Illini basketball

Irrelevant observations from EIU

You probably know most of the relevant details of the 80-67 EIU triumph at Charleston last Friday. Jay Spoonhour and Brad Underwood agreed to hold an informal scrimmage, and use it as a practice.

Then, they each abandoned that plan and found themselves in a competitive brawl.

Now, here are the irrelevant details.

Before the game, Josh Whitman and Tommy Michael stood courtside, talking about various things. These two were the top contenders for the job Whitman eventually got. Michael was an associate athletic director before taking the top job at Eastern. He was an academic advisor in the DIA before that. It was good to see that no hard feelings came between the two re: that job search.


Michael was in a good position to know exactly what happened with Matt Bollant at Illinois.

He chose to hire Bollant to lead EIU women’s basketball.  Keep that in mind when remembering Bollant’s tenure, if you think about women’s basketball at all.

An unexpected member of the audience was Machanda Hill, Malcolm’s mom. It turns out that she hasn’t seen enough Illini basketball, yet.

She sat in the corner of the upper deck along with Kipper’s mom Tanicia Porter and Aaron’s dad Rob Jordan. Rob didn’t enjoy the scrimmage as much as, say, Eastern Illinois fans.

Also sitting in an upper corner were Bob and Cheryl Easter, who had great seats when he was university president.

Cheryl continues to be a huge basketball fan. She didn’t mind sitting in the corner.  Truth is, Lantz Arena doesn’t really have bad seats. Both Leron Black and Kipper Nichols said it felt like a high school gym.

That setting, and the backdrop it brings, might be the cause Illinois’ shooting woes.

Because EIU also hosted a women’s scrimmage, also for charity, there was no opportunity for an Illini shootaround in Charleston. Instead, the pre-game meal and shootaround took place in Champaign. The Illini then hopped on a bus for Charleston.

They never got a chance to acclimate to Lantz sightlines.

Perhaps the meal wasn’t enough, either. Mark Smith resorted to eating D’Angelo Jackson alive, both literally & figuratively.

Everyone reported that Lou Henson attended the game with lifelong friend Loren Tate (and Champaign golfer Joe Thompson).

But perhaps no one noticed the touching scene of Josh Whitman assisting Henson out of the building, late in the game (before the rush). With Whitman’s help. Lou beat the rush (and the court storming).

Tyler Underwood didn’t sit with the team. He sat behind the team.

He didn’t travel with the team. He traveled with the head coach’s family.

That’s because NCAA rules forbid transfers from traveling during their sit-out year, the same reason Rayvonte Rice watched that Gonzaga game in Champaign.

Greg Eboigbodin, Matic Vesel, Da’Monte Williams, Adam Fletcher, Aaron Jordan, Brad Underwood, Kipper Nichols, Patrick Shulte, Jamall Walker, Orlando Antigua, Chin Coleman plus Susan Underwood, Tyler Underwood, Josh Whitman, Lou Henson and Loren Tate.

Tyler is appealing to the NCAA so he can play this year. If that doesn’t work out, he’ll probably travel to away games with his family, not his team.

Illini basketball

Hotel Policy & the NCAA

This week, Illini Report received a compendium of all NCAA violations recorded during the John Groce Era. There’s one big surprise. More on that next week.

Most of the violations arose through ignorance or stupidity, and mostly ignorance. That is, the “perpetrators” weren’t aware that they were committing violations, because the rules are so stupid.

Today’s story is about a rule that’s only slightly stupid, a perpetrator who is not ignorant, and policy that’s downright idiotic.

The culprit was James Haring, erstwhile Director of Basketball Operations. The crime:  reserving hotel rooms.



For the first five contests of the season (exhibitions with Wash U & Lewis; and games with SEMO, No. Kentucky & McKendree) Kipper Nichols and Drew Cayce were housed, along with the rest of the team, in one of the hotels near State Farm Center (i-Hotel at First & St. Mary’s, or the Hawthorne Suites, Homewood Suites or Hilton Garden Inn at Neil & Kirby.

That’s a violation of NCAA Bylaw 16.8.1.

There’s no particular NCAA rule about transfers staying in hotel rooms before home games. The NCAA never contemplated such a stupid policy. Why would teams pay to lodge players twice for the same night?  Their apartments are literally 1200 yards away.

But because Nichols and Cayce were transfers waiting a “year in residence,” they’re not allowed travel expenses. In order to receive competition-related expenses, the student-athlete must be eligible for competition. It’s the reason Rayvonte Rice never traveled with the team during his first year on campus, unless he could get there on his own dime (Braggin’ Rights, or the United Center game, for example).

James Haring

James Haring is not stupid. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of West Virginia, where he worked for Brad Underwood’s old boss, Huggie Bear. Moreover, he knows the minutiae that DOBOs must contemplate each time they make an outlay. Player per diems, for example were as follows for the 2016-17 season.

In-State/Out of State Breakfast $5.50/$6.50 Lunch $5.50/$6.50 Dinner $17.00/$19.00

Haring also knows the rule capping an MBB traveling squad at 15 players. (He says it’s a Big Ten rule, rather than the NCAA.) This came up in a conversation earlier this year, when I realized that Samson Oladimeji wasn’t on a road trip, and hadn’t been all year.

I asked Oladimeji about it, and he didn’t know why he didn’t travel with the team. James Haring did know: This year’s Illini roster included 17 players. Someone had to stay behind.

Samson Oladimeji (Vashoune Russell)

Nichols finished his “year in residence” in December, about the same time Oladimeji became an official member of the team. As the last to join, Samson was also the last in line for a room. So Cayce never stayed in a hotel for the rest of the season, Nichols returned to the hotel regimen when he becamse eligible, and Oladimeji never stayed in a hotel, period.

That’s pretty much the end of Haring’s whimsical violation of NCAA rules, apart from the unfortunate Letter of Admonishment added to his employee file.

But his loss is our gain, because the report it begat shines a spotlight on the terrible policy of locking up players in hotel rooms.

The men’s basketball program spent, according to the NCAA filing posted above,  an average of $43.11 per player, per night, to stay in a Champaign hotel room prior to those first five contests.

That figure may reflect the average cost for every game this year, but not necessarily. Rates fluctuate with the market, and the team had no fixed rate agreement with any of the four hotels.

For the 21 home contests this year, assuming the $43.11 rate were static, that’s $13,579.65 to house the team in rooms literally visible from their own West Quad apartments.  Add $2,586.60 for the four games played within a short driving distance (Purdue, Indiana, Northwestern and the annual United Center game). The team flies to Iowa. Why sleep there, too?

Spokesman Kent Brown points out:

No other teams do this. Football has done this for decades. Men’s basketball only started this recently. It’s a coach’s decision, but would need to come out of their budgets.

The idea behind housing a football team is that you can’t trust a football team to do the right thing. They’re football players, after all. If you don’t lock them up, drunken rape and pillaging is the inevitable outcome.

Under John Groce, basketball players couldn’t be trusted either, at least not by John Groce. Remember that time Aaron Cosby and Rice snuck out of their hotel room to see the town? In that case, the town was Minneapolis. They were both injured at the time (Rice’s broken hand, Cosby’s detached retina — neither of which happened because they went sight-seeing), and wouldn’t have played against the Gophers anyway.

After that, Groce imposed the policy for home games, too.

James Haring, far left, was a grad assistant in 2014-15. Rayvonte Rice & Aaron Cosby were suspended for this game, despite both being injured anyhow.

The problem with imprisoning the players two nights per week is not just that it treats them like criminals. It’s also that they’re not likely to get a great night’s sleep in unfamiliar surroundings. By imposing road-game conditions on his team, Groce took away one of the great advantages of home games — being at home.

The Homewood Suites are 1200 yards from West Quad. And although Tyler Griffey once said he enjoyed the jacuzzi there (as a freshman, he was housed there during semester break when the dorms closed), the train still goes by just as often, if 20 seconds earlier than it passes West Quad.

“That’s the only bad thing I can think of” Maverick Morgan said of West Quad’s proximity to the train when the team first moved into its new digs at Oak & John Streets. “It’s as close as everyone thinks it is.”

Here at 4:44

Maybe that’s why John Groce’s teams lost so many games. Over the course of five years, they never got a good night’s sleep.

Stay tuned to Illini Report for more kvetching about minor NCAA violations, and the mundane stories they spawn. Next week.

Fans of James Haring, which include most people he’s ever met, will be glad to know that he’s pursuing opportunities in college basketball. His DOBO position will be occupied by Underwood associate Joey Biggs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be leaving the DIA.

Illini basketball

A tree in the forest

“Is it common knowledge that Barclays Center has a grass roof?” I asked Jason Marry, as I sat down on the baseline of the Brooklyn Nets’ home court.

Jason, who pays attention to sports, assurred me that I was not alone in my ignorance. For some reason, sports fanatics tend to focus on the sports-oriented aspects of sports. They don’t talk about the architecture.

Tomorrow, I’ll be in Miami. I hope I won’t write about their architecture. I like their architecture, but I’m hoping I’ll have something interesting to communicate about the development of a basketball team.

In this column, I’ll write about the architecture. i.e. the non-sports stuff I delight in observing while following Illini basketball around the country. But I’ll also write about the basketball.

There’s an evolutionary arc I’ve been watching. I don’t know when or where it might complete, or manifest itself. Some unanswered questions will determine whether this team will make the tournament, or require Josh Whitman to Make A Change.

The themes of this column aren’t new. It’s about Tracy Abrams’s composure, his shot selection. He’s always been great at controlling teammates. It’s his ability to control Tracy Abrams that’s always been the question.

He’s been good.


And bad.

He’s like Chester Frazier: Among the most self-disciplined Illini when it comes to work ethic, off-the-court deportment, navigating the potential pitfalls of being a student-athlete.

He’s so good, so strong, so determined in those areas; that it’s hard to comprehend his moments of folly on the court. That he played with Rayvonte Rice offers a great comparison. Rice frequently attempted the spectacular, and succeeded. But his team lost.

Abrams must resist attempting the spectacular for his team to succeed.

Will he also be like Chester Frazier in providing a senior year where his shooting drastically improves, and his decisions don’t cost games?

Subject #2 of the evolutionary arc is Jalen Coleman-Lands’s second dimension, and his third dimension.

Considered by some to be a “three-point specialist,” JCL is most exciting to watch because of his behind-the-back passes, and drives to the hoop.

He drove the lane at the Barclays Center, and got stuffed. Undeterred, he continued to drive against NC State, and he was successful. He also made a behind the back pass, and another quick pass in the lane.

JCL and Abrams share a common gift/fault. They like to push the limits of basketball geometry. Sometimes, their angles are too acute.

Abrams’s self-control and JCL’s dynamism are key ingredients to a successful season. So are Leron Black’s 15-foot jumper, and his failure to foul out of the last two contests.

Inevitably, it seems, this team will rely on its highest-rated recruits.

On the other hand, no recruiting service wasted much ink on Te’Jon Lucas. And yet he’s emerged as this team’s fun guy to watch.

Over the last two weeks, Illini fans have demanded that Lucas get more tick. John Groce heard them. In particular, Groce heard Juan David Hoffman, literally.

“Pass the ball!” Hoffman yelled to Abrams, as Tracy dribbled on the wing, no more than five feet from Hoffman.

A few moments later, Hoffman followed with “Put Lucas in the game!”
When Groce did, in fact, insert Te’Jon a moment later, Hoffman responded with “’bout time!”
It’s not unusual for fans to scream at games. What’s unusual is for any particular sentiment to be audible for everyone, including the head coach.
Dozens of people attended the Brooklyn games. No, really. Dozens. And because Hoffman was directly across the court from Groce, in an otherwise empty/silent mausoleum, Groce could hear everything Hoffman said.

Intriguingly, Hoffman’s favorite topics reflect the general consensus. That’s not true of most courtside-sitters, who tend to be polite (and at least among the Illini fandom) unabashed homers. The type who never criticize the coach but do criticize the people who criticize the coach.

Hoffman, by contrast, vocalized everything you’ve been reading online about John Groce and the 2016-17 Illini. And Groce heard it.

Groce’s demeanor is different this year, which suggests that he’s heard a lot of Hoffmans, or at least has begun to acknowledge agitation among the fanbase.

Maybe it began when Groce was forced to hold a joint press conference with Josh Whitman. The most obvious change is the post-home-game press conferences. The players now show up independent of Groce, which means the media get started on their copy about 20 minutes sooner. That media was allowed to attend a pair of pre-season practices is also a novation.

It’s pretty clear that Groce feels the heat.

Some fans have declared that Groce’s tenure demonstrates a misjudgment about Bruce Weber. That’s insane. Whether or not John Groce is your guy, Bruceketball was torture to watch in 2012. So don’t even think that you’re worse off now. And these changes in Groce’s personal style, and the product on the court, are the best proof.

Weber wouldn’t change. Conceivably, Weber couldn’t change. If you forgot what Bruce Weber looks like, look up “hidebound” in your dictionary. His picture appears next to that word.

Groce has this year’s team playing up-tempo offense, and a lot of zone defense.  Against Florida State, he called out to his team to stay in a 2-3 zone “until further notice.”

That game is now more than a week behind us. It’s pretty much forgotten, thanks to NC State.

Thanksgiving’s West Virginia fiasco won’t be so easily forgotten. But unlike actual trauma, it will find retention in memory a tricky row to hoe. Illini fans, even those zealous to depose John Groce, can’t escape human neuroscience. We like to remember the good times. We remember things that nearly kill us (and, in theory, make us stronger).

Illinois basketball’s decade-long slide into total irrelevance doesn’t threaten you physically. It won’t activate warning mechanisms in your brain cells.

Lots of people showed up for the (final?) dedication of the State Farm Center, and they saw an entertaining win which temporarily quietened the pitchfork mob. If Illinois loses to VCU tomorrow, the pitchforks will return before sunset. If Illinois wins, they might not show up ’til 2017.


FSU’s Michael Ojo is one of those unfortunate persons who came to basketball as the result of a pituitary disorder. Isaac Haas is another. Some people are just unusually tall. Some people have acromegaly.

Perhaps it’s a poorly kept secret, but a lot of college basketball players aren’t all that great at basketball. They’re just really tall. Keon Johnson reminded Illini fans that the most gifted basketball players aren’t always the most-sought recruits. Rayvonte Rice should be playing in the NBA, but pro scouts continue to perseverate about his height, despite Rice’s eight year campaign of proving doubters wrong.
Ojo is 7’1″ and enormous all over.
He’s African, and like a lot of African basketball players, he’s mostly a defender. He sees the game for what it’s become: soccer.
It’s possible that he’s really funny.
During a break in the action, Ojo noticed teammate Jonathan Isaac wasn’t paying attention. Malcolm Hill was just lining up for a one-and-one, and Isaac hadn’t taken his spot on the block. Ojo called to him. “Hey, it’s a one-and-one!”
But later, when Te’Jon Lucas lined up for two free-throws, Ojo tried to persuade everyone, including the referees, that
Lucas’s shots were also one-and-one.
In the enormous baritone voice that often booms from the heads of gigantism’s victims, Ojo called out “One-and-one?” four or five times to anyone within hearing range. Finally, referee Jeff Anderson called out from the wing:  “Ojo,  it’s two shots man.”
After Lucas drained the first attempt, referee Bo Boroski followed up.
You surely get better coverage of Illini sports from other media outlets. I exist only to tell these funny little stories.
Now I’ll have to decide if I really want to get on that 7 a.m. flight for Miami. After a week of looking after an elderly relative in Queens, I could easily be talked into staying home.
Illini basketball

Purdue review – just a coupla thoughts

I love this new gig, where I can choose when & whether to publish.

I know people don’t like reading about losses. They’re not as fun to write about either — unless it’s time to fire the coach. Then they’re fun.

It’s not time to fire the coach. Settle down.

Now that the sting has worn off, I want to share just a few tidbits about Saturday’s game at Mackey Arena. These are things that wouldn’t have come across on TV.


In a game decided by five points, every possession is crucial. The Illini got jobbed out of at least two possessions at Mackey, perhaps because referees are susceptible to psychology, just like the rest of us.

In both cases, referees couldn’t or didn’t see the play. In both cases Bill Ek and Donnie Eppley signaled to each other for help in rendering a ruling. Each appeal for help resulted in a dramatic, emphatic ruling for Purdue. I saw both plays clearly, from my seat on the baseline. Both times, Purdue knocked the ball out of bounds.

The first time, it was Rapheal Davis who scooped the ball from a prone Rayvonte Rice, but lost control.

The second time came in the closing minutes, when Illinois furiously clawed its way back to a two possession game.

Austin Colbert was the baseline defender. Dakota Mathias was the inbound guy. An errant/risky Mathias pass, batted out of bounds by its intended recipient, never came close to touching anyone in orange.

Colbert was so shocked by the ruling that he covered his face with his jersey, to prevent himself from an assessed technical foul. But he campaigned for a reversal throughout the succeeding inbound play.

Illinois’ jobbing in Austin (March 2013) resulted in a rule change. Replay video may be used in the final two minutes of games. Why not use replay video to determine calls on plays that refs can’t see?

I don’t doubt that Ek and Eppley ruled for Purdue because Matt Painter rode their asses for forty minutes, and they simply wore down. Painter is 6’4″ and intimidating.

John Groce will never get the calls Painter gets.  He’s too short.

Refs will laugh at pipsqueaky Pat Chambers, and run his Nittany teams out of the gym on bad, perhaps even biased calls. But they won’t fuck with Painter. He’s too intimidating. It’s simple human nature. They’re scared of him.

That’s probably the reason Painter’s teams continue to get away with incessant hand-checking, in the year that everyone else in college ball opted for zone defense to comply with the “new emphasis” on hand-checking violations.

Lamont Simpson has been around for a while. He didn’t seem to cave to Painter.


I wasn’t alive when Bob Starnes’s full court shot beat Northwestern. There are probably some other great moments from the pre-video era. I was on hand to see Efrem Winters windmill dunk against Minnesota, and it was as amazing as its legend suggests.

I was also on hand for Matt Heldman’s half-court lob to Awvee Storey. I saw two entire years of Kenny Battle. Those are all amazing memories.

Visit Furniture Lounge for vintage St Patty’s Day gear.


You all saw the Rayvonte Rice dunk Saturday. But you probably didn’t hear it. The crashing sound on the steel rim hurt my ears. Moreover, the camera angle fails to convey the improbable physics of the play. Kendrick Nunn threw the ball. He didn’t toss it. The ball was traveling at speed.

The ball was still going up when Ray corralled it. Ray had to get eleven to twelve feet into the air to grab that ball.  The rest was a matter of gravity, but it happened really fast. That is, the time elapsed between Ray attaining possession and the crashing sound was barely visible.

Even slo-mo doesn’t really capture the feat. IlliniProductionsHD photographer Jason Marry said “that should be a crime” or “Ray should be charged with a crime” or something along those lines.  We all laughed.


I don’t.  I just hate this one particular guy.

The people who work at Mackey Arena are friendly. Their 2nd year SID is running the best, most accessible media operation in the conference. They always give us a lot of Puccini’s Smiling Teeth pizza.

I like Lafayette. Heather and I had a great blackened salmon and excellent escargot at Bistro 501 after the game. The campus looks just like ours, and they even have a Krannert building. Great engineering school. They hate the Hoosiers. What’s not to like?

Well, there’s this one guy. Thanks to the First Amendment, I can present him to you for your vilification and identification. Frankly, he brought it on himself.

A seasoned cameraman (I’ll leave his name out) said “Purdue has the angriest fans in the Big Ten. They’re just really angry.” Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s a trickle-down effect from the Keady years.  Gene Keady had anger issues. Maybe Painter does, too although I really like his thoughtful demeanor in postgame.

I think the cameraman’s remark was influenced by that one guy. I think that one guy has held the same season ticket, in the same spot, for some time. And he’s spewed hatred ever since he arrived.

On Saturday, as the final seconds trickled away, this asshole yelled “NIT Ray Rice! Have fun in the NIT!”

Ray is a great player, a great entertainer, a good student, a guy who defied consistent and continual underestimation.

If you’re a good person, and a good sportsman, you have to love Ray.

It makes me glad to see, at the end of every college basketball event, the opposing players and their families socializing. It happens after fans have been booted from the venues, while game-day staff are sweeping aisles and folding chairs.

There’s no hatred. It’s not just good sportsmanship. These people are friends. They know each other from high school, from AAU, from carpools and team camps.

I wish the fans could behave as well. Why couldn’t the Mackey Asshole simply savor the victory?

Rayvonte Rice will end a great career without an NCAA Tournament appearance. That sucks for Ray. As a college basketball fan, of any team, is that something you really want to rub in his face?


Illini basketball

Just in time: The Game of the Year

Kiwane Garris, Jack Ingram & Roger Powell saw nothing unusual in Illinois’ 86-60 beatdown of Northwestern. For them, a 26 point win over the Wildcats is the norm. That’s how Northwestern games should go.

Maybe this was the one game of the 2015 season that resembled John Groce’s vision of the 2015 season. The Illini connected on 48% of their 3FGs and 47.4% from two. They assisted 15 of 27 made field goals. The offense clicked, the defense stuck together as if it had been glued.

There’s not much more to say. It was pretty. So I’ll say it with pictures. If you want to see Alex Austin’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle socks, you’ll have to look at all of them.

Illini basketball


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.

Illini basketball

Rumors & Conjecture

The “story” from the Rutgers game, if there is one, must be the obvious point-shaving. There’s no other explanation for the Scarlet Knights’ dribbling out the clock, down eight points, with 1:20 to go.

The spread was 11 points. Rutgers lost by 12.

Now, let’s talk about the non-controversial stuff


Darius Paul was driven to drink by the NCAA. He tested positive for a substance that’s known for its non-toxic medicinal properties. Given a dire warning to stay away from this natural, herbal tonic, he took to a poison that’s legal and toxic. How does that make sense?

I’m not an advocate of marijuana. I’ve tried it. It makes me paranoid, dizzy, uncomfortable.

It works much better for my brother-in-law, who’s 12 years into his multiple sclerosis diagnosis. He gets it legally, by prescription. It helps with pain and muscle tension.

Marijuana, and the stupid laws restricting it, have made a huge impact here in C-U, just recently.

If you don’t live in Champaign-Urbana, you may not know the news that gripped campus over the last few days. A student named Vicente Mundo was shot in the back of the head, and killed. His body was dumped north of Tolono. A vigil — and a massive effort to locate him, in the days preceding the discovery of his body — were the talk of the town.

On Tuesday, news broke that two men had been arrested & arraigned for first-degree murder.

Vicente Mundo was murdered for a small amount of marijuana, and a small amount of money. If marijuana sales were legal in Illinois, he’d be alive.

New Governor Bruce Rauner is doing what he can to facilitate sales & distribution of marijuana in Illinois. The general assembly voted medical marijuana legal last year. Urbana (and Ann Arbor and Madison) decriminalized marijuana long ago, reducing harsh penalties to wrist-slaps that cost users less than a craft beer or premium cocktail.

Having charged the alleged killers, and after joining a press conference featuring all the local law-enforcement agencies involved in the investigation; State’s Attorney Julia Rietz attended the Rutgers game, and said it was the perfect way to cap a long day. (Perhaps she meant sleep-inducing. The game was like marijuana, in that sense.)

Given all this tumult, it seemed like a good time to speak up about marijuana and the student-athlete.

There’s conjecture that Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby were suspended for using marijuana. If they had, they’d be typical college students. They’d also be typical medical patients, recovering from injuries.

But in fact, Ray and Cos were not smoking doobies. Their suspension has nothing to do with illegal drugs. They enjoyed some nightlife at a time when they were expected to set a good example for their younger teammates, by staying in, perhaps watching some scouting materials, and getting a great night’s sleep.

Neither Rice nor Cosby had any possibility of seeing action in a game at the time of the “infraction,” so perhaps a bit of R&R felt to them like a harmless change of pace.

If you read the Steve Bardo book on 1989’s Flyin’ Illini, you’ll know that some of the guys on that team decided to go out partying in East Lansing, the night before a game. They were hungover the next day, according to Bardo, and got pummeled by a well-rested Spartans team.

It’s comparing apples to orange basketballs. Staying up all night and getting drunk may not lead to great athletic performance. But it’s had negligible impact on athletes’ ability to sit on a bench.

John Groce got a freebie for Message Sending purposes, because the duration of the “indefinite suspension” will fit nicely with the recovery time for each player’s injury. By the time John Beilein brings his Caris LeVert-less Woverines to town for a bit of revenge, you can expect Ray and Cos to be part of that ass whoopin’.


Bardo’s Flyin’ Illini teammate Kenny Battle (whose individual flyin’ led to the moniker, let’s be honest) was on hand Tuesday.

Battle is famous for his effort. A yearly award is given, in his name, to the Illini player who displays the greatest hustle. True to that nature, Battle has kept working on his latest cause. It’s his daughter, Ty. He wants you all to know how proud he is of Ty, now a sophomore in Joliet.

You’ll remember, he was adamant about this subject last year as well.

Ty’s dad says she’s averaging a double-double, and has her choice of an all-expenses-paid college education. “Everybody wants her.”

I was thrilled to capture a picture of Battle and Rayvonte Rice together. They are kindred Illini. Perhaps the best players of their era, both started as under-appreciated, thought to be undersized mid-majors. Battle at NIU of the MAC, and Rice at Drake of the Valley.


The reason BTN2GO stuck you with a 9:30 p.m. slot on a Tuesday night, dear Rutgers basketball fan, is that you don’t exist.

The reason you, Illinois fan, were stuck with a late Tuesday game is that you fall into two categories. You will either do anything to see the Illini play, or you are waiting for Illinois to return to relevance. They’ve got you either way.

Tens, possibly dozens of you descended upon the State Farm Center on Tuesday. Hundreds more watched the game on TV.

They saw a balanced scoring attack, a future NBA project, Gene Steratore making friendly with the Orange Krush, and Austin Colbert.

Ahmad Starks took fewer off-balance shots. He made more shots.

Leron Black collected the garbage. He connected on 5-of-6 shots, for 12 points. Intriguingly, he grabbed only two rebounds in 21 minutes.

Kendrick Nunn grabbed six rebounds. He was the alpha and the omega of this game, converting all his free-throws, and adding four assists (five if you count the beautiful post-entry pass that Nnanna Egwu kicked).

Nnanna, by the way, played through an injury that required special attention from trainer Paul Schmidt. It happened on the defensive possession that (unfairly) resulted in Nnanna’s second foul (when a Scarlet Knight tripped over Nnanna’s prone body).

Illini basketball


It was Wear Khakis to Crisler Day in Ann Harbaughr, formerly known as Ann Abhor, or – among frat boys who’ve ironically failed to embrace the felicity of a kindly virtue they’d prefer to establish via Rohypnol and booze – Ann Arbwhore.

Tracy Abrams wore khakis to the game. He didn’t learn about the fashion rally ‘til it was too late.

Nobody’s likely to confuse Tracy with a Michigan fan. On the other hand, Tracy was hardly recognizable as Tracy Abrams. Both eyes and the bridge of his nose were swollen.

“Yeah, I’m sick,” he noted.

It looked conjunctival. I’ll guess we’ll know Saturday, if the entire team shows up in Columbus with pink-eye.

Abrams’s vision was unaffected. “Shit!” he screamed when Zak Irvin fielded an inbound pass, all alone, at the top of the key.

From my perspective, it was like that all day. It seemed as though Michigan’s lanky wings got their looks without much – if any – defensive resistance.

I’m not reporting, here. I’m just wondering.

My seat on the opposite baseline may have been the worst view in the world, given cable HD’s reach & prowess. So maybe someone can help me out: Was there a hand in the face on any of those fourth-quarter threes?

The sad part is that nobody at Crisler gave a shit. Michigan fans were barely paying attention to the game through the first two hours (real time).

It was all Harbaugh Fever.

Eventually, the crowd began to groan as UM shot after UM shot rolled off the rim.  You’ll be surprised to know that Zak Irvin made only three of his ten attempts from the arc.

Yep. Ten.

Even worse, Caris LeVert was a lousy 1-for-5 from long. (Read on, there’s an observation coming about Michigan’s win not being arc-oriented. It’s a mere paragraph from . . . now.)

Maybe none (or not enough) of the Illini cared, either.  Some of the passes, some of the shot attempts evinced a well, gotta do somethin’ attitude. As in hey, why not throw the ball directly upward at the bottom of the rim, gotta do somethin’!

I hope it’s not true. I’m pretty sure hte players care. I think Ray wants to play in the tournament.

The most emotion I saw from “the team” came from Jason Marry. He’s one of those guys that makes the TNT videos. (In my eyes, he’s certainly a part of the team.) Jason punched the Crisler floor when Illinois’s final stoopid turnover sealed the win for Michigan.

Even John Groce seemed dispassionate about the loss.

But wait. Why did I employ “even” in that paragraph? John Groce’s pasions have nothing to do with winning and losing.

Yes, if you haven’t figured it out by now: John Groce is not obsessed with winning individual games. This point became obvious early on, when Groce chose against stifling his players’ bad tendencies.

You should be reminded of Bruce Weber’s most notorious speech, in which he (poorly) communicated the goal of building a culture, rather than “playing not to lose.”

Groce is not the same person as Weber. For one, he doesn’t blame other people for his mistakes.

If this game is remembered – UM fans won’t, they don’t care. Illini fans might not: They’ll block it out like a childhood fondling – it will be remembered for Aubrey Dawkins’s 6-for-7 marksmanship from deep. Maybe some Rayvontagonists will recall it as Ray’s personal failure of leadership.

That’s too bad, because neither is true. The thing that beat Illinois was the inside game. Either team’s. Take your pick.

Michigan (football school) plays two bigs with ten thumbs apiece. Illinois has not established an inside game in 2014-15.

Nnanna Egwu’s fouling tendencies made him a target for John Beilein. Beilein knows Egwu’s strengths and weaknesses, and the abilities of Egwu’s back-ups.

As Egwu reached the four-foul stage, while Maverick Morgan missed chip-shots, Beilein ran pick n’ rolls that forced Egwu to confront his greatest dilemma. Hedge or man? Double-team or fill gap? And thus, cumbersome Right Tackle Ricky Doyle was able to drop the ball through the metal ring five times out of six – hands notwithstanding – without tripping over anyone.

Had Aubrey Dawkins dropped all four of his 2nd half threes, but Doyle been denied  those easy lay-ins …

Well, you do the math.  My reckoning holds that Illinois’s 13 point lead will never be overtaken by Dawkins’s 12 points.

Morgan looked good on his first opportunity. He calmly buried a jumper from the short corner, one of Ray’s six assists. But soon thereafter, he missed the same shot. And then he missed his chippie. It’s become a habit for Mav: the botched one-footer.

Why? you ask.

Maverick Morgan rushes his shot. Especially when he’s under the basket, he tries to release the ball before defenders have an opportunity at contact.

Contrast Malcolm Hill, whose offensive prowess comes from the torpor with which he meanders toward the basket.

Malcolm, like Jereme Richmond four years ago, has mastered the art of the Slowhand. He waits, and doesn’t mind waiting. Once his defenders have panicked, Malcolm asserts himself.

Too bad Maverick couldn’t help more on Saturday. Michigan’s twin oafs (Doyle’s relief is the even more ham-fisted Mark Donnal) seemed an obvious point of attack for the Illini offense. Instead, that crafty John Beilein exploited Illini low-post vulnerabilities.

Here’s what Beilein said about his latest, hugely effective, Illini beating strategy.

Q: “Can you talk about exploiting Egwu’s fouls troubles with Doyle in the low-post?”

A: “Yeah, I mean … that’s something we try to work on when we see a guy who does get into foul trouble.” says Beilein. “ We’ve been playing against him for – it seems like ten years. So it was really good to try and get him outta there. You know, they only have one freshman (Leron Black) that’s out in that line-up, and he’s a really good player – he was great in the first half – but it’s important if you can that other big guy out of there, because he does protect the rim better than anybody that they have.

The news that’s becoming not news: Jaylon Tate is now Illinois’ #1 point guard. He finished the game in Ann Arbor, playing a total of 25 minutes to Ahmad Starks’s 20. Tate was on the floor for the final possession of regulation, when Illinois had the opportunity to win.

The Aaron Cosby news was mixed. He made bad decisions with the ball. But he also made good decisions with the ball.

Kendrick Nunn was also a mixed bag. But overall, it was an off day for KNunn.

The odd thing is that Kendrick’s execution is failing him. It’s not that he has bad floor vision, or risky ideas. He’s just not getting the ball to the spot.

That’s not weird for most players, even at the Division I level. But it’s weird for KNunn.

Illini basketball

Remarkable Numbers – Kennesaw

With each passing game, the 2014-15 Illini become more of what they are. Hazy statistical anomalies clarify, becoming firm realities.

The facts-based media was largely absent from Saturday’s game (Tribune & Sun-Times off covering bowl games, Mark Tupper perhaps recovering from one), so I thought I might stray from stream-of-consciousness into hard/fast numbers. It’s the end of “season one.” It seems like a good time.

There’s some good and some bad from the Kennesaw State game. From a statistical standpoint, Illinois didn’t vary far from the mean. Except when they did.

Here are some numbers to think about.

25 — Most minutes played by any Illini (Fittingly, it was Kendrick Nunn.)

6 — Turnovers committed.

16 —Turnovers forced.

7-1  — Jaylon Tate’s assist-to-turnover ratio

2-2 — Ahmad Stark’s assist-to-turnover ratio

19-36 — Illinois’ assists on made field goals

19-to-1 — Leron Black’s minutes-to-fouls ratio

7-to-5 — Austin Colbert’s minutes-to-rebounds ratio

7-7 —Rayvonte Rice from the field

6-7 — Malcolm Hill from the field

7-21 — Illinois’ 3FG

1-5 — Ahmad Starks 3FG

2-6 — Aaron Cosby 3FG

2-2 — Malcolm Hill/Rayvonte Rice 3FG

The “better shooting” narrative can be supported only by Rayvonte Rice’s ascension to true shooting-guard status. Through 13 games, Rice is hitting 47.1% of attempts from the arc.

John Groce credited Rice, in his Braggin’ Rights postgame remarks, for spending countless hours alone, unseen in the gym, perfecting his muscle memory. (The current thinking in college basketball seems to be that players alone can help themselves to shoot better, and it’s simply a matter of practice. There’s probably some neuroscience data to support this thinking.)

Ray continued to work his ass off in less measurable ways as well.

After an 0-for-2 night on Saturday, Kendrick Nunn dropped to 43.6% from long. Hitting both his treys brought Malcolm Hill to 40.6%.

Last year, Joseph Bertand connected on 48% of his FGs, and 38.5% of his 3FGs. Jon Ekey was 40.6% overall, and 36.6% from 3.

Maybe Cosby and Starks will get better as the competition improves. At the end of the non-conference schedule, their numbers show a distinct drop-off from last year.

Cosby is now 30.8% from the field, and 32.8% from distance. Starks has connected on 36.3% of his FGs, but only 31% from deep.

If the offense has improved — and there’s a reasonable (if subjective) argument that the offense has improved — it’s not because of the newcomers. It’s because of the leap forward from Rice and Hill.

Last year, Rice shot 43% from the field and Hill 38.3%. This year Rice is 51.4% from the field, Hill is 52.6 %.

Maybe the key to success in 2015 is to get Cosby and Starks “on track.” But maybe the key is to get productive minutes from them, while Kendrick Nunn finds his footing and joins Rice and Hill in the Illini Power Trio.


Cosby has already demonstrated an aptitude for rebounding from the small forward position. Hill is second on the team in total rebounds (after Rice). Hill’s defense has yet to garner accolades from his coach.

Nunn’s defense has won him praise on occasion, but not always. Whether his overall play is “tentative” compared to last year cannot be proven by stats.  It’s hard to imagine this team reaching the height of its potential without a bad-ass Kendrick Nunn. Taking Ray for granted (which seems traditional & popular), Kendrick is the singular component that this team must be able to rely on.

There’s not much to say about Illinois’ defense in light of the Kennesaw State game. KSU may be the worst team Illinois will face in Groce’s tenure (let’s hope so!), often preferring to toss the ball out-of-bounds before an Illini defender could assume his stance.

They did,  however, get a stunning number of wide-open looks from three.  Is that a reversion to the mean?

That’s a reality with some statistical support, and some subjective debate. We’ll know in about 18 games whether the Illini got that problem corrected, among others.

On to Ann Arbor.




Illini basketball

Cosby & Starks down Mizzou (with a little help from Rayvonte)

With about six minutes to go in the annual Braggin’ Rights game, longtime Illini athletic deparment photographer Mark Jones said “wow, what a game.”

With about four minutes to go, Decatur Herald-Review photographer Stephen Haas said “wow, what a game.”

To anyone stationed overseas, or just working on the weekend; if you didn’t get a chance to see Illinois-Mizzou live, you might be worried about Illinois needing a last-second shot to beat a 5-6 team. Don’t be. Not today anyway.

‘Tis the season to be grateful for Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby. Cosby made his usual 1 shot, and thus finished with two points. It was arguably his best game as an Illini. He equaled Rayvonte Rice for a team high seven rebounds, and as John Groce pointed out, he pulled a lot of those boards away from Missouri’s big guys, especially when the Illini went small.

Wherever Illinois needed a guy to do something on the floor, Aaron Cosby was there, being that guy.

Starks put the team on his back in the midway point of the second half, when it seemed as if the Tigers would run away with the game (literally run away … they killed Illinois in transition). Starks used spacing, and the teardrop he practiced all last year, to score three consecutive buckets for Illinois.

Rice was also an important factor in the outcome. But considering his career-long heroics, it almost feels ho-hum that he merely stroked a game-winner as time expired, and scored a measly 19 points.

Ray’s best bucket of the day may have been his first three-pointer, the one that capped a grinding possession in which Malcolm Hill fought Missouri’s press, broke it, drove the lane against stern defense, dribbled to the elbow, moved toward the wing, lost his dribble, regained it, charged back toward the paint, and then kicked to Ray for the dagger.

That had to hurt.

Shots included, Ray’s assist to Nnanna Egwu, for the go-ahead basket at 1:53 may have been the play of the game.

You decide.

Missouri played its best game of the year, by a large margin.  The only cause for worry is how well the Tigers scouted Illinois, and exploited Illini weaknesses and tendencies.

Wes Clark found the chink of Illinois’ perimeter defensive armor. Johnathan Williams III demonstrated how to drive the baseline against Illinois’ post defense.

You could almost feel the satisfaction of Missouri’s coaching staff. You could almost hear them saying “yep, that’s just how it looked in the scouting report.

If Illinois wants to win more games this year, they’ll take a good long look at this game, and not the thrilling last minute.

In a way, it’s refreshing that Illinois’ defense has such obvious flaws. If Bruce Weber were still coaching the Illini, you’d probably be wondering what Malcolm Hill could do with a basketball, were he ever to get in a game.

You’d also be wondering why that feisty local pro-baller Rayvonte Rice was never offered a scholarship to his hometown team.

So go ahead and feel satisfied that John Groce is  on the sideline. Think of it as a Giftsmas present to yourself. You can worry about Groce again in 2015, if you so choose.

Groce also showed great patience with Leron Black on Saturday. And he worked Ted Valentine and Mark Whitehead effectively, to keep Leron in the game.


Malcolm Hill predicted it. He said Leron Black would probably get in some fights this year, that’s just how hard he plays.

Going against Leron every day in practice, Malcolm understands better than Leron himself just how violent Leron can be.

On Saturday, Ted Valentine and Mark Whitehead noticed as well. Whitehead called Leron for a Flagrant I in the first half, and a dead ball technical a few minutes later.

The fact that Leron wasn’t ejected suggests that Whitehead saw no malice in Leron’s demeanor, just a lot of violence. Whether Groce deserves any credit for that outcome, he certainly campaigned for it.


Behind the Illini bench, 1989 team manager Ryan Baker sat in the second row, with Jessica and their new-ish born bundle of joy. Dana Howard sat a few spaces away. But as far as I know, the only actual member of the 1989 team in attendance was Travis Smith.

I hope the rest of the guys got to see their old uniforms on display. They looked fantastic.


It’s funny how  recruiting gossip works. When you talk to the actual recruit, it’s just a lot different from what you might read online.

Take Jayson Tatum, considered by some the #1 recruit in the country (Class of 2016). If you look at recruiting websites, you’d think Tatum is off the Illinois radar. You might think he’s interested in only the blue bloods … Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, etc.

But on Saturday, Tatum said the reason Illinois doesn’t find itself included in his list is because the people asking the questions don’t ask about Illinois. So in response, he doen’t mention Illinois. And consequently, they don’t write about Illinois.

But Tatum says Illinois is right there in the mix. He added that he doesn’t care how many small forwards (e.g. D.J. Williams) the Illini recruit: That will have no bearing on his judgment.

Jayson’s teammate Tyler Cook also has an offer from Illinois.

He’s a 6’8″ power forward, with a body that’s already grown to about 240 pounds. His 247Sports page says he’s 50/50 between Kansas & Mizzou, which again shows how little those guys know.

Jamall Walker is the primary recruiter for both these guys. He was also the point man for the successful recruitments of Leron Black and Jalen Coleman-Lands. That means Paris Parham, who turns 43 on Sunday, needs to bring the Bright Lights to Champaign, just to balance things out.

Wish him luck.