Heat Checks and Hail Marys - Too Close for Comfort or Kofi and Alfonso Save the Day

Mike Cagley, IlliniGuy

November 27, 2021

Last night the Illini defeated a game but ultimately undermanned UT Rio Grande Valley team. Largely through the efforts of three players - F Marek Nelson (23 points), G Justin Johnson (28 points) and G Ricky Nelson (15 points) the UTGRV team was able to keep the game close until the final minutes.

The Illini were playing without Trent Frazier (leg injury), Andre Curbelo (neck pain), Jacob Grandison (flu), and Brandin Podziemski (tried to play - flu). After the game it was clear that Coach Underwood was dealing with a lot of the "crud" of whatever is going around the locker room as well. The team was without 3 starters and it showed on defense. On offense, they still managed to score 94 points. Was it a great night? No, it wasn't. But, unlike some Illini teams of the past decade, this iteration of the Illini didn't allow these excuses to lead to a loss.

Heat Check #1 - Kofi has Gotten and is Getting Better

Kofi Cockburn courtesy Joe Clark, IlliniGuys.

Kofi had one assist tonight. If you add two from the Kansas State game, he's already 3/5 of the way to tying last year's season assist total of 5. He also had a pretty pass to Coleman Hawkins that Hawkins was fouled on - effectively robbing Kofi of an assist. As he gets better and better at finding the open players when he is double teamed, Kofi will make this Illini team a much more formidable opponent than they have been early this season.

Kofi's free throw form looks very good. He seems much more confident at the line and is calm under pressure. He even got the shooter's touch as the ball rolled in a couple of times. Even his misses look on line for the most part. A Kofi Cockburn that goes 8 for 11 from the charity stripe on any given night takes away the Hack-a-Kofi strategy that was employed against him last year.

Kofi also had a couple of short jump shots that went in as well. Being able to hit those is a big deal. If defenders have to worry about him pulling up that means they can't load up for him to try to bull past them for the layup or dunk. This is a serious issue - especially when it's coupled with Kofi passing the ball to open shooters.

It's clear the Illini All American has been working on his fundamentals in the offseason. These efforts bode well for the team as the season progresses.

Heat Check #2 - Alfonso Plummer is a Sniper

Alfonso Plummer courtesy Joe Clark, IlliniGuys.

Alfonso Plummer has been called the man who never misses by folks who've seen him in practice. Illini fans, who are known for a lack of patience and a propensity to judge players and teams too early were already writing Plummer off as "over-rated" after 4 games. Oh, how that has changed.

At K-State, Plummer hit 7 of 9 three-point shots. Tonight, he hit 6 of 11 from the three and revealed dribble-drive penetration ability that took advantage of hard closeouts attempted at him as he was on the three-point line. Defenders who are out of control as they try to contest Plummer will find themselves trailing on the drive - giving the three-point specialist a chance to drive and get fouled. Plummer was 2-3 from inside the arc (if you're fouled in the act of shooting it's not counted as a shot attempt) and he hit 8-8 from the free throw line. Foul him at your own risk.

Despite early protestations from a segment of the fan base, Underwood's decision to bring in a three-point sniper with a big reputation is starting to pay off. If he can keep his confidence up and maintain his consistency, the Illini offense will be much harder to stop and will feature spacing that is tough to defend.

One area Plummer will need to commit to is improving on defense and being a bit more circumspect in his shot selection. Coach Underwood did not like the Heat Check three-point attempt that led to a three pointer for UTRGV at the other end. Too much of that type of shot selection will come with consequences that Plummer won't enjoy.

Heat Check #3 - Luke Goode and Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk Stepped Up

Luke Goode courtesy Joe Clark, IlliniGuys.

Luke Goode contributed mightily down the stretch against UTRGV. In the last six or so minutes, the freshman scored on a jump shot, had an assist to Coleman Hawkins, grabbed a defensive rebound, missed a shot (hey, he's not perfect), grabbed another defensive rebound, and blocked a shot coming out of a timeout. That's an impressive run for a freshman getting his first taste of heavy playing time during the end of a game when the game still matters.

Coach Underwood noted his leadership skills and his basketball IQ are far beyond what one would expect from a freshman. Goode's experience as a quarterback for his football team is paying dividends on the basketball court. Let's hope Coach Bielema isn't trying to recruit Goode into a two-sport athlete as the football team could use a great quarterback.

Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk (who I still cannot help but call him the Big Bossman in my mind) also looked very good in last night's game. Using ball fakes and strikingly accurate bounce passes, Bosmans was able to get the ball inside to Kofi much more effectively than anyone else on the court tonight. He ended up with what must be a career high 6 assists. He only committed one turnover to go along with his assist prowess.

Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk courtesy Joe Clark, IlliniGuys

Almost as impressively, Benjamin was able to help bring the ball up against the UTRGV press. He was calm under their pressure and made several solid passes to the help the Illini advance the ball up the court without incident and without draining too much time off of the shot clock. This is a little appreciated task but an important one. Bosmans excelled in this role and it wasn't a task that most expected he'd possess such advanced skills.

Some nights a team has to just get the win. In this year's topsy-turvy college basketball environment, getting the win was a nice accomplishment. Now the key to the Illini season is getting everyone back and feeling healthy. Let's see if this team can move past this injured/sick phase of the season and get to doing what they did so well last year, playing basketball as a team.

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