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.