain why the Big Ten's worst rebounding team, Illinois, has ongoing basketball troubles. Use of three guards in a lineup will work, but it's doubly difficult without a 1-2 power punch in the front line.

Take coach Brad Underwood's words.

After Wednesday's 73-56 setback at Purdue: "They outscored us 40-18 (19 cold layups!) in the paint ... Matt Haarms (8 for 8 shooting, 10 rebounds, five blocks) ... the size differential ... Giorgi (Bezhanishvili) was not a factor ... no inside presence."

Before the recent 83-76 breakdown against Penn State: "How do we guard Lamar Stevens (25 points)? That four-spot has been a tough matchup for us all year. And their center, Mike Watkins, is the elite interior defender in this league."

After an 86-75 loss at Minnesota: "Jordan Murphy (18 points, 10 rebounds) is relentless. You'd better put your gloves on and be ready for a fight."

Staying retro

In this era of so-called "position-less basketball," the Big Ten remains old-school with ultra-physicality in the paint.

Iowa features future pro Tyler Cook alongside Luka Garza. Maryland has rim rattlers Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith. Michigan State has forever presented two or three basket bodyguards. Other powerhouse "fours" include Minnesota's Murphy, Michigan's Ignas Brazdeikis and mobile in-out Indiana star Juwan Morgan.

There's a reason why Wisconsin's 6-foot-11 sophomore Nate Reuvers had his biggest game (22 points, 10 rebounds) in the first Illini contest, and why teammate Khalil Iverson had those crucial putbacks (16 points, nine rebounds) in the second UI game.

Missing out

Illinois hasn't had a favorable matchup at the power forward position in any Big Ten game. So you ask, how did it fall upon undersized senior Aaron Jordan, a trey-shooting wing, to take on this responsibility?

Well, 6-7 Leron Black, who averaged 15-plus points last season, elected to turn pro (he's playing in Argentina). At the same time, 6-10 Michael Finke, a non-fit in Underwood's defensive system, moved to Grand Canyon where, in a late surge, he has enjoyed 36- and 38-point games.

A once-committed Talen Horton-Tucker, now an NBA prospect at Iowa State, slipped away after a dispute with Ayo Dosunmu's AAU club (Horton-Tucker racked 26 points and 14 rebounds in an 84-68 rout of Illinois at the Maui Invitational in November). And Champaign's brilliant Jordan Caroline rejected overtures from his hometown last summer, preferring to remain with Nevada's 12th-ranked team.

Meanwhile, 6-6 junior Kipper Nichols simply isn't working out after finishing last season with a 31-point spree against Iowa. Among other shortcomings, Nichols has made just 3 of 32 treys since the pre-Christmas game with Missouri, this after shooting 39 percent on 109 treys in previous seasons.

Freshman redshirt Anthony Higgs, who fits sizewise, is unlikely to contribute due to medical concerns (epilepsy).

Seeking a solution

Today's fun task is projecting how Underwood might solve his power forward problem. Count the possibilities.

It begins with revamping Bezhanishvili's elbow jumper, making it less loopy and more direct. Sometimes outsized on the post — as was the case at Purdue — Giorgi would fit nicely at the four ... except, his footwork and ambidextrous offensive skills are best on the deep block. And that's exactly the same position that most benefits incoming 6-10 recruit Kofi Cockburn of Oak Hill Academy. Playing them together sounds iffy.

The next step is to grow muscle on slender, 6-7 Tevian Jones, who has played "like a freshman" but boasts the shooting and jumping skills to take a big step in the next year.

A transfer or a late recruit remains a strong possibility, with observers noting that Stephen F. Austin's TJ Holyfield, who played as a freshman on Underwood's NCAA team in 2016, might be available. The 6-8, 227-pound Holyfield was 2018 Southland tourney MVP and a preseason candidate as conference Player of the Year before sitting out this season with what is described as a shoulder injury.

Underwood, when asked how to deal with the Illini's blinking red lights in the paint, responded succinctly: "Recruit better, and bigger."

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.