Tate | Shortcomings on display for Illini | Sports | news-gazette.com – Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette


Defense doesn’t figure into golf, skiing or gymnastics.

In launching the discus, it’s you against the elements, no human resistance.

And there is sometimes a tendency to overlook defense in team settings. Baseball Hall of Fame and Heisman Trophy voters do exactly that when assessing candidates.

But in basketball, it’s half the game, and the more proficient practitioners — Virginia, going back to 2019, is the “defending” NCAA champion after the pandemic canceled the 2020 NCAA tournament — tend to prevail.

This said, defense can be imperfect in the sense that the best laid schemes “gang aft agley” … or as we’ve seen with Illinois basketball, backfire!

Liddell does in IlliniA solid plan didn’t prevent Maryland’s 6-foot-7 Donta Scott from swishing a long trey at halftime last Sunday night, or senior Darryl Morsell from cashing five straight closely-guarded jumpers shortly after the break.

The 66-63 upset marked Morsell’s career day, one he’ll remember a half-century later when most are forgotten.

And Saturday, it was E.J. Liddell’s turn, the Belleville sophomore exploding from a 0-for-6 game against Northwestern to a jaw-dropping 26-point eruption in an 87-81 conquest of still-stunned Illinois.

Kofi Cockburn finished with an NCAA-leading 10th double-double but it wasn’t his day.

You could anticipate coach Chris Holtmann’s game plan from the outset when the 6-7 Liddell, who jumped center, took Cockburn outside for an 18-footer and the first of four treys (he only had three in 13 previous games) in a 10-2 Buckeye getaway.

In racing to a 34-19 lead, Liddell popped three more over Cockburn before Holtmann mysteriously took him out. Zed Key entered and scored consecutively against Cockburn.

Weaknesses exposedIllinois can’t win without the 7-foot Cockburn. But in this case, with the 285-pounder forced to defend on the perimeter, they couldn’t win with him. It emphasizes the weakness of this team and it is this: Except for five-tool Ayo Dosunmu, each player has a strategic weakness that opposing strategists seek to capitalize on.

With Andre Curbelo struggling through freshmen realizations, there aren’t enough playmakers. Starters Da’Monte Williams and Adam Miller are essentially three-point shooters (113 of their 164 shots are treys) who combined for one assist Saturday. Cockburn had no assists despite being double- and triple-teamed (which means someone is open).

Dosunmu can’t be the only one penetrating off the dribble, kicking out to an open shooter and generally manipulating the opposition.

Coach Brad Underwood talks about “a lack of energy and emotional disconnect,” but face it: elite teams don’t have the limiting shortcomings that the 9-5 Illini are displaying.

Draft stock for DosunmuOn another front, Dosunmu is bucking strong headwinds in his efforts to climb the NBA draft ladder.

Pro scouts obviously don’t like college juniors. A third season at this level brings, in their eyes, doubts … infers some sort of shortcoming.

Actually, Dosunmu’s improved numbers put the Illini junior in strong position for All-America honors: 22 points per game, 6.7 on rebounds, 4.9 on assists, 82 percent on free throws, 42 percent on treys.

And yet he checks in at Nos. 19, 27 and 30 on three mock drafts. It seems the NBA thinkers prefer to bet on the come.

Up front with the NBA are Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs and more than a dozen other one-and-doners, not to mention college-skipping G-Leaguers Jonathan Kuminga and Jalen Green. Spain’s Usman Garuba and Croatia’s Roko Prkacin head the foreign contingent.

With half the season unresolved — plus tournaments — Dosunmu and Baylor guard Jared Butler lead a junior class made thin by previous early entries. And if Iowa’s Luka Garza misses the top 30, as projected, there might be only one senior, Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert.

And so, as we compare Dosunmu with Nick Anderson, Deron Williams and the great Illini of the past, these ongoing draft evaluations cloud the issue, whether or not we want them to.

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

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