Illini basketball


KNunn hit The ShotIllinois 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


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

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

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

“Yeah, I’m sick,” he noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was all Harbaugh Fever.

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

Yep. Ten.

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

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

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

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

Even John Groce seemed dispassionate about the loss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why? you ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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