Categories
Illini basketball

Glenn Mayborg Finds His Whistle

The Big Ten never penalized Pat Chambers for criticizing the officiating in Penn State’s loss at East Lansing on January 22. Maybe that encouraged Chambers to complain some more.

He hated Glenn Mayborg’s game-changing whistle, which came with 33 seconds remaining  in a tied game, which took the ball (and the win) from Penn State, which handed the ball (and the win) to Illinois.

Chambers said the game should be decided by the players, not the refs.

But that’s unfair to the Illini. The truth is that Glenn Mayborg (and Earl Walton and Rob Riley) had been deciding the game for all of the first 39 and a half minutes, too.

Mayborg and Riley were especially responsible for allowing Penn State’s bigs to wrestle and batter the Illini on the interior. Chambers should be thanking them effusively for keeping his team in the game. It certainly abetted The Nittany style of play.

On the other hand, Mayborg et al decided early on that every ticky-tack touch was a foul.

And this choice also benefited the Nittany Lions. e.g. not only did Nnanna Egwu spend 12 minutes on the pine (especially after his 4th “foul” with 12:29 to play) but when Austin Colbert checked in to spell Egwu; Donovon Jack, Julian Moore and Jordan Dickerson were given carte blanche to toss Colbert around the lane like a rubber chicken. (That said, Colbert stood his ground pretty well.)

I have not seen a more brutal game, perhaps ever.

The good (frankly fantastic) news abut Austin Colbert is that John Groce, spurred by the Mother of Invention, has figured out how to use him. Groce thinks Colbert is too weak to hold his own in the pivot. (Colbert is a lithe and lengthy small forward, but he’s been asked to play center for some reason.)

When Bruce Weber had Mike Tisdale and Richard Semrau on the roster, he never played them together. It could have been a great combination, but only if Weber could use zone defense effectively, to hide Tisdale’s slowness as a small forward. Groce figured it out. He used Colbert in combination with both Egwu and Maverick Morgan, hiding Austin in the zone.

Mike Basgier loves to talk about Austin Colbert, and point out that Austin works out more often than the rest of the team.

Basgier likes to point out that Austin is near the top of the charts in certain statistical categories (behind Rayvonte Rice).  Yet the concern for Groce & staff is Colbert’s strength in the post. Squats and bench-press equal keeping a B1G big off the glass.

AHMAD STARKS ON FIRE

Heather went to dinner & movie with a girlfirend while I stayed home editing pictures and audio. She reports that Ahmad Starks was at Savoy 16 “surrounded by girls.”

Good for him.

Starks shot 3-of-4 3FGs against PSU. He grabbed two rebounds, one of which dropped in his lap when Kendrick Nunn boxed every mofo who dared charge the lane. Starks also boxed mofos on behalf of his teammates.

ABOUT GLENN MAYBORG

A cursory search told me that I’ve written about him twice before. Once was an article about great officiating (which Jim Schipper really liked.) The other praises Mayborg for his patience.

Glenn Mayborg’s baseline activity is unlike any official I’ve seen. He moves constantly, which is frustrating for photographers, who all sit along the baseline. But it means he’s trying to get the best angle on every aspect of every movement.

In this day and age, plenty of digital recording renders each B1G basketball game as a searchable document. The data may prove me and 14,597 fans wrong. But we all thought there was something weird, incongruent, disjointed about the officiating.

Pat Chambers should be Nittany Lionized not only for his game plan, but for his manipulation of the conference and the media. He’s doing everything he can to maximize the potential of his team. Good for him. And great for Illinois that he didn’t get away with it.

A WEEK OFF

At least two of the lads used their free time to obtain a haircut. Leron Black opted for a fade, now resembling Kid n’ Play circa 1991. Kendrick Nunn got it all chopped off, now resembling Kendrick Nunn circa 2013.

DJ RICHARDSON RETURNS

Dietrich Richardson says he had a great time playing pro-ball in Finland.  He learned about the jet stream: It wasn’t as cold there, despite being way farther north. He also learned about jet lag. The flight home threw him for a loop, especially because he’s been living on three hours of sunlight per day.

D.J.’s agent advised him to get back to the states last week, because the folks in Finland were having a hard time finding their wallet. It’s a familiar story with pro-ball overseas.

He’s not sure where he’ll be balling next, but added that he should find out within ten days to two weeks.

ZACH NORVELL OFFERED

John Groce takes longer in getting to his postgame presser than any major conference coach I’ve observed in seven years of covering college basketball.  A week ago in Minneapolis, Groce’s dilatory attitude to media seemed to be the story among the twin cities’ beat writers.

What is he doing? we all wonder. We see the locker room speeches via the TNT series on YouTube. We hear his radio interview with Brian & Jerry (which today didn’t start until Penn State was practically on board its return flight). Neither of those postgame duties accounts for a full ten minutes. So when 40 minutes have passed,  we become curious.

Saturday afternoon, we got one inkling of Groce’s postgame, behind-the-scenes.

I tried to interview Zach Norvell during a media timeout, early in the second half. He was sitting with Saieed Ivey, about four feet behind me. Plenty easy to access.

Way too close to the pep band.

I could hear him fine, but it’s not good for microphones. I knew the sound quality would be terrible if I pressed “record.” One thing that I did hear him say clearly is that he did not have a scholarship offer from Illinois.

That seemed strange to me. Yes, the Illini team is composed purely of wings, and Zach is a wing; but Norvell seemed like an Illini target, not just a plan B.

Well,  it turns out that John Groce spends his post-locker room, pre-media room time offering scholarships to Simeon standouts. By the time Groce showed up for his postgame session, Zach Norvell was the proud recipient of an official offer.

By the time Groce finished his press conference, Norvell was still in the building only because his Simeon assistant coach Melvin Nunn is media savvy.  A pair of pleading texts kept the Simeon contingent around for the duration.


There are many reasons that Simeon’s coaching staff finds scholarships for all their guys. One of them is knowing how to play the game.  Another is knowing how to play the games.

“You owe me one,” said Melvin.

But it’s not true. I owe him many.

As for Saieed Ivey, he’s currently a freshman playing point guard at Governors State University in Will County.

BRENDA COLBERT ATTENDS

I was worried that I’d seen the last of the Colbert family. It had been long enough since I’d seen their son, who was once upon a time a basketball player at the University of Illinois.

But Saturday, Brenda Colbert showed up for the first time in ages. And Austin played meaningful minutes for the first time in ages. “Did you get a tip that he might be getting some real PT?” I asked at halftime.

“Nope. I just came on faith,” she replied.

Austin Colbert is a personal favorite of mine.  I freely admit I’m biased in his favor.  He’s simply a very warm, positive, funny and smart guy.

SUSPENDING TWO GUYS WHO WEREN’T GOING TO PLAY ANYWAY

Let’s just bookmark this moment. It’s brilliant, or it’s idiotic, or it reflects an actual moment of marijuana smoking.

Why would John Groce suspend two guys who can’t play? Did he do it from a sense of justice & rightness? Is he playing mind games with opposing coaching staves?

For purposes of the PSU game, it doesn’t matter. Neither of those two dudes would have played.

Is it an insult to the players themselves? Yes, it is. That’s why Groce didn’t elaborate on their purported malfeasance.

Is it all a farce? Probably not, but that would certainly be the coolest purpose for the suspensions.

Categories
Illini basketball

Groce’s best win

First, thanks to #IlliniFootball for allowing me an extra day to work on this column. You wrested attention away from your undefeated hoops brethren. That’s a feat.

Now, to the bicycling fish of Writing about Sports. Today’s topic: What’s the “best ever” win in John Groce’s brief Illini tenure? It’s an inherently subjective analysis. It’s dancing about architecture.

But what would the Internet be without useless, and often preposterous “best of” lists?

@ Gonzaga, Maui 2012, the worst #1 team in the history of rankings. These games enter the conversation.  For your consideration, I nominate the Baylor game.

I don’t have one reason in particular. I can’t even narrow it down to a few concepts.

John Groce usually shies away from absolutes & favorites, and I think that’s one of his greatest attributes. He’s an unapologetic realist (apart from that whole “Jesus” thing).

But you could feel, as the Illini salted the Bears away, that Groce was going to remember this game for a long time “because of the way we did it,” as he said afterward. “We just showed some real grit.”

There’s so much to like, and hope to remember one day, about the Baylor game. I’d better just make a list.

STATISTICS

Five turnovers, fifteen forced turnovers, fifteen assists on twenty-three made field goals. 33% field goal defense.

Illinois played Baylor’s game, and beat them at it, by “controlling the controllables,” as Groce likes to say.

They didn’t control the uncontrollables, which goes without saying. But even though the uncontrollables grabbed fifteen rebounds, giving his team a 47-33 advantage on the boards, the Illini ran plays to eliminate his effectiveness as a defensive weapon.

NNANNA EGWU

There’s no waaaay Nnanna was going to beat Rico Gathers Sr. (sic) at his own game. Gathers is listed at 6’8″ 280#. When he walked through the tunnel after the game, Mike Basgier (the strength & conditioning coach) said “I’ve never seen a basketball player that big.  You can’t train that. That has to come naturally.”

Nnanna’s game involves less brute force. It’s more about positioning and cunning. Sam McLaurin’s appearance in Las Vegas might remind Illini fans (especially those who question Egwu’s value to the team, or basketball IQ) that a center’s best contributions often take the form of a step to the left; that subtle movement that blocks a drive, or a passing lane.

Yes, the center must pose some offensive threat, or the defense can exploit his incompetence. Nnanna’s back-to-basket game is another subject of discussion among traditionalists. For this team’s purposes, it would be nice if Nnanna’s baby hook (currently in beta) were more reliable.

It’s important that Nnanna be a threat from the arc, because it draws defenders away from the lane. In the B1G, this will be  especially important.

Nnanna didn’t shoot any threes against Baylor, maybe because the Bears play a lot of zone. But while Nnanna didn’t draw any trees from the low post against Baylor, he still drew attention to the high post.

It was enough to divert the defense from the one guy whom they ought never allow out of their sight.

WHEN WILL PEOPLE STOP UNDERESTIMATING RAYVONTE RICE?

Bulls GM Gar Forman was among a slew of NBA scouts in attendance. Jerry’s son Ryan West was there too, representing the Lakers.

Maybe they came to see Baylor’s trees, or Josh Pastner’s flashy recruits. What they saw was another (yawn) dominant performance by Rayvonte Rice.

When Ray has retired from professional basketball, will people still doubt his accomplishments?  I assume so. Most bicycling fish — er, sports talk — obsesses over player-bashing.

There’s also plenty of obscure dwarf cum giant killer in sports lore, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Ray were largely ignored by the media  this year.  If you remember Wayne Larrabee reading the same one-sheet about Illini players, over and over, game after game, you’re sufficiently analytical to recognize that major media coverage is provided by analysts who don’t spend a lot of time analyzing.

They’re not awful people. They just don’t know what we know: Rayvonte Rice is the most dynamic all-around Illini since Kenny Battle.

Yep. I just said that.

 

 

AARON COSBY

Speaking of statistics, Aaron was 0-for-6 from the field. All those misses came from behind the arc. His lone drive to the hoop was stricken from the record, because he was fouled on the attempt. He made both free throws.

So far, it doesn’t sound so great.

Aaron grabbed six rebounds, and dished four assists. Those numbers are on the permanent record. He muscled his way through screens, and gave Baylor’s bigs something to think about in the doing. There’s no accounting for that effort.

My personal jury is still out (skeptical) about the Starks/Cosby lights out shooting narrative. The point is moot. Statistics are forthcoming.

I liked Aaron Cosby’s contributions on a night when he couldn’t hit the broad side of a casino.

AUSTIN COLBERT

It’s not that John Groce dislikes Austin Colbert. It’s that Groce views Colbert as lacking in physical strength. He anticipates Colbert struggling against heavier bigs, and fears the consequences of physical mismatches.

Against Baylor, Groce saw Rico Gathers, and wanted Colbert far and away from the court.

Dustin Ford — the ex-point guard who coaches the bigs — should probably consult a thoracic surgeon following the Baylor game. I’m sure his carotid artery suffered damage from the umpteen times his head nearly exploded. Interior defensive positioning nearly killed him. Horseshit foul calls didn’t help. (It was mostly the former.)

Throughout his ordeal, Ford never looked to Colbert as a solution.

Colbert might have finished the Baylor game on the bench, but Maverick Morgan earned four fouls (in four minutes) and Nnanna Egwu earned two fouls — and was assessed another two for standing absolutely still with his arms straight up in the air.

So with 5:54 remaining, and a ten point lead nearly obliterated by Baylor’s (frankly) well coached & well executed attempts to decapitate Illinois’ defense; Groce and Ford were forced to play Colbert.

His impact was immediate.

Yep, it’s true that Austin is skinny like a rail. But he can jump. And that’s where he took advantage of Baylor. The play of the game (Groce admitted as much) came  when Austin leaped over everyone for an offensive rebound and put-back.

It changed the momentum. It knocked the wind out of Baylor’s comeback. They never recovered.

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if you’re skinnier than others. You just have to jump higher. Maybe you have to want it more, too.

After the game, Groce acknowledged that that single play might give him more confidence to use Colbert in the future.

Another reason to like Austin: His mother is a strong, sensible woman. And he has a younger brother, Morgan, who has absolutely no filter. Morgan Colbert is nearly as entertaining as the game of basketball itself.

MALCOLM HILL

He’s six games into his sophomore year, and I’m already running out of things to say about Malcolm Hill. So bully for Malcolm. He doesn’t need fish bicycling, or dancing about architecture.

In a lovely way, he seems to enjoy it, being a natural with “the media.”  It’s because he judges “the media” on an individual basis, and treats “it” as if we were people. (Yep, I recognize that many question-askers in the news biz are not people, and have no feelings. True story.)

Malcolm’s game speaks for itself. He doesn’t need media hype. But when microphones are available, he’s plenty willing to share his thoughts. After Friday’s game, he lent his voice to speak for Jeremiah Radford, whose voice is gone.

Surprised by his election to the Las Vegas Invitational’s all-tournament team, and awed by the championship he’d pined for, just a day earlier, Malcolm cried in his mother’s arms.

That’s the cool thing about Malcolm. He’s a natural. He’ll be who he is. If it’s emotional, he’ll cry about it. If it’s basketball, he’ll rip it away from you, and then jam it.

He talked about crying, and Jeremiah, after the game. Malcolm is not afraid. He’s intellectually curious, and loving. Those aspects of his nature permeate his entire life experience.

For basketball purposes, he’s intellectually curious about opponents’ weaknesses, and he loves dunking on them.

AHMAD STARKS

KENDRICK NUNN IS RIGHT-HANDED

THE ATMOSPHERE

Orleans Arena reminded me of Gonzaga’s purpose-built basketball arena. Its horseshoe configuration belies its multi-purpose capabilities, but it’s definitely a good place to see a basketball game with 9,000 other rabid fans. Illinois didn’t bring a quarter that many, and Baylor brought three (I sat near them during Thursday’s game against Memphis). Nevertheless, the arena was electric.

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Illini basketball

Excellent & Terrible – the Indiana State game

I suppose no one will remember this game.  No one had ever heard of the network that carried it.  A handful of hundreds attended. On paper, it looks like a blowout. (That’s the preview paper and the morning paper.)

It didn’t feel like a blowout.

I’ve never had such an uneasy feeling about a 20 point lead.

Illinois looked sloppy (11/13 assists to turnovers). They looked lethargic. “Those guys are running full-out and our guys are going about 80%” John Groce said to his bench. Little Grant Prusator (whose name the PA guy seemed to announce as “Crusader”) could not be stopped, not at the arc, nor inside it.

And yet, the 88-62 final suggests to me that Illinois won by 24 points.

Obviously the three-point shooting (9-20, 45%) was the difference. It helps that ISU converted only 10 of their 27 attempts from distance, because a lot of them were wide open. Illinois’ defense continues to lose track of shooters.

Excellently & terribly, it was Ahmad Starks’s best and worst games, too. He converted 1-of-5 from the floor. But he passed better, and more intrepidly, than at any point this year. His passing was fun to watch. That hadn’t happened yet.

Categories
Illini basketball

Butts in Seats

John Groce may have figured out that spectators like scoring.

He doesn’t seem obsessed with the defensive shortcomings that — because his team scored a hundred points for a second time this week — nobody cares about.

Five years ago, an Illini team which some people considered “good” failed to score forty points, twice. The coach of that team lost again Friday, to Dan Monson’s Long Beach State 49ers, of the Big West Conference.  When Nino Williams hit K-State’s final basket with 19.6 seconds remaining, Bruce Weber’s team had scrapped its way to 60.

At his postgame press conference, Weber probably blamed his players for poor defense. Contrast Groce, who only mildly implied that he gave a shit about defensive problems, and only in the final minute of his presser.

In truth, Groce is probably just as obsessed with defense as Weber, or Groce’s mentor Thad Matta, or Weber’s apologist Tom Izzo.

Who remembers that game in Columbus,  where Izzo and Matta defensed each other to a 48-44 draw? If you do, it’s because you felt scarred by the experience, or you’re a basketball coach. I’ve tried to block that game from my memory, but I’m pretty sure both Izzo and Matta spoke about its awesomeness, from a coaching perspective.

The lesson that Groce might have learned is this: Most basketball fans (excluding, perhaps, his home state Indiana) prefer thrilling offense to stymieing defense. If you’re not sitting on the team bench, basketball is light entertainment.

Moreover, if it feels as though you’re whoring yourself for the amusement of 16,618 johns, leave their 1.8 million dollars behind. Go coach high school in a town that cares.  (Seriously, go back and watch that Weber video. He’s still mad at you for wanting to be entertained.)

It doesn’t even matter if your defense stinks, as long as you win by 20 (or 41).

Case in point: Iowa scored 94 points in Champaign, on March 8, 1989. Later that night, every single Illini fan got laid. Illinois won by 24.

Ed Horton, B.J. Armstrong and Roy Marble were great players, and the Illini ran them out of the gym.

APSU’s coach Dave Loos said he wasn’t happy with his Governor guards (18 turnovers), but they found a lot of driving lanes. They reversed the ball for wide open looks. They cut toward the basket when Illini defenders left the backdoor wide open.

If it weren’t for all the scoring, all the wildly entertaining buckets, all the threes, the great passes, vicious screens, and sleight-of-ball; we’d be talking about defensive problems.

We’re not.

Tonight, all Illini fans got laid, again.

APSU would have beaten K-State on this night. Like the 49ers, the Governors shot 43% from the field. Like the Governors, CSULB dropped the ball 18 times.

K-State shot 32.8% from the field, and 14.3% from three. That’s some awesome Weberball.

The Illini hit 59.7% from the floor, and 56% from three. Rayvonte Rice might be unable to sleep because he missed a free-throw. Otherwise, he drained every single shot that left his hands.

Kendrick Nunn was perfect from the arc. Malcolm Hill connected on 6-of-7 shots. Nnanna Egwu was 6-of-9, and neither Austin Colbert nor Maverick Morgan missed a shot from the field.

“Basket” is one of the two most important root words in the Germanic term “basketball”. It just makes sense to recruit players who can make them.

AHMAD STARKS – SLOW OUT OF THE GATE?

On Sunday, Ahmad Starks’s defense was bad, at first. Then he picked up the pace, literally. That is, he was a step behind a smaller (and quicker?) opponent.

Then he adjusted.

Friday night against the Peay, Starks was slow to get going on offense. In the first half, he connected on only 1-of-6 shots from the floor. He assisted no one. Jaylon Tate played the majority of the minutes at point, and dished four assists.

In the second half, Starks turned it around.  He made all his shots, and assisted twice.

Is it fair to say that Ahmad is slow out of the gate?

Groce said it’s too early to say.  Then he went on to praise the harmony of the offense. Groce’s body language reinforced the notion that Starks’s Starts are another characteristic (or data set) of this team that he simply doesn’t care about. That’s consistent with Groce’s approach to nurturing Tracy Abrams.

Slow starts against legitimate teams might cause problems. Aaron Cosby’s hot-and-cold track record is something else we’ll want to watch, too. But the optimist’s view of this situation is that Ahmad Starks’s isn’t fazed by early-going actions that might seem to place him behind the curve.

Nor does Aaron Cosby stop shooting.

On Sunday, when I asked Ahmad about his slow start on defense, he readily admitted that he lost his man, helped too much on the strong side, got lost.

But then he figured it out. The problem stopped.

Friday’s 1-for-6 performance translated into a perfect second half. If it’s too soon to call “pattern,” it’s not too soon to point out that Ahmad Starks is not confounded by data sets that prove to be non-representative samples.

Starks is a willingly admitted loner. He’s cerebral, analytical. He’s sincere, and earnest. Combine those characteristics, and the composite picture is a guy who’s observant, and understands himself. Maybe that’s the reason he can shoot 1-for-6 in one half and 4-of-4 the next.

He adjusts.

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

Leroy William Rice (grandfather) comes to every game. He moves slowly, and with a cane. But he knows what’s what. He knows what he likes. He can spot a Rayvonte Rice slash from 94-feet.

Friday night, Mr. Rice hollered at me to stop blocking his view. I was standing on the baseline, and he was trying to watch the troupe of tiny ballerinas in pink tutus, performing a halftime dance.

I got out of the way.

Meanwhile, at the west end of the family bleachers, Melvin Nunn (dad) was extricating himself from a folding chair. He’d stepped on it to reach his seat in the back row — without inconveniencing others.

It trapped him like a bear (which he is, in a big & friendly way). He had to untie his shoe, and remove it, before he could get his foot untangled.

Coach Nunn is a much revered, and well-respected man. When I told him that I didn’t take a picture of his predicament, he let out an enormous laugh. “You should have!”

My theory about Kendrick Nunn is the same as my theory about Rayvonte Rice. They are two of the best college basketball players I’ve ever seen. I think it’s because they were raised to know that you can have fun, you can be relaxed; but you have to work hard, and you have to know when it’s time to get business done.

Categories
Illini basketball

Newcomer: Leron Black

It took a while to chronicle Leron Black.

Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks have been around for over a year.  Michael Finke‘s been a constant presence since 2012. The first time I saw Leron in person was SEAL Training 2014. The first time I met him was October 9. The first time spoke more than a few sentences with him was three weeks ago, and I asked Finke to tag along, just in case Leron might be freaked out by my off-topic questions.

Like Congress, I reserve the right to revise and extend my remarks. I don’t know enough about Leron Black to claim a definitive portrait of the man (the very young man, I must remind myself, and you). But  I can introduce you to Leron from the perspective of the guys who know him better: his teammates.

They’ll tell you a little bit about his basketball game, but mostly about eating & sleeping, two things Leron does well.

WEIRD SOUTHERN FOODS

Ham hocks, neckbones, grits & greens are staples of Leron Black’s Weird Southern diet. And let’s not forget the sweet potatoes, and mac n’ cheese.

What might seem weirdest about these foods is their high nutritional value. Collard greens are a superfood. Neckbones are dark turkey meat, so there’s a lot of protein and fat (a necessary nutrient, also delicious). Ham hocks provide protein as well, and plenty of salt. Guys who exercise all day need a lot of salt. Nnanna Egwu’s chin was a faucet of sweat on Friday night. The continual drip was almost a constant stream. It really looked like a New York apartment sink, where the super is too lazy to fix things, and the residents don’t pay for water.

Although I’ve characterized these foods as “weird” for entertainment purposes, I don’t actually think they are weird. Friday night, after the Georgia Southern game, I ate a turkey neck and some collard greens. The neck was inside the hen I bought at Meijer this week. I got the collards at Ruler. I wasn’t especially celebrating the completion of An Analysis of Illini Newcomer Leron Black. I eat turkey necks and collards whenever they present themselves.

The best entree I’ve ever eaten might be the lamb’s neck at The Gorbals. I told Mark Morris he should schedule the team’s New York meal at their Brooklyn location. Unfortunately for Leron, the team won’t be in NYC long enough for a restaurant dinner. (I will.)

I also don’t think it’s weird that Leron won’t waste food. I’m that way, too. At the very least, I’ll give old leftovers to the squirrels. The silver maple in our back yard may be home to Urbana’s only family of obese squirrels.

“So, you see?”  Aaron Cosby points out, “it’s not weird.”

DOES HE EVER SLEEP?

We’ve heard his motor never stops, but the truth is, Leron Black is a major league sleeper. Not only does Leron Black sleep, he sleeps hard. He even sleeps at the Ubben, when he needs to recharge.

That he needs the TV on while he’s sleeping is not unusual. That he snores is not unusual. But it reminds me again to question the university’s insistence on cramming two people — often strangers — into one small room, and expecting things to work out.

In fact, that hasn’t worked well for Cameron Liss. His roommate is not a student-athlete, and often gets in at 3 a.m.

Malcolm Hill says he feels bad for Leron’s roomie, Michael Finke. How does Finke feel?  “It’s hard to sleep with it but I persevere. A lot of nights I just turn it off, lol.”

OFF THE COURT, WHAT’S HE LIKE?

Leron Black is Dr. Jeckyll. He’s charming and outgoing, but also shy . That’s how Tracy Abrams described him. “There’s a big difference.” Aaron Cosby pointed out that Leron spends a lot of time at the Irwin Academic Center.

Illini #12 is Mr. Hyde. The Savage. Possibly the only person who could take a lob dunk away from Rayvonte Rice.

Apart from saying he’s a super nice guy, some of his teammates expressed confusion about Leron’s love of Lil Boosie. I can see why they’re confused.  We’ve heard about Leron’s affinity for Jesus of Nazareth, so it doesn’t automatically follow that he’d also be devoted to an ex-con who shrieks “when I pistol-whipped that nigga, for forty minutes straight.”

That doesn’t seem entirely Christian, does it?

Well, Sam Harris would probably say it is. Especially in the Book of Leviticus, or Matthew 10:34. Reza Aslan would tell you that the Christ of Leron Black’s grandmother is an entirely different character from the Jesus in Guatemala. For one thing, He loves black people. That’s certainly different from the Mormon Jesus (until 1978).

But in truth, I don’t read much into this dichotomy of Boosie and Bible. When I was 18, my friends and I spent most afternoons playing basketball with Doolittle on the boom box. Hearing Black Francis bark & scream, in a wholly new way, clearly struck a chord among the non-record-buying-but-clever-at-tape-dubbing population of white, college-aged kids of the late 80s.

None of us got a tattooed tit. Slicing up eyeballs? Nope, never felt the desire.

The next year, everybody was listening to Ritual de lo habitual. But I can’t recall anyone devolving into petty larceny, or injecting heroin.

UNDOCUMENTED SKILL SET

Mid-range jump-shot was the runaway winner, here.

ANDROID OR iPHONE?

I thought it was interesting that everyone knew the answer, and nobody needed time to think about it. Leron has an iPhone.

IS HE FREAKED OUT BY MAVERICK MORGAN?

Pretty much everybody said yes, except for Leron himself. “Nah, he cool.”

Maverick also didn’t think Leron was weirded-out by his unusual personality. I think that’s great. I like Maverick a lot. Maverick is a guy who sees the mundanities of life, and does his best to avoid perpetuating them.  (Perfecting one’s free-throws is not mundane.)

I also like it that John Groce brought Mav to his team. Groce is straight-laced. Not entirely humorless, but intense. It’s a triat shared by a lot of driven men.

If all his recruits shared that demeanor; if he strove to beat the fun out of them like a drill sergeant; that would concern me.  Maverick Morgan is the canary in that coal mine. As long as he’s still singing, we’ll know the Illini basketball family is a livable environment.

Maverick is not the only one, of course. He’s simply the most notoriously oddball among the team.

I can’t tell you about Leron Black’s sense of humor, yet. But as for everyone else, well, see for yourself.

Categories
Illini basketball

Newcomer: Ahmad Starks

The Illini men’s basketball team has six newcomers this year. Two are walk-ons Cameron Liss and Alex Austin. Two are Michael Finke and Aaron Cosby, already profiled in the Illini Report “newcomer” series.

At some point, you’ll get a humorous glimpse at Liss and Austin. It probably won’t get a lot of hits. Web traffic works like this

  • recruits
  • scandal
  • enormous victories
  • current players
  • losses
  • walk-ons

Perhaps Leron Black is most intriguing to Illini fans, because we know so little about him. But the newcomer most likely to determine the outcome of the 2014-15 season is tiny, quiet Ahmad Starks.

Asking about Starks, of the guys who’ve played with him for over a year, reveals some things we didn’t know. For one, he drives fearlessly at and over guys twice his height. He dunks. He has a knack for theatrical shots that somehow go in the basket. He rebounds.

Most interestingly, he’s considered to be a ball-handler and distributor. Contrast this opinion with conventional wisdom that Starks is primarily a shooter, and you see just how little the typical fan understands what happens inside John Groce’s program.

In fact, the perception of Starks as a typical point guard has so permeated the inner Illini mindset that Alex Austin answered the tell me something most people don’t know about Ahmad Starks question by saying that Starks is a really good shooter, whereas most people probably think of him primarily as a ball-handler.

That’s the mindset inside the program.

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Illini basketball

Newcomer: Michael Finke

Michael Finke’s been around the program so long, Bruce Weber was still the coach when Illinois started recruiting him. It seems weird to think that he’s never played a game for the Illini.

As the Weber administration collapsed, the average RSCI of its unofficial visitors plummeted, as did their height. Finke was associated, in the minds of observers, with his Division III-bound cohort.

Bleacher seats once reserved for Rivals-rated blue chippers were available for anyone willing to sit through two hours of Weber-flavored torture, and the Finke family was conveniently located, and able to fill between three and six empty spots.

The rail-thin, 6-foot-7 white kid reminded older Illini fans of an earlier time, when recruiting bottomed out after a heyday of unprecedented success. Juwan Howard and Michael Finley left the state for greener pastures, and we got Tommy Michael and T.J. Wheeler instead.  Nice guys, sure. But after a steady diet of Efrem Winterses, Ken Normans and Nelison “Nick” Andersons; the small town downstaters simply didn’t fulfill Illini fans’ hunger for top cosmopolitan athletes.

Fast-forward 32 months, and we find that Michael Finke is not that lanky kid. He’s enormous.  He’s grown upwards, and outwards. He looks like a Big Ten power-forward. As of this morning, he says he weighs 225. That means he’s put on five pounds just since the printing of Illinois’ media guide. (Credit Laura Finke and Chelsea Burkart for the meals, and Mike Basgier for the strength training.)

But what about his game? Does he have the requisite quickness, and mental toughness, to play at this level?

I learned something interesting about Michael Finke during my playful Media Day interviews. Michael Finke has some unknown, possibly unexpected qualities.  I tried to avoid expectations when jotting down my questions. They were simply intended to get the guys talking.

I knew that Michael is interested in things other than sports. (His girlfriend Artemis brought a dog-earred copy of Jane Eyre to a game last year. ) I knew that Michael Finke is a kind person. So I asked about that. Nice guys finish last, right?

I thought it was interesting that Illini guards all said Finke is, indeed, one of the nicest people they’ve ever met. But the guys who play the 4 and 5 positions — that is, the guys with whom Finke is competing for playing time, and battling in daily scrimmages — spoke of an edgy side, a competitive fire. I heard echoes of last year’s Word Association video. Could it be that Michael Finke “plays angry?”

Austin Colbert praised Finke’s foot-work. “When he gets in the post, it’s hard for people to stay in front of him. He uses his pivot feet and gets off a lot of shots you wouldn’t think he’d be able to.”

Mike LaTulip says Finke is an excellent passer. Jaylon Tate says Finke is more athletic than people think. Malcolm Hill calls him “Ekey 2.0” but adds that Jon Ekey was a freakish athlete, whereas Finke’s game (and his own) takes place closer to the ground.

It wasn’t so long ago that people assumed Finke would redshirt, to add weight and learn the game while growing into his body. That line of dialog has disappeared. So far, it hasn’t been replaced with speculation about Finke’s early entry into the NBA Draft. But remember, Finke hasn’t yet played a game at Illinois.

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Illini basketball

Newcomer: Aaron Cosby

Media Day 2014 seemed less exciting than previous years. Maybe it’s just me. I was exhausted from traveling the previous day.

But there was something else missing. The staff wasn’t around. Mike Basgier was just leaving as we filed into the Corzine Gym. “There’s no team photo today because the coaches are out recruiting,” he  said.

The hardest working staff in American college basketball is playing Terminator to all the Sarah Connors among 17 year-old point guards. They’re relentless. When John Groce finished with his media obligations, he abandoned the sport jacket he borrowed, one assumes, from some friendly giant, donned a tight-fitting white jumper, got in his SUV, and headed out to track that kid down.

But on the otherwise gloomy cold Thursday, two people seemed especially, even unusually cheerful. One was Malcolm Hill, who enters his second year unafraid, and unabashed. He freely admitted that he was nervous through much of last year. And who can blame him, he was seventeen years old, and had left the house for the first time. It happens to many if not most college kids. And in Malcolm’s case, he had an audience in the millions of people, watching his every step.

The other surprisingly cheerful guy was Aaron Cosby. Last spotted smiling in the early autumn of 2013, Cosby is now free to do what he does best: play basketball. That freedom seems to have bucked him up.

I asked his teammates about Aaron. What do they know about him as a person, and as a baller, that we didn’t know?

It turns out that he’s more than just a shooter.