This post has little entertainment value. It’s not funny, and there’s not much insight into basketball, except for the Mike Thorne video, below. There’s some maudlin ranting at the bottom, but it’s not based on data.
Instead, this post is a behind-the-scenes wrap-up of October’s three Illini basketball events, two “media days” and one scrimmage. If you’re trying to kill time in an airport, and your free wi-fi just expired, this is the column for you.
ILLINI ALL-IN SCRIMMAGE, OCTOBER 25, 2015
You’ve read the coverage and the commentary. You already know the most-talked-about story is Big Bo, fifth-year senior Mike Thorne. The most impressive aspect of his performance, in my mind, was his footwork. He moves like a circus acrobat. He has phenomenal balance.
Here’s a video collage of his performance.
The biggest storyline went under-the-radar: Malcolm Hill acquitted himself at point guard. He handled a zone press, and distributed effectively. He dribbled between his legs just the way point guards are expected to do.
Malcolm as point guard is the solution to all of John Groce’s problems, if he can pull it off. It’s also Malcolm’s best position for NBA purposes. If John Groce can transform Malcolm Hill into an NBA point guard, he’ll have a hell of a story to tell prospective recruits.
If there’s anything this staff should be able to produce, it’s a point guard. Think about it. John Groce = D-III point guard. Paris Parham = D-II point guard. Dustin Ford = D-I point guard (mid-major). Jamall Walker = D-I point guard. Special Assistant to the Director of Atletics Dee Brown = Bob Cousy Award-Winning D-I point guard.
The All-In crowd was as big as fire code allows, which is not big.
No one paid to get in, and the DIA provided lunch catered by Hickory River Smokehouse. I ate pulled pork while gossiping off-the-record with Kathi LaTulip. (The LaTulip family will continue to travel for games, even though Mike’s potential for PT is now 0%.)
After the three 8 minute scrimmages, and a speech from John Groce, everyone lined up to get an autographed poster of the team. This poster had the season schedule printed, conveniently, right at the bottom, which reminded everyone that plenty of tickets remain for all games. DIA needs to remind people about each and every one of those games, at any opportunity.
These autographed posters have serious collector value, because each one was signed by Jerel Pitts, a 6’3″ freshman walk-on SG from Maywood (Proviso West) and nobody knows whether he’ll actually play on the team.
BIG TEN MEDIA DAY, OCTOBER 15, 2015
The B1G event moved across the street, from the Hyatt Regency O’Hare to the Marriott. The Marriott space is far more compact, which made the event feel smaller.
Stephen Bardo & Howard Moore stood chatting at the corner of the two hallways which housed all meeting and work rooms, effectively blocking traffic throughout the event. They were occasionally joined in conversation by players, coaches and fellow members of the media. When two or more persons joined in, it was literally impossible to get through.
I was one of those persons for a while. Afterward, I wondered if I should say “hey guys, you’re too big to stand here blocking traffic.” I chose against it. Bardo and Moore are super friendly, and would certainly have accommodated. But a lot of the people they were blocking are insufferable assholes. So it kinda worked out.
B1G SID Brett McWethy shook things up this year, staggering the time slots of conference coaches’ availability, thus allowing reporters more face time. That was nice. Whether it translates for fan purposes, media logistics stuff has improved since Brett took the job a couple of years ago.
I got the feeling that most media outlets were not interested in John Groce. Chicago TV stations got a few seconds of soundbites, but spent less than two minutes with him. Illini beat writers spent more time listening to Malcolm Hill, whose availability was simultaneous to Groce’s, and one table over. Mark Tupper and Marcus Jackson barely attended Groce at all. Steve Greenberg and Shannon Ryan checked in and out and in.
Loren Tate dropped in to Groce’s availability to question Groce about availability (which is awesome, and one of the reasons why Loren Tate is still the best). Tate’s latest column contrasts Groce’s secrecy with the openness of the coaches who preceded him, all of whom were more successful.
Malcolm Hill is good with the media. Groce is pretty far down the list of B1G coaches when it comes to public persona. He’s a numbers guy. You’d want him as your accountant, not a raconteur. Given the choices in the room, it made sense that Groce would spawn less interest than others. But that’s not the whole story.
Overall, it was plain that media outlets consider Illinois basketball an afterthought among conference contenders. Chris Collins fielded a larger entourage than Groce. I always thought Al Gore got a bad rap, but Chris Collins is definitely wooden.
Tom Crean’s pack of onlookers was triple the size of Groce’s. Crean enters his eighth season of Coaches on the Hot Seat. His teams routinely under-perform, and this year’s is more overrated than any of them. But Crean got more coverage.
That’s where Illini basketball is, October 2015.
Recalling Groce’s reaction to the Sun-Times Cliffmas headline “LOL ILL,” I wonder what his candid response would be to that question today: What kind of place is Illinois basketball in right now? (Excuse the syntax. That was the phrasing.)
Still, at least Groce had some interest. Eddie Jordan sat at the Rutgers table with a single beat reporter. Pat Chambers, Tim Miles and Richard Pitino hung out in the hallway rather than hiding in an off-limits greenroom. They and their programs all need more attention from the media, so they don’t hide from it.
These are the coaches expected to vie for first place … in the bottom half of the B1G.
ILLINI MEDIA DAY – OCT 8, 2015
The team arrived 30-40 minutes late, for some reason. They sat for a team photo.
Mark Jones, the primary in-house photographer of Illini sports for the last few decades, wanted a smiling version and a serious version. A few of the players tried to wipe the smirks from their faces while a few others attempted to put smirks on fellow players’ faces (i.e. to crack them up). Mike LaTulip played both sides of that fence.
There’s no format for interviews during the hour or so that players are available. Reporters and photographers huddle around individual players. If you absolutely need a quote from a guy, joining the huddle is the best way to ensure you get one.
That’s how most media operate. They don’t listen to everything an interviewee has to say. They “get a quote.” In my opinion, it’s ethically bankrupt. Searching for quotes begets leading questions. Respondents respond. You get the story you seek. That’s bad reporting.
I try to hear and capture everything a person says. I’ll edit stuff for humor or concision purposes, but I try to record everything that’s made available for the record.
Anyway, back to Illini Media Day. Here’s how it works: The News-Gazette and the local TV stations set up photography stations in opposite corners of the men’s gym. I set up shop in the southwest corner.
I didn’t try to get time with D.J. Williams or Kendrick Nunn. Neither has ever seemed enamored of camera time.
I would have liked to talk with Leron Black and Tracy Abrams, but they’d disappeared by the time I finished my first six interviews. In fact, the gym was empty. SID Derrick Burson made it clear that he’d bring guys out of the team room if I wanted them, but I don’t like to do that. I made the exception with Jalen Coleman-Lands because he’s new. It was necessary to talk with him.
Thus, my annual pre-season video featured only half the team.
If you’ve watched any of my pre-season movies, it should be pretty obvious which players I prefer to interview. It has little to do with their prominence as on-court performers. Malcolm Hill is great with the camera and a star of the team. Mike LaTulip won’t play this year, and he’s a top go-to guy for me. (FYI, Mike was planning to redshirt last year, even after Abrams Injury #1. He won’t give up his final year of eligibility for anything less than 10 minutes per game, and that would require four more season-ending injuries.) Maverick Morgan and Jaylon Tate should work for Lorne Michaels, whatever their talents on court.
Guys who play a lot don’t necessarily have the perspective of guys who watch a lot.
Perspective is important this year. It won’t be the last for John Groce. It might be the penultimate. He’s faced too many tribulations during the preceding months. Whatever happens this year, it’s not “on him.” Not this year.
But at the same time, this is the year Groce must make a statement to the people not buying tickets, to the point guards not choosing Illinois, to the media not lining up to hear his voice.
Illini basketball has wandered in the wilderness for ten years. No one even argues about it at dinner anymore. It’s simply not discussed.