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.
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.
After 24 hours of conjecture about Jamall Walker’s machinations, a weary, emotional Walker stepped in front of a small group of reporters Sunday afternoon.
Has he been in secret contract negotiations with Cuonzo Martin? Did Josh Whitman lock him up with a long term contract and pay raise? Does he have Smith & Tilmon in his pocket?
These are the things people people have been saying in social media. The truth, according to Walker, is that he took his wife to Scotty’s Brew Pub on Saturday night, having long ago promised her a dinner date. He had the shrimp tacos.
How does Rebekah Walker feel about staying in Champaign? Simply put “it’s home” said Jamall Walker, noting that their boys were born here. It’s where they’ve raised their kids.
Has he talked to Brad Underwood about the future of the Illini coaching staff? He has not. What’s he been doing during the week? Has he been out recruiting, or keeping tabs on the Class of ’17 signees? Walker made no mention of either. He talked only about prepping the team for Monday night’s game against Boise State.
Basically, everything you’ve read about Illini basketball in the past week was untrue. Most of what you’re reading today is untrue. It’s like Coach K looking to buy land near Mahomet all over again.
So the narrative about Walker keeping recruits remains just that. It’s a storyline with no known relationship to the truth.
The good news is that, according to Michael Finke, the current players like the idea of playing for Brad Underwood. They’re excited about his offense, and feeling upbeat about the hire.
But they didn’t have insider info either. Michael Finke says the players learned about Brad Underwood about five minutes before the rest of the world did, when they all got an email from Josh Whitman.
Deon Thomas and Paris Parham greeted one another on court, about an hour before the Michigan game. They reminisced about the one game they played against each other in high school. Dunbar beat Simeon, according to Paris. But the teams had to stay in their locker rooms afterward, until the gunplay cooled off outside.
Whatever happens to the Groce staff, Deon and Paris agreed they’d lived through worse. They’ve seen guys get shot. They’ve seen people killed.
The Groce Question was answered today, by an Illinois team that couldn’t compete with a league rival, and by John Groce himself.
Five years into the Groce experiment, Illinois is not in the same class as the Big Ten’s elite teams. Illinois is second-class. Worse, they don’t just lose. They get blown away. They’re simply not relevant in major college basketball.
The B1G’s third-class teams played Wednesday. Two of them left town before the second-class teams arrived to punish the survivors. The first-class teams will show up tomorrow, and feast on the second-class. Except for us. We’ve already been eaten.
The Illini will be in Champaign-Urbana when real B1G basketball gets underway.
Groce, to his credit, came right out and agreed he’d do it all over again, exactly the same way, rather than “coaching not to lose,” the sin Bruce Weber admitted while trashing his players for public consumption, in February, 2012.
The Groce Question by the way, is not whether Groce will be fired. It’s not whether he should be fired. It’s whether he can lead Illinois out of the slash and burn wasteland he inherited. The answer is no, he can’t.
Weber was fired five years ago today. If Groce doesn’t follow him out the door, we’ll know that Josh Whitman doesn’t have a home-run hire waiting in the wings. There’s no way Josh Whitman could let the Groce era continue simply because he thinks Groce needs more time, or might be on the verge of something big. Everything we know about John Groce says this is the way he’ll do it, including his own words.
He said during Monday’s pre-tourney teleconference that he doesn’t make in-game offensive adjustments. He can’t. His system is his system, for better or worse.
And you know what? Good for Groce. He told us on day one that he’s a teacher. And at the end, he told us the same thing again, and demonstrated as much. He’d rather coach these guys in practice than in games. That’s another thing he’s said, again and again, over his five years.
It’s perhaps not the best personality trait for a Division I coach. But it’s admirable.
So expect a new coach to be announced real soon. And if there’s not such an announcement, understand that it’s because Josh Whitman doesn’t see the point in giving a five-year contract to another mediocrity from the mid-majors. Or indeed, a super-performing coach from the low and mid-major conferences, like many from my long list. Or Cuonzo, whose NIT trajectory should eliminate him from the conversation (it won’t).
Yes, there’s the argument that Illinois basketball will get worse if Groce isn’t fired immediately. But that can’t be true. Either you’re relevant or you’re not. Illinois isn’t relevant.
The fanbase won’t grow. Fair-weather fans won’t come back until the weather is fair. But if this season is any indication, about 12,000 people will still turn out for basketball games.
Anybody that lived through 1989 or 2005 isn’t going to stop cheering for Illini basketball. They remember how great it feels when we’re first-class.
Saturday in Piscataway (poet, I know it) I met two Rutgers basketball fans. Possibly the two Rutgers basketball fans. Terry and Stuart graduated in 1978. That means they were students when Rutgers last made it to the Final Four.
I met them in the campustown Barnes & Noble. I was about to catch the free campus bus that runs between New Brunswick Station and the RAC. Instead, they gave me a lift.
When we arrived at the RAC, Mike Palko was just walking by. He was the starting center on that 1976 team.
These three guys still attend Rutgers basketball games, because they remember what Rutgers can be. They believe Rutgers will be back some day.
Illini fans vastly outnumber Rutgers fans. You needn’t be 61 years-old to remember the high. If #WeWillWin means anything, Josh Whitman isn’t satisfied with second-class. Whether it happens tomorrow, next week or next year; it’s going to happen.
I know what’s wrong with John Groce’s offense: It violates all of Bruce Weber’s principles.
Every problem I complained about from 2006 to 2012 got fixed. So now I’m going to whine about John Groce not following Bruce Weber’s philosophy.
If you’re the glass-half-full type, scroll down to the bottom, where I’ll write optimistically about Groce’s offense, and how it’s really sexy when it works. I’m a glass-half-full guy myself, but only in the sense that my glass is half-full.
My glass will be empty soon. Then it will be full again. Then it will be empty again.
Apologies in advance for typos and meandering.
Weber’s short rotation
Especially in 2009 & 2010, Illinois had a lot of bodies who never played.
Weber never employed Richard Semrau as a stretch forward (his natural position). He kept James Augustine stuck at the 5 until Shaun Pruitt came along.
Can you imagine Michael Finke being told he can’t wander more than four feet from the basket?
Yes, Mike Tisdale was allowed to shoot the three. But the open secret, acknowledged by the great Skip Thoren, is that Tisdale was a small forward, not a center, not a PF.
This year, Groce’s rotations are way “outside the box” to put it charitably. Guys are subbing in and out, left and right.
A long bench is not a problem, but there are ways to make it work, to make it useful.
One way is to speed up the game, to tire the other team: Throw a full-court press at them. Run them ragged. Forty minutes of hell.
Illinois doesn’t do that.
Another way is to build your ten man rotation into two cohesive units, as John Calipari did with his “two starting fives” at Kentucky.
Illinois doesn’t do that either.
The players aren’t sure why they don’t press, and they can’t answer for Groce’s substitution patterns. It’s possible, when poking at the cracks in their anti-divulging force fields, to get them to admit that constant substitutions disrupt the flow of the game.
Groce does not confine his players’ tendencies
Groce listens to his players, and allows them substantial input as well as, in some cases, final say-so on what sets to run, etc.
I think that’s great. The players like it too.
Here’s Manbun saying, after all the hair talk, that he and Leron Black sometimes decide mid-play who’ll man which position.
In theory, “freedom” improves the player mentally. He’s not just a robot following instructions. He’s a thinking basketball player. But …
“Freedom”is like sex and booze. Everybody loves it, and everyone must eventually acknowledge that too much is bad … or at least presents performance issues.
If Groce could instill, require, demand or threaten on pain of death his players to execute his ideas, Illinois might already have won its National Championship.
But Groce doesn’t correct his players. He says he’s demanding without demeaning, but he doesn’t demand enough. Maybe he should demean more.
Mike Thorne’s erratic fling shot is the second-best example. We know Thorne can use the backboard; he did it against Minnesota!
We know Thorne can dunk. He did it against … well, I’m pretty sure he did it.
After receiving the ball in the low post, Thorne should be connecting on 60%+ of his shots. That’s just common knowledge basketball philosophy. If you ask me, he should convert nearly all of those shots. The trick with the low post is feeding, not converting.
Abrams getting his shit stuffed by three taller defenders, simultaneously, is the #1 indicator that Groce’s coaching methods — however noble and well-intentioned — do lead, and will continue to lead, to outcomes that even Groce can’t anticipate or control.
Groce talks about about “things you can control” a lot. He can, or could, control the way Thorne and Abrams shoot the ball. He doesn’t.
He steadfastly rejects this option, whenever it’s presented to him. “He usually makes that” is Groce’s go-to cliché when confronted with the concept that his players repeatedly attempt bad, easily scouted shots.
What do Illini coaches & players analyze in film sessions? you ask.
Well, I have a theory. They don’t say “hey, look at this! This never works! STOP DOING THIS!“
Abrams has attempted these bad, easily scouted shots in various Illini uniforms, for twenty years or so. You’d think someone would eventually tell him that one-on-three is bad odds, especially when the three are all taller than you. And especially-especially if you can’t jump.
He did it Tuesday, at Northwestern.
Groce has all the best intentions, to be sure. But his lads continue to fail physics & geometry tests. Groce himself continues to struggle with addition & subtraction. This is the math major, who touts his short-lived classroom teaching career.
I’m not sure Weber would have changed any of these tendencies. He and Gary Nottingham fixed Chester Frazier’s shot. But most of that credit goes to Nottingham. Making things better is Weber’s unpublished forte at Illinois. We’re still hunting for the manuscript.
OK, it’s not quite true that Groce is the anti-Weber
Sitting after the second foul. The long two-pointers. Calling timeouts when the team’s on a run. The subsequent turnover following the galling inbounding play. Changing what’s working.
There are plenty of old-school coaching formulae employed by Groce that are just as reactionary, or just as frustrating as they were under Weber.
The dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble chuck a three! problem ended on March 9, 2012. It’s not been a problem since. Groce’s offense can be hard to watch in the same way that Bill Self’s Illini offense could be hard to watch.
It’s not a problem of stagnancy.
It’s that Groce’s ball-screen offense, like the hi-lo offense, relies on action that’s not merely telegraphed, but snail-mailed in advance. Everyone knows what’s coming.
In theory, it works anyway.
Groce’s offense is way, way more fun to watch than Weber’s
Lon Kruger was the best offensive coordinator in my #Illini lifetime. Everyone else was obsessed with the other end of the floor.
John Groce was known as an offense guy. Mark Titus called him Ohio State’s offensive coordinator (among other things). Sometimes, Groce’s offense is (dare I say it?) Poetry in the Motion.
At Northwestern, Maverick Morgan slipped screens for dunks. Te’Jon Lucas recognized the Wildcats’ defensive actions, which practically dared Illinois to go hi-lo, and dimed his big men.
Lucas exploited over-hedging, bad reads and switching mistakes for dribble-drive purposes.
Te’Jon , Michael Finke and Tracy Abrams all noticed that Wildcat defenders failed (refused?) to close out on shooters. Abrams got the Chester Frazier treatment, and Groce’s unending encouragement proved useful. Tracy’s three rattled around for a while before deciding to play along. Tracy shook his head while running to the defensive end, as if to acknowledge that nobody, not even a 40-something college player, really understands this game.
Kipper Nichols contributed a positive statistic for every minute played. He’d have played more if Malcolm Hill and Finke hadn’t executed as well as they did.
Finke connected on 3-of-5 long ones. On his successful attempts, he could’ve written sonnets before launching , and still have had plenty of time. The defense was so elsewhere.
Some fairly simple reads were read (loosers take note) at Welsh-Ryan. There’s no reason not to attribute that reading to Groce and his staff.
If you desperately want Groce & staff gone, take heart. This column demonstrates only that Groce’s offense can succeed. History is on your side, suggesting that it doesn’t.
Vashoune Russell took the 2017 Welsh-Ryan pictures, and then waited for a long time to edit them because he’s essentially a very, very lazy perosn. Or overworked and underpaid. Your choice.
If we were Gonzaga, we’d feel this way most mornings. Playing lousy teams is an excellent way to ensure wins. Competing against matador defenders ensures that your offensive sets will look great!
That’s why Mark Few and Ggreggg Marshall aren’t looking for jobs in competitive conferences. It’s why Bryce Drew may learn, over the next few years, that money isn’t everything.
Michigan stinks. They’ve got the worst defense in the Big Ten.
OK, that’s an exaggeration, statistically speaking. Michigan can’t stop other teams from scoring, and they can’t rebound on those rare occasions when the other team misses.
John Beilein laughed about it, noting that Michigan didn’t get schooled on the boards because Illinois didn’t miss any shots (64% on twos and another 64% from three).
Beilein also readily admitted that Kipper Nichols was nowhere to be found on the Wolverine’s scouting report. Wouldn’t it be great if John Groce were so candid?
Now that Bo Ryan is gone, there’s no contest about who’s my favorite B1G coach. Like John Groce, Beilein is known more for his teams’ offensive capabilities. Defense? Not so good.
Te’Jon Lucas has been the proverbial back-up QB for the last three months. Now he’s the actual back-up QB, and based on the minutes he’s played in the last two games, moving in on the starting QB position.
Compare his Wednesday stats to Tracy Abrams’s. Lucas’s ATO was 8-to-1 in 23 minutes. Abrams was 3-to-1 in 24 minutes.
Each had a steal. Abrams grabbed two rebounds and Lucas one. Abrams committed three fouls and Lucas zero.
Lucas didn’t miss any shots. Tracy was 1-of-3 from the field and 2-of-3 on FTs. Lucas didn’t get to the line.
Each made a thrilling no look pass for an assist.
Kipper Nichols is unlikely to live up to the outrageous expectations foisted upon him by demented fans. Since joining the program, he’s been the fantasized savior among people with pseudonymous message-board identities & access to the Internet.
And yet, every time Nichols touched the ball on Wednesday, something really exciting happened.
Whether it was yanking a rebound from the hands of an opponent, offensive rebounds and put-backs, or nailing shots from the low post or the arc; Kipper dazzled the crowd of 11,404.
Dazzling a crowd is exactly what John Groce needs to keep his job. And he also needs about four thousand more people per game. And he needs those people to pay more for tickets.
The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, to its credit, has become far more flexible, in recent years, about ticket prices and packages. Ticket supply continues to exceed demand, so DIA dropped prices dramatically. Good for them, but bad for the bottom line.
Thrilling players like Kipper Nichols and Te’Jon Lucas sell tickets. Think of the days when Bruce Douglas lobbed & Efrem Winters dunked.
Indiana gets 50% more people per game. They probably don’t sell tickets for $6.78/per, either.
Jalen Coleman-Lands connected on 4-of-5 threes, for 12 points. His passing remains underrated (4 assists). Maverick Morgan also dished four assists from the center position, and converted eight of his nine attempts from the floor.
With Jaylon Tate and Mike Thorne combining for exactly zero minutes, one wonders whether Groce will contract his rotation to the degree that mentor Thad Matta usually does … something like six or seven players per game.
But as long as The Producers continue to produce, the non-producers are likely relegated to cheerleading and spectating.
Illinois was lousy on defense, and that’s okay. Most people don’t care about defense, just so long as the home team leads by 15 to 20 points throughout the second half.
If he can’t ensure that his team connects on 64% of shots night-in/night-out, John Groce may want to hire a defensive mastermind, like Chris Lowery or Wayne McClain, to instill defensive toughness in his matadors.
Both those things happened this weekend, just not to us.
At this point, I’m surprised only that people are surprised. Everything we’ve seen this basketball season is consistent with everything we’ve ever seen from the individuals involved. They are who we thought they are.
Yes, it’s been a while since I posted an Illini Report. What was there to say that you couldn’t read elsewhere?
Well, there’s a lot, actually. I started writing it four times. That is, there are four unpublished pieces in my drafts folder. I had a lot to vent, and some lovely insider gems.
But it’s all hurtful stuff. It’s all borne of frustration, anger and cynicism. You can read plenty of that elsewhere, too.
After 3 of the last 4 games, I was never tempted to follow The Good Tracy with The Bad Tracy. That’s not to say I didn’t write it. I just didn’t publish it.
It would certainly have been appropriate.
John Groce continues his misdirection strategy in defending Tracy (a refreshing change from Bruce Weber’s incessant player-trashing) to emphasize the qualities Tracy brings every day.
I feel bad for Tracy Abrams. I take no enjoyment from berating his failures. I’d love to see him leave Illinois as a champion.
As the “play Te’Jon Lucas” hue & cry makes its way across all forms of media, the usual suspect is Jaylon Tate. But Tate’s passing at Indiana was, like always, dynamic and exciting. He had three times as many assists as Abrams in half the minutes.
From a passing standpoint, D.J. Williams and Michael Finke are better PGs than Abrams. Jalen-Coleman-Lands continues to fly under the radar for his court vision & ability to find open teammates.
Tracy Abrams is undoubtedly a leader, and a disciplined worker. He’s an almost perfect soldier in his willingness to execute orders, and a model sergeant for his determination to motivate his troops to implement the policies dictated by his commanders.
In year five of the Groce Administration, those policies tempt military analogies. The Maginot Line for defense. Vietnam for understanding our opponent.
I introduced the season by writing that Mike Thorne’s interior tendencies would frustrate Illini fans, and that Te’Jon Lucas should consider redshirting. Neither observation was intended to insult the player involved. Mike Thorne is one of the most likeable guys on the team. And Te’Jon’s repeated DNPs are not his fault nor his choice.
Thorne never plays much, and continues to start. I’m good with that. Through 16 games, Maverick Morgan averages 21 minutes to Thorne’s 15. In conference, Thorne has played even less.
It’s fun to think about opponents taking the time to scout Thorne. It’s especially fun if one dreams that Thorne may — as intelligent, introspective persons sometimes do — completely change his modus operandi upon catching a ball in the low post.
It’s a turnover waiting to happen, I wrote at the beginning of the year. (Oh, I didn’t? Well, it was something like that anyhow.)
ABOUT THAT COMEBACK FROM 20+ DOWN
When the Illini cut Indiana’s lead to 12, the Hoosiers went on a 10-0 run.
Then Illinois cut the lead to nine.
And then, John Groce made the Bruce Weberest decision of an already thoroughly Bruce Weberish career, calling timeout as Te’Jon ran the ball toward Indiana’s (admittedly well-defended) bucket.
On the subsequent (surely much intellectualized) inbound play, Te’Jon turned the ball over.
Erstwhile Urbana High School varsity coach Vashoune Russell had an opinion about this sequence of events. (Vashoune took pictures of the game with some really expensive cameras. It was almost worth the $64 I put in his gas tank. Holy shit those GMC Suburbans.)
Vashoune couldn’t understand why Groce thought he could get away with the same inbound play twice in a game versus a well-coached team.
ELSEWHERE IN WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN
If, after Illinois’s second stab at persistence cut the lead to 9 on Saturday, you decided you’d like to see a team come back from 20+ down to win a game, you’re in luck. No TV subscription required. If you have an internet connection (which you do) you can watch the replay at ESPN3. Here it is.
Caroline is the grandson of an Illini/NFL legend. He was sired by another Illini legend, who also played in the NFL.
But Jordan clearly, distinctly put his own stamp on all-time legend status with a single game. 45 points & 13 rebounds is not all-time material, but recovering from a 14-point deficit with a minute to go is all-time anything. That was Saturday’s astonishing performance at New Mexico.
If you want to relive the magical 15-0 start of Saturday’s Hoosiers fiasco, you can watch that too. How often will you get the chance to see Illinois’ best player collect a third foul before the team has scored a single point?
Coaches on the Hot Seat sometimes recognize that Being Friendly will serve them better than Being A Dick, or isolating themselves.
After his regular (i.e. B1G mandated) time with the media Saturday, Tom Crean made a beeline toward the Illini media pool, all assigned to workstations in the far corner of the media room.
“Does Chicago need anything else?” he asked, perhaps oblivious to the slight, and perhaps recognizing that Shannon Ryan was the only reporter in the pool whose audience should concern him.
No one needed anything else. Vashoune and I shook his hand, thanked him for the offer, and congratulated him on the win.
Crean left the room, but engaged a pair of TV reporters (and their cameras) in the tunnel outside. Meanwhile, Scout.com’s Jeremy Werner and Derek Piper joined Indiana’s Scout correspondent Jeff Rabjohns in a discussion, in the media room.
At some point, Crean re-entered the room. He engaged an Indiana beat writer in a long discussion. It’s the first time I’ve seen a B1G coach hang out in a media room after exhausting his official duties.
After a long talk, Crean again walked to the other side of the room, toward the Illini pool. “Is Jeremy Werner here?” he asked.
By this time, Jeremy and Derek had returned to the court, to record their usual postgame video commentary.
“He was,” we responded.
Crean gushed about Jeremy’s statistical analysis. He said he’d read it earlier in the week, and “actually learned something from it.”
A lot of coaches pretend they don’t read their press clippings. Some coaches don’t seem capable of reading. So it might feel rewarding to know that a coach not only reads, but learns from ones writing.
I emailed Jeremy to tell him about the query, and also to ask WTF column Crean was foaming about. It was Jeremy’s Rapid Recap of the tOSU game, according to Jeremy, who also observed that the column was “nothing special.”
John Groce also stayed in the visitor’s media room for a few extra moments, and made small talk at Chicago Tribune‘s Shannon Ryan. Then he moved to the tunnel to allow Louie del Rio and Bret Beherns a better opportunity to frame him with their cameras. (The IU visitor’s “media room” is a secretary’s office, and it’s tiny.)
Groce is no idiot. A week after dissing Bret’s softball about disgruntled fans, he offered himself to his most important conduit. WCIA has the largest local TV audience.
Ryan reaches the largest number of Illini fans, in theory. That is, the Trib has a huge subscriber base, most of which lives in Illinois. Nobody necessarily reads Shannon’s columns, if they can be bothered to comb through the sports section, past all the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Notre Dame, Marathon, etc. coverage.
Groce reserves all his inside information for CBS Sport’s Jon Rothstein, but it behooves him to make nice with those media members who can access a national audience. The Tribune company publishes the Los Angeles Times, too. And the Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and Sun-Sentinel. On a slow day, any of those papers might run an article by any of the Tribune company’s reporters.
The pleasantries lasted only a moment. By comparison, you can see why Tom Crean has won two B1G Championships.
But in fairness to Groce, he’s been on the hot seat for only about three years. Crean has been on the hot seat since the day he was hired. But as we’re all interested in the success of Illini sports, let’s all keep an eye on Groce’s interactions with the media.
Bret’s question was only the beginning of a Pandora’s Box, Groce should do everything in his power to keep that box from opening. Unfortunately for him, five years of inaccessibility hampered that possibility. All the reporters he’s marginalized will have a column ready, whether they publish it after the Michigan game, after the Maryland game, after the Purdue game …
Is it fair and/or ethical to criticize Groce for not buttering the media? Yes and no. Everything keeps changing. Newspapers gave way to web content, etc.
But the fact is that Groce does butter the media, just not anyone local. Take that as you will.
Meanwhile, Loren Tate is still good friends with Lou Henson.
Winthrop wasn’t great. Illinois should have won.
Lots of guys played poorly, for each team. But everything about this game favored the littlest guy on the court.
Keon Johnson is physically unable to violate the new cylinder rule. At 5’4″, he’s simply incapable of fouling a typical college player above the waist.
Referee Kelly Pfeifer set the tone with a lot of early whistles. After three consecutive calls, Pfeifer seemed to recognize that he should, maybe, take a break. He was on the verge of becoming the story of the game.
Terry Oglesby, perhaps sensing that Pfeifer shouldn’t be the only official to use his whistle, ramped up his whistling game.
Big guys were disproportionately affected, and Illinois’ height advantage disappeared when Maverick Morgan went to the bench with two early fouls.
Leron Black entered the game, rusty, and picked up two of his own. Same with Mike Thorne.
Contrast Johnson, by far the most aggressive player on the court. He finished the first half with 15 points and a single foul. He earned another in the second half.
Still, Illinois should have won. But as the clock ran toward expiry, John Groce ordered his team to take its collective foot off the gas.
That never works.
My first memory of Illini basketball features no players, no live action. It was a criticism, spoken by a disgruntled fan. And then another one. And then I remember my dad saying the same thing.
Being a tot, I interpreted the criticism literally. They were tired of Lou Henson’s “letting the air out of the ball.” I remembered it because it seemed absurd, not as a strategy, but as a literal interpretation. How could Henson get away with it, I thought? Wouldn’t somebody notice?
Today, the strategy still seems absurd. When a team gains a lead in a game, it’s done something right, right? Whatever the game plan, it worked.
So why stop doing it?
John Groce is my age, so he ought to know that “stall ball” is a bad idea. But Groce is a numbers guy, so there must be a data set that tells him to run down the shot clock, then heave a desperation shot once the defense locks down.
Bruce Weber employed the same terrible strategy, and it was a significant factor in his demise.
Up by ten points with less than four minutes to go, eating clock seemed like a good idea to John Groce. One team needed to score, and did so with a sense of urgency. The other team dribbled a lot.
In the final 2:43, the urgent team scored ten points and took over the game’s momentum. An already small crowd groaned. They’ve seen this scenario play out many times in their collective lives. Even when the stalling team wins, the game becomes closer, more tense. Fans don’t enjoy it.
“Stall Ball” wasn’t always an awful idea. Before the introduction of the shot clock, it worked well for teams who knew how to run it. Dean Smith’s Carolina Tarheels were the best. They called it “the Four Corners.”
You’ll notice that Phil Ford threatened to drive to the basket. He didn’t just stand there, dribbling. When the defense gave him an open look, he took it.
Monday night will be remembered for a long time. Keon Johnson’s performance was amazing. So was the Illinois collapse. If the Groce era ends in the next sixteen months, the Winthrop game will be a talking point.
Player rotations, a frequent topic among Groce’s most outspoken critics, will be an issue. On Monday, Te’Jon Lucas did not play and D.J. Williams got three minutes. Malcolm Hill played 39, and connected on 0-of-10 two-pointers. Was he fatigued?
Jaylon Tate chased Keon Johnson around all night, but Lucas might have been able to help hold Johnson to 15-of-21 shooting. Frankly, no one could stop Johnson. His game is incomprehensible to major college basketball players, because they never experience a 5’4″ spark plug.
Instead of Lucas, Groce employed Jalen Coleman-Lands, where dead balls allowed, as an offense-for-defense substitute for Tate. Groce did so even when Keon Johnson curled up in a heap, with a leg cramp.
JCL was pretty scrappy in the endgame, BTW.
Everybody involved with Illini basketball had an off-night. John Groce’s was the offest.
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.