Notes: Still room for defensive improvement

Feb. 29—CHAMPAIGN — Stephen Bardo and Rapheal Davis went back and forth Monday on Twitter debating the merits of players that might contend for Big Ten All-Defensive Team honors this season.

A friendly argument between two Big Ten Network analysts that have the experience to weigh in on the topic. Bardo was the 1989 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year for Illinois. Davis claimed the same honor for Purdue in 2015. The former Illini guard's primary line of debate was tied to Davis not including either Terrence Shannon Jr. or Coleman Hawkins among the players he thought could snag conference defensive honors.

"His 'want' factor and his desire to defend is a lot higher than I ever anticipated with a guy that offensively gifted," Bardo said of Shannon. "He's really put it together in terms of his effort. Coleman is a freak. There's no one like Coleman Hawkins in the Big Ten, and there may not be many in the country that can be 6-10, guard a center and switch out on a point guard and contain him. He's so good defensively. He's such a Swiss army knife that I think people take it for granted. They'll realize how good he is once he leaves."

Two strong individual defenders, though, hasn't meant much when it comes to Illinois' defensive metrics.

The No. 13 Illini entered Wednesday night's game against Minnesota ranked 63rd and 72nd nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy and Bart Torvik, respectively.

"They're going to have to go game to game with their defensive principles," Bardo said. "Most teams at this time of year will have their stuff set. Illinois is still trying to figure it out on the defensive side. Sometimes, they will switch. Sometimes, they won't. They're so positionally big, but they're not gifted laterally so they struggle with that. It's just going to be a situation where every game they're going to come up with something different, and we'll just have to check it out."

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Illinois can follow several paths offensively and still be productive. Shannon getting downhill attacking the basket is one option. There's also "booty ball" with Marcus Domask and pick-and-pop three-pointers from Hawkins.

Nico Moretti could add a new wrinkle to the offense. The redshirt freshman is the only true point guard on the Illinois roster, and he's both healthy again after missing time with a foot injury this season and shown he can be effective in Big Ten play.

Bardo is high on Moretti's potential effect the rest of the season on Illinois.

"You're talking to a former point guard," Bardo said. "I know how important the role is. I know what he can bring to the team with his quickness with the basketball and his willingness to just be a passer. A lot of times, Illinois has five guys on the floor who can score, and sometimes their offense gets bogged down. A guy like Nico can come in, and he keeps it moving. I think his presence will really be key — especially as they get into the postseason — because teams will start to pressure Illinois because they know they can struggle handing the pressure."

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The 2024 Big Ten tournament tips off March 13 in Minneapolis. No future sites have been selected for an event that has typically alternated between Chicago and Indianapolis and had one-year stints in Washington, D.C., and New York City after Maryland and Rutgers were added to the conference.

BTN's Andy Katz stirred up discussion around the future of the Big Ten tournament on Wednesday on social media with a prediction that the next five tournaments could be held in Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas and Brooklyn, N.Y.

"They bid it out," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "Minneapolis won this year. The league has some say. They try to move it into some areas that maybe aren't Chicago and aren't Indy. It will be very interesting to see what we do in the future.

"We've got West Coast teams. We've got East Coast teams. As a coach, I'm very interested and intrigued by where we go. Where the tournament is at can have some major impact on the NCAA tournament."

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Hawkins said he got off social media last week in the wake of Illinois' loss at Penn State. Deleted the apps from his phone.

Told about that move by the veteran forward, Underwood wasn't sure about the veracity. But Hawkins has been social media quiet. No tweets since Feb. 19. Nothing on Instagram. And no TikTok videos since the one he posted celebrating Illini's win at Maryland (while simultaneously trolling the Terrapins).

In that regard, Hawkins is mirroring the actions of his coach. Underwood has a Twitter account, but he isn't the one posting. Even one of his email accounts is routed through office administrator Nicole Anderson.

"I've got an email account that she reads and that I never see," Underwood said. "Thank goodness. It's better for my well-being to not ever read it and see it, and it keeps me focused on the right things. ... I beg and I pray and I do everything and we talk about it daily to stay off of (social media). It's not realistic. It's not going to happen. For young people, unfortunately, it's a part of their life. We monitor what they put out in a lot of cases, but we can't monitor what they read.

"They've grown up with it. A lot of these guys have had a phone since they could walk. That's what they do. They read and believe everything their followers tell them — good or bad. It's a challenge, and we talk about it a good deal."

Part of those conversations this season, like in years past, have had to do with the messages Illinois players have received that are gambling related. Particularly concerning lost bets.

"They get a ton of negativity from that," Underwood said. "We've had to turn things into the authorities over the gambling stuff. It's a disaster for our guys, and they get a brunt of it."

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Thornton might not have needed home-court advantage during Tuesday night's Class 3A sectional semifinal game against Evergreen Park, but it didn't hurt.

The Wildcats (28-4) posted a 77-47 victory behind 21 points, 17 rebounds and three blocks from Morez Johnson Jr. It was basically par for the course for the future Illinois big man, who is averaging 17.4 points, 14.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 3.4 blocks and 2.7 steals this season.

Thornton will be back in action at 7 p.m. Friday against Brother Rice with a sectional championship on the line. The Wildcats haven't won a sectional title since the 2008-09 season when they finished third in the Class 4A state tournament.

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Saturday's game at Wisconsin will mark a fourth straight road game for Illinois where its opponent has more on the schedule than just a Big Ten matchup. Michigan State and Maryland had reunion weekends. Penn State moved back to Rec Hall for the first time in league play since the mid-1990s. And now Wisconsin will honor former assistant coach Howard Moore and his family on Saturday at the Kohl Center.

Moore spent nine seasons with the Badgers as an assistant in two stints. He hasn't coached since the 2018-19 season, however, after he was involved in a serious car accident that killed his wife and daughter and injured his son. Moore also received serious injuries in the accident and suffered a heart attack after he had returned home.

"Howard is slowly getting better every day and working hard to get back on his feet," Wisconsin posted to social media. "Our home game March 2 will be an opportunity to recognize the Moore Family and for Badger nation to show its support in Howard's recovery."

Scott Richey