Illini basketball

It’s not the end of the world. That’s next week.

People don’t click links after losses. They don’t want to re-live the sorrow.

So I’ll just mention a couple of things you might not have known from watching the Michigan State game on TV. And if you learn something worthwhile, you can tell your friends. This article features no traumatic rehashing of what might have been.

Jaylon Tate played Sunday’s game with a 100°+ fever. It was higher Sunday morning, and higher still on Saturday. There was a contingency plan to have him hospitalized if the medical staff hadn’t been able to bring it down. So it’s surprising that he played at all, and astonishing that he played a full 19 minutes.

It’s not surprising that Jaylon missed all his shots from the floor, failed to assist a single bucket, and committed four fouls. But Illinois didn’t lose because of Jaylon. They lost for the simplest of basketball reasons: Ball not go in bucket.

Open this image in a new tab to see Malcolm Hill’s pained expression at missing yet another shot.

Illinois shot <29% from the floor.

It happens.

You move on. Ideally to a post-season tournament that begins with N but does not end with T.


I’d wager you’ve seen the last of the pre-game fireworks. They left a terrible amount of smoke in the arena, for the Indiana and Michigan games. The DIA recognized as much.

The DIA then consulted with the pyrotechnicians in charge, and changed the combination of explosives. So this time, the smoke went straight up to the catwalk.

But then, about five minutes into the game, it descended into the arena. By that point, I’d already congratulated Mike Thomas on the smoke fix. At halftime, I asked his wife Jeni to retract the compliment.

Hey, they tried.


I spied Bruce Douglas, Doug Altenberger and Anthony Welch in attendance on Sunday. I assumed there must be some kind of reunion.

During Tuesday’s Hall of Fame nomination press conference, Lou Henson was asked about the Flyin’ Illini. That makes sense. They were his Final Four team at Illinois. (He had one at New Mexico State, as well.)

Lou chose to speak about his 1984 team, instead. He thought that team had a shot at a national championship. And of course, they did. They got jobbed at Kentucky, which forced the NCAA to change its entire tournament, eliminating home court advantage. (Illinois more recently prompted the video review policy in the tourney, after getting jobbed in Austin, TX.)

I recently discovered a full 1984 Illini game on YouTube. They beat Len Bias and Maryland in the Sweet Sixteen. Those were the days, yo.

I tried to find out about future NCAA plans for YouTube distribution.  Last week’s game at Wisconsin, for example, went up immediately, because it’s a CBS property. (CBS and NCAA are thick as thieves, as you know.)

Would other Illini games follow?

NCAA media specialist Cameron Schuh referred me to NCAA specialerist Nate Flannery, who asked me which game I was talking about, and whether I could share a link. Then he asked me for a link to the Wisconsin game I’d referenced. I haven’t heard from him since. So I suggest you EagleGet those games before something happens to them. (UPDATE: as of Monday noon, Flannery responds that the NCAA does not control the above linked YouTube channel. He did not yet respond to my query about future plans for distribution of full game videos.)

Welch said there was no reunion, just coincidence. He added that he came to see a great basketball game, noting that he’s a Michigan native (Grand Rapids).

Larry Smith and Kenny Battle sat together for a second consecutive game. Afterward, they visited with Byron Irvin, of the Irvin Family. Mac Irvin Fire coach Mike Irvin was also expected for the MSU game, but I didn’t actually see him.


After dispatching his media responsibilities, Tom Izzo hung out in the #SFC tunnel, visiting with Paris Parham and a handful of non-coaching persons. Michigan State continues to offer the only open locker room in the Big Ten, and Izzo himself is accessible, and personable.

He was thankful (i.e. he said thanks) when I asked about his 2012-era support of Bruce Weber, and whether he’s stayed in touch with Weber during this most recent trying time (Kansas State is now 13-15 on the year).


That super annoying whoop-whoop sound you heard as Illinois shot free-throws? Kinda like a cartoon parody of an American Indian war call? That was Gavin Schilling’s mom, Lisa.

I complained about it to my fellow cesspoolers while watching MSU @ Michigan on Tuesday. It was so annoying I had to mute the TV. When I heard it at #SFC, I realized it was coming from the MSU family section. From that point, I kept an eye on them. And despite the fact that I sit at the opposite end of the court, I recognized Lisa. I met her when Jay Price brought Gavin for an unofficial visit.

This visit may have been overlooked because it occurred on the same day Mike LaTulip verballed to Illinois. I broke that story, and it seemed to cause some amount of sensation. But the REALLY astounding thing about that day (and the article it produced) is that there are multiple pictures of Jalen Coleman-Lands sitting with Jerrance Howard, Gavin Schilling, Mike LaTulip, Mike Shaw, etc.

I had no idea.

I didn’t even ask for Jalen’s name that day, because he was obviously very young.  (I don’t pick on  recruits before junior year, unless they’re presented to me by the people who want to publicize them.*) So I have only now, by searching for that article, discovered that Price had him on campus as well. Bravo Jay Price.

Anyway, I remembered really liking Lisa. She was a strong woman, smart and determined. I told Jason Lener as much when I recommended that she be banned from the State Farm Center.

I didn’t find the sound nearly as annoying on Sunday, in person. I know where the visiting families sit at Crisler Arena, so I suspect Lisa was directly behind ESPN’s play-by-play and color team. Their microphones amplified the experience.

Still, it was pretty annoying.

I hope Lisa and I can remain friends, even though I recommended her banishment. I expect we can. After all, I’m great friends with Kathi LaTulip, whatever the Internet thinks.

*I’ll never forget the time Kevin Farrell Sr.  persuaded me to take a picture of his son. I had no idea who “Yogi” was. I’m pretty obtuse about these things, frankly.

Illini basketball

Psychological Warfare: Purdue’s mastery of Illini basketball

The Purdue Boilermakers are still the winningest program in B1G basketball history. Their most recent conference championship came five years ago.

Illinois hasn’t won a championship in ten years. And in that time, Purdue holds a 12-5 advantage over the Illini. Two of those wins came the Big Ten Tournament. Two came in the 2009 regular season. Since then, Purdue has won 9-of-10.

During that onslaught, Matt Painter drove his mentor Bruce Weber out of a job. Weber’s most notorious player-trashing came after losing to Purdue. That’s when Weber said he’d failed to build a culture at Illinois, and instead coached “not to lose.”

It was hard to decipher the substance of that distinction, but that’s Weber all over. His meaning was never clear, but you could generally infer that he was insulting someone. (FWIW, I’ve always preferred the subtler player-trashing Weber performed after the Northwestern loss in 2010.)

Weber was never good at explaining things, which is — whatever he believes — the actual reason he failed at Illinois.

Matt Painter is very good at explaining things. Among conference coaches, he’s a top communicator. (Thad Matta is right there, as is Fran McCaffery.) Listening to Painter speak, one gleans the modus operandi, the Keady Tree philosophy.  It’s what Weber could never express through vagueries and colloquy, or outright dodges. (Seriously, who was it that invented the “Weber is too honest” narrative? That’s nonsense.)

Right now, January 2015, is a fascinating time to analyze Matt Painter’s coaching style, from an Illini perspective.  He hasn’t been successful recently, but he’s been more successful than John Groce when the two go head-to-head. Their philosophies on player development may be exactly the same, or totally different. It’s harder to tell why Groce doles out PT the way he does, or rewards individual players for performance based on one set of metrics (e.g. rebounds) while not penalizing for another set (e.g. field goal percentage).

Painter talked about yanking his young guys during both Monday’s B1G teleconference and his own pre-Illinois teleconference on Tuesday. You can infer that Weber shares  this philosophy, if not the ability to express it.

This year at Kansas State, Weber stanched a slide that could easily have seen him canned in March, and he did it by sticking to his principles. He’s “building a culture of toughness” rather than “coaching not to lose.” That’s bad news for fans of entertaining basketball, because it suggests 58-57 grudge matches might ugly the game for years to come.

As for his mastery over Illinois, Painter spoke Tuesday about the psychological weapons he’s deployed over the years. The most obvious one, it turns out, was unintentional.  Painter said his staff did not intentionally not guard Chester Frazier.

Painter acknowledged (and perhaps wistfully pined for) Lewis Jackson’s mental ownership of Illini guards, a key factor in establishing the 9-outta-10 streak.

Painter also acknowledged the key factor for beating Illinois this year, but did not say whether it’s something an Illini opponent can effect or control. For Illini fans, it’s obvious: Make sure Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby have one of their 1-for-9 shooting nights, rather than one of their 5-for-7 shooting nights.

You can bet that Purdue’s staff is crunching video right now, trying to determine whether any defensive actions prompt these offensive reactions, one way or the other.

But as of Tuesday morning, Painter did not have an immediate response to the question of how to beat Illinois psychologically. And it’s not because he isn’t a straight-shooter.

(For context, understand the format of Boiler teleconferences: Painter calls out the names of all the people on the line, in order, and then answers all of each individual’s questions in a row before moving on to the next person.)

Cosby is more typical, from a sports psychology perspective, than Starks. Cosby said after the Northwestern game that he tried to keep his head up during his shooting slump. He credited the Illini coaching staff for insisting that he keep firing away.

Starks is an unusual character, from a sports psychology standpoint. He’s a little guy, and a loner. He’s quiet and introspective. Although probably kind to small, defenseless animals; Starks will ruthlessly attack you on a basketball court. And despite a number of statistically terrible games this year; he doesn’t need a coaching staff to buck him up. He’ll keep attacking as long as he’s on the court.

It’s for this reason that Starks is much more dangerous to the Boilermakers. They’re an unusually tall team. Starks is the mouse to their elephant. And worse for Painter, Starks seems invulnerable to mental antagonism.

Whether you prefer John Groce’s demanding without demeaning, or Painter’s short leash for underclassmen who haven’t earned the right to make mistakes, both philosophies are more comprehensible than anything Bruce Weber ever expressed.

What’s odd is that Painter will tell you what he’s doing. He shows his cards. But he still finds a way to outmaneuver Illinois, psychologically.

As Bobby Knight once said, “I’m fuckin’ tired of losing to Purdue.”

Illini basketball

Year Three: A History of Illini Basketball Coaches

Shouldn’t John Groce have captured a conference title by now? Why didn’t he sign five McDonald’s All-Americans in November?

It’s YEAR THREE for chrissakes! Is Illini Basketball in the wrong hands?

For perspective, let’s look at Year Three for every man who’s ever led the program. There are nine of them who made it to a third year.

  1. Ralph Jones
  2. J. Craig Ruby
  3. Doug Mills
  4. Harry Combes
  5. Harv Schmidt
  6. Lou Henson
  7. Lon Kruger
  8. Bill Self
  9. Bruce Weber

Who had the best Year Three?

That’s easy: Ralph Jones won Illinois’ only National Championship, going undefeated in his third year at the helm. That was 1915. James Naismith lived for another 24 years.

The Illini beat Purdue 27-to-8 that year. They trounced Indiana 20-to-4 in Bloomington. Whether you’d recognize those contests as basketball is questionable.

After 14 years in Champaign, Jones left for Lake Forest Academy. He also coached the Chicago Bears to an NFL Championship.

Who was average in Year Three?

Craig Ruby’s 14 years (1922-36) were still pretty early on in the game’s history. For what it’s worth, his second and second-to-last teams won the Big Ten. His third team finished 11-6 (8-4).

Doug Mills won the Big Ten in his first year. The 1936-37 season featured Harry Combes at forward. Combes then graduated, and Mills’s second year was his worst. That team finished 9-9 (4-8) even with Lou Boudreau as captain.

Mills won two more conference championships (1942, 1943). Year Three was a solid foundation for that rebuild. Mills’s third team finished 14-5 (8-4).

Harry Combes returned as head coach, succeeding Mills. He led the Illini to Final Fours in Year Two, Year Four and Year Five. Each of those teams finished with a top-5 ranking and five or fewer losses.

In Year Three, Combes’s team did not make the playoffs. They finished 14-8.

Harv Schmidt’s second team was his best, finishing 19-5 and ranked #20. His third team had a winning record of 15-9. The next year they finished below .500.

Schmidt’s last three teams were 14-10, 14-10 and 5-18.

Who had the worst Year Three?

That’s debatable. Lon Kruger’s and Lou Henson’s worst teams were Year Three, and they were pretty bad. Bill Self’s third team was pretty good, but arguably his worst.

The Self-analysis is somewhat subjective. 2002’s team won a share of the B1G Championship and made the Sweet Sixteen. The 2003 team achieved neither plateau, but won the B1G Tourament. They had fewer wins and fewer losses. The 2002 team faced three top-ten teams in the pre-conference season. The 2003 squad faced two top-20 teams in the pre-conference. 2002 lost 2-of-3. 2003 won both.

No matter how you slice it, Bill Self did best with Lon Kruger’s recruits. In his third year, he had legendary stars in place. But they were young. They were learning. Their best years were ahead of them. They didn’t advance to the second weekend of the NCAAs.

You’ll remember Kruger’s 3-13 B1G cellar-dwellers making a run to the BTT championship game, before Mo Pete and Mateen Cleaves slapped a sense of reality into them.

Nobody blamed Kruger for a lousy year. He’d won a championship in 1998 with Henson’s players. He had big name recruits coming in.

Lou Henson’s third team beat Bobby Knight’s 11th ranked Hoosiers, in Bloomington. The old saying for Ohio State football fans goes like this: “You can go winless all year, and then beat Michigan. That’s a good season.” It wasn’t a good season. Illinois finished 13-14 (7-11). Only the liar/cheater Bruce Pearl could produce a worse season, statistically speaking, for Henson. The 1992 Illini finished 13-15 (7-11) in the wake of Pearl’s storytelling.

Henson’s tenure is instructive. He’s talked about his first year on the job, when he and Tony Yates, Les Wothke and Mark Coomes canvassed the state, meeting with all the high school coaches who’d give them the time, and building relationships. Coomes moved on for a while, Mark Bial and Bill Molinari filled his spot as Yates and Wothke continued to make a case with recruits.

Despite all that legwork, Henson’s first three teams were lousy. 14-13 (7-11) in 1976, 16-14 (8-10) in 1977, and the awful Year Three.

His fourth team was undefeated, and had just beat the top-ranked eventual National Champion, when it lost its point guard. That team, minus Steve Lanter, was bad.

In Year Six, Henson had Derek Harper at the point. Eddie Johnson, Mark Smith and Derek Holcomb were seniors. That team made the NCAA tournament, beat Wyoming, and lost to Kansas State.

If social media existed in 1981, what would it have said of Lou Henson? His teams hovered around .500 for the fist three years, seemed great before collapsing in year four, made the NIT in year five, and then one-and-done in the tournament with two future NBA veterans in the line-up.

The next year, it was back to the NIT.

From a 2015 perspective, you’ve got to assume that Illinois Athletic Director Neale Stoner has seen enough at this point. He’s not the guy who hired Henson. He’s got a third year winner building the football program into a national powerhouse.

But Stoner, in 1982, knew what everyone knows today, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee & The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He knew who was coming in. Henson began landing top recruits from the time he arrived, but it wasn’t until his 6th or 7th year that recruiting became an unstoppable machine. That’s comparable to Groce’s early-going. Leron Black and Kendrick Nunn were the first high-profile recruits, but they weren’t surrounded by five-stars at all other positions.

When Henson finally got the engine firing on all cylinders, Illini basketball went on a 25-year Glory Daze. The Pearl Years and the post-Henson recruiting lag (Kruger’s Year Three) were the low points. Otherwise the Illini contended for championships and top recruits from 1984 through 2006, which was Bruce Weber’s Year Three.

Year Three is when Bruce Weber was exposed. Stunningly, he was allowed to tank the program for another six seasons. Year Three should have been all we needed to know.

Retaining Dee Brown, James Augustine, Warren Carter and Brian Randle from Bill Self’s recruiting efforts; Weber fielded a fairly good group in 2006. But the offense looked awful. The ball movement, which prompted gushing from John Wooden a year earlier, stagnated.  Dee spent most of 2006 dribbling, and then chucking a three-pointer as the shot clock expired.

When Dee was able to pass the ball, we saw Augustine burying jumpers from the short corner. Augustine didn’t shoot jumpers in his previous two years under Weber. Why not? Because he played the 5 in those years. Shaun Pruitt played the 5 in 2006, and Augustine played the 4. It was a rigid system, no matter what people say about the “freedom” that motion offense allows, in theory.

Weber’s rigidity gave way after the school record 19-loss season of 2008, his Year Five. Recruiting priorities changed. Weber played Mike Tisdale at the 5, but allowed him to shoot from deep.

John Groce’s Year Three seems unlikely to finish well.  His teams improve by March, but March is too late for Selection Committee purposes. As the losses accumulate, social media will grow increasingly impatient with Groce. His first three years are Henson-esque, but in a different era.

What does John Groce make of the Year Three doldrums? I asked him:


I want to talk about Year Three as a concept, because I’m looking at the record book and I see that Lon Kruger’s worst year was Year Three. Lou Henson’s worst year was Year Three. Arguably Bill Self too.




So just in general, what is it about the third year of program building, class balance, whatever, that makes the third year a challenge?


I don’t know, Rob.  That’s interesting. I think that’s pretty insightful.

You know, I don’t know. I heard Urban Meyer say the other day after the national semi-final that he thought this year might be a “void” year. I don’t know if I thought — from that standpoint — that I thought that.

I thought last year — I kinda knew when I took the job that we were going to be very new & young in our second year, and we were going to be a work-in-progress.

All of us as coaches, we want to be … we tend to be impatient. And want things now

But you know, for “Year Three,” I don’t know. I don’t know what that common denominator would be. Whether that just happens to be a pattern, or whether that just happens to be an outlier for us in our program’s development and growth. You know I do think we can play better than we’re playing right now. I do think we have a lot of veteran guys. But we have got to connect the dots. We have got to be more connected than what we are right now, as a group, at both ends of the floor.

But that’s interesting. I would not have known that had you not stated that.


Does it make you feel any better to know that?


Not really.

But it should.

And what about Illini fans? Should they feel relieved to know the history of Year Three? Well, sports fans are not the most rational bunch. But while they’re gathering their ropes, tar and feathers; maybe they’ll be relieved to remember what Kruger accomplished in Year Five (i.e. Bill Self first season). Maybe they’ll be relieved to remember what Self accomplished in Year Five (i.e. Bruce Weber’s second season).

Maybe they’ll recall what Henson built by the middle of Year Four, before Steve Lanter blew his knee out.

And there’s another lesson from the past, one that all Illini fans (and coaches) should keep in mind: Even the best teams can’t win with wings alone. Every team needs a point guard.



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.


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.


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.