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Illini basketball

DePaul was Not Really Demonic

It would be nice if Dave Leitao could do at DePaul what Dave Leitao once did at DePaul. The Blue Demons were irrelevant for ages. He brought them back to prominence, and then bolted Charlottesville, where he had one good year.

Now back in Lincoln Park, he’s in his third miserable year. After losing to Illinois Friday, he grimly conceded that an ongoing rivalry is not likely.

If Leitao could make DePaul a contender, a regular home-and-home would be great for the Illini. Brad Underwood says he wants a stronger schedule. There’s no reason Illinois should spend a month tuning up against directional schools.

Now, some observations from the DePaul game.

LT Williams

You didn’t realize, prior to Friday night, that Illinois has a guy on the team named LT. His name is Little T. Williams. Or perhaps, L. Things Williams. “Things” for short, or just LT.

Underwood has described both Mark Smith and LT as having “the ‘it’ factor, whatever ‘it’ is.” But only LT  has been praised for a comprehensive understanding of “the little things.”

Williams’s perseverance in a 1-on-3 drive found him rebounding his own miss, tricking three Blue Demons into performing a childhood dance, and then banking in his rebound.

 

He stymied DePaul’s second comeback with a crucial tip in. It was so quick that a few people didn’t see what happened.

LT again sacrificed his chances of fatherhood to the God of Player-Control Fouls.

This time, it was impossible to see whether LT was grinning afterward. Probably not. This time, it looked painful. And then a fight broke out between Kipper Nichols and Jaylen Butz, whose name is almost certainly the title of a gay porn DVD.

But I digress.

Remember how Doug Altenberger loved to take a charge? Remember how pumped Matt Heldman got when the ref wrapped a hand around the back of his own head?

LT is like that.

12-for-12

In the Bruce Weber era, some guys never attempted a dozen free-throws in a season.  Weber was revulsed by contested shots. He never seemed to reach the next logical step: Contested shots lead to shots where people aren’t even allowed to defend the shooter!

Illinois now has a coach whose charges charge. They attack.

So yeah, maybe it doesn’t matter that Illinois can’t hit a three.

Mark Smith attempted twelve free-throws. He converted twelve free-throws.  The twelfth rolled around the rim before dropping in. That suggests Mark was fatigued. The eleventh grazed the rim. There’s nothing odd about that.

What struck me as strange was the way the ball snapped the net on his first ten attempts. Maybe I was distracted, and missed one. But it seemed to me that Mark’s trajectory was exactly the same on each of those shots.

I sit close enough that I can hear the net snap, and it made the same sound every time. The bottom of the net moved in a straight line, backward, as the ball pulled it toward the stanchion. Then it snapped back

Mark has distinctly deliberate free-throw routine. He takes quite a bit of time to deliver the ball toward the goal. To my way of thinking, the long pause should detract from the efficiency of his muscle memory. But it doesn’t The pause itself may be a component of Mark’s nearly flawless delivery.

Is he always like this?  I wondered.

The Supporting Cast

You wonder, would this rotation expand if Brad Underwood had more available bodies? Does Underwood employ the standard nine man rotation because that’s how many guys are available?

Greg Eboigbodin saw spot minutes. Matic Vesel got none.  Vesel’s tentative debut suggests that he might need more time to feel comfortable on offense, ostensibly his strong suit.

Everyone else has played a vital role.

Trent Frazier provided crucial minutes at the point when Te’Jon Lucas (again) got in foul trouble. Aaron Jordan grabbed nine rebounds and hit a comebackbreaking three-pointer to throttle DePaul’s second second-half surge.

Last year, Aaron couldn’t get on the floor. He watched Malcolm Hill and Jalen Coleman-Lands play many minutes of basketball. So it might seem surprising that JCL transferred, and Jordan didn’t.

Friday night, the tables were turned. JCL watched from the bench as Jordan thrust the dagger.

 

Jalen Coleman-Lands the Untold Story

An unmentioned factor in JCL’s decision to transfer, perhaps irrelevant, is that Paul Magelli died during the last academic year.

Magelli and Jewell White were two prominent personalities in the JCL recruitment. John Groce specifically named White as a key figure in attracting JCL’s non-athletic interests.

Piankhi Lands and JCL spent an afternoon in Magelli’s office as the elderly don mapped out JCL’s academic course in the College of Business. COB’s association with the College of Engineering was key, because JCL showed a keen interest in micro-devices.

Magelli’s office at the BIF overlooked the fancypants atrium where future tax avoiders quaff Espresso Royale and embellish their LinkedIn profiles.

Malcolm Hill liked to hang out in Magelli’s office, too. The old guy was, frankly, a hoot. His connection to Illini basketball predates modern record keeping.  In 1985, as president of Metro State University in Denver, Magelli recruited Lou Henson assistant Bob Hull to lead the Roadrunners basketball program into Division I That never happened, but it was probably a necessary step in bringing Hull’s wife Cindy Klose to national prominence.

The atrium of the Business Instructional Facility often hosts the TechMix, where business and engineering students pitch one another on start-up ideas.

Losing mentors from both the academic and athletic aspects of his life left JCL with few familiar faces in Champaign. Conveniently though, Dave Leitao had just recruited a whole bunch of JCL’s friends to Lincoln Park. Former LaLumiere coach Shane Heirman is now on staff.

And JCL has even found a new vessel for his whimsicality fix.

Magelli was about 5’5″ and good humored. Pantelis Xidias is about that height, and free spirited.  Another  LaLu transplant (like Drew Cayce, and also like Cayce, a non-scholarship member of his team) Xidias is the guy who keeps it unreal on DePaul’s bench.

JCL  didn’t say how he got to Champaign Friday night, but he hawked balls during warm-ups and sat on the team bench, which is uncharacteristic for road games. NCAA rules prohibit transfers from traveling with the team. (That’s why Tyler Underwood sat with his family at EIU.)

If there’s any animosity between JCL and the program, it’s on an individual basis. Kipper Nichols got a big hug from JCL (which, as you know, is vital to Illinois’ on court success). JCL slapped Cayce on the ass during warm-ups. Sports Info Director Derrick Burson shared a laugh with JCL at mid-court.

Pantelis Xidias kept an eye on the Orange Krush

Aaron Jordan is arguably more likely to thrive in the charging, attacking offensive system that Underwood hopes to develop. Meanwhile, JCL can shoot threes for the Roman church, which has already provided him one paid education at an idyllic lakeside school.

DePaul might not be as good at engineering, but they do have a College of Business. Taking classes in downtown Chicago will certainly enhance JCL’s business prospects.

Basically, everybody wins.

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Illini basketball

Banquet 2017

Before the Illini Basketball Banquet began Monday night at the i-Hotel, Rob Jordan said players’ families were wondering who’d show up.

Would John Groce return as Bruce Weber had in 2012?  No.

Paris Parham also didn’t attend, despite his continuing residence in Champaign. Dustin Ford and Darren Hertz weren’t there, but they have new jobs in Ohio.

Brad Underwood, who lives in the i-Hotel, was there. And he stayed as long as anyone.

One idiot was in attendance, and because he forgot to check whether he’d packed the batteries for his expensive camera, the following pictures will be blurry.

Rob Jordan takes a picture of Aaron Jordan and girlfriend Dawn Failla

Paul Schmidt and Adam Fletcher were the only remaining staff sitting at the coaches table. Underwood, Josh Whitman and Chancellor Robert Jones joined them. You wouldn’t call it the head table necessarily. It was off to the side. Really, everything about the event was low key. Unlike years past, the players never spoke.

Josh Whitman spoke twice. The first time around, he profusely praised the previous staff.  “I can’t say enough good things about our outgoing coaching staff.” (listen to full speech here).

He told of dark, difficult days throughout the 2016-17 season, and especially public opinion of the program. He promised better times ahead. The public perception of Whitman seems largely if not hugely favorable, and his comportment Monday night did nothing to change that perception.

Kipper Nichols, Alex Austin, Leron Black and Tracy Abrams pose with Julie Pioletti

Jamall Walker and Brian Barnhart emceed. Barnhart and a series of sponsors from the community announced individual awards (link to video) and Walker thanked all the people behind the program who’s names you rarely hear (link to video), then handed out  goodies to the players (link to video) which were fitted letterman jackets for the freshmen, and blankets for the upperclassmen. Jalen Coleman-Lands regarded the blanket as high-level swag.

Kipper Nichols, who said his body fat is 5%, acknowledged that someone measured his sculptured physique rather than guessing his jacket size.

Jaylon Tate and Mike Thorne were absent. Tate had a family issue, and Thorne is out somewhere looking for a basketball job. That’s how Walker explained it, anyhow. (The family issue seems to be that Tate’s family was pissed off about the way Jaylon’s career ended.)

Two players who were distinctly present, and seated at what you might call the head table, were Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams.

Te’Jon Lucas and his mother Marie were also at that table. The Lucas parent are divorced, and Thomas Lucas sat at a table on the other side of the room. He lives in Milwaukee. She lives in Texas. Both parents are engaging people, and it’s not hard to see what brought them together. And it’s not hard to see why it fell apart.

Marie is brimming with personality and opinions, you might even say attitude, but in a good way. She’s the type of mother often found behind a D-1 athlete. Laura Finke and Machanda Hill are likewise women to be reckoned with, but again, in a good way. Strong women.

Thomas Lucas is mellow and approachable. In conversation with Underwood, he gracefully accepted frothing praise from this reporter, with agreement from the coach, that his three-piece houndstooth suit and tie elevated him into competition for best-dressed attendee. He’s almost sixty, but after changing his diet and losing 25 lbs. over the last year, he’s now back to playing competitive basketball. He’s eating less meat, and more ginger and garlic.

It gives us hope, especially the idiot, who gained 25 lbs. in the last year after his aging knees forced him to stop running six miles every other day, and is basically falling apart physically.

2016-17 Fighting Illini Basketball Awards

Most Outstanding Player: Malcolm Hill

Matt Heldman “Matto” Award: Maverick Morgan

Lou Henson Courage Award: Tracy Abrams

Orange Krush 3-Point Shooting Award: Tracy Abrams, 40.2 percent (51-127, min. 3 att./g)

Illini Rebounders Award: Leron Black, 6.3 rpg (196)

Ralf Woods Free Throw Trophy: Malcolm Hill, 80 percent in Big Ten play (76-95)

Malcolm Hill doesn’t really need any more accolades at this point. He just needs what Rayvonte Rice should have had two years ago. He needs the NBA to recognize that, whatever his physical limitations, he finds a way to get the ball in the hole.

Malcolm’s AAU coaches Patrick Smith and Doug Sitton attended his final banquet. And Patrick observed that Malcolm is not the next Michael Jordan. But maybe he’s the next Larry Bird. He has crafty old-man moves.

Smith and Sitton have been part of Malcolm’s life since third grade. “Seriously, you could tell when he was …” I queried.

“Oh yeah,” said Patrick.

“We knew,” agreed Doug.

That seems odd, but it doesn’t conflict with anything we’ve known about Malcolm all these years. You’ll recall that even during his freshman year, his teammates universally recognized him as the gym rat of the team (video link).

The second-best part of the evening was a tag team by Underwood and Whitman, in which they simultaneously praised & roasted Tracy Abrams and Malcolm Hill.

The best part of the evening was watching Malcolm greet a very young man with forceful enthusiasm, complimenting him on a particular sartorial choice.

Malcolm gets that he’s a star, and on these last two Illini teams, the star. But he’s also motivated by human kindness. He gained no advantage by showering attention on a pre-teen with a sharp outfit, but he expressly acknowledged the kid not just for looking good, but for having earned the outfit himself (paper route?).

Jamall Walker emphasized that Malcolm never thought Illini basketball was about him.

One current roster member expressed shock about John Groce’s closed-door media policy. On Day One,  Groce said practice would be closed to the media because he wanted to maintain a teaching atmosphere.  But as the players  know,  the Groce practice was a revolving door of Willie Hortonesque proportions.  Basically, the only people who weren’t watching were reporters.

Underwood is unfazed by the media. He doesn’t use the amplified headset Groce relied on. He doesn’t even use a whistle. That’s probably the reason his teams execute so well. They understand what he’s saying, and aren’t subconsciously trying to block-out the onslaught of sounds.

One final, gratuitous observation from the banquet, along as the topic of not understanding what people are saying, here’s Maverick Morgan mouthing syllables while an elderly crowd sings Hail to the Orange

At the end of the night, Walker said Trent Frazier’s dad  was in a tizzy about the Portillo’s beef story from last month.  Walker had to explain “no, Trent is not in trouble and no, you are not in trouble.”

It’s just another example of silly NCAA rules creating anxiety. Look here for more of that in the next couple of weeks.

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Illini basketball

It’s not that they lost, it’s how they lost

Deon Thomas and Paris Parham greeted one another on court, about an hour before the Michigan game. They  reminisced about the one game they played against each other in high school.  Dunbar beat Simeon, according to Paris. But the teams had to stay in their locker rooms afterward, until the gunplay cooled off outside.

Whatever happens to the Groce staff, Deon and Paris agreed they’d lived through worse. They’ve seen guys get shot. They’ve seen people killed.

The Groce Question was answered today, by an Illinois team that couldn’t compete with a league rival, and by John Groce himself.

Five years into the Groce experiment, Illinois is not in the same class as the Big Ten’s elite teams. Illinois is second-class. Worse, they don’t just lose. They get blown away. They’re simply not relevant in major college basketball.

The B1G’s third-class teams played Wednesday. Two of them left town before the second-class teams arrived to punish the survivors. The first-class teams will show up tomorrow, and feast on the second-class.  Except for us. We’ve already been eaten.

The Illini will be in Champaign-Urbana when real B1G basketball gets underway.

Groce, to his credit, came right out and agreed he’d do it all over again, exactly the same way, rather than “coaching not to lose,” the sin Bruce Weber admitted while trashing his players for public consumption, in February, 2012.

The Groce Question by the way, is not whether Groce will be fired. It’s not whether he should be fired. It’s whether he can lead Illinois out of the slash and burn wasteland he inherited. The answer is no, he can’t.

Weber was fired five years ago today. If Groce doesn’t follow him out the door, we’ll know that Josh Whitman doesn’t have a home-run hire waiting in the wings. There’s no way Josh Whitman could let the Groce era continue simply because he thinks Groce needs more time, or might be on the verge of something big. Everything we know about John Groce says this is the way he’ll do it, including his own words.

He said during Monday’s pre-tourney teleconference that he doesn’t make in-game offensive adjustments.  He can’t. His system is his system, for better or worse.

And you know what? Good for Groce.  He told us on day one that he’s a teacher. And at the end, he told us the same thing again, and demonstrated as much. He’d rather coach these guys in practice than in games. That’s another thing he’s said, again and again, over his five years.

It’s perhaps not the best personality trait for a Division I coach. But it’s admirable.

So expect a new coach to be announced real soon. And if there’s not such an announcement, understand that it’s because Josh Whitman doesn’t see the point in giving a five-year contract to another mediocrity from the mid-majors.  Or indeed, a super-performing coach from the low and mid-major conferences, like many from my long list. Or Cuonzo, whose NIT trajectory should eliminate him from the conversation (it won’t).

 

Yes, there’s the argument that Illinois basketball will get worse if Groce isn’t fired immediately. But that can’t be true. Either you’re relevant or you’re not. Illinois isn’t relevant.

The fanbase won’t grow. Fair-weather fans won’t come back until the weather is fair. But if this season is any indication, about 12,000 people will still turn out for basketball games.

Anybody that lived through 1989 or 2005 isn’t going to stop cheering for Illini basketball. They remember how great it feels when we’re first-class.

Saturday in Piscataway (poet, I know it) I met two Rutgers basketball fans. Possibly the two Rutgers basketball fans. Terry and Stuart graduated in 1978. That means they were students when Rutgers last made it to the Final Four.

I met them in the campustown Barnes & Noble. I was about to catch the free campus bus that runs between New Brunswick Station and the RAC. Instead, they gave me a lift.

When we arrived at the RAC, Mike Palko was just walking by. He was the starting center on that 1976 team.

These three guys still attend Rutgers basketball games, because they remember what Rutgers can be.  They believe Rutgers will be back some day.

Illini fans vastly outnumber Rutgers fans. You needn’t be 61 years-old to remember the high.  If #WeWillWin means anything, Josh Whitman isn’t satisfied with second-class. Whether it happens tomorrow, next week or next year; it’s going to happen.

 

 

 

Categories
Illini basketball

Lessons from Iowa City

Illinois basketball has a road-game winning streak. For better or worse, it’s a consequence of who didn’t participate as much as who did. John Groce’s rotation has contracted. Five guys now see “starters” minutes in a game, while three others see spot time.

It’s not necessarily who you’d expect, and it certainly isn’t what forecasters projected in October.

Leron Black, yea & nay.

Everyone will remember Leron’s dunk. Instead of jump-shooting from 12 feet out, Leron juked his man, and drove to the basket for a two-hander. It was gorgeous.

Where has this been? Why did it take so long to debut?

On defense, Leron played his usual game. He fouled a lot. It’s easy to see why.

Leron’s posture, in general, is not conducive to defense.

He doesn’t stand erect. He doesn’t raise his arms straight up above his head. Even when he’s not reaching in, or bowling someone over, he’s in a stance which will draw a whistle, every time.

Rather than standing erect, Leron slouches. He’s naturally slope-shouldered.

Did you ever wonder what Adam Fletcher is yelling when you see him leap from the Illini bench during a telecast? He’s yelling “Wall!

 

Defensive posture might have been the story of the game, were it not for a handful of key plays by the diligent Illini.

Kipper Nichols collected four fouls in ten minutes. In eight minutes of action, Leron hacked four Hawkeyes.

Leron couldn’t get high enough, and Kipper couldn’t get low enough.

Nevertheless, Illini fans complained that Nichols and Black didn’t get enough PT. They also complained that Jaylon Tate and Tracy Abrams got too much. Most egregious to some fans is that Tate and Abrams played at the same time.

Tracy Abrams & Jaylon Tate

It’s true that Abrams & Tate accounted for an unfortunate portion of the first half, when both picked up a foul, Abrams missed a three and Tate earned a turnover (total BS, he never dragged that pivot foot).

But Abrams and Tate were crucial to breaking Iowa’s increasingly aggressive full-court press in the closing minutes. Te’Jon Lucas could not have survived on his own.

Lucas had just enough gas remaining in his tank to sink 1-of-4 free throws in crunch time. He could have been called for charging on one of those fouls.

Abrams and Tate were essential to the win. As for “too much PT,” they got 14 & 7 minutes respectively.

Yes, Tracy was awful yet again as a “shooting” guard (1-of-5), but his steal (credited as a rebound) at 16:00 (credited as 16:05) was a crucial turning point for momentum purposes.

Yes, Tracy again fell into the Bulldog routine, lamented today in Pat Forde’s weekly column as a national epidemic.

4. Hero Ball remains a plague upon our nation.

Guards who wouldn’t give up the rock despite being double covered played major roles in a pair of Big 12 games Saturday. For Baylor, trailing by two with eight seconds left, Manu Lecomte kept the ball and took the last shot despite being stalked by both Frank Mason and Josh Jackson, with predictable results. Then West Virginia had a perfect chance to reprise Villanova’s championship-winning play at the end of regulation against Texas Tech – only to see Jevon Carter force up a shot instead of dishing off

But John Groce used Abrams sparingly, and where necessary. That’s a fantastic development in Groce’s evolution from non-strategist to poor strategist to strategist capable of employing strategy.

Groce necessarily, if tragically, withdrew Mike Thorne from the rotation. There’s nobody I’d rather see succeed than Mike Thorne. I assume John Groce feels the same way.

The late, lamented legend of Mike Thorne

But it became obvious that he wouldn’t discard bad habits around the basket.

It’s encouraging to see Groce & Co. preach simple fundamentals about defensive positioning. It’s encouraging to find that, eventually, Groce will reward repeated lapses with a comfy seat on the bench.

But in a very human way, it’s also encouraging that he took so long to implement the latter policy. Groce gave tons of encouragement and second chances, third chances … 15th chances to his guys.

Inevitably, he was unable change the behaviors.  Instead, he eliminated their perpetrators. It’s as if he realized his job is on the line.

Groce should have noticed sooner. He should have been proactive in stamping out these bad tendencies. Someone, anyone should have coached Mike Thorne to make low post moves.

Paul Schmidt gave Mike Thorne a thumbs up on his blood sugar reading.

Every Little Thing

Iowa would have won but for every helping hand the Illini gave and got.

Sometimes it was Iowa screwing up. The odds of 83% foul shooter Jordan Bohannon missing both of his crunch time offerings? Well, statistically speaking, he’d hit either one of them 83 times out of a hundred.

Sometimes it was diligent attention from Kelly Pfeifer, John Gaffney & Donnie Eppley. Sometimes it was one of those three seeing something that 15,400 Iowa fans saw differently.

Sometimes they saw things differently from each other. But in those cases, they talked about it, and Illinois came out ahead in the offing.

Michael Finke’s five assists led the team. It was a career-high. When was the last time a PF/C led the team in assists? SID Derrick Burson couldn’t remember, either, apart from offering that technically Malcolm Hill did play the four spot a lot.

Jalen Coleman-Lands and Maverick Morgan were the unsung heroes of The Win at Iowa.

Morgan scored only six points, but the put-back dunk of Lucas’s missed lay-up broke the Hawkeyes’ collective back.

His seven rebounds led the team, as did his two blocks. In 34 minutes of floor time, Morgan committed only two fouls.

JCL’s passing continues to fly under the radar of fan appreciation, and over the radar of opponent defenses. His tendency to show up where needed manifests itself statistically if there’s a rebound to be grabbed, or a controlled ball in need of loosening.

Once he’s loosened that ball, he may be credited with a steal. Sometimes not. But in either case, he’s disruptive, and that makes the game harder for opponents.

Malcolm was the sung hero at Iowa, just like everywhere else. But that’s no reason to overlook his remarkable feats. Saturday saw him reach the 1,700 point threshold. Barring an unusually anemic — or outrageously prolific — outpouring in the final weeks, he should end his career as the #4 all-time Illini scorer.

The Lesson from Iowa City is that Illinois needs every player’s contributions, but it doesn’t need every player.

Again, there’s a bittersweet aspect to this lesson. We’re always bothered when guys never get a chance (Richard Semrau was the poster child until DJ Williams inadvertently stole the spotlight) to help a team that’s not surging toward an NCAA bid.

In this case, it’s utilizing guys rather than not-utilizing them that held the team back.

If John Groce were coaching this team in a vacuum, with no audience and no million dollar salary (and accompanying expectations) all his players would get equal PT, and he’d still be encouraging them to make better decisions.

If he’s fired at the end of the year, maybe he’ll regret that he didn’t harden his heart sooner. But then again, maybe he won’t.

Was John Groce crying yesterday because he hadn’t done the right thing? Or was it because he had done the right thing, and now realizes that he’s going to pay for it?

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Illini basketball

Saturday Live with Mark Smith & Jeremiah Tilmon

Illinois’ best recruiting period of the last decade came during a time when the Illini’s on-court performance had reached a record-setting nadir.  D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Joseph Bertrand pulled the trigger in a 48-hour span at the start of the dreadful 2007-08 season. Meyers Leonard came aboard at the end.

So it didn’t seem odd to watch Jeremiah Tilmon cracking jokes with Mark Smith while Minnesota pantsed the Illini. These two high school superstars expect to improve their college teams. They don’t doubt that they’ll be successful. Failure is not their concern.

Talking to them about their relationship, I couldn’t keep the names “Bruce Douglas and Efrem Winters” out of my mind.

It’s hard not to think of Mark Smith when thinking about Mark Smith, but Douglas is obviously the better Illini analog. Peoria Richwoods’ Mark Smith was a small forward, not a PG. Bruce was a PG. But he was also big and quick, just like Mark Smith 2.0.

Bruce’s alley-oops to Winters remain at the top of iconic Illini moments, way more efficient than the vaunted “15 pass possession.”

Illinois’ hi-lo could use some work.

Brandon Paul’s Illini recruitment began with Tracy Webster. Mark Smith’s recruitment may end with Tracy Webster. The Thornton grad was All-Big Ten at Wisconsin. He’s an assistant to Cuonzo Martin at Cal, for now. He attended Friday’s game between Tilmon’s ESL and Smith’s Edwardsville squads.

Smith’s burgeoning cachet means he’ll be able to choose his college come April 12. Illinois has two advantages in this recruitment. First, it’s easy driving distance for his parents, who remain very involved in his life and his recruitment. Two, Jeremiah Tilmon is signed to play here next year. Tilmon and Smith have been friends since sixth grade.

Smith will also be considering the academic aspect of his future school. He and parents Anthony & Yvonne were all interested in talking more about that aspect of his recruitment. Anthony said “yes, he’s qualified” when I raised the subject of academics.

But that’s not the question. The question is what Mark wants to study, and whether he aspires to advanced degrees. When Chasson Randle chose Stanford over Illinois, it wasn’t because he wanted to inconvenience his parents, Gwen and Willie, from seeing him play college ball in person. It’s because Chasson already knew he’d want to go to medical school when basketball was over.

Because Chasson graduated at the top of his class at Rock Island High School,  his family thought he could withstand a fiercely competitive academic environment. For those aspiring to a career in medicine, Stanford is better than Illinois. Sorry loyalists, it just is.

We don’t know what Mark wants from an academic standpoint, but we do know he’s thinking about it.

One thing that doesn’t matter re: Mark Smith is “coaches on the hot seat.” John Groce is a miracle removed from being gone. Tom Crean is being e-burned in e-effigy. Bruce Weber is doing enough to keep his job for another year at K-State, but since when did we take Bruce Weber seriously?

The uncertainty doesn’t end with coaches who lose too much. Smith acknowledged on Saturday that Duke got in the mix recently. But who’d be his coach at Duke? K will turn 70 next week, while he recovers from his second major back surgery. Jeff Capel already failed at the P5 level. Maybe Chris Collins is the successor? That means Duke and Northwestern are uncertain as well.

Kansas seems like the best bet for the Smith family. It’s not a horrible drive from Edwardsville, and Bill Self is not likely to be fired. If they have an open spot for him, it’s unlikely he could do worse. As with any & all blue blooded programs, they’ll have other options for his position. Competitive recruits are rarely dissuaded by this eternal truth.

Dave Leitao might be the surest choice Mark Smith has when it comes to basketball, for both PT & continuity purposes. DePaul has been terrible since Leitao departed his first stint. Tracy Webster was unable to revive it as interim coach.

Leitao failed at Virginia, now arguably the best program in the nation. So he’s not a sure bet, either.

Frankly, it’s weird to be Mark Smith the recruit, A year ago, he figured to be a starting pitcher, not a point guard. But if it weren’t for him, there’d be very little optimism available for Illini basketball fans.

Hope springs eternal, and Mark Smith won’t have the opportunity to sign an LOI until Spring, by which time all these coaching situations will be determined.

And now, here’s that Minnesota game in a nutshell:

 

Categories
Illini basketball

There’s a basketball game tomorrow

It’s #SocialMediaDay tomorrow at the #StateFarmCenter. The promotion is already sold out, so I guess it’s useless to tell you that buyers got four tickets plus a screen printed #Illini shirt with their own social media handle on the back. Traditional media were given their own version of the shirt, even old man #Tatelines.

Also on social media, @IlliniAthletics is encouraging fans to download #IlliniLights from their preferred app store.
It’s the same tool I raved about after the Purdue game. It seemed neat in Mackey Arena, perhaps because I mistakenly believed it to be original.

Then I saw it at the Crisler Center, and the thrill was gone. Now it’s just depressing. Illinois probably isn’t even third in introducing this gimmick. It’s just that I haven’t seen it elsewhere.
Illinois will also host the Cubs’ 2016 World Series Trophy on Saturday, allowing fans to come and be near it, two hours before tip-off. On Sunday, the first 250 WBB fans will get free pizza. One raffle winner will take a 40″ TV home.
In other words, anything to keep fans’ minds off of basketball.
Actually, Matt Bollant says his team is a lot better, so in WBB’s case, there’s basketball too.

The men face a Minnesota team that’s down on its luck and in need of a boost.
For some reason, The Minnesota game always represents a significant moment in any Illini season. I usually link to Tracy’s dagger three when writing about Minnesota games in the Groce era, but today I’m recalling the late winter of 2012, when Illinois played an offensive masterpiece for the first time in ages, and still ost at The Barn.
By that point, everybody knew Bruce Weber was toast.
As Illinois preps for another offensive explosion (more like the Iowa game than, say, any other game) most of the chatter surrounding the program has nothing to do with contest on the court, but rather who’ll be coaching the team next year.
Meanwhile, John Groce has updated the dates on the Illini Inspirational Ladder.

The perception of this program improves the farther you get away from it. In State College,  I met a lovely young couple who’d returned to campus specifically because they thought a match-up between the Nittany Lions and Illini would be a “good game.” Max had been an undergrad when Illinois was relevant. Melanie went to Va Tech so she probably still thinks of Illinois as a tournament team (albeit an overrated/ choke job tournament team).
 
It’s hard to say whether the players have thrown in the towel. They’d certainly tell you they haven’t, but these guys aren’t stupid.
Asked about it this afternoon, both Jalen Coleman-Lands and Malcolm Hill were somber in responding. But neither seemed depressed overall. Malcolm was his cheerful self, except when asked if he’s contemplating the end. To that, he demurred.


Anyway, there’s a game tomorrow. And although it might be too depressing to think about Illini basketball at the moment, I’d like to offer my experience in State College as a motivational tool.
Max and Melanie still think of Illini sports as good. Their own program has already recovered from the most horrific scandal imaginable. Things do get better, even when they seem completely broken.
After a couple drinks with them at the Allen Street Grill, I moseyed down to the basement bar, Zeno’s. I watched a band called Pure Cane Sugar while sass-talking barkeep Dave Staab told me what to drink, and refused to serve crap that I ordered just because it was local.  Fuck Yuengling’s.
This might seem irrelevant to Illini basketball, but it’s part of the experience. You visit college towns and drink with the locals.
And when your team is going nowhere, it’s nice to  know that beer is still looking out for you.
Categories
Illini basketball

Los Matadores

WEEEEEE!

If we were Gonzaga, we’d feel this way most mornings. Playing lousy teams is an excellent way to ensure wins. Competing against matador defenders ensures that your offensive sets will look great!

That’s why Mark Few and Ggreggg Marshall aren’t looking for jobs in competitive conferences. It’s why Bryce Drew may learn, over the next few years, that money isn’t everything.

Michigan stinks. They’ve got the worst defense in the Big Ten.

OK, that’s an exaggeration, statistically speaking.  Michigan can’t stop other teams from scoring, and they can’t rebound on those rare occasions when the other team misses.

John Beilein laughed about it, noting that Michigan didn’t get schooled on the boards because Illinois didn’t miss any shots (64% on twos and another 64% from three).

Beilein also readily admitted that Kipper Nichols was nowhere to be found on the Wolverine’s scouting report. Wouldn’t it be great if John Groce were so candid?

Now that Bo Ryan is gone, there’s no contest about who’s my favorite B1G coach. Like John Groce, Beilein is known more for his teams’ offensive capabilities. Defense? Not so good.

 

Te’Jon Lucas has been the proverbial back-up QB for the last three months. Now he’s the actual back-up QB, and based on the minutes he’s played in the last two games, moving in on the starting QB position.

Compare his Wednesday stats to Tracy Abrams’s. Lucas’s ATO was 8-to-1 in 23 minutes. Abrams was 3-to-1 in 24 minutes.

Each had a steal. Abrams grabbed two rebounds and Lucas one. Abrams committed three fouls and Lucas zero.

Lucas didn’t miss any shots. Tracy was 1-of-3 from the field and 2-of-3 on FTs. Lucas didn’t get to the line.

Each made a thrilling no look pass for an assist.

Kipper Nichols is unlikely to live up to the outrageous expectations foisted upon him by demented fans. Since joining the program, he’s been the fantasized savior among people with pseudonymous message-board identities & access to the Internet.

And yet, every time Nichols touched the ball on Wednesday, something really exciting happened.

Whether it was yanking a rebound from the hands of an opponent, offensive rebounds and put-backs, or nailing shots from the low post or the arc; Kipper dazzled the crowd of 11,404.

Dazzling a crowd is exactly what John Groce needs to keep his job. And he also needs about four thousand more people per game. And he needs those people to pay more for tickets.

The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, to its credit, has become far more flexible, in recent years, about ticket prices and packages. Ticket supply continues to exceed demand, so DIA dropped prices dramatically. Good for them, but bad for the bottom line.

Thrilling players like Kipper Nichols and Te’Jon Lucas sell tickets. Think of the days when Bruce Douglas lobbed & Efrem Winters dunked.

Indiana gets 50% more people per game. They probably don’t sell tickets for $6.78/per, either.

Indiana gets 50% more people per game. They probably don’t sell tickets for $6.78/per, either.

Jalen Coleman-Lands connected on 4-of-5 threes, for 12 points. His passing remains underrated (4 assists). Maverick Morgan also dished four assists from the center position, and converted eight of his nine attempts from the floor.

With Jaylon Tate and Mike Thorne combining for exactly zero minutes, one wonders whether Groce will contract his rotation to the degree that mentor Thad Matta usually does … something like six or seven players per game.

Probably not.

But as long as The Producers continue to produce, the non-producers are likely relegated to cheerleading and spectating.

Illinois was lousy on defense, and that’s okay. Most people don’t care about defense, just so long as the home team leads by 15 to 20 points throughout the second half.

If he can’t ensure that his team connects on 64% of shots night-in/night-out, John Groce may want to hire a defensive mastermind, like Chris Lowery or Wayne McClain, to instill defensive toughness in his matadors.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman dunks over Malcolm Hill
Categories
Illini basketball

The Missed Milestone, the Missed Miracle

Ex-Ohio State assistant coach leads team to astonishing comeback! Champaign kid goes off in miraculous conference road win!

Both those things happened this weekend, just not to us.

At this point, I’m surprised only that people are surprised. Everything we’ve seen this basketball season is consistent with everything we’ve ever seen from the individuals involved. They are who we thought they are.

Yes, it’s been a while since I posted an Illini Report. What was there to say that you couldn’t read elsewhere?

Well, there’s a lot, actually. I started writing it four times. That is, there are four unpublished pieces in my drafts folder. I had a lot to vent, and some lovely insider gems.

But it’s all hurtful stuff. It’s all borne of frustration, anger and cynicism.  You can read plenty of that elsewhere, too.

John Groce watches from the sidelines (Vashoune Russell)

After 3 of the last 4 games, I was never tempted to follow The Good Tracy with The Bad Tracy. That’s not to say I didn’t write it. I just didn’t publish it.

It would certainly have been appropriate.

John Groce continues his misdirection strategy in defending Tracy (a refreshing change from Bruce Weber’s incessant player-trashing) to emphasize the qualities Tracy brings every day.

I feel bad for Tracy Abrams. I take no enjoyment from berating his failures. I’d love to see him leave Illinois as a champion.

Tracy Abrams disappointed at Indiana (Vashoune Russell)

As the “play Te’Jon Lucas” hue & cry makes its way across all forms of media, the usual suspect is Jaylon Tate. But Tate’s passing at Indiana was, like always, dynamic and exciting. He had three times as many assists as Abrams in half the minutes.

From a passing standpoint, D.J. Williams and Michael Finke are better PGs than Abrams. Jalen-Coleman-Lands continues to fly under the radar for his court vision & ability to find open teammates.

Jalen Coleman-Lands for the save!

Tracy Abrams is undoubtedly a leader, and a disciplined worker. He’s an almost perfect soldier in his willingness to execute orders, and a model sergeant for his determination to motivate his troops to implement the policies dictated by his commanders.

In year five of the Groce Administration, those policies tempt military analogies. The Maginot Line for defense. Vietnam for understanding our opponent.

Mike Thorne boxes out (Vashoune Russell)

I introduced the season by writing that Mike Thorne’s interior tendencies would frustrate Illini fans, and that Te’Jon Lucas should consider redshirting. Neither observation was intended to insult the player involved. Mike Thorne is one of the most likeable guys on the team. And Te’Jon’s repeated DNPs are not his fault nor his choice.

Thorne never plays much, and continues to start. I’m good with that. Through 16 games, Maverick Morgan averages 21 minutes to Thorne’s 15. In conference, Thorne has played even less.

Maverick Morgan blocks OG Anunoby (Vashoune Russell)

It’s fun to think about opponents taking the time to scout Thorne. It’s especially fun if one dreams that Thorne may — as intelligent, introspective persons sometimes do — completely change his modus operandi upon catching a ball in the low post.

It’s a turnover waiting to happen, I wrote at the beginning of the year. (Oh, I didn’t? Well, it was something like that anyhow.)

ABOUT THAT COMEBACK FROM 20+ DOWN

When the Illini cut Indiana’s lead to 12, the Hoosiers went on a 10-0 run.

Then Illinois cut the lead to nine.

And then, John Groce made the Bruce Weberest decision of an already thoroughly Bruce Weberish career, calling timeout as Te’Jon ran the ball toward Indiana’s (admittedly well-defended) bucket.

On the subsequent (surely much intellectualized) inbound play, Te’Jon turned the ball over.

Erstwhile Urbana High School varsity coach Vashoune Russell had an opinion about this sequence of events. (Vashoune took pictures of the game with some really expensive cameras. It was almost worth the $64 I put in his gas tank. Holy shit those GMC Suburbans.)

Vashoune couldn’t understand why Groce thought he could get away with the same inbound play twice in a game versus a well-coached team.

ELSEWHERE IN WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

Jordan Caroline made an unofficial visit to Illinois is 2012. As far as I know, that was the extent of his recruitment. He signed with SIUC,  made the MVC all-freshmen team and transferred to Nevada.

If, after Illinois’s second stab at persistence cut the lead to 9 on Saturday, you decided you’d like to see a team come back from 20+ down to win a game, you’re in luck. No TV subscription required. If you have an internet connection (which you do) you can watch the replay at ESPN3. Here it is.

Caroline is the grandson of an Illini/NFL legend. He was sired by another Illini legend, who also played in the NFL.

But Jordan clearly, distinctly put his own stamp on all-time legend status with a single game. 45 points & 13 rebounds is not all-time material, but recovering from a 14-point deficit with a minute to go is all-time anything. That was Saturday’s astonishing performance at New Mexico.

If you want to relive the magical 15-0 start of Saturday’s Hoosiers fiasco, you can watch that too. How often will you get the chance to see Illinois’ best player collect a third foul before the team has scored a single point?

PLAYING NICE

Coaches on the Hot Seat sometimes recognize that Being Friendly will serve them better than Being A Dick, or isolating themselves.

After his regular (i.e. B1G mandated) time with the media Saturday, Tom Crean made a beeline toward the Illini media pool, all assigned to workstations in the far corner of the media room.

“Does Chicago need anything else?” he asked, perhaps oblivious to the slight, and perhaps recognizing that Shannon Ryan was the only reporter in the pool whose audience should concern him.

No one needed anything else. Vashoune and I shook his hand, thanked him for the offer, and congratulated him on the win.

Kipper NIchols dives to the floor for a loose ball (Vashoune Russell)

Crean left the room, but engaged a pair of TV reporters (and their cameras) in the tunnel outside. Meanwhile, Scout.com’s Jeremy Werner and Derek Piper joined Indiana’s Scout correspondent Jeff Rabjohns in a discussion, in the media room.

At some point, Crean re-entered the room. He engaged an Indiana beat writer in a long discussion. It’s the first time I’ve seen a B1G coach hang out in a media room after exhausting his official duties.

After a long talk, Crean again walked to the other side of the room, toward the Illini pool. “Is Jeremy Werner here?” he asked.

By this time, Jeremy and Derek had returned to the court, to record their usual postgame video commentary.

“He was,” we responded.

Crean gushed about Jeremy’s statistical analysis. He said he’d read it earlier in the week, and “actually learned something from it.”

A lot of coaches pretend they don’t read their press clippings. Some coaches don’t seem capable of reading. So it might feel rewarding to know that a coach not only reads, but learns from ones writing.

I emailed Jeremy to tell him about the query, and also to ask WTF column Crean was foaming about. It was Jeremy’s Rapid Recap of the tOSU game, according to Jeremy, who also observed that the column was “nothing special.”

John Groce also stayed in the visitor’s media room for a few extra moments, and made small talk at Chicago Tribune‘s Shannon Ryan. Then he moved to the tunnel to allow Louie del Rio and Bret Beherns a better opportunity to frame him with their cameras. (The IU visitor’s “media room” is a secretary’s office, and it’s tiny.)

Groce is no idiot. A week after dissing Bret’s softball about disgruntled fans, he offered himself to his most important conduit. WCIA has the largest local TV audience.

Leron Black rebounds at Indiana (Vashoune Russell)

Ryan reaches the largest number of Illini fans, in theory. That is, the Trib has a huge subscriber base, most of which lives in Illinois. Nobody necessarily reads Shannon’s columns, if they can be bothered to comb through the sports section, past all the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Notre Dame, Marathon, etc. coverage.

Tracy Abrams takes a ball screen from Mike Thorne Jr. (Vashoune Russell)

Groce reserves all his inside information for CBS Sport’s Jon Rothstein, but it behooves him to make nice with those media members who can access a national audience. The Tribune company publishes the Los Angeles Times, too. And the Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and Sun-Sentinel. On a slow day, any of those papers might run an article by any of the Tribune company’s reporters.

The pleasantries lasted only a moment. By comparison, you can see why Tom Crean has won two B1G Championships.

Jalen Coleman-Lands launches a three over Indiana’s James Blackmon Jr.

But in fairness to Groce, he’s been on the hot seat for only about three years. Crean has been on the hot seat since the day he was hired. But as we’re all interested in the success of Illini sports, let’s all keep an eye on Groce’s interactions with the media.

Bret’s question was only the beginning of a Pandora’s Box, Groce should do everything in his power to keep that box from opening. Unfortunately for him, five years of inaccessibility hampered that possibility. All the reporters he’s marginalized will have a column ready, whether they publish it after the Michigan game, after the Maryland game, after the Purdue game …

Is it fair and/or ethical to criticize Groce for not buttering the media? Yes and no. Everything keeps changing. Newspapers gave way to web content, etc.

But the fact is that Groce does butter the media, just not anyone local.  Take that as you will.

Meanwhile, Loren Tate is still good friends with Lou Henson.

 

Categories
Illini basketball

Woe is John Groce

Five years ago, as Bruce Weber drove the final nails into the coffin of Illini basketball, I began writing his obituary for Smile Politely magazine.

Close wins over Cornell and St. Bonaventure perplexed & disconcerted Illini fans. I’ve already written about writing about those games.  Twice.  At least. And the Nebraska game that followed.

Illinois won all those games. Those wins sealed Weber’s fate. Illini fans don’t care to watch close wins over ostensible patsies.

Today, I’d like to write about something else. Unfortunately, when your job is to write about Illini basketball, the plot line doesn’t change. Five years later, much to my chagrin, I’m still writing about Tracy Abrams barrelling into swarms of defenders.

Then.
Now.

I’m still writing about dropping attendance. I’m still writing about a team that scrapes past mid-major — okay, let’s be honest … minor — programs.

I’m writing about a basketball program that nobody reads about.

Maybe the college basketball landscape has shifted since the days when Big Ten teams didn’t lose to teams from conferences you’ve never heard of. Heck, the mighty Thad Matta lost to Florida Atlantic last night in Columbus! I don’t even know what conference they represent! (Oof, Google tells me it’s C-USA. How the momentarily mighty have fallen.)

Anyway, thing is, #WeWillWin doesn’t care to embrace this new reality, if it is, in fact, real.

#WeWillWin means, tautologically speaking, that we will win.

It means not only won’t we lose at home to Tennessee State and Miami (OH) and Winthrop. It means we will win.

It implies that our conference finishes will include 10+ victories. It suggests post-season relevance.

Meanwhile. John Groce retains a downright Zookian demeanor in the face of overwhelming ennui. “We’ll need to get that fixed” and “we need to take a look at that” remain favorite refrains in Groce’s fifty-eighth month of turning the program around.

The sense of dominance that you might expect at this point, in year five, has yet to be established. The sense of figuring things out prevails.

Tuesday night, Groce mused that the team could benefit from watching every minute of the debacle it had just vomited up in front of hundreds, nay thousands of fans (but nothing like the 10,536 claimed as official attendance).

What could a team expect to learn by watching 40 minutes of a game in which a 3-and-5 Summit League team nearly prevailed?

I don’t know, but I’ll bet it’s nothing like the lesson an undefeated conference contender could learn from a 25-point win over the same opponent, even though the walk-ons played the final five minutes.

With another Groce-ism, the current coach reminded a small media contingent that coaches prefer practice and players prefer games.

Groce has seen the Assembly Hall cum State Farm Center media room packed with content producers.

More often, and more recently, he’s dealt with a small and familiar group whose audience is either small and passionate (online mostly) or probably not reading/watching.

That the local newspapers and TV stations still attend is not surprising. What else can they report to retain readers/viewers? In this town, it’s Illini sports, Urbana shootings and weather — in reverse order — that keep people interested.

John Groce was hired on the strength of a recruiting reputation earned at Ohio State. He was hailed as a Matta protégé.

Groce himself has been consistent in telling us that he’s a disciple of Todd Lickliter and Paul Patterson, his high school and (irrelevant NAIA) college coaches.

You haven’t even heard of Paul Patterson, and you know what happened to Todd Lickliter. Those two may be great basketball minds. That’s true of John Groce as well. And you too!

None of you has proven an ability to lead a high-major basketball program.

Some people think The Notorious UIC was the nadir of Illini basketball. But that team advanced to the tourney.  The UIC game was six years ago. The December 2011 game at United Center was UNLV, which wiped the floor with Weber’s last team as disgruntled Illini fans (people who, in the past, showed up for games in Chicago) lustily booed the head coach.

Gavin Schilling and Cliff Alexander were just two of the recruits on hand that day. None of them ever played for Illinois.

Will this Illinois team mirror the 2011 Illini (20-14, 9-9) whose seniors were just mediocre enough to trip into the dance? Will they completely fall apart, like the next year’s team (17-15, 6-12)?

Right now, it looks like neither. This team resembles the 2010 Illini. There’s the veteran point guard whose performance has never quite equaled his expectations and potential. There are a bunch of big men, a couple of whom can shoot really well, but often seem dominated inside. There’s the power forward who’s a rebounding fool with a great midrange game.

2010 was the last Illini team to earn a winning record in conference (10-8). They looked good against weaker opponents, and fared well against good competition when they shot well.

They were absolutely slaughtered by quicker teams. Remember the Dayton game in the NIT? Yikes.

I’ve written critically of John Groce’s inability to transcend his inescapably John Grocey tendencies for roughly three years now.

It’s possible that this year’s team will return John Groce to the NCAA. Maybe Kipper Nichols will be the Bizarro Alex Legion. But it’s frightening, when reading the fandom online, to realize that a lot of people are expecting Kipper Nichols to be the Bizarro Alex Legion.  Nichols is fast becoming the back-up QB legend for all-time among Illini fans who

  1. are capable of typing
  2. have access to the Internet
  3. have never seen him play, not once, ever

i.e. they expect Kipper Nichols to step in and take over this team, once he gains eligibility in ten days.

Even if he seems more acclimated to Groce’s unnecessarily complex schemes than he did two months ago in practice, Nichols will still be playing his first-ever college games, undersized at the position Groce requires him to play, and not considered by the staff to be a sufficiently good shooter to play his natural position.

As of last night, this team doesn’t appear to be John Groce’s redemption.  Groce doesn’t blame the players the way Weber did.  But Weber’s behavior only made him more vile, and easy to blame/fire.

Groce has yet to reach the players with his message, whatever that is. He’s still working on it, in that Zookian way.

There will come a day when Groce gets that message across. Or, there will come a day when the plug is pulled on “we’ll need to get that fixed” and “we need to take a look at that.”

NOTE

For the first time in ever, none of Malcolm’s mom, Aaron’s dad or DJ’s family attended an Illini game.

Categories
Illini basketball

Stall Ball: It still doesn’t work

Winthrop wasn’t great. Illinois should have won.

Lots of guys played poorly, for each team. But everything about this game favored the littlest guy on the court.

Keon Johnson is physically unable to violate the new cylinder rule. At 5’4″, he’s simply incapable of fouling a typical college player above the waist.

Referee Kelly Pfeifer set the tone with a lot of early whistles. After three consecutive calls, Pfeifer seemed to recognize that he should, maybe, take a break. He was on the verge of becoming the story of the game.

Terry Oglesby, perhaps sensing that Pfeifer shouldn’t be the only official to use his whistle, ramped up his whistling game.

Big guys were disproportionately affected, and Illinois’ height advantage disappeared when Maverick Morgan went to the bench with two early fouls.

Leron Black entered the game, rusty, and picked up two of his own. Same with Mike Thorne.

Contrast Johnson, by far the most aggressive player on the court. He finished the first half with 15 points and a single foul. He earned another in the second half.

Still, Illinois should have won. But as the clock ran toward expiry, John Groce ordered his team to take its collective foot off the gas.

That never works.

STALL BALL

My first memory of Illini basketball features no players, no live action. It was a criticism, spoken by a disgruntled fan. And then another one. And then I remember my dad saying the same thing.

Being a tot, I interpreted the criticism literally. They were tired of Lou Henson’s “letting the air out of the ball.” I remembered it because it seemed absurd, not as a strategy, but as a literal interpretation. How could Henson get away with it, I thought? Wouldn’t somebody notice?

Today, the strategy still seems absurd. When a team gains a lead in a game, it’s done something right, right? Whatever the game plan, it worked.

So why stop doing it?

John Groce is my age, so he ought to know that “stall ball” is a bad idea. But Groce is a numbers guy, so there must be a data set that tells him to run down the shot clock, then heave a desperation shot once the defense locks down.

Bruce Weber employed the same terrible strategy, and it was a significant factor in his demise.

Up by ten points with less than four minutes to go, eating clock seemed like a good idea to John Groce. One team needed to score, and did so with a sense of urgency. The other team dribbled a lot.

In the final 2:43, the urgent team scored ten points and took over the game’s momentum. An already small crowd groaned. They’ve seen this scenario play out many times in their collective lives. Even when the stalling team wins, the game becomes closer, more tense. Fans don’t enjoy it.

“Stall Ball” wasn’t always an awful idea. Before the introduction of the shot clock, it worked well for teams who knew how to run it. Dean Smith’s Carolina Tarheels were the best. They called it “the Four Corners.”

You’ll notice that Phil Ford threatened to drive to the basket. He didn’t just stand there, dribbling.  When the defense gave him an open look, he took it.

Monday night will be remembered for a long time. Keon Johnson’s performance was amazing. So was the Illinois collapse. If the Groce era ends in the next sixteen months, the Winthrop game will be a talking point.

Player rotations, a frequent topic among Groce’s most outspoken critics, will be an issue. On Monday, Te’Jon Lucas did not play and D.J. Williams got three minutes.  Malcolm Hill played 39, and connected on 0-of-10 two-pointers. Was he fatigued?

Jaylon Tate chased Keon Johnson around all night, but Lucas might have been able to help hold Johnson to 15-of-21 shooting. Frankly, no one could stop Johnson. His game is incomprehensible to major college basketball players, because they never experience a 5’4″ spark plug.

Instead of Lucas, Groce employed Jalen Coleman-Lands, where dead balls allowed, as an offense-for-defense substitute for Tate. Groce did so even when Keon Johnson curled up in a heap, with a leg cramp.

JCL was pretty scrappy in the endgame, BTW.

Everybody involved with Illini basketball had an off-night. John Groce’s was the offest.