Illini basketball

What’s wrong with Illinois’ offense?

What happened to Kendrick Nunn? Who kidnapped Malcolm Hill and replaced him with a lifeless clone? Has Rayvonte Rice ruined team chemistry by returning to the court?

What happened at Wisconsin? And Iowa?

What happened to Illinois’ offense? Why, all of a sudden,  does it suck?

The Illini men have eclipsed 70 points three times in 2015. Over the last ten games, Illinois averaged 61 points scored. Over the last five games, that stat drops to 54.6 points.

At Wisconsin, the Illini followed my formula for success to great effect. Rice drew the defense to his himself, then kicked out to Austin Colbert for a wide-open three. Then Rice connected on a three of his own, and Malcolm hit a pair from the arc. The Rice three came in transition. Malcolm’s first three came from the top of the key, following an Illini offensive rebound. His second three connected when he ran a route along the baseline, and Wisconsin switched on defense. His new defender slipped and fell to the ground, giving Malcolm an open look.

All these opportunities came when Illinois moved the ball and themselves without hesitation or caution.  The Illini connected on zero threes from that point on. So that killed their chances of capitalizing on my plan. But they attempted only five threes in the second half, which suggests they weren’t trying to exploit Wisconsin’s tendencies. Illinois did not make extensive use the pick n’ pop. Nnanna Egwu attempted exactly zero shots from distance.

Against Iowa, play from the point featured more dribbling, and probably too much reading of defenses. The Hawkeyes were allowed to get set, so Illinois found fewer holes to exploit. But also, the drive-and-kick didn’t work. Rice had the same opportunity to assist Colbert on a wide-open three, but he didn’t look for Colbert.

Nunn drove to the hole and passed the ball directly into a crowd of Hawkeyes. Perhaps Nunn was expecting Nnanna Egwu to drop down from his high-ball screen, finding himself in the middle of the lane. Sometimes Nnanna does move toward the basket. Sometimes he doesn’t. But if Nnanna pops from his pick, there needs to be an open man in the corner, to provide the driver a kick-out option.

John Groce was known as the “offensive coordinator” at Ohio State.  At Illinois, his offensive schemes generate as much angst as they do joy. Last year the pain and stress derived from visions (first on TV, later in nightmares) of Rice and Tracy Abrams driving against threesomes of taller opponents, not kicking out, and not scoring.

Last year, Groce never said last year’s offense was bad.  At the opening of this season, he called last year’s team the worst offensive team he’s coached.  He told the local media on Media Day, and repeated it for national publications.

Groce claimed the offense would be much, much better this year.  Friday afternoon, in response to a question from AP’s David Mercer, Groce rejected the idea that this year’s offense isn’t better.

Groce is a numbers guy. The numbers support his claim.

Mercer is a reporter’s reporter. Former U of I trustee David Dorris once called Mercer the best (and in fact, the only good) journalist covering Illini sports.

Mercer knows Illinois isn’t scoring many points, isn’t shooting at high percentage, and isn’t winning enough games for NCAA Tournament consideration.

Groce knows that, going into tonight’s game against Northwestern, Illinois is scoring more (69.8/game thanks to a couple of century mark performances against an ever-weakening line-up of early season patsies) shooting better (41.8 to 38.1%) winning more (no eight game losing streak this year) and also committing fewer turnovers (9.9/game rather than 10.6) and assisting more field goals (12.3 now, 9.1 last year).

For some fans, these numbers hold meaning and value. Those fans don’t matter. They obsess about Illini basketball. Their fealty and subscription is assured.  If there were 17,000 of these people, selling tickets would not be a problem.

Whatever Groce thinks of the offense this year, he’ll tell us next October, presumably. Maybe he agrees with Mercer’s thesis, but doesn’t want to insult his team. On the other hand, he disparaged his team plenty after the Iowa game. Ahmad Starks, Nunn and Hill all got the the finger in his post-game remarks. Starks scored 19 points, but his 0/6 assist-to-turnover ratio prompted Groce to wax historical about winning versus losing, Midwestern style. Hill and Nunn simply didn’t execute, according to Groce.

Five years ago last month, my analysis of Illinois basketball adopted a particular theme:  How effectively does the coaching staff communicate its methods? How good are they at teaching?

Groce forbids media access to practices. His predecessor, Bruce Weber, allowed (extremely limited) access to practice — until the media began speculating about, and calling for, Weber’s firing.

John Groce’s contempt for the media will never help him win the PR game. But while Bruce Weber’s accessibility probably bought him a couple extra years, it certainly contributed to his downfall. Given that fact, it’s  hard to blame Groce for keeping a lid on his practices.

But that also makes it hard to be sure whether Groce’s instructions are clear, and whether his teams go into contests prepared for their opponents’ tendencies.

My analysis of the Weber administration was that Jerrance Howard provided the clearest, most concise scouting reports & walk-throughs. I found Weber’s language too riddled with the obscure mumbo-jumbo that featured prominently in his public comments. Further, Weber’s passive-aggressive style, and tendency to speak exclusively in the second person, made it (as a matter of syntax) hard to determine who was expected to do what to whom.

On Friday, Groce didn’t give away his playbook. But he did provide a concise response to my question about how his team failed to execute. This makes me think his instructions in practice are also fairly concise.

Groce is now coaching a single-elimination season. Barring a B1G Tournament championship — or a tourney win over the Badgers — the next loss effectively ends the season, excluding those extra practice sessions known formally as “The NIT.”