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Illini basketball

O & B scrimmage 2014: The Malcolm Hill Show

Blog-reading Illini fans are the most likely, among all Illini fans, to watch streaming video. So my assumption is that most people who’ll read this post saw the Orange & Blue scrimmage for themselves.

Hence, I’ll try not to tell you things you already know, except to say that the team shot poorly at first. Overall, the very unofficial statistic was 33-of-83 on the day, for all FG attempts. That’s 39.7%. It’s not a terrible number, but little better than last year’s 38%.

About half of the teams’ total points were scored in the third of three periods. So it would seem that they needed to acclimate to the crowd, or the format.

Jaylon Tate and Ahmad Starks looked sharp, in completely different ways.

Jaylon’s passing impressed the small crowd, perhaps more than anything else. That’s nothing new. His 1-of-7 shooting shouldn’t be overlooked, but overall, Jaylon was solid. Most importantly, he’s entertaining. Until basketball morphs entirely into soccer with hands, entertainment will still be an important factor in drawing spectators.

Ahmad penetrated and dished. He penetrated and elevated for mid-range jumpers. He shot 1-of-6 from the arc, and that won’t get the job done. But otherwise, his offensive game looked good.

Contrast Aaron Cosby, who faded into the background from the opening tip. Did Cosby play poorly? John Groce didn’t think so. He reiterated that Cosby’s on-ball defense is a great strength, and a facet of Cosby’s game that goes largely unnoticed.

The player of the game, on his 19th birthday, was Malcolm Hill. The game seems to come to him. He never appears to be moving fast, but no one seems able to stop him.

Malcolm’s personality has changed drastically since he first arrived on campus. His mother, Machanda, says he’s always been outgoing and funny. But until recently, only a select few got to see it. Malcolm admitted as much after the scrimmage.

The college experience does that to a lot of people, and Malcolm seems to be soaking up everything. His mother was beaming for most of the day. I visited with her and Keisha Parham while the team sat for its autograph session. These are two Power Moms. (I like Paris Parham a lot, but Keisha is clearly the star of the family.) They enjoyed talking about their sons’ intellectual development.

Keisha was happy to report that middle-schooler Kai came home the other day asking whether she was familiar with MLA Style. Kai still wants to be an entomologist and not an English professor, but even research papers on millipedes need a works cited page.

Machanda reported that Malcolm had a similar question, after taking an economics course over the summer: Was she familiar with GDP?

“Malcolm,” the Senior Budget Analyst at Washington University replied, “I have a degree in finance. Yes, I know about GDP.”

That was funny.

Leron Black looked solid at the four. He presented as advertised. He nailed mid-range jumpers, and rebounded.

I met Leron, really for the first time, after the scrimmage. Previously, we’d never really talked. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Some college freshmen are shy, and still seem like children. Some seem like full grown adults. I’d assumed that Leron might veer toward the former, personality-wise. I have nothing to base that assumption on, other than the fact that he’s been reported to be devout, quiet, humble, etc. things you’ve already read about him on the Internet.

But Leron is definitely the latter. In fact, I’d be surprised if he was ever a child.

I’d asked his roommate, Michael Finke, to stick around, just in case Leron might be uncomfortable with my quirky questions. But Leron totally got it. He was a riot. I’m looking forward to more.

John Groce introduced the entire support staff, including team yogi Kristina Reese. “We bow to her,” Groce said. And then they all literally bowed to her.

I’m glad he pointed her out, because I was very confused. First I thought Miley Cyrus was in the gym. Gosh, I told myself, my story will be linked on the front page of Huffington Post!

It’s not unusual to see a perfect physical specimen at the Ubben. It happens all the time. Fit student-athletes routinely parade through, in exercise gear. What’s rare is blue hair and thrift store chic. (Possibly Furniture Lounge?)

I love the fact that John Groce (let’s face it, a conservative Midwestern .. okay, I’ll just say it:  Indiana guy) looks beyond the conventional to make his team better, and healthier. I LOVE it that these guys bow to a pixie with blue hair.

Kristina teaches mostly at The Refinery, but you can also find her at the Mettler Center and the Y.

Nnanna Egwu played a lot of minutes at the power-forward position, and attempted four three-pointers. (He shot at least one of those while playing the five.)

Although his long-distance shot looks smooth, the niftiest Egwu bucket came on a left-handed hook shot, from about four feet out.

He also buried a hook with his right hand. Nnanna’s experimentation with ball-handling didn’t always work:  In trying to dribble at the high-post, Nnanna was stripped of the ball.

Michael Finke also brought the ball below his waist, after taking a pass in the short corner. He may need to correct that tendency, especially if he’s going to play primarily at the five.

 

On the other hand, Finke’s footwork was much better than even the referees gave him credit for. I asked both Michael and Jamall Walker for their opinions on Finke’s two traveling calls.

They both conceded the second one. But the first call was wrong. Michael made an excellent spin move. It still wasn’t legal, because he reached out with his left hand to hook Leron Black. “He’s gotta use his elbow to do that,” said Walker.

Were we expecting that move from Finke?  I wasn’t.

Walker also mentioned that Kendrick Nunn’s absence from the scrimmage was completely precautionary. He expects Nunn to be back in practice, at full strength, next week.

CHANGE OF PLANS

Take Italy of your summer travel schedule. Or at least, change the dates. Mark Morris says it’s looking like Belgium and France instead. That’s August 9 through 19, between summer school and the fall semester.

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Illini basketball

Newcomer: Ahmad Starks

The Illini men’s basketball team has six newcomers this year. Two are walk-ons Cameron Liss and Alex Austin. Two are Michael Finke and Aaron Cosby, already profiled in the Illini Report “newcomer” series.

At some point, you’ll get a humorous glimpse at Liss and Austin. It probably won’t get a lot of hits. Web traffic works like this

  • recruits
  • scandal
  • enormous victories
  • current players
  • losses
  • walk-ons

Perhaps Leron Black is most intriguing to Illini fans, because we know so little about him. But the newcomer most likely to determine the outcome of the 2014-15 season is tiny, quiet Ahmad Starks.

Asking about Starks, of the guys who’ve played with him for over a year, reveals some things we didn’t know. For one, he drives fearlessly at and over guys twice his height. He dunks. He has a knack for theatrical shots that somehow go in the basket. He rebounds.

Most interestingly, he’s considered to be a ball-handler and distributor. Contrast this opinion with conventional wisdom that Starks is primarily a shooter, and you see just how little the typical fan understands what happens inside John Groce’s program.

In fact, the perception of Starks as a typical point guard has so permeated the inner Illini mindset that Alex Austin answered the tell me something most people don’t know about Ahmad Starks question by saying that Starks is a really good shooter, whereas most people probably think of him primarily as a ball-handler.

That’s the mindset inside the program.

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Illini basketball

The Insider View

John Groce’s Coaches Clinic christened 150 new “insiders” over a 27 hour period this Friday and Saturday. Some of them will certainly turn up on message boards, giving you “inside” information.

I got to see the Saturday portion featuring Jeff Van Gundy, and an Illini practice.

This was my second “insider” opportunity in the last six weeks. The best ever glimpse inside the program received 4,000 fewer hits than, for example, a video of Jalen Brunson disinterestedly mouthing his way through Hail to the Orange. It might be that people thought The Women’s Clinic was about women’s basketball, or women’s clinics. It’s not. It’s a peek inside John Groce’s program, and you should check it out if you’re interested in Illini basketball, which you are.

Van Gundy had never visited Champaign before. When asked about it, he demonstrated an ability to say nice things, while also revealing his inner hipster, by beginning a sentence with the word “so.”

So when I flew in last night from Chicago, I couldn’t believe that you get into an airport and be so close to such a beautiful campus. I’m just thrilled to be at another world class institution. I love going to colleges and seeing different ones.

I do like watching college basketball, not necessarily for the players coming up, but also to see what the coaches there are now doing differently . The game is continuously evolving and changing. Pick-and-roll coverages are different.  The amount of three-point shots that are being shot (is) growing and growing. (I) watch teams, how they try to defend it, how they try to get high-quality threes. Very, very fun.

ON JOHN GROCE

I watched practice for the first time today, and I think when you watch a game you see passion, energy. But I think you don’t know until you actually watch a guy work is what a great teacher of the game (he is). I was really impressed with the quality of the guys he had focused, intense. And then his teaching was both upbeat & positive, but at the same time very demanding. And as a teacher, I think that’s what makes you special. Caring & compassionate, yes, but also very demanding. And he combines those extremely well.

WHAT BROUGHT VAN GUNDY TO CHAMPAIGN?

My brother did it a couple of years ago. So Stan … John brought him in. And he (Stan) told me how much he enjoyed not only John, but the whole experience. So when John called, I was more than happy to. And it’s good for me, too, because if you’re out of coaching, you get rusty teaching. And so it makes you go through the fundamentals of teaching as well.

DOES WORKING A COACHES CLINIC HELP HIM AS A TV COMMENTATOR?

First of all, I don’t even think of myself like that. I’m just talking, like, off-the-cuff. Sometimes I don’t even listen to what I’m saying. So it’s like, when people say “that was stupid, what you said” I’m sayin’ “man … probably. Yeah, it could be.”

Jeff Van Gundy is an ideas guy in an industry where paradigms are nearly impossible to kill. Phil Jackson was an ideas guy, too. So was Tex Winter. You’d think their success would inspire more coaches to be open to ideas. But a lot of people in the coaching profession prefer to keep their thinkin’ right inside that box.

John Groce says he learns something from every coach he invites to his clinics, and often employs those lessons in tweaking his own system. By the second of Saturday’s two practices, Groce had already inserted something gleaned from Van Gundy during the day.

Van Gundy tried to instill a new way of thinking about rebounding & transition defense. He said coaches should identify good rebounders among their team, and have those individuals crash the boards, no matter their position (1 through 5). If you’ve got a great-rebounding point guard, figure out which wings and bigs are not as efficient on the boards, and let them be the ones to hustle back for transition defense.

That’s a super-intriguing proposition for the 2015 Illini, because they do have a great rebounding point guard, and he is tiny. Ahmad Starks won the Augustine Jersey last year, despite being unable to compete for offensive rebounds.

The Augustine Jersey is awarded to the best rebounder in any given Illini practice. On Saturday, Malcolm Hill was wearing it. Since practices began a couple of weeks ago, Leron Black has been the most frequent Augustine Jersey wearer. Nnanna Egwu has had it the second most.

Nnanna is perplexion incarnate where rebounding is concerned. Sometimes he grabs a dozen in a game, and sometimes one or two. To some extent, that’s because he’s blocking his man so a teammate can grab the rebound.

It’s hard to imagine Groce swapping Egwu and Starks on offensive rebounding duties. On the other hand, Nnanna has the footspeed to get back on transition D. And Starks has the acrobatic gall to mix it up with the tall trees. To a man, his teammates marvel at Starks’s high-flying. His 5’9″ listing is a generous lie. But yes, Ahmad Starks dunks on fools.

So is this one of the ideas Groce will employ? I doubt it, but we’ll find out soon.

Van Gundy told the assembled coaches that “talking” on the floor is a psychological weapon.  When a defense verbally reacts to an offensive maneuver, it frightens the offensive players. Oh crap, they see right through us. They know what we’re doing.

That concept was among the topics discussed when Groce and Van Gundy had the chance to heap praise on one another.

Another Van Gundy observation  concerned effective strategy for tackling a superior opponent.  JVG described Tim Floyd’s UTEP team as a David to the Goliath of Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks. He said UTEP nearly toppled the Jayhawks by employing a unique, harassing defense.  In what might be termed a “man-and-one,” not to be confused with a box-and-one, the UTEP point guard was assigned to faceguard his opponent while the rest of the team played the (now) traditional helping/hedging man-to-man defense.

Said Groce: “I’ve seen Tim’s teams do it before. And they do it a lot in triangle-and-two. And they’re good at it.”

YOU CAN SLEEP WHEN YOU’RE DEAD

Paris Parham — already getting about 5 hours of sleep per night as NCAA official practice season collides with NCAA open recruiting period — drove Fran Fraschilla down from Chicago on Friday, after the latter missed a connecting flight. Fraschilla was gone by Saturday, and so was Parham’s energy. He draped himself over the handrail of Ubben 1 (the women’s gym), waiting for Van Gundy’s presentation to end and the second of Saturday’s Illini practices to begin. On his feet a pair of loud, camouflage Nike shoes screamed, perhaps to wake him up if he nodded off. On the floor below, Paris Junior played one-on-one with a friend (at the north end) while DIA fundraiser Howard Milton ran four middle-schoolers (including his son) through a series of ball-handling drills (south end), preparing for upcoming try-outs.

These people work all the time, so bringing family to the gym is a practical way to stay in touch. Earlier in the day, Rebekah Walker brought Braylon Walker to visit with dad Jamall Walker in the women’s gym. Braylon (2) is now a walker Walker, and even a runner (in small spurts). Oh they grow up so fast.

THE HURTING ILLINI

Don’t pray for Tracy Abrams. Research shows that prayer is detrimental to hospitalized persons. Not that Tracy will be staying in the hospital. After his ACL surgery Wednesday morning, Tracy plans to attend Wayne McClain’s memorial service on Wednesday afternoon.

Nevertheless, keep Tracy in your thoughts. It’s going to be a hard day for everybody. The Illini will not practice on Wednesday.

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Illini basketball

Newcomer: Michael Finke

Michael Finke’s been around the program so long, Bruce Weber was still the coach when Illinois started recruiting him. It seems weird to think that he’s never played a game for the Illini.

As the Weber administration collapsed, the average RSCI of its unofficial visitors plummeted, as did their height. Finke was associated, in the minds of observers, with his Division III-bound cohort.

Bleacher seats once reserved for Rivals-rated blue chippers were available for anyone willing to sit through two hours of Weber-flavored torture, and the Finke family was conveniently located, and able to fill between three and six empty spots.

The rail-thin, 6-foot-7 white kid reminded older Illini fans of an earlier time, when recruiting bottomed out after a heyday of unprecedented success. Juwan Howard and Michael Finley left the state for greener pastures, and we got Tommy Michael and T.J. Wheeler instead.  Nice guys, sure. But after a steady diet of Efrem Winterses, Ken Normans and Nelison “Nick” Andersons; the small town downstaters simply didn’t fulfill Illini fans’ hunger for top cosmopolitan athletes.

Fast-forward 32 months, and we find that Michael Finke is not that lanky kid. He’s enormous.  He’s grown upwards, and outwards. He looks like a Big Ten power-forward. As of this morning, he says he weighs 225. That means he’s put on five pounds just since the printing of Illinois’ media guide. (Credit Laura Finke and Chelsea Burkart for the meals, and Mike Basgier for the strength training.)

But what about his game? Does he have the requisite quickness, and mental toughness, to play at this level?

I learned something interesting about Michael Finke during my playful Media Day interviews. Michael Finke has some unknown, possibly unexpected qualities.  I tried to avoid expectations when jotting down my questions. They were simply intended to get the guys talking.

I knew that Michael is interested in things other than sports. (His girlfriend Artemis brought a dog-earred copy of Jane Eyre to a game last year. ) I knew that Michael Finke is a kind person. So I asked about that. Nice guys finish last, right?

I thought it was interesting that Illini guards all said Finke is, indeed, one of the nicest people they’ve ever met. But the guys who play the 4 and 5 positions — that is, the guys with whom Finke is competing for playing time, and battling in daily scrimmages — spoke of an edgy side, a competitive fire. I heard echoes of last year’s Word Association video. Could it be that Michael Finke “plays angry?”

Austin Colbert praised Finke’s foot-work. “When he gets in the post, it’s hard for people to stay in front of him. He uses his pivot feet and gets off a lot of shots you wouldn’t think he’d be able to.”

Mike LaTulip says Finke is an excellent passer. Jaylon Tate says Finke is more athletic than people think. Malcolm Hill calls him “Ekey 2.0” but adds that Jon Ekey was a freakish athlete, whereas Finke’s game (and his own) takes place closer to the ground.

It wasn’t so long ago that people assumed Finke would redshirt, to add weight and learn the game while growing into his body. That line of dialog has disappeared. So far, it hasn’t been replaced with speculation about Finke’s early entry into the NBA Draft. But remember, Finke hasn’t yet played a game at Illinois.

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Illini basketball

Newcomer: Aaron Cosby

Media Day 2014 seemed less exciting than previous years. Maybe it’s just me. I was exhausted from traveling the previous day.

But there was something else missing. The staff wasn’t around. Mike Basgier was just leaving as we filed into the Corzine Gym. “There’s no team photo today because the coaches are out recruiting,” he  said.

The hardest working staff in American college basketball is playing Terminator to all the Sarah Connors among 17 year-old point guards. They’re relentless. When John Groce finished with his media obligations, he abandoned the sport jacket he borrowed, one assumes, from some friendly giant, donned a tight-fitting white jumper, got in his SUV, and headed out to track that kid down.

But on the otherwise gloomy cold Thursday, two people seemed especially, even unusually cheerful. One was Malcolm Hill, who enters his second year unafraid, and unabashed. He freely admitted that he was nervous through much of last year. And who can blame him, he was seventeen years old, and had left the house for the first time. It happens to many if not most college kids. And in Malcolm’s case, he had an audience in the millions of people, watching his every step.

The other surprisingly cheerful guy was Aaron Cosby. Last spotted smiling in the early autumn of 2013, Cosby is now free to do what he does best: play basketball. That freedom seems to have bucked him up.

I asked his teammates about Aaron. What do they know about him as a person, and as a baller, that we didn’t know?

It turns out that he’s more than just a shooter.

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Illini basketball

Media Day 2014

John Groce gave a press conference this afternoon. Illini players were available for interviews and photography afterward. It’s the annual “Media Day.”

Here’s an audio recording of Groce’s remarks, followed by answers to questions from the Illini media pool.

We can infer that Aaron Cosby’s Moment of Clarity, alluded to but unexplained by Groce during April’s annual team banquet, was the day when Aaron realized he had to work hard all the time, every day, every practice, every play — rather than choosing his moments.

The most intriguing statement concerned Darius Paul. Groce said the team lost him “for a year.” Does that mean Paul is definitely coming back? Does it mean Groce expects no more recruits for the 2015 class? Could it mean that Darius plans to return regardless of the scholarship situation?

During the hour of player availability, I wanted to focus on the newcomers. I asked questions about Michael Finke, Leron Black, Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby. I also asked about the lesser publicized new additions to the team: Alex Austin and Cameron Liss.

There wasn’t enough time to interview everyone. Worst of all, I didn’t get to speak with Leron on camera. As you’d expect, everyone wanted to talk to him.

Nevertheless, in the forthcoming days, keep an eye out for a series of introductory pieces, featuring a lot of silly questions about the new guys, with no small amount of attention paid to Laura Finke’s cooking.

Tracy Abrams was dressed and available, and looked fine.

But looks can be deceiving. He’ll have knee surgery in “a couple weeks.”

More of Tracy’s interview in days to come.