Illini basketball


The Illini men lost a season opener for the first time this century. Don’t worry about it. It just doesn’t matter.

Illinois found its on-court leader Friday night. And then it lost him. Worry about that, until a favorable prognosis is announced.

“AJ, get the fuck in the game” yelled Jaylon Tate to freshman Aaron Jordan, as the latter’s defensive lapses allowed North Florida to grab an early lead.

Tate is a beloved character on the team. Light-hearted, smart and wickedly funny. But he’s not a jokester about execution. Jordan and Jalen Coleman-Lands spent much of Friday out-of-position on defense. That’s not the reason Illinois lost. It was freshmen being freshmen.  In this case, the freshmen played their first game versus an NCAA tournament team of upperclassmen who played the game of their lives.

It happens.

On the drive to Springfield last week, Matt Campbell asked me to describe Mike Thorne’s game. Like a lot of Illini fans, he’s stopped paying year-round attention.

“He’ll shoot about 53% from the floor this year,” I told him. “He’ll miss 47% of his 2-to-3 footers,  so I think a lot of fans will find it maddening to watch him, because he’ll miss so many bunnies, and he refuses to use the backboard. But he’s got really quick feet.”

On Friday, “Big Bo” connected on 52% of his bunnies, and 3-of-8 free throws.  This will be your constant for the 2015-16 season. Everything else is subject to change.

John Groce scheduled this season as a precisely tuned entreaty to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. He knew North Florida, North Dakota State and Chattanooga would boost his team’s RPI.

He didn’t know he’d be starting freshmen, and giving significant minutes to a walk-on.

“I’m not gonna sit here and tell ya that I thought Abrams, Black, Nunn … and Jaylon Tate would play half the game. I’d be lying if I said that to you.”

If those guys were all available, this team would still be behind Northern Florida. The Ospreys have chemistry. They’ve been together for a while. The Illini are all newcomers. Malcolm Hill is a newcomer to everyone he’s playing with (now that Jaylon Tate is gone).

This Illini team needs time to assimilate team defense. “Man-to-man” principles don’t apply in the John Groce era (nor Bruce Weber before him). It’s now about helping & hedging in the Pack-Line. Or it’s two-three zone. They’re both zone defenses, in traditional terms. And most Illini newcomers (and most Illini are newcomers) don’t get it yet.

But even if Aaron Jordan and Jalen Coleman-Lands had done everything right, defensively, on Friday; it just wouldn’t matter. Because all the really good-looking girls would still go out with guys from Mohawk because they’ve got all the money.

The Ospreys hit 52% from three. Their 6’8″ shooting guard/slasher hit 7-of-8 from deep. You can’t blame yourself for that kind of performance.

When Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale pulled a similar stunt on Bo Ryan, at Kohl in 2010, Wisconsin’s coaching legend was unruffled and unconcerned. There’s nothing you can do when a team drops threes from that distance, and that rate. (I write about this all the time, often referencing Illini anomalies versus Bo. Dee Champaign 2005, McBride 2006 and Jack @ Kohl 2005 are the other examples.)

You can blame yourself for Dallas Moore’s continual forays into the paint. The Illini haven’t figured out help defense.  There was no Sam McLaurin to shift into Victor Oladipo’s path to the basket. Maverick Morgan performed this role in the second half, but the game was already out of reach.

Groce gets a pass on all of this. Recruiting is not on the level we were promised. But this spate of injuries is unprecedented. If memory serves, you’ll know this author doesn’t go easy on coaches who deserve criticism.