Just when you were feeling good about Illini basketball, here’s a feel-good story about Illini basketball.
Lou Henson didn’t want to attend last weekend’s reunion/birthday party. He didn’t want to be seen in a wheelchair.
But friends & family cajoled him into going. An inevitably, he exposed himself to 15,000 live viewers, a torrent of love & LOOOOOOU!
Before rolling out to the center of Lou Henson Court, to sit for a portrait with his players and their families, Lou sat dumbfounded as Danvillian speed painter John Jansky pollocked colorful acrylics on a big canvas.
As Jansky smeared and flicked, he also danced to the music, air-drumming to the beat. He was having a great time.
But his painting didn’t sharpen into a discernible image. Some of us began wondering: Is this going anywhere?
In the crowd, I spotted Brooks Taylor. I wanted to introduce myself. I’ve never met him. We’re about the age, and I missed most of that era while away at college.
CJ Jackson, who didn’t play for Lou (and didn’t really play for Bruce Weber, either) was also there. I really wanted to say hello, and congratulate him on his outstanding grad-transfer season at Hawai’i Pacific. I guess I ran out of time.
You can see all the people who came, and their kids, toward the end of the video.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You probably know most of the relevant details of the 80-67 EIU triumph at Charleston last Friday. Jay Spoonhour and Brad Underwood agreed to hold an informal scrimmage, and use it as a practice.
Then, they each abandoned that plan and found themselves in a competitive brawl.
Now, here are the irrelevant details.
Before the game, Josh Whitman and Tommy Michael stood courtside, talking about various things. These two were the top contenders for the job Whitman eventually got. Michael was an associate athletic director before taking the top job at Eastern. He was an academic advisor in the DIA before that. It was good to see that no hard feelings came between the two re: that job search.
Michael was in a good position to know exactly what happened with Matt Bollant at Illinois.
He chose to hire Bollant to lead EIU women’s basketball. Keep that in mind when remembering Bollant’s tenure, if you think about women’s basketball at all.
An unexpected member of the audience was Machanda Hill, Malcolm’s mom. It turns out that she hasn’t seen enough Illini basketball, yet.
She sat in the corner of the upper deck along with Kipper’s mom Tanicia Porter and Aaron’s dad Rob Jordan. Rob didn’t enjoy the scrimmage as much as, say, Eastern Illinois fans.
Also sitting in an upper corner were Bob and Cheryl Easter, who had great seats when he was university president.
Cheryl continues to be a huge basketball fan. She didn’t mind sitting in the corner. Truth is, Lantz Arena doesn’t really have bad seats. Both Leron Black and Kipper Nichols said it felt like a high school gym.
That setting, and the backdrop it brings, might be the cause Illinois’ shooting woes.
Because EIU also hosted a women’s scrimmage, also for charity, there was no opportunity for an Illini shootaround in Charleston. Instead, the pre-game meal and shootaround took place in Champaign. The Illini then hopped on a bus for Charleston.
They never got a chance to acclimate to Lantz sightlines.
Perhaps the meal wasn’t enough, either. Mark Smith resorted to eating D’Angelo Jackson alive, both literally & figuratively.
Everyone reported that Lou Henson attended the game with lifelong friend Loren Tate (and Champaign golfer Joe Thompson).
But perhaps no one noticed the touching scene of Josh Whitman assisting Henson out of the building, late in the game (before the rush). With Whitman’s help. Lou beat the rush (and the court storming).
Tyler Underwood didn’t sit with the team. He sat behind the team.
He didn’t travel with the team. He traveled with the head coach’s family.
That’s because NCAA rules forbid transfers from traveling during their sit-out year, the same reason Rayvonte Rice watched that Gonzaga game in Champaign.
Tyler is appealing to the NCAA so he can play this year. If that doesn’t work out, he’ll probably travel to away games with his family, not his team.
Te’Jon Lucas verballed his commitment to Illinois basketball six weeks after Tracy Abrams’s second season-ending injury. So he’s known all along that his freshman season would find him on a roster featuring two veteran upperclassmen at his position.
Maybe Te’Jon never regarded himself as Option 3 among the point guards. And maybe he’s not.
Ten days ago, he said the option of a freshman redshirt year has been discussed only by family members, and mostly because they weren’t up-to-speed on his recovery from a broken ankle in early February.
But whatever the depth chart, the Illini roster recalls one of the most intriguing (and in hindsight brilliant) strategic maneuvers in Illinois basketball history.
Lou Henson knew Derek Harper and Bruce Douglas were going to handle the ball in 1983. He must have known that Harper would then enter the NBA Draft.
So Henson asked Quinn Richardson to sit out his senior season, and bank his last year of eligibility for 1984. As a 5th year senior, Richardson was a starter on Illinois’ B1G championship team.
All I had to hear was “more playing time” and I jumped at it. That was probably an atypical situation, especially for a senior. Seldom do you have seniors redshirt unless they get injured. But look how it turned out.
Quinn Richardson’s career stat line is remarkable to behold. By deferring to two all-century Illini, he sextupled his scoring average. His minutes increased by NINETY-FIVE PERCENT over his junior year.
Jaylon Tate, Te’Jon Lucas and Tracy Abrams can’t all play 20 minutes per game this year. And they won’t.
Abrams must and will play this year. But what about the other two?
Tate started half of the games he played in last season (missing a few with that nasty pinky dislocation in game 1), but averaged only 17.5 minutes. He didn’t play at all at Wisconsin, and only three minutes against Indiana.
But Tate knows the flowgame and the packline. He’s in good physical condition. So even if John Groce lost faith in him last February, it’s hard to imagine Groce supplanting him with a kid who turned 18 this month, who’s recovering from major surgery, and who’s just now learning the system.
Lucas could follow in Tate’s footsteps by spelling Abrams for eight to ten minutes a game. But as of now, that’s still Tate’s job.
Tate is unlikely to opt out for the 2016-17 season, but what if he did? There are no scholarship seniors on next year’s roster.
Lucas’s conditioning and inexperience would seem to make him a prime candidate for a redshirt, but nobody knows that. It’s just a hunch.
His teammates think he can contribute this year.
Should everyone universally assume that Tracy Abrams is the starter at point guard? It seems like the safest bet in town, right?
Well, keep in mind the intriguing aspect of the Groce-Abrams relationship, revealed at the 2014 MBB banquet. Groce praised Joe Bertrand and Jon Ekey for accepting diminished roles mid-season (paving the way for Malcolm Hill) and added that such “sacrifice” would be a key to the next season’s success.
Groce was talking about Tracy Abrams.
You’ll remember the context. Illinois fans had just endured a miserable season, plagued by “hero ball.”
You’ll remember how 2014’s slim NCAA hopes ended: Tracy Abrams alligator-armed a runner against Michigan, in a one point loss.
You’ll remember how 2014 ended overall: Tracy Abrams firing a long airball at Clemson, in a one point loss.
So in April of 2014, Tracy Abrams was not the wave of the future in John Groce’s mind.
On the other hand, Groce incessantly voices appreciation for Abrams’s work-ethic and leadership.
Before the collapse, those qualities took the spotlight in Abrams’s amazing performance during the first game of that Big Ten Tournament. 25 points, seven rebounds, two steals, two assists and a blocked shot.
The most exciting part was the defense, and defense has always been the reason Tracy sees the court. Derided as a mediocre defender by those who don’t understand Groce’s philosophy, Tracy has always characterized the foremost principle of Groce’s defense with a word those naysayers would never guess: “trust.”
And he just plain tries hard.
Abrams has inspired and flummoxed Illini fans his entire career. He always puts the team on his back. He sometimes carries it to victory.
The dagger at Minnesota comes to mind.
His tying and go-ahead free-throws in Braggin’ Rights 2013 will not be soon forgotten.
Abrams assisted on Ekey’s buzzer-beater at Iowa, an option play called 44 Flat Fade. But even on that play, the ball seemed to stick in Tracy’s hands longer than you’d ideally want it to stick. That allowed Aaron White to get so far up Ekey’s grill, that science has yet to determine how the shot went in.
It’s that stickiness that’s held Tracy Abrams down. He’s never been able to get rid of the ball quickly. Getting rid of the ball quickly is Jaylon Tate’s preeminent skill.
Abrams has never demonstrated any fear, but he’s also never demonstrated the ability to penetrate and kick, one of the foremost skills required of Groce’s offense. Jaylon Tate is good at that, too. The thing Tate can’t do, famously, is shoot.
“Who cares?” said Howard Moore, in a hallway of the Marriott O’Hare, during last autumn’s Big Ten Basketball Media Day. “Really,” agreed Stephen Bardo.
Bardo and Moore blocked the intersection of two arterial hallways for much of that morning. Moore had taken a job as BTN analyst before Bo Ryan’s retirement freed up his old position on the Badger staff. Count him among Jaylon Tate’s fans. Coaches love watching good passers.
Tracy Abrams is no Derek Harper, and Te’Jon Lucas is probably not the second-coming of Bruce Douglas.
Jaylon Tate could pull a Chester Frazier on us, and finish his Illini career as a competent shooter. But there’s no Gary Nottingham on staff to analyze and correct shooting form.
It seems unlikely that Tate would follow the Quinn Richardson example. But it would be fun watching him alley-oop to Jeremiah Tilmon.
Shouldn’t John Groce have captured a conference title by now? Why didn’t he sign five McDonald’s All-Americans in November?
It’s YEAR THREE for chrissakes! Is Illini Basketball in the wrong hands?
For perspective, let’s look at Year Three for every man who’s ever led the program. There are nine of them who made it to a third year.
J. Craig Ruby
Who had the best Year Three?
That’s easy: Ralph Jones won Illinois’ only National Championship, going undefeated in his third year at the helm. That was 1915. James Naismith lived for another 24 years.
The Illini beat Purdue 27-to-8 that year. They trounced Indiana 20-to-4 in Bloomington. Whether you’d recognize those contests as basketball is questionable.
After 14 years in Champaign, Jones left for Lake Forest Academy. He also coached the Chicago Bears to an NFL Championship.
Who was average in Year Three?
Craig Ruby’s 14 years (1922-36) were still pretty early on in the game’s history. For what it’s worth, his second and second-to-last teams won the Big Ten. His third team finished 11-6 (8-4).
Doug Mills won the Big Ten in his first year. The 1936-37 season featured Harry Combes at forward. Combes then graduated, and Mills’s second year was his worst. That team finished 9-9 (4-8) even with Lou Boudreau as captain.
Mills won two more conference championships (1942, 1943). Year Three was a solid foundation for that rebuild. Mills’s third team finished 14-5 (8-4).
Harry Combes returned as head coach, succeeding Mills. He led the Illini to Final Fours in Year Two, Year Four and Year Five. Each of those teams finished with a top-5 ranking and five or fewer losses.
In Year Three, Combes’s team did not make the playoffs. They finished 14-8.
Harv Schmidt’s second team was his best, finishing 19-5 and ranked #20. His third team had a winning record of 15-9. The next year they finished below .500.
Schmidt’s last three teams were 14-10, 14-10 and 5-18.
Who had the worst Year Three?
That’s debatable. Lon Kruger’s and Lou Henson’s worst teams were Year Three, and they were pretty bad. Bill Self’s third team was pretty good, but arguably his worst.
The Self-analysis is somewhat subjective. 2002’s team won a share of the B1G Championship and made the Sweet Sixteen. The 2003 team achieved neither plateau, but won the B1G Tourament. They had fewer wins and fewer losses. The 2002 team faced three top-ten teams in the pre-conference season. The 2003 squad faced two top-20 teams in the pre-conference. 2002 lost 2-of-3. 2003 won both.
No matter how you slice it, Bill Self did best with Lon Kruger’s recruits. In his third year, he had legendary stars in place. But they were young. They were learning. Their best years were ahead of them. They didn’t advance to the second weekend of the NCAAs.
You’ll remember Kruger’s 3-13 B1G cellar-dwellers making a run to the BTT championship game, before Mo Pete and Mateen Cleaves slapped a sense of reality into them.
Nobody blamed Kruger for a lousy year. He’d won a championship in 1998 with Henson’s players. He had big name recruits coming in.
Lou Henson’s third team beat Bobby Knight’s 11th ranked Hoosiers, in Bloomington. The old saying for Ohio State football fans goes like this: “You can go winless all year, and then beat Michigan. That’s a good season.” It wasn’t a good season. Illinois finished 13-14 (7-11). Only the liar/cheater Bruce Pearl could produce a worse season, statistically speaking, for Henson. The 1992 Illini finished 13-15 (7-11) in the wake of Pearl’s storytelling.
Henson’s tenure is instructive. He’s talked about his first year on the job, when he and Tony Yates, Les Wothke and Mark Coomes canvassed the state, meeting with all the high school coaches who’d give them the time, and building relationships. Coomes moved on for a while, Mark Bial and Bill Molinari filled his spot as Yates and Wothke continued to make a case with recruits.
Despite all that legwork, Henson’s first three teams were lousy. 14-13 (7-11) in 1976, 16-14 (8-10) in 1977, and the awful Year Three.
His fourth team was undefeated, and had just beat the top-ranked eventual National Champion, when it lost its point guard. That team, minus Steve Lanter, was bad.
In Year Six, Henson had Derek Harper at the point. Eddie Johnson, Mark Smith and Derek Holcomb were seniors. That team made the NCAA tournament, beat Wyoming, and lost to Kansas State.
If social media existed in 1981, what would it have said of Lou Henson? His teams hovered around .500 for the fist three years, seemed great before collapsing in year four, made the NIT in year five, and then one-and-done in the tournament with two future NBA veterans in the line-up.
The next year, it was back to the NIT.
From a 2015 perspective, you’ve got to assume that Illinois Athletic Director Neale Stoner has seen enough at this point. He’s not the guy who hired Henson. He’s got a third year winner building the football program into a national powerhouse.
But Stoner, in 1982, knew what everyone knows today, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee & The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He knew who was coming in. Henson began landing top recruits from the time he arrived, but it wasn’t until his 6th or 7th year that recruiting became an unstoppable machine. That’s comparable to Groce’s early-going. Leron Black and Kendrick Nunn were the first high-profile recruits, but they weren’t surrounded by five-stars at all other positions.
When Henson finally got the engine firing on all cylinders, Illini basketball went on a 25-year Glory Daze. The Pearl Years and the post-Henson recruiting lag (Kruger’s Year Three) were the low points. Otherwise the Illini contended for championships and top recruits from 1984 through 2006, which was Bruce Weber’s Year Three.
Year Three is when Bruce Weber was exposed. Stunningly, he was allowed to tank the program for another six seasons. Year Three should have been all we needed to know.
Retaining Dee Brown, James Augustine, Warren Carter and Brian Randle from Bill Self’s recruiting efforts; Weber fielded a fairly good group in 2006. But the offense looked awful. The ball movement, which prompted gushing from John Wooden a year earlier, stagnated. Dee spent most of 2006 dribbling, and then chucking a three-pointer as the shot clock expired.
When Dee was able to pass the ball, we saw Augustine burying jumpers from the short corner. Augustine didn’t shoot jumpers in his previous two years under Weber. Why not? Because he played the 5 in those years. Shaun Pruitt played the 5 in 2006, and Augustine played the 4. It was a rigid system, no matter what people say about the “freedom” that motion offense allows, in theory.
Weber’s rigidity gave way after the school record 19-loss season of 2008, his Year Five. Recruiting priorities changed. Weber played Mike Tisdale at the 5, but allowed him to shoot from deep.
John Groce’s Year Three seems unlikely to finish well. His teams improve by March, but March is too late for Selection Committee purposes. As the losses accumulate, social media will grow increasingly impatient with Groce. His first three years are Henson-esque, but in a different era.
What does John Groce make of the Year Three doldrums? I asked him:
I want to talk about Year Three as a concept, because I’m looking at the record book and I see that Lon Kruger’s worst year was Year Three. Lou Henson’s worst year was Year Three. Arguably Bill Self too.
So just in general, what is it about the third year of program building, class balance, whatever, that makes the third year a challenge?
I don’t know, Rob. That’s interesting. I think that’s pretty insightful.
You know, I don’t know. I heard Urban Meyer say the other day after the national semi-final that he thought this year might be a “void” year. I don’t know if I thought — from that standpoint — that I thought that.
I thought last year — I kinda knew when I took the job that we were going to be very new & young in our second year, and we were going to be a work-in-progress.
All of us as coaches, we want to be … we tend to be impatient. And want things now …
But you know, for “Year Three,” I don’t know. I don’t know what that common denominator would be. Whether that just happens to be a pattern, or whether that just happens to be an outlier for us in our program’s development and growth. You know I do think we can play better than we’re playing right now. I do think we have a lot of veteran guys. But we have got to connect the dots. We have got to be more connected than what we are right now, as a group, at both ends of the floor.
But that’s interesting. I would not have known that had you not stated that.
Does it make you feel any better to know that?
But it should.
And what about Illini fans? Should they feel relieved to know the history of Year Three? Well, sports fans are not the most rational bunch. But while they’re gathering their ropes, tar and feathers; maybe they’ll be relieved to remember what Kruger accomplished in Year Five (i.e. Bill Self first season). Maybe they’ll be relieved to remember what Self accomplished in Year Five (i.e. Bruce Weber’s second season).
Maybe they’ll recall what Henson built by the middle of Year Four, before Steve Lanter blew his knee out.
And there’s another lesson from the past, one that all Illini fans (and coaches) should keep in mind: Even the best teams can’t win with wings alone. Every team needs a point guard.