What Is Illini’s Future Plan For Giorgi?

Matthew Stevens

We now have two games worth of evidence to support the idea that Giorgi Bezhanishvili can be classified as Illinois’ backup big.

For the second straight game, Bezhanishvili was asked to come off the bench and provided 17 minutes, mostly in the first half when freshman center Kofi Cockburn picked up two fouls just four minutes and nine seconds into Tuesday’s contest at No. 9 Penn State. In most of the 62-56 victory over the Nittany Lions, Bezhanishvili played at the center spot while Cockburn was on the bench while being paired with Kipper Nichols at the power forward spot or surrounded by the Illini’s four-guard lineup.

Before these last pair of road games on the east coast, Bezhanishvili had never been taken out of the starting lineup but it’s clear that Illinois head coach Brad Underwood and his coaching staff are actively trying to reboot the sophomore forward’s mindset for this final month of this 2019-20 season.

“That’s what the intent was to maybe to be emotionally a little flatter, if that can be the case in his case,” Underwood said Monday. “Let him see it. Let him get a little feel for it and flow. And he liked that. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s not going to go back in the starting lineup. We’ll continue to monitor that and visit with him about that.”

Following a disheartening performance in the home loss to Michigan State on Feb. 11 (1 of 7 shooting, no rebounds, three fouls and three turnovers in 13 minutes), Underwood sounded the alarm through the media to the native of Georgia about his much-needed impact.

“I think that’s something that throughout Giorgi’s time, we try to find that perfect balance," Underwood said after the loss to Michigan State. "We’ve seen Giorgi at his very best and right now things are a little tougher for him. You can try too hard. You can put too much pressure on yourself. We need him. We’ve got to get him back in a position to help our ball team down the stretch."

Throughout this 2019-20 season, the ambition has been to prove that Bezhanishvili can easily move to what Underwood previously called “his more natural position”. The Illini’s objective has been to turn Bezhanishvili into a stretch forward while Cockbirn and his 7-foot, 290-pound freshman roams the paint.

“I think I've got a pretty good idea what I'd like to see. How it all comes together will obviously determine that. I'm also a realist in terms of I know that they're not going to play 40 minutes together,” Underwood said in October at Big Ten Media Day.

The issue is plain to see as Bezhanishvili has seen his field goal percentage is down 11 percent this season from his exciting rookie season (54% to 43%), his free throw percentage is down six percent (65% to 59%) with his rebounding numbers staying relatively stable.

In the win at No. 9 Penn State Tuesday night, Bezhanishvili several shots from point-blank range while going 1 of 6 from the field and had as many turnovers (two) as points. During the FS1 all-access broadcast where Underwood was pleading with the 6-foot-9 forward to move his feet defensively and not getting “outhustled” while trying to guard Penn State bigs Mike Watkins and John Harrar in the post.

While trying to figure out the high-low spacing issue of having Cockburn and Bezhanishvili on the court together, the Illini’s shooting percentages have dipped and one of the fastest transition teams in the Big Ten last year is one of the least prolific offenses in the league during the 2019-20 season. The obvious solution would be utilizing Bezhanishvili to step out and hit perimeter shots. However, after attempting just three shots from 3-point range in the final three months of the 2018-19 campaign, Bezhanishvili has hit just 11 of 36 shots from three-point range and his scoring has dropped five points per game.

“If players are still not going to guard me, I’m going to keep shooting (threes). Obviously I made a couple now and I feel like I will make them,” Bezhanishvili said. “It’s really great (and important) for our team that the defender is not sitting in the paint anymore.”

Illinois forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili (15) tries to block out Arizona forward Ira Lee (11) during a NCAA Basketball game between the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Arizona Wildcats at McKale Center.
Illinois forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili (15) tries to block out Arizona forward Ira Lee (11) during a NCAA Basketball game between the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Arizona Wildcats at McKale Center.Jacob Snow/USA TODAY Sports

Illinois has started and finished games with a lineup of four perimeter players to allow for three primary ball-handlers (Ayo Dosunmu, Andres Feliz and Trent Frazier), a swiss army knife defender who can guard all kinds of body types (Da’Monte Williams) and a physically imposing big (Cockburn). When Underwood wants to go to the bench, he can utilize a bigger lineup with Bezhanishvili and Nichols or Tevian Jones at the four spot.

The question becomes whether Bezhanishvili’s future role is as the perfect backup big role to allow Cockburn to have a partner to create 40 minutes of solid work from the five spot of the Illini. Before arriving on the Illinois campus, Bezhanishvili was the lowest-rated player of the Illini’s 2018 recruiting class as a three-star prospect rated as the 373rd-best player in the class according to 247Sports.com. If Bezhanishvili’s breakout performances as a freshman hadn’t happened, a prospect rated that low at the major conference level would be considered a valued contributor if the results were getting 17-20 minutes and six to 10 points off the bench. Therefore, it is clear Underwood has decided to all but ditch the twin tower approach.