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Illini basketball

Irrelevant observations from EIU

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.

Greg Eboigbodin, Matic Vesel, Da’Monte Williams, Adam Fletcher, Aaron Jordan, Brad Underwood, Kipper Nichols, Patrick Shulte, Jamall Walker, Orlando Antigua, Chin Coleman plus Susan Underwood, Tyler Underwood, Josh Whitman, Lou Henson and Loren Tate.

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.

Categories
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.

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

SEMO in pictures (with captions!)

Illinois beat SE Missouri’s Redhawks 81-62 in the season opener for both teams. This is what it looked like, except less fuzzy and more animated.

Categories
Illini basketball

Scrimmage notes

When I arrived, a little before 2 p.m. Tuesday, Alex Austin was the lone player in Ubben #2, the men’s gym. He was shooting threes with The Gun. Later in the day, he would be the top three-point shooter among his teammates, and the only player to hit more than one.

Tracy Abrams (Bruce Douglas Jersey winner) and Malcolm Hill (Augustine Jersey Winner) were the next players on the court.

Jaylon Tate came next. He worked extensively on his three-point shooting, but without The Gun. Instead, team managers wrangled the rebounds and Jamall Walker fed the passes. Tate hit about 60% from the arc. Really.  I have video to prove it.

The team’s practice began with a walk-through of the Dribble Hand Off, which John Groce calls “hippo.” At last week’s open practice, this terminology confused Larry Brown, who refers to it as D-H-O, just like the rest of the basketball world.

Groce asked the team whether anyone would like to add something to his lesson, Maverick Morgan piped up. He said it’s hard for big men to recover defensively after a high ball screen hand-off, because you have to run through somebody to do it.

Of the media that showed up, only Derek Piper and Scott Richey stayed for the whole show. I suppose the others had to be back at the station by airtime. Josh Whitman and Warren Hood each watched a portion of the practice. A small group of (ostensibly Orange Krush) students observed from the balcony.

Whitman came over to say hello. I asked about the mark under his right eye. He said it dates back to sixth grade, and that you can tell when he’s tired because it grows increasingly red. He added that it’s been red a lot lately.

At the south end, erstwhile DePaul coach Joey Meyer joined Machanda Hill and her mom (Malcolm’s grandmother “Miss Hardin”) and Ramon Williams, who was John Groce’s first Special Assistant to the Head Coach at Illinois (for about 15 minutes) before accepting an assistant coaching job at Virginia Tech. He’s now a major gifts officer at his alma mater, Virginia Military Institute.

On the day, Kipper Nichols, Te’Jon Lucas, Aaron Jordan, Malcolm, Tracy, Michael Finke and DJ Williams all connected once from distance. Abrams’s three came as time expired in the third scrimmage, from about 25 feet. Jordan and Jalen Coleman-Lands each airmailed a three. JCL’s right hand was wrapped and padded. He made some great passes.

In the second scrimmage, Tracy Abrams moved to the PG position after playing only the 2 in the first round. Kipper Nichols got his first court action, spelling Leron Black at PF.

Mike Thorne Jr. didn’t play much in the third scrimmage, and didn’t appear in the fourth scrimmage until late. His repaired knee was wrapped with the kind of brace one normally sees on a football lineman. Three things to keep an eye on with Big Bo:

In the 5-on-0 drills, he frequently dribbled the ball two or three times after catching a pass at the free-throw stripe. If he ever dribbles in the high-post, the ball will be stolen.

Thorne invariably pumps the ball (brings it down to the level of his abdomen) before attempting a short jumper. Keeping the ball high would be preferred.

Thorne used his left hand to connect on short hook shots. Everybody agreed that he should expand that usage, because it’s really hard to guard.

And speaking of unnecessary flourishes at the Five Spot, Maverick Morgan was mid-dunk when he instead chose a dainty finger roll for his second bucket of Quarter Three. The ball was already in the cylinder when Mav opted for his theatrics. Lou Henson would have benched him immediately.

I screwed up the math in this quarter. The final was 23-20 Blue, with Tracy Abrams nailing a long three as time expired. My marks and notations, kept in a GMail draft on my phone, don’t add up. It could be that I put Jaylon Tate on the wrong roster. There’s no 0 or B in my notes to demarcate his team. I’ve already forgiven myself. It’s hard keeping stats.

 

Te’Jon Lucas looked really good in transition, but what about playing within the system? He’s got a lot to learn. His best performance came in the latter half of the four scrimmages.

Who played the Five when Thorne was out in Quarter Four? In my notes, I have Mav and Finke on the Orange team for this one. So the answer is “Leron.”

Referees Dave Cronin, Mike Kashirsky and Bo Boroski performed not only normal officiating duties, but also explained rulings to players where possible (e.g. dead ball). At the conclusion of the four 8 minute scrimmages, Boroski stood at center court, with the team in a circle around him, and explained the NCAA’s new tweaks to various rules. Especially important this year, Boroski explained, is the “cylinder” that rises from a player’s feet. That cylinder must not be breached by a defender, but must also not be exploited by the offensive player.

Jaylon Tate, JCL and Tracy Abrams were all whistled for push-offs (raising an arm to move a defender away from the ball). Maverick Morgan (and I think Aaron Jordan) were penalized for illegal screens. Leron Black continues to be a rebounding fool and a fouling machine. He too was whistled for pushing-off, on the low block.

Jamall Walker may have used the word “shitshow” to assess the afternoon’s display of missed shots, turnovers and fouling. I don’t actually remember. But that was the sentiment. Finke agreed it was pretty bad, but considering it’s the first time the entire roster was available (i.e. cleared to play), their inability to mesh is understandable.

D.J Williams is #2 at the wing, lock it up. Aaron Jordan is playing the two, and you might see Abrams playing a lot there as well. D.J should see some action this year, and maybe that means having him on the court at the same time as Malcolm. In the Groce offense, it really doesn’t matter who’s labeled the 2 or the 3. The PF and C positions are also interchangeable.

Despite connecting on a three-pointer, Kipper Nichols is confined to the PF position for now.  That’s odd, because during Media Day, everyone insisted Kipper is a three, including Kipper.

It would be great to see D.J. and Finke at PG, just to screw with the opponent. And I’m not kidding about that. They’ve both played the position, and DJ especially has the quickness to defend an opposing PG.

Does John Groce think outside that particular box? It would be awesome if he did.

 

Categories
Illini basketball

October 2015

This post has little entertainment value.  It’s not funny, and there’s not much insight into basketball, except for the Mike Thorne video, below. There’s some maudlin ranting at the bottom, but it’s not based on data.

Instead, this post is a behind-the-scenes wrap-up of October’s three Illini basketball events, two “media days” and one scrimmage. If you’re trying to kill time in an airport, and your free wi-fi just expired, this is the column for you.

ILLINI ALL-IN SCRIMMAGE, OCTOBER 25, 2015

You’ve read the coverage and the commentary. You already know the most-talked-about story is Big Bo, fifth-year senior Mike Thorne. The most impressive aspect of his performance, in my mind, was his footwork. He moves like a circus acrobat. He has phenomenal balance.

Here’s a video collage of his performance.

The biggest storyline went under-the-radar: Malcolm Hill acquitted himself at point guard. He handled a zone press, and distributed effectively. He dribbled between his legs just the way point guards are expected to do.

Malcolm as point guard is the solution to all of John Groce’s problems, if he can pull it off. It’s also Malcolm’s best position for NBA purposes. If John Groce can transform Malcolm Hill into an NBA point guard, he’ll have a hell of a story to tell prospective recruits.

If there’s anything this staff should be able to produce, it’s a point guard. Think about it. John Groce = D-III point guard. Paris Parham = D-II point guard. Dustin Ford = D-I point guard (mid-major). Jamall Walker = D-I point guard. Special Assistant to the Director of Atletics Dee Brown = Bob Cousy Award-Winning D-I point guard.

The All-In crowd was as big as fire code allows, which is not big.

No one paid to get in, and the DIA provided lunch catered by Hickory River Smokehouse. I ate pulled pork while gossiping off-the-record with Kathi LaTulip. (The LaTulip family will continue to travel for games, even though Mike’s potential for PT is now 0%.)

After the three 8 minute scrimmages, and a speech from John Groce, everyone lined up to get an autographed poster of the team. This poster had the season schedule printed, conveniently, right at the bottom, which reminded everyone that plenty of tickets remain for all games. DIA needs to remind people about each and every one of those games, at any opportunity.

These autographed posters have serious collector value, because each one was signed by Jerel Pitts, a 6’3″ freshman walk-on SG from Maywood (Proviso West) and nobody knows whether he’ll actually play on the team.

BIG TEN MEDIA DAY, OCTOBER 15, 2015

The B1G event moved across the street, from the Hyatt Regency O’Hare to the Marriott. The Marriott space is far more compact, which made the event feel smaller.

Stephen Bardo & Howard Moore stood chatting at the corner of the two hallways which housed all meeting and work rooms, effectively blocking traffic throughout the event. They were occasionally joined in conversation by players, coaches and fellow members of the media. When two or more persons joined in, it was literally impossible to get through.

I was one of those persons for a while. Afterward, I wondered if I should say “hey guys, you’re too big to stand here blocking traffic.” I chose against it. Bardo and Moore are super friendly, and would certainly have accommodated.  But a lot of the people they were blocking are insufferable assholes. So it kinda worked out.

B1G SID Brett McWethy shook things up this year, staggering the time slots of conference coaches’ availability, thus allowing reporters more face time. That was nice. Whether it translates for fan purposes, media logistics stuff has improved since Brett took the job a couple of years ago.

I got the feeling that most media outlets were not interested in John Groce. Chicago TV stations got a few seconds of soundbites, but spent less than two minutes with him. Illini beat writers spent more time listening to Malcolm Hill, whose availability was simultaneous to Groce’s, and one table over. Mark Tupper and Marcus Jackson barely attended Groce at all. Steve Greenberg and Shannon Ryan checked in and out and in.

Loren Tate dropped in to Groce’s availability to question Groce about availability (which is awesome, and one of the reasons why Loren Tate is still the best).  Tate’s latest column contrasts Groce’s secrecy with the openness of the coaches who preceded him, all of whom were more successful.

Malcolm Hill is good with the media. Groce is pretty far down the list of B1G coaches when it comes to public persona. He’s a numbers guy. You’d want him as your accountant, not a raconteur. Given the choices in the room, it made sense that Groce would spawn less interest than others. But that’s not the whole story.

Overall, it was plain that media outlets consider Illinois basketball an afterthought among conference contenders. Chris Collins fielded a larger entourage than Groce.  I always thought Al Gore got a bad rap, but Chris Collins is definitely wooden.

Tom Crean’s pack of onlookers was triple the size of Groce’s.  Crean enters his eighth season of Coaches on the Hot Seat. His teams routinely under-perform, and this year’s is more overrated than any of them. But Crean got more coverage.

That’s where Illini basketball is, October 2015.

Recalling Groce’s reaction to the Sun-Times Cliffmas headline “LOL ILL,” I wonder what his candid response would be to that question today: What kind of place is Illinois basketball in right now? (Excuse the syntax. That was the phrasing.)

Still, at least Groce had some interest. Eddie Jordan sat at the Rutgers table with a single beat reporter. Pat Chambers, Tim Miles and Richard Pitino hung out in the hallway rather than hiding in an off-limits greenroom. They and their programs all need more attention from the media, so they don’t hide from it.

These are the coaches expected to vie for first place … in the bottom half of the B1G.

ILLINI MEDIA DAY – OCT 8, 2015
The team arrived 30-40 minutes late, for some reason. They sat for a team photo.

Mark Jones, the primary in-house photographer of Illini sports for the last few decades, wanted a smiling version and a serious version. A few of the players tried to wipe the smirks from their faces while a few others attempted to put smirks on fellow players’ faces (i.e. to crack them up). Mike LaTulip played both sides of that fence.

There’s no format for interviews during the hour or so that players are available. Reporters and photographers huddle around individual players. If you absolutely need a quote from a guy, joining the huddle is the best way to ensure you get one.

That’s how most media operate. They don’t listen to everything an interviewee has to say. They “get a quote.”  In my opinion, it’s ethically bankrupt. Searching for quotes begets leading questions. Respondents respond. You get the story you seek. That’s bad reporting.

I try to hear and capture everything a person says. I’ll edit stuff for humor or concision purposes, but I try to record everything that’s made available for the record.

Anyway, back to Illini Media Day. Here’s how it works: The News-Gazette and the local TV stations set up photography stations in opposite corners of the men’s gym. I set up shop in the southwest corner.

I didn’t try to get time with D.J. Williams or Kendrick Nunn. Neither has ever seemed enamored of camera time.

I would have liked to talk with Leron Black and Tracy Abrams, but they’d disappeared by the time I finished my first six interviews. In fact, the gym was empty. SID Derrick Burson made it clear that he’d bring guys out of the team room if I wanted them, but I don’t like to do that. I made the exception with Jalen Coleman-Lands because he’s new. It was necessary to talk with him.

Thus, my annual pre-season video featured only half the team.

If you’ve watched any of my pre-season movies, it should be pretty obvious which players I prefer to interview. It has little to do with their prominence as on-court performers. Malcolm Hill is great with the camera and a star of the team. Mike LaTulip won’t play this year, and he’s a top go-to guy for me. (FYI, Mike was planning to redshirt last year, even after Abrams Injury #1. He won’t give up his final year of eligibility for  anything less than 10 minutes per game, and that would require four more season-ending injuries.)  Maverick Morgan and Jaylon Tate should work for Lorne Michaels, whatever their talents on court.

Guys who play a lot don’t necessarily have the perspective of guys who watch a lot.

Perspective is important this year. It won’t be the last for John Groce. It might be the penultimate. He’s  faced too many tribulations during the preceding months. Whatever happens this year, it’s not “on him.” Not this year.

But at the same time, this is the year Groce must make a statement to the people not buying tickets, to the point guards not choosing Illinois, to the media not lining up to hear his voice.

Illini basketball has wandered in the wilderness for ten years.  No one even argues about it at dinner anymore.  It’s simply not discussed.

Categories
Illini basketball

Groce’s best win

First, thanks to #IlliniFootball for allowing me an extra day to work on this column. You wrested attention away from your undefeated hoops brethren. That’s a feat.

Now, to the bicycling fish of Writing about Sports. Today’s topic: What’s the “best ever” win in John Groce’s brief Illini tenure? It’s an inherently subjective analysis. It’s dancing about architecture.

But what would the Internet be without useless, and often preposterous “best of” lists?

@ Gonzaga, Maui 2012, the worst #1 team in the history of rankings. These games enter the conversation.  For your consideration, I nominate the Baylor game.

I don’t have one reason in particular. I can’t even narrow it down to a few concepts.

John Groce usually shies away from absolutes & favorites, and I think that’s one of his greatest attributes. He’s an unapologetic realist (apart from that whole “Jesus” thing).

But you could feel, as the Illini salted the Bears away, that Groce was going to remember this game for a long time “because of the way we did it,” as he said afterward. “We just showed some real grit.”

There’s so much to like, and hope to remember one day, about the Baylor game. I’d better just make a list.

STATISTICS

Five turnovers, fifteen forced turnovers, fifteen assists on twenty-three made field goals. 33% field goal defense.

Illinois played Baylor’s game, and beat them at it, by “controlling the controllables,” as Groce likes to say.

They didn’t control the uncontrollables, which goes without saying. But even though the uncontrollables grabbed fifteen rebounds, giving his team a 47-33 advantage on the boards, the Illini ran plays to eliminate his effectiveness as a defensive weapon.

NNANNA EGWU

There’s no waaaay Nnanna was going to beat Rico Gathers Sr. (sic) at his own game. Gathers is listed at 6’8″ 280#. When he walked through the tunnel after the game, Mike Basgier (the strength & conditioning coach) said “I’ve never seen a basketball player that big.  You can’t train that. That has to come naturally.”

Nnanna’s game involves less brute force. It’s more about positioning and cunning. Sam McLaurin’s appearance in Las Vegas might remind Illini fans (especially those who question Egwu’s value to the team, or basketball IQ) that a center’s best contributions often take the form of a step to the left; that subtle movement that blocks a drive, or a passing lane.

Yes, the center must pose some offensive threat, or the defense can exploit his incompetence. Nnanna’s back-to-basket game is another subject of discussion among traditionalists. For this team’s purposes, it would be nice if Nnanna’s baby hook (currently in beta) were more reliable.

It’s important that Nnanna be a threat from the arc, because it draws defenders away from the lane. In the B1G, this will be  especially important.

Nnanna didn’t shoot any threes against Baylor, maybe because the Bears play a lot of zone. But while Nnanna didn’t draw any trees from the low post against Baylor, he still drew attention to the high post.

It was enough to divert the defense from the one guy whom they ought never allow out of their sight.

WHEN WILL PEOPLE STOP UNDERESTIMATING RAYVONTE RICE?

Bulls GM Gar Forman was among a slew of NBA scouts in attendance. Jerry’s son Ryan West was there too, representing the Lakers.

Maybe they came to see Baylor’s trees, or Josh Pastner’s flashy recruits. What they saw was another (yawn) dominant performance by Rayvonte Rice.

When Ray has retired from professional basketball, will people still doubt his accomplishments?  I assume so. Most bicycling fish — er, sports talk — obsesses over player-bashing.

There’s also plenty of obscure dwarf cum giant killer in sports lore, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Ray were largely ignored by the media  this year.  If you remember Wayne Larrabee reading the same one-sheet about Illini players, over and over, game after game, you’re sufficiently analytical to recognize that major media coverage is provided by analysts who don’t spend a lot of time analyzing.

They’re not awful people. They just don’t know what we know: Rayvonte Rice is the most dynamic all-around Illini since Kenny Battle.

Yep. I just said that.

 

 

AARON COSBY

Speaking of statistics, Aaron was 0-for-6 from the field. All those misses came from behind the arc. His lone drive to the hoop was stricken from the record, because he was fouled on the attempt. He made both free throws.

So far, it doesn’t sound so great.

Aaron grabbed six rebounds, and dished four assists. Those numbers are on the permanent record. He muscled his way through screens, and gave Baylor’s bigs something to think about in the doing. There’s no accounting for that effort.

My personal jury is still out (skeptical) about the Starks/Cosby lights out shooting narrative. The point is moot. Statistics are forthcoming.

I liked Aaron Cosby’s contributions on a night when he couldn’t hit the broad side of a casino.

AUSTIN COLBERT

It’s not that John Groce dislikes Austin Colbert. It’s that Groce views Colbert as lacking in physical strength. He anticipates Colbert struggling against heavier bigs, and fears the consequences of physical mismatches.

Against Baylor, Groce saw Rico Gathers, and wanted Colbert far and away from the court.

Dustin Ford — the ex-point guard who coaches the bigs — should probably consult a thoracic surgeon following the Baylor game. I’m sure his carotid artery suffered damage from the umpteen times his head nearly exploded. Interior defensive positioning nearly killed him. Horseshit foul calls didn’t help. (It was mostly the former.)

Throughout his ordeal, Ford never looked to Colbert as a solution.

Colbert might have finished the Baylor game on the bench, but Maverick Morgan earned four fouls (in four minutes) and Nnanna Egwu earned two fouls — and was assessed another two for standing absolutely still with his arms straight up in the air.

So with 5:54 remaining, and a ten point lead nearly obliterated by Baylor’s (frankly) well coached & well executed attempts to decapitate Illinois’ defense; Groce and Ford were forced to play Colbert.

His impact was immediate.

Yep, it’s true that Austin is skinny like a rail. But he can jump. And that’s where he took advantage of Baylor. The play of the game (Groce admitted as much) came  when Austin leaped over everyone for an offensive rebound and put-back.

It changed the momentum. It knocked the wind out of Baylor’s comeback. They never recovered.

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if you’re skinnier than others. You just have to jump higher. Maybe you have to want it more, too.

After the game, Groce acknowledged that that single play might give him more confidence to use Colbert in the future.

Another reason to like Austin: His mother is a strong, sensible woman. And he has a younger brother, Morgan, who has absolutely no filter. Morgan Colbert is nearly as entertaining as the game of basketball itself.

MALCOLM HILL

He’s six games into his sophomore year, and I’m already running out of things to say about Malcolm Hill. So bully for Malcolm. He doesn’t need fish bicycling, or dancing about architecture.

In a lovely way, he seems to enjoy it, being a natural with “the media.”  It’s because he judges “the media” on an individual basis, and treats “it” as if we were people. (Yep, I recognize that many question-askers in the news biz are not people, and have no feelings. True story.)

Malcolm’s game speaks for itself. He doesn’t need media hype. But when microphones are available, he’s plenty willing to share his thoughts. After Friday’s game, he lent his voice to speak for Jeremiah Radford, whose voice is gone.

Surprised by his election to the Las Vegas Invitational’s all-tournament team, and awed by the championship he’d pined for, just a day earlier, Malcolm cried in his mother’s arms.

That’s the cool thing about Malcolm. He’s a natural. He’ll be who he is. If it’s emotional, he’ll cry about it. If it’s basketball, he’ll rip it away from you, and then jam it.

He talked about crying, and Jeremiah, after the game. Malcolm is not afraid. He’s intellectually curious, and loving. Those aspects of his nature permeate his entire life experience.

For basketball purposes, he’s intellectually curious about opponents’ weaknesses, and he loves dunking on them.

AHMAD STARKS

KENDRICK NUNN IS RIGHT-HANDED

THE ATMOSPHERE

Orleans Arena reminded me of Gonzaga’s purpose-built basketball arena. Its horseshoe configuration belies its multi-purpose capabilities, but it’s definitely a good place to see a basketball game with 9,000 other rabid fans. Illinois didn’t bring a quarter that many, and Baylor brought three (I sat near them during Thursday’s game against Memphis). Nevertheless, the arena was electric.

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Illini basketball

Excellent & Terrible – the Indiana State game

I suppose no one will remember this game.  No one had ever heard of the network that carried it.  A handful of hundreds attended. On paper, it looks like a blowout. (That’s the preview paper and the morning paper.)

It didn’t feel like a blowout.

I’ve never had such an uneasy feeling about a 20 point lead.

Illinois looked sloppy (11/13 assists to turnovers). They looked lethargic. “Those guys are running full-out and our guys are going about 80%” John Groce said to his bench. Little Grant Prusator (whose name the PA guy seemed to announce as “Crusader”) could not be stopped, not at the arc, nor inside it.

And yet, the 88-62 final suggests to me that Illinois won by 24 points.

Obviously the three-point shooting (9-20, 45%) was the difference. It helps that ISU converted only 10 of their 27 attempts from distance, because a lot of them were wide open. Illinois’ defense continues to lose track of shooters.

Excellently & terribly, it was Ahmad Starks’s best and worst games, too. He converted 1-of-5 from the floor. But he passed better, and more intrepidly, than at any point this year. His passing was fun to watch. That hadn’t happened yet.

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Illini basketball

Ray-on-5

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:

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Illini basketball

O & B scrimmage 2014: The Malcolm Hill Show

Blog-reading Illini fans are the most likely, among all Illini fans, to watch streaming video. So my assumption is that most people who’ll read this post saw the Orange & Blue scrimmage for themselves.

Hence, I’ll try not to tell you things you already know, except to say that the team shot poorly at first. Overall, the very unofficial statistic was 33-of-83 on the day, for all FG attempts. That’s 39.7%. It’s not a terrible number, but little better than last year’s 38%.

About half of the teams’ total points were scored in the third of three periods. So it would seem that they needed to acclimate to the crowd, or the format.

Jaylon Tate and Ahmad Starks looked sharp, in completely different ways.

Jaylon’s passing impressed the small crowd, perhaps more than anything else. That’s nothing new. His 1-of-7 shooting shouldn’t be overlooked, but overall, Jaylon was solid. Most importantly, he’s entertaining. Until basketball morphs entirely into soccer with hands, entertainment will still be an important factor in drawing spectators.

Ahmad penetrated and dished. He penetrated and elevated for mid-range jumpers. He shot 1-of-6 from the arc, and that won’t get the job done. But otherwise, his offensive game looked good.

Contrast Aaron Cosby, who faded into the background from the opening tip. Did Cosby play poorly? John Groce didn’t think so. He reiterated that Cosby’s on-ball defense is a great strength, and a facet of Cosby’s game that goes largely unnoticed.

The player of the game, on his 19th birthday, was Malcolm Hill. The game seems to come to him. He never appears to be moving fast, but no one seems able to stop him.

Malcolm’s personality has changed drastically since he first arrived on campus. His mother, Machanda, says he’s always been outgoing and funny. But until recently, only a select few got to see it. Malcolm admitted as much after the scrimmage.

The college experience does that to a lot of people, and Malcolm seems to be soaking up everything. His mother was beaming for most of the day. I visited with her and Keisha Parham while the team sat for its autograph session. These are two Power Moms. (I like Paris Parham a lot, but Keisha is clearly the star of the family.) They enjoyed talking about their sons’ intellectual development.

Keisha was happy to report that middle-schooler Kai came home the other day asking whether she was familiar with MLA Style. Kai still wants to be an entomologist and not an English professor, but even research papers on millipedes need a works cited page.

Machanda reported that Malcolm had a similar question, after taking an economics course over the summer: Was she familiar with GDP?

“Malcolm,” the Senior Budget Analyst at Washington University replied, “I have a degree in finance. Yes, I know about GDP.”

That was funny.

Leron Black looked solid at the four. He presented as advertised. He nailed mid-range jumpers, and rebounded.

I met Leron, really for the first time, after the scrimmage. Previously, we’d never really talked. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Some college freshmen are shy, and still seem like children. Some seem like full grown adults. I’d assumed that Leron might veer toward the former, personality-wise. I have nothing to base that assumption on, other than the fact that he’s been reported to be devout, quiet, humble, etc. things you’ve already read about him on the Internet.

But Leron is definitely the latter. In fact, I’d be surprised if he was ever a child.

I’d asked his roommate, Michael Finke, to stick around, just in case Leron might be uncomfortable with my quirky questions. But Leron totally got it. He was a riot. I’m looking forward to more.

John Groce introduced the entire support staff, including team yogi Kristina Reese. “We bow to her,” Groce said. And then they all literally bowed to her.

I’m glad he pointed her out, because I was very confused. First I thought Miley Cyrus was in the gym. Gosh, I told myself, my story will be linked on the front page of Huffington Post!

It’s not unusual to see a perfect physical specimen at the Ubben. It happens all the time. Fit student-athletes routinely parade through, in exercise gear. What’s rare is blue hair and thrift store chic. (Possibly Furniture Lounge?)

I love the fact that John Groce (let’s face it, a conservative Midwestern .. okay, I’ll just say it:  Indiana guy) looks beyond the conventional to make his team better, and healthier. I LOVE it that these guys bow to a pixie with blue hair.

Kristina teaches mostly at The Refinery, but you can also find her at the Mettler Center and the Y.

Nnanna Egwu played a lot of minutes at the power-forward position, and attempted four three-pointers. (He shot at least one of those while playing the five.)

Although his long-distance shot looks smooth, the niftiest Egwu bucket came on a left-handed hook shot, from about four feet out.

He also buried a hook with his right hand. Nnanna’s experimentation with ball-handling didn’t always work:  In trying to dribble at the high-post, Nnanna was stripped of the ball.

Michael Finke also brought the ball below his waist, after taking a pass in the short corner. He may need to correct that tendency, especially if he’s going to play primarily at the five.

 

On the other hand, Finke’s footwork was much better than even the referees gave him credit for. I asked both Michael and Jamall Walker for their opinions on Finke’s two traveling calls.

They both conceded the second one. But the first call was wrong. Michael made an excellent spin move. It still wasn’t legal, because he reached out with his left hand to hook Leron Black. “He’s gotta use his elbow to do that,” said Walker.

Were we expecting that move from Finke?  I wasn’t.

Walker also mentioned that Kendrick Nunn’s absence from the scrimmage was completely precautionary. He expects Nunn to be back in practice, at full strength, next week.

CHANGE OF PLANS

Take Italy of your summer travel schedule. Or at least, change the dates. Mark Morris says it’s looking like Belgium and France instead. That’s August 9 through 19, between summer school and the fall semester.