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Illini basketball

What’s the NCAA’s beef with Trent Frazier?

What’s Trent Frazier’s beef with the NCAA? The answer is “Portillo’s.”

On August 19, 2016, the University of Illinois men’s basketball program committed an NCAA recruiting violation when Dustin Ford, Jamall Walker and Paris Parham drove Frazier and his parents from O’Hare Airport to Portillo’s Hot Dogs, and bought them some dinner.

[Courtesy of Matt Colin]
The Fraziers’ flight from Florida had been delayed, significantly. The three Illini coaches hopped into a car and drove from Champaign to O’Hare, knowing the Fraziers would miss the last connecting flight to Willard Airport, and not wanting them to be stranded.

The coaches met the Fraziers and Trent’s high school coach Matt Colin at baggage claim, just as everyone learned the bags would be delayed too, by about 45 minutes. Colin and the Fraziers hadn’t eaten in seven hours.

So everyone got in the car and drove the 7.6 miles to the corner of Dempster & Western, in Niles (not 6.6 miles to the Portillo’s at Busse & Greenleaf in Elk Grove Village, mind you).

They were in the restaurant for 15 to 20 minutes (significant). Then they went back to the airport, collected their bags,  and drove to Champaign.

It was about 1:30 a.m. when the Frazier entourage finally checked-in at the i-Hotel.

Transportation, lodging and meals are all legit expenses for Official Visit purposes. So why was this $80.29 impermissible? Because the NCAA is the second-dumbest organization in the world.

Meals are okay. Transportation is okay. But meals during transportation? That invokes a particular sub-chapter. It’s okay, but only if the food is carry-out.

Seriously.

IF you sit down while you’re eating, if you’re not trying to swallow that delicious dipped, hot & sweet gooey mess while in motion, the NCAA has sees red.

The other “problem” with this series of events, judged using the demented logic of the NCAA, is how it affected the imaginary clock which times an Official Visit. That clock can’t or does start to pretend-tick based on particular triggering events, like proximity to campus.

I’d explain the rule further, but nobody really understands it. You wouldn’t understand it. I don’t.

Because the flight was delayed, the Fraziers were expected to fend for themselves in an unfamiliar city <–or–> because they arrived on campus so late in the day, they should have paid for their hotel. There’s a magical hour at which the feisty, opinionated little clock prefers to wait ’til morning to begin pretend-ticking.

That’s the NCAA’s logic.

On the other hand, the NCAA doesn’t especially care whether this impermissible benefit is granted or not. If it did, there would be penalties. Instead, a letter of admonishment went into John Groce’s file (perhaps because he was the only staff member not present?) and the three assistant coaches all got some extra training. (What was that training? We don’t know. Let’s assume it took fewer than 90 seconds to convey.)

Trent Frazier’s eligibility was not affected. His parents were not forced to repay the university for the strawberry shortcake, small fries or beeves.*

In the end, some work was generated for administrators and administrative assistants, some of whom will still have jobs if Bruce Rauner and Mike Madigan ever agree to pass a budget.

 

*In reading the receipt, you’ll be surprised to find that no one ordered a combo.

 

 

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Illini basketball

The Help?

There’s still no official word that Jamall Walker will remain with Brad Underwood’s staff. There’s no reason to believe he won’t.

The other positions? We don’t know.

Walker’s retention was considered vital to the retention of St. Louis-area recruits. That’s part of his territory, as is Texas, where Brad Underwood already has plenty of contacts.

Has Walker been the best Illini recruiter over the past five years?

The two breakout players this season were scouted by Paris Parham and Dustin Ford. Ford’s assigned territory includes Ohio. Parham’s area includes Wisconsin.

As America’s coaching fraternity packs for a trip to Phoenix this week, many of them don’t know where they’ll be working next week. But they’ll probably find out soon.

Parham will be in Phoenix and, until anyone tells him otherwise, he says he’ll be there as a representative of the University of Illinois. The airfare and accommodations were booked long ago, but the staff is not traveling together.

Should Parham be retained based on his contacts with up-and-coming recruits? If not, who else would be Illinois basketball’s “Chicago Guy?”

Stephen Bardo cautions Illini fans eager to bring back one of their own.

It’s tough for anyone to hire another coach if they don’t have an existing relationship.  That’s one of the reasons why Jamall was kept, he had a really good previous relationship with Underwood.  We’ll see what happens but in the meantime it would be wise for Deon, Roger Powell, Jerrance Howard, and Dee Brown to start to develop a relationship with Josh Whitman and Brad Underwood.

Walker downplayed the earlier relationship. “We knew each other but it wasn’t like we were boys. However, we knew some of the same people back in Kansas.”

Who are those folks back in Kansas? Well, if you didn’t know, Jamall Walker is a Wichita native. Underwood recruited his older brother.

Underwood remembers it differently, at least for public consumption. i.e. he didn’t talk about meeting Jamall’s brother.

He talked about recruiting Jamall himself.

Walker didn’t name names, but he offered this observation about the forthcoming Underwood staff:

We have talked a little about the assistant coaches and he is going to hire who he thinks gives us the best chance to win and get good players from the state and in other regions that a guy can tap into. You have Bret Just on your side and that is key.

If you haven’t been following every bit of Underwood minutiae, here’s what Jamall means by “Bret Just.”

According to a source within the program, the “Chicago Guy” probably won’t be Dennis Gates, either. Whatever level of interest Illinois expressed, it doesn’t seem to have been reciprocated

Two names that have come up are Emanuel Dildy &  UIC assistant Ronald “Chin” Coleman.

Dildy is the cousin of Chicago State’s head coach Tracy Dildy. The Dildy name is well-known in Chicago Hoops circles.  Emanuel spent three years as an assistant at Loyola Chicago before joining Kim Anderson for one last disastrous season in Columbia. Like Walker, Dildy is a guards coach. But don’t be surprised if the next staff, like the Groce administration, features four point guards. (Note though that UIC’s bio for Coleman says that during his first season at UIC, Coleman helped sophomore forward/center Tai Odiase “develop into one of the top rim protectors in the country.”)

Coleman interviewed with John Groce for Isaac Chew‘s job in the summer of 2012. That job went to Parham.

Coleman instead joined Tim Miles at Nebraska for six months, as Director of Player Development. (He’d been an assistant coach for Miles at Colorado State.) Then he joined Dustin Ford’s brother Geno for one year in Peoria, orchestrating the final demolition of Bradley Braves basketball. Coleman worked with Thomas for a year under Steve McClain at UIC   From 2005-11, Coleman was the head coach of Chicago’s Mac Irvin Fire AAU team.

And speaking of Steve McClain, his assistant coaching position at Indiana was filled by former Illini star Rob Judson, who is also available for hire. Judson is arguably the most successful assistant of the last quarter century, having helped both Lon Kruger and Bill Self to B1G championships.

The assistant positions might be finalized by this afternoon. Maybe they’ll be finalized in Phoenix, over the weekend.

Then again, remember how this worked five years ago. The Illini athletic director promoted the ace recruiter to the interim position. The new head coach did not retain him. Two of the new head coach’s initial hires departed Champaign almost immediately. A third left within a year.

Whatever happens in Phoenix doesn’t stay in Phoenix.

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Illini basketball

Synchronicity II

For the first time since March of 2011, Illinois Basketball looks like a program rather than a series of desperate stop-gap measures. There’s no fifth-year transfer learning a new system. Every position will be manned, once Jalen Coleman-Lands is fully recovered, by an experienced starter. Talented sophomores will back-up seniors en route to becoming talented seniors backed by future sophomores.

I’m going to guess that Michael Finke will continue to start at power forward, even after Leron Black’s suspension. I suspect Maverick Morgan will continue to start at center, even as Mike Thorne’s conditioning improves.

I expect Coleman-Lands to move into the starting spot currently held by Aaron Jordan, but I also have a hunch that defense will be the determining factor.

Point guard play pleased John Groce to such an extent that Te’Jon Lucas didn’t see the floor until the fourth quarter.

Tracy Abrams made half of his ill-advised shots, and all of his advised ones. Jaylon Tate connected from three (sic). Otherwise, those two veterans played exactly the way you’d expect, except for the 7:7 assist-to-turnover ratio.

When Lucas finally saw the court, there wasn’t much left to do. Groce emptied the bench, and each irregular Illini tried to take over the game individually, ostensibly to get his name in the box score.

If you’re looking for something to be alarmed about (and I know you are), it’s Mike Thorne’s post-game comment about his field goal percentage.

Thorne is intelligent, sensitive and funny. These are great characteristics for any human being. But for sporting purposes, you might prefer a killer instinct.

Last year, Thorne pooh-poohed the bank shot as obsolete, an anachronism. Instead, Thorne prefers to fling the ball toward the goal. About half the time, it drops through the ring.

Shooting 50% is normally considered good. It’s terrible if all those shots come from less than four feet away. That’s like missing Bucket #1 in the Bozo Grand Prize Game.

The reason he made all his shots on Friday is because he dunked the ball.

Yes, his spinning left hook bounced in, too. But 50% of the time, that’ll happen. On this occasion, it was the right 50%.

If Dustin Ford or John Groce could somehow reach Mike, and persuade him to dunk every time, Illinois would be much likelier to prevail in this season’s close games.

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Illini basketball

October 2015

This post has little entertainment value.  It’s not funny, and there’s not much insight into basketball, except for the Mike Thorne video, below. There’s some maudlin ranting at the bottom, but it’s not based on data.

Instead, this post is a behind-the-scenes wrap-up of October’s three Illini basketball events, two “media days” and one scrimmage. If you’re trying to kill time in an airport, and your free wi-fi just expired, this is the column for you.

ILLINI ALL-IN SCRIMMAGE, OCTOBER 25, 2015

You’ve read the coverage and the commentary. You already know the most-talked-about story is Big Bo, fifth-year senior Mike Thorne. The most impressive aspect of his performance, in my mind, was his footwork. He moves like a circus acrobat. He has phenomenal balance.

Here’s a video collage of his performance.

The biggest storyline went under-the-radar: Malcolm Hill acquitted himself at point guard. He handled a zone press, and distributed effectively. He dribbled between his legs just the way point guards are expected to do.

Malcolm as point guard is the solution to all of John Groce’s problems, if he can pull it off. It’s also Malcolm’s best position for NBA purposes. If John Groce can transform Malcolm Hill into an NBA point guard, he’ll have a hell of a story to tell prospective recruits.

If there’s anything this staff should be able to produce, it’s a point guard. Think about it. John Groce = D-III point guard. Paris Parham = D-II point guard. Dustin Ford = D-I point guard (mid-major). Jamall Walker = D-I point guard. Special Assistant to the Director of Atletics Dee Brown = Bob Cousy Award-Winning D-I point guard.

The All-In crowd was as big as fire code allows, which is not big.

No one paid to get in, and the DIA provided lunch catered by Hickory River Smokehouse. I ate pulled pork while gossiping off-the-record with Kathi LaTulip. (The LaTulip family will continue to travel for games, even though Mike’s potential for PT is now 0%.)

After the three 8 minute scrimmages, and a speech from John Groce, everyone lined up to get an autographed poster of the team. This poster had the season schedule printed, conveniently, right at the bottom, which reminded everyone that plenty of tickets remain for all games. DIA needs to remind people about each and every one of those games, at any opportunity.

These autographed posters have serious collector value, because each one was signed by Jerel Pitts, a 6’3″ freshman walk-on SG from Maywood (Proviso West) and nobody knows whether he’ll actually play on the team.

BIG TEN MEDIA DAY, OCTOBER 15, 2015

The B1G event moved across the street, from the Hyatt Regency O’Hare to the Marriott. The Marriott space is far more compact, which made the event feel smaller.

Stephen Bardo & Howard Moore stood chatting at the corner of the two hallways which housed all meeting and work rooms, effectively blocking traffic throughout the event. They were occasionally joined in conversation by players, coaches and fellow members of the media. When two or more persons joined in, it was literally impossible to get through.

I was one of those persons for a while. Afterward, I wondered if I should say “hey guys, you’re too big to stand here blocking traffic.” I chose against it. Bardo and Moore are super friendly, and would certainly have accommodated.  But a lot of the people they were blocking are insufferable assholes. So it kinda worked out.

B1G SID Brett McWethy shook things up this year, staggering the time slots of conference coaches’ availability, thus allowing reporters more face time. That was nice. Whether it translates for fan purposes, media logistics stuff has improved since Brett took the job a couple of years ago.

I got the feeling that most media outlets were not interested in John Groce. Chicago TV stations got a few seconds of soundbites, but spent less than two minutes with him. Illini beat writers spent more time listening to Malcolm Hill, whose availability was simultaneous to Groce’s, and one table over. Mark Tupper and Marcus Jackson barely attended Groce at all. Steve Greenberg and Shannon Ryan checked in and out and in.

Loren Tate dropped in to Groce’s availability to question Groce about availability (which is awesome, and one of the reasons why Loren Tate is still the best).  Tate’s latest column contrasts Groce’s secrecy with the openness of the coaches who preceded him, all of whom were more successful.

Malcolm Hill is good with the media. Groce is pretty far down the list of B1G coaches when it comes to public persona. He’s a numbers guy. You’d want him as your accountant, not a raconteur. Given the choices in the room, it made sense that Groce would spawn less interest than others. But that’s not the whole story.

Overall, it was plain that media outlets consider Illinois basketball an afterthought among conference contenders. Chris Collins fielded a larger entourage than Groce.  I always thought Al Gore got a bad rap, but Chris Collins is definitely wooden.

Tom Crean’s pack of onlookers was triple the size of Groce’s.  Crean enters his eighth season of Coaches on the Hot Seat. His teams routinely under-perform, and this year’s is more overrated than any of them. But Crean got more coverage.

That’s where Illini basketball is, October 2015.

Recalling Groce’s reaction to the Sun-Times Cliffmas headline “LOL ILL,” I wonder what his candid response would be to that question today: What kind of place is Illinois basketball in right now? (Excuse the syntax. That was the phrasing.)

Still, at least Groce had some interest. Eddie Jordan sat at the Rutgers table with a single beat reporter. Pat Chambers, Tim Miles and Richard Pitino hung out in the hallway rather than hiding in an off-limits greenroom. They and their programs all need more attention from the media, so they don’t hide from it.

These are the coaches expected to vie for first place … in the bottom half of the B1G.

ILLINI MEDIA DAY – OCT 8, 2015
The team arrived 30-40 minutes late, for some reason. They sat for a team photo.

Mark Jones, the primary in-house photographer of Illini sports for the last few decades, wanted a smiling version and a serious version. A few of the players tried to wipe the smirks from their faces while a few others attempted to put smirks on fellow players’ faces (i.e. to crack them up). Mike LaTulip played both sides of that fence.

There’s no format for interviews during the hour or so that players are available. Reporters and photographers huddle around individual players. If you absolutely need a quote from a guy, joining the huddle is the best way to ensure you get one.

That’s how most media operate. They don’t listen to everything an interviewee has to say. They “get a quote.”  In my opinion, it’s ethically bankrupt. Searching for quotes begets leading questions. Respondents respond. You get the story you seek. That’s bad reporting.

I try to hear and capture everything a person says. I’ll edit stuff for humor or concision purposes, but I try to record everything that’s made available for the record.

Anyway, back to Illini Media Day. Here’s how it works: The News-Gazette and the local TV stations set up photography stations in opposite corners of the men’s gym. I set up shop in the southwest corner.

I didn’t try to get time with D.J. Williams or Kendrick Nunn. Neither has ever seemed enamored of camera time.

I would have liked to talk with Leron Black and Tracy Abrams, but they’d disappeared by the time I finished my first six interviews. In fact, the gym was empty. SID Derrick Burson made it clear that he’d bring guys out of the team room if I wanted them, but I don’t like to do that. I made the exception with Jalen Coleman-Lands because he’s new. It was necessary to talk with him.

Thus, my annual pre-season video featured only half the team.

If you’ve watched any of my pre-season movies, it should be pretty obvious which players I prefer to interview. It has little to do with their prominence as on-court performers. Malcolm Hill is great with the camera and a star of the team. Mike LaTulip won’t play this year, and he’s a top go-to guy for me. (FYI, Mike was planning to redshirt last year, even after Abrams Injury #1. He won’t give up his final year of eligibility for  anything less than 10 minutes per game, and that would require four more season-ending injuries.)  Maverick Morgan and Jaylon Tate should work for Lorne Michaels, whatever their talents on court.

Guys who play a lot don’t necessarily have the perspective of guys who watch a lot.

Perspective is important this year. It won’t be the last for John Groce. It might be the penultimate. He’s  faced too many tribulations during the preceding months. Whatever happens this year, it’s not “on him.” Not this year.

But at the same time, this is the year Groce must make a statement to the people not buying tickets, to the point guards not choosing Illinois, to the media not lining up to hear his voice.

Illini basketball has wandered in the wilderness for ten years.  No one even argues about it at dinner anymore.  It’s simply not discussed.

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Illini basketball

Chalk Talk 2015

The second iteration of Julie Pioletti’s Chalk Talk, a basketball clinic for women, took place at Ubben & Corzine on Tuesday night.

Attendance was about a hundred, which is a shame because it really is a great event. For a fee, women get a catered meal, a slideshow and presentation from the head coach, instruction from the assistants, and insight on day-to-day operations from the support staff.

The money goes to Coaches Versus Cancer, but more importantly, it’s the best inside view of the team and its personalities. That was true again this year.

The format was altered slightly. Jamall Walker coached the Pack Line Defense. Paris Parham taught rebounding. Paul Schmidt opened his training room to talk about sports medicine. Those workstations were featured last year.

Everything else was new.

Last year Ryan Pedon provided a scouting report. This year Mark Morris discussed the hour-by-hour planning that keeps busy student-athletes fed, slept, taught and exercised on a tight schedule. This was a key difference, because the Pedon presentation showed how the coaches & team prepare for specific opponents. In hindsight, the staff must have concluded that too much insider information was being offered to anyone who showed up.

Instead, Morris offered a grid spreadsheet of Malcolm Hill’s weekly schedule. We learned that Malcolm started Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:15 with yoga, that he had Anthropology 104 at Foellinger Auditorium followed by a quick lunch and Econ 102.

Another graphic suggested traveling Illini men sleep in five-star hotels and eat in five-star restaurants, including Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouses.  Perhaps the star ratings were gleaned from TripAdvisor rather than Michelin. The Sheraton rarely earns such praise.

Pedon’s replacement, Darren Hertz, conducted the station dealing with offense. College basketball is universally committed to the option offense these days, just like Nebraska football in the Tom Osborne era. Hertz spent his ten minute segments teaching his groups how to recognize defensive actions, and opt accordingly.

At some points Dustin Ford joined the Hertz group. But for much of the night, Ford and Groce were in the upstairs office suite, on the phone with recruits.

Last year Chelsea Burkart talked about nutrition. That segment was eliminated from the program this year, and Burkart has moved on. Like former Strength & Conditioning coach Mike Basgier, she’s taken a similar position at James Madison University. Stephanie Horvath is the team’s new nutritionist.

Basgier’s replacement, Adam Fletcher, spoke about nutrition, as did Morris. We learned that Fletcher eats two meals every day with the team.

Last year Paris Parham told a bunch of funny jokes. This year Paris Parham told the same jokes. Newcomers probably thought they were just as funny. Cheryl Easter laughed as if she hadn’t heard them a year ago, and I thought that was very diplomatic of her.

“Paris needs some new material,” agreed the team’s tutor, Jessica Goerke.

Illini players once again participated in the demonstrations, if capable. Tracy Abrams, who moved around the Ubben on a Bariatric Knee Walker (and demurred from having his picture taken with same) stuck with Schmidt in the training room. Jalen Coleman-Lands, confined to a walking boot, stayed with Morris in the team room.

Newcomer Khalid Lewis joined Mike LaTulip, Michael Finke and grad assistant Walter Offutt in assisting Hertz’s demo. Aaron Jordan and Malcolm Hill assisted Fletcher in the weight room. Maverick Morgan, Leron Black and Cameron Liss assisted Parham.  Alex Austin, Kendrick Nunn and Dennis “D.J” Williams assisted Walker. Newcomer Mike Thorne did not attend.

There was an obvious emphasis on the health and well-being of the student-athletes. John Groce downplayed any motivation stemming from Tim Beckman’s unceremonious ouster for lacking that emphasis. And Groce is right to do so.  Sports medicine, conditioning and nutrition were just as much a part of last year’s event.

At one point during his presentation, Jamall Walker asked how many in his group had attended last year’s Chalk Talk. Three raised their hands. But the most obvious newcomer didn’t understand the question. She doesn’t speak English. Her name is Cate Groce, and last September she was living inside her mommy’s tummy.

Barb Steele, Groce’s mom, attended again. As did Laura Finke, Mike’s mom.

Everyone seemed to enjoy herself. The only problem is there weren’t enough participants. Publicizing the event is not a priority for Illini Athletics, because it’s only tangentially related to the program. Media got an email around lunchtime on Tuesday. Two reporters and two photographers showed up.

We’ll do better next year.

For completists, here’s an overly long movie chronicling the evening.

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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.

NEWBILL V. NUNN – THE REMATCH

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.

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Illini basketball

Groce’s best win

First, thanks to #IlliniFootball for allowing me an extra day to work on this column. You wrested attention away from your undefeated hoops brethren. That’s a feat.

Now, to the bicycling fish of Writing about Sports. Today’s topic: What’s the “best ever” win in John Groce’s brief Illini tenure? It’s an inherently subjective analysis. It’s dancing about architecture.

But what would the Internet be without useless, and often preposterous “best of” lists?

@ Gonzaga, Maui 2012, the worst #1 team in the history of rankings. These games enter the conversation.  For your consideration, I nominate the Baylor game.

I don’t have one reason in particular. I can’t even narrow it down to a few concepts.

John Groce usually shies away from absolutes & favorites, and I think that’s one of his greatest attributes. He’s an unapologetic realist (apart from that whole “Jesus” thing).

But you could feel, as the Illini salted the Bears away, that Groce was going to remember this game for a long time “because of the way we did it,” as he said afterward. “We just showed some real grit.”

There’s so much to like, and hope to remember one day, about the Baylor game. I’d better just make a list.

STATISTICS

Five turnovers, fifteen forced turnovers, fifteen assists on twenty-three made field goals. 33% field goal defense.

Illinois played Baylor’s game, and beat them at it, by “controlling the controllables,” as Groce likes to say.

They didn’t control the uncontrollables, which goes without saying. But even though the uncontrollables grabbed fifteen rebounds, giving his team a 47-33 advantage on the boards, the Illini ran plays to eliminate his effectiveness as a defensive weapon.

NNANNA EGWU

There’s no waaaay Nnanna was going to beat Rico Gathers Sr. (sic) at his own game. Gathers is listed at 6’8″ 280#. When he walked through the tunnel after the game, Mike Basgier (the strength & conditioning coach) said “I’ve never seen a basketball player that big.  You can’t train that. That has to come naturally.”

Nnanna’s game involves less brute force. It’s more about positioning and cunning. Sam McLaurin’s appearance in Las Vegas might remind Illini fans (especially those who question Egwu’s value to the team, or basketball IQ) that a center’s best contributions often take the form of a step to the left; that subtle movement that blocks a drive, or a passing lane.

Yes, the center must pose some offensive threat, or the defense can exploit his incompetence. Nnanna’s back-to-basket game is another subject of discussion among traditionalists. For this team’s purposes, it would be nice if Nnanna’s baby hook (currently in beta) were more reliable.

It’s important that Nnanna be a threat from the arc, because it draws defenders away from the lane. In the B1G, this will be  especially important.

Nnanna didn’t shoot any threes against Baylor, maybe because the Bears play a lot of zone. But while Nnanna didn’t draw any trees from the low post against Baylor, he still drew attention to the high post.

It was enough to divert the defense from the one guy whom they ought never allow out of their sight.

WHEN WILL PEOPLE STOP UNDERESTIMATING RAYVONTE RICE?

Bulls GM Gar Forman was among a slew of NBA scouts in attendance. Jerry’s son Ryan West was there too, representing the Lakers.

Maybe they came to see Baylor’s trees, or Josh Pastner’s flashy recruits. What they saw was another (yawn) dominant performance by Rayvonte Rice.

When Ray has retired from professional basketball, will people still doubt his accomplishments?  I assume so. Most bicycling fish — er, sports talk — obsesses over player-bashing.

There’s also plenty of obscure dwarf cum giant killer in sports lore, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Ray were largely ignored by the media  this year.  If you remember Wayne Larrabee reading the same one-sheet about Illini players, over and over, game after game, you’re sufficiently analytical to recognize that major media coverage is provided by analysts who don’t spend a lot of time analyzing.

They’re not awful people. They just don’t know what we know: Rayvonte Rice is the most dynamic all-around Illini since Kenny Battle.

Yep. I just said that.

 

 

AARON COSBY

Speaking of statistics, Aaron was 0-for-6 from the field. All those misses came from behind the arc. His lone drive to the hoop was stricken from the record, because he was fouled on the attempt. He made both free throws.

So far, it doesn’t sound so great.

Aaron grabbed six rebounds, and dished four assists. Those numbers are on the permanent record. He muscled his way through screens, and gave Baylor’s bigs something to think about in the doing. There’s no accounting for that effort.

My personal jury is still out (skeptical) about the Starks/Cosby lights out shooting narrative. The point is moot. Statistics are forthcoming.

I liked Aaron Cosby’s contributions on a night when he couldn’t hit the broad side of a casino.

AUSTIN COLBERT

It’s not that John Groce dislikes Austin Colbert. It’s that Groce views Colbert as lacking in physical strength. He anticipates Colbert struggling against heavier bigs, and fears the consequences of physical mismatches.

Against Baylor, Groce saw Rico Gathers, and wanted Colbert far and away from the court.

Dustin Ford — the ex-point guard who coaches the bigs — should probably consult a thoracic surgeon following the Baylor game. I’m sure his carotid artery suffered damage from the umpteen times his head nearly exploded. Interior defensive positioning nearly killed him. Horseshit foul calls didn’t help. (It was mostly the former.)

Throughout his ordeal, Ford never looked to Colbert as a solution.

Colbert might have finished the Baylor game on the bench, but Maverick Morgan earned four fouls (in four minutes) and Nnanna Egwu earned two fouls — and was assessed another two for standing absolutely still with his arms straight up in the air.

So with 5:54 remaining, and a ten point lead nearly obliterated by Baylor’s (frankly) well coached & well executed attempts to decapitate Illinois’ defense; Groce and Ford were forced to play Colbert.

His impact was immediate.

Yep, it’s true that Austin is skinny like a rail. But he can jump. And that’s where he took advantage of Baylor. The play of the game (Groce admitted as much) came  when Austin leaped over everyone for an offensive rebound and put-back.

It changed the momentum. It knocked the wind out of Baylor’s comeback. They never recovered.

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if you’re skinnier than others. You just have to jump higher. Maybe you have to want it more, too.

After the game, Groce acknowledged that that single play might give him more confidence to use Colbert in the future.

Another reason to like Austin: His mother is a strong, sensible woman. And he has a younger brother, Morgan, who has absolutely no filter. Morgan Colbert is nearly as entertaining as the game of basketball itself.

MALCOLM HILL

He’s six games into his sophomore year, and I’m already running out of things to say about Malcolm Hill. So bully for Malcolm. He doesn’t need fish bicycling, or dancing about architecture.

In a lovely way, he seems to enjoy it, being a natural with “the media.”  It’s because he judges “the media” on an individual basis, and treats “it” as if we were people. (Yep, I recognize that many question-askers in the news biz are not people, and have no feelings. True story.)

Malcolm’s game speaks for itself. He doesn’t need media hype. But when microphones are available, he’s plenty willing to share his thoughts. After Friday’s game, he lent his voice to speak for Jeremiah Radford, whose voice is gone.

Surprised by his election to the Las Vegas Invitational’s all-tournament team, and awed by the championship he’d pined for, just a day earlier, Malcolm cried in his mother’s arms.

That’s the cool thing about Malcolm. He’s a natural. He’ll be who he is. If it’s emotional, he’ll cry about it. If it’s basketball, he’ll rip it away from you, and then jam it.

He talked about crying, and Jeremiah, after the game. Malcolm is not afraid. He’s intellectually curious, and loving. Those aspects of his nature permeate his entire life experience.

For basketball purposes, he’s intellectually curious about opponents’ weaknesses, and he loves dunking on them.

AHMAD STARKS

KENDRICK NUNN IS RIGHT-HANDED

THE ATMOSPHERE

Orleans Arena reminded me of Gonzaga’s purpose-built basketball arena. Its horseshoe configuration belies its multi-purpose capabilities, but it’s definitely a good place to see a basketball game with 9,000 other rabid fans. Illinois didn’t bring a quarter that many, and Baylor brought three (I sat near them during Thursday’s game against Memphis). Nevertheless, the arena was electric.

Categories
Illini basketball

John Groce & Julie Pioletti to host basketball clinic for women

Men’s Basketball office manager Julie Pioletti & Allison Groce got together last week to finalize some details for September 2nd’s “Chalk Talk,” a four hour basketball clinic for women.

The event will take place at the Ubben & Corzine practice facility, at the corner of Fourth Street and St. Mary’s Road in Champaign, beginning at 5 p.m.

John Groce and his coaching staff will be on hand, as well as all their wives: Keisha Parham, Marcie Ford, Rebekah Walker and Allison. The first item on the agenda includes cocktails, to get everybody in the mood.

Illini players will join the coaches for a series of skill station demonstrations, and stick around for a Q & A session at 8 p.m.

Participants will get a full tour of the practice facility, including the Illini locker room. And they’ll have a chance to play with “The Gun,” the mechanical device that rebounds & computes shots taken at the basket.

The cost is $45.00 per person, payable by check or cash only. Participants can register in advance by mail, or on site. A portion of the proceeds will go to the National Association of Basketball Coaches’ Coaches Vs. Cancer fund.

Women interested in registering, or learning more details, should contact Julie at the Ubben:

Julie Pioletti
1750 S Fourth St
Champaign, IL 61820
(217) 333-3400
piolett1@illinois.edu