Illini basketball

To the Point

If there was a “story” during the Illini off week, it’s the speculation that Aaron Cosby and Rayvonte Rice will return to action Saturday, against Penn State.

Maybe they will, but only one man knows, and he’s not giving a direct answer one way or the other. So it doesn’t seem worth speculating about. My hunch is that neither will play.  I didn’t see them at Friday’s shootaround, which doesn’t mean much. They might have been in the training room, getting taped prior to watching film.

I do think you’ll see Mike LaTulip again on Saturday. And this time, I think he’ll be ready to pull the trigger.

At Minnesota, Mike had two wide-open looks at the basket during the same possession. Both times, he chose against shooting. Everyone was confused, including John Groce. Mike was an offensive powerhouse in high school. Nobody has ever claimed that he’s earned minutes for his defensive acumen.

So what gives?

Before practice on Friday, Mike talked about acclimating to B1G competition. He said he didn’t realize how open he was until he saw the video.

While not familiar with the concept of “chunking,” Mike described it pretty well, noting that the speed and size of B1G competition is simply different than what he faced as a high school phenom, or against small conference schools in the pre-season, or even against major conference schools during clean-up time to close out non-competitive games.

He agreed that the vote of confidence from Groce will give him a renewed bravado when the situation presents itself next time.

The other guy benefiting from Groce’s patience and faith is Jaylon Tate.

Tate said Friday that he needs to improve his weak-side defense. This is another area of the game where “chunking” is important. Weak-side defense involves peripheral vision, and detection of minor but tell-tale patterns of movement among multiple components (five opposing players).

Familiarity and repetition are aides to any variety of learned skill, whether it’s playing video games, driving a race car, playing basketball, performing open heart surgery … even wooing women.

Recognizing responses from one’s opponent tells an experienced player, subconsciously, that he can drive rightward just as his defender steps or leans the wrong way.

The reason Mike LaTulip looked somewhat lost at Minnesota is that he hasn’t spent much time playing against any B1G competition, except his teammates, whose tendencies are so well known to him that he literally can’t learn anything new from them.

This is the same reason Richard Semrau seemed dominant in practices circa 2009, but appeared out of position whenever Bruce Weber inserted him for 30 seconds once per month. What Weber never figured out is that guys need experience to become experienced.

John Groce has figured that out, and although he’s not by any means a patient person; he knows that he has to keep himself and his staff in check when reacting to mistakes. You can watch a video of Groce, during every home game, in which he says “to do things you’ve never done before, you have to do things you’ve never done before. This tautology refers to the State Farm Center renovation, but it may as well be applied to Mike LaTulip playing confidently against a conference opponent, or Jaylon Tate anticipating a back screen before it happens.


Last year’s game at Champaign featured the year’s most cunning strategic maneuver of the year: The Illini antagonized Nittany star D.J. Newbill into disqualifying himself. Newbill slapped Kendrick Nunn on the back of the head, right out on the open, where everyone could see it. He was ejected.

John Groce downplayed that storyline in his Thursday press conference.

Dustin Ford had the scout for the Penn State game. He didn’t reference last year’s skirmish, but he did talk about the match-up between shooting guards.

“I hope it’s one that favors us,” he said.

“Obviously two really, really good players. We’ve got to find a way to help Ken get some space off some screens, and we’ve got to find a way to help Ken guarding Newbill by giving him support on both sides of the ball and off ball screens, committing two, and trying to make it as hard as we can.”

Who will be that second defender? Malcolm Hill will have his hands full of Brandon Taylor. Is Tate strong enough to help? That’s asking a lot of anybody, especially a guy as young and thin as Jaylon. Although Groce spoke specifically about Tate’s improved strength during his presser, you’d have to assume a lot of the help will be coming in the form of The Egwu Hedge.

Obviously the cleverest scheme would be to toss LaTulip into the game to irritate Newbill, and take a punch for the team. I do not predict that will happen, either.

Illini basketball

A Thrashing in Minnesota

The Golden Gophers don’t have a whole lot of players, but against Illinois, Richard Pitino managed to squeeze every ounce of potential from each of them.

Ex-lummox Mo Walker dropped a few pounds in the off season, and dropped a few post moves on Nnanna Egwu and Maverick Morgan. It’s kinda neat to see a big man demonstrate a soft touch around the rim. It’s been a while.

OK, that’s not fair. Morgan shows a soft touch when he’s facing the basket. Nnanna has that baby hook thing that sometimes goes in.  But Saturday at The Barn, Walker used the glass, his big ole butt, and footwork to get shots. And he converted them.

Big Mo grabbed 13 rebounds. Egwu and Morgan had 4 each. (Egwu played just over twice as many minutes as Maverick, 27-to-13. Morgan would have had a career high in scoring, except John Groce  called timeout just before Morgan’s fourth (of four) made jumper. Groce kinda sorta apologized for that in his postgame presser.

Kendrick Nunn did a lot of shit-talking to Andre Hollins as Hollins dumped 28 points on him. It almost came to blows at one point, but Hollins was too busy making buckets to get involved.

Still, Illinois might have overcome those efforts becept for … let me look this name up again … oh yeah, Carlos Morris. Ever heard of him?

He made 4-of-4 FGs and 3-of-3 from the arc, plus 5-of-6 from the stripe. (He entered the game shooting 32.8% on the year from long range.)

In fact, from the tone of the Q&A with Richard Pitino, one gets the  feeling that all these guys had a career game, and generally play like crap.


Meanwhile, on the other end of the elevated court, Malcolm Hill  converted a mere 5-of-17 from the floor.

Mike LaTulip saw significant, meaningful minutes for the first time in his career. (Not counting the glimpse against Michigan last year, or this week’s moment against Purdue). For some reason, he chose not to shoot a wide-open three-pointer, twice, as the shot clock ran down. This was during the first half, when the game was competitive.

John Groce wasn’t sure why Mike didn’t pull the trigger. “I wanted him to shoot it.”

Tracy Abrams didn’t make the trip due to a death in the family. On the bright side, he seems to have recovered from conjunctivitis.

Ryan Schmidt made a contribution in his first game as an Illini. When the Minnesota floor crew failed to mop up a wet spot neear the Illinois bench, Schmidt grabbed a towel, jumped on the court, and took care of it himself. Rayvonte Rice and James Haring were thoroughly amused.

There’s no game this week. So you won’t have to think about Illinois basketball for a few days. On the other hand, if the Illini had won, you’d really enjoy thinking about Illini basketball this week.

Instead, perhaps you should use your free time to plan a trip for Spring Break. It seems like you’ll be free for most of March.

Illini basketball

Black is the New Black

It’s here. This is what we’ve been waiting for. Leron Black is ready to go.

The line-up is now complete, minus its star. But Rayvonte’s absence is providing extra touches for everyone. If this team makes a late run, that might be important.

Anyway, Illini basketball 2014-15 began Wednesday night, after way too long in the cocoon.

Leron Black is the butterfly, and he stings like a bee. His 13 rebounds were the difference against Purdue. Full stop.

Illinois’s eleven consecutive free-throws to close the game …. closed the game. But it was Leron Black’s 13 rebounds that won it.

The point that’s been obvious since the O & B scrimmage, and much stated on these pages, is that this Illini basketball team must rely on

2- Nunn

3 – Hill

4 – Black

5 – Egwu

and that means Rayvonte Rice plays the point.

Because Ray broke his hand, we get to see Jaylon Tate at the point. That’s entertaining, and offers ball-movement that you don’t get without Tate — although Kendrick Nunn has become one hell of a passer, did you notice?

The Illini  train got on track Wednesday because Aaron Cosby was unavailable to stand in Leron Black’s way. Now conversant with John Groce’s schemes — or at least sufficiently conversant to merit a start when everyone else is injured — Leron proved that he’s assimilated enough data to not embarrass himself.

From now on, we can expect the team we expected.

It’s nothing personal against Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby. Not at all. In very different ways, they are good lads. But ever since they donned the orange & blue, it’s been clear (eye test, stats) that neither of them resembled the dead-eye sharp-shooter that John Groce imagined.

Cosby has transformed his game recently, emphasizing defense and rebounding, and not shooting a lot from the arc. Starks attempted only two treys against Purdue. Still, he managed 1-of-9 from the field. An assist, a turnover, a rebound. He’s a pesky sonofabitch to play against, from an offensive standpoint. He brings that value to the team.

Nevertheless, the data pool is too large for a mathematician like John Groce to ignore. The reports will continue to buttress earlier reports, making trends where once there were mere samples.

2 – Nunn

3 – Hill

4 – Black

5 – Egwu

This is a short-bench team.

If you’re wondering where Leron Black has been this whole time, don’t. The answer is not as negative as “lost,” but could certainly be expressed as “finding his way.”

Leron said as much after the game. He also noted that his momma didn’t raise no quitter.

Matt Painter said it perfectly, while laying praise at Leron’s feet. He recalled his teammate Steve Scheffler, who felt lost as an underclassman, but also knew he could make impact if he tried harder than everyone else.

Illini basketball

Psychological Warfare: Purdue’s mastery of Illini basketball

The Purdue Boilermakers are still the winningest program in B1G basketball history. Their most recent conference championship came five years ago.

Illinois hasn’t won a championship in ten years. And in that time, Purdue holds a 12-5 advantage over the Illini. Two of those wins came the Big Ten Tournament. Two came in the 2009 regular season. Since then, Purdue has won 9-of-10.

During that onslaught, Matt Painter drove his mentor Bruce Weber out of a job. Weber’s most notorious player-trashing came after losing to Purdue. That’s when Weber said he’d failed to build a culture at Illinois, and instead coached “not to lose.”

It was hard to decipher the substance of that distinction, but that’s Weber all over. His meaning was never clear, but you could generally infer that he was insulting someone. (FWIW, I’ve always preferred the subtler player-trashing Weber performed after the Northwestern loss in 2010.)

Weber was never good at explaining things, which is — whatever he believes — the actual reason he failed at Illinois.

Matt Painter is very good at explaining things. Among conference coaches, he’s a top communicator. (Thad Matta is right there, as is Fran McCaffery.) Listening to Painter speak, one gleans the modus operandi, the Keady Tree philosophy.  It’s what Weber could never express through vagueries and colloquy, or outright dodges. (Seriously, who was it that invented the “Weber is too honest” narrative? That’s nonsense.)

Right now, January 2015, is a fascinating time to analyze Matt Painter’s coaching style, from an Illini perspective.  He hasn’t been successful recently, but he’s been more successful than John Groce when the two go head-to-head. Their philosophies on player development may be exactly the same, or totally different. It’s harder to tell why Groce doles out PT the way he does, or rewards individual players for performance based on one set of metrics (e.g. rebounds) while not penalizing for another set (e.g. field goal percentage).

Painter talked about yanking his young guys during both Monday’s B1G teleconference and his own pre-Illinois teleconference on Tuesday. You can infer that Weber shares  this philosophy, if not the ability to express it.

This year at Kansas State, Weber stanched a slide that could easily have seen him canned in March, and he did it by sticking to his principles. He’s “building a culture of toughness” rather than “coaching not to lose.” That’s bad news for fans of entertaining basketball, because it suggests 58-57 grudge matches might ugly the game for years to come.

As for his mastery over Illinois, Painter spoke Tuesday about the psychological weapons he’s deployed over the years. The most obvious one, it turns out, was unintentional.  Painter said his staff did not intentionally not guard Chester Frazier.

Painter acknowledged (and perhaps wistfully pined for) Lewis Jackson’s mental ownership of Illini guards, a key factor in establishing the 9-outta-10 streak.

Painter also acknowledged the key factor for beating Illinois this year, but did not say whether it’s something an Illini opponent can effect or control. For Illini fans, it’s obvious: Make sure Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby have one of their 1-for-9 shooting nights, rather than one of their 5-for-7 shooting nights.

You can bet that Purdue’s staff is crunching video right now, trying to determine whether any defensive actions prompt these offensive reactions, one way or the other.

But as of Tuesday morning, Painter did not have an immediate response to the question of how to beat Illinois psychologically. And it’s not because he isn’t a straight-shooter.

(For context, understand the format of Boiler teleconferences: Painter calls out the names of all the people on the line, in order, and then answers all of each individual’s questions in a row before moving on to the next person.)

Cosby is more typical, from a sports psychology perspective, than Starks. Cosby said after the Northwestern game that he tried to keep his head up during his shooting slump. He credited the Illini coaching staff for insisting that he keep firing away.

Starks is an unusual character, from a sports psychology standpoint. He’s a little guy, and a loner. He’s quiet and introspective. Although probably kind to small, defenseless animals; Starks will ruthlessly attack you on a basketball court. And despite a number of statistically terrible games this year; he doesn’t need a coaching staff to buck him up. He’ll keep attacking as long as he’s on the court.

It’s for this reason that Starks is much more dangerous to the Boilermakers. They’re an unusually tall team. Starks is the mouse to their elephant. And worse for Painter, Starks seems invulnerable to mental antagonism.

Whether you prefer John Groce’s demanding without demeaning, or Painter’s short leash for underclassmen who haven’t earned the right to make mistakes, both philosophies are more comprehensible than anything Bruce Weber ever expressed.

What’s odd is that Painter will tell you what he’s doing. He shows his cards. But he still finds a way to outmaneuver Illinois, psychologically.

As Bobby Knight once said, “I’m fuckin’ tired of losing to Purdue.”

Illini basketball

A Return to Form?

Kendrick Nunn looked like Kendrick Nunn. Crafty, deadly. A psychopath on the court: No empathy for your distress as he cuts through you.

That’s much better than the tentative impostor who’d taken all of Kendrick’s minutes this year.

Is the “Real” Aaron Cosby back? Or was Northwestern simply one of many examples of the “Real” Aaron Cosby? i.e. is he a guy that will make a good percentage of shots consistently? Or does he go 4-for-8 from the arc some days, and 1-of-7 most days?

Why did John Groce decide to play Ahmad Starks in the closing minutes? Starks’s 4-for-13 performance (0-for-5 from three) was consistent with his season thus far.

Starks hit some long 2s and a couple of floaters.  You might say he shot 50% from two, because he did.

As the Wildcats closed an 11-point lead to one, Groce chose Starks-on-five, including an isolation at :39 in which Ahmad flew sideways under the the hoop.

Starks supplied a game-high (tied with 7-footer Alex Olah) four assists. He committed no turnovers. Kendrick Nunn said (kindly, perhaps) that Starks’s scorer’s mentality open the floor for other shooters. That seems theoretical at this point.

The Illini offense looked great from the opening tip, and for about ten minutes. Sharp cuts and quick ball movement delivered open shots, and Illini shooters connected. But then what happened? Did the Wildcats step up their defense?

Illinois returned to form, seeming to prefer shooting with a hand in its face.

But excluding the one made three in the second half (and the six misses), the Illini connected on 50% of field-goals. Ignore Cosby’s (evidently not crucial) missed free-throw with :26 remaining and a three point lead, and the Illini were perfect from charity in the second half.

But if, like me, you were watching the game; it’s hard to ignore theses things. They’ll plant themselves in your brain like Nick Anderson’s box-out, or the fat guy from Austin Peay.

Northwestern eschewed the home team’s typical mid-second half comeback, but Illinois left the door open for that opportunity.

Chris Collins’s game management put the Wildcats in position to win. With 1:15 to go and down five, Collins got a wide open look for hot-handed Alex Olah (14 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks, 6/12 FGs). The ball went all the way down before corkscrewing up and out, to audible (and familiar) purple-clad groaning.

With 13 seconds to go and down by three, Collins sent Tre Demps knifing through the lane for an easy deuce. It takes a calm coach and a calm team to choose & execute a two-point-play when you “need a three.”

But if Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill hadn’t been flawless from the line, you’d be reading an entirely different set of next-day accounts, and you wouldn’t be enjoying your coffee as much.

John Groce’s strategies seemed less obviously … hmm, how to put this … good? Harkening back to the less fondly remembered aspect of the Lou Henson era, Groce took the air out of the ball. The purpose of offensive sets, in the closing minutes, seemed to be clock-bleeding, rather than bucket making.

Illinois won. Does that mean Groce’s strategies were effective?

This game provided no answers. Rather, it’s a bookmark. We may want to look back at this game someday, to say “That’s when Cosby clicked.” We may want to look back and say “it’s not the first time Groce blew a ten point lead to a bad team.”


Whatever marketing tricks Jim Phillips employed, they failed to keep his alma mater from dominating his employer’s atmosphere. Most of the crowd wore orange.  The only disadvantage for Illinois was not being able to invite Chicago-area recruits.

But late on a school night, with the temperature hovering in the mid-teens and a lot of slush on the ground, you can see why talented high-schoolers would stay inside. Welsh-Ryan Arena is 31 miles from, for example, Chicago Morgan Park High School.

Nevertheless,  two brave youngsters attended. Stevenson’s Justin Smith and Evanston’s Nojel Eastern sat in exactly the same seats as last year. (Edward Smith was there again, too.)

Both say they’re being recruited by the Illini. Both say they’ve grown two inches since last year. Smith says he’s up to 6’7″. Eastern reports 6’4″. They’re both sophomores.

Illini basketball

Jalen Coleman-Lands attends his first Illini game

Saturday’s game in Columbus was not entirely disastrous for Illinois.

For one thing, Rayvonte Rice continued to prove himself a deadly shooter, which was decidedly not his M.O. as a state champion high school tweener. Ray connected on 7-of-8 from the field, including 4-of-5 from downtown. When his non-shooting hand heals from Wednesday’s surgery, we can all hope his muscle-memory remains intact.

Ray’s replacement as dead-eye-two-guard-who’ll-sometimes-play-point, Jalen Coleman-Lands, was in attendance for The Rayvonte Show.

Behind the Ohio State bench, the entire La Lumiere team watched the game, along with coach Shane Heirman and assistant headmaster Kevin Kunst, who is also Jalen’s A.P. Econ instructor.

Jalen’s brother Isaiah is a member of the La Lumiere team as well. He sat to Jalen’s right, in the row of folding chairs immediately behind the Buckeye bench. Their parents, Dionne Coleman Lands and Piankhi Lands, sat to Jalen’s left.

Finding all the Coleman-Landses in one spot is a little bit like stumbling upon a pack of snow leopards. Their reputation among the Illini media pool has developed entirely in their absence.  They’re just not all that interested in talking to sports reporters. That’s why you never read interviews from Jalen.

Another reason you’ve not read/viewed many interviews with JC-L is that, as far as we know, he’s never attended an Illini game before Saturday. I asked John Groce if that game in Columbus was Jalen’s first. He wasn’t sure. News-Gazette beat writer Marcus Jackson said “I think so.”

Heck, most of us didn’t even know his name was Coleman-Lands until the day he committed to Illinois.

Piankhi Lands pointed out that his family is not averse to media. He contrasted his son to a different variety of high school phenom, the type that loves the hype. “He just doesn’t need that,” said Lands Sr.

Jalen’s only question regarding a potential interview was “how long will it take?” And he asked it twice.

That’s not to be read as implying a sense of ennui. Rather, Jalen’s team had a tight schedule, and as Heirman said, La Lumiere needed to hang out with the Ohio State people, because they were hosting his team.

Isaiah and his parents’ primary post-game responsibilities also involved the OSU program. Assistant coach Jeff Boals was their tour guide for an unofficial visit, which began with a look at the facilities in the bowels of Value City Arena. (Illinois is not recruiting the younger Coleman-Lands.)

La Lumiere is, like Chicago Simeon, a school that attracts great basketball players. You might even say it poaches them from other schools. Jalen Coleman-Lands might still be playing for Indianapolis Cathedral this year. But La Lu offered a full ride for both brothers, which Cathedral couldn’t match.

So Jalen & Isaiah study, eat and sleep in LaPorte, Indiana. Kunst also lives on the La Lu campus. “My house is right behind my office.”

To Americans, it might seem odd to send one’s teenagers away to a dormitory boarding school.

But the English upper-class have been doing it for centuries. And honestly, what parents wouldn’t want to get their teenagers out of the house? If there’s a first rate education and free meals involved, it’s a difficult proposition to turn down.

On the other hand, Heirman describes the family as a cohesive unit. “They’re phenomenal people. You’re not going to find parents giving a better message to their kids. You go back to their house, they’re playing board games, they’re hanging out and talking about life & current events. They’re watching documentaries.

“It’s a pretty cool household.”

For what it’s worth, Illinois basketball has now played a game in front of the entire Simeon and La Lu rosters, this season. Although the Groce Administration has cast a wider net than any previous Illinois coaching staff, they could stock Big Ten contenders just by recruiting these two schools.

Simeon’s freshman phenom point guard Marquise “Kezo” Brown has already visited, unofficially, this season. He arrived late to that game, but his assistant coach Melvin Nunn had the BTN2Go streamcasting all the way down I-57, so Kezo didn’t actually miss any of the game.

Now we’ll just have to wait and see whether La Lu’s Nolan Narain makes the trip to Champaign.

Illini Basketball

Terrapin Soup

Feel like celebrating after Illinois’ 64-57 win?

Happy they beat a ranked team?

Go ahead. Enjoy it.

In a lot of ways, it was an improvement on the last couple of games.

In one very important way, it was not. The Illini tried to puke on their shoes again, but Maryland refused to be outshittyed. The Terps saw our bad pass, and raised us a kick it out of bounds.

Where Ohio State and Michigan took advantage, Maryland fainted.

By this point in the season, all Illini fans and perhaps even John Groce have figured out that one very important way. Groce made major and minor changes on Wednesday, to forestall that way of losing games.

It sufficed.

Malcolm Hill buried most of his shots, just like he usually does.

Jaylon Tate moved the ball, and exploited defensive weaknesses, just like usual.

Nnanna Egwu hustled to fill every gap, just like he always does.

The obvious difference between this game and astonishing collapses at Ann Arbor and Columbus is this: When Illinois offered the opportunity for its opponent to crawl back into the game, it got no response, until it was too late.

Enough changed for Illinois to win.

Enough stayed the same for Illinois to win.

Maryland clearly didn’t want to win. But because Mark Turgeon is an excellent tactician, Maryland nearly completed a miraculous comeback.

At one point in the second half, the Terrapins were shooting 40% on free throws. They finished at 56%.

A late barrage from three raised the Terps’ long-range percentage to an admirable 43%.  For most of the game, Terp shots dented the rim from all distances.

Jaylon Tate’s free throws — combined with Kendrick Nunn’s and Ahmad Starks’s refusal to panic — saved the game when Turgeon’s tactics threatened a third consecutive collapse.

John Groce did enough with rotations — and especially with constant defensive switches — to allay new-found accusations of managerial incompetence.

Ahmad Starks shot his traditional 1-for-x from the floor, as did Aaron Cosby.

But Starks’s game was among his best as an Illini.

Using speed, strength and floor vision; Starks keyed the second-half pile-on by exploiting advantageous spacing, with timely passes, a steal, three rebounds, and a fuck y’all attitude toward Maryland’s antagonistic trash talkers.

Cosby was not as awful as every statistic, comment & write-up will suggest. He contributed some good things.

Still, he made little argument from the “players play players” perspective, which John Groce continues to preach while largely failing to practice.


Interesting back-and-forth between Mike Eades and John Groce, throughout the night.

The two spent some time together in the tunnel at Miami, after the game. Groce remarked then that Eades is a good official. There’s obviously a rapport between them.

As the touch fouls accumulated against Illinois (mostly whistled by Terry Oglesby), Groce demanded that the Illini get a call next time a Terrapin breathed on him too hard.

“John!” Eades exclaimed, getting the coach’s attention. “We got the message.”

Groce’s next apoplexy came when Ahmad Starks was not awarded two shots when fouled while passing the ball. “John, he was passing the ball” Oglesby explained. Courtside fans joined in the nonsensical, misguided harassment.

I prefer to reserve referee criticism for those moments when the referees are obviously wrong, rather than when they’re obviously right. It just seems more logical, and credible.


Illinois won this game because Maryland coughed up this game. That’s fair. Illinois coughed up its previous two B1G contests.

Naturally, dominance would feel more satisfying. But at this point, in a season on a brink, one takes what one can get.

John Groce continued to allow freedom to his players, did not blame them for his shortcomings, and did not fail to provide them with a game plan while simultaneously criticizing them for not having a game plan.

Illini basketball

Year Three: A History of Illini Basketball Coaches

Shouldn’t John Groce have captured a conference title by now? Why didn’t he sign five McDonald’s All-Americans in November?

It’s YEAR THREE for chrissakes! Is Illini Basketball in the wrong hands?

For perspective, let’s look at Year Three for every man who’s ever led the program. There are nine of them who made it to a third year.

  1. Ralph Jones
  2. J. Craig Ruby
  3. Doug Mills
  4. Harry Combes
  5. Harv Schmidt
  6. Lou Henson
  7. Lon Kruger
  8. Bill Self
  9. Bruce Weber

Who had the best Year Three?

That’s easy: Ralph Jones won Illinois’ only National Championship, going undefeated in his third year at the helm. That was 1915. James Naismith lived for another 24 years.

The Illini beat Purdue 27-to-8 that year. They trounced Indiana 20-to-4 in Bloomington. Whether you’d recognize those contests as basketball is questionable.

After 14 years in Champaign, Jones left for Lake Forest Academy. He also coached the Chicago Bears to an NFL Championship.

Who was average in Year Three?

Craig Ruby’s 14 years (1922-36) were still pretty early on in the game’s history. For what it’s worth, his second and second-to-last teams won the Big Ten. His third team finished 11-6 (8-4).

Doug Mills won the Big Ten in his first year. The 1936-37 season featured Harry Combes at forward. Combes then graduated, and Mills’s second year was his worst. That team finished 9-9 (4-8) even with Lou Boudreau as captain.

Mills won two more conference championships (1942, 1943). Year Three was a solid foundation for that rebuild. Mills’s third team finished 14-5 (8-4).

Harry Combes returned as head coach, succeeding Mills. He led the Illini to Final Fours in Year Two, Year Four and Year Five. Each of those teams finished with a top-5 ranking and five or fewer losses.

In Year Three, Combes’s team did not make the playoffs. They finished 14-8.

Harv Schmidt’s second team was his best, finishing 19-5 and ranked #20. His third team had a winning record of 15-9. The next year they finished below .500.

Schmidt’s last three teams were 14-10, 14-10 and 5-18.

Who had the worst Year Three?

That’s debatable. Lon Kruger’s and Lou Henson’s worst teams were Year Three, and they were pretty bad. Bill Self’s third team was pretty good, but arguably his worst.

The Self-analysis is somewhat subjective. 2002’s team won a share of the B1G Championship and made the Sweet Sixteen. The 2003 team achieved neither plateau, but won the B1G Tourament. They had fewer wins and fewer losses. The 2002 team faced three top-ten teams in the pre-conference season. The 2003 squad faced two top-20 teams in the pre-conference. 2002 lost 2-of-3. 2003 won both.

No matter how you slice it, Bill Self did best with Lon Kruger’s recruits. In his third year, he had legendary stars in place. But they were young. They were learning. Their best years were ahead of them. They didn’t advance to the second weekend of the NCAAs.

You’ll remember Kruger’s 3-13 B1G cellar-dwellers making a run to the BTT championship game, before Mo Pete and Mateen Cleaves slapped a sense of reality into them.

Nobody blamed Kruger for a lousy year. He’d won a championship in 1998 with Henson’s players. He had big name recruits coming in.

Lou Henson’s third team beat Bobby Knight’s 11th ranked Hoosiers, in Bloomington. The old saying for Ohio State football fans goes like this: “You can go winless all year, and then beat Michigan. That’s a good season.” It wasn’t a good season. Illinois finished 13-14 (7-11). Only the liar/cheater Bruce Pearl could produce a worse season, statistically speaking, for Henson. The 1992 Illini finished 13-15 (7-11) in the wake of Pearl’s storytelling.

Henson’s tenure is instructive. He’s talked about his first year on the job, when he and Tony Yates, Les Wothke and Mark Coomes canvassed the state, meeting with all the high school coaches who’d give them the time, and building relationships. Coomes moved on for a while, Mark Bial and Bill Molinari filled his spot as Yates and Wothke continued to make a case with recruits.

Despite all that legwork, Henson’s first three teams were lousy. 14-13 (7-11) in 1976, 16-14 (8-10) in 1977, and the awful Year Three.

His fourth team was undefeated, and had just beat the top-ranked eventual National Champion, when it lost its point guard. That team, minus Steve Lanter, was bad.

In Year Six, Henson had Derek Harper at the point. Eddie Johnson, Mark Smith and Derek Holcomb were seniors. That team made the NCAA tournament, beat Wyoming, and lost to Kansas State.

If social media existed in 1981, what would it have said of Lou Henson? His teams hovered around .500 for the fist three years, seemed great before collapsing in year four, made the NIT in year five, and then one-and-done in the tournament with two future NBA veterans in the line-up.

The next year, it was back to the NIT.

From a 2015 perspective, you’ve got to assume that Illinois Athletic Director Neale Stoner has seen enough at this point. He’s not the guy who hired Henson. He’s got a third year winner building the football program into a national powerhouse.

But Stoner, in 1982, knew what everyone knows today, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee & The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He knew who was coming in. Henson began landing top recruits from the time he arrived, but it wasn’t until his 6th or 7th year that recruiting became an unstoppable machine. That’s comparable to Groce’s early-going. Leron Black and Kendrick Nunn were the first high-profile recruits, but they weren’t surrounded by five-stars at all other positions.

When Henson finally got the engine firing on all cylinders, Illini basketball went on a 25-year Glory Daze. The Pearl Years and the post-Henson recruiting lag (Kruger’s Year Three) were the low points. Otherwise the Illini contended for championships and top recruits from 1984 through 2006, which was Bruce Weber’s Year Three.

Year Three is when Bruce Weber was exposed. Stunningly, he was allowed to tank the program for another six seasons. Year Three should have been all we needed to know.

Retaining Dee Brown, James Augustine, Warren Carter and Brian Randle from Bill Self’s recruiting efforts; Weber fielded a fairly good group in 2006. But the offense looked awful. The ball movement, which prompted gushing from John Wooden a year earlier, stagnated.  Dee spent most of 2006 dribbling, and then chucking a three-pointer as the shot clock expired.

When Dee was able to pass the ball, we saw Augustine burying jumpers from the short corner. Augustine didn’t shoot jumpers in his previous two years under Weber. Why not? Because he played the 5 in those years. Shaun Pruitt played the 5 in 2006, and Augustine played the 4. It was a rigid system, no matter what people say about the “freedom” that motion offense allows, in theory.

Weber’s rigidity gave way after the school record 19-loss season of 2008, his Year Five. Recruiting priorities changed. Weber played Mike Tisdale at the 5, but allowed him to shoot from deep.

John Groce’s Year Three seems unlikely to finish well.  His teams improve by March, but March is too late for Selection Committee purposes. As the losses accumulate, social media will grow increasingly impatient with Groce. His first three years are Henson-esque, but in a different era.

What does John Groce make of the Year Three doldrums? I asked him:


I want to talk about Year Three as a concept, because I’m looking at the record book and I see that Lon Kruger’s worst year was Year Three. Lou Henson’s worst year was Year Three. Arguably Bill Self too.




So just in general, what is it about the third year of program building, class balance, whatever, that makes the third year a challenge?


I don’t know, Rob.  That’s interesting. I think that’s pretty insightful.

You know, I don’t know. I heard Urban Meyer say the other day after the national semi-final that he thought this year might be a “void” year. I don’t know if I thought — from that standpoint — that I thought that.

I thought last year — I kinda knew when I took the job that we were going to be very new & young in our second year, and we were going to be a work-in-progress.

All of us as coaches, we want to be … we tend to be impatient. And want things now

But you know, for “Year Three,” I don’t know. I don’t know what that common denominator would be. Whether that just happens to be a pattern, or whether that just happens to be an outlier for us in our program’s development and growth. You know I do think we can play better than we’re playing right now. I do think we have a lot of veteran guys. But we have got to connect the dots. We have got to be more connected than what we are right now, as a group, at both ends of the floor.

But that’s interesting. I would not have known that had you not stated that.


Does it make you feel any better to know that?


Not really.

But it should.

And what about Illini fans? Should they feel relieved to know the history of Year Three? Well, sports fans are not the most rational bunch. But while they’re gathering their ropes, tar and feathers; maybe they’ll be relieved to remember what Kruger accomplished in Year Five (i.e. Bill Self first season). Maybe they’ll be relieved to remember what Self accomplished in Year Five (i.e. Bruce Weber’s second season).

Maybe they’ll recall what Henson built by the middle of Year Four, before Steve Lanter blew his knee out.

And there’s another lesson from the past, one that all Illini fans (and coaches) should keep in mind: Even the best teams can’t win with wings alone. Every team needs a point guard.