Illini Basketball

Undefeated (them)

A noteworthy factoid prefacing this forthcoming week in Illini basketball: Brad Underwood has never beat Purdue. Or Wisconsin.

In fact, Greg Gard has never lost to Illinois, period. Whether Underwood or John Groce led the team, Wisconsin’s current streak (15 wins in a row) remained intact.

Matt Painter is 17-7 all-time against the Illini. Despite being the closest campus to Urbana, Purdue is not a “protected rival.” Count your lucky stars.

The Illini and Boilermakers met only once in each of Underwood’s first two years. Now they’ll face each other twice in a month.

These streaks amplify the point that Illinois doesn’t play good teams in the B1G Tournament. Playing & losing on Wednesday meant the Illini charter flight departed DC and NYC before B1G contenders left their campuses. Playing and winning last year’s Wednesday nightcap meant the best B1G teams arrived at the United Center in time to see Iowa end Underwood’s season for the second year in a row.

Tonight, the Paint Crew brings its worst team in years. Illinois has a chance to win. Both teams are 9-5 overall, but (get this) Purdue is a far worse shooting team than the Illini. Illinois is in the top 50 nationally in FG percentage. The Boilers aren’t in the top 200. More bizarre: Illinois is a better rebounding team, as seen in East Lansing, where the Illini tied habitual carom-grabbers Michigan State with 48 boards apiece.

Illinois’ low-post scoring is a strength, diminished only when Kofi Cockburn is challenged by freakishly tall, gangly shot blockers.

What could go wrong?

If the inside game isn’t working, there’s always the option of kicking out for a three-pointer.

In previewing this game, Underwood said his staff is trying to teach Kofi to use his body as the weapon it could be. As we’ve learned in the first two months of the season, Kofi Cockburn is considerably less vicious, personally, than you might assume for a beast whose Twitter handle includes the word “Alpha.” Having concussed Lewis Garrison, Kofi has been even more tentative inside. He doesn’t want to hurt people.

We’ll learn tonight whether that coaching took hold. As far as kick-outs are concerned, Underwood dismissed the idea that Alan Griffin should take over the starting wing spot. His rationale, it seems, is to make his second team as challenging as his starters.

With Da’Monte Williams, an 18% threat from the arc, Purdue can focus its attention on clogging the middle, and swarming Cockburn.

Optimists can look forward to twin developments tonight: Kofi returns to banging, and Da’Monte goes three-for-three from three. Given those two outcomes, it’s hard to see how Illinois could lose.

Illini football

Losing at Purdue – A History

Let’s take a trip down memory lane as we prepare for tomorrow’s loss at Purdue.

First up is the Bruce Weber Explains Losing At Purdue postgame video that everyone always forgets. The February 2012 video went viral after Weber pined for Robbie Hummel fours years after completely ignoring eager recruit Robbie Hummel.

But this was the game that exposed Weber. Illinois jumped out to a 13-point advantage, with Demetri McCamey leading the way. But then McCamey picked up his second foul. Weber, the hideboundest of hidebound coaches, sat McCamey for the duration of the half. And that was that.

Can a struggling Illini team conquer Matt Painter’s current Jekyll & Hyde?

Oh yeah, definitely.

First off, Isaac Haas sucks. He’s just an awful lummox. And while Caleb Swanigan is double-double machine, his team still finds ways to lose despite him. Against Minnesota he went for 28 & 22, and the Boilers still lost, at home, to Little Pitino.

But Painter is familiar with The Halftime Adjustment, and this would seem to give him an advantage over John Groce.

That’s not to say that Groce doesn’t make adjustments.

Anyway, here’s what the players had to say about Tuesday’s game. Michael Finke was getting his ankle wrapped. But we did get to speak with four other Illini.

Illini basketball

Purdue review – just a coupla thoughts

I love this new gig, where I can choose when & whether to publish.

I know people don’t like reading about losses. They’re not as fun to write about either — unless it’s time to fire the coach. Then they’re fun.

It’s not time to fire the coach. Settle down.

Now that the sting has worn off, I want to share just a few tidbits about Saturday’s game at Mackey Arena. These are things that wouldn’t have come across on TV.


In a game decided by five points, every possession is crucial. The Illini got jobbed out of at least two possessions at Mackey, perhaps because referees are susceptible to psychology, just like the rest of us.

In both cases, referees couldn’t or didn’t see the play. In both cases Bill Ek and Donnie Eppley signaled to each other for help in rendering a ruling. Each appeal for help resulted in a dramatic, emphatic ruling for Purdue. I saw both plays clearly, from my seat on the baseline. Both times, Purdue knocked the ball out of bounds.

The first time, it was Rapheal Davis who scooped the ball from a prone Rayvonte Rice, but lost control.

The second time came in the closing minutes, when Illinois furiously clawed its way back to a two possession game.

Austin Colbert was the baseline defender. Dakota Mathias was the inbound guy. An errant/risky Mathias pass, batted out of bounds by its intended recipient, never came close to touching anyone in orange.

Colbert was so shocked by the ruling that he covered his face with his jersey, to prevent himself from an assessed technical foul. But he campaigned for a reversal throughout the succeeding inbound play.

Illinois’ jobbing in Austin (March 2013) resulted in a rule change. Replay video may be used in the final two minutes of games. Why not use replay video to determine calls on plays that refs can’t see?

I don’t doubt that Ek and Eppley ruled for Purdue because Matt Painter rode their asses for forty minutes, and they simply wore down. Painter is 6’4″ and intimidating.

John Groce will never get the calls Painter gets.  He’s too short.

Refs will laugh at pipsqueaky Pat Chambers, and run his Nittany teams out of the gym on bad, perhaps even biased calls. But they won’t fuck with Painter. He’s too intimidating. It’s simple human nature. They’re scared of him.

That’s probably the reason Painter’s teams continue to get away with incessant hand-checking, in the year that everyone else in college ball opted for zone defense to comply with the “new emphasis” on hand-checking violations.

Lamont Simpson has been around for a while. He didn’t seem to cave to Painter.


I wasn’t alive when Bob Starnes’s full court shot beat Northwestern. There are probably some other great moments from the pre-video era. I was on hand to see Efrem Winters windmill dunk against Minnesota, and it was as amazing as its legend suggests.

I was also on hand for Matt Heldman’s half-court lob to Awvee Storey. I saw two entire years of Kenny Battle. Those are all amazing memories.

Visit Furniture Lounge for vintage St Patty’s Day gear.


You all saw the Rayvonte Rice dunk Saturday. But you probably didn’t hear it. The crashing sound on the steel rim hurt my ears. Moreover, the camera angle fails to convey the improbable physics of the play. Kendrick Nunn threw the ball. He didn’t toss it. The ball was traveling at speed.

The ball was still going up when Ray corralled it. Ray had to get eleven to twelve feet into the air to grab that ball.  The rest was a matter of gravity, but it happened really fast. That is, the time elapsed between Ray attaining possession and the crashing sound was barely visible.

Even slo-mo doesn’t really capture the feat. IlliniProductionsHD photographer Jason Marry said “that should be a crime” or “Ray should be charged with a crime” or something along those lines.  We all laughed.


I don’t.  I just hate this one particular guy.

The people who work at Mackey Arena are friendly. Their 2nd year SID is running the best, most accessible media operation in the conference. They always give us a lot of Puccini’s Smiling Teeth pizza.

I like Lafayette. Heather and I had a great blackened salmon and excellent escargot at Bistro 501 after the game. The campus looks just like ours, and they even have a Krannert building. Great engineering school. They hate the Hoosiers. What’s not to like?

Well, there’s this one guy. Thanks to the First Amendment, I can present him to you for your vilification and identification. Frankly, he brought it on himself.

A seasoned cameraman (I’ll leave his name out) said “Purdue has the angriest fans in the Big Ten. They’re just really angry.” Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s a trickle-down effect from the Keady years.  Gene Keady had anger issues. Maybe Painter does, too although I really like his thoughtful demeanor in postgame.

I think the cameraman’s remark was influenced by that one guy. I think that one guy has held the same season ticket, in the same spot, for some time. And he’s spewed hatred ever since he arrived.

On Saturday, as the final seconds trickled away, this asshole yelled “NIT Ray Rice! Have fun in the NIT!”

Ray is a great player, a great entertainer, a good student, a guy who defied consistent and continual underestimation.

If you’re a good person, and a good sportsman, you have to love Ray.

It makes me glad to see, at the end of every college basketball event, the opposing players and their families socializing. It happens after fans have been booted from the venues, while game-day staff are sweeping aisles and folding chairs.

There’s no hatred. It’s not just good sportsmanship. These people are friends. They know each other from high school, from AAU, from carpools and team camps.

I wish the fans could behave as well. Why couldn’t the Mackey Asshole simply savor the victory?

Rayvonte Rice will end a great career without an NCAA Tournament appearance. That sucks for Ray. As a college basketball fan, of any team, is that something you really want to rub in his face?


Illini basketball

Black is the New Black

It’s here. This is what we’ve been waiting for. Leron Black is ready to go.

The line-up is now complete, minus its star. But Rayvonte’s absence is providing extra touches for everyone. If this team makes a late run, that might be important.

Anyway, Illini basketball 2014-15 began Wednesday night, after way too long in the cocoon.

Leron Black is the butterfly, and he stings like a bee. His 13 rebounds were the difference against Purdue. Full stop.

Illinois’s eleven consecutive free-throws to close the game …. closed the game. But it was Leron Black’s 13 rebounds that won it.

The point that’s been obvious since the O & B scrimmage, and much stated on these pages, is that this Illini basketball team must rely on

2- Nunn

3 – Hill

4 – Black

5 – Egwu

and that means Rayvonte Rice plays the point.

Because Ray broke his hand, we get to see Jaylon Tate at the point. That’s entertaining, and offers ball-movement that you don’t get without Tate — although Kendrick Nunn has become one hell of a passer, did you notice?

The Illini  train got on track Wednesday because Aaron Cosby was unavailable to stand in Leron Black’s way. Now conversant with John Groce’s schemes — or at least sufficiently conversant to merit a start when everyone else is injured — Leron proved that he’s assimilated enough data to not embarrass himself.

From now on, we can expect the team we expected.

It’s nothing personal against Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby. Not at all. In very different ways, they are good lads. But ever since they donned the orange & blue, it’s been clear (eye test, stats) that neither of them resembled the dead-eye sharp-shooter that John Groce imagined.

Cosby has transformed his game recently, emphasizing defense and rebounding, and not shooting a lot from the arc. Starks attempted only two treys against Purdue. Still, he managed 1-of-9 from the field. An assist, a turnover, a rebound. He’s a pesky sonofabitch to play against, from an offensive standpoint. He brings that value to the team.

Nevertheless, the data pool is too large for a mathematician like John Groce to ignore. The reports will continue to buttress earlier reports, making trends where once there were mere samples.

2 – Nunn

3 – Hill

4 – Black

5 – Egwu

This is a short-bench team.

If you’re wondering where Leron Black has been this whole time, don’t. The answer is not as negative as “lost,” but could certainly be expressed as “finding his way.”

Leron said as much after the game. He also noted that his momma didn’t raise no quitter.

Matt Painter said it perfectly, while laying praise at Leron’s feet. He recalled his teammate Steve Scheffler, who felt lost as an underclassman, but also knew he could make impact if he tried harder than everyone else.

Illini basketball

Psychological Warfare: Purdue’s mastery of Illini basketball

The Purdue Boilermakers are still the winningest program in B1G basketball history. Their most recent conference championship came five years ago.

Illinois hasn’t won a championship in ten years. And in that time, Purdue holds a 12-5 advantage over the Illini. Two of those wins came the Big Ten Tournament. Two came in the 2009 regular season. Since then, Purdue has won 9-of-10.

During that onslaught, Matt Painter drove his mentor Bruce Weber out of a job. Weber’s most notorious player-trashing came after losing to Purdue. That’s when Weber said he’d failed to build a culture at Illinois, and instead coached “not to lose.”

It was hard to decipher the substance of that distinction, but that’s Weber all over. His meaning was never clear, but you could generally infer that he was insulting someone. (FWIW, I’ve always preferred the subtler player-trashing Weber performed after the Northwestern loss in 2010.)

Weber was never good at explaining things, which is — whatever he believes — the actual reason he failed at Illinois.

Matt Painter is very good at explaining things. Among conference coaches, he’s a top communicator. (Thad Matta is right there, as is Fran McCaffery.) Listening to Painter speak, one gleans the modus operandi, the Keady Tree philosophy.  It’s what Weber could never express through vagueries and colloquy, or outright dodges. (Seriously, who was it that invented the “Weber is too honest” narrative? That’s nonsense.)

Right now, January 2015, is a fascinating time to analyze Matt Painter’s coaching style, from an Illini perspective.  He hasn’t been successful recently, but he’s been more successful than John Groce when the two go head-to-head. Their philosophies on player development may be exactly the same, or totally different. It’s harder to tell why Groce doles out PT the way he does, or rewards individual players for performance based on one set of metrics (e.g. rebounds) while not penalizing for another set (e.g. field goal percentage).

Painter talked about yanking his young guys during both Monday’s B1G teleconference and his own pre-Illinois teleconference on Tuesday. You can infer that Weber shares  this philosophy, if not the ability to express it.

This year at Kansas State, Weber stanched a slide that could easily have seen him canned in March, and he did it by sticking to his principles. He’s “building a culture of toughness” rather than “coaching not to lose.” That’s bad news for fans of entertaining basketball, because it suggests 58-57 grudge matches might ugly the game for years to come.

As for his mastery over Illinois, Painter spoke Tuesday about the psychological weapons he’s deployed over the years. The most obvious one, it turns out, was unintentional.  Painter said his staff did not intentionally not guard Chester Frazier.

Painter acknowledged (and perhaps wistfully pined for) Lewis Jackson’s mental ownership of Illini guards, a key factor in establishing the 9-outta-10 streak.

Painter also acknowledged the key factor for beating Illinois this year, but did not say whether it’s something an Illini opponent can effect or control. For Illini fans, it’s obvious: Make sure Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby have one of their 1-for-9 shooting nights, rather than one of their 5-for-7 shooting nights.

You can bet that Purdue’s staff is crunching video right now, trying to determine whether any defensive actions prompt these offensive reactions, one way or the other.

But as of Tuesday morning, Painter did not have an immediate response to the question of how to beat Illinois psychologically. And it’s not because he isn’t a straight-shooter.

(For context, understand the format of Boiler teleconferences: Painter calls out the names of all the people on the line, in order, and then answers all of each individual’s questions in a row before moving on to the next person.)

Cosby is more typical, from a sports psychology perspective, than Starks. Cosby said after the Northwestern game that he tried to keep his head up during his shooting slump. He credited the Illini coaching staff for insisting that he keep firing away.

Starks is an unusual character, from a sports psychology standpoint. He’s a little guy, and a loner. He’s quiet and introspective. Although probably kind to small, defenseless animals; Starks will ruthlessly attack you on a basketball court. And despite a number of statistically terrible games this year; he doesn’t need a coaching staff to buck him up. He’ll keep attacking as long as he’s on the court.

It’s for this reason that Starks is much more dangerous to the Boilermakers. They’re an unusually tall team. Starks is the mouse to their elephant. And worse for Painter, Starks seems invulnerable to mental antagonism.

Whether you prefer John Groce’s demanding without demeaning, or Painter’s short leash for underclassmen who haven’t earned the right to make mistakes, both philosophies are more comprehensible than anything Bruce Weber ever expressed.

What’s odd is that Painter will tell you what he’s doing. He shows his cards. But he still finds a way to outmaneuver Illinois, psychologically.

As Bobby Knight once said, “I’m fuckin’ tired of losing to Purdue.”