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Illini Basketball

Practice thoughts, October 2018

Homecoming weekend included a basketball practice at Ubben, first thing this morning. Unlike last time, there were no Official Visitors. So the team wasn’t focused on throwing lobs to 17 year-olds.

Spectators numbered about one-third the size of the Tshiebwe-Liddell-Shannon crowd. That is, they lined the catwalk one-deep rather than three.

They learned that Giorgi Bezhanishvili is not a goofball all the time. He’s a shittalker. Giorgi’s shit was mostly directed at Samba Kane, who might have wilted on the spot. When teammates and coaches talk about Samba, the sentence usually begins with “he’s had a hard time because …” and usually continues with the themes like “arrived late” and “new to the game.”  Piling on psychologically doesn’t seem fair, but it’s hard to imagine prospective opponents treating Samba more deferentially.

Mike LaTulip, Brandon Paul and Steve Bardo joined the team for a Homecoming photo, after practice

Giorgi should be raw too, but he’s not. He moves fluidly, and finishes at the rim. That might change when a competent defender over 6’6″ challenges him. This Illini team has no such defender. Adonis de la Rosa dressed for practice, but did not participate. Anthony Higgs began the session looking at an iPad, reclining on a cushioned table, in the training room. He didn’t enter the Corzine Gym for the first 20 minutes, and then rode the stationary bike for the next 20. Samson Oladimeji and Zach Griffith did their best (Oladimeji’s rejection on a Tevian Jones lay-up was a highlight of the day), but neither is big enough to present a B1G-caliber post-presence.

So, we might not know what Georgi can’t do for another month or three. As of now, he’s a definite starter.

If the season began today, the starting five would be

  • 1 – Andres Feliz
  • 1 – Ayo
  • 1 – Trent
  • 4 – Kipper
  • 4 – Giorgi

That’s no slight to Aaron Jordan. He continues to burnish his coach-on-the-floor bona fides, spreads the defense and drains threes. In that regard, he’s the quintessential sixth man. Brad Underwood might need to start him, but ideally Aaron would enter the game after assessing what’s happening. 

Da’Monte Williams continues to make unforced errors, the kind Underwood claimed he never commits at the beginning of last year (before the Maryland game). Because Feliz offers doggish on-ball defense, and Ayo’s impersonation of a six-foot spider will, arguably, compensate for Monte’s absence, Williams will need to clean up his little mistakes to challenge them for PT. The three-headed PG attack is just too hard to defend. Feliz pushes the ball, and finds the open man. When left alone on the perimeter, he buries his threes.

Saturday’s practice

The wing-to-be-named-later continues to be Alan Griffin. Like many wings of the three-point era, Alan seems comfortable pitching a tent on the arc. Underwood stopped live action to holler at him about another option from the Triple Threat  “Alan!” he called, arms aloft and sweeping downward to indicate an open path to the basket,  “Drive!”

From the sidelines, ex-perimeters Mike LaTulip and Brandon Paul agreed with the assessment. “When your defender is that close up on you, you can always dribble past him,” observed LaTulip.

Also in town for Homecoming were 89ers Steve Bardo and Ryan Baker. Bardo relayed the story of his Bobblehead mishap. He was in Atlanta working on a non-sports TV production (cooking) and missed the deadline for signing his release. Hence, no Steve Bardo Bobblehead.

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Illini basketball

The Used Polo Shirt

The “paper class” scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill ended with a whimper. A toothless NCAA recognized that it has no power to impose rigorous academic standards on member institutions. Only accrediting agencies (in this case the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) can judge the credibility of curricula.

UNC came out unscathed. Oddly though, UIUC did not.

Malcolm Hill & Jessica Goerke

“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.

Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, Jessica Goerke, Jaylon Tate, Alex Austin

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.

Jessica Goerke as artist Bob Ross, Halloween 2016. Leron Black as Leron Black.

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.

Eventually, Gary Nottingham just stopped coming down to the court.

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. ”

 

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Illini basketball

Pictures with captions – NDSU

It’s funny & alarming to read  social media reports of the 2015-16 Illini Men’s basketball team. So far, nobody seems to mention the 4 to 5 missing starters. It’s mostly doom and gloom, a place that feels comfortable and familiar since the days when Bruce Weber first set the program back 50 years,

But there’s no reason to feel gloomy about this team, yet. It’s third string performed pretty well against North Dakota State, an NCAA Tournament team that famously beat Bo Ryan at Kohl a few years back.

Anyone can beat Bo Ryan at Kohl as long as they have five guys who can shoot 50% from three. Sometimes you need only a couple. Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale did it in 2010.

Dee Brown did it to Tom Izzo in 2006. When the MSU defense extended, Dee just moved closer to half court. Jamar Butler did it to Dee & Weber, also in 2006, but in Columbus. Austin Peay did it to Illinois in the 1987 NCAA Tournament, forcing Dick Vitale to stand on his head.

If the Illini had played North Florida with no three-point line, the second half would have ended in a tie. It’s a game-altering weapon. Remember the 2005 Illini? They made a lot of threes.

Yesterday in Springfield, North Dakota State had two guys who went off from deep, Paul Miller and Malik Clements. Horrified Illini fans envisioned the program’s first-ever 0-3 start, and a ten win season.

But it wasn’t enough. They got tired. Probably because they’d traveled from a game at Davis, California on Friday.

 

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Illini basketball

October 2015

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

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

ILLINI ALL-IN SCRIMMAGE, OCTOBER 25, 2015

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

Here’s a video collage of his performance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIG TEN MEDIA DAY, OCTOBER 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s where Illini basketball is, October 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Illini basketball

Chalk Talk 2015

The second iteration of Julie Pioletti’s Chalk Talk, a basketball clinic for women, took place at Ubben & Corzine on Tuesday night.

Attendance was about a hundred, which is a shame because it really is a great event. For a fee, women get a catered meal, a slideshow and presentation from the head coach, instruction from the assistants, and insight on day-to-day operations from the support staff.

The money goes to Coaches Versus Cancer, but more importantly, it’s the best inside view of the team and its personalities. That was true again this year.

The format was altered slightly. Jamall Walker coached the Pack Line Defense. Paris Parham taught rebounding. Paul Schmidt opened his training room to talk about sports medicine. Those workstations were featured last year.

Everything else was new.

Last year Ryan Pedon provided a scouting report. This year Mark Morris discussed the hour-by-hour planning that keeps busy student-athletes fed, slept, taught and exercised on a tight schedule. This was a key difference, because the Pedon presentation showed how the coaches & team prepare for specific opponents. In hindsight, the staff must have concluded that too much insider information was being offered to anyone who showed up.

Instead, Morris offered a grid spreadsheet of Malcolm Hill’s weekly schedule. We learned that Malcolm started Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:15 with yoga, that he had Anthropology 104 at Foellinger Auditorium followed by a quick lunch and Econ 102.

Another graphic suggested traveling Illini men sleep in five-star hotels and eat in five-star restaurants, including Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouses.  Perhaps the star ratings were gleaned from TripAdvisor rather than Michelin. The Sheraton rarely earns such praise.

Pedon’s replacement, Darren Hertz, conducted the station dealing with offense. College basketball is universally committed to the option offense these days, just like Nebraska football in the Tom Osborne era. Hertz spent his ten minute segments teaching his groups how to recognize defensive actions, and opt accordingly.

At some points Dustin Ford joined the Hertz group. But for much of the night, Ford and Groce were in the upstairs office suite, on the phone with recruits.

Last year Chelsea Burkart talked about nutrition. That segment was eliminated from the program this year, and Burkart has moved on. Like former Strength & Conditioning coach Mike Basgier, she’s taken a similar position at James Madison University. Stephanie Horvath is the team’s new nutritionist.

Basgier’s replacement, Adam Fletcher, spoke about nutrition, as did Morris. We learned that Fletcher eats two meals every day with the team.

Last year Paris Parham told a bunch of funny jokes. This year Paris Parham told the same jokes. Newcomers probably thought they were just as funny. Cheryl Easter laughed as if she hadn’t heard them a year ago, and I thought that was very diplomatic of her.

“Paris needs some new material,” agreed the team’s tutor, Jessica Goerke.

Illini players once again participated in the demonstrations, if capable. Tracy Abrams, who moved around the Ubben on a Bariatric Knee Walker (and demurred from having his picture taken with same) stuck with Schmidt in the training room. Jalen Coleman-Lands, confined to a walking boot, stayed with Morris in the team room.

Newcomer Khalid Lewis joined Mike LaTulip, Michael Finke and grad assistant Walter Offutt in assisting Hertz’s demo. Aaron Jordan and Malcolm Hill assisted Fletcher in the weight room. Maverick Morgan, Leron Black and Cameron Liss assisted Parham.  Alex Austin, Kendrick Nunn and Dennis “D.J” Williams assisted Walker. Newcomer Mike Thorne did not attend.

There was an obvious emphasis on the health and well-being of the student-athletes. John Groce downplayed any motivation stemming from Tim Beckman’s unceremonious ouster for lacking that emphasis. And Groce is right to do so.  Sports medicine, conditioning and nutrition were just as much a part of last year’s event.

At one point during his presentation, Jamall Walker asked how many in his group had attended last year’s Chalk Talk. Three raised their hands. But the most obvious newcomer didn’t understand the question. She doesn’t speak English. Her name is Cate Groce, and last September she was living inside her mommy’s tummy.

Barb Steele, Groce’s mom, attended again. As did Laura Finke, Mike’s mom.

Everyone seemed to enjoy herself. The only problem is there weren’t enough participants. Publicizing the event is not a priority for Illini Athletics, because it’s only tangentially related to the program. Media got an email around lunchtime on Tuesday. Two reporters and two photographers showed up.

We’ll do better next year.

For completists, here’s an overly long movie chronicling the evening.

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Illini basketball

It’s not the end of the world. That’s next week.

People don’t click links after losses. They don’t want to re-live the sorrow.

So I’ll just mention a couple of things you might not have known from watching the Michigan State game on TV. And if you learn something worthwhile, you can tell your friends. This article features no traumatic rehashing of what might have been.

Jaylon Tate played Sunday’s game with a 100°+ fever. It was higher Sunday morning, and higher still on Saturday. There was a contingency plan to have him hospitalized if the medical staff hadn’t been able to bring it down. So it’s surprising that he played at all, and astonishing that he played a full 19 minutes.

It’s not surprising that Jaylon missed all his shots from the floor, failed to assist a single bucket, and committed four fouls. But Illinois didn’t lose because of Jaylon. They lost for the simplest of basketball reasons: Ball not go in bucket.

Open this image in a new tab to see Malcolm Hill’s pained expression at missing yet another shot.

Illinois shot <29% from the floor.

It happens.

You move on. Ideally to a post-season tournament that begins with N but does not end with T.

BOOM!

I’d wager you’ve seen the last of the pre-game fireworks. They left a terrible amount of smoke in the arena, for the Indiana and Michigan games. The DIA recognized as much.

The DIA then consulted with the pyrotechnicians in charge, and changed the combination of explosives. So this time, the smoke went straight up to the catwalk.

But then, about five minutes into the game, it descended into the arena. By that point, I’d already congratulated Mike Thomas on the smoke fix. At halftime, I asked his wife Jeni to retract the compliment.

Hey, they tried.

1984

I spied Bruce Douglas, Doug Altenberger and Anthony Welch in attendance on Sunday. I assumed there must be some kind of reunion.

During Tuesday’s Hall of Fame nomination press conference, Lou Henson was asked about the Flyin’ Illini. That makes sense. They were his Final Four team at Illinois. (He had one at New Mexico State, as well.)

Lou chose to speak about his 1984 team, instead. He thought that team had a shot at a national championship. And of course, they did. They got jobbed at Kentucky, which forced the NCAA to change its entire tournament, eliminating home court advantage. (Illinois more recently prompted the video review policy in the tourney, after getting jobbed in Austin, TX.)

I recently discovered a full 1984 Illini game on YouTube. They beat Len Bias and Maryland in the Sweet Sixteen. Those were the days, yo.

I tried to find out about future NCAA plans for YouTube distribution.  Last week’s game at Wisconsin, for example, went up immediately, because it’s a CBS property. (CBS and NCAA are thick as thieves, as you know.)

Would other Illini games follow?

NCAA media specialist Cameron Schuh referred me to NCAA specialerist Nate Flannery, who asked me which game I was talking about, and whether I could share a link. Then he asked me for a link to the Wisconsin game I’d referenced. I haven’t heard from him since. So I suggest you EagleGet those games before something happens to them. (UPDATE: as of Monday noon, Flannery responds that the NCAA does not control the above linked YouTube channel. He did not yet respond to my query about future plans for distribution of full game videos.)

Welch said there was no reunion, just coincidence. He added that he came to see a great basketball game, noting that he’s a Michigan native (Grand Rapids).

Larry Smith and Kenny Battle sat together for a second consecutive game. Afterward, they visited with Byron Irvin, of the Irvin Family. Mac Irvin Fire coach Mike Irvin was also expected for the MSU game, but I didn’t actually see him.

IZZO AND WEBER

After dispatching his media responsibilities, Tom Izzo hung out in the #SFC tunnel, visiting with Paris Parham and a handful of non-coaching persons. Michigan State continues to offer the only open locker room in the Big Ten, and Izzo himself is accessible, and personable.

He was thankful (i.e. he said thanks) when I asked about his 2012-era support of Bruce Weber, and whether he’s stayed in touch with Weber during this most recent trying time (Kansas State is now 13-15 on the year).

NOISE NUISANCE

That super annoying whoop-whoop sound you heard as Illinois shot free-throws? Kinda like a cartoon parody of an American Indian war call? That was Gavin Schilling’s mom, Lisa.

I complained about it to my fellow cesspoolers while watching MSU @ Michigan on Tuesday. It was so annoying I had to mute the TV. When I heard it at #SFC, I realized it was coming from the MSU family section. From that point, I kept an eye on them. And despite the fact that I sit at the opposite end of the court, I recognized Lisa. I met her when Jay Price brought Gavin for an unofficial visit.

This visit may have been overlooked because it occurred on the same day Mike LaTulip verballed to Illinois. I broke that story, and it seemed to cause some amount of sensation. But the REALLY astounding thing about that day (and the article it produced) is that there are multiple pictures of Jalen Coleman-Lands sitting with Jerrance Howard, Gavin Schilling, Mike LaTulip, Mike Shaw, etc.

I had no idea.

I didn’t even ask for Jalen’s name that day, because he was obviously very young.  (I don’t pick on  recruits before junior year, unless they’re presented to me by the people who want to publicize them.*) So I have only now, by searching for that article, discovered that Price had him on campus as well. Bravo Jay Price.

Anyway, I remembered really liking Lisa. She was a strong woman, smart and determined. I told Jason Lener as much when I recommended that she be banned from the State Farm Center.

I didn’t find the sound nearly as annoying on Sunday, in person. I know where the visiting families sit at Crisler Arena, so I suspect Lisa was directly behind ESPN’s play-by-play and color team. Their microphones amplified the experience.

Still, it was pretty annoying.

I hope Lisa and I can remain friends, even though I recommended her banishment. I expect we can. After all, I’m great friends with Kathi LaTulip, whatever the Internet thinks.

*I’ll never forget the time Kevin Farrell Sr.  persuaded me to take a picture of his son. I had no idea who “Yogi” was. I’m pretty obtuse about these things, frankly.

Categories
Illini basketball

To the Point

If there was a “story” during the Illini off week, it’s the speculation that Aaron Cosby and Rayvonte Rice will return to action Saturday, against Penn State.

Maybe they will, but only one man knows, and he’s not giving a direct answer one way or the other. So it doesn’t seem worth speculating about. My hunch is that neither will play.  I didn’t see them at Friday’s shootaround, which doesn’t mean much. They might have been in the training room, getting taped prior to watching film.

I do think you’ll see Mike LaTulip again on Saturday. And this time, I think he’ll be ready to pull the trigger.

At Minnesota, Mike had two wide-open looks at the basket during the same possession. Both times, he chose against shooting. Everyone was confused, including John Groce. Mike was an offensive powerhouse in high school. Nobody has ever claimed that he’s earned minutes for his defensive acumen.

So what gives?

Before practice on Friday, Mike talked about acclimating to B1G competition. He said he didn’t realize how open he was until he saw the video.

While not familiar with the concept of “chunking,” Mike described it pretty well, noting that the speed and size of B1G competition is simply different than what he faced as a high school phenom, or against small conference schools in the pre-season, or even against major conference schools during clean-up time to close out non-competitive games.

He agreed that the vote of confidence from Groce will give him a renewed bravado when the situation presents itself next time.

The other guy benefiting from Groce’s patience and faith is Jaylon Tate.

Tate said Friday that he needs to improve his weak-side defense. This is another area of the game where “chunking” is important. Weak-side defense involves peripheral vision, and detection of minor but tell-tale patterns of movement among multiple components (five opposing players).

Familiarity and repetition are aides to any variety of learned skill, whether it’s playing video games, driving a race car, playing basketball, performing open heart surgery … even wooing women.

Recognizing responses from one’s opponent tells an experienced player, subconsciously, that he can drive rightward just as his defender steps or leans the wrong way.

The reason Mike LaTulip looked somewhat lost at Minnesota is that he hasn’t spent much time playing against any B1G competition, except his teammates, whose tendencies are so well known to him that he literally can’t learn anything new from them.

This is the same reason Richard Semrau seemed dominant in practices circa 2009, but appeared out of position whenever Bruce Weber inserted him for 30 seconds once per month. What Weber never figured out is that guys need experience to become experienced.

John Groce has figured that out, and although he’s not by any means a patient person; he knows that he has to keep himself and his staff in check when reacting to mistakes. You can watch a video of Groce, during every home game, in which he says “to do things you’ve never done before, you have to do things you’ve never done before. This tautology refers to the State Farm Center renovation, but it may as well be applied to Mike LaTulip playing confidently against a conference opponent, or Jaylon Tate anticipating a back screen before it happens.

NEWBILL V. NUNN – THE REMATCH

Last year’s game at Champaign featured the year’s most cunning strategic maneuver of the year: The Illini antagonized Nittany star D.J. Newbill into disqualifying himself. Newbill slapped Kendrick Nunn on the back of the head, right out on the open, where everyone could see it. He was ejected.

John Groce downplayed that storyline in his Thursday press conference.

Dustin Ford had the scout for the Penn State game. He didn’t reference last year’s skirmish, but he did talk about the match-up between shooting guards.

“I hope it’s one that favors us,” he said.

“Obviously two really, really good players. We’ve got to find a way to help Ken get some space off some screens, and we’ve got to find a way to help Ken guarding Newbill by giving him support on both sides of the ball and off ball screens, committing two, and trying to make it as hard as we can.”

Who will be that second defender? Malcolm Hill will have his hands full of Brandon Taylor. Is Tate strong enough to help? That’s asking a lot of anybody, especially a guy as young and thin as Jaylon. Although Groce spoke specifically about Tate’s improved strength during his presser, you’d have to assume a lot of the help will be coming in the form of The Egwu Hedge.

Obviously the cleverest scheme would be to toss LaTulip into the game to irritate Newbill, and take a punch for the team. I do not predict that will happen, either.

Categories
Illini basketball

A Thrashing in Minnesota

The Golden Gophers don’t have a whole lot of players, but against Illinois, Richard Pitino managed to squeeze every ounce of potential from each of them.

Ex-lummox Mo Walker dropped a few pounds in the off season, and dropped a few post moves on Nnanna Egwu and Maverick Morgan. It’s kinda neat to see a big man demonstrate a soft touch around the rim. It’s been a while.

OK, that’s not fair. Morgan shows a soft touch when he’s facing the basket. Nnanna has that baby hook thing that sometimes goes in.  But Saturday at The Barn, Walker used the glass, his big ole butt, and footwork to get shots. And he converted them.

Big Mo grabbed 13 rebounds. Egwu and Morgan had 4 each. (Egwu played just over twice as many minutes as Maverick, 27-to-13. Morgan would have had a career high in scoring, except John Groce  called timeout just before Morgan’s fourth (of four) made jumper. Groce kinda sorta apologized for that in his postgame presser.

Kendrick Nunn did a lot of shit-talking to Andre Hollins as Hollins dumped 28 points on him. It almost came to blows at one point, but Hollins was too busy making buckets to get involved.

Still, Illinois might have overcome those efforts becept for … let me look this name up again … oh yeah, Carlos Morris. Ever heard of him?

He made 4-of-4 FGs and 3-of-3 from the arc, plus 5-of-6 from the stripe. (He entered the game shooting 32.8% on the year from long range.)

In fact, from the tone of the Q&A with Richard Pitino, one gets the  feeling that all these guys had a career game, and generally play like crap.

Figures.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the elevated court, Malcolm Hill  converted a mere 5-of-17 from the floor.

Mike LaTulip saw significant, meaningful minutes for the first time in his career. (Not counting the glimpse against Michigan last year, or this week’s moment against Purdue). For some reason, he chose not to shoot a wide-open three-pointer, twice, as the shot clock ran down. This was during the first half, when the game was competitive.

John Groce wasn’t sure why Mike didn’t pull the trigger. “I wanted him to shoot it.”

Tracy Abrams didn’t make the trip due to a death in the family. On the bright side, he seems to have recovered from conjunctivitis.

Ryan Schmidt made a contribution in his first game as an Illini. When the Minnesota floor crew failed to mop up a wet spot neear the Illinois bench, Schmidt grabbed a towel, jumped on the court, and took care of it himself. Rayvonte Rice and James Haring were thoroughly amused.

There’s no game this week. So you won’t have to think about Illinois basketball for a few days. On the other hand, if the Illini had won, you’d really enjoy thinking about Illini basketball this week.

Instead, perhaps you should use your free time to plan a trip for Spring Break. It seems like you’ll be free for most of March.

Categories
Illini basketball

Remarkable Numbers – Kennesaw

With each passing game, the 2014-15 Illini become more of what they are. Hazy statistical anomalies clarify, becoming firm realities.

The facts-based media was largely absent from Saturday’s game (Tribune & Sun-Times off covering bowl games, Mark Tupper perhaps recovering from one), so I thought I might stray from stream-of-consciousness into hard/fast numbers. It’s the end of “season one.” It seems like a good time.

There’s some good and some bad from the Kennesaw State game. From a statistical standpoint, Illinois didn’t vary far from the mean. Except when they did.

Here are some numbers to think about.

25 — Most minutes played by any Illini (Fittingly, it was Kendrick Nunn.)

6 — Turnovers committed.

16 —Turnovers forced.

7-1  — Jaylon Tate’s assist-to-turnover ratio

2-2 — Ahmad Stark’s assist-to-turnover ratio

19-36 — Illinois’ assists on made field goals

19-to-1 — Leron Black’s minutes-to-fouls ratio

7-to-5 — Austin Colbert’s minutes-to-rebounds ratio

7-7 —Rayvonte Rice from the field

6-7 — Malcolm Hill from the field

7-21 — Illinois’ 3FG

1-5 — Ahmad Starks 3FG

2-6 — Aaron Cosby 3FG

2-2 — Malcolm Hill/Rayvonte Rice 3FG

The “better shooting” narrative can be supported only by Rayvonte Rice’s ascension to true shooting-guard status. Through 13 games, Rice is hitting 47.1% of attempts from the arc.

John Groce credited Rice, in his Braggin’ Rights postgame remarks, for spending countless hours alone, unseen in the gym, perfecting his muscle memory. (The current thinking in college basketball seems to be that players alone can help themselves to shoot better, and it’s simply a matter of practice. There’s probably some neuroscience data to support this thinking.)

Ray continued to work his ass off in less measurable ways as well.

After an 0-for-2 night on Saturday, Kendrick Nunn dropped to 43.6% from long. Hitting both his treys brought Malcolm Hill to 40.6%.

Last year, Joseph Bertand connected on 48% of his FGs, and 38.5% of his 3FGs. Jon Ekey was 40.6% overall, and 36.6% from 3.

Maybe Cosby and Starks will get better as the competition improves. At the end of the non-conference schedule, their numbers show a distinct drop-off from last year.

Cosby is now 30.8% from the field, and 32.8% from distance. Starks has connected on 36.3% of his FGs, but only 31% from deep.

If the offense has improved — and there’s a reasonable (if subjective) argument that the offense has improved — it’s not because of the newcomers. It’s because of the leap forward from Rice and Hill.

Last year, Rice shot 43% from the field and Hill 38.3%. This year Rice is 51.4% from the field, Hill is 52.6 %.

Maybe the key to success in 2015 is to get Cosby and Starks “on track.” But maybe the key is to get productive minutes from them, while Kendrick Nunn finds his footing and joins Rice and Hill in the Illini Power Trio.

 

Cosby has already demonstrated an aptitude for rebounding from the small forward position. Hill is second on the team in total rebounds (after Rice). Hill’s defense has yet to garner accolades from his coach.

Nunn’s defense has won him praise on occasion, but not always. Whether his overall play is “tentative” compared to last year cannot be proven by stats.  It’s hard to imagine this team reaching the height of its potential without a bad-ass Kendrick Nunn. Taking Ray for granted (which seems traditional & popular), Kendrick is the singular component that this team must be able to rely on.

There’s not much to say about Illinois’ defense in light of the Kennesaw State game. KSU may be the worst team Illinois will face in Groce’s tenure (let’s hope so!), often preferring to toss the ball out-of-bounds before an Illini defender could assume his stance.

They did,  however, get a stunning number of wide-open looks from three.  Is that a reversion to the mean?

That’s a reality with some statistical support, and some subjective debate. We’ll know in about 18 games whether the Illini got that problem corrected, among others.

On to Ann Arbor.

 

 

 

Categories
Illini basketball

Newcomer: Leron Black

It took a while to chronicle Leron Black.

Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks have been around for over a year.  Michael Finke‘s been a constant presence since 2012. The first time I saw Leron in person was SEAL Training 2014. The first time I met him was October 9. The first time spoke more than a few sentences with him was three weeks ago, and I asked Finke to tag along, just in case Leron might be freaked out by my off-topic questions.

Like Congress, I reserve the right to revise and extend my remarks. I don’t know enough about Leron Black to claim a definitive portrait of the man (the very young man, I must remind myself, and you). But  I can introduce you to Leron from the perspective of the guys who know him better: his teammates.

They’ll tell you a little bit about his basketball game, but mostly about eating & sleeping, two things Leron does well.

WEIRD SOUTHERN FOODS

Ham hocks, neckbones, grits & greens are staples of Leron Black’s Weird Southern diet. And let’s not forget the sweet potatoes, and mac n’ cheese.

What might seem weirdest about these foods is their high nutritional value. Collard greens are a superfood. Neckbones are dark turkey meat, so there’s a lot of protein and fat (a necessary nutrient, also delicious). Ham hocks provide protein as well, and plenty of salt. Guys who exercise all day need a lot of salt. Nnanna Egwu’s chin was a faucet of sweat on Friday night. The continual drip was almost a constant stream. It really looked like a New York apartment sink, where the super is too lazy to fix things, and the residents don’t pay for water.

Although I’ve characterized these foods as “weird” for entertainment purposes, I don’t actually think they are weird. Friday night, after the Georgia Southern game, I ate a turkey neck and some collard greens. The neck was inside the hen I bought at Meijer this week. I got the collards at Ruler. I wasn’t especially celebrating the completion of An Analysis of Illini Newcomer Leron Black. I eat turkey necks and collards whenever they present themselves.

The best entree I’ve ever eaten might be the lamb’s neck at The Gorbals. I told Mark Morris he should schedule the team’s New York meal at their Brooklyn location. Unfortunately for Leron, the team won’t be in NYC long enough for a restaurant dinner. (I will.)

I also don’t think it’s weird that Leron won’t waste food. I’m that way, too. At the very least, I’ll give old leftovers to the squirrels. The silver maple in our back yard may be home to Urbana’s only family of obese squirrels.

“So, you see?”  Aaron Cosby points out, “it’s not weird.”

DOES HE EVER SLEEP?

We’ve heard his motor never stops, but the truth is, Leron Black is a major league sleeper. Not only does Leron Black sleep, he sleeps hard. He even sleeps at the Ubben, when he needs to recharge.

That he needs the TV on while he’s sleeping is not unusual. That he snores is not unusual. But it reminds me again to question the university’s insistence on cramming two people — often strangers — into one small room, and expecting things to work out.

In fact, that hasn’t worked well for Cameron Liss. His roommate is not a student-athlete, and often gets in at 3 a.m.

Malcolm Hill says he feels bad for Leron’s roomie, Michael Finke. How does Finke feel?  “It’s hard to sleep with it but I persevere. A lot of nights I just turn it off, lol.”

OFF THE COURT, WHAT’S HE LIKE?

Leron Black is Dr. Jeckyll. He’s charming and outgoing, but also shy . That’s how Tracy Abrams described him. “There’s a big difference.” Aaron Cosby pointed out that Leron spends a lot of time at the Irwin Academic Center.

Illini #12 is Mr. Hyde. The Savage. Possibly the only person who could take a lob dunk away from Rayvonte Rice.

Apart from saying he’s a super nice guy, some of his teammates expressed confusion about Leron’s love of Lil Boosie. I can see why they’re confused.  We’ve heard about Leron’s affinity for Jesus of Nazareth, so it doesn’t automatically follow that he’d also be devoted to an ex-con who shrieks “when I pistol-whipped that nigga, for forty minutes straight.”

That doesn’t seem entirely Christian, does it?

Well, Sam Harris would probably say it is. Especially in the Book of Leviticus, or Matthew 10:34. Reza Aslan would tell you that the Christ of Leron Black’s grandmother is an entirely different character from the Jesus in Guatemala. For one thing, He loves black people. That’s certainly different from the Mormon Jesus (until 1978).

But in truth, I don’t read much into this dichotomy of Boosie and Bible. When I was 18, my friends and I spent most afternoons playing basketball with Doolittle on the boom box. Hearing Black Francis bark & scream, in a wholly new way, clearly struck a chord among the non-record-buying-but-clever-at-tape-dubbing population of white, college-aged kids of the late 80s.

None of us got a tattooed tit. Slicing up eyeballs? Nope, never felt the desire.

The next year, everybody was listening to Ritual de lo habitual. But I can’t recall anyone devolving into petty larceny, or injecting heroin.

UNDOCUMENTED SKILL SET

Mid-range jump-shot was the runaway winner, here.

ANDROID OR iPHONE?

I thought it was interesting that everyone knew the answer, and nobody needed time to think about it. Leron has an iPhone.

IS HE FREAKED OUT BY MAVERICK MORGAN?

Pretty much everybody said yes, except for Leron himself. “Nah, he cool.”

Maverick also didn’t think Leron was weirded-out by his unusual personality. I think that’s great. I like Maverick a lot. Maverick is a guy who sees the mundanities of life, and does his best to avoid perpetuating them.  (Perfecting one’s free-throws is not mundane.)

I also like it that John Groce brought Mav to his team. Groce is straight-laced. Not entirely humorless, but intense. It’s a triat shared by a lot of driven men.

If all his recruits shared that demeanor; if he strove to beat the fun out of them like a drill sergeant; that would concern me.  Maverick Morgan is the canary in that coal mine. As long as he’s still singing, we’ll know the Illini basketball family is a livable environment.

Maverick is not the only one, of course. He’s simply the most notoriously oddball among the team.

I can’t tell you about Leron Black’s sense of humor, yet. But as for everyone else, well, see for yourself.