Categories
Illini basketball

Underneath

Everything seemed so great when Illinois faced short, Division III opponents. The question lingered, though: “How will they perform against tall people?”

The sound of a basketball batted by shot-blockers, banging the side of the backboard, bounding away as time ran expired, will stick with me for a while. 

Giorgi Bezhanishvili, with three Georgetown defenders looming, was unlikely to score the needed 7 points in those final five seconds.  But the futility of that moment was punctuated by the unusual sound. It was something you’d hear in an automotive repair shop. Air-pressure versus rubber. It sounded like a tennis ball caught in a ceiling fan.

That sound represents the end of our disillusion re: this Illini team. The lack of height was always going to be a problem. Is it insurmountable?

To overcome the interior deficit, Illini guards must be nearly perfect, and Adonis de la Rosa must NOT be Mike Thorne.

Thorne is a smart, kind, gentle and funny. De la Rosa is smart, funny, conversational and pedagogical. Neither of them deserves to be insulted by any Illini watcher. But it’s important to know that Thorne’s relativism about field-goal percentage is the reason John Groce lives in Akron, Ohio.

When Thorne took the ball on the low-post, he should have converted 60% of his FG attempts, or passed to a wing. He did neither. He’d usually fling the ball toward the basket and hope for the best. That’s unacceptable.

One game into his Illini career, Adonis is following the Thorne blueprint.

De la Rosa got the ball in the low-post during the first half of Tuesday’s game against Georgetown. He lumbered around for a while, moving slowly, feeling out the defense. The defense collapsed.

One sensed an intake of breath from the crowd. No one knew what to expect, and hoped for the best.

The best didn’t happen. 

Instead, an errant 12-footer sailed within three feet of its intended target, the Hoyas grabbed the rebound, and a possession ended without a basket. Statisticians tally one missed FG in these situations. It feels like a turnover. Not getting a good look from the low post is bad basketball. 

In the second half, Adonis got the ball at the usual pinch-post position that Brad Underwood prefers, took another shot at lumbering, plowed and hooked his man simultaneously, fell to the floor, dropped the ball, never attempted a shot AND drew a charging call.

Illinois led the game at that point. But Georgetown gained a lot of confidence from that possession. The Hoyas went on a 20-8 run from that point, and that was that.

Adonis can do good things with his big body. Just a simple back screen with that big ole butt can open a pathway from the wing

In practice, he connects on a high percentage of jumpers from the elbow. That should be his bread and butter, if Illini guards can learn the pick n’ pop. 

Creating space for Illini ball-handlers should be Priority One for the bigs.

Illinois’ three-headed monster was down a head against Georgetown, and maybe that was the difference. Without Trent Frazier’s minutes, Andres Feliz and Ayo Dosunmu got tired. Before we knew it, Tyler Underwood was running the point.

Feliz rallied the troops in the second half, but ran out of gas. He tugged his shirt to signal the bench that he needed out.

Overall, Andres was great in one way, and disappointing in two ways. He demonstrated a fearless disregard for defenders. But he air-balled his threes, and he took bad angles on lay-ups.

For Illinois to be successful this season, Feliz will need to fix those two problems. At Ubben, his three-point shooting is solid. Can we assume he’s still adjusting to the depth-perception of a 15,000-seat arena? Does that man he’ll be automatic at Lahaina’s high school gym-sized Civic Center?

The bad angles were outnumbered by the good. Still pictures from the Georgetown game recall Tracy Abrams from the time of Illinois’s last Maui trip.

Abrams was cutting angles back then. He had not yet developed the tendency to go right at opposing defenses. Feliz did both against the Hoyas. The latter is a remnant of his successes against JUCO and Dominican competition. It won’t work against seven-footers.

Feliz is a guy you should trust in the closing minutes. You can put the ball in his hands, but you need him out there because he’s a pain in the ass on defense. The Illini need him to be flawless, superhuman, to compensate for interior shortcomings.

Ayo’s the guy you really want to have the ball in crunchtime. But for all the celebration of his 25-point performance, for all the glowing media coverage; one guy, Ayo, knew that he let his team down.

Ayo’s owning the loss impressed Brad Underwood, who also seemed to think it ridiculous that Ayo blamed himself. But if nothing else, it’s important to acknowledge that Ayo acknowledged it.

Blocked

You want your team leader to feel unsatisfied by his performance in a loss. You want him to recognize his mistakes in a win, too. You want him to keep learning.

Ayo and Andres might adjust. They have time.

Adonis doesn’t have time. If he hasn’t learned by now, he’s unlikely to learn. So the question is whether Brad Underwood wants to rein him in. So far, the Underwood leash seems long.

On the other hand, we know that Underwood chose to hire an officiating crew for every 2018-19 Illini practice specifically because he knows specific players need to overcome specific bad habits.

Illini fans should consider whether they want another coach who restricts his players’ freedom. it didn’t work for Weber or Groce. Discouraging Brandon Paul from driving, or yanking Aaron Jordan after a missed shot, had obvious negative psychological affects on Brandon Paul and Aaron Jordan. It took a lot of undoing to revert their learned behaviors.

But you’d think that a fifth-year senior, hired for a specific role, might be different.

Adonis de la Rosa should never again dribble the ball twice in a single possession. He certainly shouldn’t dribble the ball around the lane, looking for something to open up.

Maybe this problem won’t find a fix before the Gonzaga game on Monday, but Brad Underwood had better fix it if he wants the season to end well.

The rest of the team has flaws, but it’s the execution by these three guys that turned the spotlight on Illinois’ Achilles Heel.

AJ was a ghost against the Hoyas, but as a decoy, he was pretty effective in the first half. Kipper made great plays against Georgetown, perhaps offset by his play in crunchtime. Fans complained about his execution, but Kipper was among the best at taking the pinch-post hand-off. His strength and height make him a tough cover from the wing.

That Underwood continues to build Kipper, rather than tear him down, gives us an insight on Underwood’s psychological methods.

Da’Monte Williams was solid, and Giorgi looked better than most freshmen. You got what you expected from those guys. The daunting thing for Illinio players and fans is the thin margin for error. If you don’t get what you expect from those guys, Illinois loses. No one can have an off-night.

The good news is that Gonzaga is up next, and as everyone knows, Gonzaga rarely features annoying white guys.

Categories
Illini basketball

It’s not that they lost, it’s how they lost

Deon Thomas and Paris Parham greeted one another on court, about an hour before the Michigan game. They  reminisced about the one game they played against each other in high school.  Dunbar beat Simeon, according to Paris. But the teams had to stay in their locker rooms afterward, until the gunplay cooled off outside.

Whatever happens to the Groce staff, Deon and Paris agreed they’d lived through worse. They’ve seen guys get shot. They’ve seen people killed.

The Groce Question was answered today, by an Illinois team that couldn’t compete with a league rival, and by John Groce himself.

Five years into the Groce experiment, Illinois is not in the same class as the Big Ten’s elite teams. Illinois is second-class. Worse, they don’t just lose. They get blown away. They’re simply not relevant in major college basketball.

The B1G’s third-class teams played Wednesday. Two of them left town before the second-class teams arrived to punish the survivors. The first-class teams will show up tomorrow, and feast on the second-class.  Except for us. We’ve already been eaten.

The Illini will be in Champaign-Urbana when real B1G basketball gets underway.

Groce, to his credit, came right out and agreed he’d do it all over again, exactly the same way, rather than “coaching not to lose,” the sin Bruce Weber admitted while trashing his players for public consumption, in February, 2012.

The Groce Question by the way, is not whether Groce will be fired. It’s not whether he should be fired. It’s whether he can lead Illinois out of the slash and burn wasteland he inherited. The answer is no, he can’t.

Weber was fired five years ago today. If Groce doesn’t follow him out the door, we’ll know that Josh Whitman doesn’t have a home-run hire waiting in the wings. There’s no way Josh Whitman could let the Groce era continue simply because he thinks Groce needs more time, or might be on the verge of something big. Everything we know about John Groce says this is the way he’ll do it, including his own words.

He said during Monday’s pre-tourney teleconference that he doesn’t make in-game offensive adjustments.  He can’t. His system is his system, for better or worse.

And you know what? Good for Groce.  He told us on day one that he’s a teacher. And at the end, he told us the same thing again, and demonstrated as much. He’d rather coach these guys in practice than in games. That’s another thing he’s said, again and again, over his five years.

It’s perhaps not the best personality trait for a Division I coach. But it’s admirable.

So expect a new coach to be announced real soon. And if there’s not such an announcement, understand that it’s because Josh Whitman doesn’t see the point in giving a five-year contract to another mediocrity from the mid-majors.  Or indeed, a super-performing coach from the low and mid-major conferences, like many from my long list. Or Cuonzo, whose NIT trajectory should eliminate him from the conversation (it won’t).

 

Yes, there’s the argument that Illinois basketball will get worse if Groce isn’t fired immediately. But that can’t be true. Either you’re relevant or you’re not. Illinois isn’t relevant.

The fanbase won’t grow. Fair-weather fans won’t come back until the weather is fair. But if this season is any indication, about 12,000 people will still turn out for basketball games.

Anybody that lived through 1989 or 2005 isn’t going to stop cheering for Illini basketball. They remember how great it feels when we’re first-class.

Saturday in Piscataway (poet, I know it) I met two Rutgers basketball fans. Possibly the two Rutgers basketball fans. Terry and Stuart graduated in 1978. That means they were students when Rutgers last made it to the Final Four.

I met them in the campustown Barnes & Noble. I was about to catch the free campus bus that runs between New Brunswick Station and the RAC. Instead, they gave me a lift.

When we arrived at the RAC, Mike Palko was just walking by. He was the starting center on that 1976 team.

These three guys still attend Rutgers basketball games, because they remember what Rutgers can be.  They believe Rutgers will be back some day.

Illini fans vastly outnumber Rutgers fans. You needn’t be 61 years-old to remember the high.  If #WeWillWin means anything, Josh Whitman isn’t satisfied with second-class. Whether it happens tomorrow, next week or next year; it’s going to happen.

 

 

 

Categories
Illini basketball

Saturday Live with Mark Smith & Jeremiah Tilmon

Illinois’ best recruiting period of the last decade came during a time when the Illini’s on-court performance had reached a record-setting nadir.  D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Joseph Bertrand pulled the trigger in a 48-hour span at the start of the dreadful 2007-08 season. Meyers Leonard came aboard at the end.

So it didn’t seem odd to watch Jeremiah Tilmon cracking jokes with Mark Smith while Minnesota pantsed the Illini. These two high school superstars expect to improve their college teams. They don’t doubt that they’ll be successful. Failure is not their concern.

Talking to them about their relationship, I couldn’t keep the names “Bruce Douglas and Efrem Winters” out of my mind.

It’s hard not to think of Mark Smith when thinking about Mark Smith, but Douglas is obviously the better Illini analog. Peoria Richwoods’ Mark Smith was a small forward, not a PG. Bruce was a PG. But he was also big and quick, just like Mark Smith 2.0.

Bruce’s alley-oops to Winters remain at the top of iconic Illini moments, way more efficient than the vaunted “15 pass possession.”

Illinois’ hi-lo could use some work.

Brandon Paul’s Illini recruitment began with Tracy Webster. Mark Smith’s recruitment may end with Tracy Webster. The Thornton grad was All-Big Ten at Wisconsin. He’s an assistant to Cuonzo Martin at Cal, for now. He attended Friday’s game between Tilmon’s ESL and Smith’s Edwardsville squads.

Smith’s burgeoning cachet means he’ll be able to choose his college come April 12. Illinois has two advantages in this recruitment. First, it’s easy driving distance for his parents, who remain very involved in his life and his recruitment. Two, Jeremiah Tilmon is signed to play here next year. Tilmon and Smith have been friends since sixth grade.

Smith will also be considering the academic aspect of his future school. He and parents Anthony & Yvonne were all interested in talking more about that aspect of his recruitment. Anthony said “yes, he’s qualified” when I raised the subject of academics.

But that’s not the question. The question is what Mark wants to study, and whether he aspires to advanced degrees. When Chasson Randle chose Stanford over Illinois, it wasn’t because he wanted to inconvenience his parents, Gwen and Willie, from seeing him play college ball in person. It’s because Chasson already knew he’d want to go to medical school when basketball was over.

Because Chasson graduated at the top of his class at Rock Island High School,  his family thought he could withstand a fiercely competitive academic environment. For those aspiring to a career in medicine, Stanford is better than Illinois. Sorry loyalists, it just is.

We don’t know what Mark wants from an academic standpoint, but we do know he’s thinking about it.

One thing that doesn’t matter re: Mark Smith is “coaches on the hot seat.” John Groce is a miracle removed from being gone. Tom Crean is being e-burned in e-effigy. Bruce Weber is doing enough to keep his job for another year at K-State, but since when did we take Bruce Weber seriously?

The uncertainty doesn’t end with coaches who lose too much. Smith acknowledged on Saturday that Duke got in the mix recently. But who’d be his coach at Duke? K will turn 70 next week, while he recovers from his second major back surgery. Jeff Capel already failed at the P5 level. Maybe Chris Collins is the successor? That means Duke and Northwestern are uncertain as well.

Kansas seems like the best bet for the Smith family. It’s not a horrible drive from Edwardsville, and Bill Self is not likely to be fired. If they have an open spot for him, it’s unlikely he could do worse. As with any & all blue blooded programs, they’ll have other options for his position. Competitive recruits are rarely dissuaded by this eternal truth.

Dave Leitao might be the surest choice Mark Smith has when it comes to basketball, for both PT & continuity purposes. DePaul has been terrible since Leitao departed his first stint. Tracy Webster was unable to revive it as interim coach.

Leitao failed at Virginia, now arguably the best program in the nation. So he’s not a sure bet, either.

Frankly, it’s weird to be Mark Smith the recruit, A year ago, he figured to be a starting pitcher, not a point guard. But if it weren’t for him, there’d be very little optimism available for Illini basketball fans.

Hope springs eternal, and Mark Smith won’t have the opportunity to sign an LOI until Spring, by which time all these coaching situations will be determined.

And now, here’s that Minnesota game in a nutshell:

 

Categories
Illini basketball

There’s a basketball game tomorrow

It’s #SocialMediaDay tomorrow at the #StateFarmCenter. The promotion is already sold out, so I guess it’s useless to tell you that buyers got four tickets plus a screen printed #Illini shirt with their own social media handle on the back. Traditional media were given their own version of the shirt, even old man #Tatelines.

Also on social media, @IlliniAthletics is encouraging fans to download #IlliniLights from their preferred app store.
It’s the same tool I raved about after the Purdue game. It seemed neat in Mackey Arena, perhaps because I mistakenly believed it to be original.

Then I saw it at the Crisler Center, and the thrill was gone. Now it’s just depressing. Illinois probably isn’t even third in introducing this gimmick. It’s just that I haven’t seen it elsewhere.
Illinois will also host the Cubs’ 2016 World Series Trophy on Saturday, allowing fans to come and be near it, two hours before tip-off. On Sunday, the first 250 WBB fans will get free pizza. One raffle winner will take a 40″ TV home.
In other words, anything to keep fans’ minds off of basketball.
Actually, Matt Bollant says his team is a lot better, so in WBB’s case, there’s basketball too.

The men face a Minnesota team that’s down on its luck and in need of a boost.
For some reason, The Minnesota game always represents a significant moment in any Illini season. I usually link to Tracy’s dagger three when writing about Minnesota games in the Groce era, but today I’m recalling the late winter of 2012, when Illinois played an offensive masterpiece for the first time in ages, and still ost at The Barn.
By that point, everybody knew Bruce Weber was toast.
As Illinois preps for another offensive explosion (more like the Iowa game than, say, any other game) most of the chatter surrounding the program has nothing to do with contest on the court, but rather who’ll be coaching the team next year.
Meanwhile, John Groce has updated the dates on the Illini Inspirational Ladder.

The perception of this program improves the farther you get away from it. In State College,  I met a lovely young couple who’d returned to campus specifically because they thought a match-up between the Nittany Lions and Illini would be a “good game.” Max had been an undergrad when Illinois was relevant. Melanie went to Va Tech so she probably still thinks of Illinois as a tournament team (albeit an overrated/ choke job tournament team).
 
It’s hard to say whether the players have thrown in the towel. They’d certainly tell you they haven’t, but these guys aren’t stupid.
Asked about it this afternoon, both Jalen Coleman-Lands and Malcolm Hill were somber in responding. But neither seemed depressed overall. Malcolm was his cheerful self, except when asked if he’s contemplating the end. To that, he demurred.


Anyway, there’s a game tomorrow. And although it might be too depressing to think about Illini basketball at the moment, I’d like to offer my experience in State College as a motivational tool.
Max and Melanie still think of Illini sports as good. Their own program has already recovered from the most horrific scandal imaginable. Things do get better, even when they seem completely broken.
After a couple drinks with them at the Allen Street Grill, I moseyed down to the basement bar, Zeno’s. I watched a band called Pure Cane Sugar while sass-talking barkeep Dave Staab told me what to drink, and refused to serve crap that I ordered just because it was local.  Fuck Yuengling’s.
This might seem irrelevant to Illini basketball, but it’s part of the experience. You visit college towns and drink with the locals.
And when your team is going nowhere, it’s nice to  know that beer is still looking out for you.
Categories
Illini basketball

The Option

During October’s open scrimmage, John Groce called a timeout so he could draw up a play. His Orange Team had the ball under the Blue Team’s basket. His goal was to get the ball inbounded, and possibly past the halfcourt timeline. Orange had a small lead, and little time remained on the game clock.

I was sitting close enough to hear his instructions.

Each player had three sets of potential play-action to remember. Jaylon Tate would inbound the ball, and the other four would respond to his choices.

If you’d seen this play from the catwalk at the Ubben & Corzine Complex, or if you’d watched it on TV, it would look like a ten foot pass from Tate (under the basket, near side) to Malcolm Hill (in the free throw lane). If you could hear the instructions that led to that ten foot pass, you might think the nation’s security were at stake, or that someone were performing emergency surgery, directed by a doctor over the phone.

In the following weeks, I began writing a column titled The Option. It sat in my drafts folder for the next few months.  I needed some additional evidence to support my Theory of John Groce. Saturday at Michigan, I got it.

On a similar inbounds play, Kipper Nichols stood at the far side low block, under the Illini basket. (i.e. farther from the TV cameras, closer to the team bench).  The ball was under the basket on the near side.

Kipper looked over his right shoulder and asked “do what?” His brow furrowed, his eyes skewed. If his words hadn’t made clear his confusion, everything about his expression and posture got the message across.

John Groce either didn’t hear him, or chose not to broadcast an explanation. A moment later, Maverick Morgan fielded the inbounds pass.

You’ve probably noticed that basketball, over the last three decades, became soccer.

Man-to-man defense became the helping/hedging/switching territorial responsibility regimen that you might call “zone defense” if that term were not already occupied.

On offense, simple set-plays, in which each of the five players has a specific duty, no longer exist. Whether it’s full-on Motion Offense, or the varietal preached by John Groce known as Flowgame, or the modern mutation still called “set-play” which directs players to read-and-react; today’s strategy must be described like computer programming’s “if this, then that” language.

It’s become The Option.

That John Groce is respected throughout the coaching community might seem counterintuitive when acknowledging that John Groce has failed at Illinois. But it makes perfect sense if you knew why he’s failed.

Coaches understand Groce. They admire his “basketball mind.” Sometimes players understand him, too.

John Groce closed his practices to reliable reporters. Boatloads of people attended Illini practices since John Groce took over, just not objective observers.

If Brad Sturdy were allowed to watch practice, he might provide detailed reports on strategy. Brad is well conversant with basketball terminology. Most of his post-game questions concern formations. He keeps track when the team switches from Pack Line to 1-3-1 zone defense.

Brad, as knowledgeable and kind as he is, is not a reliable source for determining Groce’s ability to communicate concepts. For that, you’d need someone far less expert than Brad. Not necessarily a layperson, not a basketball novice. You’d want someone with a grasp of the game, but not an analyst’s understanding of concepts.

I asked Groce, on the day he was hired, whether he’d allow media to observe practice. He said no. It’s a teaching environment, he explained.

One infers that Groce intended to protect his players from embarrassment and ridicule.  As it happens,  his players are embarrassed and ridiculed routinely these days, and most people blame that on John Groce.

Frankly, everyone lacks a reputable source to explain the problem. What is John Groce doing wrong? You’ll never know.

But watching Bruce Weber’s practices taught me that Jerrance Howard gave very clear, thorough instructions. I understood everything he wanted.

Weber was hard to follow, unless he was angry. Jay Price spoke in technical gobbledygook.

Wayne McClain repeated his concepts a lot, reinforcing them with body language.  Explaining single-single screen reads took him a long time, because he had to walk through each option a number of times, constantly quizzing the players on their understanding of the concept.

Wayne McClain explain.

That difference of style recalled to me a seminar in Law & Economics taught jointly by Tom Ulen and Russell Korobkin. Ulen stuck to a few general concepts, and repeatedly reinforced them with different viewpoints and examples. Korobkin didn’t have enough time to get across all he wanted to say about everything.

Ulen won a lot of teaching awards, and Korobkin is regarded as a brilliant “legal mind.” What’s more important to the student?

It’s the same with basketball, where the average LSAT score is immeasurably lower.

At an Illini media luncheon following autumn’s first week of basketball practice, Loren Tate told a story about his friend Lou Henson, New Mexico State’s Special Advisor to Aggie head coach Paul Weir.

Lou told Tate that he’d admonished Weir against overcoaching. I don’t remember the exact quote, but the idea came across clearly. Weir was trying to install too much system. Henson recognized that the players were getting bogged down with theory, and becoming confused.

John Groce’s strategies may be so complex that his team doesn’t fully grasp them until April, or next summer. He may be the greatest teacher in the history of basketball. But the lesson must be executed Wednesday at 8 p.m.

That’s the part that Groce (has probably explained and yet) can’t get across.

Private conversations divulge that people who’ve coached basketball  can’t understand Groce’s strategies. That’s the ultimate compliment, in a way. But it also fuels the suggestion that players don’t understand Groce’s strategies.

Coaches really do think John Groce is a master theoretician. That’s not the issue.

The other problem with this year’s Illinois team, recognized by everyone, is defensive intensity. There’s no sense of urgency.

At Michigan, Illinois ran into an inspired opponent. The Wolverines were lackadaisical on D when they came to Champaign. Assistant coach Billy Donlon lit a fire under them, and they played intense defense during the return game.

Illinois matched that intensity in the late stages of the game. Nichols was especially active in this respect. Because he was 94 feet from me at the time, I couldn’t see whether his recovery instincts matched his energy (i.e. whether he stayed aware of his primary coverage responsibility during help defense).

Combining these two factors (caring + knowing what to do) is the magic formula that’s eluded John Groce this year.

And then there’s his reluctance to interfere with old habits.

Sam McLaurin still says Groce is the best coach he ever had. But Sam is an intellectual, and had already obtained a college degree when he found himself under Groce’s tutelage.

When he visited Champaign a couple weeks ago, Sam was exasperated by growing hostility in the fanbase. He said Groce was obviously going to be successful somewhere. I agreed with him, and not just to be polite. I think Groce will be successful somewhere.

It’s year five, and all the data tells us that place will not be Champaign, Illinois. Maybe it’s the professional level, where guys as mature and intelligent as Sam will follow Groce’s theories from the perspective of fellow experts.

If Groce wants to right this ship, however, he might need to follow Weber’s ill-fated example.

When he realized his job was on the line, Weber scrapped all his grand notions of theoretical basketball. He later described it as “coaching not to lose.” Instead of running motion offense, he ran orchestrated (and still fairly complicated) sets before finally devolving to the most basic, essential offense.

“Ball screen, Joe!” he’d yell.

Three Illini then moved to the wings while one ran to the top of the key to set a pick. The goal was to isolate Joseph Bertrand for a one-on-one offensive improvisation. It worked a lot, as do Malcolm Hill’s isolation plays.

Can Groce set a fire under his players, like Donlan? All signs point to “no.”

Should Groce coach “not to lose?” Probably. It might help him to not lose, which is crucial if he wants to stay in Champaign.

But does he?

The smart career move for Groce, Thad Matta, Tom Crean and Tim Miles — the four B1G coaches “on the hot seat” — would be to begin surreptitious negotiations with Missouri, whose desperation knows no financial constraints.  A fresh start and a five-year contract for $10 million sounds lovely when you’re being run out of dodge.

Categories
Illini football

Losing at Purdue – A History

Let’s take a trip down memory lane as we prepare for tomorrow’s loss at Purdue.

First up is the Bruce Weber Explains Losing At Purdue postgame video that everyone always forgets. The February 2012 video went viral after Weber pined for Robbie Hummel fours years after completely ignoring eager recruit Robbie Hummel.

But this was the game that exposed Weber. Illinois jumped out to a 13-point advantage, with Demetri McCamey leading the way. But then McCamey picked up his second foul. Weber, the hideboundest of hidebound coaches, sat McCamey for the duration of the half. And that was that.

Can a struggling Illini team conquer Matt Painter’s current Jekyll & Hyde?

Oh yeah, definitely.

First off, Isaac Haas sucks. He’s just an awful lummox. And while Caleb Swanigan is double-double machine, his team still finds ways to lose despite him. Against Minnesota he went for 28 & 22, and the Boilers still lost, at home, to Little Pitino.

But Painter is familiar with The Halftime Adjustment, and this would seem to give him an advantage over John Groce.

That’s not to say that Groce doesn’t make adjustments.

Anyway, here’s what the players had to say about Tuesday’s game. Michael Finke was getting his ankle wrapped. But we did get to speak with four other Illini.





Categories
Illini basketball

Woe is John Groce

Five years ago, as Bruce Weber drove the final nails into the coffin of Illini basketball, I began writing his obituary for Smile Politely magazine.

Close wins over Cornell and St. Bonaventure perplexed & disconcerted Illini fans. I’ve already written about writing about those games.  Twice.  At least. And the Nebraska game that followed.

Illinois won all those games. Those wins sealed Weber’s fate. Illini fans don’t care to watch close wins over ostensible patsies.

Today, I’d like to write about something else. Unfortunately, when your job is to write about Illini basketball, the plot line doesn’t change. Five years later, much to my chagrin, I’m still writing about Tracy Abrams barrelling into swarms of defenders.

Then.

Now.

I’m still writing about dropping attendance. I’m still writing about a team that scrapes past mid-major — okay, let’s be honest … minor — programs.

I’m writing about a basketball program that nobody reads about.

Maybe the college basketball landscape has shifted since the days when Big Ten teams didn’t lose to teams from conferences you’ve never heard of. Heck, the mighty Thad Matta lost to Florida Atlantic last night in Columbus! I don’t even know what conference they represent! (Oof, Google tells me it’s C-USA. How the momentarily mighty have fallen.)

Anyway, thing is, #WeWillWin doesn’t care to embrace this new reality, if it is, in fact, real.

#WeWillWin means, tautologically speaking, that we will win.

It means not only won’t we lose at home to Tennessee State and Miami (OH) and Winthrop. It means we will win.

It implies that our conference finishes will include 10+ victories. It suggests post-season relevance.

Meanwhile. John Groce retains a downright Zookian demeanor in the face of overwhelming ennui. “We’ll need to get that fixed” and “we need to take a look at that” remain favorite refrains in Groce’s fifty-eighth month of turning the program around.

The sense of dominance that you might expect at this point, in year five, has yet to be established. The sense of figuring things out prevails.

Tuesday night, Groce mused that the team could benefit from watching every minute of the debacle it had just vomited up in front of hundreds, nay thousands of fans (but nothing like the 10,536 claimed as official attendance).

What could a team expect to learn by watching 40 minutes of a game in which a 3-and-5 Summit League team nearly prevailed?

I don’t know, but I’ll bet it’s nothing like the lesson an undefeated conference contender could learn from a 25-point win over the same opponent, even though the walk-ons played the final five minutes.

With another Groce-ism, the current coach reminded a small media contingent that coaches prefer practice and players prefer games.

Groce has seen the Assembly Hall cum State Farm Center media room packed with content producers.

More often, and more recently, he’s dealt with a small and familiar group whose audience is either small and passionate (online mostly) or probably not reading/watching.

That the local newspapers and TV stations still attend is not surprising. What else can they report to retain readers/viewers? In this town, it’s Illini sports, Urbana shootings and weather — in reverse order — that keep people interested.

John Groce was hired on the strength of a recruiting reputation earned at Ohio State. He was hailed as a Matta protégé.

Groce himself has been consistent in telling us that he’s a disciple of Todd Lickliter and Paul Patterson, his high school and (irrelevant NAIA) college coaches.

You haven’t even heard of Paul Patterson, and you know what happened to Todd Lickliter. Those two may be great basketball minds. That’s true of John Groce as well. And you too!

None of you has proven an ability to lead a high-major basketball program.

Some people think The Notorious UIC was the nadir of Illini basketball. But that team advanced to the tourney.  The UIC game was six years ago. The December 2011 game at United Center was UNLV, which wiped the floor with Weber’s last team as disgruntled Illini fans (people who, in the past, showed up for games in Chicago) lustily booed the head coach.

Gavin Schilling and Cliff Alexander were just two of the recruits on hand that day. None of them ever played for Illinois.

Will this Illinois team mirror the 2011 Illini (20-14, 9-9) whose seniors were just mediocre enough to trip into the dance? Will they completely fall apart, like the next year’s team (17-15, 6-12)?

Right now, it looks like neither. This team resembles the 2010 Illini. There’s the veteran point guard whose performance has never quite equaled his expectations and potential. There are a bunch of big men, a couple of whom can shoot really well, but often seem dominated inside. There’s the power forward who’s a rebounding fool with a great midrange game.

2010 was the last Illini team to earn a winning record in conference (10-8). They looked good against weaker opponents, and fared well against good competition when they shot well.

They were absolutely slaughtered by quicker teams. Remember the Dayton game in the NIT? Yikes.

I’ve written critically of John Groce’s inability to transcend his inescapably John Grocey tendencies for roughly three years now.

It’s possible that this year’s team will return John Groce to the NCAA. Maybe Kipper Nichols will be the Bizarro Alex Legion. But it’s frightening, when reading the fandom online, to realize that a lot of people are expecting Kipper Nichols to be the Bizarro Alex Legion.  Nichols is fast becoming the back-up QB legend for all-time among Illini fans who

  1. are capable of typing
  2. have access to the Internet
  3. have never seen him play, not once, ever

i.e. they expect Kipper Nichols to step in and take over this team, once he gains eligibility in ten days.

Even if he seems more acclimated to Groce’s unnecessarily complex schemes than he did two months ago in practice, Nichols will still be playing his first-ever college games, undersized at the position Groce requires him to play, and not considered by the staff to be a sufficiently good shooter to play his natural position.

As of last night, this team doesn’t appear to be John Groce’s redemption.  Groce doesn’t blame the players the way Weber did.  But Weber’s behavior only made him more vile, and easy to blame/fire.

Groce has yet to reach the players with his message, whatever that is. He’s still working on it, in that Zookian way.

There will come a day when Groce gets that message across. Or, there will come a day when the plug is pulled on “we’ll need to get that fixed” and “we need to take a look at that.”

NOTE

For the first time in ever, none of Malcolm’s mom, Aaron’s dad or DJ’s family attended an Illini game.

Categories
Illini basketball

Stall Ball: It still doesn’t work

Winthrop wasn’t great. Illinois should have won.

Lots of guys played poorly, for each team. But everything about this game favored the littlest guy on the court.

Keon Johnson is physically unable to violate the new cylinder rule. At 5’4″, he’s simply incapable of fouling a typical college player above the waist.

Referee Kelly Pfeifer set the tone with a lot of early whistles. After three consecutive calls, Pfeifer seemed to recognize that he should, maybe, take a break. He was on the verge of becoming the story of the game.

Terry Oglesby, perhaps sensing that Pfeifer shouldn’t be the only official to use his whistle, ramped up his whistling game.

Big guys were disproportionately affected, and Illinois’ height advantage disappeared when Maverick Morgan went to the bench with two early fouls.

Leron Black entered the game, rusty, and picked up two of his own. Same with Mike Thorne.

Contrast Johnson, by far the most aggressive player on the court. He finished the first half with 15 points and a single foul. He earned another in the second half.

Still, Illinois should have won. But as the clock ran toward expiry, John Groce ordered his team to take its collective foot off the gas.

That never works.

STALL BALL

My first memory of Illini basketball features no players, no live action. It was a criticism, spoken by a disgruntled fan. And then another one. And then I remember my dad saying the same thing.

Being a tot, I interpreted the criticism literally. They were tired of Lou Henson’s “letting the air out of the ball.” I remembered it because it seemed absurd, not as a strategy, but as a literal interpretation. How could Henson get away with it, I thought? Wouldn’t somebody notice?

Today, the strategy still seems absurd. When a team gains a lead in a game, it’s done something right, right? Whatever the game plan, it worked.

So why stop doing it?

John Groce is my age, so he ought to know that “stall ball” is a bad idea. But Groce is a numbers guy, so there must be a data set that tells him to run down the shot clock, then heave a desperation shot once the defense locks down.

Bruce Weber employed the same terrible strategy, and it was a significant factor in his demise.

Up by ten points with less than four minutes to go, eating clock seemed like a good idea to John Groce. One team needed to score, and did so with a sense of urgency. The other team dribbled a lot.

In the final 2:43, the urgent team scored ten points and took over the game’s momentum. An already small crowd groaned. They’ve seen this scenario play out many times in their collective lives. Even when the stalling team wins, the game becomes closer, more tense. Fans don’t enjoy it.

“Stall Ball” wasn’t always an awful idea. Before the introduction of the shot clock, it worked well for teams who knew how to run it. Dean Smith’s Carolina Tarheels were the best. They called it “the Four Corners.”

You’ll notice that Phil Ford threatened to drive to the basket. He didn’t just stand there, dribbling.  When the defense gave him an open look, he took it.

Monday night will be remembered for a long time. Keon Johnson’s performance was amazing. So was the Illinois collapse. If the Groce era ends in the next sixteen months, the Winthrop game will be a talking point.

Player rotations, a frequent topic among Groce’s most outspoken critics, will be an issue. On Monday, Te’Jon Lucas did not play and D.J. Williams got three minutes.  Malcolm Hill played 39, and connected on 0-of-10 two-pointers. Was he fatigued?

Jaylon Tate chased Keon Johnson around all night, but Lucas might have been able to help hold Johnson to 15-of-21 shooting. Frankly, no one could stop Johnson. His game is incomprehensible to major college basketball players, because they never experience a 5’4″ spark plug.

Instead of Lucas, Groce employed Jalen Coleman-Lands, where dead balls allowed, as an offense-for-defense substitute for Tate. Groce did so even when Keon Johnson curled up in a heap, with a leg cramp.

JCL was pretty scrappy in the endgame, BTW.

Everybody involved with Illini basketball had an off-night. John Groce’s was the offest.

 

 

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

Relax

The Illini men lost a season opener for the first time this century. Don’t worry about it. It just doesn’t matter.

Illinois found its on-court leader Friday night. And then it lost him. Worry about that, until a favorable prognosis is announced.

“AJ, get the fuck in the game” yelled Jaylon Tate to freshman Aaron Jordan, as the latter’s defensive lapses allowed North Florida to grab an early lead.

Tate is a beloved character on the team. Light-hearted, smart and wickedly funny. But he’s not a jokester about execution. Jordan and Jalen Coleman-Lands spent much of Friday out-of-position on defense. That’s not the reason Illinois lost. It was freshmen being freshmen.  In this case, the freshmen played their first game versus an NCAA tournament team of upperclassmen who played the game of their lives.

It happens.

On the drive to Springfield last week, Matt Campbell asked me to describe Mike Thorne’s game. Like a lot of Illini fans, he’s stopped paying year-round attention.

“He’ll shoot about 53% from the floor this year,” I told him. “He’ll miss 47% of his 2-to-3 footers,  so I think a lot of fans will find it maddening to watch him, because he’ll miss so many bunnies, and he refuses to use the backboard. But he’s got really quick feet.”

On Friday, “Big Bo” connected on 52% of his bunnies, and 3-of-8 free throws.  This will be your constant for the 2015-16 season. Everything else is subject to change.

John Groce scheduled this season as a precisely tuned entreaty to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. He knew North Florida, North Dakota State and Chattanooga would boost his team’s RPI.

He didn’t know he’d be starting freshmen, and giving significant minutes to a walk-on.

“I’m not gonna sit here and tell ya that I thought Abrams, Black, Nunn … and Jaylon Tate would play half the game. I’d be lying if I said that to you.”

If those guys were all available, this team would still be behind Northern Florida. The Ospreys have chemistry. They’ve been together for a while. The Illini are all newcomers. Malcolm Hill is a newcomer to everyone he’s playing with (now that Jaylon Tate is gone).

This Illini team needs time to assimilate team defense. “Man-to-man” principles don’t apply in the John Groce era (nor Bruce Weber before him). It’s now about helping & hedging in the Pack-Line. Or it’s two-three zone. They’re both zone defenses, in traditional terms. And most Illini newcomers (and most Illini are newcomers) don’t get it yet.

But even if Aaron Jordan and Jalen Coleman-Lands had done everything right, defensively, on Friday; it just wouldn’t matter. Because all the really good-looking girls would still go out with guys from Mohawk because they’ve got all the money.

The Ospreys hit 52% from three. Their 6’8″ shooting guard/slasher hit 7-of-8 from deep. You can’t blame yourself for that kind of performance.

When Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale pulled a similar stunt on Bo Ryan, at Kohl in 2010, Wisconsin’s coaching legend was unruffled and unconcerned. There’s nothing you can do when a team drops threes from that distance, and that rate. (I write about this all the time, often referencing Illini anomalies versus Bo. Dee Champaign 2005, McBride 2006 and Jack @ Kohl 2005 are the other examples.)

You can blame yourself for Dallas Moore’s continual forays into the paint. The Illini haven’t figured out help defense.  There was no Sam McLaurin to shift into Victor Oladipo’s path to the basket. Maverick Morgan performed this role in the second half, but the game was already out of reach.

Groce gets a pass on all of this. Recruiting is not on the level we were promised. But this spate of injuries is unprecedented. If memory serves, you’ll know this author doesn’t go easy on coaches who deserve criticism.