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.