Illini basketball

Scrimmage notes

When I arrived, a little before 2 p.m. Tuesday, Alex Austin was the lone player in Ubben #2, the men’s gym. He was shooting threes with The Gun. Later in the day, he would be the top three-point shooter among his teammates, and the only player to hit more than one.

Tracy Abrams (Bruce Douglas Jersey winner) and Malcolm Hill (Augustine Jersey Winner) were the next players on the court.

Jaylon Tate came next. He worked extensively on his three-point shooting, but without The Gun. Instead, team managers wrangled the rebounds and Jamall Walker fed the passes. Tate hit about 60% from the arc. Really.  I have video to prove it.

The team’s practice began with a walk-through of the Dribble Hand Off, which John Groce calls “hippo.” At last week’s open practice, this terminology confused Larry Brown, who refers to it as D-H-O, just like the rest of the basketball world.

Groce asked the team whether anyone would like to add something to his lesson, Maverick Morgan piped up. He said it’s hard for big men to recover defensively after a high ball screen hand-off, because you have to run through somebody to do it.

Of the media that showed up, only Derek Piper and Scott Richey stayed for the whole show. I suppose the others had to be back at the station by airtime. Josh Whitman and Warren Hood each watched a portion of the practice. A small group of (ostensibly Orange Krush) students observed from the balcony.

Whitman came over to say hello. I asked about the mark under his right eye. He said it dates back to sixth grade, and that you can tell when he’s tired because it grows increasingly red. He added that it’s been red a lot lately.

At the south end, erstwhile DePaul coach Joey Meyer joined Machanda Hill and her mom (Malcolm’s grandmother “Miss Hardin”) and Ramon Williams, who was John Groce’s first Special Assistant to the Head Coach at Illinois (for about 15 minutes) before accepting an assistant coaching job at Virginia Tech. He’s now a major gifts officer at his alma mater, Virginia Military Institute.

On the day, Kipper Nichols, Te’Jon Lucas, Aaron Jordan, Malcolm, Tracy, Michael Finke and DJ Williams all connected once from distance. Abrams’s three came as time expired in the third scrimmage, from about 25 feet. Jordan and Jalen Coleman-Lands each airmailed a three. JCL’s right hand was wrapped and padded. He made some great passes.

In the second scrimmage, Tracy Abrams moved to the PG position after playing only the 2 in the first round. Kipper Nichols got his first court action, spelling Leron Black at PF.

Mike Thorne Jr. didn’t play much in the third scrimmage, and didn’t appear in the fourth scrimmage until late. His repaired knee was wrapped with the kind of brace one normally sees on a football lineman. Three things to keep an eye on with Big Bo:

In the 5-on-0 drills, he frequently dribbled the ball two or three times after catching a pass at the free-throw stripe. If he ever dribbles in the high-post, the ball will be stolen.

Thorne invariably pumps the ball (brings it down to the level of his abdomen) before attempting a short jumper. Keeping the ball high would be preferred.

Thorne used his left hand to connect on short hook shots. Everybody agreed that he should expand that usage, because it’s really hard to guard.

And speaking of unnecessary flourishes at the Five Spot, Maverick Morgan was mid-dunk when he instead chose a dainty finger roll for his second bucket of Quarter Three. The ball was already in the cylinder when Mav opted for his theatrics. Lou Henson would have benched him immediately.

I screwed up the math in this quarter. The final was 23-20 Blue, with Tracy Abrams nailing a long three as time expired. My marks and notations, kept in a GMail draft on my phone, don’t add up. It could be that I put Jaylon Tate on the wrong roster. There’s no 0 or B in my notes to demarcate his team. I’ve already forgiven myself. It’s hard keeping stats.


Te’Jon Lucas looked really good in transition, but what about playing within the system? He’s got a lot to learn. His best performance came in the latter half of the four scrimmages.

Who played the Five when Thorne was out in Quarter Four? In my notes, I have Mav and Finke on the Orange team for this one. So the answer is “Leron.”

Referees Dave Cronin, Mike Kashirsky and Bo Boroski performed not only normal officiating duties, but also explained rulings to players where possible (e.g. dead ball). At the conclusion of the four 8 minute scrimmages, Boroski stood at center court, with the team in a circle around him, and explained the NCAA’s new tweaks to various rules. Especially important this year, Boroski explained, is the “cylinder” that rises from a player’s feet. That cylinder must not be breached by a defender, but must also not be exploited by the offensive player.

Jaylon Tate, JCL and Tracy Abrams were all whistled for push-offs (raising an arm to move a defender away from the ball). Maverick Morgan (and I think Aaron Jordan) were penalized for illegal screens. Leron Black continues to be a rebounding fool and a fouling machine. He too was whistled for pushing-off, on the low block.

Jamall Walker may have used the word “shitshow” to assess the afternoon’s display of missed shots, turnovers and fouling. I don’t actually remember. But that was the sentiment. Finke agreed it was pretty bad, but considering it’s the first time the entire roster was available (i.e. cleared to play), their inability to mesh is understandable.

D.J Williams is #2 at the wing, lock it up. Aaron Jordan is playing the two, and you might see Abrams playing a lot there as well. D.J should see some action this year, and maybe that means having him on the court at the same time as Malcolm. In the Groce offense, it really doesn’t matter who’s labeled the 2 or the 3. The PF and C positions are also interchangeable.

Despite connecting on a three-pointer, Kipper Nichols is confined to the PF position for now.  That’s odd, because during Media Day, everyone insisted Kipper is a three, including Kipper.

It would be great to see D.J. and Finke at PG, just to screw with the opponent. And I’m not kidding about that. They’ve both played the position, and DJ especially has the quickness to defend an opposing PG.

Does John Groce think outside that particular box? It would be awesome if he did.


Illini football

Pictures from the Big House

Vashoune Russell made the trip to Ann Arbor, where Illinois covered the spread! (Hey, you gotta take your bright spots where you can find them.)

Here’s what he saw through his lens.

Illini basketball

The Quinn Richardson Lesson

Te’Jon Lucas verballed his commitment to Illinois basketball six weeks after Tracy Abrams’s second season-ending injury. So he’s known all along that his freshman season would find him on a roster featuring two veteran upperclassmen at his position.

Maybe Te’Jon never regarded himself as Option 3 among the point guards. And maybe he’s not.

Ten days ago, he said the option of a freshman redshirt year has been discussed only by family members, and mostly because they weren’t up-to-speed on his recovery from a broken ankle in early February.

But whatever the depth chart, the Illini roster recalls one of the most intriguing (and in hindsight brilliant) strategic maneuvers in Illinois basketball history.

Lou Henson knew Derek Harper and Bruce Douglas were going to handle the ball in 1983.  He must have known that Harper would then enter the NBA Draft.

So Henson asked Quinn Richardson to sit out his senior season, and bank his last year of eligibility for 1984. As a 5th year senior, Richardson was a starter on Illinois’ B1G championship team.

Jim Rossow interviewed Richardson in 2009, prefatory to the 1984 team’s reunion.

All I had to hear was “more playing time” and I jumped at it. That was probably an atypical situation, especially for a senior. Seldom do you have seniors redshirt unless they get injured. But look how it turned out.

From A Century of Orange and Blue: Celebrating 100 Years of Fighting Illini by Loren Tate, Jared Gelfond:

Quinn Richardson’s career stat line is remarkable to behold. By deferring to two all-century Illini, he sextupled his scoring average. His minutes increased by NINETY-FIVE PERCENT over his junior year.

Jaylon Tate, Te’Jon Lucas and Tracy Abrams can’t all play 20 minutes per game this year. And they won’t.

Abrams must and will play this year. But what about the other two?

Tate started half of the games he played in last season (missing a few with that nasty pinky dislocation in game 1), but averaged only 17.5 minutes.  He didn’t play at all at Wisconsin, and only three minutes against Indiana.

Jaylon Tate’s career stats

But Tate knows the flowgame and the packline. He’s in good physical condition. So even if John Groce lost faith in him last February, it’s hard to imagine Groce supplanting him with a kid who turned 18 this month, who’s recovering from major surgery, and who’s just now learning the system.

Lucas could follow in Tate’s footsteps by spelling Abrams for eight to ten minutes a game.  But as of now, that’s still Tate’s job.

Tate is unlikely to opt out for the 2016-17 season, but what if he did? There are no scholarship seniors on next year’s roster.

Lucas’s conditioning and inexperience would seem to make him a prime candidate for a redshirt, but nobody knows that. It’s just a hunch.

His teammates think he can contribute this year.

Should everyone universally assume that Tracy Abrams is the starter at point guard? It seems like the safest bet in town, right?

Well, keep in mind the intriguing aspect of the Groce-Abrams relationship, revealed at the 2014 MBB banquet. Groce praised Joe Bertrand and Jon Ekey for accepting diminished roles mid-season (paving the way for Malcolm Hill) and added that such “sacrifice” would be a key to the next season’s success.

Groce was talking about Tracy Abrams.

You’ll remember the context. Illinois fans had just endured a miserable season, plagued by “hero ball.”

You’ll remember how 2014’s slim NCAA hopes ended: Tracy Abrams alligator-armed a runner against Michigan, in a one point loss.

You’ll remember how 2014 ended overall: Tracy Abrams firing a long airball at Clemson, in a one point loss.

So in April of 2014, Tracy Abrams was not the wave of the future in John Groce’s mind.

On the other hand, Groce incessantly voices appreciation for Abrams’s work-ethic and leadership.

Before the collapse, those qualities took the spotlight in Abrams’s amazing performance during the first game of that Big Ten Tournament. 25 points, seven rebounds, two steals, two assists and a blocked shot.

The most exciting part was the defense, and defense has always been the reason Tracy sees the court.  Derided as a mediocre defender by those who don’t understand Groce’s philosophy, Tracy has always characterized the foremost principle of Groce’s defense with a word those naysayers would never guess: “trust.”

And he just plain tries hard.

Abrams has inspired and flummoxed Illini fans his entire career. He always puts the team on his back. He sometimes carries it to victory.

The dagger at Minnesota comes to mind.

His tying and go-ahead free-throws in Braggin’ Rights 2013 will not be soon forgotten.

Abrams assisted on Ekey’s buzzer-beater at Iowa, an option play called 44 Flat Fade. But even on that play, the ball seemed to stick in Tracy’s hands longer than you’d ideally want it to stick. That allowed Aaron White to get so far up Ekey’s grill, that science has yet to determine how the shot went in.

It’s that stickiness that’s held Tracy Abrams down. He’s never been able to get rid of the ball quickly. Getting rid of the ball quickly is Jaylon Tate’s preeminent skill.

Abrams has never demonstrated any fear, but he’s also never demonstrated the ability to penetrate and kick, one of the foremost skills required of Groce’s offense. Jaylon Tate is good at that, too. The thing Tate can’t do, famously, is shoot.

“Who cares?” said Howard Moore, in a hallway of the Marriott O’Hare, during last autumn’s Big Ten Basketball Media Day. “Really,” agreed Stephen Bardo.

Bardo and Moore blocked the intersection of two arterial hallways for much of that morning. Moore had taken a job as BTN analyst before Bo Ryan’s retirement freed up his old position on the Badger staff. Count him among Jaylon Tate’s fans. Coaches love watching good passers.

Tracy Abrams is no Derek Harper, and Te’Jon Lucas is probably not the second-coming of Bruce Douglas.

Jaylon Tate could pull a Chester Frazier on us, and finish his Illini career as a competent shooter. But there’s no Gary Nottingham on staff to analyze and correct shooting form.

It seems unlikely that Tate would follow the Quinn Richardson example. But it would be fun watching him alley-oop to Jeremiah Tilmon.

Illini football

The Chayce Crouch Era?

Wes Lunt crumpled into a dormant pile.

When Wes Lunt crumpled into a dormant heap last Saturday, Illinois’ offense sprang (unanticipatedly?) to life. Everyone knew Chayce Crouch was good for only one thing: faking a hand-off then running the ball himself.

For a number of snaps, that’s exactly what Chayce Crouch did. Time and again, it worked. Purdue must have known it was coming, but they couldn’t stop it.

Call it a draw, or a naked bootleg or a misdirection or any other term for quarterback keeper. It got the Illini offense moving downfield.

Chayce Crouch runs downfield.

Then something weird happened. Chayce Crouch attempted a pass.  It failed, of course, because Chayce Crouch is good for one thing only.

Then something really weird happened.  Chayce Crouch completed a pass. Wholly new territory, right? Confused Illini fans, beginning to question whether bears actually do shit in the woods, and feeling less certain about the pope’s religious affiliation, watched Chayce Crouch complete 10-of-14 passes for 142 yards.

Chayce Crouch looks to pass (sic).

Some of these passes traveled mostly through the air. They were not simple pitch plays followed by long runs.

Because he fumbled in overtime, and because Illinois ultimately lost the game, the beginning of The Chayce Crouch Era ended on a somber note.

By Monday lunchtime, Lovie Smith was already referring to Crouch as the back-up. Lunt was unable to practice, “obviously,” said the coach. But he’s still the starter.

Reading between the lines and the coachspeak, what does that mean? It means you should expect Chayce Crouch to enjoy a career day against the Big Ten’s worst team.

Chayce Crouch was head-over-heels for this touchdown.

Maybe Lunt will play, if he and the team’s medical staff decide he’s up to it. Maybe Lovie will employ two QBs simply to throw Rutgers off balance. Why wouldn’t he? Lunt has been competent, if not exciting.  You don’t worry that he’ll toss the ball casually into coverage. He showed, at Nebraska, that he’s learned to spot a gaping hole and run toward it.

But it’s hard to believe that we won’t see Chayce Crouch taking snaps for the third week in a row. Unless and until he proves that his fumble wasn’t a rarity, or his offensive numbers an anomaly, Illinois has no reason to keep him on the sidelines.

Illini football

Introducing Vashoune Russell, photographer

Lovie Smith says “oh no he didn’t get to the three yard line” or something of that sort. (Vashoune Russell)

Perhaps you noticed a change with the pictures here at IlliniReport. Suddenly, after years of mediocrity, they don’t suck.

After 14 years coaching Urbana High sports, including the last seven as head boys basketball coach, Vashoune Russell decided to hang up his whistle and instead wrap a Canon Mark IV around his neck.

Some of you may remember Vashoune as the skinny, quiet kid on the Leal School playground. I know I do. On the other hand, many of you will be stunned to learn that Vashoune was once skinny.

Our long association is the reason IlliniReport is the place you’ll see his photography this season. But I expect you’ll see his work elsewhere, too, once the secret gets out.

Here’s a sampling of the moments he captured Saturday in Lincoln, Nebraska.