Categories
Illini basketball

The Used Polo Shirt

The “paper class” scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill ended with a whimper. A toothless NCAA recognized that it has no power to impose rigorous academic standards on member institutions. Only accrediting agencies (in this case the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) can judge the credibility of curricula.

UNC came out unscathed. Oddly though, UIUC did not.

Malcolm Hill & Jessica Goerke

“Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life” was a hollow platitude.

The same praise could be offered for Illini basketball’s former academic counselor, Jessica Goerke. But every member of John Groce’s teams would have meant it sincerely. Coaches too.

Goerke was also among the most fashionable persons on campus. So it’s no surprise that she had an idea about helping with a Fashion Design class.  Two Illini players enrolled in that course during the autumn semester of 2016.  You could probably guess who they were if you follow Illini basketball sartorially, perhaps via Instagram. Mike LaTulip and Kendrick Nunn would be candidates had they been enrolled that semester.

But in fact, it was D.J. Williams and X.  X asked not to be identified in this story.

While UNC’s Tarheels celebrated A.C.C. and national championships, while Tarheel (non-)student-athletes accepted unearned degrees; athletes at other universities (like this one here in Urbana-Champaign) faced heightened scrutiny from their own compliance departments, as if academics were the province of the NCAA.

In helping X with his fashion class, Goerke earned a formal reprimand. An investigation concluded that she’d done her job correctly, not exceeding the appropriate level of assistance an academic counselor is expected to provide.

Here’s the official report:

In short, Goerke gave X a used shirt that was otherwise on its way to Goodwill. She gave him the shirt not to wear or sell, but for use in a class assignment.  And although X received an entire education, books, computers, unlimited meals, a high-end apartment complex with its own pool, gym & beach volleyball court, and reasonable travel expenses gratis and well within NCAA restrictions; that used shirt was deemed an impermissible benefit.

X was required to pay for it.

But because the shirt had no traceable owner, and was essentially destroyed in pursuit & completion of the academic assignment for which it was offered, X had to pay not for the shirt itself, but for the idea of the shirt. For the same reasons, there was no one to whom X could directly pay for the idea of the shirt. Instead, U of I compliance decided X could pay the value of the shirt to a charity of his choice, which is standard practice in rectifying bullshit NCAA violations.

X says he can’t remember who chose the Make-A-Wish Foundation, but that’s where the money went. He paid $20.

Those of you who frequent thrift stores will immediately recognize that $20 is an outrageous overestimation of retail value, for anything.

Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, Jessica Goerke, Jaylon Tate, Alex Austin

The facts emerged during a normal debriefing with Goerke’s supervisor, Marlon Dechausay.  That is, Goerke sat in Dechausay’s office and described her on-job activities for the week, and the academic progress of student-athletes assigned to her care.

Dechausay was two months into the job of Associate Director of Athletics/Academic Services. When he heard the story of the polo shirt, he wondered whether an impermissible benefit had been conferred. He reported his findings to Benjy Wilber, himself two months on the job as Director of Compliance.

If this all seems far-fetched, keep in mind the reason X didn’t want to be named in this story: The new staffers weren’t looking for impermissible benefits. They were looking for academic cheating.  It wasn’t that the shirt had value. They were investigating whether Illini players were doing their own classwork.

But, as with the NCAA’s Lou Henson-era investigation, the investigators found something. And since those Lou Henson-era investigations, the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics has been proactive about self-reports.

Jessica Goerke as artist Bob Ross, Halloween 2016. Leron Black as Leron Black.

Ironically, the emphasis on academic improprieties shifted focus from day-to-day compliance monitoring. The final compendium on Groce-era violations wouldn’t fill a respectable pamphlet.

That’s odd, because Team Groce exhibited just as many instances of the same secondary-level infraction that Bruce Weber’s administration most frequently violated, the “too many coaches” rule. That rule cost Special Assistant to the Head Coach Gary Nottingham a day’s pay (his penalty for the final iteration of that infraction).

Yet not a single self-report was ever processed by U of I Compliance for the Groce years.

For the first four of those years, Ryan Squire was head of Compliance. I asked for his opinion on the disparity.

Eventually, Gary Nottingham just stopped coming down to the court.

My observation is that it was just a difference in the ways that the two staffs were assembled and operated. Gary Nottingham was a lifelong coach who was put in a noncoaching role and had trouble keeping himself from coaching in the heat of the games despite our instructions and warnings.

On Coach Groce’s staff, his noncoaching staff were not people who wanted to be coaches so they were able to avoid any instances where they provided instruction to student-athletes during the games. You may have been familiar with Mark Morris, his operations person, and Darren Hertz, his special assistant. Both of them came from noncoaching backgrounds so it was easier for them to avoid these kinds of violations.

In my observation, Brandon Miller, Groce’s first SATTHC, did not engage in coaching activities during games.

Mark Morris (Director of Basketball Operations) did violate the rule once. That is, I have only one picture of Morris standing up, cupping his hands around his mouth, and hollering something at the game’s participants. I took him aside at Ubben the following week and explained the situation.

“I’m sure you were just yelling at the referee,” I told him. “But you want to avoid that kind of behavior. Someone might conclude that you were coaching.”

It never happened again.

I didn’t see Ryan Pedon engage in coaching during his time as SATTHC. But then Darren Hertz arrived. I don’t recall anything from his first year on the job, so maybe Ryan Squire’s observation was accurate.

And then …

So it would appear that U of I Compliance was distracted.

Now that the UNC investigation has (inconclusively) concluded, perhaps things will return to normal. Brad Underwood’s SATTHC Geoff Alexander would be wise to take a page from Nottingham’s revised playbook, and simply not speak to players during practices and games.

The unspoken story of the DIA’s investigation of X  is that Jessica Goerke didn’t provide impermissible academic assistance. Nevertheless, she received a reprimand.

Goerke is no longer with the program. In September, she left Illinois to become Assistant Athletic Director/Academic Support at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

But as X would tell you — if he trusted you and hadn’t been hounded about this very issue by the same people who were ostensibly looking out for his best interests as a student & athlete — the whole thing left a bad taste in his mouth.

 

Benjy Wilber & men’s basketball Compliance Coordinator Sarah McPhee declined to comment for this story. Marlon Dechausay referred all questions to Associate Director of Athletics/Media Relations Kent Brown, who responded in writing:  “The DIA won’t be making a statement about this particular issue. ”

 

Categories
Illini basketball

The Bret Beherns Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Illini basketball

The Carson Williams Show preempted by Malcolm in the Middle

Carson Williams was Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball 2016. If the University of Kentucky had an amateur team, he’d surely be playing there.

Instead, he joined a strong freshman class and a returning JC transfer at Northern Kentucky, which seems to be much better than last years Norse (9-21, 5-13 Horizon League). Williams scored only ten points, but he led all players with five assists and fourteen rebounds. Williams is the Rayvonte Rice of his graduating class. He’s a slightly chubby undersized PF who can probably play all five positions.

Let’s hope John Groce got his phone number. He won’t finish his career at NKU.

For thirty minutes on Sunday, the Norse equaled or bettered an Illini team featuring a sleepy Malcolm Hill, an anti-hero Tracy Abrams, a step-slowed D.J. Williams and an erratic Mike Thorne.

That Malcolm woke up, turned it on, and took over pleased Illini fans. WOO-HOO! WE WON!

D.J. Williams will probably learn from his defensive mistakes.

It’s the Abrams and Thorne errors which fans should worry about. They’re deeply ingrained, the Tragic Flaws most likely turn an early season comedy of errors into a nightmare of missed opportunities.

Michael Finke’s double-double proved that he’ll continue to see more time and responsibility than Illini fans seem to believe. His hustle is amazing. He has a good attitude and a great work ethic. And a dead-eye shot.

I support my contentions, as always, with JPEGs.

Categories
Illini basketball

Blech

The Wash U exhibition was hard to watch. If you didn’t see the game, but feel, based on second-hand accounts that Illinois played badly; I’m here to tell you it was worse.

Illinois stumbled out of the gate with a starting line-up of

  1. Tracy Abrams
  2. Aaron Jordan
  3. Malcolm Hill
  4. Michael Finke
  5. Maverick Morgan

It was heartening to see Abrams return to Lou Henson Court, which wasn’t named Lou Henson Court last time he played a game there. But almost immediately Abrams charged the lane, just like the old days, without looking for kick-out targets on the wings.

Following an off-balance runner that missed (reminiscent of the last-second miss in the 2014 Big Ten Tournament) and a drive to the basket that found him under the goal without an angle (reminiscent of 2014, generally),

Abrams righted himself and looked for others in subsequent transition situations. He found a trailing D.J. Williams for a nifty no-look/behind-the-back bounce pass for a lay-up. He charged toward two defenders under the basket, but then stopped on a dime and bounced the ball around them to Michael Finke, for a dunk.

It’s this version of Tracy Abrams, not the old one, that Illinois must have to be successful.

Mike Thorne Jr. shot 50% (3-for-6) from the floor. That might seem like a respectable percentage, but considering all those shots came from three feet out, it’s unconscionably low. Big Bo still refuses to use the glass, and his touch is no silkier than before. He hoists the ball into the airspace of the orange ring. It goes in half the time. Illini fans will be hugely frustrated by missed inside shots this year.

Thorne missed both ends of his only trip to the foul line. He averaged one foul every three minutes.

On the bright side, Thorne was careful to observe the cylinder rule (described last week by referee Bo Boroski) in wrangling his lone offensive rebound of the contest.

Big Bo played without the enormous knee brace he wears in practice. He dived to the floor for a loose ball, and managed to pull it away from a pack of Bears. It was scary to watch.  But evidently he didn’t break anything.

Te’Jon Lucas can pass, and may be a necessary component to success in 2017.  Unfortunately, his teammates couldn’t catch his passes. So Te’Jon finished the game with a 1-to-3 assist-to-turnover ratio.

He didn’t attempt a field goal. He connected on 4-of-6 free-throws.

Tracy Abrams committed zero turnovers.

Michael Finke was fun to watch, despite his three turnovers. His post-entry passes are fun. He’s one of the team’s best shooters and one of the best ball-handlers.

His 4-of-8 FG performance is better than Thorne’s 50% because three of those shots came from beyond the arc. (He made one.)  Finke was perfect from the foul stripe. Abrams and Hill were also perfect from the line, but the team shot 67.6% overall.

Maverick Morgan was the team’s leading scorer. He also tied Thorne’s team-high four turnovers. But his 8-of-10 performance from the floor is closer to what Illini fans should expect from the center position. John Groce talks a lot about paint touches. But once the ball-handlers do the hard work of feeding the low post, Illini fans should expect a field goal most of the time.

Morgan was 4-of-6 from the line, with only 4 rebounds in 25 minutes. He blocked two shots and garnered a steal.

The one obvious advantage of playing Morgan at center, as opposed to Thorne, is the Mav can run in transition.

Jalen Coleman-Lands had a bad night shooting (1-for-6 from deep) but he penetrated well, and moved well without the ball.

Once the medical staff clears him to play without his right-hand wrapped, it’s hard to imagine a starting line-up without him.

But apart from JCL, there’s only one clear starter on this team.

Malcolm Hill had, if you ignore his 4-for-12 (0-for-3) shooting performance, the best stat line. He led the team in rebounds with six, and added a pair of steals and a pair of assists, with only one turnover.

His technical foul was undeserved. Malcolm finished a fast-break dunk at an odd angle, he straightened himself out on the rim before dropping to the floor. Steve McJunkins should not have T’d him up.

Is it crazy to suggest that Tracy Abrams is not a sure fire starter?

Well, recall again the spring of 2014, when John Groce praised Jon Ekey and Joe Bertrand for accepting  back-up roles. Groce said the team would need more sacrifice the next year. If Te’Jon Lucas continues to move the ball as effectively as he did Sunday, and if his teammates learn to catch it, it’s not hard to imagine a similar role for Abrams.

Starting is not the be-all, end-all of course.  Jon Ekey continued to play a starter’s role after relinquishing his starting role. John Groce is slightly less hidebound about rotations than was Bruce Weber. But he’s still fairly traditional.

Will Groce change the line-up based on match-ups? That question might be irrelevant, until the Michigan State game. (They’ll be playing small ball, a good match-up for Illinois if you consider a line-up of Finke + four guards.)

Have we seen all the role players yet? Definitely not. Leron Black remains suspended. Kipper Nichols won’t be eligible ’til December. Alex Austin played for three seconds on Sunday. The other walk-ons never stood up, and Cameron Liss will take a redshirt year in 2017.

There’s a lot that remains to be seen. Let’s hope it becomes prettier to look at.

Categories
Illini basketball

Scrimmage notes

When I arrived, a little before 2 p.m. Tuesday, Alex Austin was the lone player in Ubben #2, the men’s gym. He was shooting threes with The Gun. Later in the day, he would be the top three-point shooter among his teammates, and the only player to hit more than one.

Tracy Abrams (Bruce Douglas Jersey winner) and Malcolm Hill (Augustine Jersey Winner) were the next players on the court.

Jaylon Tate came next. He worked extensively on his three-point shooting, but without The Gun. Instead, team managers wrangled the rebounds and Jamall Walker fed the passes. Tate hit about 60% from the arc. Really.  I have video to prove it.

The team’s practice began with a walk-through of the Dribble Hand Off, which John Groce calls “hippo.” At last week’s open practice, this terminology confused Larry Brown, who refers to it as D-H-O, just like the rest of the basketball world.

Groce asked the team whether anyone would like to add something to his lesson, Maverick Morgan piped up. He said it’s hard for big men to recover defensively after a high ball screen hand-off, because you have to run through somebody to do it.

Of the media that showed up, only Derek Piper and Scott Richey stayed for the whole show. I suppose the others had to be back at the station by airtime. Josh Whitman and Warren Hood each watched a portion of the practice. A small group of (ostensibly Orange Krush) students observed from the balcony.

Whitman came over to say hello. I asked about the mark under his right eye. He said it dates back to sixth grade, and that you can tell when he’s tired because it grows increasingly red. He added that it’s been red a lot lately.

At the south end, erstwhile DePaul coach Joey Meyer joined Machanda Hill and her mom (Malcolm’s grandmother “Miss Hardin”) and Ramon Williams, who was John Groce’s first Special Assistant to the Head Coach at Illinois (for about 15 minutes) before accepting an assistant coaching job at Virginia Tech. He’s now a major gifts officer at his alma mater, Virginia Military Institute.

On the day, Kipper Nichols, Te’Jon Lucas, Aaron Jordan, Malcolm, Tracy, Michael Finke and DJ Williams all connected once from distance. Abrams’s three came as time expired in the third scrimmage, from about 25 feet. Jordan and Jalen Coleman-Lands each airmailed a three. JCL’s right hand was wrapped and padded. He made some great passes.

In the second scrimmage, Tracy Abrams moved to the PG position after playing only the 2 in the first round. Kipper Nichols got his first court action, spelling Leron Black at PF.

Mike Thorne Jr. didn’t play much in the third scrimmage, and didn’t appear in the fourth scrimmage until late. His repaired knee was wrapped with the kind of brace one normally sees on a football lineman. Three things to keep an eye on with Big Bo:

In the 5-on-0 drills, he frequently dribbled the ball two or three times after catching a pass at the free-throw stripe. If he ever dribbles in the high-post, the ball will be stolen.

Thorne invariably pumps the ball (brings it down to the level of his abdomen) before attempting a short jumper. Keeping the ball high would be preferred.

Thorne used his left hand to connect on short hook shots. Everybody agreed that he should expand that usage, because it’s really hard to guard.

And speaking of unnecessary flourishes at the Five Spot, Maverick Morgan was mid-dunk when he instead chose a dainty finger roll for his second bucket of Quarter Three. The ball was already in the cylinder when Mav opted for his theatrics. Lou Henson would have benched him immediately.

I screwed up the math in this quarter. The final was 23-20 Blue, with Tracy Abrams nailing a long three as time expired. My marks and notations, kept in a GMail draft on my phone, don’t add up. It could be that I put Jaylon Tate on the wrong roster. There’s no 0 or B in my notes to demarcate his team. I’ve already forgiven myself. It’s hard keeping stats.

 

Te’Jon Lucas looked really good in transition, but what about playing within the system? He’s got a lot to learn. His best performance came in the latter half of the four scrimmages.

Who played the Five when Thorne was out in Quarter Four? In my notes, I have Mav and Finke on the Orange team for this one. So the answer is “Leron.”

Referees Dave Cronin, Mike Kashirsky and Bo Boroski performed not only normal officiating duties, but also explained rulings to players where possible (e.g. dead ball). At the conclusion of the four 8 minute scrimmages, Boroski stood at center court, with the team in a circle around him, and explained the NCAA’s new tweaks to various rules. Especially important this year, Boroski explained, is the “cylinder” that rises from a player’s feet. That cylinder must not be breached by a defender, but must also not be exploited by the offensive player.

Jaylon Tate, JCL and Tracy Abrams were all whistled for push-offs (raising an arm to move a defender away from the ball). Maverick Morgan (and I think Aaron Jordan) were penalized for illegal screens. Leron Black continues to be a rebounding fool and a fouling machine. He too was whistled for pushing-off, on the low block.

Jamall Walker may have used the word “shitshow” to assess the afternoon’s display of missed shots, turnovers and fouling. I don’t actually remember. But that was the sentiment. Finke agreed it was pretty bad, but considering it’s the first time the entire roster was available (i.e. cleared to play), their inability to mesh is understandable.

D.J Williams is #2 at the wing, lock it up. Aaron Jordan is playing the two, and you might see Abrams playing a lot there as well. D.J should see some action this year, and maybe that means having him on the court at the same time as Malcolm. In the Groce offense, it really doesn’t matter who’s labeled the 2 or the 3. The PF and C positions are also interchangeable.

Despite connecting on a three-pointer, Kipper Nichols is confined to the PF position for now.  That’s odd, because during Media Day, everyone insisted Kipper is a three, including Kipper.

It would be great to see D.J. and Finke at PG, just to screw with the opponent. And I’m not kidding about that. They’ve both played the position, and DJ especially has the quickness to defend an opposing PG.

Does John Groce think outside that particular box? It would be awesome if he did.

 

Categories
Illini basketball

A Visit with Da’Monte Williams (plus pictures & captions)

Posterity may remember Saturday’s contest with the Coyotes of South Dakota. More likely, posterity will forget it.

Illinois ran out to a 14-0 lead thanks to four USD turnovers, including steals from Jaylon Tate and Malcolm Hill. From that point forward, the Coyotes outscored the Illini by two.

The player of the game might have been Khalid Lewis, who consistently put his teammates in good position to score. Or it might have been Michael Finke, who continues to be super entertaining to watch.

But Malcolm Hill scored a career-high 34 to go with 11 rebounds and five assists. So there’s really no argument.

Frank Williams’s son Da’Monte watched from the first row with his mother, Tanejah Branson. Paris Parham pointed them out to Dee Brown, who duly sauntered over to welcome Williams to the Illini family.

Lots of people used the F word, and Illinois improved to 7-and-5 on the year. It went like this.

Categories
Illini basketball

Pictures & Captions – Catamounts

Open any and all images in a separate tab/window to make them really, really big.

 

Categories
Illini basketball

Pictures with captions – NDSU

It’s funny & alarming to read  social media reports of the 2015-16 Illini Men’s basketball team. So far, nobody seems to mention the 4 to 5 missing starters. It’s mostly doom and gloom, a place that feels comfortable and familiar since the days when Bruce Weber first set the program back 50 years,

But there’s no reason to feel gloomy about this team, yet. It’s third string performed pretty well against North Dakota State, an NCAA Tournament team that famously beat Bo Ryan at Kohl a few years back.

Anyone can beat Bo Ryan at Kohl as long as they have five guys who can shoot 50% from three. Sometimes you need only a couple. Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale did it in 2010.

Dee Brown did it to Tom Izzo in 2006. When the MSU defense extended, Dee just moved closer to half court. Jamar Butler did it to Dee & Weber, also in 2006, but in Columbus. Austin Peay did it to Illinois in the 1987 NCAA Tournament, forcing Dick Vitale to stand on his head.

If the Illini had played North Florida with no three-point line, the second half would have ended in a tie. It’s a game-altering weapon. Remember the 2005 Illini? They made a lot of threes.

Yesterday in Springfield, North Dakota State had two guys who went off from deep, Paul Miller and Malik Clements. Horrified Illini fans envisioned the program’s first-ever 0-3 start, and a ten win season.

But it wasn’t enough. They got tired. Probably because they’d traveled from a game at Davis, California on Friday.

 

Categories
Illini basketball

October 2015

This post has little entertainment value.  It’s not funny, and there’s not much insight into basketball, except for the Mike Thorne video, below. There’s some maudlin ranting at the bottom, but it’s not based on data.

Instead, this post is a behind-the-scenes wrap-up of October’s three Illini basketball events, two “media days” and one scrimmage. If you’re trying to kill time in an airport, and your free wi-fi just expired, this is the column for you.

ILLINI ALL-IN SCRIMMAGE, OCTOBER 25, 2015

You’ve read the coverage and the commentary. You already know the most-talked-about story is Big Bo, fifth-year senior Mike Thorne. The most impressive aspect of his performance, in my mind, was his footwork. He moves like a circus acrobat. He has phenomenal balance.

Here’s a video collage of his performance.

The biggest storyline went under-the-radar: Malcolm Hill acquitted himself at point guard. He handled a zone press, and distributed effectively. He dribbled between his legs just the way point guards are expected to do.

Malcolm as point guard is the solution to all of John Groce’s problems, if he can pull it off. It’s also Malcolm’s best position for NBA purposes. If John Groce can transform Malcolm Hill into an NBA point guard, he’ll have a hell of a story to tell prospective recruits.

If there’s anything this staff should be able to produce, it’s a point guard. Think about it. John Groce = D-III point guard. Paris Parham = D-II point guard. Dustin Ford = D-I point guard (mid-major). Jamall Walker = D-I point guard. Special Assistant to the Director of Atletics Dee Brown = Bob Cousy Award-Winning D-I point guard.

The All-In crowd was as big as fire code allows, which is not big.

No one paid to get in, and the DIA provided lunch catered by Hickory River Smokehouse. I ate pulled pork while gossiping off-the-record with Kathi LaTulip. (The LaTulip family will continue to travel for games, even though Mike’s potential for PT is now 0%.)

After the three 8 minute scrimmages, and a speech from John Groce, everyone lined up to get an autographed poster of the team. This poster had the season schedule printed, conveniently, right at the bottom, which reminded everyone that plenty of tickets remain for all games. DIA needs to remind people about each and every one of those games, at any opportunity.

These autographed posters have serious collector value, because each one was signed by Jerel Pitts, a 6’3″ freshman walk-on SG from Maywood (Proviso West) and nobody knows whether he’ll actually play on the team.

BIG TEN MEDIA DAY, OCTOBER 15, 2015

The B1G event moved across the street, from the Hyatt Regency O’Hare to the Marriott. The Marriott space is far more compact, which made the event feel smaller.

Stephen Bardo & Howard Moore stood chatting at the corner of the two hallways which housed all meeting and work rooms, effectively blocking traffic throughout the event. They were occasionally joined in conversation by players, coaches and fellow members of the media. When two or more persons joined in, it was literally impossible to get through.

I was one of those persons for a while. Afterward, I wondered if I should say “hey guys, you’re too big to stand here blocking traffic.” I chose against it. Bardo and Moore are super friendly, and would certainly have accommodated.  But a lot of the people they were blocking are insufferable assholes. So it kinda worked out.

B1G SID Brett McWethy shook things up this year, staggering the time slots of conference coaches’ availability, thus allowing reporters more face time. That was nice. Whether it translates for fan purposes, media logistics stuff has improved since Brett took the job a couple of years ago.

I got the feeling that most media outlets were not interested in John Groce. Chicago TV stations got a few seconds of soundbites, but spent less than two minutes with him. Illini beat writers spent more time listening to Malcolm Hill, whose availability was simultaneous to Groce’s, and one table over. Mark Tupper and Marcus Jackson barely attended Groce at all. Steve Greenberg and Shannon Ryan checked in and out and in.

Loren Tate dropped in to Groce’s availability to question Groce about availability (which is awesome, and one of the reasons why Loren Tate is still the best).  Tate’s latest column contrasts Groce’s secrecy with the openness of the coaches who preceded him, all of whom were more successful.

Malcolm Hill is good with the media. Groce is pretty far down the list of B1G coaches when it comes to public persona. He’s a numbers guy. You’d want him as your accountant, not a raconteur. Given the choices in the room, it made sense that Groce would spawn less interest than others. But that’s not the whole story.

Overall, it was plain that media outlets consider Illinois basketball an afterthought among conference contenders. Chris Collins fielded a larger entourage than Groce.  I always thought Al Gore got a bad rap, but Chris Collins is definitely wooden.

Tom Crean’s pack of onlookers was triple the size of Groce’s.  Crean enters his eighth season of Coaches on the Hot Seat. His teams routinely under-perform, and this year’s is more overrated than any of them. But Crean got more coverage.

That’s where Illini basketball is, October 2015.

Recalling Groce’s reaction to the Sun-Times Cliffmas headline “LOL ILL,” I wonder what his candid response would be to that question today: What kind of place is Illinois basketball in right now? (Excuse the syntax. That was the phrasing.)

Still, at least Groce had some interest. Eddie Jordan sat at the Rutgers table with a single beat reporter. Pat Chambers, Tim Miles and Richard Pitino hung out in the hallway rather than hiding in an off-limits greenroom. They and their programs all need more attention from the media, so they don’t hide from it.

These are the coaches expected to vie for first place … in the bottom half of the B1G.

ILLINI MEDIA DAY – OCT 8, 2015
The team arrived 30-40 minutes late, for some reason. They sat for a team photo.

Mark Jones, the primary in-house photographer of Illini sports for the last few decades, wanted a smiling version and a serious version. A few of the players tried to wipe the smirks from their faces while a few others attempted to put smirks on fellow players’ faces (i.e. to crack them up). Mike LaTulip played both sides of that fence.

There’s no format for interviews during the hour or so that players are available. Reporters and photographers huddle around individual players. If you absolutely need a quote from a guy, joining the huddle is the best way to ensure you get one.

That’s how most media operate. They don’t listen to everything an interviewee has to say. They “get a quote.”  In my opinion, it’s ethically bankrupt. Searching for quotes begets leading questions. Respondents respond. You get the story you seek. That’s bad reporting.

I try to hear and capture everything a person says. I’ll edit stuff for humor or concision purposes, but I try to record everything that’s made available for the record.

Anyway, back to Illini Media Day. Here’s how it works: The News-Gazette and the local TV stations set up photography stations in opposite corners of the men’s gym. I set up shop in the southwest corner.

I didn’t try to get time with D.J. Williams or Kendrick Nunn. Neither has ever seemed enamored of camera time.

I would have liked to talk with Leron Black and Tracy Abrams, but they’d disappeared by the time I finished my first six interviews. In fact, the gym was empty. SID Derrick Burson made it clear that he’d bring guys out of the team room if I wanted them, but I don’t like to do that. I made the exception with Jalen Coleman-Lands because he’s new. It was necessary to talk with him.

Thus, my annual pre-season video featured only half the team.

If you’ve watched any of my pre-season movies, it should be pretty obvious which players I prefer to interview. It has little to do with their prominence as on-court performers. Malcolm Hill is great with the camera and a star of the team. Mike LaTulip won’t play this year, and he’s a top go-to guy for me. (FYI, Mike was planning to redshirt last year, even after Abrams Injury #1. He won’t give up his final year of eligibility for  anything less than 10 minutes per game, and that would require four more season-ending injuries.)  Maverick Morgan and Jaylon Tate should work for Lorne Michaels, whatever their talents on court.

Guys who play a lot don’t necessarily have the perspective of guys who watch a lot.

Perspective is important this year. It won’t be the last for John Groce. It might be the penultimate. He’s  faced too many tribulations during the preceding months. Whatever happens this year, it’s not “on him.” Not this year.

But at the same time, this is the year Groce must make a statement to the people not buying tickets, to the point guards not choosing Illinois, to the media not lining up to hear his voice.

Illini basketball has wandered in the wilderness for ten years.  No one even argues about it at dinner anymore.  It’s simply not discussed.

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.