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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.”

 

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Illini Basketball

Terrapin Soup

Feel like celebrating after Illinois’ 64-57 win?

Happy they beat a ranked team?

Go ahead. Enjoy it.

In a lot of ways, it was an improvement on the last couple of games.

In one very important way, it was not. The Illini tried to puke on their shoes again, but Maryland refused to be outshittyed. The Terps saw our bad pass, and raised us a kick it out of bounds.

Where Ohio State and Michigan took advantage, Maryland fainted.

By this point in the season, all Illini fans and perhaps even John Groce have figured out that one very important way. Groce made major and minor changes on Wednesday, to forestall that way of losing games.

It sufficed.

Malcolm Hill buried most of his shots, just like he usually does.

Jaylon Tate moved the ball, and exploited defensive weaknesses, just like usual.

Nnanna Egwu hustled to fill every gap, just like he always does.

The obvious difference between this game and astonishing collapses at Ann Arbor and Columbus is this: When Illinois offered the opportunity for its opponent to crawl back into the game, it got no response, until it was too late.

Enough changed for Illinois to win.

Enough stayed the same for Illinois to win.

Maryland clearly didn’t want to win. But because Mark Turgeon is an excellent tactician, Maryland nearly completed a miraculous comeback.

At one point in the second half, the Terrapins were shooting 40% on free throws. They finished at 56%.

A late barrage from three raised the Terps’ long-range percentage to an admirable 43%.  For most of the game, Terp shots dented the rim from all distances.

Jaylon Tate’s free throws — combined with Kendrick Nunn’s and Ahmad Starks’s refusal to panic — saved the game when Turgeon’s tactics threatened a third consecutive collapse.

John Groce did enough with rotations — and especially with constant defensive switches — to allay new-found accusations of managerial incompetence.

Ahmad Starks shot his traditional 1-for-x from the floor, as did Aaron Cosby.

But Starks’s game was among his best as an Illini.

Using speed, strength and floor vision; Starks keyed the second-half pile-on by exploiting advantageous spacing, with timely passes, a steal, three rebounds, and a fuck y’all attitude toward Maryland’s antagonistic trash talkers.

Cosby was not as awful as every statistic, comment & write-up will suggest. He contributed some good things.

Still, he made little argument from the “players play players” perspective, which John Groce continues to preach while largely failing to practice.

STRIPES

Interesting back-and-forth between Mike Eades and John Groce, throughout the night.

The two spent some time together in the tunnel at Miami, after the game. Groce remarked then that Eades is a good official. There’s obviously a rapport between them.

As the touch fouls accumulated against Illinois (mostly whistled by Terry Oglesby), Groce demanded that the Illini get a call next time a Terrapin breathed on him too hard.

“John!” Eades exclaimed, getting the coach’s attention. “We got the message.”

Groce’s next apoplexy came when Ahmad Starks was not awarded two shots when fouled while passing the ball. “John, he was passing the ball” Oglesby explained. Courtside fans joined in the nonsensical, misguided harassment.

I prefer to reserve referee criticism for those moments when the referees are obviously wrong, rather than when they’re obviously right. It just seems more logical, and credible.

 

Illinois won this game because Maryland coughed up this game. That’s fair. Illinois coughed up its previous two B1G contests.

Naturally, dominance would feel more satisfying. But at this point, in a season on a brink, one takes what one can get.

John Groce continued to allow freedom to his players, did not blame them for his shortcomings, and did not fail to provide them with a game plan while simultaneously criticizing them for not having a game plan.

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Illini basketball

Cosby & Starks down Mizzou (with a little help from Rayvonte)

With about six minutes to go in the annual Braggin’ Rights game, longtime Illini athletic deparment photographer Mark Jones said “wow, what a game.”

With about four minutes to go, Decatur Herald-Review photographer Stephen Haas said “wow, what a game.”

To anyone stationed overseas, or just working on the weekend; if you didn’t get a chance to see Illinois-Mizzou live, you might be worried about Illinois needing a last-second shot to beat a 5-6 team. Don’t be. Not today anyway.

‘Tis the season to be grateful for Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby. Cosby made his usual 1 shot, and thus finished with two points. It was arguably his best game as an Illini. He equaled Rayvonte Rice for a team high seven rebounds, and as John Groce pointed out, he pulled a lot of those boards away from Missouri’s big guys, especially when the Illini went small.

Wherever Illinois needed a guy to do something on the floor, Aaron Cosby was there, being that guy.

Starks put the team on his back in the midway point of the second half, when it seemed as if the Tigers would run away with the game (literally run away … they killed Illinois in transition). Starks used spacing, and the teardrop he practiced all last year, to score three consecutive buckets for Illinois.

Rice was also an important factor in the outcome. But considering his career-long heroics, it almost feels ho-hum that he merely stroked a game-winner as time expired, and scored a measly 19 points.

Ray’s best bucket of the day may have been his first three-pointer, the one that capped a grinding possession in which Malcolm Hill fought Missouri’s press, broke it, drove the lane against stern defense, dribbled to the elbow, moved toward the wing, lost his dribble, regained it, charged back toward the paint, and then kicked to Ray for the dagger.

That had to hurt.

Shots included, Ray’s assist to Nnanna Egwu, for the go-ahead basket at 1:53 may have been the play of the game.

You decide.

Missouri played its best game of the year, by a large margin.  The only cause for worry is how well the Tigers scouted Illinois, and exploited Illini weaknesses and tendencies.

Wes Clark found the chink of Illinois’ perimeter defensive armor. Johnathan Williams III demonstrated how to drive the baseline against Illinois’ post defense.

You could almost feel the satisfaction of Missouri’s coaching staff. You could almost hear them saying “yep, that’s just how it looked in the scouting report.

If Illinois wants to win more games this year, they’ll take a good long look at this game, and not the thrilling last minute.

In a way, it’s refreshing that Illinois’ defense has such obvious flaws. If Bruce Weber were still coaching the Illini, you’d probably be wondering what Malcolm Hill could do with a basketball, were he ever to get in a game.

You’d also be wondering why that feisty local pro-baller Rayvonte Rice was never offered a scholarship to his hometown team.

So go ahead and feel satisfied that John Groce is  on the sideline. Think of it as a Giftsmas present to yourself. You can worry about Groce again in 2015, if you so choose.

Groce also showed great patience with Leron Black on Saturday. And he worked Ted Valentine and Mark Whitehead effectively, to keep Leron in the game.

LERON THE VIOLENT

Malcolm Hill predicted it. He said Leron Black would probably get in some fights this year, that’s just how hard he plays.

Going against Leron every day in practice, Malcolm understands better than Leron himself just how violent Leron can be.

On Saturday, Ted Valentine and Mark Whitehead noticed as well. Whitehead called Leron for a Flagrant I in the first half, and a dead ball technical a few minutes later.

The fact that Leron wasn’t ejected suggests that Whitehead saw no malice in Leron’s demeanor, just a lot of violence. Whether Groce deserves any credit for that outcome, he certainly campaigned for it.

THE RETRO UNIFORMS

Behind the Illini bench, 1989 team manager Ryan Baker sat in the second row, with Jessica and their new-ish born bundle of joy. Dana Howard sat a few spaces away. But as far as I know, the only actual member of the 1989 team in attendance was Travis Smith.

I hope the rest of the guys got to see their old uniforms on display. They looked fantastic.

CHAMINADE’S JAYSON TATUM, TYLER COOK & TREY COLLINS ATTENDED

It’s funny how  recruiting gossip works. When you talk to the actual recruit, it’s just a lot different from what you might read online.

Take Jayson Tatum, considered by some the #1 recruit in the country (Class of 2016). If you look at recruiting websites, you’d think Tatum is off the Illinois radar. You might think he’s interested in only the blue bloods … Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, etc.

But on Saturday, Tatum said the reason Illinois doesn’t find itself included in his list is because the people asking the questions don’t ask about Illinois. So in response, he doen’t mention Illinois. And consequently, they don’t write about Illinois.

But Tatum says Illinois is right there in the mix. He added that he doesn’t care how many small forwards (e.g. D.J. Williams) the Illini recruit: That will have no bearing on his judgment.

Jayson’s teammate Tyler Cook also has an offer from Illinois.

He’s a 6’8″ power forward, with a body that’s already grown to about 240 pounds. His 247Sports page says he’s 50/50 between Kansas & Mizzou, which again shows how little those guys know.

Jamall Walker is the primary recruiter for both these guys. He was also the point man for the successful recruitments of Leron Black and Jalen Coleman-Lands. That means Paris Parham, who turns 43 on Sunday, needs to bring the Bright Lights to Champaign, just to balance things out.

Wish him luck.

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Illini basketball

Newcomer: Ahmad Starks

The Illini men’s basketball team has six newcomers this year. Two are walk-ons Cameron Liss and Alex Austin. Two are Michael Finke and Aaron Cosby, already profiled in the Illini Report “newcomer” series.

At some point, you’ll get a humorous glimpse at Liss and Austin. It probably won’t get a lot of hits. Web traffic works like this

  • recruits
  • scandal
  • enormous victories
  • current players
  • losses
  • walk-ons

Perhaps Leron Black is most intriguing to Illini fans, because we know so little about him. But the newcomer most likely to determine the outcome of the 2014-15 season is tiny, quiet Ahmad Starks.

Asking about Starks, of the guys who’ve played with him for over a year, reveals some things we didn’t know. For one, he drives fearlessly at and over guys twice his height. He dunks. He has a knack for theatrical shots that somehow go in the basket. He rebounds.

Most interestingly, he’s considered to be a ball-handler and distributor. Contrast this opinion with conventional wisdom that Starks is primarily a shooter, and you see just how little the typical fan understands what happens inside John Groce’s program.

In fact, the perception of Starks as a typical point guard has so permeated the inner Illini mindset that Alex Austin answered the tell me something most people don’t know about Ahmad Starks question by saying that Starks is a really good shooter, whereas most people probably think of him primarily as a ball-handler.

That’s the mindset inside the program.

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Illini basketball

Illini Men’s B1G schedule 2015

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