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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

The Coach Who Cried Wolf

Greg Gard prefaced his complaint by saying “I didn’t see the replay.” He added that his view was blocked. For these reasons, we must remember that Gard knows not of what he speaks. He’s not the best witness for the defense.

But because Gard ended his post-Iowa Zoom by demanding an apology from the Big Ten, and simultaneously divulged that he’d already demanded and received an apologies from an ESPN producer and Bob Wischusen and Dick Vitale; you’d have a much better argument that he’s not a witness at all, but a co-conspirator. He told you, right there, that he’s made a formal application to silence criticism of his program.

Brad Davison knows how to keep his arms up.

Maybe it’s the current political environment in Wisconsin, where witness intimidation is still popular.

Gard is a quietly funny man, and an intense if non-showy bench coach. Middle-aged white men from the Midwest understand him.

But yesterday, his team lost a basketball game because he’s failed to address a problem within his program. The problem is not that people perceive Brad Davison to be dirty. The problem is not that people poke fun at Brad Davison for being dirty. The problem is that Brad Davison is dirty.

A simple “Brad needs to stop punching people in the balls, and we’re going to take care of that internally” would have done wonders to ameliorate the perception problem. But Gard actually needs to actually stop Davison from actually punching people in the actual balls.

Has Gard considered that maybe, just maybe, continual complaints about Brad Davison might indicate a problem with Brad Davison?

Consider his jeremiad toward the B1G, in the back half of this video. He says players can get a review any time they point at an opponent, and it’s ruining the game. Any time they urge referees to check the monitor, referees check the monitor. And it’s ruining the game.

Was Gard’s view blocked when Davison pointed at his opponent, and urged referees to check the monitor?

This column neither holds nor professes a Good Guys Wear White Hats viewpoint. Brad Davison is undoubtedly a good guy in practice and while sitting for interviews. And he definitely punches people in the nuts.

His teammate D’Mitrik Trice is a model citizen in those former examples, and he pushed-off on Jordan Bohannon at a crucial moment in the Iowa game.

Next time you pass a moving object, see if you’re arm doesn’t instinctively draw closer to your body. Conversely, if you frequently bruise your shoulder on door jambs, it might be time to visit a neurologist.

Trice can be an earnest student and get whistled for trying to throw an opponent off-balance while rising for a jumpshot. It’s not a good versus evil value judgment. Similarly, fans can laud his mother for not aborting him and kick her out of the building for annoying an entire network TV audience.

Bo Ryan can be a world-class coach and romance a woman who isn’t his wife.

The Wisconsin program is the epitome of class and humanity in its response to Howard Moore’s tragedy. Howard Moore himself is graciousness personified. Thus, we can rest assured that good people exist and good things happen within the Badger community.

And every time Brad Davison’s arm extends toward a player from a different team, and every time Brad Davison’s arm clamps another player and pulls him downward as happened to Keegan Murray, no matter what Gard thinks; Bo Boroski and the entire B1G officiating contingent should check the monitor.

Repeat offenders draw scrutiny. Or, as Wisconsin’s favorite witness intimidator would say “you knew he was a snake.”

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Illini basketball

Weekend 1, Southern and UT-Martin

Tip-off of Sunday night’s game was delayed briefly when courtside fans alerted referee Rob Kueneman of some grass on the court. There was enough grass to cause a running player (or referee) to slip and hurt himself. Kueneman called The Sweeper (The Broom Lad?) over to clean it up.

How did grass get on the court? Why was it still there at tip-time? Your guess is as good as mine.

Kueneman’s next notable contribution (apart from blowing a whistle when appropriate) came when Te’Jon Lucas lowered his shoulder, earning a charging call at the south end. “Come Big Ten play I’m going to need that call” Brad Underwood hollered from the bench.

“Fair enough,” responded Kueneman.

The other two referees were Courtney Green and Bo Boroski. It was a well-officiated game.

As for hollering, the Hollerer of the Game award goes to Skyhawks reserve Mike Fofana. The Orange Krush had a field day with Fofana after he exhausted himself hollering “who’s got shooter?” over and over and over again as various Illini attempted free-throws.

South-end photographers get to hear all the Krush offerings. Some are mundane, perhaps because they’re prepared. These offerings were spontaneous, demonstrating that individual Krush members can be pretty damned clever.

Two games in, we’re just getting to know our newcomers, and what they bring to the table.

Mark Alstork followed his 17-point debut with a 1-for-7 performance. But that one counted for three points. Nevertheless, he was an enthusiastic cheerleader for his teammates.

Da’Monte Williams speaks. I heard him say thanks to someone last night.

But for the most part, Da’Monte is The Silent Illini. His game displays a different variety of reserve. He’s simply not flashy. He moves very fast to get into position on defense, and that’s the kind of thing coaches adore. His proudest moment this weekend was taking a charge. As Leron Black screamed encouragement, Da’Monte’s grin spread from ear to ear.

Mark Smith’s game recalls Michigan State great Jason Richardson. Each has the ability to alter his shot in mid-air. That’s not terribly unusual. But each seems to leap without giving any indication that he has a particular angle in mind.

Smith waits ’til he gets a few feet into the air before deciding, for example, which hand to use, or whether to involve the backboard glass.

In short,  he doesn’t telegraph his move. That makes it hard for defenders to read his body language.

Trent Frazier learned to play basketball among taller players, and you can tell. Like Te’Jon Lucas, Trent’s primary offensive weapon is the pull-up jumper.

Like Te’Jon, it’s his quick release that prevents taller defenders from closing in time. But Trent’s pull-up is a conventional jump-shot, whereas Te’Jon’s shot often leaves his hands before he’s achieved a conventional shooting posture.

Matic Vesel didn’t see the floor on Sunday. He burned his redshirt in garbage time Friday night. But in that time, he made a beautiful post-entry pass.

As the clock wound down, the (surprisingly large Friday night) crowd audibly encouraged Vesel to attempt a shot from the arc. For whatever reason, Matic abstained. He did dribble the ball a lot.

In his postgame remarks, Brad Underwood wondered aloud why it’s so hard to get Matic to shoot. Perhaps Matic has not yet realized the second-most exciting thing about Matic: He does not miss shots.

Finally, I’d like to make this observation, visually.

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Illini basketball

A tree in the forest

“Is it common knowledge that Barclays Center has a grass roof?” I asked Jason Marry, as I sat down on the baseline of the Brooklyn Nets’ home court.

Jason, who pays attention to sports, assurred me that I was not alone in my ignorance. For some reason, sports fanatics tend to focus on the sports-oriented aspects of sports. They don’t talk about the architecture.

Tomorrow, I’ll be in Miami. I hope I won’t write about their architecture. I like their architecture, but I’m hoping I’ll have something interesting to communicate about the development of a basketball team.

In this column, I’ll write about the architecture. i.e. the non-sports stuff I delight in observing while following Illini basketball around the country. But I’ll also write about the basketball.

There’s an evolutionary arc I’ve been watching. I don’t know when or where it might complete, or manifest itself. Some unanswered questions will determine whether this team will make the tournament, or require Josh Whitman to Make A Change.

The themes of this column aren’t new. It’s about Tracy Abrams’s composure, his shot selection. He’s always been great at controlling teammates. It’s his ability to control Tracy Abrams that’s always been the question.

He’s been good.

 

And bad.

He’s like Chester Frazier: Among the most self-disciplined Illini when it comes to work ethic, off-the-court deportment, navigating the potential pitfalls of being a student-athlete.

He’s so good, so strong, so determined in those areas; that it’s hard to comprehend his moments of folly on the court. That he played with Rayvonte Rice offers a great comparison. Rice frequently attempted the spectacular, and succeeded. But his team lost.

Abrams must resist attempting the spectacular for his team to succeed.

Will he also be like Chester Frazier in providing a senior year where his shooting drastically improves, and his decisions don’t cost games?

Subject #2 of the evolutionary arc is Jalen Coleman-Lands’s second dimension, and his third dimension.

Considered by some to be a “three-point specialist,” JCL is most exciting to watch because of his behind-the-back passes, and drives to the hoop.

He drove the lane at the Barclays Center, and got stuffed. Undeterred, he continued to drive against NC State, and he was successful. He also made a behind the back pass, and another quick pass in the lane.

JCL and Abrams share a common gift/fault. They like to push the limits of basketball geometry. Sometimes, their angles are too acute.

Abrams’s self-control and JCL’s dynamism are key ingredients to a successful season. So are Leron Black’s 15-foot jumper, and his failure to foul out of the last two contests.

Inevitably, it seems, this team will rely on its highest-rated recruits.

On the other hand, no recruiting service wasted much ink on Te’Jon Lucas. And yet he’s emerged as this team’s fun guy to watch.

Over the last two weeks, Illini fans have demanded that Lucas get more tick. John Groce heard them. In particular, Groce heard Juan David Hoffman, literally.

“Pass the ball!” Hoffman yelled to Abrams, as Tracy dribbled on the wing, no more than five feet from Hoffman.

A few moments later, Hoffman followed with “Put Lucas in the game!”
When Groce did, in fact, insert Te’Jon a moment later, Hoffman responded with “’bout time!”
It’s not unusual for fans to scream at games. What’s unusual is for any particular sentiment to be audible for everyone, including the head coach.
Dozens of people attended the Brooklyn games. No, really. Dozens. And because Hoffman was directly across the court from Groce, in an otherwise empty/silent mausoleum, Groce could hear everything Hoffman said.

Intriguingly, Hoffman’s favorite topics reflect the general consensus. That’s not true of most courtside-sitters, who tend to be polite (and at least among the Illini fandom) unabashed homers. The type who never criticize the coach but do criticize the people who criticize the coach.

Hoffman, by contrast, vocalized everything you’ve been reading online about John Groce and the 2016-17 Illini. And Groce heard it.

Groce’s demeanor is different this year, which suggests that he’s heard a lot of Hoffmans, or at least has begun to acknowledge agitation among the fanbase.

Maybe it began when Groce was forced to hold a joint press conference with Josh Whitman. The most obvious change is the post-home-game press conferences. The players now show up independent of Groce, which means the media get started on their copy about 20 minutes sooner. That media was allowed to attend a pair of pre-season practices is also a novation.

It’s pretty clear that Groce feels the heat.

Some fans have declared that Groce’s tenure demonstrates a misjudgment about Bruce Weber. That’s insane. Whether or not John Groce is your guy, Bruceketball was torture to watch in 2012. So don’t even think that you’re worse off now. And these changes in Groce’s personal style, and the product on the court, are the best proof.

Weber wouldn’t change. Conceivably, Weber couldn’t change. If you forgot what Bruce Weber looks like, look up “hidebound” in your dictionary. His picture appears next to that word.

Groce has this year’s team playing up-tempo offense, and a lot of zone defense.  Against Florida State, he called out to his team to stay in a 2-3 zone “until further notice.”

That game is now more than a week behind us. It’s pretty much forgotten, thanks to NC State.

Thanksgiving’s West Virginia fiasco won’t be so easily forgotten. But unlike actual trauma, it will find retention in memory a tricky row to hoe. Illini fans, even those zealous to depose John Groce, can’t escape human neuroscience. We like to remember the good times. We remember things that nearly kill us (and, in theory, make us stronger).

Illinois basketball’s decade-long slide into total irrelevance doesn’t threaten you physically. It won’t activate warning mechanisms in your brain cells.

Lots of people showed up for the (final?) dedication of the State Farm Center, and they saw an entertaining win which temporarily quietened the pitchfork mob. If Illinois loses to VCU tomorrow, the pitchforks will return before sunset. If Illinois wins, they might not show up ’til 2017.

MORE DANCING ABOUT ARCHITECTURE

FSU’s Michael Ojo is one of those unfortunate persons who came to basketball as the result of a pituitary disorder. Isaac Haas is another. Some people are just unusually tall. Some people have acromegaly.

Perhaps it’s a poorly kept secret, but a lot of college basketball players aren’t all that great at basketball. They’re just really tall. Keon Johnson reminded Illini fans that the most gifted basketball players aren’t always the most-sought recruits. Rayvonte Rice should be playing in the NBA, but pro scouts continue to perseverate about his height, despite Rice’s eight year campaign of proving doubters wrong.
Ojo is 7’1″ and enormous all over.
He’s African, and like a lot of African basketball players, he’s mostly a defender. He sees the game for what it’s become: soccer.
It’s possible that he’s really funny.
During a break in the action, Ojo noticed teammate Jonathan Isaac wasn’t paying attention. Malcolm Hill was just lining up for a one-and-one, and Isaac hadn’t taken his spot on the block. Ojo called to him. “Hey, it’s a one-and-one!”
But later, when Te’Jon Lucas lined up for two free-throws, Ojo tried to persuade everyone, including the referees, that
Lucas’s shots were also one-and-one.
In the enormous baritone voice that often booms from the heads of gigantism’s victims, Ojo called out “One-and-one?” four or five times to anyone within hearing range. Finally, referee Jeff Anderson called out from the wing:  “Ojo,  it’s two shots man.”
After Lucas drained the first attempt, referee Bo Boroski followed up.
You surely get better coverage of Illini sports from other media outlets. I exist only to tell these funny little stories.
Now I’ll have to decide if I really want to get on that 7 a.m. flight for Miami. After a week of looking after an elderly relative in Queens, I could easily be talked into staying home.
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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.