Apart from Orlando Antigua’s hot pink socks, there wasn’t much excitement at State Farm Center Wednesday night.
Oh wait, that’s not true. There was that time when Chin Coleman started dancing to the great perplexion of everyone else.
And of course, there was the time the ribbon display malfunctioned.
But the basketball game was pretty boring. The outcome was never in doubt. Augustana kicked & bobbled its way to 29 turnovers.
Even the lob dunks were mildly dull.
That’s okay. Brad Underwood wanted this game as a learning tool. And afterward, he said he learned a lot. I learned one thing: Matic Vesel desperately needs to make his first basket.
On this sunny Thanksgiving afternoon, someone should take Matic on a jog so he can grow accustomed to the sight of his own shadow. Then, perhaps, he won’t be so scared of it.
Okay, that might be a little harsh. But Matic is definitely playing scared right now. He looks more uncomfortable on the court than any Power 5 scholarship player I’ve ever seen.
Matic doesn’t present this posture in practice, but things are different under the bright lights with a few thousand people urging “shoot it!.”
I have no doubt that Matic will be a joy to watch in a few years, maybe even a few months. Right now, he just really needs to make that first basket. Then everything will settle down for him.
Underwood got to run some sets Wednesday. He saw how his team executed, and how an unknowing defense responded.
In the case of the inbound clear-out for Trent, everything worked perfectly.
The Frosh We Don’t Have
Keep this point in mind: If Jordan Goodwin hadn’t surprised everyone, and chosen Travis Ford over John Groce, Mark Smith would be in East Lansing.
Goodwin is shooting 5% from three-point range, and 23% overall. Smith isn’t lighting it up from distance (2-of-16) but he’s 20-of-35 from two-point range, which actually seems a bit low considering he attempts most of his shots from point-blank. Goodwin converted 16-of-25 free-throws to this point. Smith is 23-for-24.
In the long run, we’ll know which Metro St. Louis combo guard proves more valuable. Goodwin will probably improve. But I doubt Illini fans will be disappointed.
Jeremiah Tilmon is averaging four fouls per game at Mizzou. Again, that’s not an outrageous stat …
… until you realize that “per-game” is not the same as “per-40 minutes.”
Tilmon is seventh in minutes-played among the Tigers. He’s averaging four fouls per 15.4 minutes.
Greg Eboigbodin & Matic Vesel would not be here if John Groce were still the coach. They’d be at UIC and wherever Orlando Antigua were coaching, respectively.
It’s silly to say that Illini fans should prefer either project to the top-rated recruit of the Groce era. But again, time will tell. Telmon seems as likely to become the next Cliff Alexander as he does the next Moses Malone. Vesel probably isn’t the next Dirk Nowitzki, but that’s the skill set we’re looking at.
UNC came out unscathed. Oddly though, UIUC did not.
“Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life” was a hollow platitude.
The same praise could be offered for Illini basketball’s former academic counselor, Jessica Goerke. But every member of John Groce’s teams would have meant it sincerely. Coaches too.
Goerke was also among the most fashionable persons on campus. So it’s no surprise that she had an idea about helping with a Fashion Design class. Two Illini players enrolled in that course during the autumn semester of 2016. You could probably guess who they were if you follow Illini basketball sartorially, perhaps via Instagram. Mike LaTulip and Kendrick Nunn would be candidates had they been enrolled that semester.
But in fact, it was D.J. Williams and X. X asked not to be identified in this story.
While UNC’s Tarheels celebrated A.C.C. and national championships, while Tarheel (non-)student-athletes accepted unearned degrees; athletes at other universities (like this one here in Urbana-Champaign) faced heightened scrutiny from their own compliance departments, as if academics were the province of the NCAA.
In helping X with his fashion class, Goerke earned a formal reprimand. An investigation concluded that she’d done her job correctly, not exceeding the appropriate level of assistance an academic counselor is expected to provide.
Here’s the official report:
In short, Goerke gave X a used shirt that was otherwise on its way to Goodwill. She gave him the shirt not to wear or sell, but for use in a class assignment. And although X received an entire education, books, computers, unlimited meals, a high-end apartment complex with its own pool, gym & beach volleyball court, and reasonable travel expenses gratis and well within NCAA restrictions; that used shirt was deemed an impermissible benefit.
X was required to pay for it.
But because the shirt had no traceable owner, and was essentially destroyed in pursuit & completion of the academic assignment for which it was offered, X had to pay not for the shirt itself, but for the idea of the shirt. For the same reasons, there was no one to whom X could directly pay for the idea of the shirt. Instead, U of I compliance decided X could pay the value of the shirt to a charity of his choice, which is standard practice in rectifying bullshit NCAA violations.
X says he can’t remember who chose the Make-A-Wish Foundation, but that’s where the money went. He paid $20.
Those of you who frequent thrift stores will immediately recognize that $20 is an outrageous overestimation of retail value, for anything.
The facts emerged during a normal debriefing with Goerke’s supervisor, Marlon Dechausay. That is, Goerke sat in Dechausay’s office and described her on-job activities for the week, and the academic progress of student-athletes assigned to her care.
Dechausay was two months into the job of Associate Director of Athletics/Academic Services. When he heard the story of the polo shirt, he wondered whether an impermissible benefit had been conferred. He reported his findings to Benjy Wilber, himself two months on the job as Director of Compliance.
If this all seems far-fetched, keep in mind the reason X didn’t want to be named in this story: The new staffers weren’t looking for impermissible benefits. They were looking for academic cheating. It wasn’t that the shirt had value. They were investigating whether Illini players were doing their own classwork.
But, as with the NCAA’s Lou Henson-era investigation, the investigators found something. And since those Lou Henson-era investigations, the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics has been proactive about self-reports.
Ironically, the emphasis on academic improprieties shifted focus from day-to-day compliance monitoring. The final compendium on Groce-era violations wouldn’t fill a respectable pamphlet.
That’s odd, because Team Groce exhibited just as many instances of the same secondary-level infraction that Bruce Weber’s administration most frequently violated, the “too many coaches” rule. That rule cost Special Assistant to the Head Coach Gary Nottingham a day’s pay (his penalty for the final iteration of that infraction).
Yet not a single self-report was ever processed by U of I Compliance for the Groce years.
For the first four of those years, Ryan Squire was head of Compliance. I asked for his opinion on the disparity.
My observation is that it was just a difference in the ways that the two staffs were assembled and operated. Gary Nottingham was a lifelong coach who was put in a noncoaching role and had trouble keeping himself from coaching in the heat of the games despite our instructions and warnings.
On Coach Groce’s staff, his noncoaching staff were not people who wanted to be coaches so they were able to avoid any instances where they provided instruction to student-athletes during the games. You may have been familiar with Mark Morris, his operations person, and Darren Hertz, his special assistant. Both of them came from noncoaching backgrounds so it was easier for them to avoid these kinds of violations.
In my observation, Brandon Miller, Groce’s first SATTHC, did not engage in coaching activities during games.
Mark Morris (Director of Basketball Operations) did violate the rule once. That is, I have only one picture of Morris standing up, cupping his hands around his mouth, and hollering something at the game’s participants. I took him aside at Ubben the following week and explained the situation.
“I’m sure you were just yelling at the referee,” I told him. “But you want to avoid that kind of behavior. Someone might conclude that you were coaching.”
It never happened again.
I didn’t see Ryan Pedon engage in coaching during his time as SATTHC. But then Darren Hertz arrived. I don’t recall anything from his first year on the job, so maybe Ryan Squire’s observation was accurate.
And then …
So it would appear that U of I Compliance was distracted.
Now that the UNC investigation has (inconclusively) concluded, perhaps things will return to normal. Brad Underwood’s SATTHC Geoff Alexander would be wise to take a page from Nottingham’s revised playbook, and simply not speak to players during practices and games.
The unspoken story of the DIA’s investigation of X is that Jessica Goerke didn’t provide impermissible academic assistance. Nevertheless, she received a reprimand.
Goerke is no longer with the program. In September, she left Illinois to become Assistant Athletic Director/Academic Support at the University of California-Santa Barbara.
But as X would tell you — if he trusted you and hadn’t been hounded about this very issue by the same people who were ostensibly looking out for his best interests as a student & athlete — the whole thing left a bad taste in his mouth.
Benjy Wilber & men’s basketball Compliance Coordinator Sarah McPhee declined to comment for this story. Marlon Dechausay referred all questions to Associate Director of Athletics/Media Relations Kent Brown, who responded in writing: “The DIA won’t be making a statement about this particular issue. ”
Deon Thomas and Paris Parham greeted one another on court, about an hour before the Michigan game. They reminisced about the one game they played against each other in high school. Dunbar beat Simeon, according to Paris. But the teams had to stay in their locker rooms afterward, until the gunplay cooled off outside.
Whatever happens to the Groce staff, Deon and Paris agreed they’d lived through worse. They’ve seen guys get shot. They’ve seen people killed.
The Groce Question was answered today, by an Illinois team that couldn’t compete with a league rival, and by John Groce himself.
Five years into the Groce experiment, Illinois is not in the same class as the Big Ten’s elite teams. Illinois is second-class. Worse, they don’t just lose. They get blown away. They’re simply not relevant in major college basketball.
The B1G’s third-class teams played Wednesday. Two of them left town before the second-class teams arrived to punish the survivors. The first-class teams will show up tomorrow, and feast on the second-class. Except for us. We’ve already been eaten.
The Illini will be in Champaign-Urbana when real B1G basketball gets underway.
Groce, to his credit, came right out and agreed he’d do it all over again, exactly the same way, rather than “coaching not to lose,” the sin Bruce Weber admitted while trashing his players for public consumption, in February, 2012.
The Groce Question by the way, is not whether Groce will be fired. It’s not whether he should be fired. It’s whether he can lead Illinois out of the slash and burn wasteland he inherited. The answer is no, he can’t.
Weber was fired five years ago today. If Groce doesn’t follow him out the door, we’ll know that Josh Whitman doesn’t have a home-run hire waiting in the wings. There’s no way Josh Whitman could let the Groce era continue simply because he thinks Groce needs more time, or might be on the verge of something big. Everything we know about John Groce says this is the way he’ll do it, including his own words.
And you know what? Good for Groce. He told us on day one that he’s a teacher. And at the end, he told us the same thing again, and demonstrated as much. He’d rather coach these guys in practice than in games. That’s another thing he’s said, again and again, over his five years.
It’s perhaps not the best personality trait for a Division I coach. But it’s admirable.
So expect a new coach to be announced real soon. And if there’s not such an announcement, understand that it’s because Josh Whitman doesn’t see the point in giving a five-year contract to another mediocrity from the mid-majors. Or indeed, a super-performing coach from the low and mid-major conferences, like many from my long list. Or Cuonzo, whose NIT trajectory should eliminate him from the conversation (it won’t).
Yes, there’s the argument that Illinois basketball will get worse if Groce isn’t fired immediately. But that can’t be true. Either you’re relevant or you’re not. Illinois isn’t relevant.
The fanbase won’t grow. Fair-weather fans won’t come back until the weather is fair. But if this season is any indication, about 12,000 people will still turn out for basketball games.
Anybody that lived through 1989 or 2005 isn’t going to stop cheering for Illini basketball. They remember how great it feels when we’re first-class.
Saturday in Piscataway (poet, I know it) I met two Rutgers basketball fans. Possibly the two Rutgers basketball fans. Terry and Stuart graduated in 1978. That means they were students when Rutgers last made it to the Final Four.
I met them in the campustown Barnes & Noble. I was about to catch the free campus bus that runs between New Brunswick Station and the RAC. Instead, they gave me a lift.
When we arrived at the RAC, Mike Palko was just walking by. He was the starting center on that 1976 team.
These three guys still attend Rutgers basketball games, because they remember what Rutgers can be. They believe Rutgers will be back some day.
Illini fans vastly outnumber Rutgers fans. You needn’t be 61 years-old to remember the high. If #WeWillWin means anything, Josh Whitman isn’t satisfied with second-class. Whether it happens tomorrow, next week or next year; it’s going to happen.
Illinois basketball has a road-game winning streak. For better or worse, it’s a consequence of who didn’t participate as much as who did. John Groce’s rotation has contracted. Five guys now see “starters” minutes in a game, while three others see spot time.
It’s not necessarily who you’d expect, and it certainly isn’t what forecasters projected in October.
Leron Black, yea & nay.
Everyone will remember Leron’s dunk. Instead of jump-shooting from 12 feet out, Leron juked his man, and drove to the basket for a two-hander. It was gorgeous.
Where has this been? Why did it take so long to debut?
On defense, Leron played his usual game. He fouled a lot. It’s easy to see why.
Leron’s posture, in general, is not conducive to defense.
He doesn’t stand erect. He doesn’t raise his arms straight up above his head. Even when he’s not reaching in, or bowling someone over, he’s in a stance which will draw a whistle, every time.
Rather than standing erect, Leron slouches. He’s naturally slope-shouldered.
Did you ever wonder what Adam Fletcher is yelling when you see him leap from the Illini bench during a telecast? He’s yelling “Wall!”
Defensive posture might have been the story of the game, were it not for a handful of key plays by the diligent Illini.
Kipper Nichols collected four fouls in ten minutes. In eight minutes of action, Leron hacked four Hawkeyes.
Leron couldn’t get high enough, and Kipper couldn’t get low enough.
Nevertheless, Illini fans complained that Nichols and Black didn’t get enough PT. They also complained that Jaylon Tate and Tracy Abrams got too much. Most egregious to some fans is that Tate and Abrams played at the same time.
Tracy Abrams & Jaylon Tate
It’s true that Abrams & Tate accounted for an unfortunate portion of the first half, when both picked up a foul, Abrams missed a three and Tate earned a turnover (total BS, he never dragged that pivot foot).
But Abrams and Tate were crucial to breaking Iowa’s increasingly aggressive full-court press in the closing minutes. Te’Jon Lucas could not have survived on his own.
Lucas had just enough gas remaining in his tank to sink 1-of-4 free throws in crunch time. He could have been called for charging on one of those fouls.
Abrams and Tate were essential to the win. As for “too much PT,” they got 14 & 7 minutes respectively.
Yes, Tracy was awful yet again as a “shooting” guard (1-of-5), but his steal (credited as a rebound) at 16:00 (credited as 16:05) was a crucial turning point for momentum purposes.
Guards who wouldn’t give up the rock despite being double covered played major roles in a pair of Big 12 games Saturday. For Baylor, trailing by two with eight seconds left, Manu Lecomte kept the ball and took the last shot despite being stalked by both Frank Mason and Josh Jackson, with predictable results. Then West Virginia had a perfect chance to reprise Villanova’s championship-winning play at the end of regulation against Texas Tech – only to see Jevon Carter force up a shot instead of dishing off
But John Groce used Abrams sparingly, and where necessary. That’s a fantastic development in Groce’s evolution from non-strategist to poor strategist to strategist capable of employing strategy.
Groce necessarily, if tragically, withdrew Mike Thorne from the rotation. There’s nobody I’d rather see succeed than Mike Thorne. I assume John Groce feels the same way.
The late, lamented legend of Mike Thorne
But it became obvious that he wouldn’t discard bad habits around the basket.
It’s encouraging to see Groce & Co. preach simple fundamentals about defensive positioning. It’s encouraging to find that, eventually, Groce will reward repeated lapses with a comfy seat on the bench.
But in a very human way, it’s also encouraging that he took so long to implement the latter policy. Groce gave tons of encouragement and second chances, third chances … 15th chances to his guys.
Inevitably, he was unable change the behaviors. Instead, he eliminated their perpetrators. It’s as if he realized his job is on the line.
Groce should have noticed sooner. He should have been proactive in stamping out these bad tendencies. Someone, anyone should have coached Mike Thorne to make low post moves.
Every Little Thing
Iowa would have won but for every helping hand the Illini gave and got.
Sometimes it was Iowa screwing up. The odds of 83% foul shooter Jordan Bohannon missing both of his crunch time offerings? Well, statistically speaking, he’d hit either one of them 83 times out of a hundred.
Sometimes it was diligent attention from Kelly Pfeifer, John Gaffney & Donnie Eppley. Sometimes it was one of those three seeing something that 15,400 Iowa fans saw differently.
Sometimes they saw things differently from each other. But in those cases, they talked about it, and Illinois came out ahead in the offing.
Michael Finke’s five assists led the team. It was a career-high. When was the last time a PF/C led the team in assists? SID Derrick Burson couldn’t remember, either, apart from offering that technically Malcolm Hill did play the four spot a lot.
Jalen Coleman-Lands and Maverick Morgan were the unsung heroes of The Win at Iowa.
Morgan scored only six points, but the put-back dunk of Lucas’s missed lay-up broke the Hawkeyes’ collective back.
His seven rebounds led the team, as did his two blocks. In 34 minutes of floor time, Morgan committed only two fouls.
JCL’s passing continues to fly under the radar of fan appreciation, and over the radar of opponent defenses. His tendency to show up where needed manifests itself statistically if there’s a rebound to be grabbed, or a controlled ball in need of loosening.
Once he’s loosened that ball, he may be credited with a steal. Sometimes not. But in either case, he’s disruptive, and that makes the game harder for opponents.
Malcolm was the sung hero at Iowa, just like everywhere else. But that’s no reason to overlook his remarkable feats. Saturday saw him reach the 1,700 point threshold. Barring an unusually anemic — or outrageously prolific — outpouring in the final weeks, he should end his career as the #4 all-time Illini scorer.
The Lesson from Iowa City is that Illinois needs every player’s contributions, but it doesn’t need every player.
Again, there’s a bittersweet aspect to this lesson. We’re always bothered when guys never get a chance (Richard Semrau was the poster child until DJ Williams inadvertently stole the spotlight) to help a team that’s not surging toward an NCAA bid.
In this case, it’s utilizing guys rather than not-utilizing them that held the team back.
If John Groce were coaching this team in a vacuum, with no audience and no million dollar salary (and accompanying expectations) all his players would get equal PT, and he’d still be encouraging them to make better decisions.
If he’s fired at the end of the year, maybe he’ll regret that he didn’t harden his heart sooner. But then again, maybe he won’t.
Was John Groce crying yesterday because he hadn’t done the right thing? Or was it because he had done the right thing, and now realizes that he’s going to pay for it?
The End of The John Groce Era began in earnest on New Year’s Eve eve afternoon, when Groce betrayed a thorough misunderstanding of his dire situation. Bret Beherns tossed a softball which Groce perceived as a curve. How can the coach reassure a fanbase distraught by a 25-point loss?
Groce blanched at the question, then ridiculed it. An hour later, his reaction was viral & universally panned.
John, what do you want to tell fans concerned about a 13-0 start at IND?
As a group and as individuals, we talked about the Behrens Moment after Groce left the room. I told Bret it was a perfectly fine question. Scott Richey wondered whether the moment would be excised from the Official Upload (it wasn’t, but you couldn’t hear the question either, which is unfair to Bret … this is why you should always watch the Illini Report version; you get the audio).
I wondered aloud whether Groce lives in a Rebounders’ Club bubble, and honestly doesn’t know that Illinois basketball once sold a lot of tickets, at non-fire sale prices, and had more than 200 retirees attending its every move. Has he truly not heard the criticism? If not, that would be extraordinarily Todd Lickliterish of him.
Should we tell him that it’s not just the 25-point loss? Should we tell him that he’s never had a winning conference record at Illinois, and people have begun to notice?
Bret conjectured that Groce must, by the necessity of high-profile coaching gigs, be tuned out from the word on the street. Derek Piper and I agreed that the assistants seem to have a nose to the ground that Head Coaches don’t.
An hour earlier, as the media gathered for player interviews at Ubben, Groce’s future was already the subject of speculation. TV, radio, newspaper and web reporters huddled by the trophy cases, which display championship hardware from zero seasons of the Groce Administration.
One asked who’d be the Missouri coach next year? Another followed up with the same question, but referring to Illinois.
I don’t actually remember who said what. I was trying to get my A/V gear up and running, and was experiencing technical difficulties. I was also sleep-deprived, and obsessed with the thought that the next Mizzou coach would be crazy not to court/hire Jamall Walker (admittedly assuming that the next Mizzou coach is not Jamall Walker).
The tone of that conversation continued as everyone moved across the street, where a media meal (chicken & cheese quesadillas with all the trimmings plus a mixed green salad with sliced cucumber and carrot shavings, and cookies) was served in the State Farm Center’s bowels.
It carried up the two flights of stairs to the media work room, where bright lighting, microphones and a mult box make the job of capturing coaches comments a little easier. With only a cameraman representing DIA staff, and no SIDs in the room, the conversation turned to outright complaint. I was a bystander and witness. I didn’t say a thing during Groce’s subsequent presser, either.
Two points that came across were that Groce is — if not difficult to work with — than at least more difficult to work with than Bill Self, Lon Kruger and Bruce Weber. It was mostly to do with scheduling and punctuality.
At eight minutes past the bottom of the hour, Groce entered the media work room for his 12:30 press conference.
Many media outlets rely on deadlines. Timeliness is important to these people.
Tom Crean is considered, by far and almost unanimously, the very worst B1G coach in this regard. John Groce is #2. Crean has three major conference championships and a Final Four on his résumé. Groce led a team to a 3rd place finish in the MAC’s eastern division, twice.
Sports reporters frame & characterize their subjects for the public. They guide public perception. Why would you want to irritate them?
The business model of local newspapers, commercial radio and fan-oriented websites relies on public enthusiasm for local sports. If you’ve already eviscerated their cash cow, why would you dare to irritate them?
Illini sports sells newspapers. Or, as we’ve learned these last ten years; it doesn’t. We’ll always have 16,618, but we’ll never again have 16,618.
Whether Josh Whitman or Robert Jones gives a damn about basketball; Scout.com still wants to make money. So does the News-Gazette.
But if nobody wants to read about the team you cover, it’s hard to sell subscriptions.
If you can’t sell newspapers by writing about a winning team, you turn to the next hot topic that spurs reader interest: the coaching search. Rush Limbaugh did well when Democrats controlled the White House. Jon Stewart did well under Republican rule. We’d prefer to read about our universal and ultimate glory. But short of that outcome, we’ll rally around those willing to persecute our tormentors.
Through his tone-deaf reaction that Friday afternoon, John Groce made it a little easier for everyone to turn the page on him, and start talking frankly about his successor. He took the gloves off.
It looked like things might get messy from then on out. But snarky Groce retreated into his shell, and cheery Groce returned. We haven’t seen a recurrence.
After the second Penn State beatdown, which insured that Groce would finish 5-of-5 seasons without a winning conference record, the same group of regulars convened in the media room to do our thing.
“I know you guys don’t know what to write any more,” I told a couple of newspaper people. The ongoing joke is that they’ve run out of things to say, because every game is the same. “But I think we’ve run out of questions to ask. So I’m counting on you guys to come up with something. That’s your job.”
“Do you have a Realtor?” posited one writer, who shall remain nameless.
Maybe Whitman will learn that he can’t find a fantastic replacement, and choose not to make a change this off-season. So far, the names being bandied about are uninspiring or implausible. Illini fans, like all fans, value their program more than neutral observers. They think rebuilding a thoroughly broken, irrelvant program will appeal to the top five names on every other school’s list of prospective hires.
Tomorrow, I’ll publish my list. It might have some of those same names on it, but only in passing, or to emphasize that they’re not coming through that door.
Groce still enjoys a lot of support with people who matter. He’s not a sociopath.
He’s a guy who’ll eschew winning in favor of teaching basketball players to be better people and, eventually, better players — what his predecessor called “coaching not to lose.”
That appeals to those concerned with the educational mission of the university.
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.
If we were Gonzaga, we’d feel this way most mornings. Playing lousy teams is an excellent way to ensure wins. Competing against matador defenders ensures that your offensive sets will look great!
That’s why Mark Few and Ggreggg Marshall aren’t looking for jobs in competitive conferences. It’s why Bryce Drew may learn, over the next few years, that money isn’t everything.
Michigan stinks. They’ve got the worst defense in the Big Ten.
OK, that’s an exaggeration, statistically speaking. Michigan can’t stop other teams from scoring, and they can’t rebound on those rare occasions when the other team misses.
John Beilein laughed about it, noting that Michigan didn’t get schooled on the boards because Illinois didn’t miss any shots (64% on twos and another 64% from three).
Beilein also readily admitted that Kipper Nichols was nowhere to be found on the Wolverine’s scouting report. Wouldn’t it be great if John Groce were so candid?
Now that Bo Ryan is gone, there’s no contest about who’s my favorite B1G coach. Like John Groce, Beilein is known more for his teams’ offensive capabilities. Defense? Not so good.
Te’Jon Lucas has been the proverbial back-up QB for the last three months. Now he’s the actual back-up QB, and based on the minutes he’s played in the last two games, moving in on the starting QB position.
Compare his Wednesday stats to Tracy Abrams’s. Lucas’s ATO was 8-to-1 in 23 minutes. Abrams was 3-to-1 in 24 minutes.
Each had a steal. Abrams grabbed two rebounds and Lucas one. Abrams committed three fouls and Lucas zero.
Lucas didn’t miss any shots. Tracy was 1-of-3 from the field and 2-of-3 on FTs. Lucas didn’t get to the line.
Each made a thrilling no look pass for an assist.
Kipper Nichols is unlikely to live up to the outrageous expectations foisted upon him by demented fans. Since joining the program, he’s been the fantasized savior among people with pseudonymous message-board identities & access to the Internet.
And yet, every time Nichols touched the ball on Wednesday, something really exciting happened.
Whether it was yanking a rebound from the hands of an opponent, offensive rebounds and put-backs, or nailing shots from the low post or the arc; Kipper dazzled the crowd of 11,404.
Dazzling a crowd is exactly what John Groce needs to keep his job. And he also needs about four thousand more people per game. And he needs those people to pay more for tickets.
The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, to its credit, has become far more flexible, in recent years, about ticket prices and packages. Ticket supply continues to exceed demand, so DIA dropped prices dramatically. Good for them, but bad for the bottom line.
Thrilling players like Kipper Nichols and Te’Jon Lucas sell tickets. Think of the days when Bruce Douglas lobbed & Efrem Winters dunked.
Indiana gets 50% more people per game. They probably don’t sell tickets for $6.78/per, either.
Jalen Coleman-Lands connected on 4-of-5 threes, for 12 points. His passing remains underrated (4 assists). Maverick Morgan also dished four assists from the center position, and converted eight of his nine attempts from the floor.
With Jaylon Tate and Mike Thorne combining for exactly zero minutes, one wonders whether Groce will contract his rotation to the degree that mentor Thad Matta usually does … something like six or seven players per game.
But as long as The Producers continue to produce, the non-producers are likely relegated to cheerleading and spectating.
Illinois was lousy on defense, and that’s okay. Most people don’t care about defense, just so long as the home team leads by 15 to 20 points throughout the second half.
If he can’t ensure that his team connects on 64% of shots night-in/night-out, John Groce may want to hire a defensive mastermind, like Chris Lowery or Wayne McClain, to instill defensive toughness in his matadors.
Both those things happened this weekend, just not to us.
At this point, I’m surprised only that people are surprised. Everything we’ve seen this basketball season is consistent with everything we’ve ever seen from the individuals involved. They are who we thought they are.
Yes, it’s been a while since I posted an Illini Report. What was there to say that you couldn’t read elsewhere?
Well, there’s a lot, actually. I started writing it four times. That is, there are four unpublished pieces in my drafts folder. I had a lot to vent, and some lovely insider gems.
But it’s all hurtful stuff. It’s all borne of frustration, anger and cynicism. You can read plenty of that elsewhere, too.
After 3 of the last 4 games, I was never tempted to follow The Good Tracy with The Bad Tracy. That’s not to say I didn’t write it. I just didn’t publish it.
It would certainly have been appropriate.
John Groce continues his misdirection strategy in defending Tracy (a refreshing change from Bruce Weber’s incessant player-trashing) to emphasize the qualities Tracy brings every day.
I feel bad for Tracy Abrams. I take no enjoyment from berating his failures. I’d love to see him leave Illinois as a champion.
As the “play Te’Jon Lucas” hue & cry makes its way across all forms of media, the usual suspect is Jaylon Tate. But Tate’s passing at Indiana was, like always, dynamic and exciting. He had three times as many assists as Abrams in half the minutes.
From a passing standpoint, D.J. Williams and Michael Finke are better PGs than Abrams. Jalen-Coleman-Lands continues to fly under the radar for his court vision & ability to find open teammates.
Tracy Abrams is undoubtedly a leader, and a disciplined worker. He’s an almost perfect soldier in his willingness to execute orders, and a model sergeant for his determination to motivate his troops to implement the policies dictated by his commanders.
In year five of the Groce Administration, those policies tempt military analogies. The Maginot Line for defense. Vietnam for understanding our opponent.
I introduced the season by writing that Mike Thorne’s interior tendencies would frustrate Illini fans, and that Te’Jon Lucas should consider redshirting. Neither observation was intended to insult the player involved. Mike Thorne is one of the most likeable guys on the team. And Te’Jon’s repeated DNPs are not his fault nor his choice.
Thorne never plays much, and continues to start. I’m good with that. Through 16 games, Maverick Morgan averages 21 minutes to Thorne’s 15. In conference, Thorne has played even less.
It’s fun to think about opponents taking the time to scout Thorne. It’s especially fun if one dreams that Thorne may — as intelligent, introspective persons sometimes do — completely change his modus operandi upon catching a ball in the low post.
When the Illini cut Indiana’s lead to 12, the Hoosiers went on a 10-0 run.
Then Illinois cut the lead to nine.
And then, John Groce made the Bruce Weberest decision of an already thoroughly Bruce Weberish career, calling timeout as Te’Jon ran the ball toward Indiana’s (admittedly well-defended) bucket.
On the subsequent (surely much intellectualized) inbound play, Te’Jon turned the ball over.
Erstwhile Urbana High School varsity coach Vashoune Russell had an opinion about this sequence of events. (Vashoune took pictures of the game with some really expensive cameras. It was almost worth the $64 I put in his gas tank. Holy shit those GMC Suburbans.)
Vashoune couldn’t understand why Groce thought he could get away with the same inbound play twice in a game versus a well-coached team.
If, after Illinois’s second stab at persistence cut the lead to 9 on Saturday, you decided you’d like to see a team come back from 20+ down to win a game, you’re in luck. No TV subscription required. If you have an internet connection (which you do) you can watch the replay at ESPN3. Here it is.
Caroline is the grandson of an Illini/NFL legend. He was sired by another Illini legend, who also played in the NFL.
But Jordan clearly, distinctly put his own stamp on all-time legend status with a single game. 45 points & 13 rebounds is not all-time material, but recovering from a 14-point deficit with a minute to go is all-time anything. That was Saturday’s astonishing performance at New Mexico.
If you want to relive the magical 15-0 start of Saturday’s Hoosiers fiasco, you can watch that too. How often will you get the chance to see Illinois’ best player collect a third foul before the team has scored a single point?
Coaches on the Hot Seat sometimes recognize that Being Friendly will serve them better than Being A Dick, or isolating themselves.
After his regular (i.e. B1G mandated) time with the media Saturday, Tom Crean made a beeline toward the Illini media pool, all assigned to workstations in the far corner of the media room.
“Does Chicago need anything else?” he asked, perhaps oblivious to the slight, and perhaps recognizing that Shannon Ryan was the only reporter in the pool whose audience should concern him.
No one needed anything else. Vashoune and I shook his hand, thanked him for the offer, and congratulated him on the win.
Crean left the room, but engaged a pair of TV reporters (and their cameras) in the tunnel outside. Meanwhile, Scout.com’s Jeremy Werner and Derek Piper joined Indiana’s Scout correspondent Jeff Rabjohns in a discussion, in the media room.
At some point, Crean re-entered the room. He engaged an Indiana beat writer in a long discussion. It’s the first time I’ve seen a B1G coach hang out in a media room after exhausting his official duties.
After a long talk, Crean again walked to the other side of the room, toward the Illini pool. “Is Jeremy Werner here?” he asked.
By this time, Jeremy and Derek had returned to the court, to record their usual postgame video commentary.
“He was,” we responded.
Crean gushed about Jeremy’s statistical analysis. He said he’d read it earlier in the week, and “actually learned something from it.”
A lot of coaches pretend they don’t read their press clippings. Some coaches don’t seem capable of reading. So it might feel rewarding to know that a coach not only reads, but learns from ones writing.
I emailed Jeremy to tell him about the query, and also to ask WTF column Crean was foaming about. It was Jeremy’s Rapid Recap of the tOSU game, according to Jeremy, who also observed that the column was “nothing special.”
John Groce also stayed in the visitor’s media room for a few extra moments, and made small talk at Chicago Tribune‘s Shannon Ryan. Then he moved to the tunnel to allow Louie del Rio and Bret Beherns a better opportunity to frame him with their cameras. (The IU visitor’s “media room” is a secretary’s office, and it’s tiny.)
Groce is no idiot. A week after dissing Bret’s softball about disgruntled fans, he offered himself to his most important conduit. WCIA has the largest local TV audience.
Ryan reaches the largest number of Illini fans, in theory. That is, the Trib has a huge subscriber base, most of which lives in Illinois. Nobody necessarily reads Shannon’s columns, if they can be bothered to comb through the sports section, past all the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Notre Dame, Marathon, etc. coverage.
Groce reserves all his inside information for CBS Sport’s Jon Rothstein, but it behooves him to make nice with those media members who can access a national audience. The Tribune company publishes the Los Angeles Times, too. And the Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and Sun-Sentinel. On a slow day, any of those papers might run an article by any of the Tribune company’s reporters.
The pleasantries lasted only a moment. By comparison, you can see why Tom Crean has won two B1G Championships.
But in fairness to Groce, he’s been on the hot seat for only about three years. Crean has been on the hot seat since the day he was hired. But as we’re all interested in the success of Illini sports, let’s all keep an eye on Groce’s interactions with the media.
Bret’s question was only the beginning of a Pandora’s Box, Groce should do everything in his power to keep that box from opening. Unfortunately for him, five years of inaccessibility hampered that possibility. All the reporters he’s marginalized will have a column ready, whether they publish it after the Michigan game, after the Maryland game, after the Purdue game …
Is it fair and/or ethical to criticize Groce for not buttering the media? Yes and no. Everything keeps changing. Newspapers gave way to web content, etc.
But the fact is that Groce does butter the media, just not anyone local. Take that as you will.
Meanwhile, Loren Tate is still good friends with Lou Henson.
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.
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.
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.
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
are capable of typing
have access to the Internet
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.”
For the first time in ever, none of Malcolm’s mom, Aaron’s dad or DJ’s family attended an Illini game.
“Is it common knowledge that Barclays Center has a grass roof?” I asked Jason Marry, as I sat down on the baseline of the Brooklyn Nets’ home court.
Jason, who pays attention to sports, assurred me that I was not alone in my ignorance. For some reason, sports fanatics tend to focus on the sports-oriented aspects of sports. They don’t talk about the architecture.
Tomorrow, I’ll be in Miami. I hope I won’t write about their architecture. I like their architecture, but I’m hoping I’ll have something interesting to communicate about the development of a basketball team.
In this column, I’ll write about the architecture. i.e. the non-sports stuff I delight in observing while following Illini basketball around the country. But I’ll also write about the basketball.
There’s an evolutionary arc I’ve been watching. I don’t know when or where it might complete, or manifest itself. Some unanswered questions will determine whether this team will make the tournament, or require Josh Whitman to Make A Change.
The themes of this column aren’t new. It’s about Tracy Abrams’s composure, his shot selection. He’s always been great at controlling teammates. It’s his ability to control Tracy Abrams that’s always been the question.
He’s been good.
He’s like Chester Frazier: Among the most self-disciplined Illini when it comes to work ethic, off-the-court deportment, navigating the potential pitfalls of being a student-athlete.
He’s so good, so strong, so determined in those areas; that it’s hard to comprehend his moments of folly on the court. That he played with Rayvonte Rice offers a great comparison. Rice frequently attempted the spectacular, and succeeded. But his team lost.
Abrams must resist attempting the spectacular for his team to succeed.
Will he also be like Chester Frazier in providing a senior year where his shooting drastically improves, and his decisions don’t cost games?
Subject #2 of the evolutionary arc is Jalen Coleman-Lands’s second dimension, and his third dimension.
Considered by some to be a “three-point specialist,” JCL is most exciting to watch because of his behind-the-back passes, and drives to the hoop.
He drove the lane at the Barclays Center, and got stuffed. Undeterred, he continued to drive against NC State, and he was successful. He also made a behind the back pass, and another quick pass in the lane.
JCL and Abrams share a common gift/fault. They like to push the limits of basketball geometry. Sometimes, their angles are too acute.
Abrams’s self-control and JCL’s dynamism are key ingredients to a successful season. So are Leron Black’s 15-foot jumper, and his failure to foul out of the last two contests.
Inevitably, it seems, this team will rely on its highest-rated recruits.
On the other hand, no recruiting service wasted much ink on Te’Jon Lucas. And yet he’s emerged as this team’s fun guy to watch.
Over the last two weeks, Illini fans have demanded that Lucas get more tick. John Groce heard them. In particular, Groce heard Juan David Hoffman, literally.
“Pass the ball!” Hoffman yelled to Abrams, as Tracy dribbled on the wing, no more than five feet from Hoffman.
A few moments later, Hoffman followed with “Put Lucas in the game!”
When Groce did, in fact, insert Te’Jon a moment later, Hoffman responded with “’bout time!”
It’s not unusual for fans to scream at games. What’s unusual is for any particular sentiment to be audible for everyone, including the head coach.
Dozens of people attended the Brooklyn games. No, really. Dozens. And because Hoffman was directly across the court from Groce, in an otherwise empty/silent mausoleum, Groce could hear everything Hoffman said.
Intriguingly, Hoffman’s favorite topics reflect the general consensus. That’s not true of most courtside-sitters, who tend to be polite (and at least among the Illini fandom) unabashed homers. The type who never criticize the coach but do criticize the people who criticize the coach.
Hoffman, by contrast, vocalized everything you’ve been reading online about John Groce and the 2016-17 Illini. And Groce heard it.
Groce’s demeanor is different this year, which suggests that he’s heard a lot of Hoffmans, or at least has begun to acknowledge agitation among the fanbase.
Maybe it began when Groce was forced to hold a joint press conference with Josh Whitman. The most obvious change is the post-home-game press conferences. The players now show up independent of Groce, which means the media get started on their copy about 20 minutes sooner. That media was allowed to attend a pair of pre-season practices is also a novation.
It’s pretty clear that Groce feels the heat.
Some fans have declared that Groce’s tenure demonstrates a misjudgment about Bruce Weber. That’s insane. Whether or not John Groce is your guy, Bruceketball was torture to watch in 2012. So don’t even think that you’re worse off now. And these changes in Groce’s personal style, and the product on the court, are the best proof.
Weber wouldn’t change. Conceivably, Weber couldn’t change. If you forgot what Bruce Weber looks like, look up “hidebound” in your dictionary. His picture appears next to that word.
Groce has this year’s team playing up-tempo offense, and a lot of zone defense. Against Florida State, he called out to his team to stay in a 2-3 zone “until further notice.”
That game is now more than a week behind us. It’s pretty much forgotten, thanks to NC State.
Thanksgiving’s West Virginia fiasco won’t be so easily forgotten. But unlike actual trauma, it will find retention in memory a tricky row to hoe. Illini fans, even those zealous to depose John Groce, can’t escape human neuroscience. We like to remember the good times. We remember things that nearly kill us (and, in theory, make us stronger).
Illinois basketball’s decade-long slide into total irrelevance doesn’t threaten you physically. It won’t activate warning mechanisms in your brain cells.
Lots of people showed up for the (final?) dedication of the State Farm Center, and they saw an entertaining win which temporarily quietened the pitchfork mob. If Illinois loses to VCU tomorrow, the pitchforks will return before sunset. If Illinois wins, they might not show up ’til 2017.
MORE DANCING ABOUT ARCHITECTURE
FSU’s Michael Ojo is one of those unfortunate persons who came to basketball as the result of a pituitary disorder. Isaac Haas is another. Some people are just unusually tall. Some people have acromegaly.
Perhaps it’s a poorly kept secret, but a lot of college basketball players aren’t all that great at basketball. They’re just really tall. Keon Johnson reminded Illini fans that the most gifted basketball players aren’t always the most-sought recruits. Rayvonte Rice should be playing in the NBA, but pro scouts continue to perseverate about his height, despite Rice’s eight year campaign of proving doubters wrong.
Ojo is 7’1″ and enormous all over.
He’s African, and like a lot of African basketball players, he’s mostly a defender. He sees the game for what it’s become: soccer.
It’s possible that he’s really funny.
During a break in the action, Ojo noticed teammate Jonathan Isaac wasn’t paying attention. Malcolm Hill was just lining up for a one-and-one, and Isaac hadn’t taken his spot on the block. Ojo called to him. “Hey, it’s a one-and-one!”
But later, when Te’Jon Lucas lined up for two free-throws, Ojo tried to persuade everyone, including the referees, that
Lucas’s shots were also one-and-one.
In the enormous baritone voice that often booms from the heads of gigantism’s victims, Ojo called out “One-and-one?” four or five times to anyone within hearing range. Finally, referee Jeff Anderson called out from the wing: “Ojo, it’s two shots man.”
After Lucas drained the first attempt, referee Bo Boroski followed up.
You surely get better coverage of Illini sports from other media outlets. I exist only to tell these funny little stories.
Now I’ll have to decide if I really want to get on that 7 a.m. flight for Miami. After a week of looking after an elderly relative in Queens, I could easily be talked into staying home.