Illini basketball

The Insider View

John Groce’s Coaches Clinic christened 150 new “insiders” over a 27 hour period this Friday and Saturday. Some of them will certainly turn up on message boards, giving you “inside” information.

I got to see the Saturday portion featuring Jeff Van Gundy, and an Illini practice.

This was my second “insider” opportunity in the last six weeks. The best ever glimpse inside the program received 4,000 fewer hits than, for example, a video of Jalen Brunson disinterestedly mouthing his way through Hail to the Orange. It might be that people thought The Women’s Clinic was about women’s basketball, or women’s clinics. It’s not. It’s a peek inside John Groce’s program, and you should check it out if you’re interested in Illini basketball, which you are.

Van Gundy had never visited Champaign before. When asked about it, he demonstrated an ability to say nice things, while also revealing his inner hipster, by beginning a sentence with the word “so.”

So when I flew in last night from Chicago, I couldn’t believe that you get into an airport and be so close to such a beautiful campus. I’m just thrilled to be at another world class institution. I love going to colleges and seeing different ones.

I do like watching college basketball, not necessarily for the players coming up, but also to see what the coaches there are now doing differently . The game is continuously evolving and changing. Pick-and-roll coverages are different.  The amount of three-point shots that are being shot (is) growing and growing. (I) watch teams, how they try to defend it, how they try to get high-quality threes. Very, very fun.


I watched practice for the first time today, and I think when you watch a game you see passion, energy. But I think you don’t know until you actually watch a guy work is what a great teacher of the game (he is). I was really impressed with the quality of the guys he had focused, intense. And then his teaching was both upbeat & positive, but at the same time very demanding. And as a teacher, I think that’s what makes you special. Caring & compassionate, yes, but also very demanding. And he combines those extremely well.


My brother did it a couple of years ago. So Stan … John brought him in. And he (Stan) told me how much he enjoyed not only John, but the whole experience. So when John called, I was more than happy to. And it’s good for me, too, because if you’re out of coaching, you get rusty teaching. And so it makes you go through the fundamentals of teaching as well.


First of all, I don’t even think of myself like that. I’m just talking, like, off-the-cuff. Sometimes I don’t even listen to what I’m saying. So it’s like, when people say “that was stupid, what you said” I’m sayin’ “man … probably. Yeah, it could be.”

Jeff Van Gundy is an ideas guy in an industry where paradigms are nearly impossible to kill. Phil Jackson was an ideas guy, too. So was Tex Winter. You’d think their success would inspire more coaches to be open to ideas. But a lot of people in the coaching profession prefer to keep their thinkin’ right inside that box.

John Groce says he learns something from every coach he invites to his clinics, and often employs those lessons in tweaking his own system. By the second of Saturday’s two practices, Groce had already inserted something gleaned from Van Gundy during the day.

Van Gundy tried to instill a new way of thinking about rebounding & transition defense. He said coaches should identify good rebounders among their team, and have those individuals crash the boards, no matter their position (1 through 5). If you’ve got a great-rebounding point guard, figure out which wings and bigs are not as efficient on the boards, and let them be the ones to hustle back for transition defense.

That’s a super-intriguing proposition for the 2015 Illini, because they do have a great rebounding point guard, and he is tiny. Ahmad Starks won the Augustine Jersey last year, despite being unable to compete for offensive rebounds.

The Augustine Jersey is awarded to the best rebounder in any given Illini practice. On Saturday, Malcolm Hill was wearing it. Since practices began a couple of weeks ago, Leron Black has been the most frequent Augustine Jersey wearer. Nnanna Egwu has had it the second most.

Nnanna is perplexion incarnate where rebounding is concerned. Sometimes he grabs a dozen in a game, and sometimes one or two. To some extent, that’s because he’s blocking his man so a teammate can grab the rebound.

It’s hard to imagine Groce swapping Egwu and Starks on offensive rebounding duties. On the other hand, Nnanna has the footspeed to get back on transition D. And Starks has the acrobatic gall to mix it up with the tall trees. To a man, his teammates marvel at Starks’s high-flying. His 5’9″ listing is a generous lie. But yes, Ahmad Starks dunks on fools.

So is this one of the ideas Groce will employ? I doubt it, but we’ll find out soon.

Van Gundy told the assembled coaches that “talking” on the floor is a psychological weapon.  When a defense verbally reacts to an offensive maneuver, it frightens the offensive players. Oh crap, they see right through us. They know what we’re doing.

That concept was among the topics discussed when Groce and Van Gundy had the chance to heap praise on one another.

Another Van Gundy observation  concerned effective strategy for tackling a superior opponent.  JVG described Tim Floyd’s UTEP team as a David to the Goliath of Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks. He said UTEP nearly toppled the Jayhawks by employing a unique, harassing defense.  In what might be termed a “man-and-one,” not to be confused with a box-and-one, the UTEP point guard was assigned to faceguard his opponent while the rest of the team played the (now) traditional helping/hedging man-to-man defense.

Said Groce: “I’ve seen Tim’s teams do it before. And they do it a lot in triangle-and-two. And they’re good at it.”


Paris Parham — already getting about 5 hours of sleep per night as NCAA official practice season collides with NCAA open recruiting period — drove Fran Fraschilla down from Chicago on Friday, after the latter missed a connecting flight. Fraschilla was gone by Saturday, and so was Parham’s energy. He draped himself over the handrail of Ubben 1 (the women’s gym), waiting for Van Gundy’s presentation to end and the second of Saturday’s Illini practices to begin. On his feet a pair of loud, camouflage Nike shoes screamed, perhaps to wake him up if he nodded off. On the floor below, Paris Junior played one-on-one with a friend (at the north end) while DIA fundraiser Howard Milton ran four middle-schoolers (including his son) through a series of ball-handling drills (south end), preparing for upcoming try-outs.

These people work all the time, so bringing family to the gym is a practical way to stay in touch. Earlier in the day, Rebekah Walker brought Braylon Walker to visit with dad Jamall Walker in the women’s gym. Braylon (2) is now a walker Walker, and even a runner (in small spurts). Oh they grow up so fast.


Don’t pray for Tracy Abrams. Research shows that prayer is detrimental to hospitalized persons. Not that Tracy will be staying in the hospital. After his ACL surgery Wednesday morning, Tracy plans to attend Wayne McClain’s memorial service on Wednesday afternoon.

Nevertheless, keep Tracy in your thoughts. It’s going to be a hard day for everybody. The Illini will not practice on Wednesday.