The last time I spoke with Illinois basketball radio analyst Deon Thomas, the Illini were preparing for the 2020 Big Ten Tournament. We talked about how coach Brad Underwood had rebuilt a team that went from losing 21 games to winning 21, how guard Ayo Dosunmu and center Kofi Cockburn had taken their games to another level, how the Illini were days away from their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2013.
I had a story written and ready to go March 12. But the coronavirus pandemic took hold, and the sports world stopped.
“After speaking with you, I was in my car heading to Indianapolis,” Thomas said this week. “And [radio producer Ed Bond called], ‘You can turn around and go back home.’ And I’m like, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘The Big Ten just canceled the tournament.’
“I was like, ‘OK, this is for real. This is not gonna be good.’ “
It wasn’t. The next day, the NCAA Tournament was canceled, and with it went Illinois’ dreams – not to mention my story.
But losing that jumble of words paled in comparison to what the Illini lost. Fortunately, they’re getting another chance. On Friday, as the top seed in the Midwest Region, they begin what many believe will be a long run in the NCAA Tournament with a first-round game against Drexel (12:15 p.m., TBS, 890-AM).
So it seemed appropriate to speak with Thomas again for a story that would see the light of day.
Thomas, who played at Illinois in 1990-94 and is the school’s all-time leading scorer, has watched the program rebuild from the ground up. His first season as the radio analyst was former coach John Groce’s last, in 2016-17. He watched Underwood’s first two teams finish 11th and 10th in the conference before the third team was the charm, finishing fourth.
Thomas credits Underwood for the turnaround after the coach saw his pressure defense get dissected and his motion offense flounder, prompting him to go back to the grease board.
“The sign of a good coach is you make adjustments. The sign of a great coach is you make changes,” Thomas said. “And coach Underwood made a complete change of how he coached. He’s completely opened the floor [on offense].
“You look at the development of the players. Kofi, from one year to the next, he’s not even the same player. Ayo was a great player when he came in as a freshman; look where he is now. Trent [Frazier] was the scorer for us his freshman year, but you get guys to believe in the mission and they change. Now this puzzle has been put together beautifully, and those guys are playing together.”
Thomas marvels at the Illini’s depth, which he calls the best in school history. That includes his X-factor, Giorgi Bezhanishvili. Like Frazier deferring to Dosunmu, Bezhanishvili gave way to Cockburn. But that hasn’t diminished his value to the team.
“When Giorgi hits his stride, as you saw in that Ohio State game [for the Big Ten Tournament title], for a five-, seven-minute span, he took over offensively, defensively, on the glass and from an energy standpoint. He lifted that team. He has the ability to do that.”
Illinois also could get a lift from partisan crowds in Indianapolis, though not quite as reminiscent of the 2005 Illini Invitational, in which the team played its NCAA Tournament games in Indy, Chicago and St. Louis. But even with limited tickets available, Illinois fans figure to make the trip. Of the 8,000 in attendance for the Big Ten title game, Thomas estimated the crowd was 90/10 for the Illini.
After broadcasting regular-season games alongside play-by-play voice Brian Barnhart without fans, any crowd would please Thomas. He said it felt “eerie” calling games in empty stadiums, but he became so conditioned to the silence that actual crowd noise during the Big Ten Tournament was jarring.
“Brian and I talked about that before we went on the air,” Thomas said. “[During] the Purdue-Ohio State game, I was off in the media room grabbing coffee. And there was this roar that went out from the crowd, and I almost dropped my coffee.
“When I got back in there, I told Brian, ‘Man, isn’t it good to hear the roar of a crowd, to hear hands clap, to hear people cheer?’ The things we take for granted. You begin to sit back and look, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is amazing.’ “
And this year, the show will go on.