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Let's get the disclaimer out of the way right now. Everything that happened last night did so against an NAIA school from Joliet. This was not a fair fight. You weren't going to learn all that much from seeing 6 '6" "post" players harmlessly bounce off Kofi Cockburn like so many ping pong balls or watching super senior guard/cornerback Trent Frazier terrorize passing lanes on defense en route to six steals.
So please disregard the box score. Heck - disregard the game score. Seriously - don't look at it. Nothing in it matters. Not the points, not the minutes, not the individual stats, nothing. OK - one thing: every single Illinois player had a positive plus/minus rating. Even walk-on Connor Serven who only played the final 3:35 of the game was a +3. And the only reason I'm having you pay attention to that is to emphasize once again the inequity of talent on display Saturday evening.
Now, all that said, wasn't that fun?
For the first time in 19 months, Illinois basketball fans got the chance to see their team wearing real jerseys go up against an actual opponent in the State Farm Center - and all the pageantry that goes along with that. The Orange Krush, the starting line-up hype video, the band, the big flags, all that.
F. U. N.
Last night was about turning back on the lights, and what a welcome scene it was.
I've made no secret of how bullish I am on this year's Illini squad. I think all the ingredients are in place for this to be a great college basketball team. On offense, they have a lethal ball screen duo in Kofi and Andre Curbelo and can surround those two with a turnstile rotation of 35-40% plus three point shooters. On defense they have two of the best on-ball defenders in the Big Ten and have length and athleticism for days. They have epitomized the college basketball mantra of "get old/stay old." In fact, they may have successfully hacked that tenet in that the core veterans on this team have actually grown old together - which is a rarity in today's college game.
Even a casual Illini basketball fan knows what they are going to get from the likely starting five of Trent Frazier, Da'Monte Williams, Jacob Grandison, Kofi Cockburn, Andre Curbelo. Super senior, super senior, grad transfer in his fifth year of college, true junior, true sophomore. That is as good a first five as you'll find anywhere and as veteran laden as it gets in college hoops.
Last night was also the reveal of the six Illini newcomers - Austin Hutcherson, Alfonso Plummer, Omar Payne, Luke Goode, Brandin Podziemski, and RJ Melendez.
Six newcomers. Prior to tipoff, I was reviewing the media notes on the game and was struck by the disparity on the roster. It's basically two separate rosters - the core veterans and the new guys. To me the most compelling aspect by far of this preseason will be observing how Brad Underwood manages and integrates the two groups. in other words - how he creates "The Mix".
Last night was our first collective chance to see those new guys enter "The Mix" in game speed action.
The veterans should not require a heavy coaching hand. Underwood will need to tighten the reins on Curbelo every now and then and there is always day to day game prep coaching that goes on during the season, but for the most part Underwood can afford to be pretty hands off with his veteran core.
At this point, what is Brad Underwood going to say to 23 year old Jacob Grandison, or 28 year old Trent Frazier, or 36 year old Da'Monte Williams? Kofi Cockburn has started 62 college basketball games already. Andre Curbelo was a key driving force behind Illinois' 16-1 finish through February and March last season. He has been to battle with this group and earned his stripes.
What is he going to say to this group of veterans who have invested over 350 combined games of sweat equity in this program? Brad Underwood admitted as much in the postgame press conference last night when he said that sometimes his coaching boils down to telling the new guys "do what Trent Frazier does" or "do what Da'Monte Williams just did".
So how does this group take the leap from good to special? It's all in "The Mix."
How do you stir in four or five newcomers into the recipe and concoct the perfect blend? Because we know that team sports are rarely "plug and play". The historical sports graveyard is full of teams who looked great on paper, but failed to deliver when the lights turned on.
So while depth could end up being a major plus for this team, I'm a bit hesitant to count that depth as a given, because the depth is all new guys. If that depth can't mix in seamlessly with the vets, the engine could get a bit clunky.
I don't mean to imply whatsoever that there might be chemistry issues on this team. Far from it actually. This group has a deeply "together" feel about them. It's just that sometimes, for whatever reason skill sets don't mesh.
I think this rotation will eventually settle in at about nine deep - the five veteran starters with the new guys providing the depth. It feels (right now at least) like the bench will mainly be Coleman Hawkins, Plummer, Payne, and Hutcherson, plus maybe one of the freshmen. (I will note that unprompted, Underwood went out of his way during the postgame to single out Luke Goode as having a "phenomenal" week of practice, so maybe he's that guy.)
I'm most interested in watching the newcomers integrate in the next exhibition and the first two "real" games against Jackson State and Arkansas State. Not so much from a statistical perspective, but just to get a solid sense of their comfort level.
It can prove exceptionally challenging for newcomers to carve out a niche on a team anchored by five fully established veterans. While it can be overwhelming for a college freshman, it can also be nearly as difficult for transfers like Plummer and Payne who must not only learn an entirely new system, but also ingrain themselves into a brand new team culture.
First night jitters were to be expected. It's been 19 months since many of these guys played in front of a State Farm Center crowd, and it's been "never" months for a bunch of others. As such, Plummer, Payne, and the rest of the freshmen all had their moments, but also were varying degrees of tentative as well. We know these dudes can play, but until they are truly part of "The Mix", it might tend to look a bit disjointed when they are on the floor.
I think it's worth noting that Austin Hutcherson (14 points/7 rebounds) seemed by far the most comfortable of the newcomers, and I don't think it's a coincidence that even though this was his first game action in an Illinois uniform, it's actually his third year in the program. Same for Coleman Hawkins - who only played 6 minutes per game last year, but displayed a level of confidence and comfort (13 points/5 rebounds) l that can only come from being enmeshed within the fabric of the team collective for a full season.
After last night's game I asked Brad Underwood about the unique challenges of mixing such a large group of newcomers in with a team of seasoned veterans. He acknowledged the difficulty by simply stating that "college basketball is hard" and continued on to talk about the wide gulf between the veterans and newcomers with respect to such things as integrating the system, learning the terminology, and understanding the speed at which things have to happen.
Such are the variables of "The Mix". I'll be paying close attention over the next several weeks - watching as it evolves and takes shape. It promises to make for fascinating theater.