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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.

STATISTICS

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.

NNANNA EGWU

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.

WHEN WILL PEOPLE STOP UNDERESTIMATING RAYVONTE RICE?

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.

 

 

AARON COSBY

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.

AUSTIN COLBERT

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.

MALCOLM HILL

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.

AHMAD STARKS

KENDRICK NUNN IS RIGHT-HANDED

THE ATMOSPHERE

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.

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