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Illini basketball

Butts in Seats

furniture lounge orange couch adJohn 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.

AHMAD STARKS – SLOW OUT OF THE GATE?

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.

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

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.

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