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Illinois basketball

Illinois forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili (15) shoots against Northwestern center Dererk Pardon, left, and guard Ryan Greer on March 13. 

CHAMPAIGN — The Euro League basketball championships are underway and the Illini coaches are watching.

And debating. And searching for ideas they can steal from a league that goes about its business in a different way.

The NBA Playoffs are flying high and before long, the NBA Finals will determine a champion.

The Illini coaches will be watching. And debating. And looking for ideas they can steal there, too.

Next month the NBA Draft will unfold and Brad Underwood and his staff have already been discussing which players are going where and why and which players may not be prepared for what awaits them. They do this, in part, because their roster now includes players who will face this life-changing moment.

More important, on the practice court and in the offices and meeting rooms at the Ubben basketball complex, some sizzling exchange of ideas has been raging as an excited coaching staff explores all options because in the 2019-20 season, the roster will have a new look, a more experienced core and – they hope – finally be equipped to end the program’s six-year participation drought in the NCAA Tournament.

The return of starters Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier and Giorgi Bezhanishvili and the arrival of 7-foot, 300-pound Kofi Cockburn is giving the Illini staff a chance to spitball any and every idea imaginable as the Illini tweak the way they play, the way they teach and hopefully the way they get back to competing for national recognition in the Big Ten Conference.

Without pulling back the curtain completely, Geoff Alexander, Underwood’s assistant to the head coach, was in Decatur this week and he confirmed the heated and animated exchange of ideas that is going on right now with every Illini coach raising his voice and pounding his fist to have his ideas be heard.

This is what Underwood wants, Alexander said: Leave no stone unturned as they try to reimagine basketball within Underwood’s basic framework but with new concepts and strategies examined in depth now during this critical off-season.

For instance, how do they best pair the huge and surprisingly athletic 7-foot Cockburn with the versatile 6-9 Bezhanishvii?

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Are there ways to take advantage of this unusual pairing when running in transition? How do they use Giorgi B. in new ways without ignoring his undeniable ability to score over either shoulder in the post? How do the ensure Giorgi and Kofi are not getting in each other’s way?

Given stronger bodies and more experienced minds, what might they be able to do this season that they were not able to master last season?

“Ideas are flying,” Alexander said. “Philosophies are being challenged. We’re talking about everything.”

Perhaps most important, how can the Illini continue to aggressively defend while significantly trimming fouls so that opponents are not gaining such a pronounced edge at the free-throw line?

Did you know that against Big Ten competition last season, the Illini sent opponents to the free throw line 109 more times than they managed to get there themselves? That’s too many points being given away in a league that thrives on close games decided by the thinnest of margins. That, the staff has decided, absolutely must change.

Furthermore, there’s a rules change that could alter the way teams play. The 3-point line is likely to be moved back 16¾ inches, which will knock about 2½ percentage points off 3-point shooting accuracy (based on stats from an experiment conducted by teams playing in the NIT). More important, it figures to open up the court and allow teams more freedom to get the rim.

Teams like the Illini, with a stronger inside presence, could benefit.

While the idea exchange rages on, this is also the “Summer of Fletch,” with strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher reshaping bodies and building confidence in ways that make last year’s freshmen look much more prepared for the rigors of Big Ten.

“Ayo is doing things in the weight room he was never capable of before,” Alexander said. “Tevian Jones is now over 200 pounds. He looks great. Alan Griffin’s body is different. Giorgi is having a great off-season with Fletch. We’re older now. As I like to say, we’ve had birthdays.”

And when Cockburn arrives, building his conditioning will be vital because a 7-foot, 300-pounder who can run and run and run is a weapon few teams can match.

And a new twist is approaching later this summer. “This is the perfect time for our Italy trip,” Alexander noted.

The Illini will get extra practice time in July, then head to Italy to play a series of games in August that will allow them a dress rehearsal to implement some of the concepts they have now placed on the drawing board.

Sure, fans are worried about recruiting because Illinois has narrowly missed on recent targets. T.J. Holyfield (the Stephen F. Austin grad transfer picked national runnerup Texas Tech). Tomas Woldetensae, a junior college 3-point shooter, picked national champion Virginia. And under-the-radar forward Olivier Robinson-Nkamhoua, picked Sweet 16 entry Tennessee.

Clearing an academic hurdle is holding up an announcement about forward Bernard Kouma, but there’s a sense he’ll still be part of the 2019-20 Illini roster. Even though two scholarships would remain open, filling just one with a player possessing a special skill (3-point shooting?) would be enough.

Holding a scholarship for the 2020 class wouldn’t be all bad.

And remember: The recruiting calendar has changed. Players are committing later, transferring later, changing their minds on the NBA draft later. While fans fret in May, coaches aren’t in a panic.

The 10 scholarship players in place now (Samba Kane isn’t going anywhere) will become 11 assuming Kouma makes it.

In my mind, the critical players are Tevian Jones and Alan Griffin.

Jones is the athlete Illinois has been missing. They need more players who can rise up and get his shot anywhere, any time. Griffin could be the breakout player of the coming season.

Fans will have strong opinions and it’s reasonable to say, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” They’ve been burned before.

But given health, this looks like an Illini team headed to the NCAA Tournament and one that could wiggle into the Top 25 along the way. Nationally, observers are sleeping on this bunch and Illinois’ failure to be nationally relevant has helped put them to sleep.

But in the Illini basketball offices right now, it’s impossible to sleep. Voices are loud. Ideas are strong. Fists are pounding. And the debate continues. The effort to make this a long-awaited breakthrough season is well underway.


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Mark Tupper is the retired executive sports editor of the Herald & Review. He can be reached at marktupper@barbeckbb.com.

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