Illini basketball

To the Point

If there was a “story” during the Illini off week, it’s the speculation that Aaron Cosby and Rayvonte Rice will return to action Saturday, against Penn State.

Maybe they will, but only one man knows, and he’s not giving a direct answer one way or the other. So it doesn’t seem worth speculating about. My hunch is that neither will play.  I didn’t see them at Friday’s shootaround, which doesn’t mean much. They might have been in the training room, getting taped prior to watching film.

I do think you’ll see Mike LaTulip again on Saturday. And this time, I think he’ll be ready to pull the trigger.

At Minnesota, Mike had two wide-open looks at the basket during the same possession. Both times, he chose against shooting. Everyone was confused, including John Groce. Mike was an offensive powerhouse in high school. Nobody has ever claimed that he’s earned minutes for his defensive acumen.

So what gives?

Before practice on Friday, Mike talked about acclimating to B1G competition. He said he didn’t realize how open he was until he saw the video.

While not familiar with the concept of “chunking,” Mike described it pretty well, noting that the speed and size of B1G competition is simply different than what he faced as a high school phenom, or against small conference schools in the pre-season, or even against major conference schools during clean-up time to close out non-competitive games.

He agreed that the vote of confidence from Groce will give him a renewed bravado when the situation presents itself next time.

The other guy benefiting from Groce’s patience and faith is Jaylon Tate.

Tate said Friday that he needs to improve his weak-side defense. This is another area of the game where “chunking” is important. Weak-side defense involves peripheral vision, and detection of minor but tell-tale patterns of movement among multiple components (five opposing players).

Familiarity and repetition are aides to any variety of learned skill, whether it’s playing video games, driving a race car, playing basketball, performing open heart surgery … even wooing women.

Recognizing responses from one’s opponent tells an experienced player, subconsciously, that he can drive rightward just as his defender steps or leans the wrong way.

The reason Mike LaTulip looked somewhat lost at Minnesota is that he hasn’t spent much time playing against any B1G competition, except his teammates, whose tendencies are so well known to him that he literally can’t learn anything new from them.

This is the same reason Richard Semrau seemed dominant in practices circa 2009, but appeared out of position whenever Bruce Weber inserted him for 30 seconds once per month. What Weber never figured out is that guys need experience to become experienced.

John Groce has figured that out, and although he’s not by any means a patient person; he knows that he has to keep himself and his staff in check when reacting to mistakes. You can watch a video of Groce, during every home game, in which he says “to do things you’ve never done before, you have to do things you’ve never done before. This tautology refers to the State Farm Center renovation, but it may as well be applied to Mike LaTulip playing confidently against a conference opponent, or Jaylon Tate anticipating a back screen before it happens.


Last year’s game at Champaign featured the year’s most cunning strategic maneuver of the year: The Illini antagonized Nittany star D.J. Newbill into disqualifying himself. Newbill slapped Kendrick Nunn on the back of the head, right out on the open, where everyone could see it. He was ejected.

John Groce downplayed that storyline in his Thursday press conference.

Dustin Ford had the scout for the Penn State game. He didn’t reference last year’s skirmish, but he did talk about the match-up between shooting guards.

“I hope it’s one that favors us,” he said.

“Obviously two really, really good players. We’ve got to find a way to help Ken get some space off some screens, and we’ve got to find a way to help Ken guarding Newbill by giving him support on both sides of the ball and off ball screens, committing two, and trying to make it as hard as we can.”

Who will be that second defender? Malcolm Hill will have his hands full of Brandon Taylor. Is Tate strong enough to help? That’s asking a lot of anybody, especially a guy as young and thin as Jaylon. Although Groce spoke specifically about Tate’s improved strength during his presser, you’d have to assume a lot of the help will be coming in the form of The Egwu Hedge.

Obviously the cleverest scheme would be to toss LaTulip into the game to irritate Newbill, and take a punch for the team. I do not predict that will happen, either.