The 2019-20 Illinois Basketball season should be celebrated for eternity. So many accomplishments and hurdles cleared by Brad Underwood’s team. Road victories. Back to national relevance. No one loves being an Illinois Fighting Illini more than Giorgi Bezhanishvili. No one embodies the spirit of what it’s like to be a student athlete at the University of Illinois more than the Georgian.
From an individual standpoint, this was a curious and mysterious season for the player from Rustavi, Georgia. Giorgi’s infectious personality never wavered, nor did the work he put in on a day-to-day basis leading up to game day.
Let’s dive into this more.
By the Numbers
In pretty much every statistical category (except for assists), Giorgi Bezhanishvili’s performance dropped off considerably from his freshman to his sophomore season. As a freshman, Giorgi started every Illini game he played in, including the Big Ten Tournament games against Northwestern and Iowa. As a sophomore, Giorgi began the year as a starter before Underwood pulled the plug in the midst of Illinois’ four-game losing streak at the start of February. Giorgi started 24 games and came off of the bench the last seven games of the season.
Giorgi averaged 6.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 0.4 blocks, 1.6 assists and 0.1 steals in 23.2 minutes in 2019-20. Compare that to when he averaged 12.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 0.8 blocks, 0.8 assists and 0.7 steals in 26.1 minutes as a freshman.
Another number that jumps out is three-point shooting in minutes played. Giorgi played 144 minutes fewer in 2019-20 than he did in his freshman season. That’s about 3.5 games worth of minutes of a difference, yet Giorgi shot more three-pointers as a sophomore in less minutes (36 threes) than he did as a freshman (30). Giorgi’s last start came in a home loss to Michigan State, where Giorgi went 0-for-3 from behind the arc. Coming off of the bench in the final seven games of the season, Giorgi did not attempt a three-pointer. Brad Underwood’s message to Giorgi was clear: Stop shooting threes.
Giorgi’s frustration only grew when time and time again this season (and really it was an issue with the whole team, not just Giorgi) he missed some bunnies at the rim. His two-point field goal percentage fell by 15% from his freshman season to his sophomore season. On more than one occasion, Giorgi would literally throw his hands up in the air as if to say “Really? That didn’t go in!?”
Brad Underwood always talks about how this game is fleeting. Sometimes shots do not go in despite doing everything else 100% correctly. It can snowball. Miss one bunny, miss the next three bunnies, and even though each layup is different in time and space and whoever is playing defense, mentally it can bog a player down and shatter confidence. You’d be hard-pressed to get Underwood or Giorgi to admit the player lost his confidence, but even the most neutral observer could come to that conclusion at times this season.
Impact on the Illini
With Kofi Cockburn taking up so much space in the paint as an unstoppable, Shaq-like force, it makes sense that at times Giorgi is forced to play the stretch-4 where he finds himself behind the three-point line with a lot of wide open attempts. Giorgi was doing less of his damage as a post player where he was excellent as a freshman phenom because of his teammate occupying that position.
Everyone expected that Kofi’s presence would only help Giorgi offensively, and that with less onus on Giorgi on the defensive end to guard the opponent’s center, Giorgi could further expand his offensive repertoire. Perhaps Illini fans misunderstood how much time, patience and practice it actually takes for that tandem to work together to best maximize each players’ strengths.
Giorgi’s Best Game
Giorgi had his best statistical game against The Citadel in the week before Thanksgiving. Let’s brush that one aside because... well, it’s The Citadel.
Giorgi’s best game this season was in Illinois’ game against Michigan in Champaign in December. His 12 points and 8 rebounds in 35 minutes against the then-No. 5 Michigan Wolverines was a solid overall performance. That game would set the tone for what this Illini team could and would be the rest of the year.
Remember this? It was one of the highlights of the 2019-20 season.
Giorgi was active on both ends of the court, and it really felt that he and the crowd fed off of one another the entire game against the Wolverines.
The Quick & Dirty
This one is hard to wrap your head around. Giorgi finished the season without scoring in double figures in each of the last 12 games. It wasn’t even so much the scoring, but at times it seemed like he forgot how to play basketball — that’s how bad, and frankly bizarre this all looked watching it unfold.
Was the issue adjusting to playing alongside a true center in Kofi Cockburn? Was the pace of play up and down the court too much for Giorgi — where Andres Feliz, Trent Frazier and Ayo Dosunmu were running more and playing more of a transition game than they had in his freshman year?
Illini Nation is behind Giorgi. He’s an excellent teammate, a strong locker room presence and he can snap out of this funk come his junior season.