Illini basketball

Stall Ball: It still doesn’t work

Winthrop wasn’t great. Illinois should have won.

Lots of guys played poorly, for each team. But everything about this game favored the littlest guy on the court.

Keon Johnson is physically unable to violate the new cylinder rule. At 5’4″, he’s simply incapable of fouling a typical college player above the waist.

Referee Kelly Pfeifer set the tone with a lot of early whistles. After three consecutive calls, Pfeifer seemed to recognize that he should, maybe, take a break. He was on the verge of becoming the story of the game.

Terry Oglesby, perhaps sensing that Pfeifer shouldn’t be the only official to use his whistle, ramped up his whistling game.

Big guys were disproportionately affected, and Illinois’ height advantage disappeared when Maverick Morgan went to the bench with two early fouls.

Leron Black entered the game, rusty, and picked up two of his own. Same with Mike Thorne.

Contrast Johnson, by far the most aggressive player on the court. He finished the first half with 15 points and a single foul. He earned another in the second half.

Still, Illinois should have won. But as the clock ran toward expiry, John Groce ordered his team to take its collective foot off the gas.

That never works.


My first memory of Illini basketball features no players, no live action. It was a criticism, spoken by a disgruntled fan. And then another one. And then I remember my dad saying the same thing.

Being a tot, I interpreted the criticism literally. They were tired of Lou Henson’s “letting the air out of the ball.” I remembered it because it seemed absurd, not as a strategy, but as a literal interpretation. How could Henson get away with it, I thought? Wouldn’t somebody notice?

Today, the strategy still seems absurd. When a team gains a lead in a game, it’s done something right, right? Whatever the game plan, it worked.

So why stop doing it?

John Groce is my age, so he ought to know that “stall ball” is a bad idea. But Groce is a numbers guy, so there must be a data set that tells him to run down the shot clock, then heave a desperation shot once the defense locks down.

Bruce Weber employed the same terrible strategy, and it was a significant factor in his demise.

Up by ten points with less than four minutes to go, eating clock seemed like a good idea to John Groce. One team needed to score, and did so with a sense of urgency. The other team dribbled a lot.

In the final 2:43, the urgent team scored ten points and took over the game’s momentum. An already small crowd groaned. They’ve seen this scenario play out many times in their collective lives. Even when the stalling team wins, the game becomes closer, more tense. Fans don’t enjoy it.

“Stall Ball” wasn’t always an awful idea. Before the introduction of the shot clock, it worked well for teams who knew how to run it. Dean Smith’s Carolina Tarheels were the best. They called it “the Four Corners.”

You’ll notice that Phil Ford threatened to drive to the basket. He didn’t just stand there, dribbling.  When the defense gave him an open look, he took it.

Monday night will be remembered for a long time. Keon Johnson’s performance was amazing. So was the Illinois collapse. If the Groce era ends in the next sixteen months, the Winthrop game will be a talking point.

Player rotations, a frequent topic among Groce’s most outspoken critics, will be an issue. On Monday, Te’Jon Lucas did not play and D.J. Williams got three minutes.  Malcolm Hill played 39, and connected on 0-of-10 two-pointers. Was he fatigued?

Jaylon Tate chased Keon Johnson around all night, but Lucas might have been able to help hold Johnson to 15-of-21 shooting. Frankly, no one could stop Johnson. His game is incomprehensible to major college basketball players, because they never experience a 5’4″ spark plug.

Instead of Lucas, Groce employed Jalen Coleman-Lands, where dead balls allowed, as an offense-for-defense substitute for Tate. Groce did so even when Keon Johnson curled up in a heap, with a leg cramp.

JCL was pretty scrappy in the endgame, BTW.

Everybody involved with Illini basketball had an off-night. John Groce’s was the offest.



Illini football

2016 Senior Day Pictures, Iowa @ Illinois football

Vashoune Russell is a hunter. He loves cold weather.

He and his fancy camera were on hand for a morning football game that some people might want to forget. But let’s say you’re reading this page in 2024, have no idea who won, and merely want to know where Hardy Nackerson’s son Hardy Nickerson played college ball.

This page could  misinform you on many levels.

You’ll also be looking for more info on 2021 Pro-Bowl QB Wes Lunt. And here it is.

Illini basketball

Big Bo’s dribble-drive

I guess my view differs from the mainstream reaction to Illinois’ 89-69 win over hapless Detroit Mercy. The typical fan, it seems, thought the Bigs played badly. The head coach thought so as well. (The players presser was more fun, with Brandon Paul joining the Illini media pool.)

I thought they were great.

Sure, Michael Finke had an off-night shooting, and Maverick Morgan didn’t grab a rebound. I’m okay with that.

Finke is a great shooter, and Morgan sets a lot of high ball screens. On Friday, he frequently defended counterpart Jaleel Hogan in the high-post.

Those two things kept him away from the basket.

When Maverick did find himself under the basket, the ball seemed to ricochet to the weak side, where Jalen Coleman-Lands or Tracy Abrams benefited from the long carom (combining for ten boards).

But what I’m really excited about was Mike Thorne’s 180° pivot in the pivot. Instead of flinging the ball haphazardly, as if he were over-matched by bigger, stronger defenders; Mike Thorne used the glass, and maneuvered his way toward the basket, employing actual big-man moves of the sort befitting an actual big man.

He made 5-of-5 shots. Four of them counted, and three of those (if I recall correctly) were banked off the glass.

The one that didn’t count should have counted. Mike was called for traveling on a jump-stop, one of basketball’s most confusing exceptions to a rule. (Here, let me Google that for you.)

Here it is in extremely slo-mo.

So maybe he got screwed. Either way, I’m thrilled that he used a single dribble and some footwork to get a better shot than the type he’s settled for recently.

John Groce wasn’t as happy about Bo dribbling. But in my opinion, there’s a difference between a big man dribbling in a crowd of quick-handed guards, and a big man using his body to protect the ball from a single defender. I don’t like the former situation, either.

In another of exciting display of Big Bo 2.0, Thorne drove the entire lane, from the arc to the bucket, for a lay up off the glass!

This is a complete departure from last game, and most of Thorne’s Illini tenure, when he’s eschewed the backboard in favor of low-percentage shots. As I wrote, with no small amount of expletives, Thorne’s shot selection is likely to cost Illinois a win (or more) in close games this year.

But if Mike Thorne 2.0 continues to show up, that analysis becomes null and void.

A few other observations, in picture form (and beginning with football recruiting):

Illini basketball

Lesson of McKendree: Thorne’s shooting will cost Illini crucial wins this season

Did you hear about the guy with two thumbs who was worried after his team’s 47-point blowout?

John Groce laughed at the question: Has the staff tried to persuade Mike Thorne to use the backboard, or get closer to the hoop, when shooting?

It wasn’t meant to be funny. John Groce’s seat is far too warm for him to laugh at the idea. Hopefully he laughed because he knows old dogs don’t learn new tricks, not because he thought the question silly.

It’s a question that desperately needs deeper inquiry.

If Mike Thorne continues to fling the ball toward the hoop, rather than employing tried/true methods for finishing, Illinois will lose just the right amount of conference games to ensure an NIT berth.  In pooh-poohing the notion, Groce looks like Hillary’s rust-belt operatives. Does he truly not recognize the percentages?

One of the dumber traditions of the Groce Regime (and there are many to choose from) is the insistence on having each team huddle break with the chant

One, two, three

All-for-one and One-for-all

One, two, three


The lack of musicality is a problem. It’s an awkward group of words for purposes of metre. But that’s just a dorkiness problem.

Like any rote tedium, this incantation lost any meaning long ago. Say it enough times, and it becomes untrue.

Finishing should be important, but it’s obviously not important to Groce.  He’s sanguine about the utter lack of results.

Why does John Groce laugh at a problem which could, quite conceivably, cost him millions of dollars?

In some circles, Groce is thought of as “a players’ coach. ” Certainly, he’s had a number of fervent defenders among guys that played for him. Sam McLaurin said Groce was the first coach he’d known who listened to players’ ideas/input.

That’s all well and good. But Groce is a numbers guy if he’s anything, right? A math nerd?

Numbers lie. But numbers + subjective experience tell me that Mike Thorne connected on 1-of-6 shots from close range in the first half of Tuesday’s game.

His rebounding numbers were bad, too. His stats looked fine at the end of the game (double-double), but they didn’t look good subjectively.

If you want to celebrate the positives of Tuesday’s assault on the Little Sisters of Charity, there are plenty to choose from.

Some of them involve Mike Thorne.

To reiterate; I am a Mike Thorne fan. I like Mike Thorne personally.

I respect Mike Thorne.

I recognize the hurdles Mike Thorne has been forced to leap.

Mike Thorne is engaging and funny.

And John Groce must rein him in if this team wants to compete for anything meaningful this season.

Maverick Morgan, it seems, has Gotten It. He’s simplified his motions, especially on defense. He tallied exactly 0 personal fouls in 20 minute playing time, mostly at the center position.

His shot selection is excellent.

Jalen Coleman-Lands made 6-of-9 from three, but he also tallied three assists. JCL’s passing is way underrated.  I’m still looking for video of that mid-lane whip he delivered to KNunn last year, for the dunk.

On Tuesday, his overhead, behind-the-back assist to Mav elicited an audible gasp from the crowd.

Tracy Abrams enjoyed his best game as an Illini. He played within himself. His crisp passes excited his teammates as much as the crowd.

He didn’t miss a shot, and 4-of-5 were from the arc.

Tracy has been the focus of much media attention this fall, so it wouldn’t be fair to say he’s been overlooked. What might been overlooked is Dr. Jekyll, the version of Tracy Abrams that does everything right. Dr. Jekyll showed up for SEMO and for McKendree. That’s 50% for the year. Something north of 85% will be necessary if this team hopes to make the NCAA Tournament.

The weight of the world is on Tracy Abrams’s shoulders, which is exactly what Tracy Abrams always wanted.

Illini fans may accept this situation as inevitable or propitious.

Tracy truly is the determining factor for this team.

Jaylon Tate, bitches. Jaylon Tate.

Just keep saying that to yourselves, until you grow accustomed: Jaylon fucking Tate.

Eight assists and zero turnovers: Jaylon Tate.

Abrams picked up two quick fouls on Tuesday. That allowed Te’Jon Lucas to get on the floor while the game still mattered.  As with every other time he’s seen action, Te’Jon made the game more fun to watch than it had been without him.

The team’s best player continues to be Michael Finke. The skinny, slow, unathletic afterthought white kid is now the muscular, agile, canny man-among-boys on the court.

You could argue it’s mostly his court-sense. He’s a legacy, a coach’s kid. Yeah?

You may be right. But his physical talent is thrilling, especially when observed in tandem with the control he exerts over his own body.

Finally, shout out to Tom Michael and his offspring Nate.

Tom attended the game along with Rick Darnell, who fixed The Seating Problem at State Farm Center before moving into a non-sports “development” position with the U of I Foundation.

For people who don’t know, Mike Thomas and Rick Darnell were largely responsible for pissing-off the yokels who kept Illini sports irrelevant for most of the last three decades by refusing to pony up going-rates in exchange for season tickets.

That problem is fixed, now. Thomas got a golden parachute. Darnell got new scenery. Curmudgeonly spendthrifts may, in years to come, tell you how awful they were.


D.J. Williams is the lithe, fluid wing whose grace-in-motion has not been here seen since …

I actually can’t think of a player of DJ’s dimensions who moves so quickly, yet so precisely.  Except … maybe one.

It may be surprising to Illini fans, who seem to think of DJ as completely inscrutable when they think of him at all. But Dennis O’Keefe Williams is something akin to Marcus Liberty, but with the reputation way under-represented instead of hurtfully over-hyped.

Aaron Jordan may not be experiencing the Kendall Gill-like sophomore boost that Kendall Gill experienced. He’s still the most obvious Next Kendall Gill since Kendall Gill.

A kind person, Aaron may need to become slightly more assholey on the court to realize the Gill comparison. He describes himself as liking the perimeter. He needs to dunk on motherfuckers.

You were wondering about that “administrative technical foul?”

Oh, no? You weren’t? Oh, well that’s because you, like most people, weren’t watching the game. Especially the closing minutes.

Samson Oladimeji entered the game, in the closing minutes. His #14 jersey bore no name. Evidently, the score-keeping ledger also lacked an entry for him.

You’ll recall a similar situation with Purdue’s John Hart, whose name was not entered into the official scoring book by then-SID Cory Walton.

Following this egregious fuck-up, Walton left Purdue for Arizona, a legitimately good basketball program. And now, he’s administering information for …wait for it …. DUKE!

I gotta meet this guy’s family. Mere merit hasn’t elevated me to the level I’d expec … oh, nevermind.

Illini football

Joe Spencer’s Madison nightmare

Joe Spencer is a good guy, a person who cares. He works hard on behalf of himself and others. He’s a leader, the kind of guy you’d want to emulate, even if you’re twice his age.

On a beautiful autumn afternoon, in a great college town thronging with excitable undergrads & a Homecoming swarm of excitable overgrads; Joe Spencer might have had the day of his life.

Joe Spencer (71) leads his team on to the Camp Randall gridiron.

Unfortunately for Joe, his current definition of happiness is determined by the final score of a sporting contest. Sun shining on fall foliage won’t do it. The smell of grilling bratwurst won’t do it. Ten-thousand co-eds in yoga pants won’t do it.

Joe didn’t walk around the Wisconsin campus just before the game, because he was busy getting ready for the game.

He didn’t see a happily inebriated posse of dudes on a balcony attempting to play catch with every passerby. He didn’t see the bearded passerby who played along despite not previously having touched a football, throwing like a girl, speaking English as a second language.

Joe Spencer, Nick Allegretti (53) & Christian DiLauro pass block for QB Wes Lunt at Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium

Joe didn’t get to see the American kid who came along to show the bearded kid how to throw a football, or the support post that hilariously blocked the American kid’s own toss. (Eventually, the drunks on the balcony did get their ball back.)

Joe didn’t walk down State Street. He joined none of the small, medium, large or GIGANTIC celebrations of On, Wisconsin! or Hooray For Our Side or even We Don’t Give a Shit About Sports But Oh My God Do We Like Beer gatherings which, no matter how hard they may have tried, failed to conceal themselves to anyone in their respective vicinities. Madison swarmed around a football game in a way which Champaign may have done in my lifetime. I wan’t old enough to see it.

Joe Spencer & Christian DiLauro (67) block for Kendrick Foster (22) at Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium

It’s the third of those groups, the ones who didn’t necessarily care about football,  that I especially admired. I’m not a nihilist in general, and I’m trying super-duper hard to not be a nihilist about Illini sports in particular, despite the temptation.

But when I see Joe Spencer crying after spending three and three-quarters years trying to make you happy; I’m reminded that sports is a great way to make great people feel like worthless people.

If you’re not invested in the outcome of a zero-sum game, you’re more likely to feel good about the time you spend on an unarguably wonderful afternoon.

Former Illini Mike Davis cried when his college career ended in Tulsa, in March 2011

Joe Spencer couldn’t control his tears. He apologized because he was unable to respond to post-game questions. He apologized.

I get it. Joe’s smart enough to recognize the business aspect of college football. He knows that responding to an incessant wave of boring questions feeds a media monster that, as far as you’ve been told, is crucial to keeping the general public interested in sportsing.

It’s not Joe’s fault that every single Badger is faster, taller and stronger than his Illini counterpart.*  But because major college sports doesn’t award participation ribbons, Joe spent Saturday night contemplating a bleak future (no bowl).

To his great credit, Joe took a moment to compose himself, and then came back to satisfy his media obligations, unembarrassed to reveal his raw emotions to the outside world.

Like any number of student-athletes from days gone by, Joe will recognize, at some point, that his life is not over. He’ll probably even recognize that he’s young, smart, motivated, kind … even inspirational.

Vashoune Russell captured pictures of the game. This first one shows Justin Hardee charging toward the field, while Jeff George approaches the gridiron with a steely determination. Joe Spencer’s expression is less visible, and therefore less telling, but probably somewhere in-between.

*It’s Ron Guenther’s fault**


**Allowing Lou Tepper to fire Greg Landry was the death blow from which the program never recovered, despite  blips in 2001 and 2007.

Illini basketball

The Carson Williams Show preempted by Malcolm in the Middle

Carson Williams was Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball 2016. If the University of Kentucky had an amateur team, he’d surely be playing there.

Instead, he joined a strong freshman class and a returning JC transfer at Northern Kentucky, which seems to be much better than last years Norse (9-21, 5-13 Horizon League). Williams scored only ten points, but he led all players with five assists and fourteen rebounds. Williams is the Rayvonte Rice of his graduating class. He’s a slightly chubby undersized PF who can probably play all five positions.

Let’s hope John Groce got his phone number. He won’t finish his career at NKU.

For thirty minutes on Sunday, the Norse equaled or bettered an Illini team featuring a sleepy Malcolm Hill, an anti-hero Tracy Abrams, a step-slowed D.J. Williams and an erratic Mike Thorne.

That Malcolm woke up, turned it on, and took over pleased Illini fans. WOO-HOO! WE WON!

D.J. Williams will probably learn from his defensive mistakes.

It’s the Abrams and Thorne errors which fans should worry about. They’re deeply ingrained, the Tragic Flaws most likely turn an early season comedy of errors into a nightmare of missed opportunities.

Michael Finke’s double-double proved that he’ll continue to see more time and responsibility than Illini fans seem to believe. His hustle is amazing. He has a good attitude and a great work ethic. And a dead-eye shot.

I support my contentions, as always, with JPEGs.

Illini basketball

SEMO in pictures (with captions!)

Illinois beat SE Missouri’s Redhawks 81-62 in the season opener for both teams. This is what it looked like, except less fuzzy and more animated.

Illini basketball

Synchronicity II

For the first time since March of 2011, Illinois Basketball looks like a program rather than a series of desperate stop-gap measures. There’s no fifth-year transfer learning a new system. Every position will be manned, once Jalen Coleman-Lands is fully recovered, by an experienced starter. Talented sophomores will back-up seniors en route to becoming talented seniors backed by future sophomores.

I’m going to guess that Michael Finke will continue to start at power forward, even after Leron Black’s suspension. I suspect Maverick Morgan will continue to start at center, even as Mike Thorne’s conditioning improves.

I expect Coleman-Lands to move into the starting spot currently held by Aaron Jordan, but I also have a hunch that defense will be the determining factor.

Point guard play pleased John Groce to such an extent that Te’Jon Lucas didn’t see the floor until the fourth quarter.

Tracy Abrams made half of his ill-advised shots, and all of his advised ones. Jaylon Tate connected from three (sic). Otherwise, those two veterans played exactly the way you’d expect, except for the 7:7 assist-to-turnover ratio.

When Lucas finally saw the court, there wasn’t much left to do. Groce emptied the bench, and each irregular Illini tried to take over the game individually, ostensibly to get his name in the box score.

If you’re looking for something to be alarmed about (and I know you are), it’s Mike Thorne’s post-game comment about his field goal percentage.

Thorne is intelligent, sensitive and funny. These are great characteristics for any human being. But for sporting purposes, you might prefer a killer instinct.

Last year, Thorne pooh-poohed the bank shot as obsolete, an anachronism. Instead, Thorne prefers to fling the ball toward the goal. About half the time, it drops through the ring.

Shooting 50% is normally considered good. It’s terrible if all those shots come from less than four feet away. That’s like missing Bucket #1 in the Bozo Grand Prize Game.

The reason he made all his shots on Friday is because he dunked the ball.

Yes, his spinning left hook bounced in, too. But 50% of the time, that’ll happen. On this occasion, it was the right 50%.

If Dustin Ford or John Groce could somehow reach Mike, and persuade him to dunk every time, Illinois would be much likelier to prevail in this season’s close games.

Illini football

Illini 31, MSU 27

AD Josh Whitman hugs Illini captain Joe Spencer

Hey, guess what? Illini 31, MSU 27. That’s what.

You might want to remember this game. So here are some pictures of it, snapped by Vashoune Russell. Postgame comments from the coaches and players are here, too.


Sam Mays hauls in the game-winner
Kendrick Foster disappears in the distance

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Foster rushed for 146 yards against the Spartans

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Ainslie Johnson found himself all alone in the end zone. Fortunately, so did Jeff George Jr.
Luke Butkus’s line got the job done
Lovie watches as Luke Butkus instructs the offense

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Ooh, ooh Jeff, over here! Over here Jeff!

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Reggie Corbin cuts left
Jaylen Dunlap returned a fumble recovery for 12 yards
Illini basketball

Lewis preview

Many miles away there’s a shadow on the door
Of a cottage on the shore
Of a dark Scottish lake the Illini men’s basketball program

After a lousy open scrimmage, and a disorganized exhibition against Division III Wash U, the Illini are just as curious as their dwindling fan base: Will this team be any good?

Before practice Thursday, The Star acknowledged that he’ll see a lot of double-teams, etc., in an attempt by every opponent on the schedule to keep him from taking over games.

Illinois needs a one-two punch. But who, after Malcolm, will be the second punch? The Star said things will look different when Leron Black returns from his suspension, but he also acknowledged that Leron remains a fouling machine. Perhaps Leron’s rebounding will earn him the Augustine Jersey for practices. Will he, like Augustine, need three years of regular PT before he figures out how to defend without fouling?

Malcolm also says you Cubs fans really annoyed him Wednesday night. (He’s from Saint Louis. ’nuff said.)

Friday’s opponent is Lewis University, where Jaylon Tate’s mom Arisa was once the Flyers’ number 1 singles tennis player.  The Flyers always give Illinois a hard time.

Paris Parham has the scout. He says this years Flyers team will bother Illinois’ perimeter players, disrupting the Illini goal of getting the ball inside, and reducing the percentage of shots Illinois takes from beyond the arc. What John Groce refers to as “paint touches.”

Paris says watch out for Delaney Blaylock & Capel Henshaw.

While Parham and Groce fret about “paint touches,” Groce is not as worried about “paint conversions” as, perhaps, the rest of us are.

But he acknowledged that missed bunnies and dropped passes were a problem against Wash U.

Aaron Jordan expects to start at shooting guard for a second consecutive contest. Jalen Coleman-Lands might be the starter later in the season, but he’s still recovering from the broken pinkie.

Jordan says the biggest weakness in his game is being vocal on defense. He’s working on it.

Maybe the most exciting thing about Friday’s Lewis exhibition will be our second chance to see Te’Jon Lucas.

The freshman QB was the most exciting passer in all Illini sports last week, and he’s only improved in practices since. Lucas dished 10 assists in practice yesterday, and by team policy should have worn the Bruce Douglas Jersey this afternoon.

But instead, Samson Oladimeji wore the Douglas Jersey, because Illini team managers don’t have another jersey for him to wear.

Oladimeji is a wing from Fremd. He’s in the midst of a ten day tryout with the Illini. He’d be the team’s fifth walk-on, although Drew Cayce and Cameron Liss are both sitting out this year (Cayce because of transfer rules, and Liss just because).

The other QB (and/or shooting guard) is, of course, Tracy Abrams.  He chastised himself Thursday for a lack of leadership on the toughness & togetherness front versus Wash U.

But he was perfectly happy that you Cubs fans kept him awake.