Categories
Illini basketball

Whew.

KNunn hit The ShotIllinois NCAA Tournament chances took a huge hit when Illinois’ NCAA Tournament aspirations remain alive today, after a gutty defensive war in which Our Side wore down Their Side by sheer numbers.

Ahmad Starks saved the day for the second consecutive game. In both instances, he provided the level head. He was the guy who’s seen it all, good and (mostly, at Oregon State) bad. Once again, Starks was the unflappable assassin, almost disinterested. He played as if he were already dead, and you couldn’t hurt him anymore.

If Michigan had more players, Michigan wins. Our roster is depleted, bad. Their roster is depleted worse.

Spike Albrecht and Zak Irvin were awesome on defense. John Beilein’s offense was splendid to see. It’s just a pleasure to watch his teams — whether they play five future pros or a band of Rudies.

Albrecht seemed like a Rudy during his coming out party in the 2013 National Championship Game. But he’s not a one trick pony. His defense stifled Illinois’ perimeter for 38 1/2 minutes.

Max Bielfeldt did Peoria proud in his final State Farm Center appearance. His 12 points and 7 rebounds nearly cost Illinois athletics a basketball season. Oh, the irony.

Michigan’s communications staff didn’t make either player available to media after the game, instead offering Andrew Dakich as team spokesman.* Wolverine SID Tom Wywrot couldn’t make the trip due to a sinus infection. His deputies may not have realized the significance of this game for Bielfeldt.

It’s possible that Spike simply didn’t want to talk. John Beilein said Albrecht took the loss hard, and personally.

I say bully for Spike Albrecht. He’s exactly the kind of guy you’d want on your team.

I thought most of the Michigan team played with exceptional poise, for much of the night. The lone exception may be Aubrey Dawkins. He was targeted & pilloried by the Orange Krush, and he wilted.  The adult beat writers from Michigan’s traveling media pool did not notice. Their student reporters could talk about nothing else. I guess it’s a generational thing.

It worked out for Illinois. If you’re into bad sportsmanship, celebrate.

Elsewhere in the student section, one dweeb kept shouting at Spike Albrecht even as Kendrick Nunn walked to the line to shoot crucial late game free-throws. And yes, just as Kendrick tensed to release the ball, that dweeb shouted “SPIKE!”

That was Kendrick’s lone charity miss of the night. It nearly cost Illinois the game.

Fortunately, the only thing Illinois had to do to win: never give up. They simply wore the Woverines out.

John Groce wouldn’t say it in his post-game presser, but the reason Illinois won is the same reason that U.S. Grant beat Robert E. Lee: In the end, there weren’t enough bodies on the rebel side.

That’s fine by me. Whatever it takes.

Losing to Michigan last night = N.I.T. The Illini resume simply isn’t that strong.

Winning, on the other hand, put them inarguably into the NCAA conversation.

Speaking of Dakiches, I had a funny moment with Leroy William Rice prior to the game, and Dan Dakich might want to know about it. Ray’s grandfather had some choice words for Dakich, who’d referred to Rayvonte as “stupid” and “idiot” according to the Rice entourage.

Leroy walks with a cane. He gripped that cane tightly as he spoke his venom. I couldn’t quite make out all the words, but the idea was that Dan Dakich will need new knees if he comes within Leroy’s range.

I don’t doubt it.

Leroy’s grandson beat Michigan’s ass in the final showdown. He wasn’t as gimpy as his wizened relative, but he was a lot gimpier than the Ray you’ve known.

The previous entry on these pages suggested that Ray might not be 100% Ray on his return. It also posited that Kendrick Nunn will cut you, without compunction. Both proved true against the Wolverines.

Ray was not in sync, offensively. Not even with himself.

But where he could make a difference, Ray made a difference. In the end, Ray won the game for Illinois. It was almost like a Harry Potter story. You knew what was coming.

Ray and Kendrick were badgers. They displayed the anti-social tenacity of the wolverine. They were Spartan warriors with hawk eyes. In a buckeyeshell, they looked like all-conference performers. Kendrick from halftime on, and Ray during the endgame.

As hard as Michigan played on defense, Kendrick and Ray fought for this game as well.

That goes for Nnanna Egwu, too.  Egwu didn’t score until overtime, but he was everywhere in overtime. It’s important to consider those two points jointly, together.

The point is that he never stopped trying. He never gave up.

Nnanna Egwu has been asked about his “April” quote a lot. It was probably based on a genuine Egwu quote, but has now devolved, in the cynical world of promotions & marketing, into a PR stunt. But the fact is that Egwu plays that way, all the time, regardless of promotions & marketing people.

 

*Andrew Dakich played only five minutes, all in the first half. I didn’t stick around to hear what he had to say. I don’t blame him for his dad, but I wouldn’t rely on his insight either.

Categories
Illini basketball

Butts in Seats

John Groce may have figured out that spectators like scoring.

He doesn’t seem obsessed with the defensive shortcomings that — because his team scored a hundred points for a second time this week — nobody cares about.

Five years ago, an Illini team which some people considered “good” failed to score forty points, twice. The coach of that team lost again Friday, to Dan Monson’s Long Beach State 49ers, of the Big West Conference.  When Nino Williams hit K-State’s final basket with 19.6 seconds remaining, Bruce Weber’s team had scrapped its way to 60.

At his postgame press conference, Weber probably blamed his players for poor defense. Contrast Groce, who only mildly implied that he gave a shit about defensive problems, and only in the final minute of his presser.

In truth, Groce is probably just as obsessed with defense as Weber, or Groce’s mentor Thad Matta, or Weber’s apologist Tom Izzo.

Who remembers that game in Columbus,  where Izzo and Matta defensed each other to a 48-44 draw? If you do, it’s because you felt scarred by the experience, or you’re a basketball coach. I’ve tried to block that game from my memory, but I’m pretty sure both Izzo and Matta spoke about its awesomeness, from a coaching perspective.

The lesson that Groce might have learned is this: Most basketball fans (excluding, perhaps, his home state Indiana) prefer thrilling offense to stymieing defense. If you’re not sitting on the team bench, basketball is light entertainment.

Moreover, if it feels as though you’re whoring yourself for the amusement of 16,618 johns, leave their 1.8 million dollars behind. Go coach high school in a town that cares.  (Seriously, go back and watch that Weber video. He’s still mad at you for wanting to be entertained.)

It doesn’t even matter if your defense stinks, as long as you win by 20 (or 41).

Case in point: Iowa scored 94 points in Champaign, on March 8, 1989. Later that night, every single Illini fan got laid. Illinois won by 24.

Ed Horton, B.J. Armstrong and Roy Marble were great players, and the Illini ran them out of the gym.

APSU’s coach Dave Loos said he wasn’t happy with his Governor guards (18 turnovers), but they found a lot of driving lanes. They reversed the ball for wide open looks. They cut toward the basket when Illini defenders left the backdoor wide open.

If it weren’t for all the scoring, all the wildly entertaining buckets, all the threes, the great passes, vicious screens, and sleight-of-ball; we’d be talking about defensive problems.

We’re not.

Tonight, all Illini fans got laid, again.

APSU would have beaten K-State on this night. Like the 49ers, the Governors shot 43% from the field. Like the Governors, CSULB dropped the ball 18 times.

K-State shot 32.8% from the field, and 14.3% from three. That’s some awesome Weberball.

The Illini hit 59.7% from the floor, and 56% from three. Rayvonte Rice might be unable to sleep because he missed a free-throw. Otherwise, he drained every single shot that left his hands.

Kendrick Nunn was perfect from the arc. Malcolm Hill connected on 6-of-7 shots. Nnanna Egwu was 6-of-9, and neither Austin Colbert nor Maverick Morgan missed a shot from the field.

“Basket” is one of the two most important root words in the Germanic term “basketball”. It just makes sense to recruit players who can make them.

AHMAD STARKS – SLOW OUT OF THE GATE?

On Sunday, Ahmad Starks’s defense was bad, at first. Then he picked up the pace, literally. That is, he was a step behind a smaller (and quicker?) opponent.

Then he adjusted.

Friday night against the Peay, Starks was slow to get going on offense. In the first half, he connected on only 1-of-6 shots from the floor. He assisted no one. Jaylon Tate played the majority of the minutes at point, and dished four assists.

In the second half, Starks turned it around.  He made all his shots, and assisted twice.

Is it fair to say that Ahmad is slow out of the gate?

Groce said it’s too early to say.  Then he went on to praise the harmony of the offense. Groce’s body language reinforced the notion that Starks’s Starts are another characteristic (or data set) of this team that he simply doesn’t care about. That’s consistent with Groce’s approach to nurturing Tracy Abrams.

Slow starts against legitimate teams might cause problems. Aaron Cosby’s hot-and-cold track record is something else we’ll want to watch, too. But the optimist’s view of this situation is that Ahmad Starks’s isn’t fazed by early-going actions that might seem to place him behind the curve.

Nor does Aaron Cosby stop shooting.

On Sunday, when I asked Ahmad about his slow start on defense, he readily admitted that he lost his man, helped too much on the strong side, got lost.

But then he figured it out. The problem stopped.

Friday’s 1-for-6 performance translated into a perfect second half. If it’s too soon to call “pattern,” it’s not too soon to point out that Ahmad Starks is not confounded by data sets that prove to be non-representative samples.

Starks is a willingly admitted loner. He’s cerebral, analytical. He’s sincere, and earnest. Combine those characteristics, and the composite picture is a guy who’s observant, and understands himself. Maybe that’s the reason he can shoot 1-for-6 in one half and 4-of-4 the next.

He adjusts.

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

Leroy William Rice (grandfather) comes to every game. He moves slowly, and with a cane. But he knows what’s what. He knows what he likes. He can spot a Rayvonte Rice slash from 94-feet.

Friday night, Mr. Rice hollered at me to stop blocking his view. I was standing on the baseline, and he was trying to watch the troupe of tiny ballerinas in pink tutus, performing a halftime dance.

I got out of the way.

Meanwhile, at the west end of the family bleachers, Melvin Nunn (dad) was extricating himself from a folding chair. He’d stepped on it to reach his seat in the back row — without inconveniencing others.

It trapped him like a bear (which he is, in a big & friendly way). He had to untie his shoe, and remove it, before he could get his foot untangled.

Coach Nunn is a much revered, and well-respected man. When I told him that I didn’t take a picture of his predicament, he let out an enormous laugh. “You should have!”

My theory about Kendrick Nunn is the same as my theory about Rayvonte Rice. They are two of the best college basketball players I’ve ever seen. I think it’s because they were raised to know that you can have fun, you can be relaxed; but you have to work hard, and you have to know when it’s time to get business done.