Illini basketball

Groce’s best win

First, thanks to #IlliniFootball for allowing me an extra day to work on this column. You wrested attention away from your undefeated hoops brethren. That’s a feat.

Now, to the bicycling fish of Writing about Sports. Today’s topic: What’s the “best ever” win in John Groce’s brief Illini tenure? It’s an inherently subjective analysis. It’s dancing about architecture.

But what would the Internet be without useless, and often preposterous “best of” lists?

@ Gonzaga, Maui 2012, the worst #1 team in the history of rankings. These games enter the conversation.  For your consideration, I nominate the Baylor game.

I don’t have one reason in particular. I can’t even narrow it down to a few concepts.

John Groce usually shies away from absolutes & favorites, and I think that’s one of his greatest attributes. He’s an unapologetic realist (apart from that whole “Jesus” thing).

But you could feel, as the Illini salted the Bears away, that Groce was going to remember this game for a long time “because of the way we did it,” as he said afterward. “We just showed some real grit.”

There’s so much to like, and hope to remember one day, about the Baylor game. I’d better just make a list.


Five turnovers, fifteen forced turnovers, fifteen assists on twenty-three made field goals. 33% field goal defense.

Illinois played Baylor’s game, and beat them at it, by “controlling the controllables,” as Groce likes to say.

They didn’t control the uncontrollables, which goes without saying. But even though the uncontrollables grabbed fifteen rebounds, giving his team a 47-33 advantage on the boards, the Illini ran plays to eliminate his effectiveness as a defensive weapon.


There’s no waaaay Nnanna was going to beat Rico Gathers Sr. (sic) at his own game. Gathers is listed at 6’8″ 280#. When he walked through the tunnel after the game, Mike Basgier (the strength & conditioning coach) said “I’ve never seen a basketball player that big.  You can’t train that. That has to come naturally.”

Nnanna’s game involves less brute force. It’s more about positioning and cunning. Sam McLaurin’s appearance in Las Vegas might remind Illini fans (especially those who question Egwu’s value to the team, or basketball IQ) that a center’s best contributions often take the form of a step to the left; that subtle movement that blocks a drive, or a passing lane.

Yes, the center must pose some offensive threat, or the defense can exploit his incompetence. Nnanna’s back-to-basket game is another subject of discussion among traditionalists. For this team’s purposes, it would be nice if Nnanna’s baby hook (currently in beta) were more reliable.

It’s important that Nnanna be a threat from the arc, because it draws defenders away from the lane. In the B1G, this will be  especially important.

Nnanna didn’t shoot any threes against Baylor, maybe because the Bears play a lot of zone. But while Nnanna didn’t draw any trees from the low post against Baylor, he still drew attention to the high post.

It was enough to divert the defense from the one guy whom they ought never allow out of their sight.


Bulls GM Gar Forman was among a slew of NBA scouts in attendance. Jerry’s son Ryan West was there too, representing the Lakers.

Maybe they came to see Baylor’s trees, or Josh Pastner’s flashy recruits. What they saw was another (yawn) dominant performance by Rayvonte Rice.

When Ray has retired from professional basketball, will people still doubt his accomplishments?  I assume so. Most bicycling fish — er, sports talk — obsesses over player-bashing.

There’s also plenty of obscure dwarf cum giant killer in sports lore, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Ray were largely ignored by the media  this year.  If you remember Wayne Larrabee reading the same one-sheet about Illini players, over and over, game after game, you’re sufficiently analytical to recognize that major media coverage is provided by analysts who don’t spend a lot of time analyzing.

They’re not awful people. They just don’t know what we know: Rayvonte Rice is the most dynamic all-around Illini since Kenny Battle.

Yep. I just said that.




Speaking of statistics, Aaron was 0-for-6 from the field. All those misses came from behind the arc. His lone drive to the hoop was stricken from the record, because he was fouled on the attempt. He made both free throws.

So far, it doesn’t sound so great.

Aaron grabbed six rebounds, and dished four assists. Those numbers are on the permanent record. He muscled his way through screens, and gave Baylor’s bigs something to think about in the doing. There’s no accounting for that effort.

My personal jury is still out (skeptical) about the Starks/Cosby lights out shooting narrative. The point is moot. Statistics are forthcoming.

I liked Aaron Cosby’s contributions on a night when he couldn’t hit the broad side of a casino.


It’s not that John Groce dislikes Austin Colbert. It’s that Groce views Colbert as lacking in physical strength. He anticipates Colbert struggling against heavier bigs, and fears the consequences of physical mismatches.

Against Baylor, Groce saw Rico Gathers, and wanted Colbert far and away from the court.

Dustin Ford — the ex-point guard who coaches the bigs — should probably consult a thoracic surgeon following the Baylor game. I’m sure his carotid artery suffered damage from the umpteen times his head nearly exploded. Interior defensive positioning nearly killed him. Horseshit foul calls didn’t help. (It was mostly the former.)

Throughout his ordeal, Ford never looked to Colbert as a solution.

Colbert might have finished the Baylor game on the bench, but Maverick Morgan earned four fouls (in four minutes) and Nnanna Egwu earned two fouls — and was assessed another two for standing absolutely still with his arms straight up in the air.

So with 5:54 remaining, and a ten point lead nearly obliterated by Baylor’s (frankly) well coached & well executed attempts to decapitate Illinois’ defense; Groce and Ford were forced to play Colbert.

His impact was immediate.

Yep, it’s true that Austin is skinny like a rail. But he can jump. And that’s where he took advantage of Baylor. The play of the game (Groce admitted as much) came  when Austin leaped over everyone for an offensive rebound and put-back.

It changed the momentum. It knocked the wind out of Baylor’s comeback. They never recovered.

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if you’re skinnier than others. You just have to jump higher. Maybe you have to want it more, too.

After the game, Groce acknowledged that that single play might give him more confidence to use Colbert in the future.

Another reason to like Austin: His mother is a strong, sensible woman. And he has a younger brother, Morgan, who has absolutely no filter. Morgan Colbert is nearly as entertaining as the game of basketball itself.


He’s six games into his sophomore year, and I’m already running out of things to say about Malcolm Hill. So bully for Malcolm. He doesn’t need fish bicycling, or dancing about architecture.

In a lovely way, he seems to enjoy it, being a natural with “the media.”  It’s because he judges “the media” on an individual basis, and treats “it” as if we were people. (Yep, I recognize that many question-askers in the news biz are not people, and have no feelings. True story.)

Malcolm’s game speaks for itself. He doesn’t need media hype. But when microphones are available, he’s plenty willing to share his thoughts. After Friday’s game, he lent his voice to speak for Jeremiah Radford, whose voice is gone.

Surprised by his election to the Las Vegas Invitational’s all-tournament team, and awed by the championship he’d pined for, just a day earlier, Malcolm cried in his mother’s arms.

That’s the cool thing about Malcolm. He’s a natural. He’ll be who he is. If it’s emotional, he’ll cry about it. If it’s basketball, he’ll rip it away from you, and then jam it.

He talked about crying, and Jeremiah, after the game. Malcolm is not afraid. He’s intellectually curious, and loving. Those aspects of his nature permeate his entire life experience.

For basketball purposes, he’s intellectually curious about opponents’ weaknesses, and he loves dunking on them.




Orleans Arena reminded me of Gonzaga’s purpose-built basketball arena. Its horseshoe configuration belies its multi-purpose capabilities, but it’s definitely a good place to see a basketball game with 9,000 other rabid fans. Illinois didn’t bring a quarter that many, and Baylor brought three (I sat near them during Thursday’s game against Memphis). Nevertheless, the arena was electric.

Illini basketball

The Baylor Scout

At about 1 a.m. Central Standard time, Paris Parham and Jamall Walker stood in the huge passageway connecting the Orleans Arena to its administrative areas, locker rooms, and public toilets. Jamall called to one of the organizers of the Las Vegas Invitational, inquiring about DVD  copies of the Baylor-Memphis game the two had just watched, along with Ryan Pedon.

The three assistants had different duties. Walker was responsible for scouting Memphis. Parham was responsible for Baylor. Pedon is responsible for advanced scouting, no matter the opponent.

Memphis led 32-29 at halftime. But by the 16:00 media timeout of the 2nd period, the Tigers were clearly out of gas. It was about midnight, body time. That was true for Baylor, too. And in fact, both teams got really sloppy at about that point. But Taurean Prince and Royce O’Neale found a second wind, and propelled Baylor to a 71-47 win. That’s the same margin of victory Illinois enjoyed over Indiana State.

The staff of the Las Vegas Invitational, Indiana State SID Achim “Ace” Hunt plus a couple of volunteers, had been up since … well, probably even earlier than the Illini assistants. They delivered a stack of game books (box score + play-by-play) to Pedon. Maybe they tracked down the DVDs, too.

If not, it’s a trifling matter. Both Parham and Walker had video of all the other Memphis and Baylor games, already stored & broken down, on their laptops. In fact, as the live game played out on the Orleans Arena court, the three of them compared live plays to stored video from previous games.

The players wouldn’t see anything until the morning. Presumably, they were already in bed. Parham’s wife Keisha and younger son Kai were (hopefully) also asleep, back at the Renaissance Hotel. Also making the trip were the Allison Groce and her boys, Erin Basgier, and Marcie Ford plus Max and Abbie. Neither Allison nor Marcie was thrilled with the activities Vegas provides for younger people.

“Younger people” is, of course, a relative term. Abbie and Kai are old enough to appreciate Vegas simply  for its 70 degrees and sun. Erin and Mike Basgier had a date for a restaurant named “Tao” after the game. (I don’t think they’re Buddhists, but they are interesting.) Max Ford, and the Groce boys, needed something to do. Guzzling liquor and cigarettes and the blackjack table is not yet an option. (Plenty of orange clad gamers did sit at those tables, feeding the Orleans coffers, before & after the 2 p.m. start, and they were plenty drunk throughout the game. So don’t worry about Vegas, it made its payroll.)

The only two “younger” people in a good position to enjoy Vegas nightlife were Sam McLaurin, and his girlfriend Noelle Paquette. Sam is currently located in San Marcos, Texas. He’s working in the construction industry, and it keeps him on the move. But he still makes it to an Illini game now and then.

I thought it was pretty fun that Noelle’s last name is “Paquette.” It would have worked so well in the Introducing Sam McLaurin video.

After this one, and before he and Noelle had a chance to sample Vegas nightlife, Sam took the time to greet intoxicated Illini fans, many of whom remembered who he was. “What year did you play?” asked one fifty-ish woman. “You’re ‘Canada’ right?” (referring to Jean Selus.)

More booze tonight, and headaches tomorrow, for Illini fans.  New Year’s resolutions are still a month away.

Illini basketball

Excellent & Terrible – the Indiana State game

I suppose no one will remember this game.  No one had ever heard of the network that carried it.  A handful of hundreds attended. On paper, it looks like a blowout. (That’s the preview paper and the morning paper.)

It didn’t feel like a blowout.

I’ve never had such an uneasy feeling about a 20 point lead.

Illinois looked sloppy (11/13 assists to turnovers). They looked lethargic. “Those guys are running full-out and our guys are going about 80%” John Groce said to his bench. Little Grant Prusator (whose name the PA guy seemed to announce as “Crusader”) could not be stopped, not at the arc, nor inside it.

And yet, the 88-62 final suggests to me that Illinois won by 24 points.

Obviously the three-point shooting (9-20, 45%) was the difference. It helps that ISU converted only 10 of their 27 attempts from distance, because a lot of them were wide open. Illinois’ defense continues to lose track of shooters.

Excellently & terribly, it was Ahmad Starks’s best and worst games, too. He converted 1-of-5 from the floor. But he passed better, and more intrepidly, than at any point this year. His passing was fun to watch. That hadn’t happened yet.

Illini basketball

The Cosby Show

Hell, you all knew this title was coming. I only hope I got here first. I assume every article covering the Brown game will bear the same moniker.

Given Bill Cosby’s recent troubles, it’s probably for the best that Aaron stole some limelight on Monday night. We can all hope that Aaron has a season so inexplicably phenomenal that it obscures Bill from headlines. Kinda like what Osama bin Laden did for Gary Condit.


Anywho, there’s not much to say about this game that hasn’t been said already, perhaps many times, in the early going of the 2015 season:  Slow start, Cosby & Starks not up to billing in first half, team looks listless on offense/incompetent on defense, recovers in second half/blows patsy visitor out of the water.

Aaron was the savior, as far as “buckets” is concerned. Jaylon Tate and Rayvonte Rice were the saviors, where “assisting buckets” was concerned. Ray quietly had a double-double of 15 & 10, plus three assists, two blocks and two steals.

So we’ll call it The Cosby Show, because even Ray (the perceived ballhog) reveled in Aaron’s catching fire. When Aaron got hot, Ray looked to get him the ball.

Let’s also call it The Cosby Show to give Aaron his due: Cos put on a show.

It was not a good game, at all, for the first twenty minutes.

For optimism’s sake, let’s recall the ’89 team. Games were usually close in the first half. Few games were close at the end (especially when Kendall Gill wasn’t injured).

But let’s not dismiss the horror of Brown v. bored without noting that non-shitty teams may prove more difficult to overcome, especially if Illinois spots them 20 points in lay-ups.

John Groce said the team worked on post defense this week. There’s still plenty of work to do. The back screen is the obvious tool for opponents scouting an advantage over Illinois.

See for yourselves (and open images in new tab for higher resolution):

The best news from this game is that Rayvonte Rice is a great passer. If you’re keeping score at home, that means you can finish filling in the Rayvonte Rice column. We already knew he was great at everything else.

Unfortunately, Ray is not real. He is an imaginary fantasy, borne of decades (eleven now) of desire to punctuate an Illini season without an asterisk. You’ll wake up tomorrow, still fantasizing about Ray’s prowess, only to realize it was a dream

No wait, he is real.  I have pictures!

Ray is a highlight reel, but he’s just as great without cameras. Whether it’s effort, skill, or raw athleticism; Ray got it. Look out Kenny Battle, all-time-favorite status is up for an argument.

What’s more, Ray is a good citizen, and interested in learning. I read on Loyalty the other day that Ray might have a future in coaching. Then I read that Mike LaTulip is the future coach on this team. It seemed like a pre-post-racial comment to me, but I must admit, I’m a near-elderly person at this point, so I may be too easily offended about that sort of thing.

Point is, Ray is smarter than you know. He’s usually a terrible interview because he’s so good at coachspeak. But don’t let that confuse you. Ray is bright. That’s why he’s so good at basketball.

Now, who’s buying in Vegas? Let’s meet up at the Orleans.

Illini basketball

Butts in Seats

John Groce may have figured out that spectators like scoring.

He doesn’t seem obsessed with the defensive shortcomings that — because his team scored a hundred points for a second time this week — nobody cares about.

Five years ago, an Illini team which some people considered “good” failed to score forty points, twice. The coach of that team lost again Friday, to Dan Monson’s Long Beach State 49ers, of the Big West Conference.  When Nino Williams hit K-State’s final basket with 19.6 seconds remaining, Bruce Weber’s team had scrapped its way to 60.

At his postgame press conference, Weber probably blamed his players for poor defense. Contrast Groce, who only mildly implied that he gave a shit about defensive problems, and only in the final minute of his presser.

In truth, Groce is probably just as obsessed with defense as Weber, or Groce’s mentor Thad Matta, or Weber’s apologist Tom Izzo.

Who remembers that game in Columbus,  where Izzo and Matta defensed each other to a 48-44 draw? If you do, it’s because you felt scarred by the experience, or you’re a basketball coach. I’ve tried to block that game from my memory, but I’m pretty sure both Izzo and Matta spoke about its awesomeness, from a coaching perspective.

The lesson that Groce might have learned is this: Most basketball fans (excluding, perhaps, his home state Indiana) prefer thrilling offense to stymieing defense. If you’re not sitting on the team bench, basketball is light entertainment.

Moreover, if it feels as though you’re whoring yourself for the amusement of 16,618 johns, leave their 1.8 million dollars behind. Go coach high school in a town that cares.  (Seriously, go back and watch that Weber video. He’s still mad at you for wanting to be entertained.)

It doesn’t even matter if your defense stinks, as long as you win by 20 (or 41).

Case in point: Iowa scored 94 points in Champaign, on March 8, 1989. Later that night, every single Illini fan got laid. Illinois won by 24.

Ed Horton, B.J. Armstrong and Roy Marble were great players, and the Illini ran them out of the gym.

APSU’s coach Dave Loos said he wasn’t happy with his Governor guards (18 turnovers), but they found a lot of driving lanes. They reversed the ball for wide open looks. They cut toward the basket when Illini defenders left the backdoor wide open.

If it weren’t for all the scoring, all the wildly entertaining buckets, all the threes, the great passes, vicious screens, and sleight-of-ball; we’d be talking about defensive problems.

We’re not.

Tonight, all Illini fans got laid, again.

APSU would have beaten K-State on this night. Like the 49ers, the Governors shot 43% from the field. Like the Governors, CSULB dropped the ball 18 times.

K-State shot 32.8% from the field, and 14.3% from three. That’s some awesome Weberball.

The Illini hit 59.7% from the floor, and 56% from three. Rayvonte Rice might be unable to sleep because he missed a free-throw. Otherwise, he drained every single shot that left his hands.

Kendrick Nunn was perfect from the arc. Malcolm Hill connected on 6-of-7 shots. Nnanna Egwu was 6-of-9, and neither Austin Colbert nor Maverick Morgan missed a shot from the field.

“Basket” is one of the two most important root words in the Germanic term “basketball”. It just makes sense to recruit players who can make them.


On Sunday, Ahmad Starks’s defense was bad, at first. Then he picked up the pace, literally. That is, he was a step behind a smaller (and quicker?) opponent.

Then he adjusted.

Friday night against the Peay, Starks was slow to get going on offense. In the first half, he connected on only 1-of-6 shots from the floor. He assisted no one. Jaylon Tate played the majority of the minutes at point, and dished four assists.

In the second half, Starks turned it around.  He made all his shots, and assisted twice.

Is it fair to say that Ahmad is slow out of the gate?

Groce said it’s too early to say.  Then he went on to praise the harmony of the offense. Groce’s body language reinforced the notion that Starks’s Starts are another characteristic (or data set) of this team that he simply doesn’t care about. That’s consistent with Groce’s approach to nurturing Tracy Abrams.

Slow starts against legitimate teams might cause problems. Aaron Cosby’s hot-and-cold track record is something else we’ll want to watch, too. But the optimist’s view of this situation is that Ahmad Starks’s isn’t fazed by early-going actions that might seem to place him behind the curve.

Nor does Aaron Cosby stop shooting.

On Sunday, when I asked Ahmad about his slow start on defense, he readily admitted that he lost his man, helped too much on the strong side, got lost.

But then he figured it out. The problem stopped.

Friday’s 1-for-6 performance translated into a perfect second half. If it’s too soon to call “pattern,” it’s not too soon to point out that Ahmad Starks is not confounded by data sets that prove to be non-representative samples.

Starks is a willingly admitted loner. He’s cerebral, analytical. He’s sincere, and earnest. Combine those characteristics, and the composite picture is a guy who’s observant, and understands himself. Maybe that’s the reason he can shoot 1-for-6 in one half and 4-of-4 the next.

He adjusts.


Leroy William Rice (grandfather) comes to every game. He moves slowly, and with a cane. But he knows what’s what. He knows what he likes. He can spot a Rayvonte Rice slash from 94-feet.

Friday night, Mr. Rice hollered at me to stop blocking his view. I was standing on the baseline, and he was trying to watch the troupe of tiny ballerinas in pink tutus, performing a halftime dance.

I got out of the way.

Meanwhile, at the west end of the family bleachers, Melvin Nunn (dad) was extricating himself from a folding chair. He’d stepped on it to reach his seat in the back row — without inconveniencing others.

It trapped him like a bear (which he is, in a big & friendly way). He had to untie his shoe, and remove it, before he could get his foot untangled.

Coach Nunn is a much revered, and well-respected man. When I told him that I didn’t take a picture of his predicament, he let out an enormous laugh. “You should have!”

My theory about Kendrick Nunn is the same as my theory about Rayvonte Rice. They are two of the best college basketball players I’ve ever seen. I think it’s because they were raised to know that you can have fun, you can be relaxed; but you have to work hard, and you have to know when it’s time to get business done.

Illini basketball

Newcomer: Leron Black

It took a while to chronicle Leron Black.

Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks have been around for over a year.  Michael Finke‘s been a constant presence since 2012. The first time I saw Leron in person was SEAL Training 2014. The first time I met him was October 9. The first time spoke more than a few sentences with him was three weeks ago, and I asked Finke to tag along, just in case Leron might be freaked out by my off-topic questions.

Like Congress, I reserve the right to revise and extend my remarks. I don’t know enough about Leron Black to claim a definitive portrait of the man (the very young man, I must remind myself, and you). But  I can introduce you to Leron from the perspective of the guys who know him better: his teammates.

They’ll tell you a little bit about his basketball game, but mostly about eating & sleeping, two things Leron does well.


Ham hocks, neckbones, grits & greens are staples of Leron Black’s Weird Southern diet. And let’s not forget the sweet potatoes, and mac n’ cheese.

What might seem weirdest about these foods is their high nutritional value. Collard greens are a superfood. Neckbones are dark turkey meat, so there’s a lot of protein and fat (a necessary nutrient, also delicious). Ham hocks provide protein as well, and plenty of salt. Guys who exercise all day need a lot of salt. Nnanna Egwu’s chin was a faucet of sweat on Friday night. The continual drip was almost a constant stream. It really looked like a New York apartment sink, where the super is too lazy to fix things, and the residents don’t pay for water.

Although I’ve characterized these foods as “weird” for entertainment purposes, I don’t actually think they are weird. Friday night, after the Georgia Southern game, I ate a turkey neck and some collard greens. The neck was inside the hen I bought at Meijer this week. I got the collards at Ruler. I wasn’t especially celebrating the completion of An Analysis of Illini Newcomer Leron Black. I eat turkey necks and collards whenever they present themselves.

The best entree I’ve ever eaten might be the lamb’s neck at The Gorbals. I told Mark Morris he should schedule the team’s New York meal at their Brooklyn location. Unfortunately for Leron, the team won’t be in NYC long enough for a restaurant dinner. (I will.)

I also don’t think it’s weird that Leron won’t waste food. I’m that way, too. At the very least, I’ll give old leftovers to the squirrels. The silver maple in our back yard may be home to Urbana’s only family of obese squirrels.

“So, you see?”  Aaron Cosby points out, “it’s not weird.”


We’ve heard his motor never stops, but the truth is, Leron Black is a major league sleeper. Not only does Leron Black sleep, he sleeps hard. He even sleeps at the Ubben, when he needs to recharge.

That he needs the TV on while he’s sleeping is not unusual. That he snores is not unusual. But it reminds me again to question the university’s insistence on cramming two people — often strangers — into one small room, and expecting things to work out.

In fact, that hasn’t worked well for Cameron Liss. His roommate is not a student-athlete, and often gets in at 3 a.m.

Malcolm Hill says he feels bad for Leron’s roomie, Michael Finke. How does Finke feel?  “It’s hard to sleep with it but I persevere. A lot of nights I just turn it off, lol.”


Leron Black is Dr. Jeckyll. He’s charming and outgoing, but also shy . That’s how Tracy Abrams described him. “There’s a big difference.” Aaron Cosby pointed out that Leron spends a lot of time at the Irwin Academic Center.

Illini #12 is Mr. Hyde. The Savage. Possibly the only person who could take a lob dunk away from Rayvonte Rice.

Apart from saying he’s a super nice guy, some of his teammates expressed confusion about Leron’s love of Lil Boosie. I can see why they’re confused.  We’ve heard about Leron’s affinity for Jesus of Nazareth, so it doesn’t automatically follow that he’d also be devoted to an ex-con who shrieks “when I pistol-whipped that nigga, for forty minutes straight.”

That doesn’t seem entirely Christian, does it?

Well, Sam Harris would probably say it is. Especially in the Book of Leviticus, or Matthew 10:34. Reza Aslan would tell you that the Christ of Leron Black’s grandmother is an entirely different character from the Jesus in Guatemala. For one thing, He loves black people. That’s certainly different from the Mormon Jesus (until 1978).

But in truth, I don’t read much into this dichotomy of Boosie and Bible. When I was 18, my friends and I spent most afternoons playing basketball with Doolittle on the boom box. Hearing Black Francis bark & scream, in a wholly new way, clearly struck a chord among the non-record-buying-but-clever-at-tape-dubbing population of white, college-aged kids of the late 80s.

None of us got a tattooed tit. Slicing up eyeballs? Nope, never felt the desire.

The next year, everybody was listening to Ritual de lo habitual. But I can’t recall anyone devolving into petty larceny, or injecting heroin.


Mid-range jump-shot was the runaway winner, here.


I thought it was interesting that everyone knew the answer, and nobody needed time to think about it. Leron has an iPhone.


Pretty much everybody said yes, except for Leron himself. “Nah, he cool.”

Maverick also didn’t think Leron was weirded-out by his unusual personality. I think that’s great. I like Maverick a lot. Maverick is a guy who sees the mundanities of life, and does his best to avoid perpetuating them.  (Perfecting one’s free-throws is not mundane.)

I also like it that John Groce brought Mav to his team. Groce is straight-laced. Not entirely humorless, but intense. It’s a triat shared by a lot of driven men.

If all his recruits shared that demeanor; if he strove to beat the fun out of them like a drill sergeant; that would concern me.  Maverick Morgan is the canary in that coal mine. As long as he’s still singing, we’ll know the Illini basketball family is a livable environment.

Maverick is not the only one, of course. He’s simply the most notoriously oddball among the team.

I can’t tell you about Leron Black’s sense of humor, yet. But as for everyone else, well, see for yourself.

Illini basketball

Slaughter (rhymes with “laughter”)

What did we learn?

The “better shooting” narrative received some much-needed statistical support. Illinois’ starters hit 69% from three on Sunday. Illinois’ starting guards hit 73%.

Aaron Cosby hit 4-of-5 in the first half, but cooled down to a mere 50% in the second. The frequently bantered aspirational figure for Aaron’s season seems to be 40%, but that’s because no one was paying attention when Loren Tate (still the best Illini reporter) asked, over the summer, about Aaron’s last ten games at Seton Hall.

Aaron says he figures he’s good for about 47%. Illinois hasn’t seen shooting like that since Jamar Smith. It’s in the last minute:


But the most entertaining part of the Illini offense, not surprisingly, was the passing. Illini fans have been starved for thrilling passes since the days when Illini offenses could churn out a hundred points.

The famine is now a feast.

Jaylon Tate throws dimes the like of which we’ve not seen since Frank Williams. Kendrick Nunn’s passes suggest he missed a career as a left-handed shortstop. He fires bullets. Kendrick looked 100% on Sunday which, if I’m not mistaken, surprised everybody, including the coaching staff.

His dad, though, was not surprised. Melvin Nunn is, in many ways, a lighthearted guy. But as a coach, he’s tough as nails.

Melvin Nunn came down with Simeon assistant Corey Bradford, and freshmen Messiah Jones and Kezo Brown. The very first thing Melvin said, whipping out a near tablet-sized smartphone, was that he didn’t miss a minute of the game, thanks to BTN2Go. Next month, I’ll ask about his data plan. (Rob Jordan, the Fiber Guru, usually carries both a tablet and a smartphone. These Illini parents know what’s up.)

Here’s what Kezo said about his whirlwind introduction to college basketball recruiting, and playing for a high school powerhouse.

(Note to those who follow Chicago high school recruiting: Melvin Nunn says the Simeon v. Morgan Park game has been rescheduled from 12/13 to 12/14. That means Illini fans will not be able to trek directly from the win over Oregon to the Marcus LoVett/D.J. Williams showdown.)

The very best part of Sunday’s game, still technically speaking an “offense” statistic, was Malcolm Hill’s offensive rebounding. He kept the ball alive when he didn’t grab it himself, and he grabbed it himself five times. He grabbed nine total rebounds.

Malcolm has always moved with a deliberate speed, so I’m not sure what caused his anomalous Friday. He can’t jump and he’s not fast, so I’ve never been able to figure out why he’s so fun to watch, and so good at outmaneuvering his opponents.  Whatever it was, I’m glad it didn’t last. Whatever it is, I’m glad it’s back.

Mike Basgier spent the 2013-14 Illini season as the lone champion in the cause of Austin Colbert. He kept feeding me tidbits about Austin taking on extra workouts, and about Austin’s extraordinary (and diligently documented) strength. At the time, Austin was voluntarily lifting with the transfers. That was double the amount of strength & conditioning required of eligible players.

After Austin body-slammed an Eagle twice his girth on Sunday, I asked Mike if Austin was still doing extra workouts. “He’ll be doing them for three years,” said Basgier.

Mike LaTulip had been contemplating a redshirt this season. Even after Tracy Abrams went down, he was still contemplating a depth chart with Starks, Nunn, Rayvonte Rice, Cosby and Tate in front of him.

I still assume he’ll graduate in three years, and finish his career as Harvard’s starting lead guard, while earning an MBA. Tommy Amaker did recruit LaTulip out of high school, as did Princeton.

Look for Mike’s over-the-top Leron Black impression, in the Newcomer: Leron Black feature. Let’s say Tuesday afternoon, if you’re free.

Illini basketball


We learned a hopeful lesson from John Groce’s first two teams: They got better as the season progressed.

That wasn’t true of Groce’s predecessor. Everything about Bruce Weber got worse over time.

It probably wasn’t true of the three coaches that came before Weber, either. Lon Kruger’s teams were fun, but not better in March. Bill Self is a national champion, and champion generally. But it’s not his finishes that impress. Lou Henson’s team’s wore down.

I don’t remember the Harv Schmidt era, but I think it’s safe to say his team’s didn’t get better over time.

My conjecture is that John Groce is the only Illini coach in my lifetime (and therefore in his lifetime) whose teams are better in March than they were in January, or February. That’s an especially awe-inspiring comment (back-handed compliment?) when considering the dead-of-winter pits from which Groce’s teams have climbed in spring.

While Rayvonte Rice took on the entire Georgia Southern team Friday night, Groce crouched dispassionately on the sidelines. When the Eagles ran off nine straight points in the first half, when they tied the game at halftime, Groce did not throw chairs.

In the second half Groce got excited, and jumped up and down a few times when his lads executed. He argued with referees in situations where arguing supported his guys’ efforts.

He slammed his fist into the scorer’s table at one point, but that’s just kind of a habit he’s developed.

As horrified Illini fans pulled their hair out, Tweeted maudlin odes to suicide, and judged the season a tax write-off; Groce & Co. delivered  a can’t be kept down kinda shoot-out at the SFC Corral, a big-shot-making, rebound-hogging blitzkrieg.

Illinois looked crap for much of the game. It was Ray-on-5 for the first twenty minutes, and Ray held his own.

We’ll have to keep an eye on Georgia Southern, of course. Trent Wiedeman and Jelani Hewitt seemed to be for real. But even if they prove to be a middling Sun Belt team, the Illini will probably be a lot better by the time we’ve got the data to show it. That’s just how Groce teams seem to develop.

In the second half, Ray willed the team to victory (again, duh), and some of his teammates joined him in the effort.


Ahmad Starks was 2-for-11 from the floor, slightly worse than his previous outing. But Aaron Cosby found a groove, finishing 5-of-12 from the floor (2-of-7 from deep) and hitting all four free-throws. His on-ball defense, in the second half, seemed relevant to Groce’s ongoing praise for that aspect of his game.

Ray and Kendrick Nunn tied for the team lead in assists, with three apiece. Thus, the Rice-Nunn-Hill-Black-Egwu line-up survives another statistical test. Kendrick seemed obviously out of the flow on Friday, but his game could never be described as “tentative.”

I wrote a lot last season about Groce’s (at times frustrating) patience with his charges. But I never debated long term outcomes. The Illini could have made the NCAA tourney with a slightly more dictatorial approach to game situations. But that’s not Groce’s way. As hard-ass as he seems, he’s always considering the psyche of his players, and how they’ll respond to life lessons.

So on Friday, he stayed with Aaron Cosby, despite Cosby’s continued on-court lifelessness. And it worked. Cosby hit the Big Shot, the dagger, the stake in Georgia Southern’s vampire heart.

Jon Ekey was in da house, as were Jeff and Scott Morgan (dad/uncle). Brenda Colbert made the trip for a second consecutive week. She caught a 3 a.m. shuttle to O’Hare for an early morning flight. That’s dedication.

Machanda Hill is far more beautiful than Elvis Costello. But it’s amazing how a hair-do and some glasses can make a black American professional woman seem a dead ringer for a pasty British new wave rocker.

Back to Ekey. He abandoned his contract in Japan.

The paychecks arrived on time, but everything else was a mess. The travel, the accommodations, the food … nothing met his contractual guarantees. He said the team’s owner was only interested in making money, not taking care of his guys. It’s a bad business model.

Ekey made the shrewd decision to return to the states. The immediate & obvious benefit is that he can be near Kelsey Smoot.

Ekey immediately became one of my favorite Illini, based on his intelligence, willingness to communicate his thoughts, and his efforts on the court.

Let’s face it, Illini who beat Iowa at Iowa will continue to merit some cachet until Bruce Pearl is once-and-for-all banned from NCAA basketball. (The Illini SID and video teams are now in place at Auburn, so it shouldn’t be long.)

Finally, to the question of the Michael Finke redshirt: It’s less conclusive than you may have read. John Groce asked the media to give him time to evaluate Michael’s progress, and scolded them (us?) for asking.

That’s silly.

Groce eliminated media access to practices, so there’s nothing they (us?) can tell you about Michael’s, or anyone’s development that would or could compromise (i.e. question, in print) that development.

Trading four minutes per game as a freshman for 34 minutes per game as a fifth-year senior makes sense to me. Most students elongate their college experience these days. I’m still elongating mine.

So I’m not averse to a redshirt. I don’t quite  favor  it.

Here’s the presser:

Illini basketball


I’m trying to figure out why everything I’ve read online, in the five hours since the final buzzer, has been so warm & fuzzy.

I recognize that fans and optimism are nearly inseparable in the pre-season. I know about rose-colored glasses. I know about Kool-Aid.

When a basketball team wins by 29 points, can a columnist reasonably claim that team got outplayed?  Probably not. But I don’t need to go that far.

I’m worried about Ahmad Starks’s 2-of-9 shooting. I’m worried about Aaron Cosby’s 3-of-9 shooting. I’m not all that worried about Rayvonte Rice’s 3-of-11 shooting. I’m kind of worried about Nnanna Egwu’s 3-of-11 shooting.

I will believe the “better shooting” narrative when the Illini shoot better.

The final stats show 47% on all field goals and 36.7% from three. That includes the clean-up time at the end, when Michael Finke hit 3-of-3, and Starks finally connected.

Malcolm Hill and Leron Black did the heavy lifting. Their 6-of-10 and 7-of-9 efforts, respectively, made the final percentage appear downright respectable.

Black will be the starting power-forward, just as soon as John Groce feels comfortable with his defense. Hill will be the starting wing-forward. Kendrick Nunn will be the starting shooting-guard, when he’s fully back in shape (healthy knee, conditioning up to speed).

Nnanna Egwu is the starting center, who will sometimes play power-forward as well.


So far, that’s

  • 2 Nunn
  • 3 Hill
  • 4 Black
  • 5 Egwu

Of the three Illini who play point-guard, there’s only one who absolutely must be on the floor, and he’s the worst point-guard among them. But there’s no way Rayvonte Rice won’t play 30 minutes per game.

So it’s good that Sergio McClain was in the house (accompanying the entire Central team). Rice is a far superior offensive player to most college basketball players, Sergio included. But the most underrated aspect of Ray’s game is his intelligence. The second-most underrated aspect is his coachability. Sergio was Mr. Basketball, and a four-time champion, not because of his natural talent. Sergio was not a good shooter. He was not a great leaper. Frankly, he was limited on offense. But Sergio could play four positions, like Ray. Sergio did what was asked of him. And when Lon Kruger asked Sergio to man the point, Sergio manned the point.

John Groce credited Starks/Jaylon Tate for a 10/2 assist-to-turnover ratio on Friday. In fact, Starks was 5/1 and Tate was 5/1, but that one was a doozy,  an embarrassing pick-6 pass interception for Quincy’s (very good) all-everything athlete Godson Eneogwe.

Cosby was 3/2. Rayvonte Rice dished three assists with no turnovers.

Generally, Jaylon Tate is a delight to behold on offense. It’s his defense that concerns. On Friday, Jaylon watched his man drive directly past him for a lay-up. It was his fault, and it was everybody’s fault. Illinois’ pack-line was the Maginot Line. Primary defenders got lapped. Secondary defenders never came to the rescue. If the offense was troubling, the defense was downright scary bad.

On the bench, Tracy Abrams sat in a form-fitting red plaid shirt and jeans, with a huge brace wrapped around his right leg. Suddenly, we realized how much we’ll miss Tracy Abrams.

The glass half full version of this column is far pithier, and needs no data to support its claims: John Groce did not seem troubled by the team’s effort against Quincy. He said plenty of bad things about the defensive effort, but you got the feeling he relishes the opportunity for a week’s worth of teaching moments on the subject. He said the team has been better, defensively, in practice.

But of course, it’s easier to defend when you know everyone’s tendencies.

Groce eschewed any concern about offense. “Offensively, we’re gonna be fine. We’ve got multiple weapons. As long as they continue to execute better, and they play together like they did today … I thought they were unselfish.”

This column will seem silly, useless, ignorant if the Illini face Villanova with an 8-0 record. It will seem laughable if they face Missouri at 11-0.

It was just an exhibition, right?