Illini basketball

Remarkable Numbers – Kennesaw

Fun watching Jaylon Tate pass

With each passing game, the 2014-15 Illini become more of what they are. Hazy statistical anomalies clarify, becoming firm realities.

The facts-based media was largely absent from Saturday’s game (Tribune & Sun-Times off covering bowl games, Mark Tupper perhaps recovering from one), so I thought I might stray from stream-of-consciousness into hard/fast numbers. It’s the end of “season one.” It seems like a good time.

There’s some good and some bad from the Kennesaw State game. From a statistical standpoint, Illinois didn’t vary far from the mean. Except when they did.

Here are some numbers to think about.

25 — Most minutes played by any Illini (Fittingly, it was Kendrick Nunn.)

6 — Turnovers committed.

16 —Turnovers forced.

7-1  — Jaylon Tate’s assist-to-turnover ratio

2-2 — Ahmad Stark’s assist-to-turnover ratio

19-36 — Illinois’ assists on made field goals

19-to-1 — Leron Black’s minutes-to-fouls ratio

7-to-5 — Austin Colbert’s minutes-to-rebounds ratio

7-7 —Rayvonte Rice from the field

6-7 — Malcolm Hill from the field

7-21 — Illinois’ 3FG

1-5 — Ahmad Starks 3FG

2-6 — Aaron Cosby 3FG

2-2 — Malcolm Hill/Rayvonte Rice 3FG

The “better shooting” narrative can be supported only by Rayvonte Rice’s ascension to true shooting-guard status. Through 13 games, Rice is hitting 47.1% of attempts from the arc.

John Groce credited Rice, in his Braggin’ Rights postgame remarks, for spending countless hours alone, unseen in the gym, perfecting his muscle memory. (The current thinking in college basketball seems to be that players alone can help themselves to shoot better, and it’s simply a matter of practice. There’s probably some neuroscience data to support this thinking.)

Ray continued to work his ass off in less measurable ways as well.

After an 0-for-2 night on Saturday, Kendrick Nunn dropped to 43.6% from long. Hitting both his treys brought Malcolm Hill to 40.6%.

Last year, Joseph Bertand connected on 48% of his FGs, and 38.5% of his 3FGs. Jon Ekey was 40.6% overall, and 36.6% from 3.

Maybe Cosby and Starks will get better as the competition improves. At the end of the non-conference schedule, their numbers show a distinct drop-off from last year.

Cosby is now 30.8% from the field, and 32.8% from distance. Starks has connected on 36.3% of his FGs, but only 31% from deep.

If the offense has improved — and there’s a reasonable (if subjective) argument that the offense has improved — it’s not because of the newcomers. It’s because of the leap forward from Rice and Hill.

Last year, Rice shot 43% from the field and Hill 38.3%. This year Rice is 51.4% from the field, Hill is 52.6 %.

Maybe the key to success in 2015 is to get Cosby and Starks “on track.” But maybe the key is to get productive minutes from them, while Kendrick Nunn finds his footing and joins Rice and Hill in the Illini Power Trio.


Cosby has already demonstrated an aptitude for rebounding from the small forward position. Hill is second on the team in total rebounds (after Rice). Hill’s defense has yet to garner accolades from his coach.

Nunn’s defense has won him praise on occasion, but not always. Whether his overall play is “tentative” compared to last year cannot be proven by stats.  It’s hard to imagine this team reaching the height of its potential without a bad-ass Kendrick Nunn. Taking Ray for granted (which seems traditional & popular), Kendrick is the singular component that this team must be able to rely on.

There’s not much to say about Illinois’ defense in light of the Kennesaw State game. KSU may be the worst team Illinois will face in Groce’s tenure (let’s hope so!), often preferring to toss the ball out-of-bounds before an Illini defender could assume his stance.

They did,  however, get a stunning number of wide-open looks from three.  Is that a reversion to the mean?

That’s a reality with some statistical support, and some subjective debate. We’ll know in about 18 games whether the Illini got that problem corrected, among others.

On to Ann Arbor.




Illini basketball


We learned a hopeful lesson from John Groce’s first two teams: They got better as the season progressed.

That wasn’t true of Groce’s predecessor. Everything about Bruce Weber got worse over time.

It probably wasn’t true of the three coaches that came before Weber, either. Lon Kruger’s teams were fun, but not better in March. Bill Self is a national champion, and champion generally. But it’s not his finishes that impress. Lou Henson’s team’s wore down.

I don’t remember the Harv Schmidt era, but I think it’s safe to say his team’s didn’t get better over time.

My conjecture is that John Groce is the only Illini coach in my lifetime (and therefore in his lifetime) whose teams are better in March than they were in January, or February. That’s an especially awe-inspiring comment (back-handed compliment?) when considering the dead-of-winter pits from which Groce’s teams have climbed in spring.

While Rayvonte Rice took on the entire Georgia Southern team Friday night, Groce crouched dispassionately on the sidelines. When the Eagles ran off nine straight points in the first half, when they tied the game at halftime, Groce did not throw chairs.

In the second half Groce got excited, and jumped up and down a few times when his lads executed. He argued with referees in situations where arguing supported his guys’ efforts.

He slammed his fist into the scorer’s table at one point, but that’s just kind of a habit he’s developed.

As horrified Illini fans pulled their hair out, Tweeted maudlin odes to suicide, and judged the season a tax write-off; Groce & Co. delivered  a can’t be kept down kinda shoot-out at the SFC Corral, a big-shot-making, rebound-hogging blitzkrieg.

Illinois looked crap for much of the game. It was Ray-on-5 for the first twenty minutes, and Ray held his own.

We’ll have to keep an eye on Georgia Southern, of course. Trent Wiedeman and Jelani Hewitt seemed to be for real. But even if they prove to be a middling Sun Belt team, the Illini will probably be a lot better by the time we’ve got the data to show it. That’s just how Groce teams seem to develop.

In the second half, Ray willed the team to victory (again, duh), and some of his teammates joined him in the effort.


Ahmad Starks was 2-for-11 from the floor, slightly worse than his previous outing. But Aaron Cosby found a groove, finishing 5-of-12 from the floor (2-of-7 from deep) and hitting all four free-throws. His on-ball defense, in the second half, seemed relevant to Groce’s ongoing praise for that aspect of his game.

Ray and Kendrick Nunn tied for the team lead in assists, with three apiece. Thus, the Rice-Nunn-Hill-Black-Egwu line-up survives another statistical test. Kendrick seemed obviously out of the flow on Friday, but his game could never be described as “tentative.”

I wrote a lot last season about Groce’s (at times frustrating) patience with his charges. But I never debated long term outcomes. The Illini could have made the NCAA tourney with a slightly more dictatorial approach to game situations. But that’s not Groce’s way. As hard-ass as he seems, he’s always considering the psyche of his players, and how they’ll respond to life lessons.

So on Friday, he stayed with Aaron Cosby, despite Cosby’s continued on-court lifelessness. And it worked. Cosby hit the Big Shot, the dagger, the stake in Georgia Southern’s vampire heart.

Jon Ekey was in da house, as were Jeff and Scott Morgan (dad/uncle). Brenda Colbert made the trip for a second consecutive week. She caught a 3 a.m. shuttle to O’Hare for an early morning flight. That’s dedication.

Machanda Hill is far more beautiful than Elvis Costello. But it’s amazing how a hair-do and some glasses can make a black American professional woman seem a dead ringer for a pasty British new wave rocker.

Back to Ekey. He abandoned his contract in Japan.

The paychecks arrived on time, but everything else was a mess. The travel, the accommodations, the food … nothing met his contractual guarantees. He said the team’s owner was only interested in making money, not taking care of his guys. It’s a bad business model.

Ekey made the shrewd decision to return to the states. The immediate & obvious benefit is that he can be near Kelsey Smoot.

Ekey immediately became one of my favorite Illini, based on his intelligence, willingness to communicate his thoughts, and his efforts on the court.

Let’s face it, Illini who beat Iowa at Iowa will continue to merit some cachet until Bruce Pearl is once-and-for-all banned from NCAA basketball. (The Illini SID and video teams are now in place at Auburn, so it shouldn’t be long.)

Finally, to the question of the Michael Finke redshirt: It’s less conclusive than you may have read. John Groce asked the media to give him time to evaluate Michael’s progress, and scolded them (us?) for asking.

That’s silly.

Groce eliminated media access to practices, so there’s nothing they (us?) can tell you about Michael’s, or anyone’s development that would or could compromise (i.e. question, in print) that development.

Trading four minutes per game as a freshman for 34 minutes per game as a fifth-year senior makes sense to me. Most students elongate their college experience these days. I’m still elongating mine.

So I’m not averse to a redshirt. I don’t quite  favor  it.

Here’s the presser: