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Illini basketball

Underneath

Everything seemed so great when Illinois faced short, Division III opponents. The question lingered, though: “How will they perform against tall people?”

The sound of a basketball batted by shot-blockers, banging the side of the backboard, bounding away as time ran expired, will stick with me for a while. 

Giorgi Bezhanishvili, with three Georgetown defenders looming, was unlikely to score the needed 7 points in those final five seconds.  But the futility of that moment was punctuated by the unusual sound. It was something you’d hear in an automotive repair shop. Air-pressure versus rubber. It sounded like a tennis ball caught in a ceiling fan.

That sound represents the end of our disillusion re: this Illini team. The lack of height was always going to be a problem. Is it insurmountable?

To overcome the interior deficit, Illini guards must be nearly perfect, and Adonis de la Rosa must NOT be Mike Thorne.

Thorne is a smart, kind, gentle and funny. De la Rosa is smart, funny, conversational and pedagogical. Neither of them deserves to be insulted by any Illini watcher. But it’s important to know that Thorne’s relativism about field-goal percentage is the reason John Groce lives in Akron, Ohio.

When Thorne took the ball on the low-post, he should have converted 60% of his FG attempts, or passed to a wing. He did neither. He’d usually fling the ball toward the basket and hope for the best. That’s unacceptable.

One game into his Illini career, Adonis is following the Thorne blueprint.

De la Rosa got the ball in the low-post during the first half of Tuesday’s game against Georgetown. He lumbered around for a while, moving slowly, feeling out the defense. The defense collapsed.

One sensed an intake of breath from the crowd. No one knew what to expect, and hoped for the best.

The best didn’t happen. 

Instead, an errant 12-footer sailed within three feet of its intended target, the Hoyas grabbed the rebound, and a possession ended without a basket. Statisticians tally one missed FG in these situations. It feels like a turnover. Not getting a good look from the low post is bad basketball. 

In the second half, Adonis got the ball at the usual pinch-post position that Brad Underwood prefers, took another shot at lumbering, plowed and hooked his man simultaneously, fell to the floor, dropped the ball, never attempted a shot AND drew a charging call.

Illinois led the game at that point. But Georgetown gained a lot of confidence from that possession. The Hoyas went on a 20-8 run from that point, and that was that.

Adonis can do good things with his big body. Just a simple back screen with that big ole butt can open a pathway from the wing

In practice, he connects on a high percentage of jumpers from the elbow. That should be his bread and butter, if Illini guards can learn the pick n’ pop. 

Creating space for Illini ball-handlers should be Priority One for the bigs.

Illinois’ three-headed monster was down a head against Georgetown, and maybe that was the difference. Without Trent Frazier’s minutes, Andres Feliz and Ayo Dosunmu got tired. Before we knew it, Tyler Underwood was running the point.

Feliz rallied the troops in the second half, but ran out of gas. He tugged his shirt to signal the bench that he needed out.

Overall, Andres was great in one way, and disappointing in two ways. He demonstrated a fearless disregard for defenders. But he air-balled his threes, and he took bad angles on lay-ups.

For Illinois to be successful this season, Feliz will need to fix those two problems. At Ubben, his three-point shooting is solid. Can we assume he’s still adjusting to the depth-perception of a 15,000-seat arena? Does that man he’ll be automatic at Lahaina’s high school gym-sized Civic Center?

The bad angles were outnumbered by the good. Still pictures from the Georgetown game recall Tracy Abrams from the time of Illinois’s last Maui trip.

Abrams was cutting angles back then. He had not yet developed the tendency to go right at opposing defenses. Feliz did both against the Hoyas. The latter is a remnant of his successes against JUCO and Dominican competition. It won’t work against seven-footers.

Feliz is a guy you should trust in the closing minutes. You can put the ball in his hands, but you need him out there because he’s a pain in the ass on defense. The Illini need him to be flawless, superhuman, to compensate for interior shortcomings.

Ayo’s the guy you really want to have the ball in crunchtime. But for all the celebration of his 25-point performance, for all the glowing media coverage; one guy, Ayo, knew that he let his team down.

Ayo’s owning the loss impressed Brad Underwood, who also seemed to think it ridiculous that Ayo blamed himself. But if nothing else, it’s important to acknowledge that Ayo acknowledged it.

Blocked

You want your team leader to feel unsatisfied by his performance in a loss. You want him to recognize his mistakes in a win, too. You want him to keep learning.

Ayo and Andres might adjust. They have time.

Adonis doesn’t have time. If he hasn’t learned by now, he’s unlikely to learn. So the question is whether Brad Underwood wants to rein him in. So far, the Underwood leash seems long.

On the other hand, we know that Underwood chose to hire an officiating crew for every 2018-19 Illini practice specifically because he knows specific players need to overcome specific bad habits.

Illini fans should consider whether they want another coach who restricts his players’ freedom. it didn’t work for Weber or Groce. Discouraging Brandon Paul from driving, or yanking Aaron Jordan after a missed shot, had obvious negative psychological affects on Brandon Paul and Aaron Jordan. It took a lot of undoing to revert their learned behaviors.

But you’d think that a fifth-year senior, hired for a specific role, might be different.

Adonis de la Rosa should never again dribble the ball twice in a single possession. He certainly shouldn’t dribble the ball around the lane, looking for something to open up.

Maybe this problem won’t find a fix before the Gonzaga game on Monday, but Brad Underwood had better fix it if he wants the season to end well.

The rest of the team has flaws, but it’s the execution by these three guys that turned the spotlight on Illinois’ Achilles Heel.

AJ was a ghost against the Hoyas, but as a decoy, he was pretty effective in the first half. Kipper made great plays against Georgetown, perhaps offset by his play in crunchtime. Fans complained about his execution, but Kipper was among the best at taking the pinch-post hand-off. His strength and height make him a tough cover from the wing.

That Underwood continues to build Kipper, rather than tear him down, gives us an insight on Underwood’s psychological methods.

Da’Monte Williams was solid, and Giorgi looked better than most freshmen. You got what you expected from those guys. The daunting thing for Illinio players and fans is the thin margin for error. If you don’t get what you expect from those guys, Illinois loses. No one can have an off-night.

The good news is that Gonzaga is up next, and as everyone knows, Gonzaga rarely features annoying white guys.

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Illini basketball

Some blew it, some wouldn’t blow

Somehow, this writer has covered Illini basketball for nine years without seeing a game in the Tarheel state. South Carolina? Yes. Georgia? Multiple times. Oklahoma, Texas, Washington (state and district)? Yep.

Even Hawai’i and Quebec.

But never North Carolina, ’til Tuesday.

 

And boy what a disappointment it was. The game was okay I guess. But it was just depressing to visit the college basketball state and find such a lackluster crowd.

The Deacons attempted to revive their faithful by shooting catalytically unconverted toxins at the opposing bench, but even that couldn’t wake the Wake.

Lawrence Joel Coliseum announced a crowd of 5,782. Let’s hope that many people paid, then went to bed early.  But that would be more than a third of capacity, and there’s no way it was more than a quarter full.

I don’t think all of Wake’s fans had to get up bright and early to manufacture cigarettes. I think they’ve given up on their program. Remember when Wake fired Dino Gaudio after consecutive trips to the tourney? Remember when they then hired a charmless tactician who’d just suffered three consecutive losing seasons? Of course you don’t. But if you lived in Winston-Salem, it would burn in your memory.

Jeff Bzdelik’s head coaching record

If you want to know what an utterly destroyed basketball program looks like …

Everyone noticed the foul discrepancy. Brad Underwood took all the fun out of the postgame by praising the officiating crew as one of the best in the business. That observation effectively closed the door on the topic. We didn’t know what he’d told the radio crew moments earlier. It was a lot different.

Brian Dorsey has officiated a lot of Illini games. I think I recall Tim Nestor’s name, but maybe I’m just thinking of the long-eared Christmas donkey. Ron Groover has never worked an Illini game that I can recall.

The 31-to-14 advantage in free-throw attempts certainly helped the home team. But the Illini out-shot the Deacs 62-to-47 from the floor. Each and every one of those 15 extra shots missed. i.e. Illinois and Wake Forest each made 24 field goals.

The game was decided, as so often happens, by the ability to get a synthetic leather ball through a metal hoop. Whether it was missing shots, or turning the ball over 19 times before even attempting a shot, Illinois didn’t hoop the ball enough.

Wake Forest’s shots looked like this.

Illini shots also had that same guy in the frame. In fact, he often took up most of the space.

Both Josh Whitman and Paul Kowalczyk attended, along with compliance analyst Evan Taylor. This might suggest that the DIA took this game pretty seriously. “Yes we do,” said Kowalczyk.

Big Mike Thorne, recently returned to the states from Slovenia, attended. So did Mark Morris, the DOBO under John Groce.  Thorne says he’s healthy and hoping to play more basketball.

If I didn’t have photographic evidence of Adam Fletcher smiling, no one would believe it happened. I’ve certainly never seen him smile before. I’ve seen him leap from his seat, fists pumping, roaring a barbarian yawp.

It’s not that he doesn’t emote. It’s just never been the upturned mouth-corners variety.

Nice to know, then, that he can be kind and charitable to the little ones. Fletch took a moment to engage one of the ten year-olds who stayed up past bedtime to wipe perspiration from the court. He even helped out with the wiping.

I’m sitting in the Landmark Diner, in Atlanta, Romelda Jordan’s favorite town. As usual, I allowed myself an extra day to edit photos and collect my thoughts. The obvious conclusion is that our tiny team will get zoned by every taller team for the rest of the year. But that’s probably not true.

Brad Underwood explained that his team knows how to attack a zone. They simply didn’t follow their instructions.

Except, maybe once.

Nightmares about consistent rejection should take care of that.

But yes, the officiating was awful.

Categories
Illini basketball

Lessons from Iowa City

Illinois basketball has a road-game winning streak. For better or worse, it’s a consequence of who didn’t participate as much as who did. John Groce’s rotation has contracted. Five guys now see “starters” minutes in a game, while three others see spot time.

It’s not necessarily who you’d expect, and it certainly isn’t what forecasters projected in October.

Leron Black, yea & nay.

Everyone will remember Leron’s dunk. Instead of jump-shooting from 12 feet out, Leron juked his man, and drove to the basket for a two-hander. It was gorgeous.

Where has this been? Why did it take so long to debut?

On defense, Leron played his usual game. He fouled a lot. It’s easy to see why.

Leron’s posture, in general, is not conducive to defense.

He doesn’t stand erect. He doesn’t raise his arms straight up above his head. Even when he’s not reaching in, or bowling someone over, he’s in a stance which will draw a whistle, every time.

Rather than standing erect, Leron slouches. He’s naturally slope-shouldered.

Did you ever wonder what Adam Fletcher is yelling when you see him leap from the Illini bench during a telecast? He’s yelling “Wall!

 

Defensive posture might have been the story of the game, were it not for a handful of key plays by the diligent Illini.

Kipper Nichols collected four fouls in ten minutes. In eight minutes of action, Leron hacked four Hawkeyes.

Leron couldn’t get high enough, and Kipper couldn’t get low enough.

Nevertheless, Illini fans complained that Nichols and Black didn’t get enough PT. They also complained that Jaylon Tate and Tracy Abrams got too much. Most egregious to some fans is that Tate and Abrams played at the same time.

Tracy Abrams & Jaylon Tate

It’s true that Abrams & Tate accounted for an unfortunate portion of the first half, when both picked up a foul, Abrams missed a three and Tate earned a turnover (total BS, he never dragged that pivot foot).

But Abrams and Tate were crucial to breaking Iowa’s increasingly aggressive full-court press in the closing minutes. Te’Jon Lucas could not have survived on his own.

Lucas had just enough gas remaining in his tank to sink 1-of-4 free throws in crunch time. He could have been called for charging on one of those fouls.

Abrams and Tate were essential to the win. As for “too much PT,” they got 14 & 7 minutes respectively.

Yes, Tracy was awful yet again as a “shooting” guard (1-of-5), but his steal (credited as a rebound) at 16:00 (credited as 16:05) was a crucial turning point for momentum purposes.

Yes, Tracy again fell into the Bulldog routine, lamented today in Pat Forde’s weekly column as a national epidemic.

4. Hero Ball remains a plague upon our nation.

Guards who wouldn’t give up the rock despite being double covered played major roles in a pair of Big 12 games Saturday. For Baylor, trailing by two with eight seconds left, Manu Lecomte kept the ball and took the last shot despite being stalked by both Frank Mason and Josh Jackson, with predictable results. Then West Virginia had a perfect chance to reprise Villanova’s championship-winning play at the end of regulation against Texas Tech – only to see Jevon Carter force up a shot instead of dishing off

But John Groce used Abrams sparingly, and where necessary. That’s a fantastic development in Groce’s evolution from non-strategist to poor strategist to strategist capable of employing strategy.

Groce necessarily, if tragically, withdrew Mike Thorne from the rotation. There’s nobody I’d rather see succeed than Mike Thorne. I assume John Groce feels the same way.

The late, lamented legend of Mike Thorne

But it became obvious that he wouldn’t discard bad habits around the basket.

It’s encouraging to see Groce & Co. preach simple fundamentals about defensive positioning. It’s encouraging to find that, eventually, Groce will reward repeated lapses with a comfy seat on the bench.

But in a very human way, it’s also encouraging that he took so long to implement the latter policy. Groce gave tons of encouragement and second chances, third chances … 15th chances to his guys.

Inevitably, he was unable change the behaviors.  Instead, he eliminated their perpetrators. It’s as if he realized his job is on the line.

Groce should have noticed sooner. He should have been proactive in stamping out these bad tendencies. Someone, anyone should have coached Mike Thorne to make low post moves.

Paul Schmidt gave Mike Thorne a thumbs up on his blood sugar reading.

Every Little Thing

Iowa would have won but for every helping hand the Illini gave and got.

Sometimes it was Iowa screwing up. The odds of 83% foul shooter Jordan Bohannon missing both of his crunch time offerings? Well, statistically speaking, he’d hit either one of them 83 times out of a hundred.

Sometimes it was diligent attention from Kelly Pfeifer, John Gaffney & Donnie Eppley. Sometimes it was one of those three seeing something that 15,400 Iowa fans saw differently.

Sometimes they saw things differently from each other. But in those cases, they talked about it, and Illinois came out ahead in the offing.

Michael Finke’s five assists led the team. It was a career-high. When was the last time a PF/C led the team in assists? SID Derrick Burson couldn’t remember, either, apart from offering that technically Malcolm Hill did play the four spot a lot.

Jalen Coleman-Lands and Maverick Morgan were the unsung heroes of The Win at Iowa.

Morgan scored only six points, but the put-back dunk of Lucas’s missed lay-up broke the Hawkeyes’ collective back.

His seven rebounds led the team, as did his two blocks. In 34 minutes of floor time, Morgan committed only two fouls.

JCL’s passing continues to fly under the radar of fan appreciation, and over the radar of opponent defenses. His tendency to show up where needed manifests itself statistically if there’s a rebound to be grabbed, or a controlled ball in need of loosening.

Once he’s loosened that ball, he may be credited with a steal. Sometimes not. But in either case, he’s disruptive, and that makes the game harder for opponents.

Malcolm was the sung hero at Iowa, just like everywhere else. But that’s no reason to overlook his remarkable feats. Saturday saw him reach the 1,700 point threshold. Barring an unusually anemic — or outrageously prolific — outpouring in the final weeks, he should end his career as the #4 all-time Illini scorer.

The Lesson from Iowa City is that Illinois needs every player’s contributions, but it doesn’t need every player.

Again, there’s a bittersweet aspect to this lesson. We’re always bothered when guys never get a chance (Richard Semrau was the poster child until DJ Williams inadvertently stole the spotlight) to help a team that’s not surging toward an NCAA bid.

In this case, it’s utilizing guys rather than not-utilizing them that held the team back.

If John Groce were coaching this team in a vacuum, with no audience and no million dollar salary (and accompanying expectations) all his players would get equal PT, and he’d still be encouraging them to make better decisions.

If he’s fired at the end of the year, maybe he’ll regret that he didn’t harden his heart sooner. But then again, maybe he won’t.

Was John Groce crying yesterday because he hadn’t done the right thing? Or was it because he had done the right thing, and now realizes that he’s going to pay for it?

Categories
Illini basketball

The Bret Beherns Moment

The End of The John Groce Era began in earnest on New Year’s Eve eve afternoon, when Groce betrayed a thorough misunderstanding of his dire situation. Bret Beherns tossed a softball which Groce perceived as a curve. How can the coach reassure a fanbase distraught by a 25-point loss?

Groce blanched at the question, then ridiculed it.  An hour later, his reaction was viral & universally panned.

As a group and as individuals, we talked about the Behrens Moment after Groce left the room. I told Bret it was a perfectly fine question. Scott Richey wondered whether the moment would be excised from the Official Upload (it wasn’t, but you couldn’t hear the question either, which is unfair to Bret … this is why you should always watch the Illini Report version; you get the audio).

I wondered aloud whether Groce lives in a Rebounders’ Club bubble, and honestly doesn’t know that Illinois basketball once sold a lot of tickets, at non-fire sale prices, and had more than 200 retirees attending its every move.  Has he truly not heard the criticism? If not, that would be extraordinarily Todd Lickliterish of him.

Should we tell him that it’s not just the 25-point loss? Should we tell him that he’s never had a winning conference record at Illinois, and people have begun to notice?

Bret conjectured that Groce must, by the necessity of high-profile coaching gigs, be tuned out from the word on the street.  Derek Piper and I agreed that the assistants seem to have a nose to the ground that Head Coaches don’t.

An hour earlier, as the media gathered for player interviews at Ubben, Groce’s future was already the subject of speculation. TV, radio, newspaper and web reporters huddled by the trophy cases, which display championship hardware from zero seasons of the Groce Administration.

One asked who’d be the Missouri coach next year? Another followed up with the same question, but referring to Illinois.

 

I don’t actually remember who said what. I was trying to get my A/V gear up and running, and was experiencing technical difficulties. I was also sleep-deprived, and obsessed with the thought that the next Mizzou coach would be crazy not to court/hire Jamall Walker (admittedly assuming that the next Mizzou coach is not Jamall Walker).

The tone of that conversation continued as everyone moved across the street, where a media meal (chicken & cheese quesadillas with all the trimmings plus a mixed green salad with sliced cucumber and carrot shavings, and cookies) was served in the State Farm Center’s bowels.

It carried up the two flights of stairs to the media work room, where bright lighting, microphones  and a mult box make the job of capturing coaches comments a little easier. With only a cameraman representing DIA staff, and no SIDs in the room, the conversation turned to outright complaint. I was a bystander and witness. I didn’t say a thing during Groce’s subsequent presser, either.

Two points that came across were that Groce is — if not difficult to work with — than at least more difficult to work with than Bill Self, Lon Kruger and Bruce Weber. It was mostly to do with scheduling and punctuality.

At eight minutes past the bottom of the hour, Groce entered the media work room for his 12:30 press conference.

Many media outlets rely on deadlines. Timeliness is important to these people.

Tom Crean is considered, by far and almost unanimously, the very worst B1G coach in this regard. John Groce is #2. Crean has three major conference championships and a Final Four on his résumé. Groce led a team to a 3rd place finish in the MAC’s eastern division, twice.

Sports reporters frame & characterize their subjects for the public. They guide public perception. Why would you want to irritate them?

The business model of local newspapers, commercial radio and fan-oriented websites relies on public enthusiasm for local sports. If you’ve already eviscerated their cash cow, why would you dare to irritate them?

Illini sports sells newspapers. Or, as we’ve learned these last ten years; it doesn’t. We’ll always have 16,618, but we’ll never again have 16,618.

Whether Josh Whitman or Robert Jones gives a damn about basketball; Scout.com still wants to make money. So does the News-Gazette.

But if nobody wants to read about the team you cover, it’s hard to sell subscriptions.

If you can’t sell newspapers by writing about a winning team, you turn to the next hot topic that spurs reader interest: the coaching search.  Rush Limbaugh did well when Democrats controlled the White House. Jon Stewart did well under Republican rule. We’d prefer to read about our universal and ultimate glory. But short of that outcome, we’ll rally around those willing to persecute our tormentors.

Through his tone-deaf reaction that Friday afternoon, John Groce made it a little easier for everyone to turn the page on him, and start talking frankly about his successor. He took the gloves off.

It looked like things might get messy from then on out. But snarky Groce retreated into his shell, and cheery Groce returned.  We haven’t seen a recurrence.

After the second Penn State beatdown, which insured that Groce would finish 5-of-5 seasons without a winning conference record, the same group of regulars convened in the media room to do our thing.

“I know you guys don’t know what to write any more,” I told a couple of newspaper people. The ongoing joke is that they’ve run out of things to say, because every game is the same. “But I think we’ve run out of questions to ask. So I’m counting on you guys to come up with something. That’s your job.”

“Do you have a Realtor?” posited one writer, who shall remain nameless.

Maybe Whitman will learn that he can’t find a fantastic replacement, and choose not to make a change this off-season. So far, the names being bandied about are uninspiring or implausible.  Illini fans, like all fans, value their program more than neutral observers. They think rebuilding a thoroughly broken, irrelvant program will appeal to the top five names on every other school’s list of prospective hires.

Tomorrow, I’ll publish my list. It might have some of those same names on it, but only in passing, or to emphasize that they’re not coming through that door.

Groce still enjoys a lot of support with people who matter. He’s not a sociopath.

He’s a guy who’ll eschew winning in favor of  teaching basketball players to be better people and, eventually, better players — what his predecessor called “coaching not to lose.”

That appeals to those concerned with the educational mission of the university.

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

Saturday Live with Mark Smith & Jeremiah Tilmon

Illinois’ best recruiting period of the last decade came during a time when the Illini’s on-court performance had reached a record-setting nadir.  D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Joseph Bertrand pulled the trigger in a 48-hour span at the start of the dreadful 2007-08 season. Meyers Leonard came aboard at the end.

So it didn’t seem odd to watch Jeremiah Tilmon cracking jokes with Mark Smith while Minnesota pantsed the Illini. These two high school superstars expect to improve their college teams. They don’t doubt that they’ll be successful. Failure is not their concern.

Talking to them about their relationship, I couldn’t keep the names “Bruce Douglas and Efrem Winters” out of my mind.

It’s hard not to think of Mark Smith when thinking about Mark Smith, but Douglas is obviously the better Illini analog. Peoria Richwoods’ Mark Smith was a small forward, not a PG. Bruce was a PG. But he was also big and quick, just like Mark Smith 2.0.

Bruce’s alley-oops to Winters remain at the top of iconic Illini moments, way more efficient than the vaunted “15 pass possession.”

Illinois’ hi-lo could use some work.

Brandon Paul’s Illini recruitment began with Tracy Webster. Mark Smith’s recruitment may end with Tracy Webster. The Thornton grad was All-Big Ten at Wisconsin. He’s an assistant to Cuonzo Martin at Cal, for now. He attended Friday’s game between Tilmon’s ESL and Smith’s Edwardsville squads.

Smith’s burgeoning cachet means he’ll be able to choose his college come April 12. Illinois has two advantages in this recruitment. First, it’s easy driving distance for his parents, who remain very involved in his life and his recruitment. Two, Jeremiah Tilmon is signed to play here next year. Tilmon and Smith have been friends since sixth grade.

Smith will also be considering the academic aspect of his future school. He and parents Anthony & Yvonne were all interested in talking more about that aspect of his recruitment. Anthony said “yes, he’s qualified” when I raised the subject of academics.

But that’s not the question. The question is what Mark wants to study, and whether he aspires to advanced degrees. When Chasson Randle chose Stanford over Illinois, it wasn’t because he wanted to inconvenience his parents, Gwen and Willie, from seeing him play college ball in person. It’s because Chasson already knew he’d want to go to medical school when basketball was over.

Because Chasson graduated at the top of his class at Rock Island High School,  his family thought he could withstand a fiercely competitive academic environment. For those aspiring to a career in medicine, Stanford is better than Illinois. Sorry loyalists, it just is.

We don’t know what Mark wants from an academic standpoint, but we do know he’s thinking about it.

One thing that doesn’t matter re: Mark Smith is “coaches on the hot seat.” John Groce is a miracle removed from being gone. Tom Crean is being e-burned in e-effigy. Bruce Weber is doing enough to keep his job for another year at K-State, but since when did we take Bruce Weber seriously?

The uncertainty doesn’t end with coaches who lose too much. Smith acknowledged on Saturday that Duke got in the mix recently. But who’d be his coach at Duke? K will turn 70 next week, while he recovers from his second major back surgery. Jeff Capel already failed at the P5 level. Maybe Chris Collins is the successor? That means Duke and Northwestern are uncertain as well.

Kansas seems like the best bet for the Smith family. It’s not a horrible drive from Edwardsville, and Bill Self is not likely to be fired. If they have an open spot for him, it’s unlikely he could do worse. As with any & all blue blooded programs, they’ll have other options for his position. Competitive recruits are rarely dissuaded by this eternal truth.

Dave Leitao might be the surest choice Mark Smith has when it comes to basketball, for both PT & continuity purposes. DePaul has been terrible since Leitao departed his first stint. Tracy Webster was unable to revive it as interim coach.

Leitao failed at Virginia, now arguably the best program in the nation. So he’s not a sure bet, either.

Frankly, it’s weird to be Mark Smith the recruit, A year ago, he figured to be a starting pitcher, not a point guard. But if it weren’t for him, there’d be very little optimism available for Illini basketball fans.

Hope springs eternal, and Mark Smith won’t have the opportunity to sign an LOI until Spring, by which time all these coaching situations will be determined.

And now, here’s that Minnesota game in a nutshell:

 

Categories
Illini basketball

The Option

During October’s open scrimmage, John Groce called a timeout so he could draw up a play. His Orange Team had the ball under the Blue Team’s basket. His goal was to get the ball inbounded, and possibly past the halfcourt timeline. Orange had a small lead, and little time remained on the game clock.

I was sitting close enough to hear his instructions.

Each player had three sets of potential play-action to remember. Jaylon Tate would inbound the ball, and the other four would respond to his choices.

If you’d seen this play from the catwalk at the Ubben & Corzine Complex, or if you’d watched it on TV, it would look like a ten foot pass from Tate (under the basket, near side) to Malcolm Hill (in the free throw lane). If you could hear the instructions that led to that ten foot pass, you might think the nation’s security were at stake, or that someone were performing emergency surgery, directed by a doctor over the phone.

In the following weeks, I began writing a column titled The Option. It sat in my drafts folder for the next few months.  I needed some additional evidence to support my Theory of John Groce. Saturday at Michigan, I got it.

On a similar inbounds play, Kipper Nichols stood at the far side low block, under the Illini basket. (i.e. farther from the TV cameras, closer to the team bench).  The ball was under the basket on the near side.

Kipper looked over his right shoulder and asked “do what?” His brow furrowed, his eyes skewed. If his words hadn’t made clear his confusion, everything about his expression and posture got the message across.

John Groce either didn’t hear him, or chose not to broadcast an explanation. A moment later, Maverick Morgan fielded the inbounds pass.

You’ve probably noticed that basketball, over the last three decades, became soccer.

Man-to-man defense became the helping/hedging/switching territorial responsibility regimen that you might call “zone defense” if that term were not already occupied.

On offense, simple set-plays, in which each of the five players has a specific duty, no longer exist. Whether it’s full-on Motion Offense, or the varietal preached by John Groce known as Flowgame, or the modern mutation still called “set-play” which directs players to read-and-react; today’s strategy must be described like computer programming’s “if this, then that” language.

It’s become The Option.

That John Groce is respected throughout the coaching community might seem counterintuitive when acknowledging that John Groce has failed at Illinois. But it makes perfect sense if you knew why he’s failed.

Coaches understand Groce. They admire his “basketball mind.” Sometimes players understand him, too.

John Groce closed his practices to reliable reporters. Boatloads of people attended Illini practices since John Groce took over, just not objective observers.

If Brad Sturdy were allowed to watch practice, he might provide detailed reports on strategy. Brad is well conversant with basketball terminology. Most of his post-game questions concern formations. He keeps track when the team switches from Pack Line to 1-3-1 zone defense.

Brad, as knowledgeable and kind as he is, is not a reliable source for determining Groce’s ability to communicate concepts. For that, you’d need someone far less expert than Brad. Not necessarily a layperson, not a basketball novice. You’d want someone with a grasp of the game, but not an analyst’s understanding of concepts.

I asked Groce, on the day he was hired, whether he’d allow media to observe practice. He said no. It’s a teaching environment, he explained.

One infers that Groce intended to protect his players from embarrassment and ridicule.  As it happens,  his players are embarrassed and ridiculed routinely these days, and most people blame that on John Groce.

Frankly, everyone lacks a reputable source to explain the problem. What is John Groce doing wrong? You’ll never know.

But watching Bruce Weber’s practices taught me that Jerrance Howard gave very clear, thorough instructions. I understood everything he wanted.

Weber was hard to follow, unless he was angry. Jay Price spoke in technical gobbledygook.

Wayne McClain repeated his concepts a lot, reinforcing them with body language.  Explaining single-single screen reads took him a long time, because he had to walk through each option a number of times, constantly quizzing the players on their understanding of the concept.

Wayne McClain explain.

That difference of style recalled to me a seminar in Law & Economics taught jointly by Tom Ulen and Russell Korobkin. Ulen stuck to a few general concepts, and repeatedly reinforced them with different viewpoints and examples. Korobkin didn’t have enough time to get across all he wanted to say about everything.

Ulen won a lot of teaching awards, and Korobkin is regarded as a brilliant “legal mind.” What’s more important to the student?

It’s the same with basketball, where the average LSAT score is immeasurably lower.

At an Illini media luncheon following autumn’s first week of basketball practice, Loren Tate told a story about his friend Lou Henson, New Mexico State’s Special Advisor to Aggie head coach Paul Weir.

Lou told Tate that he’d admonished Weir against overcoaching. I don’t remember the exact quote, but the idea came across clearly. Weir was trying to install too much system. Henson recognized that the players were getting bogged down with theory, and becoming confused.

John Groce’s strategies may be so complex that his team doesn’t fully grasp them until April, or next summer. He may be the greatest teacher in the history of basketball. But the lesson must be executed Wednesday at 8 p.m.

That’s the part that Groce (has probably explained and yet) can’t get across.

Private conversations divulge that people who’ve coached basketball  can’t understand Groce’s strategies. That’s the ultimate compliment, in a way. But it also fuels the suggestion that players don’t understand Groce’s strategies.

Coaches really do think John Groce is a master theoretician. That’s not the issue.

The other problem with this year’s Illinois team, recognized by everyone, is defensive intensity. There’s no sense of urgency.

At Michigan, Illinois ran into an inspired opponent. The Wolverines were lackadaisical on D when they came to Champaign. Assistant coach Billy Donlon lit a fire under them, and they played intense defense during the return game.

Illinois matched that intensity in the late stages of the game. Nichols was especially active in this respect. Because he was 94 feet from me at the time, I couldn’t see whether his recovery instincts matched his energy (i.e. whether he stayed aware of his primary coverage responsibility during help defense).

Combining these two factors (caring + knowing what to do) is the magic formula that’s eluded John Groce this year.

And then there’s his reluctance to interfere with old habits.

Sam McLaurin still says Groce is the best coach he ever had. But Sam is an intellectual, and had already obtained a college degree when he found himself under Groce’s tutelage.

When he visited Champaign a couple weeks ago, Sam was exasperated by growing hostility in the fanbase. He said Groce was obviously going to be successful somewhere. I agreed with him, and not just to be polite. I think Groce will be successful somewhere.

It’s year five, and all the data tells us that place will not be Champaign, Illinois. Maybe it’s the professional level, where guys as mature and intelligent as Sam will follow Groce’s theories from the perspective of fellow experts.

If Groce wants to right this ship, however, he might need to follow Weber’s ill-fated example.

When he realized his job was on the line, Weber scrapped all his grand notions of theoretical basketball. He later described it as “coaching not to lose.” Instead of running motion offense, he ran orchestrated (and still fairly complicated) sets before finally devolving to the most basic, essential offense.

“Ball screen, Joe!” he’d yell.

Three Illini then moved to the wings while one ran to the top of the key to set a pick. The goal was to isolate Joseph Bertrand for a one-on-one offensive improvisation. It worked a lot, as do Malcolm Hill’s isolation plays.

Can Groce set a fire under his players, like Donlan? All signs point to “no.”

Should Groce coach “not to lose?” Probably. It might help him to not lose, which is crucial if he wants to stay in Champaign.

But does he?

The smart career move for Groce, Thad Matta, Tom Crean and Tim Miles — the four B1G coaches “on the hot seat” — would be to begin surreptitious negotiations with Missouri, whose desperation knows no financial constraints.  A fresh start and a five-year contract for $10 million sounds lovely when you’re being run out of dodge.

Categories
Illini basketball

Are we Elite? Not if we’re just mimicking everyone else.

The Purdue game was fun right up until it started. Most Illini fans already know that.

What they don’t know, unless they were there, is how cool Purdue’s pre-game ceremony was. Loren Tate mentioned it, referencing the legends involved in the recorded video portion (presented, like all pre-game videos, on the center-court jumbotron).

Loren is still the best Illini sports writer, so it’s no surprise that he took note of the presentation. It was meaningful.

Purdue’s pre-game ritual is not a passive experience. It requires the entire audience to work. Fans download the “BoilerBall Lights” app, which takes control of a smartphone’s LED light, and flashes it in coordination with everyone else’s LED light.

The combination of swelling music, the involvement of thousands, and the quasi-nationalistic call to arms video referenced in Tatelines (in which recorded Purdue greats ask rhetorically “Whose House? and the entire crowd responds “OUR HOUSE!”) achieved an atmosphere that Leni Riefenstahl might have admired.

At State Farm Center, our crowd watches an embarrassingly derivative, inescapably passive video & lighting montage that seemed pretty cool when the Bulls (first?) did it in 1993 or whenever it was.

Opponent introductions/dim the lights/crank the smoke machine … yeah, yeah. We’ve seen it. Everybody does it, and it’s just as embarrassing in Bloomington, Indiana as it is here.

Luckily, our school prides itself on innovation. Right?

A couple years ago, I told my friend Jeni that Illini athletics should trailblaze a new approach to pre-game ceremonies. We were discussing the National Anthem, and our preferred styles & performances.

I suggested that Illinois — an international university with a stated mission to embrace not merely diversity, but indeed university — should scrap the worn-out tradition altogether. If we want to remind attendees that they’re in the United States, why not let’s read a passage from the Constitution instead?

Sure, there’d be a “conservative” backlash. But those people can be invited to center court, to read the 2nd Amendment for all the “snowflakes” they so strongly revile for disrespecting … the Constitution.

We could show our international visitors what this country is really about.

Jeni’s husband Mike was in charge of Illini athletics at the time. But she recommended I mention my idea to Mike Waddell, whom she described as “the ideas guy.”

This was before I put Waddell on NPR’s All Things Considered, to promote DIA’s Mandarin simulcast experiment, which led to his appearance on The Today Show. We didn’t know each other well, but he listened to my idea.

He’s gone now, as are Jeni and her husband.  So we never got any further with the reading a passage from the Constitution discussion. But fortunately, the new DIA boss already knows about our founding document. He’s studied it. He knows why, like winning, “it’s important.”

I don’t hate The Star-Spangled Banner. I enjoy some renditions. But after decades of constant repetition, it rarely gives me chills.

I’m philosophically bothered that it’s performed de rigueur.  That’s the antithesis of the freedom from our British monarchist overlords it chronicles. Is it too soon to stop cowering before the mighty UK?

My conversation with Jeni took place long before Colin Kaepernick’s knee hit the ground.  But that later development only furthered the argument for scrapping the Banner: To replace rote recitation of a poem that promised to hunt down all the black people with a different recitation, one that changes each game.

A pastor could join a journalist to read the first amendment. An international student might read Article II, Section 2, Clause 2, which provides the formula for treaties with foreign nations. Maybe Al Gore or Donald Trump would come to read the Twelfth Amendment, which refined the electoral college.

Solemn. No light show. No piped music.

The author as Geoffrey Palmer, with Allie Groce & Jeni Thomas, possibly on the night in question

Canned noise is the worst.  Penn State’s automated lion growl  is the most annoying sound in sports. (Northwestern uses it too, but they pretend it’s a wildcat.) Fortunately, someone at DIA recognized this fact in time to scale back the aural onslaught for the 2016 football season. A gameday tech confirmed to me that some of the canned noises were eliminated before the Lovie Era got underway.

It would be great if DIA did the same for basketball. Take out all the fakery, and let the crowd make the noise. (This last part might require some other changes, of course. Nudge, nudge.) Keep the band, lose the pre-recorded crap. If the basketball team can’t generate crowd noise, don’t pretend 100 dB of screaming Ron Burgundy will make up the difference.

DIA has a lot of dedicated people. They have a lot of great ideas.  But sometimes, those ideas don’t translate.

Lu Yekai & He Liaohan have not been well served by the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics. Nor have a billion potential customers.

The Mandarin simulcast is a perfect example. It languishes in obscurity, mostly because it’s not actually a simulcast. The audio isn’t synchronized with the video.

So it’s unwatchable. Or at least, if you did watch it, you wouldn’t understand what was happening (which was kinda the point).

DIA has no plans to implement a synchronized Mandarin presentation (the way they synchronize Brian Barnhart’s radio clips to video highlights).

Josh has a lot on his plate.

But Tuesday night in West Lafayette, he saw & heard everything that I saw & heard. Maybe he’s begun to have some ideas.

 

 

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

Categories
Illini basketball

The Missed Milestone, the Missed Miracle

Ex-Ohio State assistant coach leads team to astonishing comeback! Champaign kid goes off in miraculous conference road win!

Both those things happened this weekend, just not to us.

At this point, I’m surprised only that people are surprised. Everything we’ve seen this basketball season is consistent with everything we’ve ever seen from the individuals involved. They are who we thought they are.

Yes, it’s been a while since I posted an Illini Report. What was there to say that you couldn’t read elsewhere?

Well, there’s a lot, actually. I started writing it four times. That is, there are four unpublished pieces in my drafts folder. I had a lot to vent, and some lovely insider gems.

But it’s all hurtful stuff. It’s all borne of frustration, anger and cynicism.  You can read plenty of that elsewhere, too.

John Groce watches from the sidelines (Vashoune Russell)

After 3 of the last 4 games, I was never tempted to follow The Good Tracy with The Bad Tracy. That’s not to say I didn’t write it. I just didn’t publish it.

It would certainly have been appropriate.

John Groce continues his misdirection strategy in defending Tracy (a refreshing change from Bruce Weber’s incessant player-trashing) to emphasize the qualities Tracy brings every day.

I feel bad for Tracy Abrams. I take no enjoyment from berating his failures. I’d love to see him leave Illinois as a champion.

Tracy Abrams disappointed at Indiana (Vashoune Russell)

As the “play Te’Jon Lucas” hue & cry makes its way across all forms of media, the usual suspect is Jaylon Tate. But Tate’s passing at Indiana was, like always, dynamic and exciting. He had three times as many assists as Abrams in half the minutes.

From a passing standpoint, D.J. Williams and Michael Finke are better PGs than Abrams. Jalen-Coleman-Lands continues to fly under the radar for his court vision & ability to find open teammates.

Jalen Coleman-Lands for the save!

Tracy Abrams is undoubtedly a leader, and a disciplined worker. He’s an almost perfect soldier in his willingness to execute orders, and a model sergeant for his determination to motivate his troops to implement the policies dictated by his commanders.

In year five of the Groce Administration, those policies tempt military analogies. The Maginot Line for defense. Vietnam for understanding our opponent.

Mike Thorne boxes out (Vashoune Russell)

I introduced the season by writing that Mike Thorne’s interior tendencies would frustrate Illini fans, and that Te’Jon Lucas should consider redshirting. Neither observation was intended to insult the player involved. Mike Thorne is one of the most likeable guys on the team. And Te’Jon’s repeated DNPs are not his fault nor his choice.

Thorne never plays much, and continues to start. I’m good with that. Through 16 games, Maverick Morgan averages 21 minutes to Thorne’s 15. In conference, Thorne has played even less.

Maverick Morgan blocks OG Anunoby (Vashoune Russell)

It’s fun to think about opponents taking the time to scout Thorne. It’s especially fun if one dreams that Thorne may — as intelligent, introspective persons sometimes do — completely change his modus operandi upon catching a ball in the low post.

It’s a turnover waiting to happen, I wrote at the beginning of the year. (Oh, I didn’t? Well, it was something like that anyhow.)

ABOUT THAT COMEBACK FROM 20+ DOWN

When the Illini cut Indiana’s lead to 12, the Hoosiers went on a 10-0 run.

Then Illinois cut the lead to nine.

And then, John Groce made the Bruce Weberest decision of an already thoroughly Bruce Weberish career, calling timeout as Te’Jon ran the ball toward Indiana’s (admittedly well-defended) bucket.

On the subsequent (surely much intellectualized) inbound play, Te’Jon turned the ball over.

Erstwhile Urbana High School varsity coach Vashoune Russell had an opinion about this sequence of events. (Vashoune took pictures of the game with some really expensive cameras. It was almost worth the $64 I put in his gas tank. Holy shit those GMC Suburbans.)

Vashoune couldn’t understand why Groce thought he could get away with the same inbound play twice in a game versus a well-coached team.

ELSEWHERE IN WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

Jordan Caroline made an unofficial visit to Illinois is 2012. As far as I know, that was the extent of his recruitment. He signed with SIUC,  made the MVC all-freshmen team and transferred to Nevada.

If, after Illinois’s second stab at persistence cut the lead to 9 on Saturday, you decided you’d like to see a team come back from 20+ down to win a game, you’re in luck. No TV subscription required. If you have an internet connection (which you do) you can watch the replay at ESPN3. Here it is.

Caroline is the grandson of an Illini/NFL legend. He was sired by another Illini legend, who also played in the NFL.

But Jordan clearly, distinctly put his own stamp on all-time legend status with a single game. 45 points & 13 rebounds is not all-time material, but recovering from a 14-point deficit with a minute to go is all-time anything. That was Saturday’s astonishing performance at New Mexico.

If you want to relive the magical 15-0 start of Saturday’s Hoosiers fiasco, you can watch that too. How often will you get the chance to see Illinois’ best player collect a third foul before the team has scored a single point?

PLAYING NICE

Coaches on the Hot Seat sometimes recognize that Being Friendly will serve them better than Being A Dick, or isolating themselves.

After his regular (i.e. B1G mandated) time with the media Saturday, Tom Crean made a beeline toward the Illini media pool, all assigned to workstations in the far corner of the media room.

“Does Chicago need anything else?” he asked, perhaps oblivious to the slight, and perhaps recognizing that Shannon Ryan was the only reporter in the pool whose audience should concern him.

No one needed anything else. Vashoune and I shook his hand, thanked him for the offer, and congratulated him on the win.

Kipper NIchols dives to the floor for a loose ball (Vashoune Russell)

Crean left the room, but engaged a pair of TV reporters (and their cameras) in the tunnel outside. Meanwhile, Scout.com’s Jeremy Werner and Derek Piper joined Indiana’s Scout correspondent Jeff Rabjohns in a discussion, in the media room.

At some point, Crean re-entered the room. He engaged an Indiana beat writer in a long discussion. It’s the first time I’ve seen a B1G coach hang out in a media room after exhausting his official duties.

After a long talk, Crean again walked to the other side of the room, toward the Illini pool. “Is Jeremy Werner here?” he asked.

By this time, Jeremy and Derek had returned to the court, to record their usual postgame video commentary.

“He was,” we responded.

Crean gushed about Jeremy’s statistical analysis. He said he’d read it earlier in the week, and “actually learned something from it.”

A lot of coaches pretend they don’t read their press clippings. Some coaches don’t seem capable of reading. So it might feel rewarding to know that a coach not only reads, but learns from ones writing.

I emailed Jeremy to tell him about the query, and also to ask WTF column Crean was foaming about. It was Jeremy’s Rapid Recap of the tOSU game, according to Jeremy, who also observed that the column was “nothing special.”

John Groce also stayed in the visitor’s media room for a few extra moments, and made small talk at Chicago Tribune‘s Shannon Ryan. Then he moved to the tunnel to allow Louie del Rio and Bret Beherns a better opportunity to frame him with their cameras. (The IU visitor’s “media room” is a secretary’s office, and it’s tiny.)

Groce is no idiot. A week after dissing Bret’s softball about disgruntled fans, he offered himself to his most important conduit. WCIA has the largest local TV audience.

Leron Black rebounds at Indiana (Vashoune Russell)

Ryan reaches the largest number of Illini fans, in theory. That is, the Trib has a huge subscriber base, most of which lives in Illinois. Nobody necessarily reads Shannon’s columns, if they can be bothered to comb through the sports section, past all the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Notre Dame, Marathon, etc. coverage.

Tracy Abrams takes a ball screen from Mike Thorne Jr. (Vashoune Russell)

Groce reserves all his inside information for CBS Sport’s Jon Rothstein, but it behooves him to make nice with those media members who can access a national audience. The Tribune company publishes the Los Angeles Times, too. And the Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and Sun-Sentinel. On a slow day, any of those papers might run an article by any of the Tribune company’s reporters.

The pleasantries lasted only a moment. By comparison, you can see why Tom Crean has won two B1G Championships.

Jalen Coleman-Lands launches a three over Indiana’s James Blackmon Jr.

But in fairness to Groce, he’s been on the hot seat for only about three years. Crean has been on the hot seat since the day he was hired. But as we’re all interested in the success of Illini sports, let’s all keep an eye on Groce’s interactions with the media.

Bret’s question was only the beginning of a Pandora’s Box, Groce should do everything in his power to keep that box from opening. Unfortunately for him, five years of inaccessibility hampered that possibility. All the reporters he’s marginalized will have a column ready, whether they publish it after the Michigan game, after the Maryland game, after the Purdue game …

Is it fair and/or ethical to criticize Groce for not buttering the media? Yes and no. Everything keeps changing. Newspapers gave way to web content, etc.

But the fact is that Groce does butter the media, just not anyone local.  Take that as you will.

Meanwhile, Loren Tate is still good friends with Lou Henson.