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Illini basketball

The Cheerful

Everybody associated with Illini basketball seems pretty happy these days. Was it the long road trip where they increased their conference losing streak to four games, puked a lot, and shuttled around in temperatures that hovered around 0° the entire time?

Maybe.

Is it that they competed with the four teams picked  3-through-6 in the pre-season? Probably not. Like a lot of athletes, they prefer to win.

Something about the new coach, the new system, the improvement they see in themselves and each other — all of that seems to buck them up. Wednesday afternoon, after prepping for Iowa, everybody seemed pretty enthusiastic.

The coach is sanguine, too.  After Saturday’s loss, Bret Beherns asked whether Brad Underwood planned to make major changes, like he did after an 0-6 start in the Big 12 last year.

Nope.

Maybe we should all be glad that Brad has this team loose after an 0-4 conference start. He’ll need to keep these players committed. He’ll need them emotionally available. He’ll need their attention.

Underwood talks about “listening” a lot. He knows when guys are doing it (Williams, always) and when they’re not (Kipper, sometimes).

Underwood is not so Old School that he can’t see the value in a guy like Kipper, whose basketball “faults” are aspects of a genial personality.

You could reduce Kipper to a cold-blooded killer via techniques employed by the 20th century’s most ruthless armies, but your end goal wouldn’t be worth the sacrifice.

Kipper is a warm, smart, funny guy. We need more of those, not fewer.

Brad’s challenge is to bring out the killer in Kipper while he’s on the court, without damaging Kipper’s inner Smoove B.

After losing a game that didn’t seem competitive in the second half, Kipper boarded the team bus with a hot, fresh pizza box in his hand. He got to choose his toppings, chicken & peppers.

Kipper was in a good mood. His mom & grandma were there, which is not unusual. They travel a lot.  But Kipper had just tallied game highs in points and rebounds, and that hadn’t happened much lately.

Underwood had a pizza as well, but he didn’t know what was on it. “Whatever Joey (Biggs) got me. I’ll eat anything, Rob.”

The post-game feed is as much of a tradition as the shootaround, or the halftime speech. Fortunately, it seems more susceptible to evolution than those two strictures. Thus, when Greg Eboigbodin decided he didn’t want pizza, he was allowed to choose a pasta dish instead.

Progress.

Of course, Greg had plenty of reasons to be cheerful. He’d just shattered all expectations for his college career by playing two straight games of  … is dominant too strong a word?

Chin Coleman bridled, in his introductory interview, at the notion that he’d be recruiting a different level of player to UIUC than he’d been recruiting to UIC. Chin might be right. Greg appears ready for prime time.

Greg still makes a lot of common Big Man mistakes, usually the consequence of being hit in the hands by a pass.

But he recovers so quickly from his mistakes that they sometimes don’t have a chance to be charted. Underwood mentions his speed and quickness every time someone asks about Greg.

But the other factor, the thing that allows him to play, is his mindset.  Greg is either oblivious to the millions of people watching him, or he’s built of iron and nails. I think it’s the former, and hope it’s both. (Contrast Matic Vesel, who’s way too aware that he’s landed at a Big Time basketball program.)

For the record, it’s not fair to use Greg as an example of athletes who are cheerful despite …

Greg might experience moments of gloom, bad moods, even severe depression. If so, he hides it well.  He seems, perhaps more so than any major college athlete I’ve met, to be Living The Dream. (He’s also the only Illini I’ve known who rides a bicycle to practice, as do I. So I’m biased.)

’tis the season for PT constriction. This time of year, coaches are generally slashing minutes, tightening the rotation. The youngsters don’t see much floor time. Experimental big men return to project status.

Not here in east central Illinois. The minutes were damn near socialist Saturday. Everybody got the same. Da’Monte Williams tallied a near-bourgeois 27 segments of tick while nobody else exceeded 22.

The veterans aren’t completely washed up, though. Leron Black and Mark Alstork were felled by a Norovirus. Michael Finke had to leave the team for a day because his grampa died.

There are no column-inch restrictions here at Illini Report, so let’s take a moment to remember David Langendorf.

Michael Finke, David Langendorf, Tim Finke

 

His name was David Langendorf, born in Highland, Illinois and was married to my mom’s mom, Barbara. His birthday was March 30, 1953. He died on December 24, 2017. He served in Vietnam and then was a police officer in Champaign for a number of years. He was currently “retired” but he was always staying busy. Loved doing yard work for people. Mowed all of his neighbors yards and was always lending a helping hand to whoever needed it. He loved fishing and was always wanting to take me and my siblings out to fish. He and Mike Thorne actually got really close over the couple of years Mike was here. They went fishing all the time, just the two of them. He was a guy that cared about others. Put other people before himself all the time. A really selfless guy.

So while you’re steaming about the 0-for-2 road trip, keep in mind that these young men have Things Going On that you may not have considered.

And despite all that, they played pretty well (for stretches).

If you’ve been frustrated by Illini basketball lately, whether you’re throwing your remote at your screen, or throwing your screen remotely, you’ll be delighted, possibly stunned to know that Michael Finke is averaging about the same number of rebounds-per-game as Leron Black (5.4 to 5.7).

You might also be delighted to know that Black is smoking Finke on threes,  .444 to .317, because it bodes well for Leron’s future as a long-distance shooter.

Aaron Jordan has cooled to a near-normal 53% from the arc, and it’s just about time for Brad Underwood to talk with AJ about mechanics. Where Underwood fixed Trent Frazier’s FT tendencies, he might be able to straighten AJ’s Spinning Globe.

Old School by nature, Brad will probably wait until Aaron’s percentage drops below 50 before interceding. That’s fine. But Brad is also a long-holdout-cum-believer in Analytics. At his disposal, he’s got the best proprietary analytics money can buy. Those data, plus the video collected, incessantly & tirelessly by DIA staff, will determine whether AJ’s shot has changed during these last weeks.

An Argument for Cheerfulness Re: Illini basketball

Basketball will need to change if it hopes to keep the attention of people who are now 30 and under.  The fact that Brad Underwood is the Illini coach, and Bruce Weber is not, should demonstrate that someone has recognized a tectonic shift in the human attention span. We can’t stand to watch methodical basketball. Like our social media addiction, we need basketball to enhance our experience at an ultra high refresh rate.

Bruce Weber didn’t compete for offensive rebounds, nor did John Groce. Brad Underwood wants to compete all the time.  Hence, every moment of Illini basketball is suddenly more interesting to watch.  If the NCAA eliminated the Alternate Possession rule, you can imagine an Underwood team gaining a win per year, simply because he wants to contest everything.

Overall, Underwood’s relaxed demeanor throughout the Michigan game and afterword reminded this Illini observer that Michigan Curbstomping Illinois is not a tradition to him. Brad doesn’t know that Michigan surpassed Illinois in 2009, after a lovely pair of decades in which the Wolverines simply couldn’t solve Illini riddles.

We’ll concede football to them. Irksomely, Michigan also holds the title deed to Illini basketball. It’s less egregious than Ed DeChellis’s ownership of your favorite team.  Michigan is a storied program, with a banner. (Grrr.)

John Beilein beat Brad by four points last year, if you exclude that last second prayer (as I do). As far as Brad knows, he’s competitive with Michigan. But for both coaches, there’s another significant factor responsible for their sanguinity: After years of toil, they Made It.

Like Beilein, Brad’s peace-of-mind is age-based. After years of getting by, and more recently making money that could put his kids through college, Brad Underwood is a multi-millionaire.

You can imagine him at 43, having enjoyed greater success as a JUCO coach in Florida than he had as a JUCO coach in Kansas, thinking I might be able to make ends meet.

The weather is better too you can also imagine him thinking.

If Bob Huggins hadn’t called, he might still be in Florida. Brad said as much. One phone call changed everything.

If Huggins hadn’t called, Brad’s mortgage situation would be different. He’d be driving a car that he owns, and it would have significantly more miles than the late model he’s driving now. His daughter’s cracked iPhone screen would be something he perhaps couldn’t afford to replace, rather than a teachable moment.

You can see why Brad Underwood isn’t at his wits’ end.  Everything has come together for him.

For the young people, this is only the beginning. There’s no reason to think it’s not the beginning of something good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
Illini basketball

Weekend 1, Southern and UT-Martin

Tip-off of Sunday night’s game was delayed briefly when courtside fans alerted referee Rob Kueneman of some grass on the court. There was enough grass to cause a running player (or referee) to slip and hurt himself. Kueneman called The Sweeper (The Broom Lad?) over to clean it up.

How did grass get on the court? Why was it still there at tip-time? Your guess is as good as mine.

Kueneman’s next notable contribution (apart from blowing a whistle when appropriate) came when Te’Jon Lucas lowered his shoulder, earning a charging call at the south end. “Come Big Ten play I’m going to need that call” Brad Underwood hollered from the bench.

“Fair enough,” responded Kueneman.

The other two referees were Courtney Green and Bo Boroski. It was a well-officiated game.

As for hollering, the Hollerer of the Game award goes to Skyhawks reserve Mike Fofana. The Orange Krush had a field day with Fofana after he exhausted himself hollering “who’s got shooter?” over and over and over again as various Illini attempted free-throws.

South-end photographers get to hear all the Krush offerings. Some are mundane, perhaps because they’re prepared. These offerings were spontaneous, demonstrating that individual Krush members can be pretty damned clever.

Two games in, we’re just getting to know our newcomers, and what they bring to the table.

Mark Alstork followed his 17-point debut with a 1-for-7 performance. But that one counted for three points. Nevertheless, he was an enthusiastic cheerleader for his teammates.

Da’Monte Williams speaks. I heard him say thanks to someone last night.

But for the most part, Da’Monte is The Silent Illini. His game displays a different variety of reserve. He’s simply not flashy. He moves very fast to get into position on defense, and that’s the kind of thing coaches adore. His proudest moment this weekend was taking a charge. As Leron Black screamed encouragement, Da’Monte’s grin spread from ear to ear.

Mark Smith’s game recalls Michigan State great Jason Richardson. Each has the ability to alter his shot in mid-air. That’s not terribly unusual. But each seems to leap without giving any indication that he has a particular angle in mind.

Smith waits ’til he gets a few feet into the air before deciding, for example, which hand to use, or whether to involve the backboard glass.

In short,  he doesn’t telegraph his move. That makes it hard for defenders to read his body language.

Trent Frazier learned to play basketball among taller players, and you can tell. Like Te’Jon Lucas, Trent’s primary offensive weapon is the pull-up jumper.

Like Te’Jon, it’s his quick release that prevents taller defenders from closing in time. But Trent’s pull-up is a conventional jump-shot, whereas Te’Jon’s shot often leaves his hands before he’s achieved a conventional shooting posture.

Matic Vesel didn’t see the floor on Sunday. He burned his redshirt in garbage time Friday night. But in that time, he made a beautiful post-entry pass.

As the clock wound down, the (surprisingly large Friday night) crowd audibly encouraged Vesel to attempt a shot from the arc. For whatever reason, Matic abstained. He did dribble the ball a lot.

In his postgame remarks, Brad Underwood wondered aloud why it’s so hard to get Matic to shoot. Perhaps Matic has not yet realized the second-most exciting thing about Matic: He does not miss shots.

Finally, I’d like to make this observation, visually.

Categories
Illini basketball

Introducing Matic Vesel



Illinois basketball fans have had lots of opportunities to  read interviews & watch video of Mark Smith and Trent Frazier. People in east central Illinois actually saw Da’Monte Williams play basketball, frequently.

But after Brad Underwood took the big office at Ubben, the Illini suddenly had two freshmen bigs nobody had ever heard of. Greg Eboigbodin has been in America for four years, playing high school ball in Detroit. So there’s at least some documentation of his history, online and in English.

Matic Vesel had been in America exactly one time before he arrived at the start of the fall semester: his Official Visit to Illinois.  He’s not a complete unknown. They have the Internet in Ljubljana, his hometown. You can watch a highlight video where he dunks a lot.

Orlando Antigua was coaching the Dominican National team when he discovered Vesel, playing for Slovenia, on the Greek island of Crete. A whirlwind recruitment ensued, and now Matic is an American college student.

He’s a big soccer fan, and an Arsenal supporter “because the Champions League is the best soccer in the world … for now.” But Vesel only played indoor soccer (goalkeeper), and that lasted only a little more than a year.   At that point, he had to decide between basketball and …

 

… wait for it …

 

 

… equestrian.

 

Vesel decided to focus his energies on basketball because he realized he was going to be unusually tall.  Smart kid.

Adapting to American culture, American food and American college life all during the same month was probably not easy. He seems to enjoy hanging around his freshman teammates, and especially likes the eternal optimism & high-energy of Trent Frazier.

That was September.

Now he’s got a drill sergeant whipping his ass on a daily basis, and it hasn’t been easy. Vesel gets a lot of praise for his offensive skills, but he also hears a lot of flak about defense & deportment (which seems a little unfair considering he’s from an entirely different culture).

It would conceivably be too much, given all the other stressful adjustments he’s had to make over a few short weeks.  But Matic recognizes that he’ll have to work “systematically, day-per-day” and make a lot of sacrifices, including “many times you have to say ‘no’ to the people who … you love them. That’s a big decision to make.”

Leaving Slovenia for a corn field might seem like an obvious choice for the those of us who love flat & boring, but it’s got to be hard when you’re accustomed to this:

So if you see Matic around campus, please welcome him and tell him that there’s more here than just soybeans.

Someone could teach him, for example,  about good pizza and good Mexican food, both available in Champaign-Urbana. So far he’s had only Pizza Hut and Chipotle.

And thank him for choosing to resurrect your favorite basketball program. Like Damir Krupalija, he’s a young Balkan who’s found himself in middle America, right when Illinois decided to be relevant again.

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Illini basketball

Basketball practice 10-23-17

Monday’s basketball practice was held at the State Farm Center. Returning to the scene of the crime, if you will.

Losing to Indiana State in Sunday’s “secret scrimmage” will likely be remembered as the first milestone on the road to recovery. The phrase “change the culture” is 2017’s version of “it is what it is,” 2012’s favorite cliché among young ballers. But there’s no better phrase for describing Brad Underwood’s current mission. He took over a club that was accustomed to losing. He thinks they’ve just accepted it. He won’t.

Underwood’s staff learned a lot about their team Sunday. Most of it is intangible, and can’t be translated into data. Sure, they kept track of missed shots. They tracked rebounding. They even know how many times the lads missed an opportunity to set a screen.

But mostly, they learned about posture, effort and mindset. Fundamentally, this team is inexperienced. Most of these guys have never played college basketball. None of them has played for Underwood.

Except one.

If it seems preposterous to keep mentioning a walk-on in these reports, I say pshaw. Until there’s a practice where Tyler Underwood doesn’t do something exceptional, I’ll keep mentioning him. It’s like his dad vis-à-vis Thomas Walkup. I have not once been in the same room with Brad Underwood when he didn’t mention Thomas Walkup. Monday’s practice was no exception, in both cases. Tyler Underwood directed his teammates through drills, and his dad told a story about Thomas Walkup. I hadn’t heard this particular Walkup story before. It was harrowing. I wonder whether he’ll ever tell it in front of cameras.

Cameras were rolling throughout Monday’s practice.  Jason Marry & Zach Altfillisch of Fighting Illini Productions were on hand, and Coach Underwood was mic’d up.  You should hope that you’ll be allowed to hear his speech about the secret scrimmage. It was gripping.

Marry also recorded the post-practice huddle at center court, which seemed to last about fifteen minutes.

It’s possible that these moments will be shared with the public. On the other hand, maybe not. Talking to Underwood off-camera last Thursday in New York, I learned he’s not eager to share everything about his practices. He wants to maintain a teaching atmosphere, which is something John Groce said, too. Fighting Illini Productions publishes only those segments of video which the program wants published. So just hope that Underwood isn’t too humble to allow those moments to see daylight.

Apart from Tyler Underwood, the top coach-on-the-floor was Cameron Liss, also a walk-on. On more than one occasion, Liss heeded a coach’s call to help a teammate into the proper positioning & posture during defensive drills. He’s one of only three fourth-year Illini, so his senior leadership is a dire necessity to the team.

These guys are never going to see a whole lot of tick, so I’d like to highlight their contributions to making this team better.

The other two senior leaders are Michael Finke and Leron Black. (Like Liss, they’re technically R-Jr.’s.)  The coaching staff doesn’t spend a whole lot of time instructing either of them, which is a good sign. It makes one suspect they’re fundamentally sound.

The other fundamentally sound player is Da’Monte Williams.

Brad Underwood continually draws attention to Da’Monte’s defensive stance, positioning or effort as an example to the rest of the team. This might come as a surprise to people who’d assume Da’Monte is a carbon copy of his father.

You’ll recall  Lon Kruger and Bill Self inevitably calling Frank out in the media. You’ll remember Billy Packer’s infamous slight.

I think Frank was misunderstood. But whatever the case, it seems Da’Monte inherited exactly none of those traits which naysayers attributed to his father.

Also surprising are Da’Monte’s decision-making and the mechanical precision of his jump shot. He squares up and delivers like a coach’s son, not a street baller. Defensively, he deflects a lot of passes, a stat Underwood celebrates as much as John Groce did (i.e. Underwood seems to regard an opponent’s pass no differently than a launched shot, or indeed a jump ball — it’s an opportunity for possession).

Photo by Tony Pomonis

But Underwood’s defensive philosophy recalls Bruce Weber more than John Groce.  It’s about denial, a word that meant something completely different for Weber during his Illini heyday.

There were two times when Weber completely lost his shit while I was in attendance at practice.  One featured a lecture about over-emphasising on-ball defense.  Weber was apoplectic about the selfish attitude a player implicitly demonstrates when bragging “I shut my man down” or “my man didn’t score.”

“BUT OUR TEAM LOST!” Weber screamed louder than I ever heard him before or later. Underwood feels the same way.

If this year’s Illini squad has trouble with weak-side help defense, blame inexperience rather than misdirected playground swagger.  The newcomers will need a while before they shift defensively without thinking about it. That’s why Underwood said “we’ll be a different team on January First. We’ll be different from that January First team when we get to March.” It will be a long slog before Underwood sees something resembling his offense.

It’s worth the wait. Underwood’s option offense should lead to some highly entertaining playmaking. As players learn their reads, you’ll see nifty interior passing,  lob dunks when the defense reacts, open jumpers when it refrains.

And then there’s defense, which is harder.

If things go perfectly, Underwood might not need to revert to a familiar pack line defense, as his OK State team forced him to do after an 0-6 conference start last season. But when have things gone perfectly with a team of newcomers?

The difference between Underwood and his predecessors is that Underwood seems less likely to lose his team, mentally. In different ways, Weber and Groce were caricatures susceptible for ridicule. You could attribute respect to them, but they didn’t command it. That’s not the case with Underwood.

Will the newcomers “get it” before the team finds itself buried in the B1G standings?

Matic Vesel is back at full go, after spraining an ankle last week. His quickness to the rim cannot be overstated. It’s hard to believe, and impresses even his teammates, who’ve seen it again and again. He’ll cause a lot of headaches for opponents if his defense reaches a level of competence that affords Underwood the confidence to play him.

Greg Eboigbodin might also be an opponent’s nightmare in the future, but his menace will be seen on the defensive end, where he’ll force shooters to alter shot-trajectory. His instinct for defense is typically African, i.e. you see his footwork, you notice he’s responding to the whole-court flow of the game, and you think “this guy played a lot of soccer.”

It will take time for the lessons to sink in for these freshmen, before they can defend instinctively.  Maybe January First. Maybe by March.

The coaching staff realizes they’ll have to be patient.

At the scorer’s table, a shiny silver man-purse overflowed with packs of Extra chewing gum, in at least four flavors. Coaches and players reached in throughout practice to retrieve a stick. “We chew a lot of gum,” said Jamall Walker. “It stops us from yelling so much.”

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Illini basketball

Basketball practice 10-16-17

Te’Jon Lucas returned to practice today for the first time since taking a Mark Smith elbow to the eye socket. His vision may still be a bit blurry. In the team’s first drill, he dropped a pass on the wing, one of “two fumbles in the first 30 seconds!” which is what Brad Underwood roared moments later. It was like that for much of the afternoon. Underwood used more four-letter words today than John Groce did in five years at Illinois. It’s tough love, and sometimes the love is hard to glean. The tough comes across clearly. Underwood is old school. He reminds me of the best coach I ever had, Urbana’s Wayne Mammen. You’ll recall Groce borrowing the Tony Dungy phrase “we want to be demanding without demeaning.” Well, Underwood doesn’t worry about demeaning. Or demanding. Mammen was my football coach, but his best prospect was younger son Kirk, who won two state wrestling titles at 189 lbs. before an All-American career at Oklahoma State. When Tyler Underwood followed his dad from Oklahoma State, no one might have guessed how important his role would be. Coach Underwood is just as hard on Tyler as everyone else. Maybe that’s the reason Tyler’s on the roster: To demonstrate that Brad Underwood still loves you even while he’s tearing you a new asshole. Underwood does what Groce didn’t do and Bruce Weber couldn’t do. He puts the fear of god into his players. Or at least the fear of hell. Whether it’s effort or execution,  Underwood does not allow lapses. When the Illini practiced zone offense, Trent Frazier skipped a pass to a verboten area of the court and Underwood stopped play to explain why that particular angle will never work. Underwood had previously, expressly forbidden this kind of pass in that particular situation. This was a teaching moment, reminding the youngsters why they’re taught what they’re taught. The pack line is gone. Since Dick Bennett’s Green Bay teams unleashed it on unsuspecting mid-major offenses, the pack line lost its element of surprise. Disorienting a team’s screening actions is part of Underwood’s plan, and according to his theory, that requires defenses to disrupt traditional passing lanes. Expect defensive intensity to extend beyond the pack line’s imaginary boundary. The Groce administration changed its high-hands philosophy midstream, so the overall look of that scheme changed over the years. But Underwood will challenge ball-handlers deep in the back court, and before the first pass. And then, of course, it gets harder. Big man coach Orlando Antigua chimed in: “Defensively you don’t have a man after the first pass. You’ve got to work harder because of that.”   Underwood continued on that theme:  “When I was at Kansas State, Jacob Pullen scored 46 straight points in this drill. Defense can’t stop, ever.” “This is unbelievable. I’m used to Rodney McGruder,” he finished, name-dropping another K-State protégé who, evidently, also tried hard and listened. Chin Coleman helped position the defensive perimeter players at the lane’s elbows, and Underwood made sure Greg Eboigbodin knew exactly how to align his feet vis-à-vis his man. Underwood stressed that “height doesn’t matter” when defending the low post, so long as the perimeter help is doing its job. “Our post defense is great because our perimeter defense is good.” It wasn’t enough. You’ve heard about a player “in the doghouse” but you know that doghouse is simply a phrase. Not with Underwood. His doghouse sits in the southwest corner the the Corzine Gym. When an Illini screws up, he runs the treadmill. Today’s treadmill, in quick succession: AJ, Finke, Greg, Matic, Da’Monte, Kipper & Smith. “Holy #### are you going to look good waving that towel on the sidelines,” Underwood called to a player who seemed a bit too enthusiastic about successive execution failures.  “Starched uniform and everything!” And that’s one of the greatest aspects of Brad Underwood. You can’t be a hardass coach all the time without a good sense of sarcasm, irony, even cynicism.  A sense of humor is a relatable quality. It lets people know you’re human, that you see life for what it is. The freshmen bigs had the worst of it today. If things go well for Matic Vesel, he may never again turn as red as he did when Underwood stopped a drill to single-out the Slovenian newcomer. “These guys didn’t come here to see you lollygagging in the corner,” yelled the coach, only he didn’t use the word “lollygagging.” These guys were a small group of NBA scouts who watched the entire practice. Matic spent the last hour of practice with his right foot elevated, in a compression boot. He’d landed awkwardly, with an entire Michael Finke on top of him. After practice, he limped to the locker room unaided, but slowly. Don’t expect him to be too active for the rest of the week. Matic and Greg are both way, way too gentle & kind to kick ass and take names the way Underwood demands. Matic is still adjusting to America, which he regards as remarkably laid back. So maybe he’s just trying to fit in.  Greg is just super, duper polite. Greg’s bad day began when he attempted a spin move on the baseline. First of all, he stepped out of bounds, but nobody saw that. Then, he pivoted to dunk. That’s when he encountered Leron Black, whose one-handed rejection made a clapping sound like thunder, but more expressive. NO YOU AIN’T it seemed to say. Perhaps chastened, Greg’s next offensive move saw him spin away from the basket, to launch an 8-foot fadeaway that barely grazed the rim. Underwood stopped the drill again. “You left that move at Jesuit High School.” Antigua chastised the move as well. “You take it in there strong and pick up a foul,” he admonished. Where were these guys when Nnanna Egwu was playing here? If Greg and Matic aren’t ready for B1G level ball by December, well, they’re freshmen. It’s not an indictment of their character or potential. So who will guard those spots? Leron wears a big brace on his shooting arm. He’s still recovering from the elbow surgery which fixed what Underwood described as “imagine you got hit in the funny bone, but it feels like that all the time.” His rebounding hasn’t changed. It’s fantastic. But his three-point shooting has not improved. It’s probably worse than the 29.7% he accomplished last year. Underwood likes stats, and he heeds them. He’s also not afraid (so he says) to tell his players which among them can shoot from where, when,  and in what circumstances. That leads us to the next undersized big man. Kipper Nichols seems to spend most of his time on the wing, but he’s usually in the fight for a rebound, and he’s got a post-up game which Leron frankly does not have. You can see Kipper defending the 4 while creating an offensive mismatch at the other end. Does that mean you should pencil Leron Black in at the five spot?   It worked okay for Daryl Thomas, whose physique and skill set were similar. But things worked even better for Thomas when he had Dean Garrett by his side. So Illini fans should hope someone becomes Dean Garrett. But more likely, Illini fans should hope Underwood finds a Dean Garrett for next year. CLOSING THOUGHTS It’s especially stupid to project starters given all the recovering injuries, newcomers, dearth of returning talent. Furthermore, Illini fans should hope that “starting” means little in the scheme Brad Underwood conjures. But if we can take him at his word, Underwood has decided on one starter for Sunday’s “secret scrimmage.” It’s Da’Monte Williams. After a spectacularly aggressive rebound in traffic, Underwood stopped play again. “Do you know who’s leading this team in rebounds through all these practices?” He pointed to the quietest guy on the team. “It’s him. That’s why he’s starting on Sunday.” Practice finished with a lay-up drill in which players could approach the basket only from the left-hand side, and a final  half-court five-on-zero passing drill. The team missed a lot of free-throws today — including Tyler, Te’Jon and Finke — the guys everyone is counting on to keep them from extra wind sprints. So they ran a lot. Kipper, AJ, Te’Jon,  Tyler, Samson Oladimeji and Mark Alstork hung around for extra shooting while staff socialized. Don’t be upset that Alstork wasn’t mentioned previously in this post. It means he avoided the coach’s ire. He again paced the team in wind sprints.    

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

Rumors – Why do people keep falling for them?

After 24 hours of conjecture about Jamall Walker’s machinations, a weary, emotional Walker stepped in front of a small group of reporters Sunday afternoon.

Has he been in secret contract negotiations with Cuonzo Martin? Did Josh Whitman lock him up with a long term contract and pay raise? Does he have Smith & Tilmon in his pocket?

These are the things people people have been saying in social media. The truth, according to Walker, is that he took his wife to Scotty’s Brew Pub on Saturday night, having long ago promised her a dinner date. He had the shrimp tacos.

Jamall & Braylon back in the day

How does Rebekah Walker feel about staying in Champaign? Simply put “it’s home” said Jamall Walker, noting that their boys were born here. It’s where they’ve raised their kids.

Has he talked to Brad Underwood about the future of the Illini coaching staff? He has not. What’s he been doing during the week? Has he been out recruiting, or keeping tabs on the Class of ’17 signees?  Walker made no mention of either. He talked only about prepping the team for Monday night’s game against Boise State.

Basically, everything you’ve read about Illini basketball in the past week was untrue. Most of what you’re reading today is untrue. It’s like Coach K looking to buy land near Mahomet all over again.

So the narrative about Walker keeping recruits remains just that. It’s a storyline with no known relationship to the truth.

The good news is that, according to Michael Finke, the current players like the idea of playing for Brad Underwood. They’re excited about his offense, and feeling upbeat about the hire.

But they didn’t have insider info either. Michael Finke says the players learned about Brad Underwood about five minutes before the rest of the world did, when they all got an email from Josh Whitman.

Categories
Illini basketball

It’s not that they lost, it’s how they lost

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.

He said during Monday’s pre-tourney teleconference that he doesn’t make in-game offensive adjustments.  He can’t. His system is his system, for better or worse.

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.

 

 

 

Categories
Illini basketball

Musings of a Hypocrite

I know what’s wrong with John Groce’s offense: It violates all of Bruce Weber’s principles.

Every problem I complained about from 2006 to 2012 got fixed. So now I’m going to whine about John Groce not following Bruce Weber’s philosophy.

If you’re the glass-half-full type, scroll down to the bottom, where I’ll write optimistically about Groce’s offense, and how it’s really sexy when it works. I’m a glass-half-full guy myself, but only in the sense that my glass is half-full.

My glass will be empty soon. Then it will be full again. Then it will be empty again.

Apologies in advance for typos and meandering.

Weber’s short rotation

Especially in 2009 & 2010, Illinois had a lot of bodies who never played.

Weber never employed Richard Semrau as a stretch forward (his natural position). He kept James Augustine  stuck at the 5 until Shaun Pruitt came along.

Can you imagine Michael Finke being told he can’t wander more than four feet from the basket?

This wouldn’t have happened under Bruce Weber

Yes, Mike Tisdale was allowed to shoot the three. But the open secret, acknowledged by the great Skip Thoren, is that Tisdale was a small forward, not a center, not a PF.

Skip & Mary Ann Thoren watched Mike Tisdale against Wisconsin in January 2011. Skip agreed that Tisdale’s game was classic SF, apart from the dribble-penetration.

This year, Groce’s rotations are way “outside the box” to put it charitably. Guys are subbing in and out, left and right.

A long bench is not a problem, but there are ways to make it work, to make it useful.

One way is to speed up the game, to tire the other team: Throw a full-court press at them. Run them ragged. Forty minutes of hell.

Illinois doesn’t do that.

Another way is to build your ten man rotation into two cohesive units, as John Calipari did with his “two starting fives” at Kentucky.

Illinois doesn’t do that either.

The players aren’t sure why they don’t press, and they can’t answer for Groce’s substitution patterns. It’s possible, when poking at the cracks in their anti-divulging force fields, to get them to admit that constant substitutions disrupt the flow of the game.

Groce does not confine his players’ tendencies

Groce listens to his players, and allows them substantial input as well as, in some cases, final say-so on what sets to run, etc.

I think that’s great. The players like it too.

Here’s Manbun saying, after all the hair talk, that he and Leron Black sometimes decide mid-play who’ll man which position.

In theory, “freedom” improves the player mentally. He’s not just a robot following instructions. He’s a thinking basketball player. But …

“Freedom”is like sex and booze. Everybody loves it, and everyone must eventually acknowledge that too much is bad … or at least presents performance issues.

If Groce could instill, require, demand or threaten on pain of death his players to execute his ideas, Illinois might already have won its National Championship.

But Groce doesn’t correct his players. He says he’s demanding without demeaning, but he doesn’t demand enough. Maybe he should demean more.

Mike Thorne’s erratic fling shot is the second-best example. We know Thorne can use the backboard; he did it against Minnesota!

We know Thorne can dunk. He did it against … well, I’m pretty sure he did it.

After receiving the ball in the low post, Thorne should be connecting on 60%+ of his shots. That’s just common knowledge basketball philosophy. If you ask me, he should convert nearly all of those  shots. The trick with the low post is feeding, not converting.

Abrams getting his shit stuffed by three taller defenders, simultaneously, is the #1 indicator that Groce’s coaching methods — however noble and well-intentioned — do lead, and will continue to lead, to outcomes that even Groce can’t anticipate or control.

Groce talks about about “things you can control” a lot. He can, or could, control the way Thorne and Abrams shoot the ball. He doesn’t.

He steadfastly rejects this option, whenever it’s presented to him. “He usually makes that” is Groce’s go-to cliché when confronted with the concept that his players repeatedly attempt bad, easily scouted shots.

What do Illini coaches & players analyze in film sessions? you ask.

Well, I have a theory. They don’t say “hey, look at this! This never works! STOP DOING THIS!

Abrams has attempted these bad, easily scouted shots in various Illini uniforms, for twenty years or so.  You’d think someone would eventually tell him that one-on-three is bad odds, especially when the three are all taller than you. And especially-especially if you can’t jump.

He did it Tuesday, at Northwestern.

Groce has all the best intentions, to be sure. But his lads continue to fail physics & geometry tests. Groce himself continues to struggle with addition & subtraction. This is the math major, who touts his short-lived classroom teaching career.

I’m not sure Weber would have changed any of these tendencies. He and Gary Nottingham fixed Chester Frazier’s shot. But most of that credit goes to Nottingham. Making things better is Weber’s unpublished forte at Illinois. We’re still hunting for the manuscript.

OK, it’s not quite true that Groce is the anti-Weber

Sitting after the second foul. The long two-pointers. Calling timeouts when the team’s on a run. The subsequent turnover following the galling inbounding play. Changing what’s working.

There are plenty of old-school coaching formulae employed by Groce that are just as reactionary, or just as frustrating as they were under Weber.

The dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble chuck a three! problem ended on March 9, 2012. It’s not been a problem since. Groce’s offense can be hard to watch in the same way that Bill Self’s Illini offense could be hard to watch.

Guess the villain? Hint: Not the unpaid underage person.

It’s not a problem of stagnancy.

It’s that Groce’s ball-screen offense, like the hi-lo offense,  relies on action that’s not merely telegraphed, but snail-mailed in advance.  Everyone knows what’s coming.

In theory, it works anyway.

Groce’s offense is way, way more fun to watch than Weber’s

Lon Kruger was the best offensive coordinator in my #Illini lifetime. Everyone else was obsessed with the other end of the floor.

John Groce was known as an offense guy. Mark Titus called him Ohio State’s offensive coordinator (among other things). Sometimes, Groce’s offense is  (dare I say it?) Poetry in the Motion.

At Northwestern, Maverick Morgan slipped screens for dunks. Te’Jon Lucas recognized the Wildcats’ defensive actions, which practically dared Illinois to go hi-lo, and dimed his big men.

Lucas exploited over-hedging, bad reads and switching mistakes for dribble-drive purposes.

Te’Jon Lucas spotted a flaw in the Northwestern defense.

Te’Jon , Michael Finke and Tracy Abrams all noticed that Wildcat defenders failed (refused?) to close out on shooters. Abrams got the Chester Frazier treatment, and Groce’s unending encouragement proved useful. Tracy’s three rattled around for a while before deciding to play along. Tracy shook his head while running to the defensive end, as if to acknowledge that nobody, not even a 40-something college player, really understands this game.

Kipper Nichols contributed a positive statistic for every minute played. He’d have played more if Malcolm Hill and Finke hadn’t executed as well as they did.

Finke connected on 3-of-5 long ones. On his successful attempts, he could’ve written sonnets before launching , and still have had plenty of time. The defense was so elsewhere.

Some fairly simple reads were read (loosers take note) at Welsh-Ryan. There’s no reason not to  attribute that reading to Groce and his staff.

If you desperately want Groce & staff gone, take heart. This column demonstrates only that Groce’s offense can succeed.  History is on your side, suggesting that it doesn’t.

Vashoune Russell took the 2017 Welsh-Ryan pictures, and then waited for a long time to edit them because he’s essentially a very, very lazy perosn. Or overworked and underpaid. Your choice.

Categories
Illini basketball

Los Matadores

WEEEEEE!

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.

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.

Probably not.

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.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman dunks over Malcolm Hill