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:

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