Illini basketball

A Return to Form?

Kendrick Nunn (25) and Nnanna Egwu (32) battle Northwesterns Sanjay Lumpkin for a reboundKendrick 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.

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