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Illini basketball

The Missed Milestone, the Missed Miracle

Ex-Ohio State assistant coach leads team to astonishing comeback! Champaign kid goes off in miraculous conference road win!

Both those things happened this weekend, just not to us.

At this point, I’m surprised only that people are surprised. Everything we’ve seen this basketball season is consistent with everything we’ve ever seen from the individuals involved. They are who we thought they are.

Yes, it’s been a while since I posted an Illini Report. What was there to say that you couldn’t read elsewhere?

Well, there’s a lot, actually. I started writing it four times. That is, there are four unpublished pieces in my drafts folder. I had a lot to vent, and some lovely insider gems.

But it’s all hurtful stuff. It’s all borne of frustration, anger and cynicism.  You can read plenty of that elsewhere, too.

John Groce watches from the sidelines (Vashoune Russell)

After 3 of the last 4 games, I was never tempted to follow The Good Tracy with The Bad Tracy. That’s not to say I didn’t write it. I just didn’t publish it.

It would certainly have been appropriate.

John Groce continues his misdirection strategy in defending Tracy (a refreshing change from Bruce Weber’s incessant player-trashing) to emphasize the qualities Tracy brings every day.

I feel bad for Tracy Abrams. I take no enjoyment from berating his failures. I’d love to see him leave Illinois as a champion.

Tracy Abrams disappointed at Indiana (Vashoune Russell)

As the “play Te’Jon Lucas” hue & cry makes its way across all forms of media, the usual suspect is Jaylon Tate. But Tate’s passing at Indiana was, like always, dynamic and exciting. He had three times as many assists as Abrams in half the minutes.

From a passing standpoint, D.J. Williams and Michael Finke are better PGs than Abrams. Jalen-Coleman-Lands continues to fly under the radar for his court vision & ability to find open teammates.

Jalen Coleman-Lands for the save!

Tracy Abrams is undoubtedly a leader, and a disciplined worker. He’s an almost perfect soldier in his willingness to execute orders, and a model sergeant for his determination to motivate his troops to implement the policies dictated by his commanders.

In year five of the Groce Administration, those policies tempt military analogies. The Maginot Line for defense. Vietnam for understanding our opponent.

Mike Thorne boxes out (Vashoune Russell)

I introduced the season by writing that Mike Thorne’s interior tendencies would frustrate Illini fans, and that Te’Jon Lucas should consider redshirting. Neither observation was intended to insult the player involved. Mike Thorne is one of the most likeable guys on the team. And Te’Jon’s repeated DNPs are not his fault nor his choice.

Thorne never plays much, and continues to start. I’m good with that. Through 16 games, Maverick Morgan averages 21 minutes to Thorne’s 15. In conference, Thorne has played even less.

Maverick Morgan blocks OG Anunoby (Vashoune Russell)

It’s fun to think about opponents taking the time to scout Thorne. It’s especially fun if one dreams that Thorne may — as intelligent, introspective persons sometimes do — completely change his modus operandi upon catching a ball in the low post.

It’s a turnover waiting to happen, I wrote at the beginning of the year. (Oh, I didn’t? Well, it was something like that anyhow.)

ABOUT THAT COMEBACK FROM 20+ DOWN

When the Illini cut Indiana’s lead to 12, the Hoosiers went on a 10-0 run.

Then Illinois cut the lead to nine.

And then, John Groce made the Bruce Weberest decision of an already thoroughly Bruce Weberish career, calling timeout as Te’Jon ran the ball toward Indiana’s (admittedly well-defended) bucket.

On the subsequent (surely much intellectualized) inbound play, Te’Jon turned the ball over.

Erstwhile Urbana High School varsity coach Vashoune Russell had an opinion about this sequence of events. (Vashoune took pictures of the game with some really expensive cameras. It was almost worth the $64 I put in his gas tank. Holy shit those GMC Suburbans.)

Vashoune couldn’t understand why Groce thought he could get away with the same inbound play twice in a game versus a well-coached team.

ELSEWHERE IN WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

Jordan Caroline made an unofficial visit to Illinois is 2012. As far as I know, that was the extent of his recruitment. He signed with SIUC,  made the MVC all-freshmen team and transferred to Nevada.

If, after Illinois’s second stab at persistence cut the lead to 9 on Saturday, you decided you’d like to see a team come back from 20+ down to win a game, you’re in luck. No TV subscription required. If you have an internet connection (which you do) you can watch the replay at ESPN3. Here it is.

Caroline is the grandson of an Illini/NFL legend. He was sired by another Illini legend, who also played in the NFL.

But Jordan clearly, distinctly put his own stamp on all-time legend status with a single game. 45 points & 13 rebounds is not all-time material, but recovering from a 14-point deficit with a minute to go is all-time anything. That was Saturday’s astonishing performance at New Mexico.

If you want to relive the magical 15-0 start of Saturday’s Hoosiers fiasco, you can watch that too. How often will you get the chance to see Illinois’ best player collect a third foul before the team has scored a single point?

PLAYING NICE

Coaches on the Hot Seat sometimes recognize that Being Friendly will serve them better than Being A Dick, or isolating themselves.

After his regular (i.e. B1G mandated) time with the media Saturday, Tom Crean made a beeline toward the Illini media pool, all assigned to workstations in the far corner of the media room.

“Does Chicago need anything else?” he asked, perhaps oblivious to the slight, and perhaps recognizing that Shannon Ryan was the only reporter in the pool whose audience should concern him.

No one needed anything else. Vashoune and I shook his hand, thanked him for the offer, and congratulated him on the win.

Kipper NIchols dives to the floor for a loose ball (Vashoune Russell)

Crean left the room, but engaged a pair of TV reporters (and their cameras) in the tunnel outside. Meanwhile, Scout.com’s Jeremy Werner and Derek Piper joined Indiana’s Scout correspondent Jeff Rabjohns in a discussion, in the media room.

At some point, Crean re-entered the room. He engaged an Indiana beat writer in a long discussion. It’s the first time I’ve seen a B1G coach hang out in a media room after exhausting his official duties.

After a long talk, Crean again walked to the other side of the room, toward the Illini pool. “Is Jeremy Werner here?” he asked.

By this time, Jeremy and Derek had returned to the court, to record their usual postgame video commentary.

“He was,” we responded.

Crean gushed about Jeremy’s statistical analysis. He said he’d read it earlier in the week, and “actually learned something from it.”

A lot of coaches pretend they don’t read their press clippings. Some coaches don’t seem capable of reading. So it might feel rewarding to know that a coach not only reads, but learns from ones writing.

I emailed Jeremy to tell him about the query, and also to ask WTF column Crean was foaming about. It was Jeremy’s Rapid Recap of the tOSU game, according to Jeremy, who also observed that the column was “nothing special.”

John Groce also stayed in the visitor’s media room for a few extra moments, and made small talk at Chicago Tribune‘s Shannon Ryan. Then he moved to the tunnel to allow Louie del Rio and Bret Beherns a better opportunity to frame him with their cameras. (The IU visitor’s “media room” is a secretary’s office, and it’s tiny.)

Groce is no idiot. A week after dissing Bret’s softball about disgruntled fans, he offered himself to his most important conduit. WCIA has the largest local TV audience.

Leron Black rebounds at Indiana (Vashoune Russell)

Ryan reaches the largest number of Illini fans, in theory. That is, the Trib has a huge subscriber base, most of which lives in Illinois. Nobody necessarily reads Shannon’s columns, if they can be bothered to comb through the sports section, past all the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Notre Dame, Marathon, etc. coverage.

Tracy Abrams takes a ball screen from Mike Thorne Jr. (Vashoune Russell)

Groce reserves all his inside information for CBS Sport’s Jon Rothstein, but it behooves him to make nice with those media members who can access a national audience. The Tribune company publishes the Los Angeles Times, too. And the Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and Sun-Sentinel. On a slow day, any of those papers might run an article by any of the Tribune company’s reporters.

The pleasantries lasted only a moment. By comparison, you can see why Tom Crean has won two B1G Championships.

Jalen Coleman-Lands launches a three over Indiana’s James Blackmon Jr.

But in fairness to Groce, he’s been on the hot seat for only about three years. Crean has been on the hot seat since the day he was hired. But as we’re all interested in the success of Illini sports, let’s all keep an eye on Groce’s interactions with the media.

Bret’s question was only the beginning of a Pandora’s Box, Groce should do everything in his power to keep that box from opening. Unfortunately for him, five years of inaccessibility hampered that possibility. All the reporters he’s marginalized will have a column ready, whether they publish it after the Michigan game, after the Maryland game, after the Purdue game …

Is it fair and/or ethical to criticize Groce for not buttering the media? Yes and no. Everything keeps changing. Newspapers gave way to web content, etc.

But the fact is that Groce does butter the media, just not anyone local.  Take that as you will.

Meanwhile, Loren Tate is still good friends with Lou Henson.