Smile Politely

Craggs & Leitch: Every Illini basketball player, profiled and examined

Mark Alstork: There is a temptation to make the Rayvonte Rice comparison with Alstork, a graduate transfer from Wright State who scored a done of points in a lesser league and comes over to Illinois during a period when we desperately need veteran scoring punch. But Alstork might be a little better than that? I loved Rayvonte, but his limitations were apparent, and they were even more stark because John Groce never really ran an offense and often just let Rice dribble for 30 seconds before shooting a fallaway 3-pointer. Alstork has a much more expansive game. He can shoot, sure, averaging more than two 3-pointers a game last year but he was also eighth in the conference in assists and, even better, he can get to the line. He was 20th in the country in free throws made last year. It’s going to take a while to figure out how this offense is going to work, so Alstork will help paper over that in the short run. But he looks like the sort of scoring-passing-driving combination that will still work when Mark Smith is fully in charge. If he’s our best player, like Rayvonte was, we’re in trouble. But as our third option, and a guy to fill in the gaps … I’m excited. Plus, I very much enjoy saying “Alstork.” — WL

Da’Monte Williams: He looks so much like his dad, down to the tape on his wrists. Brad Underwood sees the resemblance. I liked his line about Da’Monte: “The game doesn’t get sped up for him.” That’s the way it was for Frank Williams, who I maintain is the purest basketball talent ever to show up on First Street. The sleepiness that always drove everyone crazy was partly a function of his fluency. The ball always did what Frank wanted it to do; there was never any need to rush. Who knows what we have in his son. The guy was on the shelf for 10 months after shredding his knee. But if he inherited even a fraction of whatever good juju would get into his dad for a few minutes every game or so, we’re cool. — TC

Leron Black: I was convinced Leron was going to be our Draymond Green by now, the dominant rebounder and defensive player who is so irrirtating to play against that he’s worth a late technical foul or two over other game or so. It hasn’t worked out that way; he’s still irritating, but he never quite has put it all together, mostly becoming a guy who a decent midrange jumper and perpetual foul trouble. Black is supposed to be our monster on the boards, our Lucas Johnson but actually skilled, and we’re still sort of waiting around for that; you see flashes of it, but then he’ll disappear for a couple of games. Black should never disappear. He’s only a junior (which seems strange?), and he has the sort of drive (or “motor,” if you will) that would see to fit on an Underwood team. Underwood’s certainly excited: He has said he’s the most improved player on the team and that he wants to see him average a double-double. That’s the Leron Black I’ve been waiting to see. If someone doesn’t try to punch him at some point this year, he’s doing something wrong. — WL

Trent Frazier: I have no idea what he is going to be. The pessimist in me sees a fun-sized lefty who can do enough of everything to be a star in high school and not enough of anything to be a star in college. But he wants to score, and he’s in an offense now that encourages scorers to score—no small thing! He can shoot and he can finish around the rim, and maybe in Underwood’s system, which designed to keep players away from their deficiencies, that’ll be enough. — TC

Michael Finke: Finke is one of those players you find yourself focusing on his weaknesses – rebounding, passing, dribbling – so much that you don’t realize how much he gives you until he’s not there anymore. (As someone who was embarrassingly invested in our NIT run last year, we missed him out there!) Theoretically, he’s perfect for the Underwood offense because he’s tall and he can shoot. (He led the team with 41 percent from 3-point range last year. 40 percent is the magic number to stay above.) Groce often asked him to do more than just sit out on the line shoot, but Underwood might not need to. If he’s the stretch four draining threes, he’s precisely what Smith and Alstork and the runners will need to stretch the floor. If he’s asked to more than that, we’re in trouble. And Michael: Just let the hair flow! Get rid of the bun. Let ir run long. You’ll look like Sebastian Bach out there. It’ll be awesome. — WL

Te’Jon Lucas: He gives off some real Chester Frazier vibes — a lively player whose manifest limitations can warp the logic of the offense but who does too much on the other end of the floor to keep him on the bench. This seems to be a theme with this team: Our guys might play as if they have ball-peen hammers where their hands are supposed to be, but by god they’re active. — TC

Aaron Jordan: Remember when Jordan was supposed to be this great shooter? And then when you watched him heave up that cement mixer line drive and wondered how in the world this guy even had a scholarship? Well, even though everyone assumed he was going to transfer after last year, he’s still hanging around. He could be helpful on a team that needs wings, and maybe he’s got a little bit of a Austin Colbert dead-cat bounce game or two. But you will never convince me this guy really was ever a shooter. Underwood says he’s one of the most improved Illini. I’ll believe it when I see it. — WL

Mark Smith: I’m unreasonably bullish on the new guy, even—no, particularly—after watching those godawful EIU highlights. The guy has a little funk to him, and even if the little moments of stunting were entirely incongruous to the moment and the result, well, who cares? Evidence is limited, but my sense is that he’s the sort of player who talks shit even when he’s down 20, and we’re going to be down 20 a lot this year. — TC

Cameron Liss: Hey, he hit a 3-pointer in the Big Ten Tournament two years ago! Remember that? He redshirted last year, which wasn’t something I understood walk-ons to do – I’m not sure I entirely understand the point of it? – but he’s on the active roster this year and we’ll be everybody’s favorite white guy running around for a couple of minutes against Augustana. Terrifyingly, he might be the fifth-tallest player on the team. I also like that his Twitter page is basically nothing but him praising current and former Illini teammates, which is exactly what a walkon is supposed to do on his Twitter. Now go wipe up that spill, Cam. — WL

Greg Eboigbodin: Everyone talks about Greg Eboigbodin’s “motor.” I remember when everyone used to talk about Leron Black’s motor. Be suspicious of any recruit who arrives with a highly touted motor; it’s a thing people say about players of no discernible skill who nevertheless appear to be trying. YouTube tells me Eboigbodin has a post game, even if it is a little earthbound. The thing is, whatever he is as a player will matter less than what he is not: Jeremiah Tilmon. I’m sure everyone here remembers that Eboigbodin was the consolation for Tilmon’s bolting his commitment to Illinois to play for Mizzou. What that means, surely, is that Illinois fans are going to spend the year exploring the wild and vast spaces between Eboigbodin’s output and Tilmon’s. — TC

Kipper Nichols: The ultimate indictment of the Groce era was not the total lack of offensive cohesion, or the recruiting misses, or the hokey TNT junk – though those were all pretty bad! It was the total inconsistency of effort. The team would sleepwalk through large chunks of the year, and then turn it on and play inspired for two weeks, making you think they’d finally figured it out … before falling on their face out of nowhere to ruin the whole thing. (I’ll never get over that Rutgers loss last year. Never.) This is why Kipper Nichols was so beloved by the fanbase last year. After he sat out the first semester following his transfer from Tulane, he instantly stood out as the hustling, hyperactive, super intense energy guy that we’d been waiting to see Groce turn everybody else into. He crashed the boards, he disrupted on defense, he dove for loose balls … all the stuff that Illini fans always go crazy for, even sometimes disproportionately. He even showed he could hit threes. Nichols can play just about anywhere and, more to the point, guard just about anyone. I’m not sure where precisely he fits on this team other than “anywhere and everywhere.” He’s not the most talented player on this team. But he’s the guy we need to all follow and emulate. Nichols’ success, and Groce’s inability to figure out what to do with him, was an unexpected, vivid subplot of last season; it laid Groce’s failings most bare. If Underwood is the coach I think he is, Nichols is going to be the center of everything that happens in 2017-18, and for a couple of more years to come. — WL

Clayton Jones: Central High School’s very own! Finke aside, the local guys are usually a reminder of just how remote the university is from places where young people are actually good at basketball. Carvell Ammons was a monster in high school at Centennial, and then he went to play for a rancid Northwestern team and couldn’t crack double digits. — TC

Samson Oladimei: He got into seven games last year and hit a couple of free throws against Central Michigan. He looks a little like Nick Anderson if you squint. He also has a reasonable view of Valentine’s Day.

It’s a Hallmark holiday, just invented to sell cards, Samson. Keep fighting, friend. — WL

Tyler Underwood: We have mentioned in this space the improbable claim from Brad Underwood that his son Tyler’s first jersey was a Brian Cook replica. He would’ve been, what, 6 years old? A 6-year-old wanting to wear a Brian Cook jersey is like a 6-year-old wanting to wear a cravat. I am skeptical, but I am also so deep in the tank for Brad Underwood at this point that I think the jersey business is better if it’s all a crock of beans. It’s flattering to think that Underwood has enough insight into Illinois fandom to know to pander to us with a relative deep cut like Brian Cook. Anyway, Tyler seems fine, as coaches’ kids go. — TC

Matic Vesel: Vesel is an instant test of the “does Underwood see things in some guys nobody else does?” principle. Vesel wasn’t recruited, was barely known, by just about anybody in the sport, hanging around on the Slovenian Under 18 team and grabbing a bunch of rebounds. He seems to have been brought in just because we didn’t have any tall people, and he is tall, at 6-foot-10. But he also is scrawny: Prepare for lots of “Vesel needs to adjust to the physical nature of the Big Ten” stories. He doesn’t appear to be even slightly ready to play this level basketball just yet, which is worrisome considering he might be one of the first guys off the bench when Black and Finke get into foul trouble. If we see a lot of Vesel this year, it’s a bad sign. (And we might see a lot of Vesel.)

Also, get the name right:

So it rhymes with “cornmeal.” I might start calling him that. — WL

Drew Cayce: An important thing to remember about big-time sports is that even the worst guy on the floor at some point in his career had a mixtape.

— TC

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