Illinois NCAA Tournament chances took a huge hit when Illinois’ NCAA Tournament aspirations remain alive today, after a gutty defensive war in which Our Side wore down Their Side by sheer numbers.
Ahmad Starks saved the day for the second consecutive game. In both instances, he provided the level head. He was the guy who’s seen it all, good and (mostly, at Oregon State) bad. Once again, Starks was the unflappable assassin, almost disinterested. He played as if he were already dead, and you couldn’t hurt him anymore.
If Michigan had more players, Michigan wins. Our roster is depleted, bad. Their roster is depleted worse.
Spike Albrecht and Zak Irvin were awesome on defense. John Beilein’s offense was splendid to see. It’s just a pleasure to watch his teams — whether they play five future pros or a band of Rudies.
Albrecht seemed like a Rudy during his coming out party in the 2013 National Championship Game. But he’s not a one trick pony. His defense stifled Illinois’ perimeter for 38 1/2 minutes.
Max Bielfeldt did Peoria proud in his final State Farm Center appearance. His 12 points and 7 rebounds nearly cost Illinois athletics a basketball season. Oh, the irony.
Michigan’s communications staff didn’t make either player available to media after the game, instead offering Andrew Dakich as team spokesman.* Wolverine SID Tom Wywrot couldn’t make the trip due to a sinus infection. His deputies may not have realized the significance of this game for Bielfeldt.
It’s possible that Spike simply didn’t want to talk. John Beilein said Albrecht took the loss hard, and personally.
I say bully for Spike Albrecht. He’s exactly the kind of guy you’d want on your team.
I thought most of the Michigan team played with exceptional poise, for much of the night. The lone exception may be Aubrey Dawkins. He was targeted & pilloried by the Orange Krush, and he wilted. The adult beat writers from Michigan’s traveling media pool did not notice. Their student reporters could talk about nothing else. I guess it’s a generational thing.
It worked out for Illinois. If you’re into bad sportsmanship, celebrate.
Elsewhere in the student section, one dweeb kept shouting at Spike Albrecht even as Kendrick Nunn walked to the line to shoot crucial late game free-throws. And yes, just as Kendrick tensed to release the ball, that dweeb shouted “SPIKE!”
That was Kendrick’s lone charity miss of the night. It nearly cost Illinois the game.
Fortunately, the only thing Illinois had to do to win: never give up. They simply wore the Woverines out.
John Groce wouldn’t say it in his post-game presser, but the reason Illinois won is the same reason that U.S. Grant beat Robert E. Lee: In the end, there weren’t enough bodies on the rebel side.
That’s fine by me. Whatever it takes.
Losing to Michigan last night = N.I.T. The Illini resume simply isn’t that strong.
Winning, on the other hand, put them inarguably into the NCAA conversation.
Speaking of Dakiches, I had a funny moment with Leroy William Rice prior to the game, and Dan Dakich might want to know about it. Ray’s grandfather had some choice words for Dakich, who’d referred to Rayvonte as “stupid” and “idiot” according to the Rice entourage.
Leroy walks with a cane. He gripped that cane tightly as he spoke his venom. I couldn’t quite make out all the words, but the idea was that Dan Dakich will need new knees if he comes within Leroy’s range.
I don’t doubt it.
Leroy’s grandson beat Michigan’s ass in the final showdown. He wasn’t as gimpy as his wizened relative, but he was a lot gimpier than the Ray you’ve known.
The previous entry on these pages suggested that Ray might not be 100% Ray on his return. It also posited that Kendrick Nunn will cut you, without compunction. Both proved true against the Wolverines.
Ray was not in sync, offensively. Not even with himself.
But where he could make a difference, Ray made a difference. In the end, Ray won the game for Illinois. It was almost like a Harry Potter story. You knew what was coming.
Ray and Kendrick were badgers. They displayed the anti-social tenacity of the wolverine. They were Spartan warriors with hawk eyes. In a buckeyeshell, they looked like all-conference performers. Kendrick from halftime on, and Ray during the endgame.
As hard as Michigan played on defense, Kendrick and Ray fought for this game as well.
That goes for Nnanna Egwu, too. Egwu didn’t score until overtime, but he was everywhere in overtime. It’s important to consider those two points jointly, together.
The point is that he never stopped trying. He never gave up.
Nnanna Egwu has been asked about his “April” quote a lot. It was probably based on a genuine Egwu quote, but has now devolved, in the cynical world of promotions & marketing, into a PR stunt. But the fact is that Egwu plays that way, all the time, regardless of promotions & marketing people.
*Andrew Dakich played only five minutes, all in the first half. I didn’t stick around to hear what he had to say. I don’t blame him for his dad, but I wouldn’t rely on his insight either.
Ah the Breslin Student Events Center, our home away from home.
Illinois “didn’t do enough to win” on Saturday in East Lansing. Luckily, Michigan State ‘didn’t do enough to win” worse.
Illinois shot a measly* 29.4% from the arc, and missed a quarter of their free-throws, including two straight misses by Ahmad Starks as the game went to the wire.
Three crazed blind referees tried but failed to steal the game for the Spartans, but MSU refused to grab victory from the jaws of defeat. They missed so many free-throws that their home crowd jumped to a standing ovation when Bryn Forbes connected on two straight.
By game’s end, Forbes would join Travis Trice as goat, incapable of converting. So the most outrageous screw job since Jim Bain won’t generate much more than an entertaining online pissing match.
You can read about that below. First, here are three reasons Illinois did win Saturday at Breslin.
NNANNA EGWU: BANGER
People like to complain about Nnanna Egwu for all kinds of reasons.
He hedges too high on double-teams.
He shoots threes, and generally loiters around the high post.
He grabs fewer rebounds than some people expect from the center position.
On Saturday, Egwu’s high hedges were especially effective at stymieing Denzel Valentine — the only Spartan who seemed able to generate offense. (The MSU sports info people assign photogs to each team’s offensive end, for each half. Otherwise I’d have some good shots of Egwu hedging Valentine.)
On Saturday, Egwu buried 2-of-3 3FGs, which he launched when open, in the natural flow of the offense.
On Saturday, Egwu grabbed 9 rebounds (3 offensive) against a team — or in fact, a program — that’s considered untouchable on the boards. He led all players in this category, keeping Illinois within one carom of a dead heat (35-34).
Nnanna appeared to be an entirely different player on Saturday. But it’s not because he doesn’t have that aggressor in him. It’s because he does what he’s told to do, without question.
John Groce phrased it as “never complains.” But Groce seemed to be recognizing, even as he said it, that Egwu could be a violent rebounding force if he (Groce) simply gave the directive.
Matt Costello, Gavin Schilling and Branden Dawson are not subtle about grabbing boards (or opponents’ jerseys for that matter). Egwu roughed them up.
Maverick Morgan played alongside Egwu once again. Morgan’s low-post presence frees Egwu to do all the perimeter stuff people hate so much. Unfortunately for Mav, the low-post was once again a bizarro version of Bozo’s Grand Prize Game, in which Mav is unable to lay the ball in the bucket from a foot away.
AHMAD STARKS: MOMENTUM CHANGER
Tom Izzo was so pissed at his team, he couldn’t even recognize the thorn in their collective side. Or maybe he just didn’t remember the first ten minutes of the first half. In my seven years experience of covering college basketball, I’ve learned that coaches usually remember exactly the moment you’re asking about. But sometimes they think you’re asking a different question entirely. And sometimes they don’t want to give a direct answer, for whatever reason.
I asked Izzo about the first ten minutes. MSU jumped all over Illinois, and then lay supine as Illinois didn’t quite jump all over them, back.
What happened to change that momentum?
Izzo didn’t have an answer apart from the old stand-by “making shots.”
A 10-2 Michigan State lead slowly devolved (from their perspective, but also kinda from our perspective as well) into 11-11.
The guy who changed the momentum was Ahmad Starks. His unfazed demeanor corrupted the Spartan’s aggression-oriented defensive scheme. His shooting forced them to alter defensive rotations. His size and speed played mouse to their transition elephant.
“If I were wearing green, I’d be really pissed right now,” I said to IPHD’s Jason Marry, sitting to my left, as Leron Black gave Illinois its first lead, 12 minutes into a blowout-turned-grudge-match.
Then I asked Graham Couch, sitting behind us on press row, what was wrong with MSU today? He said they’d been this way all year. No interior offense, no perimeter offense. If they ain’t got transition offense, they got nada.
KENDRICK NUNN REDUX
KNunn has been gone, or partially present, all year. On Saturday, his persistent drives to the basket demonstrated that his knee is fixed, physically and mentally.
Nunn and Malcolm Hill found a weakness in the Spartan’s defensive line. It was basically the same weakness that Malcolm exploited for the game-winner against Penn State.
When starting from the top of the key, both Malcolm and KNunn have figured out that their perimeter defender will push them out but not up, and cheat slightly toward the left (to block the lane and the right-hander’s dominant hand). The low-post help defender will push down, but not out (to protect the rim), and also cheat left.
KNunn also used a floater, and his mad hops, to exploit the Spartans in the low-post.
TERRY WYMER, TED VALENTINE, RAY PERONE – A PERMANENT STAIN
I don’t know how Jaylon Tate’s box-out non-foul looked on live TV. What you may not have seen was the extent to which Spartans Travis Trice, Matt Costello, Gavin Schilling, the Izzone etc. biased persons campaigned for some kind of call.
It was all an act, a pantomime, a feint. It was pretense. And it was, in person, so obviously pretense. It’s unconscionable that this hamming nearly stole a win for the home team.
The officiating crew ruled that Jaylon had committed a dead ball foul against Travis Trice. They gave MSU (Forbes) a pair of extra free-throws that might have changed a deficit into a lead, with less than a minute to go.
It was probably Trice’s acting that made the three men — all of whom probably have testes if not cojones — sympathize.
After the game, they probably realized they’d screwed up. But refs never admit a mistake. So to double-down on their bad judgment, they released a statement about the ruling.
Nobody misinterpreted the rule. The rule was inapplicable to the situation. Jaylon Tate’s box-out was thoroughly unremarkable, completely ordinary.
Yes, Jaylon Tate’s movements are a bit herky-jerky, as I’ve written here before. Earlier in that very game, Tate hit himself in the crotch while playing with his typical abandon. Did the referees think that contact was intentional?
Here’s why the call was wrong: The ball was not dead.
There are two ways the ball could have been a “dead ball,” and for Jaylon Tate’s “foul” to be a “dead ball foul.” If the ball had gone through the hoop, as the Wymer statement claims, it would have been a “dead ball.” If the free-throw had been the first of two, rather than a one-and-one, the ball would have been “dead.”
Tate’s contact occurred before the ball went through the hoop. That much is plain from the replay. Wymer, Valentine and Perone made an error of fact.
Because it was a one-and-one, Tate was boxing-out his man. This error should have been seen and reversed on review. Slow-motion makes it clear to see, as millions now have.
Of course, this was not the first time a referee has botched an obvious call.
But most botched calls don’t take place in the final minute. Those that do are subject to video review. The remarkable quality of this botch is that the officiating crew reviewed the play, and then fabricated a defense to justify a clearly erroneous ruling.
My hunch is that one of the referees blew his whistle in the grip of a senior moment, forgetting that rules for lane violation changed years ago.
For absolute beginners, here’s a pedantic explanation of rules known to every basketball player and referee, from 3rd grade up.
When Ahmad Starks fouled Travis Trice with 33.2 seconds remaining in the game, that foul was Illinois’ 8th “team foul” of the second half. A team’s 7th foul in either half triggers a free-throw for the other team. If the other team makes the first free-throw, it’s awarded a second free-throw. This battery in potentia is known as the “one-and-one.”
A team’s 10th foul of either half triggers two foul shots — another term for “free-throws.”
The other way to trigger two foul shots is to foul one’s opponent in the act of shooting. And if one fouls one’s opponent in the act of shooting a three-point shot, that shooter is awarded three free-throws (unless the shot attempt is successful).
It was not a shooting foul. i.e. Starks did not foul Trice in the act of shooting. Per NCAA rules, then, when Travis Trice stepped to the free-throw line, he was shooting the “front end” of a “one-and-one.”
Here’s a screen shot of, and a link to (.pdf), the NCAA rule on lane violations.
The call would have been correct, by both rule and fact, if the contact were of the “unnecessary, unacceptable and excessive” manner (all three, mind you) required by the cited rule and the lane violation rule were different, as it once was.
The ruling was based on a sequence of events that never occurred. The evidence is demonstrable.
So if the refs whistled Jaylon because his man crumpled at the crotch, here’s the question for that officiating crew, Rick Boyages and Jim Delaney: If contact is deemed “unnecessary, unacceptable and excessive” based on the reaction of the contacted player; shouldn’t someone from Indiana’s Hoosiers be permanently disqualified for knocking Aaron Cosby’s eyeball out?
I mean, he was actually injured.
JOCKITCH – IN WHICH A FAILED COACH TWEETS ABOUT HIS LARGE APPENDAGE
Over the years, I’ve written on message boards (under my own name, as always) that Dan Dakich is awful. I’ve never seen the need to tell him in person. And now, I don’t have to. Everybody knows it.
Presumably Canadian whisky influenced Dakich’s online argument with noted sports fan Don Gerard. (I presume not only that Dakich was drunk, but that he prefers awful forms of drink.)
The Dakich-Gerard e-fracas may help keep the botched call in the public’s memory. The botched call may help remind the public how awful Dan Dakich is. It’s a win-win.
Dakich has experience at cheering for terrible officiating which seeks to steal a win for the home team, but fails. In the 2008 B1G Tournament, Dakich watched from the sidelines of Indianapolis’s Canseco Fieldhouse as Ted Hillary, Zelton Steed & Sid Rodeheffer awarded Indiana’s Hoosiers three extra attempts at a winning basket.
The Hoosiers, like the Spartans on Saturday, were able to connect on just one of those three. And amazingly, as with MSU on Saturday, the Hoosiers lost despite all the help.
You’ll remember that Dakich wasn’t hired to be Indiana’s coach. They brought him in as a schoolmarm, to be the (hopefully?) guileless, ruly killjoy that would, ostensibly, check Cellvin Samsung’s incorrigible urge to cheat.
Dakich became interim head when Sampson volunteered to leave town in exchange for money. As interim head, Dakich delivered a 3-4 record, losing Indiana’s opening games in both B1G and NCAA tournaments.
The only time Dakich was hired to be a head coach was when Jim Larrañaga left Bowling Green. Larrañaga had done so well building that program that he was hired away by George Mason. He did so well at George Mason that he was hired away by Miami.
Dakich did well enough with Larrañaga’s recruits, but he couldn’t sustain the program. Perhaps that’s the reason he says Illini fans should rue the day they fired Bruce Weber.
The year after Larrañaga took George Mason to the Final Four, Dakich was fired. His record over the final two years was 22-39, 8-26 in the MAC.
Chambers said the game should be decided by the players, not the refs.
But that’s unfair to the Illini. The truth is that Glenn Mayborg (and Earl Walton and Rob Riley) had been deciding the game for all of the first 39 and a half minutes, too.
Mayborg and Riley were especially responsible for allowing Penn State’s bigs to wrestle and batter the Illini on the interior. Chambers should be thanking them effusively for keeping his team in the game. It certainly abetted The Nittany style of play.
On the other hand, Mayborg et al decided early on that every ticky-tack touch was a foul.
And this choice also benefited the Nittany Lions. e.g. not only did Nnanna Egwu spend 12 minutes on the pine (especially after his 4th “foul” with 12:29 to play) but when Austin Colbert checked in to spell Egwu; Donovon Jack, Julian Moore and Jordan Dickerson were given carte blanche to toss Colbert around the lane like a rubber chicken. (That said, Colbert stood his ground pretty well.)
I have not seen a more brutal game, perhaps ever.
The good (frankly fantastic) news abut Austin Colbert is that John Groce, spurred by the Mother of Invention, has figured out how to use him. Groce thinks Colbert is too weak to hold his own in the pivot. (Colbert is a lithe and lengthy small forward, but he’s been asked to play center for some reason.)
When Bruce Weber had Mike Tisdale and Richard Semrau on the roster, he never played them together. It could have been a great combination, but only if Weber could use zone defense effectively, to hide Tisdale’s slowness as a small forward. Groce figured it out. He used Colbert in combination with both Egwu and Maverick Morgan, hiding Austin in the zone.
Mike Basgier loves to talk about Austin Colbert, and point out that Austin works out more often than the rest of the team.
Basgier likes to point out that Austin is near the top of the charts in certain statistical categories (behind Rayvonte Rice). Yet the concern for Groce & staff is Colbert’s strength in the post. Squats and bench-press equal keeping a B1G big off the glass.
AHMAD STARKS ON FIRE
Heather went to dinner & movie with a girlfirend while I stayed home editing pictures and audio. She reports that Ahmad Starks was at Savoy 16 “surrounded by girls.”
Good for him.
Starks shot 3-of-4 3FGs against PSU. He grabbed two rebounds, one of which dropped in his lap when Kendrick Nunn boxed every mofo who dared charge the lane. Starks also boxed mofos on behalf of his teammates.
Glenn Mayborg’s baseline activity is unlike any official I’ve seen. He moves constantly, which is frustrating for photographers, who all sit along the baseline. But it means he’s trying to get the best angle on every aspect of every movement.
In this day and age, plenty of digital recording renders each B1G basketball game as a searchable document. The data may prove me and 14,597 fans wrong. But we all thought there was something weird, incongruent, disjointed about the officiating.
Pat Chambers should be Nittany Lionized not only for his game plan, but for his manipulation of the conference and the media. He’s doing everything he can to maximize the potential of his team. Good for him. And great for Illinois that he didn’t get away with it.
A WEEK OFF
At least two of the lads used their free time to obtain a haircut. Leron Black opted for a fade, now resembling Kid n’ Play circa 1991. Kendrick Nunn got it all chopped off, now resembling Kendrick Nunn circa 2013.
DJ RICHARDSON RETURNS
Dietrich Richardson says he had a great time playing pro-ball in Finland. He learned about the jet stream: It wasn’t as cold there, despite being way farther north. He also learned about jet lag. The flight home threw him for a loop, especially because he’s been living on three hours of sunlight per day.
D.J.’s agent advised him to get back to the states last week, because the folks in Finland were having a hard time finding their wallet. It’s a familiar story with pro-ball overseas.
He’s not sure where he’ll be balling next, but added that he should find out within ten days to two weeks.
ZACH NORVELL OFFERED
John Groce takes longer in getting to his postgame presser than any major conference coach I’ve observed in seven years of covering college basketball. A week ago in Minneapolis, Groce’s dilatory attitude to media seemed to be the story among the twin cities’ beat writers.
What is he doing? we all wonder. We see the locker room speeches via the TNT series on YouTube. We hear his radio interview with Brian & Jerry (which today didn’t start until Penn State was practically on board its return flight). Neither of those postgame duties accounts for a full ten minutes. So when 40 minutes have passed, we become curious.
Saturday afternoon, we got one inkling of Groce’s postgame, behind-the-scenes.
I tried to interview Zach Norvell during a media timeout, early in the second half. He was sitting with Saieed Ivey, about four feet behind me. Plenty easy to access.
Way too close to the pep band.
I could hear him fine, but it’s not good for microphones. I knew the sound quality would be terrible if I pressed “record.” One thing that I did hear him say clearly is that he did not have a scholarship offer from Illinois.
That seemed strange to me. Yes, the Illini team is composed purely of wings, and Zach is a wing; but Norvell seemed like an Illini target, not just a plan B.
Well, it turns out that John Groce spends his post-locker room, pre-media room time offering scholarships to Simeon standouts. By the time Groce showed up for his postgame session, Zach Norvell was the proud recipient of an official offer.
By the time Groce finished his press conference, Norvell was still in the building only because his Simeon assistant coach Melvin Nunn is media savvy. A pair of pleading texts kept the Simeon contingent around for the duration.
There are many reasons that Simeon’s coaching staff finds scholarships for all their guys. One of them is knowing how to play the game. Another is knowing how to play the games.
“You owe me one,” said Melvin.
But it’s not true. I owe him many.
As for Saieed Ivey, he’s currently a freshman playing point guard at Governors State University in Will County.
BRENDA COLBERT ATTENDS
I was worried that I’d seen the last of the Colbert family. It had been long enough since I’d seen their son, who was once upon a time a basketball player at the University of Illinois.
But Saturday, Brenda Colbert showed up for the first time in ages. And Austin played meaningful minutes for the first time in ages. “Did you get a tip that he might be getting some real PT?” I asked at halftime.
“Nope. I just came on faith,” she replied.
Austin Colbert is a personal favorite of mine. I freely admit I’m biased in his favor. He’s simply a very warm, positive, funny and smart guy.
SUSPENDING TWO GUYS WHO WEREN’T GOING TO PLAY ANYWAY
Let’s just bookmark this moment. It’s brilliant, or it’s idiotic, or it reflects an actual moment of marijuana smoking.
Why would John Groce suspend two guys who can’t play? Did he do it from a sense of justice & rightness? Is he playing mind games with opposing coaching staves?
For purposes of the PSU game, it doesn’t matter. Neither of those two dudes would have played.
Is it an insult to the players themselves? Yes, it is. That’s why Groce didn’t elaborate on their purported malfeasance.
Is it all a farce? Probably not, but that would certainly be the coolest purpose for the suspensions.
If you’re like most people, you didn’t see the Illini game against Hampton. You’re lucky. It was boring.
The most compelling part of Wednesday’s game came after the final horn, when Ahmad Starks talked about finals week. He spoke of exams, papers & projects. He talked about the team’s unusual approach to scouting its opponent, necessitated by conflicting schedules.
Instead of watching the big screen in the team room at Ubben, each Illini scouted Hampton on his own iPad.
Starks is an introspective guy. His frank delivery reminds us that, while these guys all play basketball, they have other things to think about, too.
In an infinite universe, there are certainly people wishing failure on Starks and Aaron Cosby. Among Illini fans, plenty have ripped their hair out over Cosby and Starks, just in the last month. If shooting doesn’t improve, they’ll all soon look like John Groce and Dustin Ford. (Jamall Walker is exempt from this comparison until Illini fans become sharp dressers.)
But it’s doubtful that any Illini fans are wishing ill to befall Cosby and Starks. More likely that everyone among this tiny subset of humanity wants, desperately, for these two to progress to the mean. Surely, if their purported stats are to be believed, both these guys will exceed their current production for the rest of the season.
John Groce did everything within his control to empower Aaron Cosby on Wednesday. Hampton committed two technical fouls, and each time, Groce chose Cosby to shoot the free-throws. One game prior, Groce chose Rayvonte Rice to shoot those tech freebies. (Ray was coming off his worst-ever game as an Illini.) Cosby hit both free-throws on the first technical, and subsequently hit a three-pointer. Cosby hit the front end of the second technical’s freebies.
Unfortunately, that was it for Aaron’s floor game. Once again, he connected on a single field-goal for the game. Cosby is now shooting a tick below 29% for the season. When Groce called an inbounds play for Aaron, Cosby traveled before he could get off a shot.
Starks is a 35% shooter on the year, with 36 total assists and 11 turnovers. Jaylon Tate is shooting 33%, with 33 assists and 14 turnovers. Tate leads Starks in steals, 8 to 5.
Tate achieved these figures in 179 minutes of play. It took Starks 261. (Starks accumulated 24 fouls in those 261 minutes. Tate fouled 14 times in his 179.)
Like most Illini fans, I wish no ill will toward Cosby and Starks. Perhaps unlike most Illini fans, I’ve never included them in my starting line-up. I figured I could make that change when they’d proven themselves more effective than an Illini I’d already assessed.
For me it’s always been
3 – Hill
4 – Black
5 – Egwu
and an asterisk stating the obvious, that Rayvonte Rice is the best player on the team.
So far, that line-up has proven unrealistic because Leron Black hasn’t been able to tame his freshman tendencies. Against Hampton, Black grabbed 8 rebounds in 18 minutes while committing only a single foul. He twice caused Mike Basgier to leave the bench (fearing the need to break up a fight) and three times (at least) caused Tracy Abrams to howl with delight at Leron’s sheer (still not tame) animal violence.
Gene Steratore, Rob Riley & Kelly Pfeifer is not the best officiating crew from which to glean Leron’s development as a controlled beast. Frankly, they let a lot of things go. They whistled Ahmad Starks for carrying rather than being tackled. But for the most part, it was Illinois that got away with murder. So Leron’s move to major minutes is still pending his understanding of the college game.
But the Hampton game featured the near dream line-up. Ray Rice moves to the wing, or the other wing (John Groce’s “power forward” position, a fourth guard). Malcolm Hill mans whichever wing spot Ray doesn’t claim. Egwu remains the pivot. Nunn is the shooter.
But this time, it’s Jaylon Tate at the point. Because Jaylon is the only true point-guard on the team, it feels okay to slate him as the point-guard. After the Hampton game, it feels a lot better.
For his Hampton performance. most people will talk about Jaylon’s 8-for-8 free-throw shooting. The impressive aspect of his game was speed. Jaylon’s herky-jerky movement is deceptive. Dude is fast. It’s not just that he pushes the ball. He gets down the floor.
From my perspective, John Groce makes no error by preferring the players who’ve earned PT. “Players play players,” right?
Maybe it’s been one grand conspiracy-theory-inducing mindgame with Groce and future opponents: Start Cosby and Starks knowing that the real line-up would be …
No, I’m just kidding. I’ll leave that narrative to lifelong Trekkies and similar fantasists. I don’t believe that Groce recruited Starks and Cosby as decoys.
On the other hand, the B1G is looking at Illinois as if Starks and Cosby were starters, as far as game “tapes” are concerned.
Wednesday’s State Farm Center crowd was the smallest & quietest of the season so far. Clearly, losing 3-of-4 games socked the Illinois fan-base in its gut. The crowd never got its wind back on Wednesday. Instead, it made its way to the parking lot in small groups, at every media time out under 12:00 of the second half.
What’s wrong with Illinois basketball? Does John Groce “get it?” When can Illini fans expect to enjoy basketball again?
Let’s bookmark Saturday’s game, for future reference. No doubt it was a Significant Game in Groce’s tenure. If history follows a dark path, this will be The Game When It All Started. If Groce wins a conference title in the next three years, this will be the game from which he recovered, and righted the ship.
If we could rewrite the history of Saturday’s game at the United Center, here are some headlines it might have produced:
High Flying Illini Blast Ducks 92-77
Cosby Three Lifts Illinois Past Oregon, 78-77
And here are headlines that it may yet produce:
Illini Advance to Sweet Sixteen as Spring Resurgence Continues
Illini Part Ways With Groce “Just Never Got It Rolling” says AD
ALTERNATE HISTORY #1
If we pretend that Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks did not play Saturday – and in fact were not on the roster – we can further pretend that Illinois versus Oregon featured shoddy defense on both ends, and that Illinois prevailed by outscoring the Ducks.
As it was, Illinois’ defense gave up 77 points. Let’s assume that removing Starks (28 minutes) and Cosby (30 minutes) achieved no different result on the defensive end. Instead, we’ll divvy up their minutes among the other Illini who play their positions. Thus, Rayvonte Rice (29 minutes) plays for 34, with two media segments (four to five minutes each) coming at the point guard position. Jaylon Tate plays 28 to 30 minutes (instead of 12).
Tate was effective on offense, making 2-of-4 field goal attempts, splitting defenders and finding open jump-shooters on the wing. If those shooters had converted, Jaylon would have tallied more than two assists.
Nnanna Egwu was effective on Saturday. Yes, he moved a lot on screens. Yes, he violated his opponent’s airspace on inbounds plays. Yes, he hedged toward the top of the key on every defensive set you can remember.
If it’s not clear by now that these tendencies are the will of the coaching staff, that point will never take root. If Egwu is anything, he’s coachable. The Groce Administration has obviously crunched the numbers on these actions, and determined to employ them habitually and routinely.
Let’s take Cosby & Starks’s fifteen shots (of which they made three) and divide them up among their teammates. Jaylon, Kendrick and Ray combined for 13-of-25 as it is. They also dished eight assists, compared to six for Cosby & Starks. So that’s a wash.
Would Ray. Kendrick and Jaylon connect on 7 or 8 of those extra fifteen shots? That’s what the stat line indicates. So maybe the final would have been 82-77, instead of 92-77. (This alternate history writing is trickier that I thought.)
ALTERNATE HISTORY #2
Cosby played twenty minutes, much of it at the small forward position. Let’s pretend that those facts didn’t change, but instead pretend that Aaron made 3-of-9 rather than 1-of-9 shots.
John Groce and Nnanna Egwu said team dynamics are no different with Cosby at the 3-spot “because he’s been doing it all year.” That’s an evasion, whether they recognize it or not. From the inside perspective, Cosby may have been taking reps at that position. But this week (Villanova and Oregon games) saw Cosby playing in the same fivesome as Kendrick Nunn. In previous games, we got either/or.
Pressed to elaborate, Groce said Aaron’s numbers don’t reflect a drop off/bump in efficiency when he shifts between positions. That’s a pedantic response, but Groce isn’t now and never has been eager to share his metrics with the public (which he seems to regard as comprising mostly future opponents and their assistant coaches). The question wasn’t how Aaron’s positioning affects Aaron. It was how that positioning affects team dynamics. The answer is “worse shooting” but it may also be “better defense.”
It would be impossible, at this point, to say there’s an offensive benefit to the Nunn-Cosby tandem. Groce likes on-ball defense from either of them, and he views dribble-penetration as the team’s great weakness. So we must assume that Groce will continue to play Cosby and Nunn together until Illinois seals the driving lanes.
Based on his total body of work, it’s hard to believe that Aaron Cosby is the terrible shooter his (current) season stats suggest. If just two more of those nine shots had found their mark, Illinois probably wins a nail-biter.
ALTERNATE HISTORY #3: THE PATH FORWARD
If we stick with the true history of the Oregon game, we must regard it as an historical marker in Groce’s tenure. It will become either the albatross he overcame, or the first crack in the veneer.
If Groce wins a conference title in 2018, it will have proved to be the former. If he’s fired at some point in the next three to four years, the Oregon game will be remembered like Bruce Weber’s most notorious loss at the United Center: the game that turned the fans against him.
Bruce Weber was already heartily reviled by a loud faction of fans when UIC beat the Illini 57-54 at the United Center in December, 2010. A year later, when UNLV ran the Illini out of the building, the chorus of BOOOOs was unmistakable.
That’s not true of Groce. Otherwise, the fan reaction to those two games bears a similarity: For the first time in Groce’s tenure, average fans – and not just the crazy loudmouths – have taken to social media in droves, questioning his coaching acumen and ability to land top recruits.
The first two years of Groceball showed teams that floundered in their first truly competitive games. Those teams learned, and grew stronger as January gave way to February and March.
Maybe this year’s team will recover, and make a run.
Both Dana Altman and John Groce voiced their surprise at the Ducks performance. They both declared it far and away the best performance of the season. Illinois didn’t play terribly. They just couldn’t shoot, same as it’s been all year.
Last season, the major problem was Tracy Abrams driving the ball against three taller defenders, and heaving a difficult shot. Groce never got that corrected. And so the season ended with Tracy Abrams hoisting a difficult shot. Then, the post-season ended with Tracy Abrams hoisting a difficult shot.
Groce takes the long view on these matters. And in the case of last year, the long view kept Illinois out of the NCAA Tournament. But you have to admire the loyalty Groce demonstrates, and the nurturing quality of his approach to his players’ psychology.
SEEN AT THE U.C.
Former head manager Andy Szabo made the trip from Athens, Ohio, where he’s now in grad school. Illini Alex Austin, prevented by NCAA rules from traveling with the team, made his first road trip of the year.
The most surprising face in the crowd was Mike Mennenga. After toiling for years at the bottom rungs of the college coaching profession, Mennenga was suddenly thrust into the big time when Dana Altman tapped him to be an Oregon assistant. Altman said he’d nearly hired Mennenga at Creighton, years ago, adding that Mike brings a lot of energy to the bench, and recruiting ties to Canada.
However Oregon fares this season, it’s a big step up from Canisius. If Illinois wants to win at the United Center, they’d be wise to see that Mennenga isn’t in the building. He was an assistant for UIC in 2010-11.
UNSEEN AT U.C.
In the past, the Chicago game was a showcase for local recruits. Cliff Alexander, for example, attended the wretched game versus UNLV. So did Gavin Schilling and Alex Foster. There was even a recruit who chose Illinois! (That was Michael Orris.)
In one sense, there was a ton of talent on hand. Rob Smith brought the entire Simeon team, including Illini signee Dennis Williams. Aaron Jordan came with Romelda, Ariel and the FiberGuru.
But if Marcus LoVett attended, nobody spotted him. No one resembling Nick Rakocevic sat behind the team bench.
Will Jayson Tatum and Jeremiah Tilmon attend the Braggin’ Rights game? Keep your fingers crossed.
Sure, after watching this team play eleven times, the idea of giving Malcolm the ball on every possession seems tempting. But here’s the thing: In the first half against Villanova, Malcolm scored 14 points. Then they noticed him.
If Rayvonte Rice hadn’t suffered his worst game as an Illini, if The Legend of Aaron Cosby had replaced Aaron Cosby in the line-up, Illinois would have given Villanova a game.
Nnanna Egwu was a monster on the boards. Kendrick Nunn acquitted himself at the two-guard spot. It’s the rest of the team that was the problem. Even Jaylon Tate caused problems, because the defense sagged into the paint whenever he took the ball on the wing.
Despite his nine rebounds, eight points and two assists; even Nnanna got in Malcolm’s way. The two of them were trotted into the media room following the game, and that tells us that John Groce felt Egwu played well enough. But Malcolm and Nnanna were not on the same page on court.
As they lined up for Villanova free throws in the first half, Malcolm yelled across the lane at Nnanna, angry style. “We just TALKED about that!” Before Nnanna could respond to Malcolm, referee Pat Driscoll (who played “Gopher” on The Love Boat) got in his face to issue the type of warning that referees issue to Nnanna.
I asked a Stupid Journalist question about the incident, which tells me I’ve now fully succumbed to Stupid Journalism. I should have asked “what was Malcolm yelling at you in the lane?” But Groce probably would have interrupted and cut me off. You could tell that he was about to pop. I highly doubt that he would have made any players available for comment, were it his decision. (The Big Ten requires it, and the Jimmy V people were running the show.)
We can assume that the Malcolm-Nnanna disconnect concerns help-defense. Groce said the Illini played defense “selfishly.”
Still, the Illini were in the game, well into the second half.
The collapse came right when Illinois should have seized control of the game. Ahmad Starks had just connected on his only made three of the night. That tied the game at 38. Villanova was shaken.
The Illini got the ball back on consecutive Wildcat turnovers. Aaron Cosby missed a three. Then Ray tried to no-look a pass under the basket to Maverick Morgan. Morgan didn’t anticipate the pass, and moved away from it. Two Wildcats pounced on the ball.
On the next trip, Ahmad Starks tried to no-look a pass to Morgan. This time, there were two Wildcats already in the way. Another turnover. On the third trip down, Illinois turned the ball over a third straight time.
That was it. The Wildcats recovered emotionally from the onslaught of Illini effort. They composed themselves, and went on an eight point run. Illinois tied the game once more at 50, but that used up whatever fuel was left in the tank.
Ray’s pass wasn’t terrible. It just didn’t fit the recipient. Ahmad’s pass was terrible. It had no chance of succeeding.
John Groce was blunt. He described his team as “not a team.” He said they were selfish on defense. He resisted fingering individual players, as per usual. His tone suggested the next few days of practice will be “demanding,” and perhaps rubbing right up against the cusp of “demeaning.”
If you’re into superstition, you can blame the players’ families for this one. For every set that attended, their corresponding Illini performed poorly, or not at all.
The Cosbys came. Aaron shot 1-for-8. Rhonda & Laronda came. Ray played out of control. The Starkses made the trip. Ahmad spilled four turnovers to go with his four assists, and connected only twice from the field.
Contrast Machanda Hill, who missed her first game of the year. Malcolm tallied a career high.
I don’t blame the LaTulips for coming, but Mike got only a minute of PT.
You could also blame Bill Geist’s “lucky” orange shoes for casting a spell on the Illini.
I sat on these shoes for much of the game, beacuse @TheGarden puts courtside seats everywhere, no matter the likelihood of beer spilling on expensive equipment.
Geist said he’s had the shoes for about thirty years. He wears them only to Illini games. His son Willie, and Illini alum Kevin Miller came together, and sat within earshot of the Illini bench.
I’m open-minded about new experiences, but if there’s a weirder Illini game this season, I hope it looks better than the slopfest versus American University.
The Illini committed 14 turnovers, including a pair of passes to nobody at all, and some other passes where no Illini was in the vicinity.
Kendrick Nunn appeared tentative and mistake-prone. That’s weird. Rayvonte Rice connected on 1-of-7 field goal attempts. That’s bizarre.
The Illini used this game to try a number of new dead ball sets, both on offense and defense. The inbounds plays, John Groce said, were implemented to counter American’s style of play, and not because it’s that time of year when the team is ready to learn some new plays.
That might be true. But Groce is leery of opponents scouting his public comments as well as his practices, and game videos. He also rejected the idea that a full-court zone press was “new” to this year’s team. But he called for it in new situations, e.g. before halftime, and with a lead.
So it could be that now, after the team has put its challenging pre-season traveling schedule behind themselves, Groce feels comfortable asking the team to employ some sets that future opponents, such as the Villanova Wildcats for example, have not seen. Or maybe he wants the Villanova coaching staff to panic, horrified to learn that, with three days to go, Illinois’ most easily scouted plays have been replaced by new sets.
Mind games. Who doesn’t love ’em?
Groce was a little edgy and short in his postgame press conference, perhaps because he had an atypical third postgame media responsibility, an exclusive with Ryan Baker for CBS Chicago. Maybe that’s why no one asked him about Illinois’ 5-for-12 performance from three-point range. That’s not many attempts for this Illini team. It’s also a low number given the opponent.
But it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which, after the 23% performance at Miami, Groce encouraged his guys to look for more opportunities inside the arc. The two guys who weren’t the leading scorer but were fingered for postgame meet-the-media responsibilities just happened to be the least likely on the team to jack a shot from distance.
Groce called for “reinforcements” leading up to the game’s first media time-out. Having spent the last 10 days repeatedly citing Nick Saban’s postgame comments from the Iron Bowl, he’s now borrowing from the John Calipari playbook.
Calipari, as everyone knows, decided to play two platoons, rather than concede that any of his million dollar babies is not a starter. Groce usually (not always) sends four fresh bodies at the first time out, leaving only Ray in the game.
Illini players got a kick out of the terminology. “Did he just say ‘reinforcements?'” They too are aware of John Calipari.
Illinois players connected on their first 18 free throw attempts. When Jaylon Tate finally missed in the game’s closing minutes, the entire SFC crowd groaned. It’s nice to know that our fans pay close attention, and know what’s going on in a game.
Jan the Usher, my number one source, says SFC’s two 200-level (C Tier) sections of unsold seats is construction related, not a barometer of fan interest. It’s to do with access to an exit, currently blocked. In other words, fire marshal stuff. The plan is to have the entire 200-;level open when MAryland comes to town, to open B1G play.
Some Illini fans may be shocked, shocked that the 2015 edition of their Dream Team lost the game at Miami. They shouldn’t be.
Sure, pre-season optimism is the most common neurological disorder among sports fans. Everyone hopes for the best, and seeks data to support his wildest fantasies for The Season of All Seasons. Confirmation Bias knows no champion like pre-season optimism.
Realistically speaking, Illinois has played this game again and again, all year. This time, the competition was better. That’s why they lost.
We’ve seen these Illini nine times now. The intrasquad scrimmage and the exhibition game don’t count for season statistical purposes, but they count for Eye Test purposes. We know that Illinois will play a minimum of 34 times this season. So we’re about a quarter of the way through the schedule. Thus, statisitcal anomalies are giving way to statistical realities. There’s reason for gloom and optimism, it just depends on how you look at this Illini team for what it really is.
The pre-season narrative was “better offense” premised on “better shooting.”
In the scrimmage, Ahmad Starks shot 1-for-6 from the arc. Aaron Cosby disappeared on offense, but played good on-ball defense. In the exhibition, Starks was 2-for-9 and Cosby was 3-for-9.
Against Georgia Southern, Ahmad Starks shot 2-for-11 from the floor (1-of-4 from the arc). Aaron Cosby was 5-for-12 (2-of-7). They each shot perfectly from the free throw line.
Coppin State is the only game where both guards clicked on offense. Starks shot 7-for-10 (4-for-6) and Cosby was 5-for-7 (all from three).
Against Austin Peay, Starks was 5-for-10 (2-for-4). Cosby shot 2-for-8 (2-for-7).
Against Brown, Starks shot 2-for-6 (1-for-3). Cosby was 5-for-10 (3-for-6).
Against Indiana State Starks was 1-for-5 (1-for-4) and Cosby 3-for-10 (3-for-6).
Against Baylor, Starks made 2-for-9 (2-for-7) while Cosby missed all six of his attempts (all from the arc). And at Miami, each shot 1-for-10 (1-of-7 and 1-of-6 respectively).
There’s more to the game than shooting, and John Groce seems pleased with Aaron Cosby’s defense and rebounding.
Starks, on the other hand, displayed limited effectiveness at Miami, in all facets of the game. One assist, one rebound and one turnover in 27 minutes can be accounted. The mind-boggling plays have no statistical support. They both occurred under the Illinois basket. On one inbounds play, Starks seemed to be the only guy in the gym who didn’t see Ray, wide open, under the hoop, screaming for the ball “AHMAD! AHMAD!” Later, as the game slipped away, Starks drove against two huge defenders, only to heave the ball fecklessly toward the bottom of the backboard, which it struck.
If there’s any anomaly from Tuesday’s game at Coral Gables, it’s Nnanna Egwu’s defense. Miami had a wonderful time traipsing through the lane. In the second half especially, their offense consisted of drives and dunks.
Maverick Morgan played zero minutes, and Austin Colbert only four, none in the second half.
John Groce described team execution as “awful” and overall performance as “out of character,” but would not agree that Nnanna’s performance deserved special attention in the “uncharacteristic” category. Groce allowed that blame for defensive mistakes could be shared equally between Nnanna and help defense.
This shared blame comment did not specify whether these lapses took place when Nnanna was in the high post, the low post, or both. Both seems likely.
So, not much has changed. The Illinois line-up, 2014-15 still looks like this:
and that still means Ray is the “point” in John Groce’s pointless offense. (Groce’s offense is not without purpose, but it’s not defined by a traditional 1-guard.)
Kendrick Nunn’s return to the starting line-up seems inevitable, especially after Miami. Leron’s debut as starter was set back. His aggression earned him four fouls in eight minutes, and they weren’t “good” fouls. They created no advantages.
So until Leron learns the college game (which took Malcolm and Kendrick through the second week of February, last season) the line-up has a major problem at, of all places, the wing. While it seems that Illinois is all wings, both Cosby and Nunn are conversant with the “two” guard position. i.e. for purposes of offensive sets, and defensive responsibilities, each has trained as a shooting guard within the Groce system. How quickly can either of them learn to play those same sets in the small forward slot?
SO, WHAT ARE THE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM?
Rayvonte Rice, Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn have played exactly the way Illini fans should have anticipated, based on last year’s evidence. And frankly, that’s been terrific.
Against Miami, each hit 50% from the floor. They are excellent on offense. Ray and Kendrick are solid to excellent defenders. Malcolm, still forced to switch regularly between centers and point guards during high post ball screens, cannot fairly be blamed when quickness or size suddenly becomes an issue.
In the postgame, Miami’s Sheldon McClellan fielded a question about fan support and attendance. He sassily described Miami as “a basketball school.” He and Deandre Burnett spoke of feeding off the crowd’s enthusiasm.
That was the weirdest part of the Miami trip.
BankUnited Center holds 8,000 people, perhaps slightly fewer than Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena. The official attendance for Tuesday’s game was 6,086, and not all of them showed up. Fans had plenty of room to stretch out, because every third seat was empty.
TIDBITS FROM MIAMI
Referee Mike Eades and John Groce shared shared a few words in the tunnel, postgame. They were not similar to the words Jamall Walker shared with referees after the last Miami game, in Austin. Instead, it was friendly, mutual-respect type stuff from two colleagues working in the same profession. “He’s a good referee,” said Groce.
Eades took a moment to chat on the sidelines, shortly after Nnanna Egwu defended a Miami inbounds play from about 18-inches inside the baseline. Perhaps it was a warning. Maybe Eades was just saying hello. In any case, most college officials seem to know about Nnanna’s propensity for interference. One assumes that it’s not an accident that Nnanna keeps doing it.
Leading up to the game, John Groce kept talking about adjusting to Eastern time. I thought that was weird. Illinois spent a few days in the Pacific Time Zone. Tuesday’s game tipped at 6 p.m. Pacific Time. That seems like a good time to play basketball.
MULTIPLE REPORTS OF CHRIS GREEN SIGHTINGS
You may know Chris Green as the tour manager who’s always in the company of rock stars. You may know him as a defensive star of John Mackovic’s Illini football teams. You may know him as the host of WILL’s erstwhile TV show Video Diner.
That seems like a lot of hats (and helmets) for one guy. Well, there’s a reason. Chris Green, it turns out, is two guys.
First, thanks to #IlliniFootball for allowing me an extra day to work on this column. You wrested attention away from your undefeated hoops brethren. That’s a feat.
Now, to the bicycling fish of Writing about Sports. Today’s topic: What’s the “best ever” win in John Groce’s brief Illini tenure? It’s an inherently subjective analysis. It’s dancing about architecture.
But what would the Internet be without useless, and often preposterous “best of” lists?
@ Gonzaga, Maui 2012, the worst #1 team in the history of rankings. These games enter the conversation. For your consideration, I nominate the Baylor game.
I don’t have one reason in particular. I can’t even narrow it down to a few concepts.
John Groce usually shies away from absolutes & favorites, and I think that’s one of his greatest attributes. He’s an unapologetic realist (apart from that whole “Jesus” thing).
But you could feel, as the Illini salted the Bears away, that Groce was going to remember this game for a long time “because of the way we did it,” as he said afterward. “We just showed some real grit.”
There’s so much to like, and hope to remember one day, about the Baylor game. I’d better just make a list.
Five turnovers, fifteen forced turnovers, fifteen assists on twenty-three made field goals. 33% field goal defense.
Illinois played Baylor’s game, and beat them at it, by “controlling the controllables,” as Groce likes to say.
They didn’t control the uncontrollables, which goes without saying. But even though the uncontrollables grabbed fifteen rebounds, giving his team a 47-33 advantage on the boards, the Illini ran plays to eliminate his effectiveness as a defensive weapon.
There’s no waaaay Nnanna was going to beat Rico Gathers Sr. (sic) at his own game. Gathers is listed at 6’8″ 280#. When he walked through the tunnel after the game, Mike Basgier (the strength & conditioning coach) said “I’ve never seen a basketball player that big. You can’t train that. That has to come naturally.”
Nnanna’s game involves less brute force. It’s more about positioning and cunning. Sam McLaurin’s appearance in Las Vegas might remind Illini fans (especially those who question Egwu’s value to the team, or basketball IQ) that a center’s best contributions often take the form of a step to the left; that subtle movement that blocks a drive, or a passing lane.
Yes, the center must pose some offensive threat, or the defense can exploit his incompetence. Nnanna’s back-to-basket game is another subject of discussion among traditionalists. For this team’s purposes, it would be nice if Nnanna’s baby hook (currently in beta) were more reliable.
It’s important that Nnanna be a threat from the arc, because it draws defenders away from the lane. In the B1G, this will be especially important.
Nnanna didn’t shoot any threes against Baylor, maybe because the Bears play a lot of zone. But while Nnanna didn’t draw any trees from the low post against Baylor, he still drew attention to the high post.
It was enough to divert the defense from the one guy whom they ought never allow out of their sight.
WHEN WILL PEOPLE STOP UNDERESTIMATING RAYVONTE RICE?
Bulls GM Gar Forman was among a slew of NBA scouts in attendance. Jerry’s son Ryan West was there too, representing the Lakers.
Maybe they came to see Baylor’s trees, or Josh Pastner’s flashy recruits. What they saw was another (yawn) dominant performance by Rayvonte Rice.
When Ray has retired from professional basketball, will people still doubt his accomplishments? I assume so. Most bicycling fish — er, sports talk — obsesses over player-bashing.
There’s also plenty of obscure dwarf cum giant killer in sports lore, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Ray were largely ignored by the media this year. If you remember Wayne Larrabee reading the same one-sheet about Illini players, over and over, game after game, you’re sufficiently analytical to recognize that major media coverage is provided by analysts who don’t spend a lot of time analyzing.
They’re not awful people. They just don’t know what we know: Rayvonte Rice is the most dynamic all-around Illini since Kenny Battle.
Yep. I just said that.
Speaking of statistics, Aaron was 0-for-6 from the field. All those misses came from behind the arc. His lone drive to the hoop was stricken from the record, because he was fouled on the attempt. He made both free throws.
So far, it doesn’t sound so great.
Aaron grabbed six rebounds, and dished four assists. Those numbers are on the permanent record. He muscled his way through screens, and gave Baylor’s bigs something to think about in the doing. There’s no accounting for that effort.
My personal jury is still out (skeptical) about the Starks/Cosby lights out shooting narrative. The point is moot. Statistics are forthcoming.
I liked Aaron Cosby’s contributions on a night when he couldn’t hit the broad side of a casino.
It’s not that John Groce dislikes Austin Colbert. It’s that Groce views Colbert as lacking in physical strength. He anticipates Colbert struggling against heavier bigs, and fears the consequences of physical mismatches.
Against Baylor, Groce saw Rico Gathers, and wanted Colbert far and away from the court.
Dustin Ford — the ex-point guard who coaches the bigs — should probably consult a thoracic surgeon following the Baylor game. I’m sure his carotid artery suffered damage from the umpteen times his head nearly exploded. Interior defensive positioning nearly killed him. Horseshit foul calls didn’t help. (It was mostly the former.)
Throughout his ordeal, Ford never looked to Colbert as a solution.
Colbert might have finished the Baylor game on the bench, but Maverick Morgan earned four fouls (in four minutes) and Nnanna Egwu earned two fouls — and was assessed another two for standing absolutely still with his arms straight up in the air.
So with 5:54 remaining, and a ten point lead nearly obliterated by Baylor’s (frankly) well coached & well executed attempts to decapitate Illinois’ defense; Groce and Ford were forced to play Colbert.
His impact was immediate.
Yep, it’s true that Austin is skinny like a rail. But he can jump. And that’s where he took advantage of Baylor. The play of the game (Groce admitted as much) came when Austin leaped over everyone for an offensive rebound and put-back.
It changed the momentum. It knocked the wind out of Baylor’s comeback. They never recovered.
Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if you’re skinnier than others. You just have to jump higher. Maybe you have to want it more, too.
After the game, Groce acknowledged that that single play might give him more confidence to use Colbert in the future.
Another reason to like Austin: His mother is a strong, sensible woman. And he has a younger brother, Morgan, who has absolutely no filter. Morgan Colbert is nearly as entertaining as the game of basketball itself.
He’s six games into his sophomore year, and I’m already running out of things to say about Malcolm Hill. So bully for Malcolm. He doesn’t need fish bicycling, or dancing about architecture.
In a lovely way, he seems to enjoy it, being a natural with “the media.” It’s because he judges “the media” on an individual basis, and treats “it” as if we were people. (Yep, I recognize that many question-askers in the news biz are not people, and have no feelings. True story.)
Malcolm’s game speaks for itself. He doesn’t need media hype. But when microphones are available, he’s plenty willing to share his thoughts. After Friday’s game, he lent his voice to speak for Jeremiah Radford, whose voice is gone.
Surprised by his election to the Las Vegas Invitational’s all-tournament team, and awed by the championship he’d pined for, just a day earlier, Malcolm cried in his mother’s arms.
That’s the cool thing about Malcolm. He’s a natural. He’ll be who he is. If it’s emotional, he’ll cry about it. If it’s basketball, he’ll rip it away from you, and then jam it.
He talked about crying, and Jeremiah, after the game. Malcolm is not afraid. He’s intellectually curious, and loving. Those aspects of his nature permeate his entire life experience.
For basketball purposes, he’s intellectually curious about opponents’ weaknesses, and he loves dunking on them.
KENDRICK NUNN IS RIGHT-HANDED
Orleans Arena reminded me of Gonzaga’s purpose-built basketball arena. Its horseshoe configuration belies its multi-purpose capabilities, but it’s definitely a good place to see a basketball game with 9,000 other rabid fans. Illinois didn’t bring a quarter that many, and Baylor brought three (I sat near them during Thursday’s game against Memphis). Nevertheless, the arena was electric.
I suppose no one will remember this game. No one had ever heard of the network that carried it. A handful of hundreds attended. On paper, it looks like a blowout. (That’s the preview paper and the morning paper.)
It didn’t feel like a blowout.
I’ve never had such an uneasy feeling about a 20 point lead.
Illinois looked sloppy (11/13 assists to turnovers). They looked lethargic. “Those guys are running full-out and our guys are going about 80%” John Groce said to his bench. Little Grant Prusator (whose name the PA guy seemed to announce as “Crusader”) could not be stopped, not at the arc, nor inside it.
And yet, the 88-62 final suggests to me that Illinois won by 24 points.
Obviously the three-point shooting (9-20, 45%) was the difference. It helps that ISU converted only 10 of their 27 attempts from distance, because a lot of them were wide open. Illinois’ defense continues to lose track of shooters.
Excellently & terribly, it was Ahmad Starks’s best and worst games, too. He converted 1-of-5 from the floor. But he passed better, and more intrepidly, than at any point this year. His passing was fun to watch. That hadn’t happened yet.