Te’Jon Lucas returned to practice today for the first time since taking a Mark Smith elbow to the eye socket. His vision may still be a bit blurry. In the team’s first drill, he dropped a pass on the wing, one of “two fumbles in the first 30 seconds!” which is what Brad Underwood roared moments later. It was like that for much of the afternoon. Underwood used more four-letter words today than John Groce did in five years at Illinois. It’s tough love, and sometimes the love is hard to glean. The tough comes across clearly. Underwood is old school. He reminds me of the best coach I ever had, Urbana’s Wayne Mammen. You’ll recall Groce borrowing the Tony Dungy phrase “we want to be demanding without demeaning.” Well, Underwood doesn’t worry about demeaning. Or demanding. Mammen was my football coach, but his best prospect was younger son Kirk, who won two state wrestling titles at 189 lbs. before an All-American career at Oklahoma State. When Tyler Underwood followed his dad from Oklahoma State, no one might have guessed how important his role would be. Coach Underwood is just as hard on Tyler as everyone else. Maybe that’s the reason Tyler’s on the roster: To demonstrate that Brad Underwood still loves you even while he’s tearing you a new asshole. Underwood does what Groce didn’t do and Bruce Weber couldn’t do. He puts the fear of god into his players. Or at least the fear of hell. Whether it’s effort or execution, Underwood does not allow lapses. When the Illini practiced zone offense, Trent Frazier skipped a pass to a verboten area of the court and Underwood stopped play to explain why that particular angle will never work. Underwood had previously, expressly forbidden this kind of pass in that particular situation. This was a teaching moment, reminding the youngsters why they’re taught what they’re taught. The pack line is gone. Since Dick Bennett’s Green Bay teams unleashed it on unsuspecting mid-major offenses, the pack line lost its element of surprise. Disorienting a team’s screening actions is part of Underwood’s plan, and according to his theory, that requires defenses to disrupt traditional passing lanes. Expect defensive intensity to extend beyond the pack line’s imaginary boundary. The Groce administration changed its high-hands philosophy midstream, so the overall look of that scheme changed over the years. But Underwood will challenge ball-handlers deep in the back court, and before the first pass. And then, of course, it gets harder. Big man coach Orlando Antigua chimed in: “Defensively you don’t have a man after the first pass. You’ve got to work harder because of that.” Underwood continued on that theme: “When I was at Kansas State, Jacob Pullen scored 46 straight points in this drill. Defense can’t stop, ever.” “This is unbelievable. I’m used to Rodney McGruder,” he finished, name-dropping another K-State protégé who, evidently, also tried hard and listened. Chin Coleman helped position the defensive perimeter players at the lane’s elbows, and Underwood made sure Greg Eboigbodin knew exactly how to align his feet vis-à-vis his man. Underwood stressed that “height doesn’t matter” when defending the low post, so long as the perimeter help is doing its job. “Our post defense is great because our perimeter defense is good.” It wasn’t enough. You’ve heard about a player “in the doghouse” but you know that doghouse is simply a phrase. Not with Underwood. His doghouse sits in the southwest corner the the Corzine Gym. When an Illini screws up, he runs the treadmill. Today’s treadmill, in quick succession: AJ, Finke, Greg, Matic, Da’Monte, Kipper & Smith. “Holy #### are you going to look good waving that towel on the sidelines,” Underwood called to a player who seemed a bit too enthusiastic about successive execution failures. “Starched uniform and everything!” And that’s one of the greatest aspects of Brad Underwood. You can’t be a hardass coach all the time without a good sense of sarcasm, irony, even cynicism. A sense of humor is a relatable quality. It lets people know you’re human, that you see life for what it is. The freshmen bigs had the worst of it today. If things go well for Matic Vesel, he may never again turn as red as he did when Underwood stopped a drill to single-out the Slovenian newcomer. “These guys didn’t come here to see you lollygagging in the corner,” yelled the coach, only he didn’t use the word “lollygagging.” These guys were a small group of NBA scouts who watched the entire practice. Matic spent the last hour of practice with his right foot elevated, in a compression boot. He’d landed awkwardly, with an entire Michael Finke on top of him. After practice, he limped to the locker room unaided, but slowly. Don’t expect him to be too active for the rest of the week. Matic and Greg are both way, way too gentle & kind to kick ass and take names the way Underwood demands. Matic is still adjusting to America, which he regards as remarkably laid back. So maybe he’s just trying to fit in. Greg is just super, duper polite. Greg’s bad day began when he attempted a spin move on the baseline. First of all, he stepped out of bounds, but nobody saw that. Then, he pivoted to dunk. That’s when he encountered Leron Black, whose one-handed rejection made a clapping sound like thunder, but more expressive. NO YOU AIN’T it seemed to say. Perhaps chastened, Greg’s next offensive move saw him spin away from the basket, to launch an 8-foot fadeaway that barely grazed the rim. Underwood stopped the drill again. “You left that move at Jesuit High School.” Antigua chastised the move as well. “You take it in there strong and pick up a foul,” he admonished. Where were these guys when Nnanna Egwu was playing here? If Greg and Matic aren’t ready for B1G level ball by December, well, they’re freshmen. It’s not an indictment of their character or potential. So who will guard those spots? Leron wears a big brace on his shooting arm. He’s still recovering from the elbow surgery which fixed what Underwood described as “imagine you got hit in the funny bone, but it feels like that all the time.” His rebounding hasn’t changed. It’s fantastic. But his three-point shooting has not improved. It’s probably worse than the 29.7% he accomplished last year. Underwood likes stats, and he heeds them. He’s also not afraid (so he says) to tell his players which among them can shoot from where, when, and in what circumstances. That leads us to the next undersized big man. Kipper Nichols seems to spend most of his time on the wing, but he’s usually in the fight for a rebound, and he’s got a post-up game which Leron frankly does not have. You can see Kipper defending the 4 while creating an offensive mismatch at the other end. Does that mean you should pencil Leron Black in at the five spot? It worked okay for Daryl Thomas, whose physique and skill set were similar. But things worked even better for Thomas when he had Dean Garrett by his side. So Illini fans should hope someone becomes Dean Garrett. But more likely, Illini fans should hope Underwood finds a Dean Garrett for next year. CLOSING THOUGHTS It’s especially stupid to project starters given all the recovering injuries, newcomers, dearth of returning talent. Furthermore, Illini fans should hope that “starting” means little in the scheme Brad Underwood conjures. But if we can take him at his word, Underwood has decided on one starter for Sunday’s “secret scrimmage.” It’s Da’Monte Williams. After a spectacularly aggressive rebound in traffic, Underwood stopped play again. “Do you know who’s leading this team in rebounds through all these practices?” He pointed to the quietest guy on the team. “It’s him. That’s why he’s starting on Sunday.” Practice finished with a lay-up drill in which players could approach the basket only from the left-hand side, and a final half-court five-on-zero passing drill. The team missed a lot of free-throws today — including Tyler, Te’Jon and Finke — the guys everyone is counting on to keep them from extra wind sprints. So they ran a lot. Kipper, AJ, Te’Jon, Tyler, Samson Oladimeji and Mark Alstork hung around for extra shooting while staff socialized. Don’t be upset that Alstork wasn’t mentioned previously in this post. It means he avoided the coach’s ire. He again paced the team in wind sprints.
Today was Media Day, so you’ll find your first interviews with Auto-Matic Vesel & Greg OingoBoingo on your favorite East Central Illinois news channel. I’ll be cutting and pasting my version for a few days, because I’m slow.
I interviewed barely half the players because, unlike years past, media had to get off the floor so the team could practice. Also unlike years past, we didn’t have to leave when the team started practicing.
Thus, here’s your practice update.
The team ran five man drills in various groupings. The grouping of Smith-Alstork-Jordan-Vesel-Black underlined the concept of positionless basketball. Yes, you could argue that those names match a typical 1-through-5 line-up, except that Vesel was mostly on the high post and the wing. Smith does seem to handle the ball at the beginning of a possession more than Alstork. If Leron Black really is going to play “center,” it will prove that Underwood has the imagination that Bruce Weber and John Groce lacked. i.e. he’ll seek to create mismatches rather than trying to compensate for them. (Can you imagine how many additional games Weber might have won if he played Mike Tisdale at small forward, and hid him in a zone? If not, go back and watch the 2010 game at Wisconsin.)
Before the Illini Basketball Banquet began Monday night at the i-Hotel, Rob Jordan said players’ families were wondering who’d show up.
Would John Groce return as Bruce Weber had in 2012? No.
Paris Parham also didn’t attend, despite his continuing residence in Champaign. Dustin Ford and Darren Hertz weren’t there, but they have new jobs in Ohio.
Brad Underwood, who lives in the i-Hotel, was there. And he stayed as long as anyone.
One idiot was in attendance, and because he forgot to check whether he’d packed the batteries for his expensive camera, the following pictures will be blurry.
Paul Schmidt and Adam Fletcher were the only remaining staff sitting at the coaches table. Underwood, Josh Whitman and Chancellor Robert Jones joined them. You wouldn’t call it the head table necessarily. It was off to the side. Really, everything about the event was low key. Unlike years past, the players never spoke.
Josh Whitman spoke twice. The first time around, he profusely praised the previous staff. “I can’t say enough good things about our outgoing coaching staff.” (listen to full speech here).
He told of dark, difficult days throughout the 2016-17 season, and especially public opinion of the program. He promised better times ahead. The public perception of Whitman seems largely if not hugely favorable, and his comportment Monday night did nothing to change that perception.
Jamall Walker and Brian Barnhart emceed. Barnhart and a series of sponsors from the community announced individual awards (link to video) and Walker thanked all the people behind the program who’s names you rarely hear (link to video), then handed out goodies to the players (link to video) which were fitted letterman jackets for the freshmen, and blankets for the upperclassmen. Jalen Coleman-Lands regarded the blanket as high-level swag.
Kipper Nichols, who said his body fat is 5%, acknowledged that someone measured his sculptured physique rather than guessing his jacket size.
Jaylon Tate and Mike Thorne were absent. Tate had a family issue, and Thorne is out somewhere looking for a basketball job. That’s how Walker explained it, anyhow. (The family issue seems to be that Tate’s family was pissed off about the way Jaylon’s career ended.)
Two players who were distinctly present, and seated at what you might call the head table, were Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams.
Te’Jon Lucas and his mother Marie were also at that table. The Lucas parent are divorced, and Thomas Lucas sat at a table on the other side of the room. He lives in Milwaukee. She lives in Texas. Both parents are engaging people, and it’s not hard to see what brought them together. And it’s not hard to see why it fell apart.
Marie is brimming with personality and opinions, you might even say attitude, but in a good way. She’s the type of mother often found behind a D-1 athlete. Laura Finke and Machanda Hill are likewise women to be reckoned with, but again, in a good way. Strong women.
Thomas Lucas is mellow and approachable. In conversation with Underwood, he gracefully accepted frothing praise from this reporter, with agreement from the coach, that his three-piece houndstooth suit and tie elevated him into competition for best-dressed attendee. He’s almost sixty, but after changing his diet and losing 25 lbs. over the last year, he’s now back to playing competitive basketball. He’s eating less meat, and more ginger and garlic.
It gives us hope, especially the idiot, who gained 25 lbs. in the last year after his aging knees forced him to stop running six miles every other day, and is basically falling apart physically.
2016-17 Fighting Illini Basketball Awards
Most Outstanding Player: Malcolm Hill
Matt Heldman “Matto” Award: Maverick Morgan
Lou Henson Courage Award: Tracy Abrams
Orange Krush 3-Point Shooting Award: Tracy Abrams, 40.2 percent (51-127, min. 3 att./g)
Illini Rebounders Award: Leron Black, 6.3 rpg (196)
Ralf Woods Free Throw Trophy: Malcolm Hill, 80 percent in Big Ten play (76-95)
Malcolm Hill doesn’t really need any more accolades at this point. He just needs what Rayvonte Rice should have had two years ago. He needs the NBA to recognize that, whatever his physical limitations, he finds a way to get the ball in the hole.
Malcolm’s AAU coaches Patrick Smith and Doug Sitton attended his final banquet. And Patrick observed that Malcolm is not the next Michael Jordan. But maybe he’s the next Larry Bird. He has crafty old-man moves.
Smith and Sitton have been part of Malcolm’s life since third grade. “Seriously, you could tell when he was …” I queried.
“Oh yeah,” said Patrick.
“We knew,” agreed Doug.
That seems odd, but it doesn’t conflict with anything we’ve known about Malcolm all these years. You’ll recall that even during his freshman year, his teammates universally recognized him as the gym rat of the team (video link).
The second-best part of the evening was a tag team by Underwood and Whitman, in which they simultaneously praised & roasted Tracy Abrams and Malcolm Hill.
The best part of the evening was watching Malcolm greet a very young man with forceful enthusiasm, complimenting him on a particular sartorial choice.
Malcolm gets that he’s a star, and on these last two Illini teams, the star. But he’s also motivated by human kindness. He gained no advantage by showering attention on a pre-teen with a sharp outfit, but he expressly acknowledged the kid not just for looking good, but for having earned the outfit himself (paper route?).
Jamall Walker emphasized that Malcolm never thought Illini basketball was about him.
One current roster member expressed shock about John Groce’s closed-door media policy. On Day One, Groce said practice would be closed to the media because he wanted to maintain a teaching atmosphere. But as the players know, the Groce practice was a revolving door of Willie Hortonesque proportions. Basically, the only people who weren’t watching were reporters.
Underwood is unfazed by the media. He doesn’t use the amplified headset Groce relied on. He doesn’t even use a whistle. That’s probably the reason his teams execute so well. They understand what he’s saying, and aren’t subconsciously trying to block-out the onslaught of sounds.
One final, gratuitous observation from the banquet, along as the topic of not understanding what people are saying, here’s Maverick Morgan mouthing syllables while an elderly crowd sings Hail to the Orange
At the end of the night, Walker said Trent Frazier’s dad was in a tizzy about the Portillo’s beef story from last month. Walker had to explain “no, Trent is not in trouble and no, you are not in trouble.”
It’s just another example of silly NCAA rules creating anxiety. Look here for more of that in the next couple of weeks.
I guess my view differs from the mainstream reaction to Illinois’ 89-69 win over hapless Detroit Mercy. The typical fan, it seems, thought the Bigs played badly. The head coach thought so as well. (The players presser was more fun, with Brandon Paul joining the Illini media pool.)
I thought they were great.
Sure, Michael Finke had an off-night shooting, and Maverick Morgan didn’t grab a rebound. I’m okay with that.
Finke is a great shooter, and Morgan sets a lot of high ball screens. On Friday, he frequently defended counterpart Jaleel Hogan in the high-post.
Those two things kept him away from the basket.
When Maverick did find himself under the basket, the ball seemed to ricochet to the weak side, where Jalen Coleman-Lands or Tracy Abrams benefited from the long carom (combining for ten boards).
But what I’m really excited about was Mike Thorne’s 180° pivot in the pivot. Instead of flinging the ball haphazardly, as if he were over-matched by bigger, stronger defenders; Mike Thorne used the glass, and maneuvered his way toward the basket, employing actual big-man moves of the sort befitting an actual big man.
He made 5-of-5 shots. Four of them counted, and three of those (if I recall correctly) were banked off the glass.
The one that didn’t count should have counted. Mike was called for traveling on a jump-stop, one of basketball’s most confusing exceptions to a rule. (Here, let me Google that for you.)
Here it is in extremely slo-mo.
So maybe he got screwed. Either way, I’m thrilled that he used a single dribble and some footwork to get a better shot than the type he’s settled for recently.
John Groce wasn’t as happy about Bo dribbling. But in my opinion, there’s a difference between a big man dribbling in a crowd of quick-handed guards, and a big man using his body to protect the ball from a single defender. I don’t like the former situation, either.
In another of exciting display of Big Bo 2.0, Thorne drove the entire lane, from the arc to the bucket, for a lay up off the glass!
This is a complete departure from last game, and most of Thorne’s Illini tenure, when he’s eschewed the backboard in favor of low-percentage shots. As I wrote, with no small amount of expletives, Thorne’s shot selection is likely to cost Illinois a win (or more) in close games this year.
But if Mike Thorne 2.0 continues to show up, that analysis becomes null and void.
A few other observations, in picture form (and beginning with football recruiting):
Did you hear about the guy with two thumbs who was worried after his team’s 47-point blowout?
John Groce laughed at the question: Has the staff tried to persuade Mike Thorne to use the backboard, or get closer to the hoop, when shooting?
It wasn’t meant to be funny. John Groce’s seat is far too warm for him to laugh at the idea. Hopefully he laughed because he knows old dogs don’t learn new tricks, not because he thought the question silly.
It’s a question that desperately needs deeper inquiry.
If Mike Thorne continues to fling the ball toward the hoop, rather than employing tried/true methods for finishing, Illinois will lose just the right amount of conference games to ensure an NIT berth. In pooh-poohing the notion, Groce looks like Hillary’s rust-belt operatives. Does he truly not recognize the percentages?
One of the dumber traditions of the Groce Regime (and there are many to choose from) is the insistence on having each team huddle break with the chant
One, two, three
All-for-one and One-for-all
One, two, three
The lack of musicality is a problem. It’s an awkward group of words for purposes of metre. But that’s just a dorkiness problem.
Like any rote tedium, this incantation lost any meaning long ago. Say it enough times, and it becomes untrue.
Finishing should be important, but it’s obviously not important to Groce. He’s sanguine about the utter lack of results.
Why does John Groce laugh at a problem which could, quite conceivably, cost him millions of dollars?
In some circles, Groce is thought of as “a players’ coach. ” Certainly, he’s had a number of fervent defenders among guys that played for him. Sam McLaurin said Groce was the first coach he’d known who listened to players’ ideas/input.
That’s all well and good. But Groce is a numbers guy if he’s anything, right? A math nerd?
Numbers lie. But numbers + subjective experience tell me that Mike Thorne connected on 1-of-6 shots from close range in the first half of Tuesday’s game.
His rebounding numbers were bad, too. His stats looked fine at the end of the game (double-double), but they didn’t look good subjectively.
If you want to celebrate the positives of Tuesday’s assault on the Little Sisters of Charity, there are plenty to choose from.
Some of them involve Mike Thorne.
To reiterate; I am a Mike Thorne fan. I like Mike Thorne personally.
I respect Mike Thorne.
I recognize the hurdles Mike Thorne has been forced to leap.
Mike Thorne is engaging and funny.
And John Groce must rein him in if this team wants to compete for anything meaningful this season.
Maverick Morgan, it seems, has Gotten It. He’s simplified his motions, especially on defense. He tallied exactly 0 personal fouls in 20 minute playing time, mostly at the center position.
His shot selection is excellent.
Jalen Coleman-Lands made 6-of-9 from three, but he also tallied three assists. JCL’s passing is way underrated. I’m still looking for video of that mid-lane whip he delivered to KNunn last year, for the dunk.
On Tuesday, his overhead, behind-the-back assist to Mav elicited an audible gasp from the crowd.
Tracy Abrams enjoyed his best game as an Illini. He played within himself. His crisp passes excited his teammates as much as the crowd.
He didn’t miss a shot, and 4-of-5 were from the arc.
Tracy has been the focus of much media attention this fall, so it wouldn’t be fair to say he’s been overlooked. What might been overlooked is Dr. Jekyll, the version of Tracy Abrams that does everything right. Dr. Jekyll showed up for SEMO and for McKendree. That’s 50% for the year. Something north of 85% will be necessary if this team hopes to make the NCAA Tournament.
The weight of the world is on Tracy Abrams’s shoulders, which is exactly what Tracy Abrams always wanted.
Illini fans may accept this situation as inevitable or propitious.
Tracy truly is the determining factor for this team.
Jaylon Tate, bitches. Jaylon Tate.
Just keep saying that to yourselves, until you grow accustomed: Jaylon fucking Tate.
Eight assists and zero turnovers: Jaylon Tate.
Abrams picked up two quick fouls on Tuesday. That allowed Te’Jon Lucas to get on the floor while the game still mattered. As with every other time he’s seen action, Te’Jon made the game more fun to watch than it had been without him.
The team’s best player continues to be Michael Finke. The skinny, slow, unathletic afterthought white kid is now the muscular, agile, canny man-among-boys on the court.
You could argue it’s mostly his court-sense. He’s a legacy, a coach’s kid. Yeah?
You may be right. But his physical talent is thrilling, especially when observed in tandem with the control he exerts over his own body.
Finally, shout out to Tom Michael and his offspring Nate.
Tom attended the game along with Rick Darnell, who fixed The Seating Problem at State Farm Center before moving into a non-sports “development” position with the U of I Foundation.
For people who don’t know, Mike Thomas and Rick Darnell were largely responsible for pissing-off the yokels who kept Illini sports irrelevant for most of the last three decades by refusing to pony up going-rates in exchange for season tickets.
That problem is fixed, now. Thomas got a golden parachute. Darnell got new scenery. Curmudgeonly spendthrifts may, in years to come, tell you how awful they were.
D.J. Williams is the lithe, fluid wing whose grace-in-motion has not been here seen since …
I actually can’t think of a player of DJ’s dimensions who moves so quickly, yet so precisely. Except … maybe one.
It may be surprising to Illini fans, who seem to think of DJ as completely inscrutable when they think of him at all. But Dennis O’Keefe Williams is something akin to Marcus Liberty, but with the reputation way under-represented instead of hurtfully over-hyped.
Aaron Jordan may not be experiencing the Kendall Gill-like sophomore boost that Kendall Gill experienced. He’s still the most obvious Next Kendall Gill since Kendall Gill.
A kind person, Aaron may need to become slightly more assholey on the court to realize the Gill comparison. He describes himself as liking the perimeter. He needs to dunk on motherfuckers.
You were wondering about that “administrative technical foul?”
Oh, no? You weren’t? Oh, well that’s because you, like most people, weren’t watching the game. Especially the closing minutes.
Samson Oladimeji entered the game, in the closing minutes. His #14 jersey bore no name. Evidently, the score-keeping ledger also lacked an entry for him.
You’ll recall a similar situation with Purdue’s John Hart, whose name was not entered into the official scoring book by then-SID Cory Walton.
Following this egregious fuck-up, Walton left Purdue for Arizona, a legitimately good basketball program. And now, he’s administering information for …wait for it …. DUKE!
I gotta meet this guy’s family. Mere merit hasn’t elevated me to the level I’d expec … oh, nevermind.
Carson Williams was Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball 2016. If the University of Kentucky had an amateur team, he’d surely be playing there.
Instead, he joined a strong freshman class and a returning JC transfer at Northern Kentucky, which seems to be much better than last years Norse (9-21, 5-13 Horizon League). Williams scored only ten points, but he led all players with five assists and fourteen rebounds. Williams is the Rayvonte Rice of his graduating class. He’s a slightly chubby undersized PF who can probably play all five positions.
Let’s hope John Groce got his phone number. He won’t finish his career at NKU.
For thirty minutes on Sunday, the Norse equaled or bettered an Illini team featuring a sleepy Malcolm Hill, an anti-hero Tracy Abrams, a step-slowed D.J. Williams and an erratic Mike Thorne.
That Malcolm woke up, turned it on, and took over pleased Illini fans. WOO-HOO! WE WON!
D.J. Williams will probably learn from his defensive mistakes.
It’s the Abrams and Thorne errors which fans should worry about. They’re deeply ingrained, the Tragic Flaws most likely turn an early season comedy of errors into a nightmare of missed opportunities.
Michael Finke’s double-double proved that he’ll continue to see more time and responsibility than Illini fans seem to believe. His hustle is amazing. He has a good attitude and a great work ethic. And a dead-eye shot.
I support my contentions, as always, with JPEGs.
Illinois beat SE Missouri’s Redhawks 81-62 in the season opener for both teams. This is what it looked like, except less fuzzy and more animated.
For the first time since March of 2011, Illinois Basketball looks like a program rather than a series of desperate stop-gap measures. There’s no fifth-year transfer learning a new system. Every position will be manned, once Jalen Coleman-Lands is fully recovered, by an experienced starter. Talented sophomores will back-up seniors en route to becoming talented seniors backed by future sophomores.
I’m going to guess that Michael Finke will continue to start at power forward, even after Leron Black’s suspension. I suspect Maverick Morgan will continue to start at center, even as Mike Thorne’s conditioning improves.
I expect Coleman-Lands to move into the starting spot currently held by Aaron Jordan, but I also have a hunch that defense will be the determining factor.
Point guard play pleased John Groce to such an extent that Te’Jon Lucas didn’t see the floor until the fourth quarter.
Tracy Abrams made half of his ill-advised shots, and all of his advised ones. Jaylon Tate connected from three (sic). Otherwise, those two veterans played exactly the way you’d expect, except for the 7:7 assist-to-turnover ratio.
When Lucas finally saw the court, there wasn’t much left to do. Groce emptied the bench, and each irregular Illini tried to take over the game individually, ostensibly to get his name in the box score.
If you’re looking for something to be alarmed about (and I know you are), it’s Mike Thorne’s post-game comment about his field goal percentage.
Thorne is intelligent, sensitive and funny. These are great characteristics for any human being. But for sporting purposes, you might prefer a killer instinct.
Last year, Thorne pooh-poohed the bank shot as obsolete, an anachronism. Instead, Thorne prefers to fling the ball toward the goal. About half the time, it drops through the ring.
Shooting 50% is normally considered good. It’s terrible if all those shots come from less than four feet away. That’s like missing Bucket #1 in the Bozo Grand Prize Game.
The reason he made all his shots on Friday is because he dunked the ball.
Yes, his spinning left hook bounced in, too. But 50% of the time, that’ll happen. On this occasion, it was the right 50%.
If Dustin Ford or John Groce could somehow reach Mike, and persuade him to dunk every time, Illinois would be much likelier to prevail in this season’s close games.
Many miles away there’s a shadow on the door
a cottage on the shore
Of a dark Scottish lake the Illini men’s basketball program
After a lousy open scrimmage, and a disorganized exhibition against Division III Wash U, the Illini are just as curious as their dwindling fan base: Will this team be any good?
Before practice Thursday, The Star acknowledged that he’ll see a lot of double-teams, etc., in an attempt by every opponent on the schedule to keep him from taking over games.
Illinois needs a one-two punch. But who, after Malcolm, will be the second punch? The Star said things will look different when Leron Black returns from his suspension, but he also acknowledged that Leron remains a fouling machine. Perhaps Leron’s rebounding will earn him the Augustine Jersey for practices. Will he, like Augustine, need three years of regular PT before he figures out how to defend without fouling?
Malcolm also says you Cubs fans really annoyed him Wednesday night. (He’s from Saint Louis. ’nuff said.)
Friday’s opponent is Lewis University, where Jaylon Tate’s mom Arisa was once the Flyers’ number 1 singles tennis player. The Flyers always give Illinois a hard time.
Paris Parham has the scout. He says this years Flyers team will bother Illinois’ perimeter players, disrupting the Illini goal of getting the ball inside, and reducing the percentage of shots Illinois takes from beyond the arc. What John Groce refers to as “paint touches.”
Paris says watch out for Delaney Blaylock & Capel Henshaw.
While Parham and Groce fret about “paint touches,” Groce is not as worried about “paint conversions” as, perhaps, the rest of us are.
But he acknowledged that missed bunnies and dropped passes were a problem against Wash U.
Aaron Jordan expects to start at shooting guard for a second consecutive contest. Jalen Coleman-Lands might be the starter later in the season, but he’s still recovering from the broken pinkie.
Jordan says the biggest weakness in his game is being vocal on defense. He’s working on it.
Maybe the most exciting thing about Friday’s Lewis exhibition will be our second chance to see Te’Jon Lucas.
The freshman QB was the most exciting passer in all Illini sports last week, and he’s only improved in practices since. Lucas dished 10 assists in practice yesterday, and by team policy should have worn the Bruce Douglas Jersey this afternoon.
But instead, Samson Oladimeji wore the Douglas Jersey, because Illini team managers don’t have another jersey for him to wear.
Oladimeji is a wing from Fremd. He’s in the midst of a ten day tryout with the Illini. He’d be the team’s fifth walk-on, although Drew Cayce and Cameron Liss are both sitting out this year (Cayce because of transfer rules, and Liss just because).
The other QB (and/or shooting guard) is, of course, Tracy Abrams. He chastised himself Thursday for a lack of leadership on the toughness & togetherness front versus Wash U.
But he was perfectly happy that you Cubs fans kept him awake.
The Wash U exhibition was hard to watch. If you didn’t see the game, but feel, based on second-hand accounts that Illinois played badly; I’m here to tell you it was worse.
Illinois stumbled out of the gate with a starting line-up of
- Tracy Abrams
- Aaron Jordan
- Malcolm Hill
- Michael Finke
- Maverick Morgan
It was heartening to see Abrams return to Lou Henson Court, which wasn’t named Lou Henson Court last time he played a game there. But almost immediately Abrams charged the lane, just like the old days, without looking for kick-out targets on the wings.
Following an off-balance runner that missed (reminiscent of the last-second miss in the 2014 Big Ten Tournament) and a drive to the basket that found him under the goal without an angle (reminiscent of 2014, generally),
Abrams righted himself and looked for others in subsequent transition situations. He found a trailing D.J. Williams for a nifty no-look/behind-the-back bounce pass for a lay-up. He charged toward two defenders under the basket, but then stopped on a dime and bounced the ball around them to Michael Finke, for a dunk.
It’s this version of Tracy Abrams, not the old one, that Illinois must have to be successful.
Mike Thorne Jr. shot 50% (3-for-6) from the floor. That might seem like a respectable percentage, but considering all those shots came from three feet out, it’s unconscionably low. Big Bo still refuses to use the glass, and his touch is no silkier than before. He hoists the ball into the airspace of the orange ring. It goes in half the time. Illini fans will be hugely frustrated by missed inside shots this year.
Thorne missed both ends of his only trip to the foul line. He averaged one foul every three minutes.
On the bright side, Thorne was careful to observe the cylinder rule (described last week by referee Bo Boroski) in wrangling his lone offensive rebound of the contest.
Big Bo played without the enormous knee brace he wears in practice. He dived to the floor for a loose ball, and managed to pull it away from a pack of Bears. It was scary to watch. But evidently he didn’t break anything.
Te’Jon Lucas can pass, and may be a necessary component to success in 2017. Unfortunately, his teammates couldn’t catch his passes. So Te’Jon finished the game with a 1-to-3 assist-to-turnover ratio.
He didn’t attempt a field goal. He connected on 4-of-6 free-throws.
Tracy Abrams committed zero turnovers.
Michael Finke was fun to watch, despite his three turnovers. His post-entry passes are fun. He’s one of the team’s best shooters and one of the best ball-handlers.
His 4-of-8 FG performance is better than Thorne’s 50% because three of those shots came from beyond the arc. (He made one.) Finke was perfect from the foul stripe. Abrams and Hill were also perfect from the line, but the team shot 67.6% overall.
Maverick Morgan was the team’s leading scorer. He also tied Thorne’s team-high four turnovers. But his 8-of-10 performance from the floor is closer to what Illini fans should expect from the center position. John Groce talks a lot about paint touches. But once the ball-handlers do the hard work of feeding the low post, Illini fans should expect a field goal most of the time.
Morgan was 4-of-6 from the line, with only 4 rebounds in 25 minutes. He blocked two shots and garnered a steal.
The one obvious advantage of playing Morgan at center, as opposed to Thorne, is the Mav can run in transition.
Jalen Coleman-Lands had a bad night shooting (1-for-6 from deep) but he penetrated well, and moved well without the ball.
Once the medical staff clears him to play without his right-hand wrapped, it’s hard to imagine a starting line-up without him.
But apart from JCL, there’s only one clear starter on this team.
Malcolm Hill had, if you ignore his 4-for-12 (0-for-3) shooting performance, the best stat line. He led the team in rebounds with six, and added a pair of steals and a pair of assists, with only one turnover.
His technical foul was undeserved. Malcolm finished a fast-break dunk at an odd angle, he straightened himself out on the rim before dropping to the floor. Steve McJunkins should not have T’d him up.
Is it crazy to suggest that Tracy Abrams is not a sure fire starter?
Well, recall again the spring of 2014, when John Groce praised Jon Ekey and Joe Bertrand for accepting back-up roles. Groce said the team would need more sacrifice the next year. If Te’Jon Lucas continues to move the ball as effectively as he did Sunday, and if his teammates learn to catch it, it’s not hard to imagine a similar role for Abrams.
Starting is not the be-all, end-all of course. Jon Ekey continued to play a starter’s role after relinquishing his starting role. John Groce is slightly less hidebound about rotations than was Bruce Weber. But he’s still fairly traditional.
Will Groce change the line-up based on match-ups? That question might be irrelevant, until the Michigan State game. (They’ll be playing small ball, a good match-up for Illinois if you consider a line-up of Finke + four guards.)
Have we seen all the role players yet? Definitely not. Leron Black remains suspended. Kipper Nichols won’t be eligible ’til December. Alex Austin played for three seconds on Sunday. The other walk-ons never stood up, and Cameron Liss will take a redshirt year in 2017.
There’s a lot that remains to be seen. Let’s hope it becomes prettier to look at.