Illini basketball

Lessons from Iowa City

Illinois basketball has a road-game winning streak. For better or worse, it’s a consequence of who didn’t participate as much as who did. John Groce’s rotation has contracted. Five guys now see “starters” minutes in a game, while three others see spot time.

It’s not necessarily who you’d expect, and it certainly isn’t what forecasters projected in October.

Leron Black, yea & nay.

Everyone will remember Leron’s dunk. Instead of jump-shooting from 12 feet out, Leron juked his man, and drove to the basket for a two-hander. It was gorgeous.

Where has this been? Why did it take so long to debut?

On defense, Leron played his usual game. He fouled a lot. It’s easy to see why.

Leron’s posture, in general, is not conducive to defense.

He doesn’t stand erect. He doesn’t raise his arms straight up above his head. Even when he’s not reaching in, or bowling someone over, he’s in a stance which will draw a whistle, every time.

Rather than standing erect, Leron slouches. He’s naturally slope-shouldered.

Did you ever wonder what Adam Fletcher is yelling when you see him leap from the Illini bench during a telecast? He’s yelling “Wall!


Defensive posture might have been the story of the game, were it not for a handful of key plays by the diligent Illini.

Kipper Nichols collected four fouls in ten minutes. In eight minutes of action, Leron hacked four Hawkeyes.

Leron couldn’t get high enough, and Kipper couldn’t get low enough.

Nevertheless, Illini fans complained that Nichols and Black didn’t get enough PT. They also complained that Jaylon Tate and Tracy Abrams got too much. Most egregious to some fans is that Tate and Abrams played at the same time.

Tracy Abrams & Jaylon Tate

It’s true that Abrams & Tate accounted for an unfortunate portion of the first half, when both picked up a foul, Abrams missed a three and Tate earned a turnover (total BS, he never dragged that pivot foot).

But Abrams and Tate were crucial to breaking Iowa’s increasingly aggressive full-court press in the closing minutes. Te’Jon Lucas could not have survived on his own.

Lucas had just enough gas remaining in his tank to sink 1-of-4 free throws in crunch time. He could have been called for charging on one of those fouls.

Abrams and Tate were essential to the win. As for “too much PT,” they got 14 & 7 minutes respectively.

Yes, Tracy was awful yet again as a “shooting” guard (1-of-5), but his steal (credited as a rebound) at 16:00 (credited as 16:05) was a crucial turning point for momentum purposes.

Yes, Tracy again fell into the Bulldog routine, lamented today in Pat Forde’s weekly column as a national epidemic.

4. Hero Ball remains a plague upon our nation.

Guards who wouldn’t give up the rock despite being double covered played major roles in a pair of Big 12 games Saturday. For Baylor, trailing by two with eight seconds left, Manu Lecomte kept the ball and took the last shot despite being stalked by both Frank Mason and Josh Jackson, with predictable results. Then West Virginia had a perfect chance to reprise Villanova’s championship-winning play at the end of regulation against Texas Tech – only to see Jevon Carter force up a shot instead of dishing off

But John Groce used Abrams sparingly, and where necessary. That’s a fantastic development in Groce’s evolution from non-strategist to poor strategist to strategist capable of employing strategy.

Groce necessarily, if tragically, withdrew Mike Thorne from the rotation. There’s nobody I’d rather see succeed than Mike Thorne. I assume John Groce feels the same way.

The late, lamented legend of Mike Thorne

But it became obvious that he wouldn’t discard bad habits around the basket.

It’s encouraging to see Groce & Co. preach simple fundamentals about defensive positioning. It’s encouraging to find that, eventually, Groce will reward repeated lapses with a comfy seat on the bench.

But in a very human way, it’s also encouraging that he took so long to implement the latter policy. Groce gave tons of encouragement and second chances, third chances … 15th chances to his guys.

Inevitably, he was unable change the behaviors.  Instead, he eliminated their perpetrators. It’s as if he realized his job is on the line.

Groce should have noticed sooner. He should have been proactive in stamping out these bad tendencies. Someone, anyone should have coached Mike Thorne to make low post moves.

Paul Schmidt gave Mike Thorne a thumbs up on his blood sugar reading.

Every Little Thing

Iowa would have won but for every helping hand the Illini gave and got.

Sometimes it was Iowa screwing up. The odds of 83% foul shooter Jordan Bohannon missing both of his crunch time offerings? Well, statistically speaking, he’d hit either one of them 83 times out of a hundred.

Sometimes it was diligent attention from Kelly Pfeifer, John Gaffney & Donnie Eppley. Sometimes it was one of those three seeing something that 15,400 Iowa fans saw differently.

Sometimes they saw things differently from each other. But in those cases, they talked about it, and Illinois came out ahead in the offing.

Michael Finke’s five assists led the team. It was a career-high. When was the last time a PF/C led the team in assists? SID Derrick Burson couldn’t remember, either, apart from offering that technically Malcolm Hill did play the four spot a lot.

Jalen Coleman-Lands and Maverick Morgan were the unsung heroes of The Win at Iowa.

Morgan scored only six points, but the put-back dunk of Lucas’s missed lay-up broke the Hawkeyes’ collective back.

His seven rebounds led the team, as did his two blocks. In 34 minutes of floor time, Morgan committed only two fouls.

JCL’s passing continues to fly under the radar of fan appreciation, and over the radar of opponent defenses. His tendency to show up where needed manifests itself statistically if there’s a rebound to be grabbed, or a controlled ball in need of loosening.

Once he’s loosened that ball, he may be credited with a steal. Sometimes not. But in either case, he’s disruptive, and that makes the game harder for opponents.

Malcolm was the sung hero at Iowa, just like everywhere else. But that’s no reason to overlook his remarkable feats. Saturday saw him reach the 1,700 point threshold. Barring an unusually anemic — or outrageously prolific — outpouring in the final weeks, he should end his career as the #4 all-time Illini scorer.

The Lesson from Iowa City is that Illinois needs every player’s contributions, but it doesn’t need every player.

Again, there’s a bittersweet aspect to this lesson. We’re always bothered when guys never get a chance (Richard Semrau was the poster child until DJ Williams inadvertently stole the spotlight) to help a team that’s not surging toward an NCAA bid.

In this case, it’s utilizing guys rather than not-utilizing them that held the team back.

If John Groce were coaching this team in a vacuum, with no audience and no million dollar salary (and accompanying expectations) all his players would get equal PT, and he’d still be encouraging them to make better decisions.

If he’s fired at the end of the year, maybe he’ll regret that he didn’t harden his heart sooner. But then again, maybe he won’t.

Was John Groce crying yesterday because he hadn’t done the right thing? Or was it because he had done the right thing, and now realizes that he’s going to pay for it?

Illini football

The Long List

There’s a long intro to this column. If you don’t want to read my ruminations, scroll down ’til you find Bold lettering.

I have a list. It excludes all the people you’ve read on all the other lists. It’s not that those names shouldn’t be considered, it’s that you’re bored reading about them.

Just after the new year, I began asking my colleagues in the media: “When did you start making your list?”

Everyone had a specific answer. Whether it was the first Maryland game, at Indiana or Winthrop; everyone immediately remembered the moment.

No one ever asked “which list?”

Fans need not hate John Groce. They can want a new basketball coach without diminishing Groce as a human being. He didn’t publicly trash his players the way Bruce Weber did. He didn’t run the program into the ground the way Weber did. Groce merely failed to revive the program from Weber’s destruction.

John Groce got a five year contract to rebuild the program, and he got five years to rebuild the program. Fair’s fair. Illinois gave John Groce the time and money it promised.

Everybody can feel bad that it didn’t work out, while also acknowledging that it didn’t work out.

Groce is now $8.1 million richer than he was in April of 2012. His connections in the basketball world, and the level of respect he’s earned from members of the coaching fraternity, will ensure that he continues to earn a significant salary for as long as he wants to keep coaching.

We can  feel bad that John Groce failed to achieve a level of success we all wanted. But we don’t need to feel sorry for him. He’ll be fine.

Hiring Chris Tamas proved that Josh Whitman can act quickly, decisively & unexpectedly.

It’s really a perfect time to attract a new coach. Groce recruited a pretty good incoming class. That makes the job desirable to worthwhile candidates. Dee-Deron-Luther had Bruce Weber literally (yep) jumping (does nobody but me remember this interview?) in 2003, when Bill Self taught Ron Guenther a lesson about market forces.

With Michael Orris and Jalen James in the fold, Illini basketball did not find anyone eagerly jumping for Weber’s job.

The Lovie Hire

A blindsiding surprise. A pro coach moving to the college level.

Who’s the guy with a Chicago connection who then took the reins of a pro team in Florida?

Scott Skiles

Midwest native, Big Ten roots, pro pedigree. Can he coach? A lot of people have opinions on this topic. Over the last twenty years, quite a few of them played for Skiles in the NBA, where he’s benn both an assistant and head coach. Why not ask some of them how he’d do in a college setting?

I mean, you never know …
Michael Jordan
We have his phone number. Might as well.
Presumably, he’d be a real hard ass on the players. What incentive would compel him to take on a difficult job? That’s actually the easy question to answer. All you have to do is present a challenge to Jordan, with the mild suggestion that it might be too much for him, and watch him go.
Rick Majerus
Yes, he’s dead, but it’s traditional to add him to these lists. And naming him as the next Illini coach would certainly raise the profile of the program.

The Lateral Mover

His name is x, and when Josh Whitman introduces him, you’ll still be wondering why he left y for Champaign. He seemed comfortable there, and his teams regularly competed for conference titles and protected seeds.
Was it the weather? Marital issues? Did he not get along with the new AD? Maybe we’ll never know. We still can’t believe our good fortune.

The Up n’ Comers

Are these guys ready for prime time?

Will Wade

VCU looks great. Shaka Smart looks lousy. Is it the water in Richmond? Or is it playing in the Atlantic 10? As I write, Wade is tied (with everyone’s favorite Archie) for first place in conference.
Niko Medved with Tim Miles
Niko Medved
Furman head coach is a protégé of Dan Monson, Jim Molinari, Tim Miles and Larry Eustachy. He’s rebuilt the Paladins into a contender, currently atop the SoCon, ahead of the next two guys listed.
Steve Forbes
TSU is in Johnson City, the most Appalachian town I’ve ever played guitar in. Steve Forbes fits well there, being a bit of a hillbilly. His mentors include Gregg Marshall and Bill Self.
Matt McCall
Chattanooga kicked our ass last year.
Kermit Davis
At 57, it’s Alternative Facty to call Kermit at Up’n’Comer. But look at Middle Tennessee’s record over the last six years. It’s so good that the Blue Raiders jumped up to Conference USA (which, of course, isn’t really saying much, but still).
Hubert Davis (left) battles Michael Jordan
Hubert Davis
Comes from successful program – Check
Years in the NBA – Check
Recognizable from TV – Check
Fellow UNC assistant Steve Robinson has already proved his coaching chops. Robinson was so successful at Tulsa that he got the Florida State gig. The n he ruined the Seminoles. Davis hasn’t ruined anyone yet,
Davis has no B1G ties. He’s a lifelong east coast guy. Would he say no? Probably not. Assistant coaches have one goal: Become head coaches.
Tommy Lloyd (second from left) is Mark Few’s international henchman.
Tommy Lloyd
Surely the top candidate to replace either Lorenzo Romar or Ernie Kent, there’s no reason for Lloyd to leave his native Washington for the corn and soybeans. But it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Lloyd is the guy who keeps persuading future pro players to leave their foreign homelands, spend a few years in Spokane, and then get drafted by the NBA.
Spokane has a river, and some scenery. But it’s kinda the middle of a desert, and nowhere near Seattle. Geographically challenged euroballers might just as easily be fooled into emigrating here.
Dana Ford
His first TEnnessee State team was terrible. IN year two, they had a stunning turnaround. Now it’s year three, and they’re mediocre again.
Ford is from Illinois, attended Illinois State and assisted Gregg Marshall at Wichita State and Dan Muller at ISU.
Earl Grant
You’ve heard all about Kevin Keatts. Look at what Grant accomplished in three years at Charleston.  Two years ago, the Cougars were 3-15 in the CAA. They’re currently 10-2, one game behind Keatts’s Wilmington Seahawks, with whom the Cougars split the season series.
Before gaining the head job he apprenticed under Brad Brownell and Gregg Marshall. Not a shabby education.
Mike Mennenga
Like Deon Thomas, Mennenga would surely walk to Champaign for the head coaching job, right? Well, maybe.
Mennenga is a 1988 graduate of Rantoul Township High School. You can watch him play here (also, dig the full head of hair on the sexy young color analyst).

So maybe he has a soft spot for the EIC. Or maybe he’d do anything within his power to stay as far away from Rantoul as possible.
Currently the Tommy Lloyd-lite of Dana Altman’s Oregon staff (i.e. the guy who’s built relationships in international recruiting circles) Mennenga has vaulted through the coaching ranks, not always gaining friends. Ex-UIC coach Howard Moore rolled his eyes when I asked about Mennenga during last year’s B1G Media Day (this was before Moore returned to the Wisconsin staff). The eye-roll conveyed a Tracy Webster-esque sentiment. Where Bruce Weber felt Webster spent his Illini expense account on securing recruits for Kentucky, Moore’s body language communicated that Mennenga wasn’t fully devoted to the Flames.
Rats know when to get off a sinking ship. Weber and Moore think their ex-assistants were rats.
Rats are smart. When there’s enough food around, they’re snuggly and lovable. When times get tough, they’re ruthless survivors. Mennenga has continued to move upward in the coaching ranks. So has Tracy Webster.
Tracy Webster
Eventually, Webster will land a head coaching job. His 1-14 record at DePaul (interim) should be attributed to DePaul.
He was an All-Big Ten performer. He’s a Chicago area native. He’s been a consistent high-level D-1 recruiter for over a decade.  Wouldn’t it be great to have Charlie Moore right now?
Bacari Alexander
If Keno Davis doesn’t get the Michigan job, it’s just waiting for Alexander (presuming he rebuilds Detroit-Mercy).
Dennis Gates
Long considered an up & coming recruiting phenom, Gates finally turns up on a list! Maybe there was a child-touching scandal that I missed, otherwise, I don’t understand why Dennis Gates hasn’t been mentioned. How much credit does he get for this year’s Florida State team? How much should he get?
His brother Armon left Loyola to join Chris Collins’s staff at Northwestern. Northwestern is now pissed because it got beat by Illinois. That’s where we stand.
Matt Abdelmassih
He helped Fred Hoiberg resurrect Iowa State before joining Chris Mullin in Queens. Known as a top pilferer of other teams’ talent,  Abdelmassih is the kind of guy you want around when your team needs an overnight infusion of talent. Transfers made ex-Illini football coach Mike White’s career.
Jerrance Howard
I said I wouldn’t mention the people who appear on every other list. Jerrance is actually on a lot of lists, but he seems to inspire universal pooh-poohing, always inspired by rumor & innuendo.
Just for fun, let’s list the legendary Illini players alienated during Groce Administration: Steve Bardo, Kenny Battle, Dee Brown … nah, screw it. It’s already too depressing.

Remember 2007, when Deron Williams told Bruce Weber to hire Jerrance Howard? Since that time, Howard has only burnished his reputation (apart from that marijuana arrest). Most people think Snacks is just a recruiter, and possibly just a bag man.
But I watched him coach back in the days when media were allowed to observe Illini practices. Of all the coaches, Howard was the best at running & explaining a scout(i.e. preparing the team for an upcoming opponent).
You can already imagine Howard’s first hire: Jeff Finke. Finke would be the first bigs position coach since … Dick Nagy? Robert McCullum? … to have played a post position in college.
Steve Henson
Steve Henson
Former Illini assistant/longtime Lon Kruger associate finally got his own gig, which is similar to Kruger’s first gig. Kruger started at Texas-Pan American, now known as Texas–Rio Grande Valley. Henson’s at Texas-San Antonio. In his first year at UTSA, Henson is .500 in C-USA, but has a losing record overall. He’s a few years from consideration for an upward departure.
It took forever for Henson to finally attain a head coaching gig. How come? What’s wrong with him?
T. J. Otzelberger
Same story here. It’s his first year as a head coach, so we don’t know whether he’ll fail miserably.  He’s regarded as a relentless recruiter. His mentors include Greg McDermott and Fred Hoiberg.

Don’t even bother calling …

 Billy Clyde
Billy Gillispie would be the top choice on everyone’s list if he weren’t a workaholic and, more importantly, a chocoholic (but for booze).
Gillispie brought Deron Williams to Champaign. He revived two moribund D-1 programs. He earned the top job in college basketball. And at every stop, he spent a lot of time and money in bars.
I know whereof I speak. I first met Gillispie because he was a regular customer at the watering hole where I poured liquor.
He’s still a great coach and a great recruiter, but if he took another high-major coaching job, it would kill him.
Billy Donovan
The OKC Thunder are one Russell Westbrook injury from oblivion. But Donovan can pick his job if he chooses to return to the college game. He’s a northeasterner by heritage, and a southerner by choice. Given all his options, reviving a rural-ish Midwestern program doesn’t seem tempting, even with that free Champaign Country Club membership tossed into the bargain.
Tim Floyd – too old
Micah Shrewsberry
If you’ve known Brad Stevens half your life, you’re a likely candidate for an NBA job. That’s another saving grace for John Groce. If he’s fired at Illinois, he can become the next Todd Lickliter.
Shrewsberry might be a genius, the nation’s best recruiter, and a future Wooden Award winner. Until he does something on his own, rather than because Brad Stevens gave him a job, there’s little data suggesting he’s those things. He assisted Matt Painter for three years at Purdue, then went back to working for Stevens in Boston.
Jack Owens is credited for all the same things that won Shrewsberry plaudits in West Lafayette. Literally.
Ggreggg Marshall
Like Donovan, he can choose his appointment. Like Few, his current position makes him look even better than he is. His salary is already enormous.
Tony Bennett
Two of my sisters moved to Charlottesville when Dave Matthews was still bartending at Miller’s. Since then, it’s gotten ritzier, more glamorous, and kinda snooty.
There’s no reason to think Bennett is unhappy there. But what if he is? You don’t know until you ask.
He’s a Midwest guy whom everybody tabbed as Bo Ryan’s successor in Madison. And then Greg Gard got the job.
Considering he’s already eclipsed Ol Roy and Ratface, Bennett will theoretically have no problem keeping the Cavaliers atop the ACC.
Wouldn’t it be nice?
Don’t kid yourselves.

The retreads

These guys have had some success. Can they be successful again?

Tim Jankovich
Tim Jankovich
He’s the most obvious retread on this list, because he coached here already and built a winner in BloNo. Theoretically, he’d be better off staying at SMU, which plays in the American Athletic, the conference no one can ever remember. AAC includes some powerhouse teams, but only a few. The weather is better all around the conference, which is something to think about when you’re constantly traveling in mid-winter.
Dino Gaudio
Gaudio failed at Army and then failed worse at America’s third-best Loyola University (suck it, New Orleans).
But then he succeeded. Skip Prosser’s untimely death gave Gaudio a chance to lead a top-rated recruiting class that he’d been largely responsible for compiling.  The first year was rough, but the next season Gaudio guided the Demon Deacons to The Tournament. The year after that, they returned to The Tournament and won a game before top-seeded Kentucky ousted them.
And then he was fired.
Wake Forest has been terrible since.
Keno Davis
You kinda wanna stay away from anyone even remotely associated with Bruce Pearl, just on principle.
Davis succeeded wildly at Drake. He failed at Providence. He’s made Central Michigan relevant, not just in the MAC, but in a larger conversation.
He’ll probably get another D-1 job. Either of the B1G’s Michigan schools is probably keeping tabs on him, as their current heads aren’t getting any younger.
Russell Turner
Russell Turner
It’d be a hard sell for the locals. This guy has zero ties to the area. Do you even know where he coaches? Have you ever heard of him?
“The Mike White of basketball” has a good ring to it, though, for people old enough to remember the halcyon days of Illini sports.
Turner coached Tim Duncan at Wake Forest. He spent six years assisting Mike Montgomery and Don Nelson at Golden State. Just say “Tim Duncan” and “Golden State Warriors” to a prospective recruit. See how they like them marbles.
Tim Miles
Maybe he’d be just as mediocre here as Nebraska. But he’s already recruiting Chicago better than John Groce.
Here’s the thing about Tim Miles: Everybody loves him. He’s absolutely hilarious, and a straight shooter.
He’s also proven to be a pretty good basketball coach. Maybe he’ll never be successful at the highest levels, but I sure hope he is because I LOVE Time Miles.

Steve Lavin
The least depressing limb of the Keady Tree, Lavin has enjoyed the kind of sustained success that’s eluded Matt Painter and Bruce Weber, perhaps because he has a personality to accompany his knowledge of the game.
How’s the remission going? That’s really the only question a Power 5 AD needs to know. Lavin is a national face. He’s succeeded on both coasts after a Midwestern apprenticeship.
Kevin Willard
A short, bald, middle-aged white dude, you say? Like John Groce, Willard was a top assistant to a top NCAA coach (Rick Pitino).
Like Groce, he had a brief run in a low-major job and did okayish. Two losing conference records at Iona followed by a third place (12-6) MAAC finish somehow propelled him to the Seton Hall job.
Unlike Groce, Willard got into coaching because his dad was Ralph Willard. At least Groce made his own way into the business
For five years, Willard never achieved a winning conference record at Seton Hall. And them last year, he did. And the Pirates went dancing.
They look pretty good this year too, with neutral court wins over Cal and South Carolina, and at Iowa. They’ve been beaten by Creighton, Stanford and Florida.
But if Kevin Willard can do anything for Illinois Basketball, it’s to remind us that sometimes a rebuild reaches maturity in its sixth year.
Billy Kennedy
Sure, he’s got Parkinson’s Disease. But he’s rebuilt three programs and he hired Jamall Walker once upon a time. He also got a verbal from Simeon star Kendrick Nunn. Once an Up’n’Comer wit ha Cinderalla dream season at Murray State, he may be tiring of College Station.
Steve Masiello
The Facts Fudger was once a rising star.  Since he “graduated” from college, his Manhattan Jaspers have sucked.

Brad Brownell
Clemson is a tough gig. It’s a football school in a basketball conference. Brownell has lots of Midwest ties & experience. Maybe he’ll be just as middle-of-the-pack at Illinois, although it’s interesting to note that UNC & Duke will need a new coaches before long.

The bright young star who’s now failing miserably

Tony Jasick
Remember how Ron Guenther observed mid-major coach Bruce Weber? Something about Weber appealed to Guenther, who hired him a few months later. Maybe I’m similarly wrong about Jasick, who led the IPFW Mastadons to a near upset over John Groce & Illinois

I felt this way about Brownell when he was at Wilmington. He parlayed that success into a MAC en route to a gig in America’s premier basketball conference, and has been thoroughly mediocre ever since. Does that mean he was never the shining star I thought him to be?
Maybe Tony Jasick will disappear. Maybe he’ll eventually get the Carolina job.
I thought he might be the next big thing. So keep that in mind while you’re choosing whether to allot  an ounce of credulity to my musings.
Illini basketball

The Bret Beherns Moment

The End of The John Groce Era began in earnest on New Year’s Eve eve afternoon, when Groce betrayed a thorough misunderstanding of his dire situation. Bret Beherns tossed a softball which Groce perceived as a curve. How can the coach reassure a fanbase distraught by a 25-point loss?

Groce blanched at the question, then ridiculed it.  An hour later, his reaction was viral & universally panned.

As a group and as individuals, we talked about the Behrens Moment after Groce left the room. I told Bret it was a perfectly fine question. Scott Richey wondered whether the moment would be excised from the Official Upload (it wasn’t, but you couldn’t hear the question either, which is unfair to Bret … this is why you should always watch the Illini Report version; you get the audio).

I wondered aloud whether Groce lives in a Rebounders’ Club bubble, and honestly doesn’t know that Illinois basketball once sold a lot of tickets, at non-fire sale prices, and had more than 200 retirees attending its every move.  Has he truly not heard the criticism? If not, that would be extraordinarily Todd Lickliterish of him.

Should we tell him that it’s not just the 25-point loss? Should we tell him that he’s never had a winning conference record at Illinois, and people have begun to notice?

Bret conjectured that Groce must, by the necessity of high-profile coaching gigs, be tuned out from the word on the street.  Derek Piper and I agreed that the assistants seem to have a nose to the ground that Head Coaches don’t.

An hour earlier, as the media gathered for player interviews at Ubben, Groce’s future was already the subject of speculation. TV, radio, newspaper and web reporters huddled by the trophy cases, which display championship hardware from zero seasons of the Groce Administration.

One asked who’d be the Missouri coach next year? Another followed up with the same question, but referring to Illinois.


I don’t actually remember who said what. I was trying to get my A/V gear up and running, and was experiencing technical difficulties. I was also sleep-deprived, and obsessed with the thought that the next Mizzou coach would be crazy not to court/hire Jamall Walker (admittedly assuming that the next Mizzou coach is not Jamall Walker).

The tone of that conversation continued as everyone moved across the street, where a media meal (chicken & cheese quesadillas with all the trimmings plus a mixed green salad with sliced cucumber and carrot shavings, and cookies) was served in the State Farm Center’s bowels.

It carried up the two flights of stairs to the media work room, where bright lighting, microphones  and a mult box make the job of capturing coaches comments a little easier. With only a cameraman representing DIA staff, and no SIDs in the room, the conversation turned to outright complaint. I was a bystander and witness. I didn’t say a thing during Groce’s subsequent presser, either.

Two points that came across were that Groce is — if not difficult to work with — than at least more difficult to work with than Bill Self, Lon Kruger and Bruce Weber. It was mostly to do with scheduling and punctuality.

At eight minutes past the bottom of the hour, Groce entered the media work room for his 12:30 press conference.

Many media outlets rely on deadlines. Timeliness is important to these people.

Tom Crean is considered, by far and almost unanimously, the very worst B1G coach in this regard. John Groce is #2. Crean has three major conference championships and a Final Four on his résumé. Groce led a team to a 3rd place finish in the MAC’s eastern division, twice.

Sports reporters frame & characterize their subjects for the public. They guide public perception. Why would you want to irritate them?

The business model of local newspapers, commercial radio and fan-oriented websites relies on public enthusiasm for local sports. If you’ve already eviscerated their cash cow, why would you dare to irritate them?

Illini sports sells newspapers. Or, as we’ve learned these last ten years; it doesn’t. We’ll always have 16,618, but we’ll never again have 16,618.

Whether Josh Whitman or Robert Jones gives a damn about basketball; still wants to make money. So does the News-Gazette.

But if nobody wants to read about the team you cover, it’s hard to sell subscriptions.

If you can’t sell newspapers by writing about a winning team, you turn to the next hot topic that spurs reader interest: the coaching search.  Rush Limbaugh did well when Democrats controlled the White House. Jon Stewart did well under Republican rule. We’d prefer to read about our universal and ultimate glory. But short of that outcome, we’ll rally around those willing to persecute our tormentors.

Through his tone-deaf reaction that Friday afternoon, John Groce made it a little easier for everyone to turn the page on him, and start talking frankly about his successor. He took the gloves off.

It looked like things might get messy from then on out. But snarky Groce retreated into his shell, and cheery Groce returned.  We haven’t seen a recurrence.

After the second Penn State beatdown, which insured that Groce would finish 5-of-5 seasons without a winning conference record, the same group of regulars convened in the media room to do our thing.

“I know you guys don’t know what to write any more,” I told a couple of newspaper people. The ongoing joke is that they’ve run out of things to say, because every game is the same. “But I think we’ve run out of questions to ask. So I’m counting on you guys to come up with something. That’s your job.”

“Do you have a Realtor?” posited one writer, who shall remain nameless.

Maybe Whitman will learn that he can’t find a fantastic replacement, and choose not to make a change this off-season. So far, the names being bandied about are uninspiring or implausible.  Illini fans, like all fans, value their program more than neutral observers. They think rebuilding a thoroughly broken, irrelvant program will appeal to the top five names on every other school’s list of prospective hires.

Tomorrow, I’ll publish my list. It might have some of those same names on it, but only in passing, or to emphasize that they’re not coming through that door.

Groce still enjoys a lot of support with people who matter. He’s not a sociopath.

He’s a guy who’ll eschew winning in favor of  teaching basketball players to be better people and, eventually, better players — what his predecessor called “coaching not to lose.”

That appeals to those concerned with the educational mission of the university.

Illini basketball

Musings of a Hypocrite

I know what’s wrong with John Groce’s offense: It violates all of Bruce Weber’s principles.

Every problem I complained about from 2006 to 2012 got fixed. So now I’m going to whine about John Groce not following Bruce Weber’s philosophy.

If you’re the glass-half-full type, scroll down to the bottom, where I’ll write optimistically about Groce’s offense, and how it’s really sexy when it works. I’m a glass-half-full guy myself, but only in the sense that my glass is half-full.

My glass will be empty soon. Then it will be full again. Then it will be empty again.

Apologies in advance for typos and meandering.

Weber’s short rotation

Especially in 2009 & 2010, Illinois had a lot of bodies who never played.

Weber never employed Richard Semrau as a stretch forward (his natural position). He kept James Augustine  stuck at the 5 until Shaun Pruitt came along.

Can you imagine Michael Finke being told he can’t wander more than four feet from the basket?

This wouldn’t have happened under Bruce Weber

Yes, Mike Tisdale was allowed to shoot the three. But the open secret, acknowledged by the great Skip Thoren, is that Tisdale was a small forward, not a center, not a PF.

Skip & Mary Ann Thoren watched Mike Tisdale against Wisconsin in January 2011. Skip agreed that Tisdale’s game was classic SF, apart from the dribble-penetration.

This year, Groce’s rotations are way “outside the box” to put it charitably. Guys are subbing in and out, left and right.

A long bench is not a problem, but there are ways to make it work, to make it useful.

One way is to speed up the game, to tire the other team: Throw a full-court press at them. Run them ragged. Forty minutes of hell.

Illinois doesn’t do that.

Another way is to build your ten man rotation into two cohesive units, as John Calipari did with his “two starting fives” at Kentucky.

Illinois doesn’t do that either.

The players aren’t sure why they don’t press, and they can’t answer for Groce’s substitution patterns. It’s possible, when poking at the cracks in their anti-divulging force fields, to get them to admit that constant substitutions disrupt the flow of the game.

Groce does not confine his players’ tendencies

Groce listens to his players, and allows them substantial input as well as, in some cases, final say-so on what sets to run, etc.

I think that’s great. The players like it too.

Here’s Manbun saying, after all the hair talk, that he and Leron Black sometimes decide mid-play who’ll man which position.

In theory, “freedom” improves the player mentally. He’s not just a robot following instructions. He’s a thinking basketball player. But …

“Freedom”is like sex and booze. Everybody loves it, and everyone must eventually acknowledge that too much is bad … or at least presents performance issues.

If Groce could instill, require, demand or threaten on pain of death his players to execute his ideas, Illinois might already have won its National Championship.

But Groce doesn’t correct his players. He says he’s demanding without demeaning, but he doesn’t demand enough. Maybe he should demean more.

Mike Thorne’s erratic fling shot is the second-best example. We know Thorne can use the backboard; he did it against Minnesota!

We know Thorne can dunk. He did it against … well, I’m pretty sure he did it.

After receiving the ball in the low post, Thorne should be connecting on 60%+ of his shots. That’s just common knowledge basketball philosophy. If you ask me, he should convert nearly all of those  shots. The trick with the low post is feeding, not converting.

Abrams getting his shit stuffed by three taller defenders, simultaneously, is the #1 indicator that Groce’s coaching methods — however noble and well-intentioned — do lead, and will continue to lead, to outcomes that even Groce can’t anticipate or control.

Groce talks about about “things you can control” a lot. He can, or could, control the way Thorne and Abrams shoot the ball. He doesn’t.

He steadfastly rejects this option, whenever it’s presented to him. “He usually makes that” is Groce’s go-to cliché when confronted with the concept that his players repeatedly attempt bad, easily scouted shots.

What do Illini coaches & players analyze in film sessions? you ask.

Well, I have a theory. They don’t say “hey, look at this! This never works! STOP DOING THIS!

Abrams has attempted these bad, easily scouted shots in various Illini uniforms, for twenty years or so.  You’d think someone would eventually tell him that one-on-three is bad odds, especially when the three are all taller than you. And especially-especially if you can’t jump.

He did it Tuesday, at Northwestern.

Groce has all the best intentions, to be sure. But his lads continue to fail physics & geometry tests. Groce himself continues to struggle with addition & subtraction. This is the math major, who touts his short-lived classroom teaching career.

I’m not sure Weber would have changed any of these tendencies. He and Gary Nottingham fixed Chester Frazier’s shot. But most of that credit goes to Nottingham. Making things better is Weber’s unpublished forte at Illinois. We’re still hunting for the manuscript.

OK, it’s not quite true that Groce is the anti-Weber

Sitting after the second foul. The long two-pointers. Calling timeouts when the team’s on a run. The subsequent turnover following the galling inbounding play. Changing what’s working.

There are plenty of old-school coaching formulae employed by Groce that are just as reactionary, or just as frustrating as they were under Weber.

The dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble chuck a three! problem ended on March 9, 2012. It’s not been a problem since. Groce’s offense can be hard to watch in the same way that Bill Self’s Illini offense could be hard to watch.

Guess the villain? Hint: Not the unpaid underage person.

It’s not a problem of stagnancy.

It’s that Groce’s ball-screen offense, like the hi-lo offense,  relies on action that’s not merely telegraphed, but snail-mailed in advance.  Everyone knows what’s coming.

In theory, it works anyway.

Groce’s offense is way, way more fun to watch than Weber’s

Lon Kruger was the best offensive coordinator in my #Illini lifetime. Everyone else was obsessed with the other end of the floor.

John Groce was known as an offense guy. Mark Titus called him Ohio State’s offensive coordinator (among other things). Sometimes, Groce’s offense is  (dare I say it?) Poetry in the Motion.

At Northwestern, Maverick Morgan slipped screens for dunks. Te’Jon Lucas recognized the Wildcats’ defensive actions, which practically dared Illinois to go hi-lo, and dimed his big men.

Lucas exploited over-hedging, bad reads and switching mistakes for dribble-drive purposes.

Te’Jon Lucas spotted a flaw in the Northwestern defense.

Te’Jon , Michael Finke and Tracy Abrams all noticed that Wildcat defenders failed (refused?) to close out on shooters. Abrams got the Chester Frazier treatment, and Groce’s unending encouragement proved useful. Tracy’s three rattled around for a while before deciding to play along. Tracy shook his head while running to the defensive end, as if to acknowledge that nobody, not even a 40-something college player, really understands this game.

Kipper Nichols contributed a positive statistic for every minute played. He’d have played more if Malcolm Hill and Finke hadn’t executed as well as they did.

Finke connected on 3-of-5 long ones. On his successful attempts, he could’ve written sonnets before launching , and still have had plenty of time. The defense was so elsewhere.

Some fairly simple reads were read (loosers take note) at Welsh-Ryan. There’s no reason not to  attribute that reading to Groce and his staff.

If you desperately want Groce & staff gone, take heart. This column demonstrates only that Groce’s offense can succeed.  History is on your side, suggesting that it doesn’t.

Vashoune Russell took the 2017 Welsh-Ryan pictures, and then waited for a long time to edit them because he’s essentially a very, very lazy perosn. Or overworked and underpaid. Your choice.

Illini basketball

Saturday Live with Mark Smith & Jeremiah Tilmon

Illinois’ best recruiting period of the last decade came during a time when the Illini’s on-court performance had reached a record-setting nadir.  D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Joseph Bertrand pulled the trigger in a 48-hour span at the start of the dreadful 2007-08 season. Meyers Leonard came aboard at the end.

So it didn’t seem odd to watch Jeremiah Tilmon cracking jokes with Mark Smith while Minnesota pantsed the Illini. These two high school superstars expect to improve their college teams. They don’t doubt that they’ll be successful. Failure is not their concern.

Talking to them about their relationship, I couldn’t keep the names “Bruce Douglas and Efrem Winters” out of my mind.

It’s hard not to think of Mark Smith when thinking about Mark Smith, but Douglas is obviously the better Illini analog. Peoria Richwoods’ Mark Smith was a small forward, not a PG. Bruce was a PG. But he was also big and quick, just like Mark Smith 2.0.

Bruce’s alley-oops to Winters remain at the top of iconic Illini moments, way more efficient than the vaunted “15 pass possession.”

Illinois’ hi-lo could use some work.

Brandon Paul’s Illini recruitment began with Tracy Webster. Mark Smith’s recruitment may end with Tracy Webster. The Thornton grad was All-Big Ten at Wisconsin. He’s an assistant to Cuonzo Martin at Cal, for now. He attended Friday’s game between Tilmon’s ESL and Smith’s Edwardsville squads.

Smith’s burgeoning cachet means he’ll be able to choose his college come April 12. Illinois has two advantages in this recruitment. First, it’s easy driving distance for his parents, who remain very involved in his life and his recruitment. Two, Jeremiah Tilmon is signed to play here next year. Tilmon and Smith have been friends since sixth grade.

Smith will also be considering the academic aspect of his future school. He and parents Anthony & Yvonne were all interested in talking more about that aspect of his recruitment. Anthony said “yes, he’s qualified” when I raised the subject of academics.

But that’s not the question. The question is what Mark wants to study, and whether he aspires to advanced degrees. When Chasson Randle chose Stanford over Illinois, it wasn’t because he wanted to inconvenience his parents, Gwen and Willie, from seeing him play college ball in person. It’s because Chasson already knew he’d want to go to medical school when basketball was over.

Because Chasson graduated at the top of his class at Rock Island High School,  his family thought he could withstand a fiercely competitive academic environment. For those aspiring to a career in medicine, Stanford is better than Illinois. Sorry loyalists, it just is.

We don’t know what Mark wants from an academic standpoint, but we do know he’s thinking about it.

One thing that doesn’t matter re: Mark Smith is “coaches on the hot seat.” John Groce is a miracle removed from being gone. Tom Crean is being e-burned in e-effigy. Bruce Weber is doing enough to keep his job for another year at K-State, but since when did we take Bruce Weber seriously?

The uncertainty doesn’t end with coaches who lose too much. Smith acknowledged on Saturday that Duke got in the mix recently. But who’d be his coach at Duke? K will turn 70 next week, while he recovers from his second major back surgery. Jeff Capel already failed at the P5 level. Maybe Chris Collins is the successor? That means Duke and Northwestern are uncertain as well.

Kansas seems like the best bet for the Smith family. It’s not a horrible drive from Edwardsville, and Bill Self is not likely to be fired. If they have an open spot for him, it’s unlikely he could do worse. As with any & all blue blooded programs, they’ll have other options for his position. Competitive recruits are rarely dissuaded by this eternal truth.

Dave Leitao might be the surest choice Mark Smith has when it comes to basketball, for both PT & continuity purposes. DePaul has been terrible since Leitao departed his first stint. Tracy Webster was unable to revive it as interim coach.

Leitao failed at Virginia, now arguably the best program in the nation. So he’s not a sure bet, either.

Frankly, it’s weird to be Mark Smith the recruit, A year ago, he figured to be a starting pitcher, not a point guard. But if it weren’t for him, there’d be very little optimism available for Illini basketball fans.

Hope springs eternal, and Mark Smith won’t have the opportunity to sign an LOI until Spring, by which time all these coaching situations will be determined.

And now, here’s that Minnesota game in a nutshell:


Illini basketball

There’s a basketball game tomorrow

It’s #SocialMediaDay tomorrow at the #StateFarmCenter. The promotion is already sold out, so I guess it’s useless to tell you that buyers got four tickets plus a screen printed #Illini shirt with their own social media handle on the back. Traditional media were given their own version of the shirt, even old man #Tatelines.

Also on social media, @IlliniAthletics is encouraging fans to download #IlliniLights from their preferred app store.
It’s the same tool I raved about after the Purdue game. It seemed neat in Mackey Arena, perhaps because I mistakenly believed it to be original.

Then I saw it at the Crisler Center, and the thrill was gone. Now it’s just depressing. Illinois probably isn’t even third in introducing this gimmick. It’s just that I haven’t seen it elsewhere.
Illinois will also host the Cubs’ 2016 World Series Trophy on Saturday, allowing fans to come and be near it, two hours before tip-off. On Sunday, the first 250 WBB fans will get free pizza. One raffle winner will take a 40″ TV home.
In other words, anything to keep fans’ minds off of basketball.
Actually, Matt Bollant says his team is a lot better, so in WBB’s case, there’s basketball too.

The men face a Minnesota team that’s down on its luck and in need of a boost.
For some reason, The Minnesota game always represents a significant moment in any Illini season. I usually link to Tracy’s dagger three when writing about Minnesota games in the Groce era, but today I’m recalling the late winter of 2012, when Illinois played an offensive masterpiece for the first time in ages, and still ost at The Barn.
By that point, everybody knew Bruce Weber was toast.
As Illinois preps for another offensive explosion (more like the Iowa game than, say, any other game) most of the chatter surrounding the program has nothing to do with contest on the court, but rather who’ll be coaching the team next year.
Meanwhile, John Groce has updated the dates on the Illini Inspirational Ladder.

The perception of this program improves the farther you get away from it. In State College,  I met a lovely young couple who’d returned to campus specifically because they thought a match-up between the Nittany Lions and Illini would be a “good game.” Max had been an undergrad when Illinois was relevant. Melanie went to Va Tech so she probably still thinks of Illinois as a tournament team (albeit an overrated/ choke job tournament team).
It’s hard to say whether the players have thrown in the towel. They’d certainly tell you they haven’t, but these guys aren’t stupid.
Asked about it this afternoon, both Jalen Coleman-Lands and Malcolm Hill were somber in responding. But neither seemed depressed overall. Malcolm was his cheerful self, except when asked if he’s contemplating the end. To that, he demurred.

Anyway, there’s a game tomorrow. And although it might be too depressing to think about Illini basketball at the moment, I’d like to offer my experience in State College as a motivational tool.
Max and Melanie still think of Illini sports as good. Their own program has already recovered from the most horrific scandal imaginable. Things do get better, even when they seem completely broken.
After a couple drinks with them at the Allen Street Grill, I moseyed down to the basement bar, Zeno’s. I watched a band called Pure Cane Sugar while sass-talking barkeep Dave Staab told me what to drink, and refused to serve crap that I ordered just because it was local.  Fuck Yuengling’s.
This might seem irrelevant to Illini basketball, but it’s part of the experience. You visit college towns and drink with the locals.
And when your team is going nowhere, it’s nice to  know that beer is still looking out for you.
Illini basketball

Illini post-game Report [2017]

The Illini men fell to [opponent team] last night in [city] by a score of [lots] to [considerably less].

Illinois was slow out of the gate while [opponent team] ran up a double-digit lead before the [ordinal number] media timeout. The [opponent team nickname] connected on [x] of [singular or plural possessive pronoun] shots as the Illinois defense was slow to find its footing.

“Obviously credit to them,”  Illini coach John Groce said afterward, “they did a lot of things right tonight.”

[Journeyman/team cancer] said he wasn’t sure why Illinois was so slow at the start.  [Predicted savior] agreed in part, saying the team needed to play harder. [Role player] said the team needs to play hard all the time.

[Opponent team] got a boost from [bench player], not known for his [specific offensive categorical] proficiency. [Bench player] tallied a career-high [x]  [specific offensive categorical] in [x] minutes of action.

“I thought [bench player] was just terrific for them,” Groce said. “He came in averaging [x] [specific offensive categorical]  and had only [x] in his [cardinal number] games in conference. So for him to [collect/connect] [x] against us is really impressive. There’s just no way to prepare for that. So kudos to him for that.”

Illinois’ assist-to-turnover ratio was particularly upsetting to Groce, who said the [lesser cardinal number] assist total might have been higher if his team had made more shots. Groce was also displeased by the [greater cardinal number] turnovers. “That’s not who we are,” Groce averred. “That’s not what we’re about.”

“We’ll have to take a look at it,” Groce added, when asked how to fix the problem, adding that his organization doesn’t make excuses. “One step at a time. ”

[Opponent team] out-rebounded the Illini by [fortysomething] to [twenties], despite the size advantage Illinois enjoys in the post.

Illini players said the team remains hopeful. [Role player] said he believes the team is on the verge of turning things around. [Journeyman/team cancer] added that Groce told the team they should never get too high about a win, or too low about a loss, and that the team needs to play more together.

Groce compounded that sentiment, employing an allusion to the 80’s British prog-rock group The Police to critique the team’s ill-adjusted sense of timing. [Journeyman/team cancer] admitted privately afterward that he’d never heard of the group, but sort of ignores moments when the coach is speaking metaphorically because it’s depressing and stupid.

Groce also said his team lacked toughness in the face of adversity.

The final score doesn’t tell the whole story. Illinois mounted a courageous comeback in the second half, cutting the deficit to [x] points. But following an Illinois time out, [opponent team] regrouped, forcing a crucial Illini turnover and regaining the momentum.

[Journeyman/team cancer] led Illinois with [x] points and added [x][assists/rebounds]. [Predicted savior] had an off-night for the Illini, connecting on only 1-of-9 shots from the field.

The Illini drop to [dwindling cardinal number-increasing cardinal number] on the year, and [single digit-double digit] in the Big Ten. [Opponent team] improves to [superior numbers] in conference and [NCAA-sniffing record] overall.

For his career at Illinois, Groce is now [cardinal number] and [increasingly larger cardinal number] in Big Ten games.