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Illini basketball

Hotel Policy & the NCAA

This week, Illini Report received a compendium of all NCAA violations recorded during the John Groce Era. There’s one big surprise. More on that next week.

Most of the violations arose through ignorance or stupidity, and mostly ignorance. That is, the “perpetrators” weren’t aware that they were committing violations, because the rules are so stupid.

Today’s story is about a rule that’s only slightly stupid, a perpetrator who is not ignorant, and policy that’s downright idiotic.

The culprit was James Haring, erstwhile Director of Basketball Operations. The crime:  reserving hotel rooms.

 

 

For the first five contests of the season (exhibitions with Wash U & Lewis; and games with SEMO, No. Kentucky & McKendree) Kipper Nichols and Drew Cayce were housed, along with the rest of the team, in one of the hotels near State Farm Center (i-Hotel at First & St. Mary’s, or the Hawthorne Suites, Homewood Suites or Hilton Garden Inn at Neil & Kirby.

That’s a violation of NCAA Bylaw 16.8.1.

There’s no particular NCAA rule about transfers staying in hotel rooms before home games. The NCAA never contemplated such a stupid policy. Why would teams pay to lodge players twice for the same night?  Their apartments are literally 1200 yards away.

But because Nichols and Cayce were transfers waiting a “year in residence,” they’re not allowed travel expenses. In order to receive competition-related expenses, the student-athlete must be eligible for competition. It’s the reason Rayvonte Rice never traveled with the team during his first year on campus, unless he could get there on his own dime (Braggin’ Rights, or the United Center game, for example).

James Haring

James Haring is not stupid. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of West Virginia, where he worked for Brad Underwood’s old boss, Huggie Bear. Moreover, he knows the minutiae that DOBOs must contemplate each time they make an outlay. Player per diems, for example were as follows for the 2016-17 season.

In-State/Out of State Breakfast $5.50/$6.50 Lunch $5.50/$6.50 Dinner $17.00/$19.00

Haring also knows the rule capping an MBB traveling squad at 15 players. (He says it’s a Big Ten rule, rather than the NCAA.) This came up in a conversation earlier this year, when I realized that Samson Oladimeji wasn’t on a road trip, and hadn’t been all year.

I asked Oladimeji about it, and he didn’t know why he didn’t travel with the team. James Haring did know: This year’s Illini roster included 17 players. Someone had to stay behind.

Samson Oladimeji (Vashoune Russell)

Nichols finished his “year in residence” in December, about the same time Oladimeji became an official member of the team. As the last to join, Samson was also the last in line for a room. So Cayce never stayed in a hotel for the rest of the season, Nichols returned to the hotel regimen when he becamse eligible, and Oladimeji never stayed in a hotel, period.

That’s pretty much the end of Haring’s whimsical violation of NCAA rules, apart from the unfortunate Letter of Admonishment added to his employee file.

But his loss is our gain, because the report it begat shines a spotlight on the terrible policy of locking up players in hotel rooms.

The men’s basketball program spent, according to the NCAA filing posted above,  an average of $43.11 per player, per night, to stay in a Champaign hotel room prior to those first five contests.

That figure may reflect the average cost for every game this year, but not necessarily. Rates fluctuate with the market, and the team had no fixed rate agreement with any of the four hotels.

For the 21 home contests this year, assuming the $43.11 rate were static, that’s $13,579.65 to house the team in rooms literally visible from their own West Quad apartments.  Add $2,586.60 for the four games played within a short driving distance (Purdue, Indiana, Northwestern and the annual United Center game). The team flies to Iowa. Why sleep there, too?

Spokesman Kent Brown points out:

No other teams do this. Football has done this for decades. Men’s basketball only started this recently. It’s a coach’s decision, but would need to come out of their budgets.

The idea behind housing a football team is that you can’t trust a football team to do the right thing. They’re football players, after all. If you don’t lock them up, drunken rape and pillaging is the inevitable outcome.

Under John Groce, basketball players couldn’t be trusted either, at least not by John Groce. Remember that time Aaron Cosby and Rice snuck out of their hotel room to see the town? In that case, the town was Minneapolis. They were both injured at the time (Rice’s broken hand, Cosby’s detached retina — neither of which happened because they went sight-seeing), and wouldn’t have played against the Gophers anyway.

After that, Groce imposed the policy for home games, too.

James Haring, far left, was a grad assistant in 2014-15. Rayvonte Rice & Aaron Cosby were suspended for this game, despite both being injured anyhow.

The problem with imprisoning the players two nights per week is not just that it treats them like criminals. It’s also that they’re not likely to get a great night’s sleep in unfamiliar surroundings. By imposing road-game conditions on his team, Groce took away one of the great advantages of home games — being at home.

The Homewood Suites are 1200 yards from West Quad. And although Tyler Griffey once said he enjoyed the jacuzzi there (as a freshman, he was housed there during semester break when the dorms closed), the train still goes by just as often, if 20 seconds earlier than it passes West Quad.

“That’s the only bad thing I can think of” Maverick Morgan said of West Quad’s proximity to the train when the team first moved into its new digs at Oak & John Streets. “It’s as close as everyone thinks it is.”

Here at 4:44

Maybe that’s why John Groce’s teams lost so many games. Over the course of five years, they never got a good night’s sleep.

Stay tuned to Illini Report for more kvetching about minor NCAA violations, and the mundane stories they spawn. Next week.

Fans of James Haring, which include most people he’s ever met, will be glad to know that he’s pursuing opportunities in college basketball. His DOBO position will be occupied by Underwood associate Joey Biggs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be leaving the DIA.

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Illini basketball

Rumors & Conjecture

The “story” from the Rutgers game, if there is one, must be the obvious point-shaving. There’s no other explanation for the Scarlet Knights’ dribbling out the clock, down eight points, with 1:20 to go.

The spread was 11 points. Rutgers lost by 12.

Now, let’s talk about the non-controversial stuff

MARIJUANA

Darius Paul was driven to drink by the NCAA. He tested positive for a substance that’s known for its non-toxic medicinal properties. Given a dire warning to stay away from this natural, herbal tonic, he took to a poison that’s legal and toxic. How does that make sense?

I’m not an advocate of marijuana. I’ve tried it. It makes me paranoid, dizzy, uncomfortable.

It works much better for my brother-in-law, who’s 12 years into his multiple sclerosis diagnosis. He gets it legally, by prescription. It helps with pain and muscle tension.

Marijuana, and the stupid laws restricting it, have made a huge impact here in C-U, just recently.

If you don’t live in Champaign-Urbana, you may not know the news that gripped campus over the last few days. A student named Vicente Mundo was shot in the back of the head, and killed. His body was dumped north of Tolono. A vigil — and a massive effort to locate him, in the days preceding the discovery of his body — were the talk of the town.

On Tuesday, news broke that two men had been arrested & arraigned for first-degree murder.

Vicente Mundo was murdered for a small amount of marijuana, and a small amount of money. If marijuana sales were legal in Illinois, he’d be alive.

New Governor Bruce Rauner is doing what he can to facilitate sales & distribution of marijuana in Illinois. The general assembly voted medical marijuana legal last year. Urbana (and Ann Arbor and Madison) decriminalized marijuana long ago, reducing harsh penalties to wrist-slaps that cost users less than a craft beer or premium cocktail.

Having charged the alleged killers, and after joining a press conference featuring all the local law-enforcement agencies involved in the investigation; State’s Attorney Julia Rietz attended the Rutgers game, and said it was the perfect way to cap a long day. (Perhaps she meant sleep-inducing. The game was like marijuana, in that sense.)

Given all this tumult, it seemed like a good time to speak up about marijuana and the student-athlete.

There’s conjecture that Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby were suspended for using marijuana. If they had, they’d be typical college students. They’d also be typical medical patients, recovering from injuries.

But in fact, Ray and Cos were not smoking doobies. Their suspension has nothing to do with illegal drugs. They enjoyed some nightlife at a time when they were expected to set a good example for their younger teammates, by staying in, perhaps watching some scouting materials, and getting a great night’s sleep.

Neither Rice nor Cosby had any possibility of seeing action in a game at the time of the “infraction,” so perhaps a bit of R&R felt to them like a harmless change of pace.

If you read the Steve Bardo book on 1989’s Flyin’ Illini, you’ll know that some of the guys on that team decided to go out partying in East Lansing, the night before a game. They were hungover the next day, according to Bardo, and got pummeled by a well-rested Spartans team.

It’s comparing apples to orange basketballs. Staying up all night and getting drunk may not lead to great athletic performance. But it’s had negligible impact on athletes’ ability to sit on a bench.

John Groce got a freebie for Message Sending purposes, because the duration of the “indefinite suspension” will fit nicely with the recovery time for each player’s injury. By the time John Beilein brings his Caris LeVert-less Woverines to town for a bit of revenge, you can expect Ray and Cos to be part of that ass whoopin’.

COULDN’T BE HAPPIER FOR KENNY BATTLE

Bardo’s Flyin’ Illini teammate Kenny Battle (whose individual flyin’ led to the moniker, let’s be honest) was on hand Tuesday.

Battle is famous for his effort. A yearly award is given, in his name, to the Illini player who displays the greatest hustle. True to that nature, Battle has kept working on his latest cause. It’s his daughter, Ty. He wants you all to know how proud he is of Ty, now a sophomore in Joliet.

You’ll remember, he was adamant about this subject last year as well.

Ty’s dad says she’s averaging a double-double, and has her choice of an all-expenses-paid college education. “Everybody wants her.”

I was thrilled to capture a picture of Battle and Rayvonte Rice together. They are kindred Illini. Perhaps the best players of their era, both started as under-appreciated, thought to be undersized mid-majors. Battle at NIU of the MAC, and Rice at Drake of the Valley.

NOW, ABOUT THAT BORING GAME

The reason BTN2GO stuck you with a 9:30 p.m. slot on a Tuesday night, dear Rutgers basketball fan, is that you don’t exist.

The reason you, Illinois fan, were stuck with a late Tuesday game is that you fall into two categories. You will either do anything to see the Illini play, or you are waiting for Illinois to return to relevance. They’ve got you either way.

Tens, possibly dozens of you descended upon the State Farm Center on Tuesday. Hundreds more watched the game on TV.

They saw a balanced scoring attack, a future NBA project, Gene Steratore making friendly with the Orange Krush, and Austin Colbert.

Ahmad Starks took fewer off-balance shots. He made more shots.

Leron Black collected the garbage. He connected on 5-of-6 shots, for 12 points. Intriguingly, he grabbed only two rebounds in 21 minutes.

Kendrick Nunn grabbed six rebounds. He was the alpha and the omega of this game, converting all his free-throws, and adding four assists (five if you count the beautiful post-entry pass that Nnanna Egwu kicked).

Nnanna, by the way, played through an injury that required special attention from trainer Paul Schmidt. It happened on the defensive possession that (unfairly) resulted in Nnanna’s second foul (when a Scarlet Knight tripped over Nnanna’s prone body).

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Illini basketball

Black is the New Black

It’s here. This is what we’ve been waiting for. Leron Black is ready to go.

The line-up is now complete, minus its star. But Rayvonte’s absence is providing extra touches for everyone. If this team makes a late run, that might be important.

Anyway, Illini basketball 2014-15 began Wednesday night, after way too long in the cocoon.

Leron Black is the butterfly, and he stings like a bee. His 13 rebounds were the difference against Purdue. Full stop.

Illinois’s eleven consecutive free-throws to close the game …. closed the game. But it was Leron Black’s 13 rebounds that won it.

The point that’s been obvious since the O & B scrimmage, and much stated on these pages, is that this Illini basketball team must rely on

2- Nunn

3 – Hill

4 – Black

5 – Egwu

and that means Rayvonte Rice plays the point.

Because Ray broke his hand, we get to see Jaylon Tate at the point. That’s entertaining, and offers ball-movement that you don’t get without Tate — although Kendrick Nunn has become one hell of a passer, did you notice?

The Illini  train got on track Wednesday because Aaron Cosby was unavailable to stand in Leron Black’s way. Now conversant with John Groce’s schemes — or at least sufficiently conversant to merit a start when everyone else is injured — Leron proved that he’s assimilated enough data to not embarrass himself.

From now on, we can expect the team we expected.

It’s nothing personal against Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby. Not at all. In very different ways, they are good lads. But ever since they donned the orange & blue, it’s been clear (eye test, stats) that neither of them resembled the dead-eye sharp-shooter that John Groce imagined.

Cosby has transformed his game recently, emphasizing defense and rebounding, and not shooting a lot from the arc. Starks attempted only two treys against Purdue. Still, he managed 1-of-9 from the field. An assist, a turnover, a rebound. He’s a pesky sonofabitch to play against, from an offensive standpoint. He brings that value to the team.

Nevertheless, the data pool is too large for a mathematician like John Groce to ignore. The reports will continue to buttress earlier reports, making trends where once there were mere samples.

2 – Nunn

3 – Hill

4 – Black

5 – Egwu

This is a short-bench team.

If you’re wondering where Leron Black has been this whole time, don’t. The answer is not as negative as “lost,” but could certainly be expressed as “finding his way.”

Leron said as much after the game. He also noted that his momma didn’t raise no quitter.

Matt Painter said it perfectly, while laying praise at Leron’s feet. He recalled his teammate Steve Scheffler, who felt lost as an underclassman, but also knew he could make impact if he tried harder than everyone else.

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Illini basketball

Psychological Warfare: Purdue’s mastery of Illini basketball

The Purdue Boilermakers are still the winningest program in B1G basketball history. Their most recent conference championship came five years ago.

Illinois hasn’t won a championship in ten years. And in that time, Purdue holds a 12-5 advantage over the Illini. Two of those wins came the Big Ten Tournament. Two came in the 2009 regular season. Since then, Purdue has won 9-of-10.

During that onslaught, Matt Painter drove his mentor Bruce Weber out of a job. Weber’s most notorious player-trashing came after losing to Purdue. That’s when Weber said he’d failed to build a culture at Illinois, and instead coached “not to lose.”

It was hard to decipher the substance of that distinction, but that’s Weber all over. His meaning was never clear, but you could generally infer that he was insulting someone. (FWIW, I’ve always preferred the subtler player-trashing Weber performed after the Northwestern loss in 2010.)

Weber was never good at explaining things, which is — whatever he believes — the actual reason he failed at Illinois.

Matt Painter is very good at explaining things. Among conference coaches, he’s a top communicator. (Thad Matta is right there, as is Fran McCaffery.) Listening to Painter speak, one gleans the modus operandi, the Keady Tree philosophy.  It’s what Weber could never express through vagueries and colloquy, or outright dodges. (Seriously, who was it that invented the “Weber is too honest” narrative? That’s nonsense.)

Right now, January 2015, is a fascinating time to analyze Matt Painter’s coaching style, from an Illini perspective.  He hasn’t been successful recently, but he’s been more successful than John Groce when the two go head-to-head. Their philosophies on player development may be exactly the same, or totally different. It’s harder to tell why Groce doles out PT the way he does, or rewards individual players for performance based on one set of metrics (e.g. rebounds) while not penalizing for another set (e.g. field goal percentage).

Painter talked about yanking his young guys during both Monday’s B1G teleconference and his own pre-Illinois teleconference on Tuesday. You can infer that Weber shares  this philosophy, if not the ability to express it.

This year at Kansas State, Weber stanched a slide that could easily have seen him canned in March, and he did it by sticking to his principles. He’s “building a culture of toughness” rather than “coaching not to lose.” That’s bad news for fans of entertaining basketball, because it suggests 58-57 grudge matches might ugly the game for years to come.

As for his mastery over Illinois, Painter spoke Tuesday about the psychological weapons he’s deployed over the years. The most obvious one, it turns out, was unintentional.  Painter said his staff did not intentionally not guard Chester Frazier.

Painter acknowledged (and perhaps wistfully pined for) Lewis Jackson’s mental ownership of Illini guards, a key factor in establishing the 9-outta-10 streak.

Painter also acknowledged the key factor for beating Illinois this year, but did not say whether it’s something an Illini opponent can effect or control. For Illini fans, it’s obvious: Make sure Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby have one of their 1-for-9 shooting nights, rather than one of their 5-for-7 shooting nights.

You can bet that Purdue’s staff is crunching video right now, trying to determine whether any defensive actions prompt these offensive reactions, one way or the other.

But as of Tuesday morning, Painter did not have an immediate response to the question of how to beat Illinois psychologically. And it’s not because he isn’t a straight-shooter.

(For context, understand the format of Boiler teleconferences: Painter calls out the names of all the people on the line, in order, and then answers all of each individual’s questions in a row before moving on to the next person.)

Cosby is more typical, from a sports psychology perspective, than Starks. Cosby said after the Northwestern game that he tried to keep his head up during his shooting slump. He credited the Illini coaching staff for insisting that he keep firing away.

Starks is an unusual character, from a sports psychology standpoint. He’s a little guy, and a loner. He’s quiet and introspective. Although probably kind to small, defenseless animals; Starks will ruthlessly attack you on a basketball court. And despite a number of statistically terrible games this year; he doesn’t need a coaching staff to buck him up. He’ll keep attacking as long as he’s on the court.

It’s for this reason that Starks is much more dangerous to the Boilermakers. They’re an unusually tall team. Starks is the mouse to their elephant. And worse for Painter, Starks seems invulnerable to mental antagonism.

Whether you prefer John Groce’s demanding without demeaning, or Painter’s short leash for underclassmen who haven’t earned the right to make mistakes, both philosophies are more comprehensible than anything Bruce Weber ever expressed.

What’s odd is that Painter will tell you what he’s doing. He shows his cards. But he still finds a way to outmaneuver Illinois, psychologically.

As Bobby Knight once said, “I’m fuckin’ tired of losing to Purdue.”

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Illini basketball

A Return to Form?

Kendrick Nunn looked like Kendrick Nunn. Crafty, deadly. A psychopath on the court: No empathy for your distress as he cuts through you.

That’s much better than the tentative impostor who’d taken all of Kendrick’s minutes this year.

Is the “Real” Aaron Cosby back? Or was Northwestern simply one of many examples of the “Real” Aaron Cosby? i.e. is he a guy that will make a good percentage of shots consistently? Or does he go 4-for-8 from the arc some days, and 1-of-7 most days?

Why did John Groce decide to play Ahmad Starks in the closing minutes? Starks’s 4-for-13 performance (0-for-5 from three) was consistent with his season thus far.

Starks hit some long 2s and a couple of floaters.  You might say he shot 50% from two, because he did.

As the Wildcats closed an 11-point lead to one, Groce chose Starks-on-five, including an isolation at :39 in which Ahmad flew sideways under the the hoop.

Starks supplied a game-high (tied with 7-footer Alex Olah) four assists. He committed no turnovers. Kendrick Nunn said (kindly, perhaps) that Starks’s scorer’s mentality open the floor for other shooters. That seems theoretical at this point.

The Illini offense looked great from the opening tip, and for about ten minutes. Sharp cuts and quick ball movement delivered open shots, and Illini shooters connected. But then what happened? Did the Wildcats step up their defense?

Illinois returned to form, seeming to prefer shooting with a hand in its face.

But excluding the one made three in the second half (and the six misses), the Illini connected on 50% of field-goals. Ignore Cosby’s (evidently not crucial) missed free-throw with :26 remaining and a three point lead, and the Illini were perfect from charity in the second half.

But if, like me, you were watching the game; it’s hard to ignore theses things. They’ll plant themselves in your brain like Nick Anderson’s box-out, or the fat guy from Austin Peay.

Northwestern eschewed the home team’s typical mid-second half comeback, but Illinois left the door open for that opportunity.

Chris Collins’s game management put the Wildcats in position to win. With 1:15 to go and down five, Collins got a wide open look for hot-handed Alex Olah (14 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks, 6/12 FGs). The ball went all the way down before corkscrewing up and out, to audible (and familiar) purple-clad groaning.

With 13 seconds to go and down by three, Collins sent Tre Demps knifing through the lane for an easy deuce. It takes a calm coach and a calm team to choose & execute a two-point-play when you “need a three.”

But if Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill hadn’t been flawless from the line, you’d be reading an entirely different set of next-day accounts, and you wouldn’t be enjoying your coffee as much.

John Groce’s strategies seemed less obviously … hmm, how to put this … good? Harkening back to the less fondly remembered aspect of the Lou Henson era, Groce took the air out of the ball. The purpose of offensive sets, in the closing minutes, seemed to be clock-bleeding, rather than bucket making.

Illinois won. Does that mean Groce’s strategies were effective?

This game provided no answers. Rather, it’s a bookmark. We may want to look back at this game someday, to say “That’s when Cosby clicked.” We may want to look back and say “it’s not the first time Groce blew a ten point lead to a bad team.”

MOSTLY ORANGE

Whatever marketing tricks Jim Phillips employed, they failed to keep his alma mater from dominating his employer’s atmosphere. Most of the crowd wore orange.  The only disadvantage for Illinois was not being able to invite Chicago-area recruits.

But late on a school night, with the temperature hovering in the mid-teens and a lot of slush on the ground, you can see why talented high-schoolers would stay inside. Welsh-Ryan Arena is 31 miles from, for example, Chicago Morgan Park High School.

Nevertheless,  two brave youngsters attended. Stevenson’s Justin Smith and Evanston’s Nojel Eastern sat in exactly the same seats as last year. (Edward Smith was there again, too.)

Both say they’re being recruited by the Illini. Both say they’ve grown two inches since last year. Smith says he’s up to 6’7″. Eastern reports 6’4″. They’re both sophomores.

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Illini basketball

Beileined

It was Wear Khakis to Crisler Day in Ann Harbaughr, formerly known as Ann Abhor, or – among frat boys who’ve ironically failed to embrace the felicity of a kindly virtue they’d prefer to establish via Rohypnol and booze – Ann Arbwhore.

Tracy Abrams wore khakis to the game. He didn’t learn about the fashion rally ‘til it was too late.

Nobody’s likely to confuse Tracy with a Michigan fan. On the other hand, Tracy was hardly recognizable as Tracy Abrams. Both eyes and the bridge of his nose were swollen.

“Yeah, I’m sick,” he noted.

It looked conjunctival. I’ll guess we’ll know Saturday, if the entire team shows up in Columbus with pink-eye.

Abrams’s vision was unaffected. “Shit!” he screamed when Zak Irvin fielded an inbound pass, all alone, at the top of the key.

From my perspective, it was like that all day. It seemed as though Michigan’s lanky wings got their looks without much – if any – defensive resistance.

I’m not reporting, here. I’m just wondering.

My seat on the opposite baseline may have been the worst view in the world, given cable HD’s reach & prowess. So maybe someone can help me out: Was there a hand in the face on any of those fourth-quarter threes?

The sad part is that nobody at Crisler gave a shit. Michigan fans were barely paying attention to the game through the first two hours (real time).

It was all Harbaugh Fever.

Eventually, the crowd began to groan as UM shot after UM shot rolled off the rim.  You’ll be surprised to know that Zak Irvin made only three of his ten attempts from the arc.

Yep. Ten.

Even worse, Caris LeVert was a lousy 1-for-5 from long. (Read on, there’s an observation coming about Michigan’s win not being arc-oriented. It’s a mere paragraph from . . . now.)

Maybe none (or not enough) of the Illini cared, either.  Some of the passes, some of the shot attempts evinced a well, gotta do somethin’ attitude. As in hey, why not throw the ball directly upward at the bottom of the rim, gotta do somethin’!

I hope it’s not true. I’m pretty sure hte players care. I think Ray wants to play in the tournament.

The most emotion I saw from “the team” came from Jason Marry. He’s one of those guys that makes the TNT videos. (In my eyes, he’s certainly a part of the team.) Jason punched the Crisler floor when Illinois’s final stoopid turnover sealed the win for Michigan.

Even John Groce seemed dispassionate about the loss.

But wait. Why did I employ “even” in that paragraph? John Groce’s pasions have nothing to do with winning and losing.

Yes, if you haven’t figured it out by now: John Groce is not obsessed with winning individual games. This point became obvious early on, when Groce chose against stifling his players’ bad tendencies.

You should be reminded of Bruce Weber’s most notorious speech, in which he (poorly) communicated the goal of building a culture, rather than “playing not to lose.”

Groce is not the same person as Weber. For one, he doesn’t blame other people for his mistakes.

If this game is remembered – UM fans won’t, they don’t care. Illini fans might not: They’ll block it out like a childhood fondling – it will be remembered for Aubrey Dawkins’s 6-for-7 marksmanship from deep. Maybe some Rayvontagonists will recall it as Ray’s personal failure of leadership.

That’s too bad, because neither is true. The thing that beat Illinois was the inside game. Either team’s. Take your pick.

Michigan (football school) plays two bigs with ten thumbs apiece. Illinois has not established an inside game in 2014-15.

Nnanna Egwu’s fouling tendencies made him a target for John Beilein. Beilein knows Egwu’s strengths and weaknesses, and the abilities of Egwu’s back-ups.

As Egwu reached the four-foul stage, while Maverick Morgan missed chip-shots, Beilein ran pick n’ rolls that forced Egwu to confront his greatest dilemma. Hedge or man? Double-team or fill gap? And thus, cumbersome Right Tackle Ricky Doyle was able to drop the ball through the metal ring five times out of six – hands notwithstanding – without tripping over anyone.

Had Aubrey Dawkins dropped all four of his 2nd half threes, but Doyle been denied  those easy lay-ins …

Well, you do the math.  My reckoning holds that Illinois’s 13 point lead will never be overtaken by Dawkins’s 12 points.

Morgan looked good on his first opportunity. He calmly buried a jumper from the short corner, one of Ray’s six assists. But soon thereafter, he missed the same shot. And then he missed his chippie. It’s become a habit for Mav: the botched one-footer.

Why? you ask.

Maverick Morgan rushes his shot. Especially when he’s under the basket, he tries to release the ball before defenders have an opportunity at contact.

Contrast Malcolm Hill, whose offensive prowess comes from the torpor with which he meanders toward the basket.

Malcolm, like Jereme Richmond four years ago, has mastered the art of the Slowhand. He waits, and doesn’t mind waiting. Once his defenders have panicked, Malcolm asserts himself.

Too bad Maverick couldn’t help more on Saturday. Michigan’s twin oafs (Doyle’s relief is the even more ham-fisted Mark Donnal) seemed an obvious point of attack for the Illini offense. Instead, that crafty John Beilein exploited Illini low-post vulnerabilities.

Here’s what Beilein said about his latest, hugely effective, Illini beating strategy.

Q: “Can you talk about exploiting Egwu’s fouls troubles with Doyle in the low-post?”

A: “Yeah, I mean … that’s something we try to work on when we see a guy who does get into foul trouble.” says Beilein. “ We’ve been playing against him for – it seems like ten years. So it was really good to try and get him outta there. You know, they only have one freshman (Leron Black) that’s out in that line-up, and he’s a really good player – he was great in the first half – but it’s important if you can that other big guy out of there, because he does protect the rim better than anybody that they have.

The news that’s becoming not news: Jaylon Tate is now Illinois’ #1 point guard. He finished the game in Ann Arbor, playing a total of 25 minutes to Ahmad Starks’s 20. Tate was on the floor for the final possession of regulation, when Illinois had the opportunity to win.

The Aaron Cosby news was mixed. He made bad decisions with the ball. But he also made good decisions with the ball.

Kendrick Nunn was also a mixed bag. But overall, it was an off day for KNunn.

The odd thing is that Kendrick’s execution is failing him. It’s not that he has bad floor vision, or risky ideas. He’s just not getting the ball to the spot.

That’s not weird for most players, even at the Division I level. But it’s weird for KNunn.

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Illini basketball

Remarkable Numbers – Kennesaw

With each passing game, the 2014-15 Illini become more of what they are. Hazy statistical anomalies clarify, becoming firm realities.

The facts-based media was largely absent from Saturday’s game (Tribune & Sun-Times off covering bowl games, Mark Tupper perhaps recovering from one), so I thought I might stray from stream-of-consciousness into hard/fast numbers. It’s the end of “season one.” It seems like a good time.

There’s some good and some bad from the Kennesaw State game. From a statistical standpoint, Illinois didn’t vary far from the mean. Except when they did.

Here are some numbers to think about.

25 — Most minutes played by any Illini (Fittingly, it was Kendrick Nunn.)

6 — Turnovers committed.

16 —Turnovers forced.

7-1  — Jaylon Tate’s assist-to-turnover ratio

2-2 — Ahmad Stark’s assist-to-turnover ratio

19-36 — Illinois’ assists on made field goals

19-to-1 — Leron Black’s minutes-to-fouls ratio

7-to-5 — Austin Colbert’s minutes-to-rebounds ratio

7-7 —Rayvonte Rice from the field

6-7 — Malcolm Hill from the field

7-21 — Illinois’ 3FG

1-5 — Ahmad Starks 3FG

2-6 — Aaron Cosby 3FG

2-2 — Malcolm Hill/Rayvonte Rice 3FG

The “better shooting” narrative can be supported only by Rayvonte Rice’s ascension to true shooting-guard status. Through 13 games, Rice is hitting 47.1% of attempts from the arc.

John Groce credited Rice, in his Braggin’ Rights postgame remarks, for spending countless hours alone, unseen in the gym, perfecting his muscle memory. (The current thinking in college basketball seems to be that players alone can help themselves to shoot better, and it’s simply a matter of practice. There’s probably some neuroscience data to support this thinking.)

Ray continued to work his ass off in less measurable ways as well.

After an 0-for-2 night on Saturday, Kendrick Nunn dropped to 43.6% from long. Hitting both his treys brought Malcolm Hill to 40.6%.

Last year, Joseph Bertand connected on 48% of his FGs, and 38.5% of his 3FGs. Jon Ekey was 40.6% overall, and 36.6% from 3.

Maybe Cosby and Starks will get better as the competition improves. At the end of the non-conference schedule, their numbers show a distinct drop-off from last year.

Cosby is now 30.8% from the field, and 32.8% from distance. Starks has connected on 36.3% of his FGs, but only 31% from deep.

If the offense has improved — and there’s a reasonable (if subjective) argument that the offense has improved — it’s not because of the newcomers. It’s because of the leap forward from Rice and Hill.

Last year, Rice shot 43% from the field and Hill 38.3%. This year Rice is 51.4% from the field, Hill is 52.6 %.

Maybe the key to success in 2015 is to get Cosby and Starks “on track.” But maybe the key is to get productive minutes from them, while Kendrick Nunn finds his footing and joins Rice and Hill in the Illini Power Trio.

 

Cosby has already demonstrated an aptitude for rebounding from the small forward position. Hill is second on the team in total rebounds (after Rice). Hill’s defense has yet to garner accolades from his coach.

Nunn’s defense has won him praise on occasion, but not always. Whether his overall play is “tentative” compared to last year cannot be proven by stats.  It’s hard to imagine this team reaching the height of its potential without a bad-ass Kendrick Nunn. Taking Ray for granted (which seems traditional & popular), Kendrick is the singular component that this team must be able to rely on.

There’s not much to say about Illinois’ defense in light of the Kennesaw State game. KSU may be the worst team Illinois will face in Groce’s tenure (let’s hope so!), often preferring to toss the ball out-of-bounds before an Illini defender could assume his stance.

They did,  however, get a stunning number of wide-open looks from three.  Is that a reversion to the mean?

That’s a reality with some statistical support, and some subjective debate. We’ll know in about 18 games whether the Illini got that problem corrected, among others.

On to Ann Arbor.

 

 

 

Categories
Illini basketball

Cosby & Starks down Mizzou (with a little help from Rayvonte)

With about six minutes to go in the annual Braggin’ Rights game, longtime Illini athletic deparment photographer Mark Jones said “wow, what a game.”

With about four minutes to go, Decatur Herald-Review photographer Stephen Haas said “wow, what a game.”

To anyone stationed overseas, or just working on the weekend; if you didn’t get a chance to see Illinois-Mizzou live, you might be worried about Illinois needing a last-second shot to beat a 5-6 team. Don’t be. Not today anyway.

‘Tis the season to be grateful for Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby. Cosby made his usual 1 shot, and thus finished with two points. It was arguably his best game as an Illini. He equaled Rayvonte Rice for a team high seven rebounds, and as John Groce pointed out, he pulled a lot of those boards away from Missouri’s big guys, especially when the Illini went small.

Wherever Illinois needed a guy to do something on the floor, Aaron Cosby was there, being that guy.

Starks put the team on his back in the midway point of the second half, when it seemed as if the Tigers would run away with the game (literally run away … they killed Illinois in transition). Starks used spacing, and the teardrop he practiced all last year, to score three consecutive buckets for Illinois.

Rice was also an important factor in the outcome. But considering his career-long heroics, it almost feels ho-hum that he merely stroked a game-winner as time expired, and scored a measly 19 points.

Ray’s best bucket of the day may have been his first three-pointer, the one that capped a grinding possession in which Malcolm Hill fought Missouri’s press, broke it, drove the lane against stern defense, dribbled to the elbow, moved toward the wing, lost his dribble, regained it, charged back toward the paint, and then kicked to Ray for the dagger.

That had to hurt.

Shots included, Ray’s assist to Nnanna Egwu, for the go-ahead basket at 1:53 may have been the play of the game.

You decide.

Missouri played its best game of the year, by a large margin.  The only cause for worry is how well the Tigers scouted Illinois, and exploited Illini weaknesses and tendencies.

Wes Clark found the chink of Illinois’ perimeter defensive armor. Johnathan Williams III demonstrated how to drive the baseline against Illinois’ post defense.

You could almost feel the satisfaction of Missouri’s coaching staff. You could almost hear them saying “yep, that’s just how it looked in the scouting report.

If Illinois wants to win more games this year, they’ll take a good long look at this game, and not the thrilling last minute.

In a way, it’s refreshing that Illinois’ defense has such obvious flaws. If Bruce Weber were still coaching the Illini, you’d probably be wondering what Malcolm Hill could do with a basketball, were he ever to get in a game.

You’d also be wondering why that feisty local pro-baller Rayvonte Rice was never offered a scholarship to his hometown team.

So go ahead and feel satisfied that John Groce is  on the sideline. Think of it as a Giftsmas present to yourself. You can worry about Groce again in 2015, if you so choose.

Groce also showed great patience with Leron Black on Saturday. And he worked Ted Valentine and Mark Whitehead effectively, to keep Leron in the game.

LERON THE VIOLENT

Malcolm Hill predicted it. He said Leron Black would probably get in some fights this year, that’s just how hard he plays.

Going against Leron every day in practice, Malcolm understands better than Leron himself just how violent Leron can be.

On Saturday, Ted Valentine and Mark Whitehead noticed as well. Whitehead called Leron for a Flagrant I in the first half, and a dead ball technical a few minutes later.

The fact that Leron wasn’t ejected suggests that Whitehead saw no malice in Leron’s demeanor, just a lot of violence. Whether Groce deserves any credit for that outcome, he certainly campaigned for it.

THE RETRO UNIFORMS

Behind the Illini bench, 1989 team manager Ryan Baker sat in the second row, with Jessica and their new-ish born bundle of joy. Dana Howard sat a few spaces away. But as far as I know, the only actual member of the 1989 team in attendance was Travis Smith.

I hope the rest of the guys got to see their old uniforms on display. They looked fantastic.

CHAMINADE’S JAYSON TATUM, TYLER COOK & TREY COLLINS ATTENDED

It’s funny how  recruiting gossip works. When you talk to the actual recruit, it’s just a lot different from what you might read online.

Take Jayson Tatum, considered by some the #1 recruit in the country (Class of 2016). If you look at recruiting websites, you’d think Tatum is off the Illinois radar. You might think he’s interested in only the blue bloods … Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, etc.

But on Saturday, Tatum said the reason Illinois doesn’t find itself included in his list is because the people asking the questions don’t ask about Illinois. So in response, he doen’t mention Illinois. And consequently, they don’t write about Illinois.

But Tatum says Illinois is right there in the mix. He added that he doesn’t care how many small forwards (e.g. D.J. Williams) the Illini recruit: That will have no bearing on his judgment.

Jayson’s teammate Tyler Cook also has an offer from Illinois.

He’s a 6’8″ power forward, with a body that’s already grown to about 240 pounds. His 247Sports page says he’s 50/50 between Kansas & Mizzou, which again shows how little those guys know.

Jamall Walker is the primary recruiter for both these guys. He was also the point man for the successful recruitments of Leron Black and Jalen Coleman-Lands. That means Paris Parham, who turns 43 on Sunday, needs to bring the Bright Lights to Champaign, just to balance things out.

Wish him luck.

Categories
Illini basketball

What Happened, Hampton?

If you’re like most people, you didn’t see the Illini game against Hampton. You’re lucky. It was boring.

The most compelling part of Wednesday’s game came after the final horn, when Ahmad Starks talked about finals week. He spoke of exams, papers & projects. He talked about the team’s unusual approach to scouting its opponent, necessitated by conflicting schedules.

Instead of watching the big screen in the team room at Ubben, each Illini scouted Hampton on his own iPad.

Starks is an introspective guy. His frank delivery reminds us that, while these guys all play basketball, they have other things to think about, too.

In an infinite universe, there are certainly people wishing failure on Starks and Aaron Cosby. Among Illini fans, plenty have ripped their hair out over Cosby and Starks, just in the last month. If shooting doesn’t improve, they’ll all soon look like John Groce and Dustin Ford. (Jamall Walker is exempt from this comparison until Illini fans become sharp dressers.)

But it’s doubtful that any Illini fans are wishing ill to befall Cosby and Starks. More likely that everyone among this tiny subset of humanity wants, desperately, for these two to progress to the mean. Surely, if their purported stats are to be believed, both these guys will exceed their current production for the rest of the season.

John Groce did everything within his control to empower Aaron Cosby on Wednesday. Hampton committed two technical fouls, and each time, Groce chose Cosby to shoot the free-throws. One game prior, Groce chose Rayvonte Rice to shoot those tech freebies. (Ray was coming off his worst-ever game as an Illini.) Cosby hit both free-throws on the first technical, and subsequently hit a three-pointer.  Cosby hit the front end of the second technical’s freebies.

Unfortunately, that was it for Aaron’s floor game. Once again, he connected on a single field-goal for the game. Cosby is now shooting a tick below 29% for the season. When Groce called an inbounds play for Aaron, Cosby traveled before he could get off a shot.

Starks is a 35% shooter on the year, with 36 total assists and 11 turnovers. Jaylon Tate is shooting 33%, with 33 assists and 14 turnovers. Tate leads Starks in steals, 8 to 5.

Tate achieved these figures in 179 minutes of play. It took Starks 261. (Starks accumulated 24 fouls in those 261 minutes. Tate fouled 14 times in his 179.)

Like most Illini fans, I wish no ill will toward Cosby and Starks. Perhaps unlike most Illini fans, I’ve never included them in my starting line-up. I figured I could make that change when they’d proven themselves more effective than an Illini I’d already assessed.

For me it’s always been

  • 2- Nunn
  • 3 – Hill
  • 4 – Black
  • 5 – Egwu

and an asterisk stating the obvious, that Rayvonte Rice is the best player on the team.

So far, that line-up has proven unrealistic because Leron Black hasn’t been able to tame his freshman tendencies. Against Hampton, Black grabbed 8 rebounds in 18 minutes while committing only a single foul. He twice caused Mike Basgier to leave the bench (fearing the need to break up a fight) and three times (at least) caused Tracy Abrams to howl with delight at Leron’s sheer (still not tame) animal violence.

Gene Steratore, Rob Riley & Kelly Pfeifer is not the best officiating crew from which to glean Leron’s development as a controlled beast. Frankly, they let a lot of things go. They whistled Ahmad Starks for carrying rather than being tackled. But for the most part, it was Illinois that got away with murder. So Leron’s move to major minutes is still pending his understanding of the college game.

But the Hampton game featured the near dream line-up. Ray Rice moves to the wing, or the other wing (John Groce’s “power forward” position, a fourth guard). Malcolm Hill mans whichever wing spot Ray doesn’t claim. Egwu remains the pivot. Nunn is the shooter.

But this time, it’s Jaylon Tate at the point. Because Jaylon is the only true point-guard on the team, it feels okay to slate him as the point-guard. After the Hampton game, it feels a lot better.

For his Hampton performance. most people will talk about Jaylon’s 8-for-8 free-throw shooting. The impressive aspect of his game was speed. Jaylon’s herky-jerky movement is deceptive. Dude is fast. It’s not just that he pushes the ball. He gets down the floor.

From my perspective, John Groce makes no error by preferring the players who’ve earned PT. “Players play players,” right?

Maybe it’s been one grand conspiracy-theory-inducing mindgame with Groce and future opponents: Start Cosby and Starks knowing that the real line-up would be …

No, I’m just kidding. I’ll leave that narrative to lifelong Trekkies and similar fantasists. I don’t believe that Groce  recruited Starks and Cosby as decoys.

On the other hand, the B1G is looking at Illinois as if Starks and Cosby were starters, as far as game “tapes” are concerned.

Wednesday’s State Farm Center crowd was the smallest & quietest of the season so far. Clearly, losing 3-of-4 games socked the Illinois fan-base in its gut. The crowd never got its wind back on Wednesday. Instead, it made its way to the parking lot in small groups, at every media time out under 12:00 of the second half.

Categories
Illini basketball

Alternate History Lesson – The Oregon Game

What’s wrong with Illinois basketball? Does John Groce “get it?” When can Illini fans expect to enjoy basketball again?

Let’s bookmark Saturday’s game, for future reference. No doubt it was a Significant Game in Groce’s tenure.  If history follows a dark path, this will be The Game When It All Started. If Groce wins a conference title in the next three years, this will be the game from which he recovered, and righted the ship.

If we could rewrite the history of Saturday’s game at the United Center, here are some headlines it might have produced:

High Flying Illini Blast Ducks 92-77

Cosby Three Lifts Illinois Past Oregon, 78-77

And here are headlines that it may yet produce:

Illini Advance to Sweet Sixteen as Spring Resurgence Continues

Illini Part Ways With Groce “Just Never Got It Rolling” says AD

ALTERNATE HISTORY #1

If we pretend that Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks did not play Saturday – and in fact were not on the roster – we can further pretend that Illinois versus Oregon featured shoddy defense on both ends, and that Illinois prevailed by outscoring the Ducks.

As it was, Illinois’ defense gave up 77 points. Let’s assume that removing Starks (28 minutes) and Cosby (30 minutes) achieved no different result on the defensive end. Instead, we’ll divvy up their minutes among the other Illini who play their positions. Thus, Rayvonte Rice (29 minutes) plays for 34, with two media segments (four to five minutes each) coming at the point guard position. Jaylon Tate plays 28 to 30 minutes (instead of 12).

Tate was effective on offense, making 2-of-4 field goal attempts, splitting defenders and finding open jump-shooters on the wing. If those shooters had converted, Jaylon would have tallied more than two assists.

Nnanna Egwu was effective on Saturday. Yes, he moved a lot on screens. Yes, he violated his opponent’s airspace on inbounds plays. Yes, he hedged toward the top of the key on every defensive set you can remember.

If it’s not clear by now that these tendencies are the will of the coaching staff, that point will never take root. If Egwu is anything, he’s coachable. The Groce Administration has obviously crunched the numbers on these actions, and determined to employ them habitually and routinely.

Let’s take Cosby & Starks’s fifteen shots (of which they made three) and divide them up among their teammates. Jaylon, Kendrick and Ray combined for 13-of-25 as it is. They also dished eight assists, compared to six for Cosby & Starks. So that’s a wash.

Would Ray. Kendrick and Jaylon connect on 7 or 8 of those extra fifteen shots?  That’s what the stat line indicates. So maybe the final would have been 82-77, instead of 92-77. (This alternate history writing is trickier that I thought.)

ALTERNATE HISTORY #2

Cosby played twenty minutes, much of it at the small forward position. Let’s pretend that those facts didn’t change, but instead pretend that Aaron made 3-of-9 rather than 1-of-9 shots.

John Groce and Nnanna Egwu said team dynamics are no different with Cosby at the 3-spot “because he’s been doing it all year.” That’s an evasion, whether they recognize it or not. From the inside perspective, Cosby may have been taking reps at that position. But this week (Villanova and Oregon games) saw Cosby playing in the same fivesome as Kendrick Nunn. In previous games, we got either/or.

Pressed to elaborate, Groce said Aaron’s numbers don’t reflect a drop off/bump in efficiency when he shifts between positions. That’s a pedantic response, but Groce isn’t now and never has been eager to share his metrics with the public (which he seems to regard as comprising mostly future opponents and their assistant coaches). The question wasn’t how Aaron’s positioning affects Aaron. It was how that positioning affects team dynamics. The answer is “worse shooting” but it may also be “better defense.”

It would be impossible, at this point, to say there’s an offensive benefit to the Nunn-Cosby tandem. Groce likes on-ball defense from either of them, and he views dribble-penetration as the team’s great weakness. So we must assume that Groce will continue to play Cosby and Nunn together until Illinois seals the driving lanes.

Based on his total body of work, it’s hard to believe that Aaron Cosby is the terrible shooter his (current) season stats suggest. If just two more of those nine shots had found their mark, Illinois probably wins a nail-biter.

ALTERNATE HISTORY #3: THE PATH FORWARD

If we stick with the true history of the Oregon game, we must regard it as an historical marker in Groce’s tenure. It will become either the albatross he overcame, or the first crack in the veneer.

If Groce wins a conference title in 2018, it will have proved to be the former. If he’s fired at some point in the next three to four years, the Oregon game will be remembered like Bruce Weber’s most notorious loss at the United Center: the game that turned the fans against him.

Bruce Weber was already heartily reviled by a loud faction of fans when UIC beat the Illini 57-54 at the United Center in December, 2010. A year later, when UNLV ran the Illini out of the building, the chorus of BOOOOs was unmistakable.

That’s not true of Groce.  Otherwise, the fan reaction to those two games bears a similarity: For the first time in Groce’s tenure, average fans – and not just the crazy loudmouths – have taken to social media in droves, questioning his coaching acumen and ability to land top recruits.

The first two years of Groceball showed teams that floundered in their first truly competitive games. Those teams learned, and grew stronger as January gave way to February and March.

Maybe this year’s team will recover, and make a run.

Both Dana Altman and John Groce voiced their surprise at the Ducks performance. They both declared it far and away the best performance of the season. Illinois didn’t play terribly. They just couldn’t shoot, same as it’s been all year.

Last season, the major problem was Tracy Abrams driving the ball against three taller defenders, and heaving a difficult shot. Groce never got that corrected. And so the season ended with Tracy Abrams hoisting a difficult shot. Then, the post-season ended with Tracy Abrams hoisting a difficult shot.

Groce takes the long view on these matters. And in the case of last year, the long view kept Illinois out of the NCAA Tournament. But you have to admire the loyalty Groce demonstrates, and the nurturing quality of his approach to his players’ psychology.

SEEN AT THE U.C.

Former head manager Andy Szabo made the trip from Athens, Ohio, where he’s now in grad school.  Illini Alex Austin, prevented by NCAA rules from traveling with the team, made his first road trip of the year.

The most surprising face in the crowd was Mike Mennenga. After toiling for years at the bottom rungs of the college coaching profession, Mennenga was suddenly thrust into the big time when Dana Altman tapped him to be an Oregon assistant. Altman said he’d nearly hired Mennenga at Creighton, years ago, adding that Mike brings a lot of energy to the bench, and recruiting ties to Canada.

However Oregon fares this season, it’s a big step up from Canisius. If Illinois wants to win at the United Center, they’d be wise to see that Mennenga isn’t in the building. He was an assistant for UIC in 2010-11.

UNSEEN AT U.C.

In the past, the Chicago game was a showcase for local recruits. Cliff Alexander, for example, attended the wretched game versus UNLV. So did Gavin Schilling and Alex Foster.  There was even a recruit who chose Illinois! (That was Michael Orris.)

In one sense, there was a ton of talent on hand. Rob Smith brought the entire Simeon team, including Illini signee Dennis Williams. Aaron Jordan came with Romelda, Ariel and the FiberGuru.

But if Marcus LoVett attended, nobody spotted him. No one resembling Nick Rakocevic sat behind the team bench.

Will Jayson Tatum and Jeremiah Tilmon attend the Braggin’ Rights game?  Keep your fingers crossed.