Illini basketball


I’m trying to figure out why everything I’ve read online, in the five hours since the final buzzer, has been so warm & fuzzy.

I recognize that fans and optimism are nearly inseparable in the pre-season. I know about rose-colored glasses. I know about Kool-Aid.

When a basketball team wins by 29 points, can a columnist reasonably claim that team got outplayed?  Probably not. But I don’t need to go that far.

I’m worried about Ahmad Starks’s 2-of-9 shooting. I’m worried about Aaron Cosby’s 3-of-9 shooting. I’m not all that worried about Rayvonte Rice’s 3-of-11 shooting. I’m kind of worried about Nnanna Egwu’s 3-of-11 shooting.

I will believe the “better shooting” narrative when the Illini shoot better.

The final stats show 47% on all field goals and 36.7% from three. That includes the clean-up time at the end, when Michael Finke hit 3-of-3, and Starks finally connected.

Malcolm Hill and Leron Black did the heavy lifting. Their 6-of-10 and 7-of-9 efforts, respectively, made the final percentage appear downright respectable.

Black will be the starting power-forward, just as soon as John Groce feels comfortable with his defense. Hill will be the starting wing-forward. Kendrick Nunn will be the starting shooting-guard, when he’s fully back in shape (healthy knee, conditioning up to speed).

Nnanna Egwu is the starting center, who will sometimes play power-forward as well.


So far, that’s

  • 2 Nunn
  • 3 Hill
  • 4 Black
  • 5 Egwu

Of the three Illini who play point-guard, there’s only one who absolutely must be on the floor, and he’s the worst point-guard among them. But there’s no way Rayvonte Rice won’t play 30 minutes per game.

So it’s good that Sergio McClain was in the house (accompanying the entire Central team). Rice is a far superior offensive player to most college basketball players, Sergio included. But the most underrated aspect of Ray’s game is his intelligence. The second-most underrated aspect is his coachability. Sergio was Mr. Basketball, and a four-time champion, not because of his natural talent. Sergio was not a good shooter. He was not a great leaper. Frankly, he was limited on offense. But Sergio could play four positions, like Ray. Sergio did what was asked of him. And when Lon Kruger asked Sergio to man the point, Sergio manned the point.

John Groce credited Starks/Jaylon Tate for a 10/2 assist-to-turnover ratio on Friday. In fact, Starks was 5/1 and Tate was 5/1, but that one was a doozy,  an embarrassing pick-6 pass interception for Quincy’s (very good) all-everything athlete Godson Eneogwe.

Cosby was 3/2. Rayvonte Rice dished three assists with no turnovers.

Generally, Jaylon Tate is a delight to behold on offense. It’s his defense that concerns. On Friday, Jaylon watched his man drive directly past him for a lay-up. It was his fault, and it was everybody’s fault. Illinois’ pack-line was the Maginot Line. Primary defenders got lapped. Secondary defenders never came to the rescue. If the offense was troubling, the defense was downright scary bad.

On the bench, Tracy Abrams sat in a form-fitting red plaid shirt and jeans, with a huge brace wrapped around his right leg. Suddenly, we realized how much we’ll miss Tracy Abrams.

The glass half full version of this column is far pithier, and needs no data to support its claims: John Groce did not seem troubled by the team’s effort against Quincy. He said plenty of bad things about the defensive effort, but you got the feeling he relishes the opportunity for a week’s worth of teaching moments on the subject. He said the team has been better, defensively, in practice.

But of course, it’s easier to defend when you know everyone’s tendencies.

Groce eschewed any concern about offense. “Offensively, we’re gonna be fine. We’ve got multiple weapons. As long as they continue to execute better, and they play together like they did today … I thought they were unselfish.”

This column will seem silly, useless, ignorant if the Illini face Villanova with an 8-0 record. It will seem laughable if they face Missouri at 11-0.

It was just an exhibition, right?