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.
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.
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.
The second iteration of Julie Pioletti’s Chalk Talk, a basketball clinic for women, took place at Ubben & Corzine on Tuesday night.
Attendance was about a hundred, which is a shame because it really is a great event. For a fee, women get a catered meal, a slideshow and presentation from the head coach, instruction from the assistants, and insight on day-to-day operations from the support staff.
The money goes to Coaches Versus Cancer, but more importantly, it’s the best inside view of the team and its personalities. That was true again this year.
The format was altered slightly. Jamall Walker coached the Pack Line Defense. Paris Parham taught rebounding. Paul Schmidt opened his training room to talk about sports medicine. Those workstations were featured last year.
Everything else was new.
Last year Ryan Pedon provided a scouting report. This year Mark Morris discussed the hour-by-hour planning that keeps busy student-athletes fed, slept, taught and exercised on a tight schedule. This was a key difference, because the Pedon presentation showed how the coaches & team prepare for specific opponents. In hindsight, the staff must have concluded that too much insider information was being offered to anyone who showed up.
Instead, Morris offered a grid spreadsheet of Malcolm Hill’s weekly schedule. We learned that Malcolm started Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:15 with yoga, that he had Anthropology 104 at Foellinger Auditorium followed by a quick lunch and Econ 102.
Another graphic suggested traveling Illini men sleep in five-star hotels and eat in five-star restaurants, including Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouses. Perhaps the star ratings were gleaned from TripAdvisor rather than Michelin. The Sheraton rarely earns such praise.
Pedon’s replacement, Darren Hertz, conducted the station dealing with offense. College basketball is universally committed to the option offense these days, just like Nebraska football in the Tom Osborne era. Hertz spent his ten minute segments teaching his groups how to recognize defensive actions, and opt accordingly.
At some points Dustin Ford joined the Hertz group. But for much of the night, Ford and Groce were in the upstairs office suite, on the phone with recruits.
Last year Chelsea Burkart talked about nutrition. That segment was eliminated from the program this year, and Burkart has moved on. Like former Strength & Conditioning coach Mike Basgier, she’s taken a similar position at James Madison University. Stephanie Horvath is the team’s new nutritionist.
Basgier’s replacement, Adam Fletcher, spoke about nutrition, as did Morris. We learned that Fletcher eats two meals every day with the team.
Last year Paris Parham told a bunch of funny jokes. This year Paris Parham told the same jokes. Newcomers probably thought they were just as funny. Cheryl Easter laughed as if she hadn’t heard them a year ago, and I thought that was very diplomatic of her.
“Paris needs some new material,” agreed the team’s tutor, Jessica Goerke.
Illini players once again participated in the demonstrations, if capable. Tracy Abrams, who moved around the Ubben on a Bariatric Knee Walker (and demurred from having his picture taken with same) stuck with Schmidt in the training room. Jalen Coleman-Lands, confined to a walking boot, stayed with Morris in the team room.
Newcomer Khalid Lewis joined Mike LaTulip, Michael Finke and grad assistant Walter Offutt in assisting Hertz’s demo. Aaron Jordan and Malcolm Hill assisted Fletcher in the weight room. Maverick Morgan, Leron Black and Cameron Liss assisted Parham. Alex Austin, Kendrick Nunn and Dennis “D.J” Williams assisted Walker. Newcomer Mike Thorne did not attend.
There was an obvious emphasis on the health and well-being of the student-athletes. John Groce downplayed any motivation stemming from Tim Beckman’s unceremonious ouster for lacking that emphasis. And Groce is right to do so. Sports medicine, conditioning and nutrition were just as much a part of last year’s event.
At one point during his presentation, Jamall Walker asked how many in his group had attended last year’s Chalk Talk. Three raised their hands. But the most obvious newcomer didn’t understand the question. She doesn’t speak English. Her name is Cate Groce, and last September she was living inside her mommy’s tummy.
Barb Steele, Groce’s mom, attended again. As did Laura Finke, Mike’s mom.
Everyone seemed to enjoy herself. The only problem is there weren’t enough participants. Publicizing the event is not a priority for Illini Athletics, because it’s only tangentially related to the program. Media got an email around lunchtime on Tuesday. Two reporters and two photographers showed up.
We’ll do better next year.
For completists, here’s an overly long movie chronicling the evening.
At about 1 a.m. Central Standard time, Paris Parham and Jamall Walker stood in the huge passageway connecting the Orleans Arena to its administrative areas, locker rooms, and public toilets. Jamall called to one of the organizers of the Las Vegas Invitational, inquiring about DVD copies of the Baylor-Memphis game the two had just watched, along with Ryan Pedon.
The three assistants had different duties. Walker was responsible for scouting Memphis. Parham was responsible for Baylor. Pedon is responsible for advanced scouting, no matter the opponent.
Memphis led 32-29 at halftime. But by the 16:00 media timeout of the 2nd period, the Tigers were clearly out of gas. It was about midnight, body time. That was true for Baylor, too. And in fact, both teams got really sloppy at about that point. But Taurean Prince and Royce O’Neale found a second wind, and propelled Baylor to a 71-47 win. That’s the same margin of victory Illinois enjoyed over Indiana State.
The staff of the Las Vegas Invitational, Indiana State SID Achim “Ace” Hunt plus a couple of volunteers, had been up since … well, probably even earlier than the Illini assistants. They delivered a stack of game books (box score + play-by-play) to Pedon. Maybe they tracked down the DVDs, too.
If not, it’s a trifling matter. Both Parham and Walker had video of all the other Memphis and Baylor games, already stored & broken down, on their laptops. In fact, as the live game played out on the Orleans Arena court, the three of them compared live plays to stored video from previous games.
The players wouldn’t see anything until the morning. Presumably, they were already in bed. Parham’s wife Keisha and younger son Kai were (hopefully) also asleep, back at the Renaissance Hotel. Also making the trip were the Allison Groce and her boys, Erin Basgier, and Marcie Ford plus Max and Abbie. Neither Allison nor Marcie was thrilled with the activities Vegas provides for younger people.
“Younger people” is, of course, a relative term. Abbie and Kai are old enough to appreciate Vegas simply for its 70 degrees and sun. Erin and Mike Basgier had a date for a restaurant named “Tao” after the game. (I don’t think they’re Buddhists, but they are interesting.) Max Ford, and the Groce boys, needed something to do. Guzzling liquor and cigarettes and the blackjack table is not yet an option. (Plenty of orange clad gamers did sit at those tables, feeding the Orleans coffers, before & after the 2 p.m. start, and they were plenty drunk throughout the game. So don’t worry about Vegas, it made its payroll.)
The only two “younger” people in a good position to enjoy Vegas nightlife were Sam McLaurin, and his girlfriend Noelle Paquette. Sam is currently located in San Marcos, Texas. He’s working in the construction industry, and it keeps him on the move. But he still makes it to an Illini game now and then.
I thought it was pretty fun that Noelle’s last name is “Paquette.” It would have worked so well in the Introducing Sam McLaurinvideo.
After this one, and before he and Noelle had a chance to sample Vegas nightlife, Sam took the time to greet intoxicated Illini fans, many of whom remembered who he was. “What year did you play?” asked one fifty-ish woman. “You’re ‘Canada’ right?” (referring to Jean Selus.)
More booze tonight, and headaches tomorrow, for Illini fans. New Year’s resolutions are still a month away.
Men’s Basketball office manager Julie Pioletti & Allison Groce got together last week to finalize some details for September 2nd’s “Chalk Talk,” a four hour basketball clinic for women.
The event will take place at the Ubben & Corzine practice facility, at the corner of Fourth Street and St. Mary’s Road in Champaign, beginning at 5 p.m.
John Groce and his coaching staff will be on hand, as well as all their wives: Keisha Parham, Marcie Ford, Rebekah Walker and Allison. The first item on the agenda includes cocktails, to get everybody in the mood.
Illini players will join the coaches for a series of skill station demonstrations, and stick around for a Q & A session at 8 p.m.
Participants will get a full tour of the practice facility, including the Illini locker room. And they’ll have a chance to play with “The Gun,” the mechanical device that rebounds & computes shots taken at the basket.