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Illinois Basketball 2018-19 Player Review: Giorgi Bezhanishvili

An incredible season for an unheralded freshman.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

What else can be said about Giorgi that hasn’t already been said? See, like Kobe or Prince, Giorgi has ascended to first name celebrity territory amongst Illini.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili came in as the 13th-ranked player in New Jersey, the 370th-ranked player in the class, a guy some fans used as evidence of head coach Brad Underwood’s recruiting failures, and now he just finished one of the best freshman seasons in Illinois basketball history. After 12.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, Giorgi captured the fanbase’s hearts in a way that no player has done since Dee Brown.

The legend of Giorgi began long before the 2018-19 tipped off, when preseason exploits and antics began leaking out through the local media. While the usual dramatic music played in the background of the preseason @illinimbb highlight videos, the big freshman from Rustavi, Georgia always seemed to steal the spotlight. That remained true through media day interviews when we were introduced to the dynamic personality that overcame so many hardships as a youngster in Europe. That story made him human, his personality endeared us, and then his play was something else entirely. Turns out the kid that Underwood “fell in love with at first sight” could play.

Illini nation got its first real taste of what Giorgi could be when he put 12 points on Jessie Govan of Georgetown, and followed it up with 17 on Rui Hachimura of Gonzaga — two of the better big men in the country. It was odd to see a player you expected so little from, getting the ball on the block, and literally going straight through lottery picks.

That launching point quickly established Illinois’ freshman as one of the best in the league, and arguably the most important player on the team. When Giorgi found himself in foul trouble, or had an off night, the Illini were hapless without their best interior scorer, defender, and all-around driving voice. A 35-point performance against Rutgers set the all-time Illinois freshman record for single-game scoring, and a 26-point night against Northwestern gave Brad Underwood his first Big Ten Tournament victory.

Giorgi’s impact off the court was equally as impactful, as he gave the disheartened fanbase a reason to feel good about their programs present and future. Whether he was dancing in Hawaii, doing a salsa with reporters, or going live on Big Ten Network, Giorgi is a fun-loving giant of a person who enjoys the moment. The dust that must have been flying around my apartment when his mother got to watch him for the first time, and then again, when his brother flew into Champaign to see 16,500 fans chanting for his younger sibling. These were the kinds of moments that make being a fan rewarding, no matter how many straight tournaments you miss.

But, to mistake Giorgi as all candy and gumdrops would be a mistake.

He’s also fiercely driven to improve his game. Remember when his brother saw him struggling from the foul-line and made a point to tell Underwood he’ll get that corrected? Giorgi got that corrected. Do you know how much time in the gym come early February that would take? You didn’t hear about it, but Giorgi had a goal and went to work. While most college freshmen are out on spring break, Giorgi has posted daily videos from Ubben. Again, equally as impactful off the court.

Illinois is entering its most important offseason in recent memory. After missing six straight NCAA Tournaments, and exercising the John Groce mess, Underwood’s roster turnover is complete, and he should return just about everything from this past season. But simply returning players isn’t enough; they need to be busting it in the weight room, and forgoing college pleasures to spend extra time in the gym working on the deficiencies that combined for a record 21 losses this past year. I don’t want to place too much of a load on those broad Georgian shoulders, but Giorgi is a key to this team’s mojo and grit, and he’s developed into a respected leader that can take people with him.

Well, I don’t think I’ve said anything about Giorgi that hasn’t been said before, but even so, it’s still fun to read something else about Giorgi Bezhanishvili. If this guy can drive his team through the spring and summer, and this team finds its way into next year’s tournament, America better be ready for some salsa.

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