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Illini basketball

The Option

During October’s open scrimmage, John Groce called a timeout so he could draw up a play. His Orange Team had the ball under the Blue Team’s basket. His goal was to get the ball inbounded, and possibly past the halfcourt timeline. Orange had a small lead, and little time remained on the game clock.

I was sitting close enough to hear his instructions.

Each player had three sets of potential play-action to remember. Jaylon Tate would inbound the ball, and the other four would respond to his choices.

If you’d seen this play from the catwalk at the Ubben & Corzine Complex, or if you’d watched it on TV, it would look like a ten foot pass from Tate (under the basket, near side) to Malcolm Hill (in the free throw lane). If you could hear the instructions that led to that ten foot pass, you might think the nation’s security were at stake, or that someone were performing emergency surgery, directed by a doctor over the phone.

In the following weeks, I began writing a column titled The Option. It sat in my drafts folder for the next few months.  I needed some additional evidence to support my Theory of John Groce. Saturday at Michigan, I got it.

On a similar inbounds play, Kipper Nichols stood at the far side low block, under the Illini basket. (i.e. farther from the TV cameras, closer to the team bench).  The ball was under the basket on the near side.

Kipper looked over his right shoulder and asked “do what?” His brow furrowed, his eyes skewed. If his words hadn’t made clear his confusion, everything about his expression and posture got the message across.

John Groce either didn’t hear him, or chose not to broadcast an explanation. A moment later, Maverick Morgan fielded the inbounds pass.

You’ve probably noticed that basketball, over the last three decades, became soccer.

Man-to-man defense became the helping/hedging/switching territorial responsibility regimen that you might call “zone defense” if that term were not already occupied.

On offense, simple set-plays, in which each of the five players has a specific duty, no longer exist. Whether it’s full-on Motion Offense, or the varietal preached by John Groce known as Flowgame, or the modern mutation still called “set-play” which directs players to read-and-react; today’s strategy must be described like computer programming’s “if this, then that” language.

It’s become The Option.

That John Groce is respected throughout the coaching community might seem counterintuitive when acknowledging that John Groce has failed at Illinois. But it makes perfect sense if you knew why he’s failed.

Coaches understand Groce. They admire his “basketball mind.” Sometimes players understand him, too.

John Groce closed his practices to reliable reporters. Boatloads of people attended Illini practices since John Groce took over, just not objective observers.

If Brad Sturdy were allowed to watch practice, he might provide detailed reports on strategy. Brad is well conversant with basketball terminology. Most of his post-game questions concern formations. He keeps track when the team switches from Pack Line to 1-3-1 zone defense.

Brad, as knowledgeable and kind as he is, is not a reliable source for determining Groce’s ability to communicate concepts. For that, you’d need someone far less expert than Brad. Not necessarily a layperson, not a basketball novice. You’d want someone with a grasp of the game, but not an analyst’s understanding of concepts.

I asked Groce, on the day he was hired, whether he’d allow media to observe practice. He said no. It’s a teaching environment, he explained.

One infers that Groce intended to protect his players from embarrassment and ridicule.  As it happens,  his players are embarrassed and ridiculed routinely these days, and most people blame that on John Groce.

Frankly, everyone lacks a reputable source to explain the problem. What is John Groce doing wrong? You’ll never know.

But watching Bruce Weber’s practices taught me that Jerrance Howard gave very clear, thorough instructions. I understood everything he wanted.

Weber was hard to follow, unless he was angry. Jay Price spoke in technical gobbledygook.

Wayne McClain repeated his concepts a lot, reinforcing them with body language.  Explaining single-single screen reads took him a long time, because he had to walk through each option a number of times, constantly quizzing the players on their understanding of the concept.

Wayne McClain explain.

That difference of style recalled to me a seminar in Law & Economics taught jointly by Tom Ulen and Russell Korobkin. Ulen stuck to a few general concepts, and repeatedly reinforced them with different viewpoints and examples. Korobkin didn’t have enough time to get across all he wanted to say about everything.

Ulen won a lot of teaching awards, and Korobkin is regarded as a brilliant “legal mind.” What’s more important to the student?

It’s the same with basketball, where the average LSAT score is immeasurably lower.

At an Illini media luncheon following autumn’s first week of basketball practice, Loren Tate told a story about his friend Lou Henson, New Mexico State’s Special Advisor to Aggie head coach Paul Weir.

Lou told Tate that he’d admonished Weir against overcoaching. I don’t remember the exact quote, but the idea came across clearly. Weir was trying to install too much system. Henson recognized that the players were getting bogged down with theory, and becoming confused.

John Groce’s strategies may be so complex that his team doesn’t fully grasp them until April, or next summer. He may be the greatest teacher in the history of basketball. But the lesson must be executed Wednesday at 8 p.m.

That’s the part that Groce (has probably explained and yet) can’t get across.

Private conversations divulge that people who’ve coached basketball  can’t understand Groce’s strategies. That’s the ultimate compliment, in a way. But it also fuels the suggestion that players don’t understand Groce’s strategies.

Coaches really do think John Groce is a master theoretician. That’s not the issue.

The other problem with this year’s Illinois team, recognized by everyone, is defensive intensity. There’s no sense of urgency.

At Michigan, Illinois ran into an inspired opponent. The Wolverines were lackadaisical on D when they came to Champaign. Assistant coach Billy Donlon lit a fire under them, and they played intense defense during the return game.

Illinois matched that intensity in the late stages of the game. Nichols was especially active in this respect. Because he was 94 feet from me at the time, I couldn’t see whether his recovery instincts matched his energy (i.e. whether he stayed aware of his primary coverage responsibility during help defense).

Combining these two factors (caring + knowing what to do) is the magic formula that’s eluded John Groce this year.

And then there’s his reluctance to interfere with old habits.

Sam McLaurin still says Groce is the best coach he ever had. But Sam is an intellectual, and had already obtained a college degree when he found himself under Groce’s tutelage.

When he visited Champaign a couple weeks ago, Sam was exasperated by growing hostility in the fanbase. He said Groce was obviously going to be successful somewhere. I agreed with him, and not just to be polite. I think Groce will be successful somewhere.

It’s year five, and all the data tells us that place will not be Champaign, Illinois. Maybe it’s the professional level, where guys as mature and intelligent as Sam will follow Groce’s theories from the perspective of fellow experts.

If Groce wants to right this ship, however, he might need to follow Weber’s ill-fated example.

When he realized his job was on the line, Weber scrapped all his grand notions of theoretical basketball. He later described it as “coaching not to lose.” Instead of running motion offense, he ran orchestrated (and still fairly complicated) sets before finally devolving to the most basic, essential offense.

“Ball screen, Joe!” he’d yell.

Three Illini then moved to the wings while one ran to the top of the key to set a pick. The goal was to isolate Joseph Bertrand for a one-on-one offensive improvisation. It worked a lot, as do Malcolm Hill’s isolation plays.

Can Groce set a fire under his players, like Donlan? All signs point to “no.”

Should Groce coach “not to lose?” Probably. It might help him to not lose, which is crucial if he wants to stay in Champaign.

But does he?

The smart career move for Groce, Thad Matta, Tom Crean and Tim Miles — the four B1G coaches “on the hot seat” — would be to begin surreptitious negotiations with Missouri, whose desperation knows no financial constraints.  A fresh start and a five-year contract for $10 million sounds lovely when you’re being run out of dodge.