Suzuki Method fiddlers gathered at center-court, moments before the tip-off of Northwestern’s annual orange invasion. Both teams formed a single-file line, facing each other.
The children bowed their instruments, commemorating a flag that was still there.
Elyjah Williams looked over his shoulder, and spotted a fivesome of six year-olds in kimonos, or whatever martial artists wear. Karate kids. He motioned them toward him. They stepped into the line, between Williams and Pete Nance. He looked down at the youngsters, placed his hand on his heart, and turned back toward the Star Spangled Banner. The kids copied his motions.
I don’t remember thinking I’m gonna root for this guyfrom here on out. I thought it was a nice gesture. I got the idea that he’s a good guy, and that he thinks of others. And then the fiddling stopped and the game began.
As I watched Williams frustrate Kofi Cockburn, I wasn’t rooting for him. I thought it was kind of funny, because Elyjah obviously had a good attitude about his mountain-sized task.
Kofi broke into a smile momentarily, after some shit-talking. I appreciated that Kofi appreciated Elyjah.
I feel like I’ve written “Kofi is a kind & sensitive person” enough, and I don’t want to be boring. But did I say it enough?
I enjoyed watching two kind, sensitive and enormous people battle vigorously. At an elite level might say this one coach I know.
It’s been a strenuous time in America. These moments gave me some hope.
Meanwhile, Da’Monte continued his years long slog at proving the value of hard work.
It was demonstrably the best moment of the day for Illini fans. But because it was so needed, so necessary; a lot of Illini fans are feeling down about their team.
Maybe that’s appropriate. The #EveryDayGuys have been plenty bad on most recent days. But they closed the deal against Michigan, Michigan State, and this group of NUrds that’s played everyone close, but hasn’t learned how to close the deal.
It took Chris Collins to remind everyone, in 13 heartfelt minutes, how good this Illini team is. How hard it is to shut them down. And how good his Wildcat team is. And how they shut the Illini down,
You’ll feel better for watching it. And it’ll make you feel better about the Illinois performance at Welsh-Ryan.
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?
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.
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 shitstuffed 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.
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 , 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.
Kendrick Nunn looked like Kendrick Nunn. Crafty, deadly. A psychopath on the court: No empathy for your distress as he cuts through you.
That’s much better than the tentative impostor who’d taken all of Kendrick’s minutes this year.
Is the “Real” Aaron Cosby back? Or was Northwestern simply one of many examples of the “Real” Aaron Cosby? i.e. is he a guy that will make a good percentage of shots consistently? Or does he go 4-for-8 from the arc some days, and 1-of-7 most days?
Why did John Groce decide to play Ahmad Starks in the closing minutes? Starks’s 4-for-13 performance (0-for-5 from three) was consistent with his season thus far.
Starks hit some long 2s and a couple of floaters. You might say he shot 50% from two, because he did.
As the Wildcats closed an 11-point lead to one, Groce chose Starks-on-five, including an isolation at :39 in which Ahmad flew sideways under the the hoop.
Starks supplied a game-high (tied with 7-footer Alex Olah) four assists. He committed no turnovers. Kendrick Nunn said (kindly, perhaps) that Starks’s scorer’s mentality open the floor for other shooters. That seems theoretical at this point.
The Illini offense looked great from the opening tip, and for about ten minutes. Sharp cuts and quick ball movement delivered open shots, and Illini shooters connected. But then what happened? Did the Wildcats step up their defense?
Illinois returned to form, seeming to prefer shooting with a hand in its face.
But excluding the one made three in the second half (and the six misses), the Illini connected on 50% of field-goals. Ignore Cosby’s (evidently not crucial) missed free-throw with :26 remaining and a three point lead, and the Illini were perfect from charity in the second half.
But if, like me, you were watching the game; it’s hard to ignore theses things. They’ll plant themselves in your brain like Nick Anderson’s box-out, or the fat guy from Austin Peay.
Northwestern eschewed the home team’s typical mid-second half comeback, but Illinois left the door open for that opportunity.
Chris Collins’s game management put the Wildcats in position to win. With 1:15 to go and down five, Collins got a wide open look for hot-handed Alex Olah (14 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks, 6/12 FGs). The ball went all the way down before corkscrewing up and out, to audible (and familiar) purple-clad groaning.
With 13 seconds to go and down by three, Collins sent Tre Demps knifing through the lane for an easy deuce. It takes a calm coach and a calm team to choose & execute a two-point-play when you “need a three.”
But if Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill hadn’t been flawless from the line, you’d be reading an entirely different set of next-day accounts, and you wouldn’t be enjoying your coffee as much.
John Groce’s strategies seemed less obviously … hmm, how to put this … good? Harkening back to the less fondly remembered aspect of the Lou Henson era, Groce took the air out of the ball. The purpose of offensive sets, in the closing minutes, seemed to be clock-bleeding, rather than bucket making.
Illinois won. Does that mean Groce’s strategies were effective?
This game provided no answers. Rather, it’s a bookmark. We may want to look back at this game someday, to say “That’s when Cosby clicked.” We may want to look back and say “it’s not the first time Groce blew a ten point lead to a bad team.”
Whatever marketing tricks Jim Phillips employed, they failed to keep his alma mater from dominating his employer’s atmosphere. Most of the crowd wore orange. The only disadvantage for Illinois was not being able to invite Chicago-area recruits.
But late on a school night, with the temperature hovering in the mid-teens and a lot of slush on the ground, you can see why talented high-schoolers would stay inside. Welsh-Ryan Arena is 31 miles from, for example, Chicago Morgan Park High School.
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