Illini basketball

The Good Tracy

For every season that Tracy Abrams has played basketball at Illinois, he’s always been a focal point for the fans. As Tracy goes, so go the Illini.

Writing about Tracy Abrams can be fun and/or frustrating, just like watching him play basketball.

You like it that he has a killer instinct, and wants to take over ball games. You like it that he takes responsibility for leadership.

You remember the endgame in victories where Tracy put the team on his back and carried it across the finish line. At Minnesota 2013. Braggin’ Rights later that year.

But then you remember how that 2014 season ended. Ray Rice and Jon Ekey, two proven game-winning shot-makers, watched from the corners as Tracy short-armed  a floater against Michigan, and a long three at Clemson.

The Central Michigan Game of 2016 will never approach legend & lore status in Illini sports history. But it made a notch on the Tracy Abrams column.

The Good Tracy showed up, which was fortunate. Because for much of that game, it appeared no other Illini had.

Tracy’s game has always given him an advantage over certain types of players. Four years ago, I predicted he’d do pretty well against Gonzaga’s big men, and overrated guards. That was an easy call to make.

Tracy doesn’t perform well against athletic wings, or anybody with quickness and long arms. That latter combination might be rare among the general population, but it describes a lot of basketball players.

Illinois could finish the non-con at 10-3. The Illini are picked to finish in the lower tier of the Big Ten. That might change if The Good Tracy continues to heed all the little lessons he’s learned about his limitations.

It’s all on his shoulders.

(All photos by Vashoune Russell.)

Illini basketball

Woe is John Groce

Five years ago, as Bruce Weber drove the final nails into the coffin of Illini basketball, I began writing his obituary for Smile Politely magazine.

Close wins over Cornell and St. Bonaventure perplexed & disconcerted Illini fans. I’ve already written about writing about those games.  Twice.  At least. And the Nebraska game that followed.

Illinois won all those games. Those wins sealed Weber’s fate. Illini fans don’t care to watch close wins over ostensible patsies.

Today, I’d like to write about something else. Unfortunately, when your job is to write about Illini basketball, the plot line doesn’t change. Five years later, much to my chagrin, I’m still writing about Tracy Abrams barrelling into swarms of defenders.


I’m still writing about dropping attendance. I’m still writing about a team that scrapes past mid-major — okay, let’s be honest … minor — programs.

I’m writing about a basketball program that nobody reads about.

Maybe the college basketball landscape has shifted since the days when Big Ten teams didn’t lose to teams from conferences you’ve never heard of. Heck, the mighty Thad Matta lost to Florida Atlantic last night in Columbus! I don’t even know what conference they represent! (Oof, Google tells me it’s C-USA. How the momentarily mighty have fallen.)

Anyway, thing is, #WeWillWin doesn’t care to embrace this new reality, if it is, in fact, real.

#WeWillWin means, tautologically speaking, that we will win.

It means not only won’t we lose at home to Tennessee State and Miami (OH) and Winthrop. It means we will win.

It implies that our conference finishes will include 10+ victories. It suggests post-season relevance.

Meanwhile. John Groce retains a downright Zookian demeanor in the face of overwhelming ennui. “We’ll need to get that fixed” and “we need to take a look at that” remain favorite refrains in Groce’s fifty-eighth month of turning the program around.

The sense of dominance that you might expect at this point, in year five, has yet to be established. The sense of figuring things out prevails.

Tuesday night, Groce mused that the team could benefit from watching every minute of the debacle it had just vomited up in front of hundreds, nay thousands of fans (but nothing like the 10,536 claimed as official attendance).

What could a team expect to learn by watching 40 minutes of a game in which a 3-and-5 Summit League team nearly prevailed?

I don’t know, but I’ll bet it’s nothing like the lesson an undefeated conference contender could learn from a 25-point win over the same opponent, even though the walk-ons played the final five minutes.

With another Groce-ism, the current coach reminded a small media contingent that coaches prefer practice and players prefer games.

Groce has seen the Assembly Hall cum State Farm Center media room packed with content producers.

More often, and more recently, he’s dealt with a small and familiar group whose audience is either small and passionate (online mostly) or probably not reading/watching.

That the local newspapers and TV stations still attend is not surprising. What else can they report to retain readers/viewers? In this town, it’s Illini sports, Urbana shootings and weather — in reverse order — that keep people interested.

John Groce was hired on the strength of a recruiting reputation earned at Ohio State. He was hailed as a Matta protégé.

Groce himself has been consistent in telling us that he’s a disciple of Todd Lickliter and Paul Patterson, his high school and (irrelevant NAIA) college coaches.

You haven’t even heard of Paul Patterson, and you know what happened to Todd Lickliter. Those two may be great basketball minds. That’s true of John Groce as well. And you too!

None of you has proven an ability to lead a high-major basketball program.

Some people think The Notorious UIC was the nadir of Illini basketball. But that team advanced to the tourney.  The UIC game was six years ago. The December 2011 game at United Center was UNLV, which wiped the floor with Weber’s last team as disgruntled Illini fans (people who, in the past, showed up for games in Chicago) lustily booed the head coach.

Gavin Schilling and Cliff Alexander were just two of the recruits on hand that day. None of them ever played for Illinois.

Will this Illinois team mirror the 2011 Illini (20-14, 9-9) whose seniors were just mediocre enough to trip into the dance? Will they completely fall apart, like the next year’s team (17-15, 6-12)?

Right now, it looks like neither. This team resembles the 2010 Illini. There’s the veteran point guard whose performance has never quite equaled his expectations and potential. There are a bunch of big men, a couple of whom can shoot really well, but often seem dominated inside. There’s the power forward who’s a rebounding fool with a great midrange game.

2010 was the last Illini team to earn a winning record in conference (10-8). They looked good against weaker opponents, and fared well against good competition when they shot well.

They were absolutely slaughtered by quicker teams. Remember the Dayton game in the NIT? Yikes.

I’ve written critically of John Groce’s inability to transcend his inescapably John Grocey tendencies for roughly three years now.

It’s possible that this year’s team will return John Groce to the NCAA. Maybe Kipper Nichols will be the Bizarro Alex Legion. But it’s frightening, when reading the fandom online, to realize that a lot of people are expecting Kipper Nichols to be the Bizarro Alex Legion.  Nichols is fast becoming the back-up QB legend for all-time among Illini fans who

  1. are capable of typing
  2. have access to the Internet
  3. have never seen him play, not once, ever

i.e. they expect Kipper Nichols to step in and take over this team, once he gains eligibility in ten days.

Even if he seems more acclimated to Groce’s unnecessarily complex schemes than he did two months ago in practice, Nichols will still be playing his first-ever college games, undersized at the position Groce requires him to play, and not considered by the staff to be a sufficiently good shooter to play his natural position.

As of last night, this team doesn’t appear to be John Groce’s redemption.  Groce doesn’t blame the players the way Weber did.  But Weber’s behavior only made him more vile, and easy to blame/fire.

Groce has yet to reach the players with his message, whatever that is. He’s still working on it, in that Zookian way.

There will come a day when Groce gets that message across. Or, there will come a day when the plug is pulled on “we’ll need to get that fixed” and “we need to take a look at that.”


For the first time in ever, none of Malcolm’s mom, Aaron’s dad or DJ’s family attended an Illini game.

Illini basketball

A tree in the forest

“Is it common knowledge that Barclays Center has a grass roof?” I asked Jason Marry, as I sat down on the baseline of the Brooklyn Nets’ home court.

Jason, who pays attention to sports, assurred me that I was not alone in my ignorance. For some reason, sports fanatics tend to focus on the sports-oriented aspects of sports. They don’t talk about the architecture.

Tomorrow, I’ll be in Miami. I hope I won’t write about their architecture. I like their architecture, but I’m hoping I’ll have something interesting to communicate about the development of a basketball team.

In this column, I’ll write about the architecture. i.e. the non-sports stuff I delight in observing while following Illini basketball around the country. But I’ll also write about the basketball.

There’s an evolutionary arc I’ve been watching. I don’t know when or where it might complete, or manifest itself. Some unanswered questions will determine whether this team will make the tournament, or require Josh Whitman to Make A Change.

The themes of this column aren’t new. It’s about Tracy Abrams’s composure, his shot selection. He’s always been great at controlling teammates. It’s his ability to control Tracy Abrams that’s always been the question.

He’s been good.


And bad.

He’s like Chester Frazier: Among the most self-disciplined Illini when it comes to work ethic, off-the-court deportment, navigating the potential pitfalls of being a student-athlete.

He’s so good, so strong, so determined in those areas; that it’s hard to comprehend his moments of folly on the court. That he played with Rayvonte Rice offers a great comparison. Rice frequently attempted the spectacular, and succeeded. But his team lost.

Abrams must resist attempting the spectacular for his team to succeed.

Will he also be like Chester Frazier in providing a senior year where his shooting drastically improves, and his decisions don’t cost games?

Subject #2 of the evolutionary arc is Jalen Coleman-Lands’s second dimension, and his third dimension.

Considered by some to be a “three-point specialist,” JCL is most exciting to watch because of his behind-the-back passes, and drives to the hoop.

He drove the lane at the Barclays Center, and got stuffed. Undeterred, he continued to drive against NC State, and he was successful. He also made a behind the back pass, and another quick pass in the lane.

JCL and Abrams share a common gift/fault. They like to push the limits of basketball geometry. Sometimes, their angles are too acute.

Abrams’s self-control and JCL’s dynamism are key ingredients to a successful season. So are Leron Black’s 15-foot jumper, and his failure to foul out of the last two contests.

Inevitably, it seems, this team will rely on its highest-rated recruits.

On the other hand, no recruiting service wasted much ink on Te’Jon Lucas. And yet he’s emerged as this team’s fun guy to watch.

Over the last two weeks, Illini fans have demanded that Lucas get more tick. John Groce heard them. In particular, Groce heard Juan David Hoffman, literally.

“Pass the ball!” Hoffman yelled to Abrams, as Tracy dribbled on the wing, no more than five feet from Hoffman.

A few moments later, Hoffman followed with “Put Lucas in the game!”
When Groce did, in fact, insert Te’Jon a moment later, Hoffman responded with “’bout time!”
It’s not unusual for fans to scream at games. What’s unusual is for any particular sentiment to be audible for everyone, including the head coach.
Dozens of people attended the Brooklyn games. No, really. Dozens. And because Hoffman was directly across the court from Groce, in an otherwise empty/silent mausoleum, Groce could hear everything Hoffman said.

Intriguingly, Hoffman’s favorite topics reflect the general consensus. That’s not true of most courtside-sitters, who tend to be polite (and at least among the Illini fandom) unabashed homers. The type who never criticize the coach but do criticize the people who criticize the coach.

Hoffman, by contrast, vocalized everything you’ve been reading online about John Groce and the 2016-17 Illini. And Groce heard it.

Groce’s demeanor is different this year, which suggests that he’s heard a lot of Hoffmans, or at least has begun to acknowledge agitation among the fanbase.

Maybe it began when Groce was forced to hold a joint press conference with Josh Whitman. The most obvious change is the post-home-game press conferences. The players now show up independent of Groce, which means the media get started on their copy about 20 minutes sooner. That media was allowed to attend a pair of pre-season practices is also a novation.

It’s pretty clear that Groce feels the heat.

Some fans have declared that Groce’s tenure demonstrates a misjudgment about Bruce Weber. That’s insane. Whether or not John Groce is your guy, Bruceketball was torture to watch in 2012. So don’t even think that you’re worse off now. And these changes in Groce’s personal style, and the product on the court, are the best proof.

Weber wouldn’t change. Conceivably, Weber couldn’t change. If you forgot what Bruce Weber looks like, look up “hidebound” in your dictionary. His picture appears next to that word.

Groce has this year’s team playing up-tempo offense, and a lot of zone defense.  Against Florida State, he called out to his team to stay in a 2-3 zone “until further notice.”

That game is now more than a week behind us. It’s pretty much forgotten, thanks to NC State.

Thanksgiving’s West Virginia fiasco won’t be so easily forgotten. But unlike actual trauma, it will find retention in memory a tricky row to hoe. Illini fans, even those zealous to depose John Groce, can’t escape human neuroscience. We like to remember the good times. We remember things that nearly kill us (and, in theory, make us stronger).

Illinois basketball’s decade-long slide into total irrelevance doesn’t threaten you physically. It won’t activate warning mechanisms in your brain cells.

Lots of people showed up for the (final?) dedication of the State Farm Center, and they saw an entertaining win which temporarily quietened the pitchfork mob. If Illinois loses to VCU tomorrow, the pitchforks will return before sunset. If Illinois wins, they might not show up ’til 2017.


FSU’s Michael Ojo is one of those unfortunate persons who came to basketball as the result of a pituitary disorder. Isaac Haas is another. Some people are just unusually tall. Some people have acromegaly.

Perhaps it’s a poorly kept secret, but a lot of college basketball players aren’t all that great at basketball. They’re just really tall. Keon Johnson reminded Illini fans that the most gifted basketball players aren’t always the most-sought recruits. Rayvonte Rice should be playing in the NBA, but pro scouts continue to perseverate about his height, despite Rice’s eight year campaign of proving doubters wrong.
Ojo is 7’1″ and enormous all over.
He’s African, and like a lot of African basketball players, he’s mostly a defender. He sees the game for what it’s become: soccer.
It’s possible that he’s really funny.
During a break in the action, Ojo noticed teammate Jonathan Isaac wasn’t paying attention. Malcolm Hill was just lining up for a one-and-one, and Isaac hadn’t taken his spot on the block. Ojo called to him. “Hey, it’s a one-and-one!”
But later, when Te’Jon Lucas lined up for two free-throws, Ojo tried to persuade everyone, including the referees, that
Lucas’s shots were also one-and-one.
In the enormous baritone voice that often booms from the heads of gigantism’s victims, Ojo called out “One-and-one?” four or five times to anyone within hearing range. Finally, referee Jeff Anderson called out from the wing:  “Ojo,  it’s two shots man.”
After Lucas drained the first attempt, referee Bo Boroski followed up.
You surely get better coverage of Illini sports from other media outlets. I exist only to tell these funny little stories.
Now I’ll have to decide if I really want to get on that 7 a.m. flight for Miami. After a week of looking after an elderly relative in Queens, I could easily be talked into staying home.
Illini football

Vashoune Russell’s pictures from Illini season finale at Northwestern

I signed up to attend this game. I hoped to see the seniors out.

Unfortunately, we had a family emergency. So I spent the last week hanging out in Jamaica, and not the nice one. Walking around Donald Trump’s childhood turf, I was reminded once more that Illinois weather sucks.

For some reason, autumn lasts a lot longer out there. Like, right up until the end of autumn. Now that I’m back in frigid, gray Soybeanland, I finally have the time to post Vashoune Russell’s truly fantastic pictures from the Northwestern game.

Here they are.

Malik Turner hauls in a touchdown pass from Wes Lunt
Northwestern defenders tackle Malik Turner after a pass from Wes Lunt
Malik Turner
Carroll Phillips
Reggie Corbin runs toward the hole
Reggie Corbin evades an arm tackle
Gimel President celebrates a sack
Gimel President gets ANOTHER sack
Gimel President just has this thing about quarterbacks. They make him angry.
Zack Grant’s three yards and a cloud of dust
Justin Hardee strongly recommends sticky gloves
Reggie Corbin waits for Nick Allegretti to clock DB Trae Williams
Tanning in November is like Illinois winning at football – rare