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Illini basketball

Beileined

It was Wear Khakis to Crisler Day in Ann Harbaughr, formerly known as Ann Abhor, or – among frat boys who’ve ironically failed to embrace the felicity of a kindly virtue they’d prefer to establish via Rohypnol and booze – Ann Arbwhore.

Tracy Abrams wore khakis to the game. He didn’t learn about the fashion rally ‘til it was too late.

Nobody’s likely to confuse Tracy with a Michigan fan. On the other hand, Tracy was hardly recognizable as Tracy Abrams. Both eyes and the bridge of his nose were swollen.

“Yeah, I’m sick,” he noted.

It looked conjunctival. I’ll guess we’ll know Saturday, if the entire team shows up in Columbus with pink-eye.

Abrams’s vision was unaffected. “Shit!” he screamed when Zak Irvin fielded an inbound pass, all alone, at the top of the key.

From my perspective, it was like that all day. It seemed as though Michigan’s lanky wings got their looks without much – if any – defensive resistance.

I’m not reporting, here. I’m just wondering.

My seat on the opposite baseline may have been the worst view in the world, given cable HD’s reach & prowess. So maybe someone can help me out: Was there a hand in the face on any of those fourth-quarter threes?

The sad part is that nobody at Crisler gave a shit. Michigan fans were barely paying attention to the game through the first two hours (real time).

It was all Harbaugh Fever.

Eventually, the crowd began to groan as UM shot after UM shot rolled off the rim.  You’ll be surprised to know that Zak Irvin made only three of his ten attempts from the arc.

Yep. Ten.

Even worse, Caris LeVert was a lousy 1-for-5 from long. (Read on, there’s an observation coming about Michigan’s win not being arc-oriented. It’s a mere paragraph from . . . now.)

Maybe none (or not enough) of the Illini cared, either.  Some of the passes, some of the shot attempts evinced a well, gotta do somethin’ attitude. As in hey, why not throw the ball directly upward at the bottom of the rim, gotta do somethin’!

I hope it’s not true. I’m pretty sure hte players care. I think Ray wants to play in the tournament.

The most emotion I saw from “the team” came from Jason Marry. He’s one of those guys that makes the TNT videos. (In my eyes, he’s certainly a part of the team.) Jason punched the Crisler floor when Illinois’s final stoopid turnover sealed the win for Michigan.

Even John Groce seemed dispassionate about the loss.

But wait. Why did I employ “even” in that paragraph? John Groce’s pasions have nothing to do with winning and losing.

Yes, if you haven’t figured it out by now: John Groce is not obsessed with winning individual games. This point became obvious early on, when Groce chose against stifling his players’ bad tendencies.

You should be reminded of Bruce Weber’s most notorious speech, in which he (poorly) communicated the goal of building a culture, rather than “playing not to lose.”

Groce is not the same person as Weber. For one, he doesn’t blame other people for his mistakes.

If this game is remembered – UM fans won’t, they don’t care. Illini fans might not: They’ll block it out like a childhood fondling – it will be remembered for Aubrey Dawkins’s 6-for-7 marksmanship from deep. Maybe some Rayvontagonists will recall it as Ray’s personal failure of leadership.

That’s too bad, because neither is true. The thing that beat Illinois was the inside game. Either team’s. Take your pick.

Michigan (football school) plays two bigs with ten thumbs apiece. Illinois has not established an inside game in 2014-15.

Nnanna Egwu’s fouling tendencies made him a target for John Beilein. Beilein knows Egwu’s strengths and weaknesses, and the abilities of Egwu’s back-ups.

As Egwu reached the four-foul stage, while Maverick Morgan missed chip-shots, Beilein ran pick n’ rolls that forced Egwu to confront his greatest dilemma. Hedge or man? Double-team or fill gap? And thus, cumbersome Right Tackle Ricky Doyle was able to drop the ball through the metal ring five times out of six – hands notwithstanding – without tripping over anyone.

Had Aubrey Dawkins dropped all four of his 2nd half threes, but Doyle been denied  those easy lay-ins …

Well, you do the math.  My reckoning holds that Illinois’s 13 point lead will never be overtaken by Dawkins’s 12 points.

Morgan looked good on his first opportunity. He calmly buried a jumper from the short corner, one of Ray’s six assists. But soon thereafter, he missed the same shot. And then he missed his chippie. It’s become a habit for Mav: the botched one-footer.

Why? you ask.

Maverick Morgan rushes his shot. Especially when he’s under the basket, he tries to release the ball before defenders have an opportunity at contact.

Contrast Malcolm Hill, whose offensive prowess comes from the torpor with which he meanders toward the basket.

Malcolm, like Jereme Richmond four years ago, has mastered the art of the Slowhand. He waits, and doesn’t mind waiting. Once his defenders have panicked, Malcolm asserts himself.

Too bad Maverick couldn’t help more on Saturday. Michigan’s twin oafs (Doyle’s relief is the even more ham-fisted Mark Donnal) seemed an obvious point of attack for the Illini offense. Instead, that crafty John Beilein exploited Illini low-post vulnerabilities.

Here’s what Beilein said about his latest, hugely effective, Illini beating strategy.

Q: “Can you talk about exploiting Egwu’s fouls troubles with Doyle in the low-post?”

A: “Yeah, I mean … that’s something we try to work on when we see a guy who does get into foul trouble.” says Beilein. “ We’ve been playing against him for – it seems like ten years. So it was really good to try and get him outta there. You know, they only have one freshman (Leron Black) that’s out in that line-up, and he’s a really good player – he was great in the first half – but it’s important if you can that other big guy out of there, because he does protect the rim better than anybody that they have.

The news that’s becoming not news: Jaylon Tate is now Illinois’ #1 point guard. He finished the game in Ann Arbor, playing a total of 25 minutes to Ahmad Starks’s 20. Tate was on the floor for the final possession of regulation, when Illinois had the opportunity to win.

The Aaron Cosby news was mixed. He made bad decisions with the ball. But he also made good decisions with the ball.

Kendrick Nunn was also a mixed bag. But overall, it was an off day for KNunn.

The odd thing is that Kendrick’s execution is failing him. It’s not that he has bad floor vision, or risky ideas. He’s just not getting the ball to the spot.

That’s not weird for most players, even at the Division I level. But it’s weird for KNunn.

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Illini basketball

Remarkable Numbers – Kennesaw

With each passing game, the 2014-15 Illini become more of what they are. Hazy statistical anomalies clarify, becoming firm realities.

The facts-based media was largely absent from Saturday’s game (Tribune & Sun-Times off covering bowl games, Mark Tupper perhaps recovering from one), so I thought I might stray from stream-of-consciousness into hard/fast numbers. It’s the end of “season one.” It seems like a good time.

There’s some good and some bad from the Kennesaw State game. From a statistical standpoint, Illinois didn’t vary far from the mean. Except when they did.

Here are some numbers to think about.

25 — Most minutes played by any Illini (Fittingly, it was Kendrick Nunn.)

6 — Turnovers committed.

16 —Turnovers forced.

7-1  — Jaylon Tate’s assist-to-turnover ratio

2-2 — Ahmad Stark’s assist-to-turnover ratio

19-36 — Illinois’ assists on made field goals

19-to-1 — Leron Black’s minutes-to-fouls ratio

7-to-5 — Austin Colbert’s minutes-to-rebounds ratio

7-7 —Rayvonte Rice from the field

6-7 — Malcolm Hill from the field

7-21 — Illinois’ 3FG

1-5 — Ahmad Starks 3FG

2-6 — Aaron Cosby 3FG

2-2 — Malcolm Hill/Rayvonte Rice 3FG

The “better shooting” narrative can be supported only by Rayvonte Rice’s ascension to true shooting-guard status. Through 13 games, Rice is hitting 47.1% of attempts from the arc.

John Groce credited Rice, in his Braggin’ Rights postgame remarks, for spending countless hours alone, unseen in the gym, perfecting his muscle memory. (The current thinking in college basketball seems to be that players alone can help themselves to shoot better, and it’s simply a matter of practice. There’s probably some neuroscience data to support this thinking.)

Ray continued to work his ass off in less measurable ways as well.

After an 0-for-2 night on Saturday, Kendrick Nunn dropped to 43.6% from long. Hitting both his treys brought Malcolm Hill to 40.6%.

Last year, Joseph Bertand connected on 48% of his FGs, and 38.5% of his 3FGs. Jon Ekey was 40.6% overall, and 36.6% from 3.

Maybe Cosby and Starks will get better as the competition improves. At the end of the non-conference schedule, their numbers show a distinct drop-off from last year.

Cosby is now 30.8% from the field, and 32.8% from distance. Starks has connected on 36.3% of his FGs, but only 31% from deep.

If the offense has improved — and there’s a reasonable (if subjective) argument that the offense has improved — it’s not because of the newcomers. It’s because of the leap forward from Rice and Hill.

Last year, Rice shot 43% from the field and Hill 38.3%. This year Rice is 51.4% from the field, Hill is 52.6 %.

Maybe the key to success in 2015 is to get Cosby and Starks “on track.” But maybe the key is to get productive minutes from them, while Kendrick Nunn finds his footing and joins Rice and Hill in the Illini Power Trio.

 

Cosby has already demonstrated an aptitude for rebounding from the small forward position. Hill is second on the team in total rebounds (after Rice). Hill’s defense has yet to garner accolades from his coach.

Nunn’s defense has won him praise on occasion, but not always. Whether his overall play is “tentative” compared to last year cannot be proven by stats.  It’s hard to imagine this team reaching the height of its potential without a bad-ass Kendrick Nunn. Taking Ray for granted (which seems traditional & popular), Kendrick is the singular component that this team must be able to rely on.

There’s not much to say about Illinois’ defense in light of the Kennesaw State game. KSU may be the worst team Illinois will face in Groce’s tenure (let’s hope so!), often preferring to toss the ball out-of-bounds before an Illini defender could assume his stance.

They did,  however, get a stunning number of wide-open looks from three.  Is that a reversion to the mean?

That’s a reality with some statistical support, and some subjective debate. We’ll know in about 18 games whether the Illini got that problem corrected, among others.

On to Ann Arbor.

 

 

 

Categories
Illini basketball

Cosby & Starks down Mizzou (with a little help from Rayvonte)

With about six minutes to go in the annual Braggin’ Rights game, longtime Illini athletic deparment photographer Mark Jones said “wow, what a game.”

With about four minutes to go, Decatur Herald-Review photographer Stephen Haas said “wow, what a game.”

To anyone stationed overseas, or just working on the weekend; if you didn’t get a chance to see Illinois-Mizzou live, you might be worried about Illinois needing a last-second shot to beat a 5-6 team. Don’t be. Not today anyway.

‘Tis the season to be grateful for Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby. Cosby made his usual 1 shot, and thus finished with two points. It was arguably his best game as an Illini. He equaled Rayvonte Rice for a team high seven rebounds, and as John Groce pointed out, he pulled a lot of those boards away from Missouri’s big guys, especially when the Illini went small.

Wherever Illinois needed a guy to do something on the floor, Aaron Cosby was there, being that guy.

Starks put the team on his back in the midway point of the second half, when it seemed as if the Tigers would run away with the game (literally run away … they killed Illinois in transition). Starks used spacing, and the teardrop he practiced all last year, to score three consecutive buckets for Illinois.

Rice was also an important factor in the outcome. But considering his career-long heroics, it almost feels ho-hum that he merely stroked a game-winner as time expired, and scored a measly 19 points.

Ray’s best bucket of the day may have been his first three-pointer, the one that capped a grinding possession in which Malcolm Hill fought Missouri’s press, broke it, drove the lane against stern defense, dribbled to the elbow, moved toward the wing, lost his dribble, regained it, charged back toward the paint, and then kicked to Ray for the dagger.

That had to hurt.

Shots included, Ray’s assist to Nnanna Egwu, for the go-ahead basket at 1:53 may have been the play of the game.

You decide.

Missouri played its best game of the year, by a large margin.  The only cause for worry is how well the Tigers scouted Illinois, and exploited Illini weaknesses and tendencies.

Wes Clark found the chink of Illinois’ perimeter defensive armor. Johnathan Williams III demonstrated how to drive the baseline against Illinois’ post defense.

You could almost feel the satisfaction of Missouri’s coaching staff. You could almost hear them saying “yep, that’s just how it looked in the scouting report.

If Illinois wants to win more games this year, they’ll take a good long look at this game, and not the thrilling last minute.

In a way, it’s refreshing that Illinois’ defense has such obvious flaws. If Bruce Weber were still coaching the Illini, you’d probably be wondering what Malcolm Hill could do with a basketball, were he ever to get in a game.

You’d also be wondering why that feisty local pro-baller Rayvonte Rice was never offered a scholarship to his hometown team.

So go ahead and feel satisfied that John Groce is  on the sideline. Think of it as a Giftsmas present to yourself. You can worry about Groce again in 2015, if you so choose.

Groce also showed great patience with Leron Black on Saturday. And he worked Ted Valentine and Mark Whitehead effectively, to keep Leron in the game.

LERON THE VIOLENT

Malcolm Hill predicted it. He said Leron Black would probably get in some fights this year, that’s just how hard he plays.

Going against Leron every day in practice, Malcolm understands better than Leron himself just how violent Leron can be.

On Saturday, Ted Valentine and Mark Whitehead noticed as well. Whitehead called Leron for a Flagrant I in the first half, and a dead ball technical a few minutes later.

The fact that Leron wasn’t ejected suggests that Whitehead saw no malice in Leron’s demeanor, just a lot of violence. Whether Groce deserves any credit for that outcome, he certainly campaigned for it.

THE RETRO UNIFORMS

Behind the Illini bench, 1989 team manager Ryan Baker sat in the second row, with Jessica and their new-ish born bundle of joy. Dana Howard sat a few spaces away. But as far as I know, the only actual member of the 1989 team in attendance was Travis Smith.

I hope the rest of the guys got to see their old uniforms on display. They looked fantastic.

CHAMINADE’S JAYSON TATUM, TYLER COOK & TREY COLLINS ATTENDED

It’s funny how  recruiting gossip works. When you talk to the actual recruit, it’s just a lot different from what you might read online.

Take Jayson Tatum, considered by some the #1 recruit in the country (Class of 2016). If you look at recruiting websites, you’d think Tatum is off the Illinois radar. You might think he’s interested in only the blue bloods … Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, etc.

But on Saturday, Tatum said the reason Illinois doesn’t find itself included in his list is because the people asking the questions don’t ask about Illinois. So in response, he doen’t mention Illinois. And consequently, they don’t write about Illinois.

But Tatum says Illinois is right there in the mix. He added that he doesn’t care how many small forwards (e.g. D.J. Williams) the Illini recruit: That will have no bearing on his judgment.

Jayson’s teammate Tyler Cook also has an offer from Illinois.

He’s a 6’8″ power forward, with a body that’s already grown to about 240 pounds. His 247Sports page says he’s 50/50 between Kansas & Mizzou, which again shows how little those guys know.

Jamall Walker is the primary recruiter for both these guys. He was also the point man for the successful recruitments of Leron Black and Jalen Coleman-Lands. That means Paris Parham, who turns 43 on Sunday, needs to bring the Bright Lights to Champaign, just to balance things out.

Wish him luck.

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Illini basketball

What Happened, Hampton?

If you’re like most people, you didn’t see the Illini game against Hampton. You’re lucky. It was boring.

The most compelling part of Wednesday’s game came after the final horn, when Ahmad Starks talked about finals week. He spoke of exams, papers & projects. He talked about the team’s unusual approach to scouting its opponent, necessitated by conflicting schedules.

Instead of watching the big screen in the team room at Ubben, each Illini scouted Hampton on his own iPad.

Starks is an introspective guy. His frank delivery reminds us that, while these guys all play basketball, they have other things to think about, too.

In an infinite universe, there are certainly people wishing failure on Starks and Aaron Cosby. Among Illini fans, plenty have ripped their hair out over Cosby and Starks, just in the last month. If shooting doesn’t improve, they’ll all soon look like John Groce and Dustin Ford. (Jamall Walker is exempt from this comparison until Illini fans become sharp dressers.)

But it’s doubtful that any Illini fans are wishing ill to befall Cosby and Starks. More likely that everyone among this tiny subset of humanity wants, desperately, for these two to progress to the mean. Surely, if their purported stats are to be believed, both these guys will exceed their current production for the rest of the season.

John Groce did everything within his control to empower Aaron Cosby on Wednesday. Hampton committed two technical fouls, and each time, Groce chose Cosby to shoot the free-throws. One game prior, Groce chose Rayvonte Rice to shoot those tech freebies. (Ray was coming off his worst-ever game as an Illini.) Cosby hit both free-throws on the first technical, and subsequently hit a three-pointer.  Cosby hit the front end of the second technical’s freebies.

Unfortunately, that was it for Aaron’s floor game. Once again, he connected on a single field-goal for the game. Cosby is now shooting a tick below 29% for the season. When Groce called an inbounds play for Aaron, Cosby traveled before he could get off a shot.

Starks is a 35% shooter on the year, with 36 total assists and 11 turnovers. Jaylon Tate is shooting 33%, with 33 assists and 14 turnovers. Tate leads Starks in steals, 8 to 5.

Tate achieved these figures in 179 minutes of play. It took Starks 261. (Starks accumulated 24 fouls in those 261 minutes. Tate fouled 14 times in his 179.)

Like most Illini fans, I wish no ill will toward Cosby and Starks. Perhaps unlike most Illini fans, I’ve never included them in my starting line-up. I figured I could make that change when they’d proven themselves more effective than an Illini I’d already assessed.

For me it’s always been

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

and an asterisk stating the obvious, that Rayvonte Rice is the best player on the team.

So far, that line-up has proven unrealistic because Leron Black hasn’t been able to tame his freshman tendencies. Against Hampton, Black grabbed 8 rebounds in 18 minutes while committing only a single foul. He twice caused Mike Basgier to leave the bench (fearing the need to break up a fight) and three times (at least) caused Tracy Abrams to howl with delight at Leron’s sheer (still not tame) animal violence.

Gene Steratore, Rob Riley & Kelly Pfeifer is not the best officiating crew from which to glean Leron’s development as a controlled beast. Frankly, they let a lot of things go. They whistled Ahmad Starks for carrying rather than being tackled. But for the most part, it was Illinois that got away with murder. So Leron’s move to major minutes is still pending his understanding of the college game.

But the Hampton game featured the near dream line-up. Ray Rice moves to the wing, or the other wing (John Groce’s “power forward” position, a fourth guard). Malcolm Hill mans whichever wing spot Ray doesn’t claim. Egwu remains the pivot. Nunn is the shooter.

But this time, it’s Jaylon Tate at the point. Because Jaylon is the only true point-guard on the team, it feels okay to slate him as the point-guard. After the Hampton game, it feels a lot better.

For his Hampton performance. most people will talk about Jaylon’s 8-for-8 free-throw shooting. The impressive aspect of his game was speed. Jaylon’s herky-jerky movement is deceptive. Dude is fast. It’s not just that he pushes the ball. He gets down the floor.

From my perspective, John Groce makes no error by preferring the players who’ve earned PT. “Players play players,” right?

Maybe it’s been one grand conspiracy-theory-inducing mindgame with Groce and future opponents: Start Cosby and Starks knowing that the real line-up would be …

No, I’m just kidding. I’ll leave that narrative to lifelong Trekkies and similar fantasists. I don’t believe that Groce  recruited Starks and Cosby as decoys.

On the other hand, the B1G is looking at Illinois as if Starks and Cosby were starters, as far as game “tapes” are concerned.

Wednesday’s State Farm Center crowd was the smallest & quietest of the season so far. Clearly, losing 3-of-4 games socked the Illinois fan-base in its gut. The crowd never got its wind back on Wednesday. Instead, it made its way to the parking lot in small groups, at every media time out under 12:00 of the second half.

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Illini basketball

Alternate History Lesson – The Oregon Game

What’s wrong with Illinois basketball? Does John Groce “get it?” When can Illini fans expect to enjoy basketball again?

Let’s bookmark Saturday’s game, for future reference. No doubt it was a Significant Game in Groce’s tenure.  If history follows a dark path, this will be The Game When It All Started. If Groce wins a conference title in the next three years, this will be the game from which he recovered, and righted the ship.

If we could rewrite the history of Saturday’s game at the United Center, here are some headlines it might have produced:

High Flying Illini Blast Ducks 92-77

Cosby Three Lifts Illinois Past Oregon, 78-77

And here are headlines that it may yet produce:

Illini Advance to Sweet Sixteen as Spring Resurgence Continues

Illini Part Ways With Groce “Just Never Got It Rolling” says AD

ALTERNATE HISTORY #1

If we pretend that Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks did not play Saturday – and in fact were not on the roster – we can further pretend that Illinois versus Oregon featured shoddy defense on both ends, and that Illinois prevailed by outscoring the Ducks.

As it was, Illinois’ defense gave up 77 points. Let’s assume that removing Starks (28 minutes) and Cosby (30 minutes) achieved no different result on the defensive end. Instead, we’ll divvy up their minutes among the other Illini who play their positions. Thus, Rayvonte Rice (29 minutes) plays for 34, with two media segments (four to five minutes each) coming at the point guard position. Jaylon Tate plays 28 to 30 minutes (instead of 12).

Tate was effective on offense, making 2-of-4 field goal attempts, splitting defenders and finding open jump-shooters on the wing. If those shooters had converted, Jaylon would have tallied more than two assists.

Nnanna Egwu was effective on Saturday. Yes, he moved a lot on screens. Yes, he violated his opponent’s airspace on inbounds plays. Yes, he hedged toward the top of the key on every defensive set you can remember.

If it’s not clear by now that these tendencies are the will of the coaching staff, that point will never take root. If Egwu is anything, he’s coachable. The Groce Administration has obviously crunched the numbers on these actions, and determined to employ them habitually and routinely.

Let’s take Cosby & Starks’s fifteen shots (of which they made three) and divide them up among their teammates. Jaylon, Kendrick and Ray combined for 13-of-25 as it is. They also dished eight assists, compared to six for Cosby & Starks. So that’s a wash.

Would Ray. Kendrick and Jaylon connect on 7 or 8 of those extra fifteen shots?  That’s what the stat line indicates. So maybe the final would have been 82-77, instead of 92-77. (This alternate history writing is trickier that I thought.)

ALTERNATE HISTORY #2

Cosby played twenty minutes, much of it at the small forward position. Let’s pretend that those facts didn’t change, but instead pretend that Aaron made 3-of-9 rather than 1-of-9 shots.

John Groce and Nnanna Egwu said team dynamics are no different with Cosby at the 3-spot “because he’s been doing it all year.” That’s an evasion, whether they recognize it or not. From the inside perspective, Cosby may have been taking reps at that position. But this week (Villanova and Oregon games) saw Cosby playing in the same fivesome as Kendrick Nunn. In previous games, we got either/or.

Pressed to elaborate, Groce said Aaron’s numbers don’t reflect a drop off/bump in efficiency when he shifts between positions. That’s a pedantic response, but Groce isn’t now and never has been eager to share his metrics with the public (which he seems to regard as comprising mostly future opponents and their assistant coaches). The question wasn’t how Aaron’s positioning affects Aaron. It was how that positioning affects team dynamics. The answer is “worse shooting” but it may also be “better defense.”

It would be impossible, at this point, to say there’s an offensive benefit to the Nunn-Cosby tandem. Groce likes on-ball defense from either of them, and he views dribble-penetration as the team’s great weakness. So we must assume that Groce will continue to play Cosby and Nunn together until Illinois seals the driving lanes.

Based on his total body of work, it’s hard to believe that Aaron Cosby is the terrible shooter his (current) season stats suggest. If just two more of those nine shots had found their mark, Illinois probably wins a nail-biter.

ALTERNATE HISTORY #3: THE PATH FORWARD

If we stick with the true history of the Oregon game, we must regard it as an historical marker in Groce’s tenure. It will become either the albatross he overcame, or the first crack in the veneer.

If Groce wins a conference title in 2018, it will have proved to be the former. If he’s fired at some point in the next three to four years, the Oregon game will be remembered like Bruce Weber’s most notorious loss at the United Center: the game that turned the fans against him.

Bruce Weber was already heartily reviled by a loud faction of fans when UIC beat the Illini 57-54 at the United Center in December, 2010. A year later, when UNLV ran the Illini out of the building, the chorus of BOOOOs was unmistakable.

That’s not true of Groce.  Otherwise, the fan reaction to those two games bears a similarity: For the first time in Groce’s tenure, average fans – and not just the crazy loudmouths – have taken to social media in droves, questioning his coaching acumen and ability to land top recruits.

The first two years of Groceball showed teams that floundered in their first truly competitive games. Those teams learned, and grew stronger as January gave way to February and March.

Maybe this year’s team will recover, and make a run.

Both Dana Altman and John Groce voiced their surprise at the Ducks performance. They both declared it far and away the best performance of the season. Illinois didn’t play terribly. They just couldn’t shoot, same as it’s been all year.

Last season, the major problem was Tracy Abrams driving the ball against three taller defenders, and heaving a difficult shot. Groce never got that corrected. And so the season ended with Tracy Abrams hoisting a difficult shot. Then, the post-season ended with Tracy Abrams hoisting a difficult shot.

Groce takes the long view on these matters. And in the case of last year, the long view kept Illinois out of the NCAA Tournament. But you have to admire the loyalty Groce demonstrates, and the nurturing quality of his approach to his players’ psychology.

SEEN AT THE U.C.

Former head manager Andy Szabo made the trip from Athens, Ohio, where he’s now in grad school.  Illini Alex Austin, prevented by NCAA rules from traveling with the team, made his first road trip of the year.

The most surprising face in the crowd was Mike Mennenga. After toiling for years at the bottom rungs of the college coaching profession, Mennenga was suddenly thrust into the big time when Dana Altman tapped him to be an Oregon assistant. Altman said he’d nearly hired Mennenga at Creighton, years ago, adding that Mike brings a lot of energy to the bench, and recruiting ties to Canada.

However Oregon fares this season, it’s a big step up from Canisius. If Illinois wants to win at the United Center, they’d be wise to see that Mennenga isn’t in the building. He was an assistant for UIC in 2010-11.

UNSEEN AT U.C.

In the past, the Chicago game was a showcase for local recruits. Cliff Alexander, for example, attended the wretched game versus UNLV. So did Gavin Schilling and Alex Foster.  There was even a recruit who chose Illinois! (That was Michael Orris.)

In one sense, there was a ton of talent on hand. Rob Smith brought the entire Simeon team, including Illini signee Dennis Williams. Aaron Jordan came with Romelda, Ariel and the FiberGuru.

But if Marcus LoVett attended, nobody spotted him. No one resembling Nick Rakocevic sat behind the team bench.

Will Jayson Tatum and Jeremiah Tilmon attend the Braggin’ Rights game?  Keep your fingers crossed.

 

Categories
Illini basketball

Help Wanted

Malcolm Hill can’t do it alone.

Sure, after watching this team play eleven times, the idea of giving Malcolm the ball on every possession seems tempting. But here’s the thing: In the first half against Villanova, Malcolm scored 14 points. Then they noticed him.

If Rayvonte Rice hadn’t suffered his worst game as an Illini, if The Legend of Aaron Cosby had replaced Aaron Cosby in the line-up, Illinois would have given Villanova a game.

Nnanna Egwu was a monster on the boards. Kendrick Nunn acquitted himself at the two-guard spot. It’s the rest of the team that was the problem. Even Jaylon Tate caused problems, because the defense sagged into the paint whenever he took the ball on the wing.

Despite his nine rebounds, eight points and two assists; even Nnanna got in Malcolm’s way. The two of them were trotted into the media room following the game, and that tells us that John Groce felt Egwu played well enough. But Malcolm and Nnanna were not on the same page on court.

As they lined up for Villanova free throws in the first half, Malcolm yelled across the lane at Nnanna, angry style. “We just TALKED about that!” Before Nnanna could respond to Malcolm, referee Pat Driscoll (who played “Gopher” on The Love Boat) got in his face to issue the type of warning that referees issue to Nnanna.

I asked a Stupid Journalist question about the incident, which tells me I’ve now fully succumbed to Stupid Journalism. I should have asked “what was Malcolm yelling at you in the lane?” But Groce probably would have interrupted and cut me off. You could tell that he was about to pop. I highly doubt that he would have made any players available for comment, were it his decision. (The Big Ten requires it, and  the Jimmy V people were running the show.)

We can assume that the Malcolm-Nnanna disconnect concerns help-defense. Groce said the Illini played defense “selfishly.”

Still, the Illini were in the game, well into the second half.

The collapse came right when Illinois should have seized control of the game. Ahmad Starks had just connected on his only made three of the night. That tied the game at 38. Villanova was shaken.

The Illini got the ball back on consecutive Wildcat turnovers. Aaron Cosby missed a three. Then Ray tried to no-look a pass under the basket to Maverick Morgan. Morgan didn’t anticipate the pass, and moved away from it. Two Wildcats pounced on the ball.

On the next trip, Ahmad Starks tried to no-look a pass to Morgan.  This time, there were two Wildcats already in the way. Another turnover. On the third trip down, Illinois turned the ball over a third straight time.

That was it. The Wildcats recovered emotionally from the onslaught of Illini effort. They composed themselves, and went on an eight point run. Illinois tied the game once more at 50, but that used up whatever fuel was left in the tank.

Ray’s pass wasn’t terrible. It just didn’t fit the recipient. Ahmad’s pass was terrible. It had no chance of succeeding.

John Groce was blunt. He described his team as “not a team.” He said they were selfish on defense. He resisted fingering individual players, as per usual. His tone suggested the next few days of practice will be “demanding,” and perhaps rubbing right up against the cusp of “demeaning.”

If you’re into superstition, you can blame the players’ families for this one. For every set that attended, their corresponding Illini performed poorly, or not at all.

The Cosbys came. Aaron shot 1-for-8. Rhonda & Laronda came. Ray played out of control. The Starkses made the trip. Ahmad spilled four turnovers to go with his four assists, and connected only twice from the field.

Contrast Machanda Hill, who missed her first game of the year. Malcolm tallied a career high.

I don’t blame the LaTulips for coming, but Mike got only a minute of PT.

You could also blame Bill Geist’s “lucky” orange shoes for casting a spell on the Illini.

I sat on these shoes for much of the game, beacuse @TheGarden puts courtside seats everywhere, no matter the likelihood of beer spilling on expensive equipment.

Geist said he’s had the shoes for about thirty years. He wears them only to Illini games. His son Willie, and Illini alum Kevin Miller came together, and sat within earshot of the Illini bench.

Categories
Illini Basketball

The Weirdest Game of the Season?

I’m open-minded about new experiences, but if there’s a weirder Illini game this season, I hope it looks better than the slopfest versus American University.

The Illini committed 14 turnovers, including a pair of passes to nobody at all, and some other passes where no Illini was in the vicinity.

Kendrick Nunn appeared tentative and mistake-prone. That’s weird. Rayvonte Rice connected on 1-of-7 field goal attempts. That’s bizarre.

The Illini used this game to try a number of new dead ball sets, both on offense and defense.  The inbounds plays,  John Groce said, were implemented to counter American’s style of play, and not because it’s that time of year when the team is ready to learn some new plays.

That might be true. But Groce is leery of opponents scouting his public comments as well as his practices, and game videos. He also rejected the idea that a full-court zone press was “new” to this year’s team. But he called for it in new situations, e.g. before halftime, and with a lead.

 

So it could be that now, after the team has put its challenging pre-season traveling schedule behind themselves, Groce feels comfortable asking the team to employ some sets that future opponents, such as the Villanova Wildcats for example, have not seen. Or maybe he wants the Villanova coaching staff to panic, horrified to learn that, with three days to go, Illinois’ most easily scouted plays have been replaced by new sets.

Mind games. Who doesn’t love ’em?

Groce was a little edgy and short in his postgame press conference, perhaps because he had an atypical third postgame media responsibility, an exclusive with Ryan Baker for CBS Chicago. Maybe that’s why no one asked him about Illinois’ 5-for-12 performance from three-point range. That’s not many attempts for this Illini team. It’s also a low number given the opponent.

But it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which, after the 23% performance at Miami, Groce encouraged his guys to look for more opportunities inside the arc. The two guys who weren’t the leading scorer but were fingered for postgame meet-the-media responsibilities just happened to be the least likely on the team to jack a shot from distance.

TIDBITS

Groce called for “reinforcements” leading up to the game’s first media time-out. Having spent the last 10 days repeatedly citing Nick Saban’s postgame comments from the Iron Bowl, he’s now borrowing from the John Calipari playbook.

Calipari, as everyone knows, decided to play two platoons, rather than concede that any of his million dollar babies is not a starter. Groce usually (not always) sends four fresh bodies at the first time out, leaving only Ray in the game.

Illini players got a kick out of the terminology. “Did he just say ‘reinforcements?'” They too are aware of John Calipari.

Illinois players connected on their first 18 free throw attempts. When Jaylon Tate finally missed in the game’s closing minutes, the entire SFC crowd groaned. It’s nice to know that our fans pay close attention, and know what’s going on in a game.

Jan the Usher, my number one source, says SFC’s two 200-level (C Tier) sections of unsold seats is construction related, not a barometer of fan interest. It’s to do with access to an exit, currently blocked. In other words, fire marshal stuff. The plan is to have the entire 200-;level open when MAryland comes to town, to open B1G play.

Categories
Illini basketball

What We Learned in Miami: Nothing New

Some Illini fans may be shocked, shocked that the 2015 edition of their Dream Team lost  the game at Miami. They shouldn’t be.

Sure, pre-season optimism is the most common neurological disorder among sports fans. Everyone hopes for the best, and seeks data to support his wildest fantasies for The Season of All Seasons. Confirmation Bias knows no champion like pre-season optimism.

Realistically speaking, Illinois has played this game again and again, all year. This time, the competition was better. That’s why they lost.

We’ve seen these Illini nine times now. The intrasquad scrimmage and the exhibition game don’t count for season statistical purposes, but they count for Eye Test purposes. We know that Illinois will play a minimum of 34 times this season. So we’re about a quarter of the way through the schedule. Thus, statisitcal anomalies are giving way to statistical realities. There’s reason for gloom and optimism, it just depends on how you look at this Illini team for what it really is.

The pre-season narrative was “better offense” premised on “better shooting.”

In the scrimmage, Ahmad Starks shot 1-for-6 from the arc. Aaron Cosby disappeared on offense, but played good on-ball defense. In the exhibition, Starks was 2-for-9 and Cosby was 3-for-9.

Against Georgia Southern, Ahmad Starks shot 2-for-11 from the floor (1-of-4 from the arc). Aaron Cosby was 5-for-12 (2-of-7). They each shot perfectly from the free throw line.

Coppin State is the only game where both guards clicked on offense. Starks shot 7-for-10 (4-for-6) and Cosby was 5-for-7 (all from three).

Against Austin Peay, Starks was 5-for-10 (2-for-4). Cosby shot 2-for-8 (2-for-7).

Against Brown, Starks shot 2-for-6 (1-for-3). Cosby was 5-for-10 (3-for-6).

Against Indiana State Starks was 1-for-5 (1-for-4) and Cosby 3-for-10 (3-for-6).

Against Baylor, Starks made 2-for-9 (2-for-7) while Cosby missed all six of his attempts (all from the arc). And at Miami, each shot 1-for-10 (1-of-7 and 1-of-6 respectively).

There’s more to the game than shooting, and John Groce seems pleased with Aaron Cosby’s defense and rebounding.

Starks, on the other hand, displayed limited effectiveness at Miami, in all facets of the game. One assist, one rebound and one turnover in 27 minutes can be accounted. The mind-boggling plays have no statistical support. They both occurred under the Illinois basket. On one inbounds play, Starks seemed to be the only guy in the gym who didn’t see Ray, wide open, under the hoop, screaming for the ball “AHMAD! AHMAD!” Later, as the game slipped away, Starks drove against two huge defenders, only to heave the ball fecklessly toward the bottom of the backboard, which it struck.

If there’s any anomaly from Tuesday’s game at Coral Gables, it’s Nnanna Egwu’s defense. Miami had a wonderful time traipsing through the lane. In the second half especially, their offense consisted of drives and dunks.

Maverick Morgan played zero minutes, and Austin Colbert only four, none in the second half.

John Groce described team execution as “awful” and overall performance as “out of character,”  but would not agree that Nnanna’s performance deserved special attention in the “uncharacteristic” category. Groce allowed that blame for defensive mistakes could be shared equally between Nnanna and help defense.

This shared blame comment did not specify whether these lapses took place when Nnanna was in the high post, the low post, or both. Both seems likely.

So, not much has changed. The Illinois line-up, 2014-15 still looks like this:

2 Nunn

3 Hill

4 Black

5 Egwu

and that still means Ray is the “point” in John Groce’s pointless offense. (Groce’s offense is not without purpose, but it’s not defined by a traditional 1-guard.)

Kendrick Nunn’s return to the starting line-up seems inevitable, especially after Miami. Leron’s debut as starter was set back. His aggression earned him four fouls in eight minutes, and they weren’t “good” fouls. They created no advantages.

So until Leron learns the college game (which took Malcolm and Kendrick through the second week of February, last season) the line-up has a major problem at, of all places, the wing. While it seems that Illinois is all wings, both Cosby and Nunn are  conversant with the “two” guard position. i.e. for purposes of offensive sets, and defensive responsibilities, each has trained as a shooting guard within the Groce system. How quickly can either of them learn to play those same sets in the small forward slot?

SO, WHAT ARE THE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM?

Rayvonte Rice, Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn have played exactly the way Illini fans should have anticipated, based on last year’s evidence. And frankly, that’s been terrific.

Against Miami, each hit 50% from the floor. They are excellent on offense. Ray and Kendrick are solid to excellent defenders. Malcolm, still forced to switch regularly between centers and point guards during high post ball screens, cannot fairly be blamed when quickness or size suddenly becomes an issue.

In the postgame, Miami’s Sheldon McClellan fielded a question about fan support and attendance. He sassily described Miami as “a basketball school.” He and Deandre Burnett spoke of feeding off the crowd’s enthusiasm.

That was the weirdest part of the Miami trip.

BankUnited Center holds 8,000 people, perhaps slightly fewer than Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena. The official attendance for Tuesday’s game was 6,086, and not all of them showed up. Fans had plenty of room to stretch out, because every third seat was empty.

TIDBITS FROM MIAMI

Referee Mike Eades and John Groce shared shared a few words in the tunnel, postgame. They were not similar to the words Jamall Walker shared with referees after the last Miami game, in Austin. Instead, it was friendly, mutual-respect type stuff from two colleagues working in the same profession. “He’s a good referee,” said Groce.

Eades took a moment to chat on the sidelines, shortly after Nnanna Egwu defended a Miami inbounds play from about 18-inches inside the baseline. Perhaps it was a warning. Maybe Eades was just saying hello. In any case, most college officials seem to know about Nnanna’s propensity for interference. One assumes that it’s not an accident that Nnanna keeps doing it.

Leading up to the game, John Groce kept talking about adjusting to Eastern time. I thought that was weird. Illinois spent a few days in the Pacific Time Zone. Tuesday’s game tipped at 6 p.m. Pacific Time. That seems like a good time to play basketball.

MULTIPLE REPORTS OF CHRIS GREEN SIGHTINGS

You may know Chris Green as the tour manager who’s always in the company of rock stars. You may know him as a defensive star of John Mackovic’s Illini football teams. You may know him as the host of WILL’s erstwhile TV show Video Diner.

That seems like a lot of hats (and helmets) for one guy. Well, there’s a reason. Chris Green, it turns out, is two guys.