Illini basketball

What Happened, Hampton?

John Groce watches Maverick MorganIf you’re like most people, you didn’t see the Illini game against Hampton. You’re lucky. It was boring.

The most compelling part of Wednesday’s game came after the final horn, when Ahmad Starks talked about finals week. He spoke of exams, papers & projects. He talked about the team’s unusual approach to scouting its opponent, necessitated by conflicting schedules.

Instead of watching the big screen in the team room at Ubben, each Illini scouted Hampton on his own iPad.

Starks is an introspective guy. His frank delivery reminds us that, while these guys all play basketball, they have other things to think about, too.

In an infinite universe, there are certainly people wishing failure on Starks and Aaron Cosby. Among Illini fans, plenty have ripped their hair out over Cosby and Starks, just in the last month. If shooting doesn’t improve, they’ll all soon look like John Groce and Dustin Ford. (Jamall Walker is exempt from this comparison until Illini fans become sharp dressers.)

But it’s doubtful that any Illini fans are wishing ill to befall Cosby and Starks. More likely that everyone among this tiny subset of humanity wants, desperately, for these two to progress to the mean. Surely, if their purported stats are to be believed, both these guys will exceed their current production for the rest of the season.

John Groce did everything within his control to empower Aaron Cosby on Wednesday. Hampton committed two technical fouls, and each time, Groce chose Cosby to shoot the free-throws. One game prior, Groce chose Rayvonte Rice to shoot those tech freebies. (Ray was coming off his worst-ever game as an Illini.) Cosby hit both free-throws on the first technical, and subsequently hit a three-pointer.  Cosby hit the front end of the second technical’s freebies.

Unfortunately, that was it for Aaron’s floor game. Once again, he connected on a single field-goal for the game. Cosby is now shooting a tick below 29% for the season. When Groce called an inbounds play for Aaron, Cosby traveled before he could get off a shot.

Starks is a 35% shooter on the year, with 36 total assists and 11 turnovers. Jaylon Tate is shooting 33%, with 33 assists and 14 turnovers. Tate leads Starks in steals, 8 to 5.

Tate achieved these figures in 179 minutes of play. It took Starks 261. (Starks accumulated 24 fouls in those 261 minutes. Tate fouled 14 times in his 179.)

Like most Illini fans, I wish no ill will toward Cosby and Starks. Perhaps unlike most Illini fans, I’ve never included them in my starting line-up. I figured I could make that change when they’d proven themselves more effective than an Illini I’d already assessed.

For me it’s always been

  • 2- Nunn
  • 3 – Hill
  • 4 – Black
  • 5 – Egwu

and an asterisk stating the obvious, that Rayvonte Rice is the best player on the team.

So far, that line-up has proven unrealistic because Leron Black hasn’t been able to tame his freshman tendencies. Against Hampton, Black grabbed 8 rebounds in 18 minutes while committing only a single foul. He twice caused Mike Basgier to leave the bench (fearing the need to break up a fight) and three times (at least) caused Tracy Abrams to howl with delight at Leron’s sheer (still not tame) animal violence.

Gene Steratore, Rob Riley & Kelly Pfeifer is not the best officiating crew from which to glean Leron’s development as a controlled beast. Frankly, they let a lot of things go. They whistled Ahmad Starks for carrying rather than being tackled. But for the most part, it was Illinois that got away with murder. So Leron’s move to major minutes is still pending his understanding of the college game.

But the Hampton game featured the near dream line-up. Ray Rice moves to the wing, or the other wing (John Groce’s “power forward” position, a fourth guard). Malcolm Hill mans whichever wing spot Ray doesn’t claim. Egwu remains the pivot. Nunn is the shooter.

But this time, it’s Jaylon Tate at the point. Because Jaylon is the only true point-guard on the team, it feels okay to slate him as the point-guard. After the Hampton game, it feels a lot better.

For his Hampton performance. most people will talk about Jaylon’s 8-for-8 free-throw shooting. The impressive aspect of his game was speed. Jaylon’s herky-jerky movement is deceptive. Dude is fast. It’s not just that he pushes the ball. He gets down the floor.

From my perspective, John Groce makes no error by preferring the players who’ve earned PT. “Players play players,” right?

Maybe it’s been one grand conspiracy-theory-inducing mindgame with Groce and future opponents: Start Cosby and Starks knowing that the real line-up would be …

No, I’m just kidding. I’ll leave that narrative to lifelong Trekkies and similar fantasists. I don’t believe that Groce  recruited Starks and Cosby as decoys.

On the other hand, the B1G is looking at Illinois as if Starks and Cosby were starters, as far as game “tapes” are concerned.

Wednesday’s State Farm Center crowd was the smallest & quietest of the season so far. Clearly, losing 3-of-4 games socked the Illinois fan-base in its gut. The crowd never got its wind back on Wednesday. Instead, it made its way to the parking lot in small groups, at every media time out under 12:00 of the second half.