Illini basketball

Just in time: The Game of the Year

Ahmad Starks feeds Nnanna Egwu

Kiwane Garris, Jack Ingram & Roger Powell saw nothing unusual in Illinois’ 86-60 beatdown of Northwestern. For them, a 26 point win over the Wildcats is the norm. That’s how Northwestern games should go.

Maybe this was the one game of the 2015 season that resembled John Groce’s vision of the 2015 season. The Illini connected on 48% of their 3FGs and 47.4% from two. They assisted 15 of 27 made field goals. The offense clicked, the defense stuck together as if it had been glued.

There’s not much more to say. It was pretty. So I’ll say it with pictures. If you want to see Alex Austin’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle socks, you’ll have to look at all of them.

Illini basketball


Illinois NCAA Tournament chances took a huge hit when Illinois’ NCAA Tournament aspirations remain alive today, after a gutty defensive war in which Our Side wore down Their Side by sheer numbers.

Ahmad Starks saved the day for the second consecutive game. In both instances, he provided the level head. He was the guy who’s seen it all, good and (mostly, at Oregon State) bad. Once again, Starks was the unflappable assassin, almost disinterested. He played as if he were already dead, and you couldn’t hurt him anymore.

If Michigan had more players, Michigan wins. Our roster is depleted, bad. Their roster is depleted worse.

Spike Albrecht and Zak Irvin were awesome on defense. John Beilein’s offense was splendid to see. It’s just a pleasure to watch his teams — whether they play five future pros or a band of Rudies.

Albrecht seemed like a Rudy during his coming out party in the 2013 National Championship Game. But he’s not a one trick pony. His defense stifled Illinois’ perimeter for 38 1/2 minutes.

Max Bielfeldt did Peoria proud in his final State Farm Center appearance. His 12 points and 7 rebounds nearly cost Illinois athletics a basketball season. Oh, the irony.

Michigan’s communications staff didn’t make either player available to media after the game, instead offering Andrew Dakich as team spokesman.* Wolverine SID Tom Wywrot couldn’t make the trip due to a sinus infection. His deputies may not have realized the significance of this game for Bielfeldt.

It’s possible that Spike simply didn’t want to talk. John Beilein said Albrecht took the loss hard, and personally.

I say bully for Spike Albrecht. He’s exactly the kind of guy you’d want on your team.

I thought most of the Michigan team played with exceptional poise, for much of the night. The lone exception may be Aubrey Dawkins. He was targeted & pilloried by the Orange Krush, and he wilted.  The adult beat writers from Michigan’s traveling media pool did not notice. Their student reporters could talk about nothing else. I guess it’s a generational thing.

It worked out for Illinois. If you’re into bad sportsmanship, celebrate.

Elsewhere in the student section, one dweeb kept shouting at Spike Albrecht even as Kendrick Nunn walked to the line to shoot crucial late game free-throws. And yes, just as Kendrick tensed to release the ball, that dweeb shouted “SPIKE!”

That was Kendrick’s lone charity miss of the night. It nearly cost Illinois the game.

Fortunately, the only thing Illinois had to do to win: never give up. They simply wore the Woverines out.

John Groce wouldn’t say it in his post-game presser, but the reason Illinois won is the same reason that U.S. Grant beat Robert E. Lee: In the end, there weren’t enough bodies on the rebel side.

That’s fine by me. Whatever it takes.

Losing to Michigan last night = N.I.T. The Illini resume simply isn’t that strong.

Winning, on the other hand, put them inarguably into the NCAA conversation.

Speaking of Dakiches, I had a funny moment with Leroy William Rice prior to the game, and Dan Dakich might want to know about it. Ray’s grandfather had some choice words for Dakich, who’d referred to Rayvonte as “stupid” and “idiot” according to the Rice entourage.

Leroy walks with a cane. He gripped that cane tightly as he spoke his venom. I couldn’t quite make out all the words, but the idea was that Dan Dakich will need new knees if he comes within Leroy’s range.

I don’t doubt it.

Leroy’s grandson beat Michigan’s ass in the final showdown. He wasn’t as gimpy as his wizened relative, but he was a lot gimpier than the Ray you’ve known.

The previous entry on these pages suggested that Ray might not be 100% Ray on his return. It also posited that Kendrick Nunn will cut you, without compunction. Both proved true against the Wolverines.

Ray was not in sync, offensively. Not even with himself.

But where he could make a difference, Ray made a difference. In the end, Ray won the game for Illinois. It was almost like a Harry Potter story. You knew what was coming.

Ray and Kendrick were badgers. They displayed the anti-social tenacity of the wolverine. They were Spartan warriors with hawk eyes. In a buckeyeshell, they looked like all-conference performers. Kendrick from halftime on, and Ray during the endgame.

As hard as Michigan played on defense, Kendrick and Ray fought for this game as well.

That goes for Nnanna Egwu, too.  Egwu didn’t score until overtime, but he was everywhere in overtime. It’s important to consider those two points jointly, together.

The point is that he never stopped trying. He never gave up.

Nnanna Egwu has been asked about his “April” quote a lot. It was probably based on a genuine Egwu quote, but has now devolved, in the cynical world of promotions & marketing, into a PR stunt. But the fact is that Egwu plays that way, all the time, regardless of promotions & marketing people.


*Andrew Dakich played only five minutes, all in the first half. I didn’t stick around to hear what he had to say. I don’t blame him for his dad, but I wouldn’t rely on his insight either.

Illini basketball

Why the referees were wrong at Breslin

Ah the Breslin Student Events Center, our home away from home.

Illinois “didn’t do enough to win” on Saturday in East Lansing. Luckily, Michigan State ‘didn’t do enough to win” worse.

Illinois shot a measly* 29.4% from the arc, and missed a quarter of their free-throws, including two straight misses by Ahmad Starks as the game went to the wire.

Three crazed blind referees tried but failed to steal the game for the Spartans, but MSU refused to grab victory from the jaws of defeat. They missed so many free-throws that their home crowd jumped to a standing ovation when Bryn Forbes connected on two straight.

By game’s end, Forbes would join Travis Trice as goat, incapable of converting. So the most outrageous screw job since Jim Bain won’t generate much more than an entertaining online pissing match.

You can read about that below. First, here are three reasons Illinois did win Saturday at Breslin.


People like to complain about Nnanna Egwu for all kinds of reasons.

  • He hedges too high on double-teams.
  • He shoots threes, and generally loiters around the high post.
  • He grabs fewer rebounds than some people expect from the center position.

On Saturday, Egwu’s high hedges were especially effective at stymieing Denzel Valentine — the only Spartan who seemed able to generate offense. (The MSU sports info people assign photogs to each team’s offensive end, for each half. Otherwise I’d have some good shots of Egwu hedging Valentine.)

On Saturday, Egwu buried 2-of-3 3FGs, which he launched when open, in the natural flow of the offense.

On Saturday, Egwu grabbed 9 rebounds (3 offensive) against a team — or in fact, a program — that’s considered untouchable on the boards.  He led all players in this category, keeping Illinois within one carom of a dead heat (35-34).

Nnanna appeared to be an entirely different player on Saturday.  But it’s not because he doesn’t have that aggressor in him. It’s because he does what he’s told to do, without question.

John Groce phrased it as “never complains.” But Groce seemed to be recognizing, even as he said it, that Egwu could be a violent rebounding force if he (Groce) simply gave the directive.

Matt Costello, Gavin Schilling and Branden Dawson are not subtle about grabbing boards (or opponents’ jerseys for that matter). Egwu roughed them up.

Maverick Morgan played alongside Egwu once again. Morgan’s low-post presence frees Egwu to do all the perimeter stuff people hate so much. Unfortunately for Mav, the low-post was once again a bizarro version of Bozo’s Grand Prize Game, in which Mav is unable to lay the ball in the bucket from a foot away.


Tom Izzo was so pissed at his team, he couldn’t even recognize the thorn in their collective side. Or maybe he just didn’t remember the first ten minutes of the first half. In my seven years experience of covering college basketball, I’ve learned that coaches usually remember exactly the moment you’re asking about. But sometimes they think you’re asking a different question entirely. And sometimes they don’t want to give a direct answer, for whatever reason.

I asked Izzo about the first ten minutes. MSU jumped all over Illinois, and then lay supine as Illinois didn’t quite jump all over them, back.

What happened to change that momentum?

Izzo didn’t have an answer apart from the old stand-by “making shots.”

A 10-2 Michigan State lead slowly devolved (from their perspective, but also kinda from our perspective as well) into 11-11.

The guy who changed the momentum was Ahmad Starks. His unfazed demeanor corrupted the Spartan’s aggression-oriented defensive scheme. His shooting forced them to alter defensive rotations. His size and speed played mouse to their transition elephant.

“If I were wearing green, I’d be really pissed right now,” I said to IPHD’s Jason Marry, sitting to my left, as Leron Black gave Illinois its first lead, 12 minutes into a blowout-turned-grudge-match.

Then I asked Graham Couch, sitting behind us on press row, what was wrong with MSU today? He said they’d been this way all year. No interior offense, no perimeter offense. If they ain’t got transition offense, they got nada.


He’s back.

KNunn has been gone, or partially present, all year. On Saturday, his persistent drives to the basket demonstrated that his knee is fixed, physically and mentally.

Nunn and Malcolm Hill found a weakness in the Spartan’s defensive line. It was basically the same weakness that Malcolm exploited for the game-winner against Penn State.

When starting from the top of the key, both Malcolm and KNunn have figured out that their perimeter defender will push them out but not up, and cheat slightly toward the left (to block the lane and the right-hander’s dominant hand). The low-post help defender will push down, but not out (to protect the rim), and also cheat left.

Malcolm uses his left well, and Kendrick is left-handed (except when signing autographs).

KNunn also used a floater, and his mad hops, to exploit the Spartans in the low-post.


I don’t know how Jaylon Tate’s box-out non-foul looked on live TV. What you may not have seen was the extent to which Spartans Travis Trice, Matt Costello, Gavin Schilling, the Izzone etc. biased persons campaigned for some kind of call.

It was all an act, a pantomime, a feint. It was pretense. And it was, in person, so obviously pretense. It’s unconscionable that this hamming nearly stole a win for the home team.

The officiating crew ruled that Jaylon had committed a dead ball foul against Travis Trice. They gave MSU (Forbes) a pair of extra free-throws that might have changed a deficit into a lead, with less than a minute to go.

It was probably Trice’s acting that made the three men — all of whom probably have testes if not cojones — sympathize.

After the game, they probably realized they’d screwed up.  But refs never admit a mistake. So to double-down on their bad judgment, they released a statement about the ruling.

Nobody misinterpreted the rule. The rule was inapplicable to the situation.  Jaylon Tate’s box-out was thoroughly unremarkable, completely ordinary.

Yes, Jaylon Tate’s movements are a bit herky-jerky, as I’ve written here before.  Earlier in that very game, Tate hit himself in the crotch while playing with his typical abandon. Did the referees think that contact was intentional?

Here’s why the call was wrong: The ball was not dead.

There are two ways the ball could have been a “dead ball,” and for Jaylon Tate’s “foul” to be a “dead ball foul.”  If the ball had gone through the hoop, as the Wymer statement claims, it would have been a “dead ball.” If the free-throw had been the first of two, rather than a one-and-one, the ball would have been “dead.”

Tate’s contact  occurred before the ball went through the hoop. That much is plain from the replay. Wymer, Valentine and  Perone made an error of fact.

Because it was a one-and-one, Tate was boxing-out his man. This error should have been seen and reversed on review. Slow-motion makes it clear to see, as millions now have.

Of course, this was not the first time a referee has botched an obvious call.

But most botched calls don’t take place in the final minute. Those that do are subject to video review. The remarkable quality of this botch is that the officiating crew reviewed the play, and then fabricated a defense to justify a clearly erroneous ruling.

My hunch is that one of the referees blew his whistle in the grip of a senior moment, forgetting that rules for lane violation changed years ago.

For absolute beginners, here’s a pedantic explanation of rules known to every basketball player and referee, from 3rd grade up.

When Ahmad Starks fouled Travis Trice with 33.2 seconds remaining in the game, that foul was Illinois’ 8th “team foul” of the second half. A team’s 7th foul in either half triggers a free-throw for the other team. If the other team makes the first free-throw, it’s awarded a second free-throw. This battery in potentia is known as the “one-and-one.”

A team’s 10th foul of either half triggers two foul shots — another term for “free-throws.”

The other way to trigger two foul shots is to foul one’s opponent in the act of shooting. And if one fouls one’s opponent in the act of shooting a three-point shot, that shooter is awarded three free-throws (unless the shot attempt is successful).

It was not a shooting foul. i.e. Starks did not foul Trice in the act of shooting. Per NCAA rules, then, when Travis Trice stepped to the free-throw line, he was shooting the “front end” of a “one-and-one.”

Here’s a screen shot of, and a link to (.pdf), the NCAA rule on lane violations.

The call would have been correct, by both rule and fact, if the contact were of the “unnecessary, unacceptable and excessive” manner (all three, mind you) required by the cited rule and the lane violation rule were different, as it once was.

Under the old rules, players could not enter the lane until the ball hit the rim. The state of Maine still used this rule for high school basketball, right up through last season.

Here’s rule 10-3.1

The ruling was based on a sequence of events that never occurred. The evidence is demonstrable.

So if the refs whistled Jaylon because his man crumpled at the crotch, here’s the question for that officiating crew, Rick Boyages and Jim Delaney: If contact is deemed “unnecessary, unacceptable and excessive” based on the reaction of the contacted player; shouldn’t someone from Indiana’s Hoosiers be permanently disqualified for knocking Aaron Cosby’s eyeball out?

I mean, he was actually injured.


Over the years, I’ve written on message boards (under my own name, as always) that Dan Dakich is awful. I’ve never seen the need to tell him in person. And now, I don’t have to.  Everybody knows it.

Presumably Canadian whisky influenced Dakich’s online argument with noted sports fan Don Gerard. (I presume not only that Dakich was drunk, but that he prefers awful forms of drink.)

The Dakich-Gerard e-fracas may help keep the botched call in the public’s memory. The botched call may help remind the public how awful Dan Dakich is. It’s a win-win.

Dakich has experience at cheering for terrible officiating which seeks to steal a win for the home team, but fails. In the 2008 B1G Tournament, Dakich watched from the sidelines of Indianapolis’s Canseco Fieldhouse as Ted Hillary, Zelton Steed & Sid Rodeheffer awarded Indiana’s Hoosiers three extra attempts at a winning basket.

The Hoosiers, like the Spartans on Saturday, were able to connect on just one of those three.  And amazingly, as with MSU on Saturday, the Hoosiers lost despite all the help.

You’ll remember that Dakich wasn’t hired to be Indiana’s coach. They brought him in as a schoolmarm, to be the (hopefully?) guileless, ruly killjoy that would, ostensibly, check Cellvin Samsung’s incorrigible urge to cheat.

Dakich became interim head when Sampson volunteered to leave town in exchange for money. As interim head, Dakich delivered a 3-4 record, losing Indiana’s opening games in both B1G and NCAA tournaments.

The only time Dakich was hired to be a head coach was when Jim Larrañaga left Bowling Green. Larrañaga had done so well building that program that he was hired away by George Mason. He did so well at George Mason that he was hired away by Miami.

Dakich did well enough with Larrañaga’s recruits, but he couldn’t sustain the program. Perhaps that’s the reason he says Illini fans should rue the day they fired Bruce Weber.

The year after Larrañaga took George Mason to the Final Four, Dakich was fired. His record over the final two years was 22-39, 8-26 in the MAC.

Weber’s Kansas State team is about to lose its 13th game of the year. K-State’s fans don’t expect to win a 13th game.


*I hope it’s OK with Jenny McCarthy that I employ the epithet “measly.”  I assume she’s immune to criticism.

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.

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.”

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.”


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.

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.




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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.