COLUMBUS, Ohio — Jason Benetti has spent the better part of the past several months fielding question after question about Manny Machado. Mostly it's a "Will he or won't he?" type of deal. As in, will Machado sign with the Chicago White Sox?
Benetti will eventually transition into his role as the White Sox play-by-play announcer. Thursday night, though, he was on the call on ESPN2 for the rematch between Illinois and Ohio State alongside former Purdue standout Robbie Hummel.
Benetti last saw the Illini in person at the Maui Invitational where he teamed up with two-time NCAA and two-time NBA champion Bill Walton. As any broadcast with Walton goes, it was an experience.
One Benetti thoroughly enjoys.
"I think it was ecstasy — either the drug or the feeling," Benetti joked about his Maui Invitational broadcasts with Walton, which included every Illinois game. "No, he's a wonderful guy to work with because you never know where he's going. You don't have a plan — you can't have a plan — and if you have a plan, he crumples it up really fast and throws it away. You have to be ready for everything.
"I think that's good for our game, honestly. I know some people dislike him and are like, 'Talk about the game,' but you have the game on your screen. The one thing I will say about Bill that people don't realize is he spends a lot of time in shootarounds and practices getting specific details about those players and coaches. Even if they don't necessarily come out every moment on the air, he cares very much."
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Illinois is a bit like Walton in the "throw away your plan" type of way. That's the sense Benetti has gotten talking from coaches in the league. The Illini are not a team, he said, you'd want to face on short rest in the Big Ten tournament.
"They're a nasty get on short rest," he said. "If they end up winning game one of the Big Ten tournament, that's a very tough out, I think, just because they have such a variable way of playing compared to the rest of the league defensively. ... They trash your offensive game plan. You basically have to cut and drive. You're not running sets nearly as much as the regular offense."
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Benetti said he sees an Illinois team that has settled into defined roles at this point of the season compared to when he first saw them in Hawaii in November. Illini coach Brad Underwood would agree and said that has led to his team's recent success.
"(Andres Feliz is) a great example," Underwood said. "Very dialed into what his role is. His minutes are going to be the same whether he's started or comes off the bench. We've become very accustomed and acclimated to Adonis (De La Rosa) coming off the bench and knowing we're going to get 12 to 15-16 minutes a game. We're defined a lot more in who we are, and that's helped us."
Ayo Dosunmu knew it was just a matter of time before the Illini settled into a comfortable existence on the basketball court.
"I figured it was going to take time," Dosunmu said. "We had new talent around each other finding roles. I think we're starting to get more comfortable in our roles and playing together as a team and getting after it defensively. We just have to keep taking steps and keep getting better."
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Feliz showed his importance Thursday night against the Buckeyes. The 6-foot-2 junior guard snapped a five-minute scoring drought in the second half — that let Ohio State back in the game — with consecutive aggressive dribble drives and finishes. He had nine points and also fouled Ohio State scoring leader Kaleb Wesson out of the game down the stretch.
"He's our unsung hero," Underwood said. "Everybody's talking about everybody else on our team, and all this kid does is help us win. He was upset in the last timeout because he missed a bunny and a free throw. This kid is nothing but a flat winner. He's done nothing but win his whole life.
"His value to our team is immense. It was discomforting in the first half to have him with three fouls and have to take him out. We got discombobulated a little bit at the end of the half, and a lot of that's because he wasn't on the court."
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Thursday night's win pulled Illinois into a tie for eighth place in the Big Ten with Minnesota. Ohio State is just a half game ahead of the Illini and Gophers, and the Buckeyes are cognizant of how their loss could affect their NCAA tournament chances.
"It's a tough conference," Ohio State junior forward Andre Wesson said. "Every night you can get beat if you don't show up. We came out (Thursday) and we weren't prepared. That's on me and the older guys. We didn't get the younger guys prepared. That's what happens. That's how you get beat.
"We're trying to make the NCAA tournament. We're not a lock. Any game we play we've got to have right now."
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The winter weather was not kind to Giorgi Bezhanishvili's bike "Lambo."
"It's broke," the Illinois freshman forwards said. "It's done. I might have to get a new one once the weather comes out. I'm going to get Lambo 2.0 probably."
So sans bike, Bezhanishvili has had to find different ways to practice. He walked to Ubben Basketball Complex on one of the days where temperatures dipped into minus-20 territory.
Or that one time he rode in the back of a Chevy S-10
"Tevian (Jones), who is my roommate, we have the same class," Bezhanishvili said. "We had class and after the class he told me had somebody to pick him up and I could ride with him. This pickup came. It was just one sit, Tev got in and I said, 'Why not get in the back of the truck?'"
The "why not" would be the feedback Bezhanishvili got from the Illinois coaching staff. As in, don't do it again.
"All the coaches," Bezhanishvili said about who talked to him about riding in the back of the truck. "I don't have Twitter, but people told me — some of the coaches told me — the (University of Illinois Police) commented on Twitter that we really shouldn't do it. I didn't know it was a deal, but I learned a lesson and I won't do it again."
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The photo of Bezhanishvili riding in the back of the pickup was just part of the giant spotlight on the 6-9 big man this week. Being named Big Ten Player of the Week after his record-setting performance against Rutgers, in fact, drew headlines in his native Georgia.
"All the family is really proud," he said. "My grandparents were crying all the time because they kept showing me on the TV back home. All the people in the neighborhood, in the city, talk about me and talk to my grandparents about me. Media reaching out to me all the way from there. It gets published back home, and I make my family proud."
Don't expect the extra attention to change the new Illini fan favorite, though.
"The attention and all that stuff is really nice — I like it — but I got that by being me, by being Giorgi basically," Bezhanishvili said. "I'm just going to keep being Giorgi. Giorgi is a humble person who is just having fun living life and being happy. I'm just going to keep being me."
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Bezhanishvili has established himself as a go-to post scorer. Up next in his development? Rebounding, and if Underwood has anything to say about it, better free-throw shooting, too, which the Illini coach interjected while Bezhanishvili was talking to the media Wednesday at Ubben Basketball Complex.
"I have to rebound a lot better than I do," Bezhanishvili said. "I haven't had the double-double yet, and that's pretty bad for me. As coach said, my free-throw shooting has to get a lot better. I think I can shoot a lot better, but we have so many great shooters on the team I don't have to do that — not really."