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:
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.