There’s a moment from Saturday’s Embarrassment in Columbia which will likely stick with me for a while, as dozens (hundreds?) of Illini basketball moments have stuck over the last … Jesus … forty years. (Holy shit.)
You know some of them, too.
Harper’s three* over Randy Breuer et al, to clinch a tourney berth.
Douglas ooping Winters
Nick’s The Shot
Frank over Scoonie
(DJ’s undersung 8 points that led to) Tyler’s lay-up (on Brandon’s underappreciated feed).
That fat guy from Austin Peay burying ANOTHER THREE
Some are obscure. Jim Rowinski setting a screen endures. Craig Tucker connecting from the left elbow. Eddie Johnson hitting from the short corner (but against Indiana State, not Michigan State — I only saw that on highlight reels).
On Saturday, Adam Miller took a pass on the right wing and dribbled toward the middle of the lane. Three Nameless Facelesses rotated in what should be called a Mini-Pac — i.e. a pack-line that bursts forth from the No Charge arc rather than the other, better advertised arc.
It was fantastic defense, perfectly timed. People called it “man with zone principles” ten years ago, but there’s probably a fancier, tech-ier name for it now. My good friend Brad Sturdy is the guy to read if you want these sets dissected into contemporary lingo.
Whatevs. The name is unimportant. Tracy Abrams reduced man-help-_Bob_Knight\lL0pht/ rush-hold read & react to a single word: “Trust.”
You’ve got to believe that your teammates know how to read the offense, micro-second by micro-second. You’ve got to believe that they’ll react appropriately when you hold your stance -or- continue to pursue an active offensive threat whether/not he controls the ball. Then you rotate, renewing your stance and seeking/adopting a new primary assignment, while maintaining a vigilant outlook for any penetration toward your zone.
Adam Miller saw that defense, read it correctly, and did nothing. His Attempt at Bucket was foiled, over before it began. He looked for an available teammate, and returned the ball to zero-threat position.
This is the sequence which will remain with me: Nothing happened (statistically speaking).
I don’t blame Adam for avoiding those Nameless Facelesses. He’s been coached. He knows what not to do.
His team lost.
By the same token, and for the same reason, his team won at Duke. The reason Adam’s team won, then lost, is Experience. Illinois had more experience playing together than Duke. Missouri had more experience, as a unit, than Illinois.
The Illini looked crap in Columbia because Mizzou got old together. As John Groce told you, every time you add a new member to the team, it changes the entire team. Illinois of December ’20 is nothing like Illinois of February ’20. Furthermore, the Illini of February ’20 were justlearning to put it together. They’d been a reliably unreliable team to that point. Cf. Braggin’ Rights 2019.
I never understood why people thought/expected the Illini to make a deep tourney run in March. On the other hand, the Illini continually surprised, impressed and — here’s the key — improved as the 2019-20 season unfolded.
The reason Illinois is favored to beat Minnesota tonight is unknown to me. I’ve never understood or researched gambling. The reason Illinois should beat Minnesota tonight is that same reason they beat Duke and lost to Mizzou and Baylor. The Gophers haven’t played together, as a unit, for more than a scant few covidy months. They don’t have the instincts that Missouri displayed Saturday, and Illinois grew into last year.
*It was an experimental, conference-based rule that year. The ACC had it too, but their three-point arc didn’t even stretch to the top of the key because they are pussies.
Everything seemed so great when Illinois faced short, Division III opponents. The question lingered, though: “How will they perform against tall people?”
The sound of a basketball batted by shot-blockers, banging the side of the backboard, bounding away as time ran expired, will stick with me for a while.
Giorgi Bezhanishvili, with three Georgetown defenders looming, was unlikely to score the needed 7 points in those final five seconds. But the futility of that moment was punctuated by the unusual sound. It was something you’d hear in an automotive repair shop. Air-pressure versus rubber. It sounded like a tennis ball caught in a ceiling fan.
That sound represents the end of our disillusion re: this Illini team. The lack of height was always going to be a problem. Is it insurmountable?
To overcome the interior deficit, Illini guards must be nearly perfect, and Adonis de la Rosa must NOT be Mike Thorne.
Thorne is a smart, kind, gentle and funny. De la Rosa is smart, funny, conversational and pedagogical. Neither of them deserves to be insulted by any Illini watcher. But it’s important to know that Thorne’s relativism about field-goal percentage is the reason John Groce lives in Akron, Ohio.
When Thorne took the ball on the low-post, he should have converted 60% of his FG attempts, or passed to a wing. He did neither. He’d usually fling the ball toward the basket and hope for the best. That’s unacceptable.
One game into his Illini career, Adonis is following the Thorne blueprint.
De la Rosa got the ball in the low-post during the first half of Tuesday’s game against Georgetown. He lumbered around for a while, moving slowly, feeling out the defense. The defense collapsed.
One sensed an intake of breath from the crowd. No one knew what to expect, and hoped for the best.
The best didn’t happen.
Instead, an errant 12-footer sailed within three feet of its intended target, the Hoyas grabbed the rebound, and a possession ended without a basket. Statisticians tally one missed FG in these situations. It feels like a turnover. Not getting a good look from the low post is bad basketball.
In the second half, Adonis got the ball at the usual pinch-post position that Brad Underwood prefers, took another shot at lumbering, plowed and hooked his man simultaneously, fell to the floor, dropped the ball, never attempted a shot AND drew a charging call.
Illinois led the game at that point. But Georgetown gained a lot of confidence from that possession. The Hoyas went on a 20-8 run from that point, and that was that.
Adonis can do good things with his big body. Just a simple back screen with that big ole butt can open a pathway from the wing
In practice, he connects on a high percentage of jumpers from the elbow. That should be his bread and butter, if Illini guards can learn the pick n’ pop.
Creating space for Illini ball-handlers should be Priority One for the bigs.
Illinois’ three-headed monster was down a head against Georgetown, and maybe that was the difference. Without Trent Frazier’s minutes, Andres Feliz and Ayo Dosunmu got tired. Before we knew it, Tyler Underwood was running the point.
Feliz rallied the troops in the second half, but ran out of gas. He tugged his shirt to signal the bench that he needed out.
Overall, Andres was great in one way, and disappointing in two ways. He demonstrated a fearless disregard for defenders. But he air-balled his threes, and he took bad angles on lay-ups.
For Illinois to be successful this season, Feliz will need to fix those two problems. At Ubben, his three-point shooting is solid. Can we assume he’s still adjusting to the depth-perception of a 15,000-seat arena? Does that man he’ll be automatic at Lahaina’s high school gym-sized Civic Center?
The bad angles were outnumbered by the good. Still pictures from the Georgetown game recall Tracy Abrams from the time of Illinois’s last Maui trip.
Abrams was cutting angles back then. He had not yet developed the tendency to go right at opposing defenses. Feliz did both against the Hoyas. The latter is a remnant of his successes against JUCO and Dominican competition. It won’t work against seven-footers.
Feliz is a guy you should trust in the closing minutes. You can put the ball in his hands, but you need him out there because he’s a pain in the ass on defense. The Illini need him to be flawless, superhuman, to compensate for interior shortcomings.
Ayo’s the guy you really want to have the ball in crunchtime. But for all the celebration of his 25-point performance, for all the glowing media coverage; one guy, Ayo, knew that he let his team down.
Ayo’s owning the loss impressed Brad Underwood, who also seemed to think it ridiculous that Ayo blamed himself. But if nothing else, it’s important to acknowledge that Ayo acknowledged it.
You want your team leader to feel unsatisfied by his performance in a loss. You want him to recognize his mistakes in a win, too. You want him to keep learning.
Ayo and Andres might adjust. They have time.
Adonis doesn’t have time. If he hasn’t learned by now, he’s unlikely to learn. So the question is whether Brad Underwood wants to rein him in. So far, the Underwood leash seems long.
On the other hand, we know that Underwood chose to hire an officiating crew for every 2018-19 Illini practice specifically because he knows specific players need to overcome specific bad habits.
Illini fans should consider whether they want another coach who restricts his players’ freedom. it didn’t work for Weber or Groce. Discouraging Brandon Paul from driving, or yanking Aaron Jordan after a missed shot, had obvious negative psychological affects on Brandon Paul and Aaron Jordan. It took a lot of undoing to revert their learned behaviors.
But you’d think that a fifth-year senior, hired for a specific role, might be different.
Adonis de la Rosa should never again dribble the ball twice in a single possession. He certainly shouldn’t dribble the ball around the lane, looking for something to open up.
Maybe this problem won’t find a fix before the Gonzaga game on Monday, but Brad Underwood had better fix it if he wants the season to end well.
The rest of the team has flaws, but it’s the execution by these three guys that turned the spotlight on Illinois’ Achilles Heel.
AJ was a ghost against the Hoyas, but as a decoy, he was pretty effective in the first half. Kipper made great plays against Georgetown, perhaps offset by his play in crunchtime. Fans complained about his execution, but Kipper was among the best at taking the pinch-post hand-off. His strength and height make him a tough cover from the wing.
That Underwood continues to build Kipper, rather than tear him down, gives us an insight on Underwood’s psychological methods.
Da’Monte Williams was solid, and Giorgi looked better than most freshmen. You got what you expected from those guys. The daunting thing for Illinio players and fans is the thin margin for error. If you don’t get what you expect from those guys, Illinois loses. No one can have an off-night.
The good news is that Gonzaga is up next, and as everyone knows, Gonzaga rarely features annoying white guys.
Before the Illini Basketball Banquet began Monday night at the i-Hotel, Rob Jordan said players’ families were wondering who’d show up.
Would John Groce return as Bruce Weber had in 2012? No.
Paris Parham also didn’t attend, despite his continuing residence in Champaign. Dustin Ford and Darren Hertz weren’t there, but they have new jobs in Ohio.
Brad Underwood, who lives in the i-Hotel, was there. And he stayed as long as anyone.
One idiot was in attendance, and because he forgot to check whether he’d packed the batteries for his expensive camera, the following pictures will be blurry.
Paul Schmidt and Adam Fletcher were the only remaining staff sitting at the coaches table. Underwood, Josh Whitman and Chancellor Robert Jones joined them. You wouldn’t call it the head table necessarily. It was off to the side. Really, everything about the event was low key. Unlike years past, the players never spoke.
Josh Whitman spoke twice. The first time around, he profusely praised the previous staff. “I can’t say enough good things about our outgoing coaching staff.” (listen to full speech here).
He told of dark, difficult days throughout the 2016-17 season, and especially public opinion of the program. He promised better times ahead. The public perception of Whitman seems largely if not hugely favorable, and his comportment Monday night did nothing to change that perception.
Jamall Walker and Brian Barnhart emceed. Barnhart and a series of sponsors from the community announced individual awards (link to video) and Walker thanked all the people behind the program who’s names you rarely hear (link to video), then handed out goodies to the players (link to video) which were fitted letterman jackets for the freshmen, and blankets for the upperclassmen. Jalen Coleman-Lands regarded the blanket as high-level swag.
Kipper Nichols, who said his body fat is 5%, acknowledged that someone measured his sculptured physique rather than guessing his jacket size.
Jaylon Tate and Mike Thorne were absent. Tate had a family issue, and Thorne is out somewhere looking for a basketball job. That’s how Walker explained it, anyhow. (The family issue seems to be that Tate’s family was pissed off about the way Jaylon’s career ended.)
Two players who were distinctly present, and seated at what you might call the head table, were Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams.
Te’Jon Lucas and his mother Marie were also at that table. The Lucas parent are divorced, and Thomas Lucas sat at a table on the other side of the room. He lives in Milwaukee. She lives in Texas. Both parents are engaging people, and it’s not hard to see what brought them together. And it’s not hard to see why it fell apart.
Marie is brimming with personality and opinions, you might even say attitude, but in a good way. She’s the type of mother often found behind a D-1 athlete. Laura Finke and Machanda Hill are likewise women to be reckoned with, but again, in a good way. Strong women.
Thomas Lucas is mellow and approachable. In conversation with Underwood, he gracefully accepted frothing praise from this reporter, with agreement from the coach, that his three-piece houndstooth suit and tie elevated him into competition for best-dressed attendee. He’s almost sixty, but after changing his diet and losing 25 lbs. over the last year, he’s now back to playing competitive basketball. He’s eating less meat, and more ginger and garlic.
It gives us hope, especially the idiot, who gained 25 lbs. in the last year after his aging knees forced him to stop running six miles every other day, and is basically falling apart physically.
Ralf Woods Free Throw Trophy: Malcolm Hill, 80 percent in Big Ten play (76-95)
Malcolm Hill doesn’t really need any more accolades at this point. He just needs what Rayvonte Rice should have had two years ago. He needs the NBA to recognize that, whatever his physical limitations, he finds a way to get the ball in the hole.
Malcolm’s AAU coaches Patrick Smith and Doug Sitton attended his final banquet. And Patrick observed that Malcolm is not the next Michael Jordan. But maybe he’s the next Larry Bird. He has crafty old-man moves.
Smith and Sitton have been part of Malcolm’s life since third grade. “Seriously, you could tell when he was …” I queried.
“Oh yeah,” said Patrick.
“We knew,” agreed Doug.
That seems odd, but it doesn’t conflict with anything we’ve known about Malcolm all these years. You’ll recall that even during his freshman year, his teammates universally recognized him as the gym rat of the team (video link).
The second-best part of the evening was a tag team by Underwood and Whitman, in which they simultaneously praised & roasted Tracy Abrams and Malcolm Hill.
The best part of the evening was watching Malcolm greet a very young man with forceful enthusiasm, complimenting him on a particular sartorial choice.
Malcolm gets that he’s a star, and on these last two Illini teams, the star. But he’s also motivated by human kindness. He gained no advantage by showering attention on a pre-teen with a sharp outfit, but he expressly acknowledged the kid not just for looking good, but for having earned the outfit himself (paper route?).
Jamall Walker emphasized that Malcolm never thought Illini basketball was about him.
One current roster member expressed shock about John Groce’s closed-door media policy. On Day One, Groce said practice would be closed to the media because he wanted to maintain a teaching atmosphere. But as the players know, the Groce practice was a revolving door of Willie Hortonesque proportions. Basically, the only people who weren’t watching were reporters.
Underwood is unfazed by the media. He doesn’t use the amplified headset Groce relied on. He doesn’t even use a whistle. That’s probably the reason his teams execute so well. They understand what he’s saying, and aren’t subconsciously trying to block-out the onslaught of sounds.
One final, gratuitous observation from the banquet, along as the topic of not understanding what people are saying, here’s Maverick Morgan mouthing syllables while an elderly crowd sings Hail to the Orange
At the end of the night, Walker said Trent Frazier’s dad was in a tizzy about the Portillo’s beef story from last month. Walker had to explain “no, Trent is not in trouble and no, you are not in trouble.”
It’s just another example of silly NCAA rules creating anxiety. Look here for more of that in the next couple of weeks.
Deon Thomas and Paris Parham greeted one another on court, about an hour before the Michigan game. They reminisced about the one game they played against each other in high school. Dunbar beat Simeon, according to Paris. But the teams had to stay in their locker rooms afterward, until the gunplay cooled off outside.
Whatever happens to the Groce staff, Deon and Paris agreed they’d lived through worse. They’ve seen guys get shot. They’ve seen people killed.
The Groce Question was answered today, by an Illinois team that couldn’t compete with a league rival, and by John Groce himself.
Five years into the Groce experiment, Illinois is not in the same class as the Big Ten’s elite teams. Illinois is second-class. Worse, they don’t just lose. They get blown away. They’re simply not relevant in major college basketball.
The B1G’s third-class teams played Wednesday. Two of them left town before the second-class teams arrived to punish the survivors. The first-class teams will show up tomorrow, and feast on the second-class. Except for us. We’ve already been eaten.
The Illini will be in Champaign-Urbana when real B1G basketball gets underway.
Groce, to his credit, came right out and agreed he’d do it all over again, exactly the same way, rather than “coaching not to lose,” the sin Bruce Weber admitted while trashing his players for public consumption, in February, 2012.
The Groce Question by the way, is not whether Groce will be fired. It’s not whether he should be fired. It’s whether he can lead Illinois out of the slash and burn wasteland he inherited. The answer is no, he can’t.
Weber was fired five years ago today. If Groce doesn’t follow him out the door, we’ll know that Josh Whitman doesn’t have a home-run hire waiting in the wings. There’s no way Josh Whitman could let the Groce era continue simply because he thinks Groce needs more time, or might be on the verge of something big. Everything we know about John Groce says this is the way he’ll do it, including his own words.
And you know what? Good for Groce. He told us on day one that he’s a teacher. And at the end, he told us the same thing again, and demonstrated as much. He’d rather coach these guys in practice than in games. That’s another thing he’s said, again and again, over his five years.
It’s perhaps not the best personality trait for a Division I coach. But it’s admirable.
So expect a new coach to be announced real soon. And if there’s not such an announcement, understand that it’s because Josh Whitman doesn’t see the point in giving a five-year contract to another mediocrity from the mid-majors. Or indeed, a super-performing coach from the low and mid-major conferences, like many from my long list. Or Cuonzo, whose NIT trajectory should eliminate him from the conversation (it won’t).
Yes, there’s the argument that Illinois basketball will get worse if Groce isn’t fired immediately. But that can’t be true. Either you’re relevant or you’re not. Illinois isn’t relevant.
The fanbase won’t grow. Fair-weather fans won’t come back until the weather is fair. But if this season is any indication, about 12,000 people will still turn out for basketball games.
Anybody that lived through 1989 or 2005 isn’t going to stop cheering for Illini basketball. They remember how great it feels when we’re first-class.
Saturday in Piscataway (poet, I know it) I met two Rutgers basketball fans. Possibly the two Rutgers basketball fans. Terry and Stuart graduated in 1978. That means they were students when Rutgers last made it to the Final Four.
I met them in the campustown Barnes & Noble. I was about to catch the free campus bus that runs between New Brunswick Station and the RAC. Instead, they gave me a lift.
When we arrived at the RAC, Mike Palko was just walking by. He was the starting center on that 1976 team.
These three guys still attend Rutgers basketball games, because they remember what Rutgers can be. They believe Rutgers will be back some day.
Illini fans vastly outnumber Rutgers fans. You needn’t be 61 years-old to remember the high. If #WeWillWin means anything, Josh Whitman isn’t satisfied with second-class. Whether it happens tomorrow, next week or next year; it’s going to happen.
Illinois basketball has a road-game winning streak. For better or worse, it’s a consequence of who didn’t participate as much as who did. John Groce’s rotation has contracted. Five guys now see “starters” minutes in a game, while three others see spot time.
It’s not necessarily who you’d expect, and it certainly isn’t what forecasters projected in October.
Leron Black, yea & nay.
Everyone will remember Leron’s dunk. Instead of jump-shooting from 12 feet out, Leron juked his man, and drove to the basket for a two-hander. It was gorgeous.
Where has this been? Why did it take so long to debut?
On defense, Leron played his usual game. He fouled a lot. It’s easy to see why.
Leron’s posture, in general, is not conducive to defense.
He doesn’t stand erect. He doesn’t raise his arms straight up above his head. Even when he’s not reaching in, or bowling someone over, he’s in a stance which will draw a whistle, every time.
Rather than standing erect, Leron slouches. He’s naturally slope-shouldered.
Did you ever wonder what Adam Fletcher is yelling when you see him leap from the Illini bench during a telecast? He’s yelling “Wall!”
Defensive posture might have been the story of the game, were it not for a handful of key plays by the diligent Illini.
Kipper Nichols collected four fouls in ten minutes. In eight minutes of action, Leron hacked four Hawkeyes.
Leron couldn’t get high enough, and Kipper couldn’t get low enough.
Nevertheless, Illini fans complained that Nichols and Black didn’t get enough PT. They also complained that Jaylon Tate and Tracy Abrams got too much. Most egregious to some fans is that Tate and Abrams played at the same time.
Tracy Abrams & Jaylon Tate
It’s true that Abrams & Tate accounted for an unfortunate portion of the first half, when both picked up a foul, Abrams missed a three and Tate earned a turnover (total BS, he never dragged that pivot foot).
But Abrams and Tate were crucial to breaking Iowa’s increasingly aggressive full-court press in the closing minutes. Te’Jon Lucas could not have survived on his own.
Lucas had just enough gas remaining in his tank to sink 1-of-4 free throws in crunch time. He could have been called for charging on one of those fouls.
Abrams and Tate were essential to the win. As for “too much PT,” they got 14 & 7 minutes respectively.
Yes, Tracy was awful yet again as a “shooting” guard (1-of-5), but his steal (credited as a rebound) at 16:00 (credited as 16:05) was a crucial turning point for momentum purposes.
Guards who wouldn’t give up the rock despite being double covered played major roles in a pair of Big 12 games Saturday. For Baylor, trailing by two with eight seconds left, Manu Lecomte kept the ball and took the last shot despite being stalked by both Frank Mason and Josh Jackson, with predictable results. Then West Virginia had a perfect chance to reprise Villanova’s championship-winning play at the end of regulation against Texas Tech – only to see Jevon Carter force up a shot instead of dishing off
But John Groce used Abrams sparingly, and where necessary. That’s a fantastic development in Groce’s evolution from non-strategist to poor strategist to strategist capable of employing strategy.
Groce necessarily, if tragically, withdrew Mike Thorne from the rotation. There’s nobody I’d rather see succeed than Mike Thorne. I assume John Groce feels the same way.
The late, lamented legend of Mike Thorne
But it became obvious that he wouldn’t discard bad habits around the basket.
It’s encouraging to see Groce & Co. preach simple fundamentals about defensive positioning. It’s encouraging to find that, eventually, Groce will reward repeated lapses with a comfy seat on the bench.
But in a very human way, it’s also encouraging that he took so long to implement the latter policy. Groce gave tons of encouragement and second chances, third chances … 15th chances to his guys.
Inevitably, he was unable change the behaviors. Instead, he eliminated their perpetrators. It’s as if he realized his job is on the line.
Groce should have noticed sooner. He should have been proactive in stamping out these bad tendencies. Someone, anyone should have coached Mike Thorne to make low post moves.
Every Little Thing
Iowa would have won but for every helping hand the Illini gave and got.
Sometimes it was Iowa screwing up. The odds of 83% foul shooter Jordan Bohannon missing both of his crunch time offerings? Well, statistically speaking, he’d hit either one of them 83 times out of a hundred.
Sometimes it was diligent attention from Kelly Pfeifer, John Gaffney & Donnie Eppley. Sometimes it was one of those three seeing something that 15,400 Iowa fans saw differently.
Sometimes they saw things differently from each other. But in those cases, they talked about it, and Illinois came out ahead in the offing.
Michael Finke’s five assists led the team. It was a career-high. When was the last time a PF/C led the team in assists? SID Derrick Burson couldn’t remember, either, apart from offering that technically Malcolm Hill did play the four spot a lot.
Jalen Coleman-Lands and Maverick Morgan were the unsung heroes of The Win at Iowa.
Morgan scored only six points, but the put-back dunk of Lucas’s missed lay-up broke the Hawkeyes’ collective back.
His seven rebounds led the team, as did his two blocks. In 34 minutes of floor time, Morgan committed only two fouls.
JCL’s passing continues to fly under the radar of fan appreciation, and over the radar of opponent defenses. His tendency to show up where needed manifests itself statistically if there’s a rebound to be grabbed, or a controlled ball in need of loosening.
Once he’s loosened that ball, he may be credited with a steal. Sometimes not. But in either case, he’s disruptive, and that makes the game harder for opponents.
Malcolm was the sung hero at Iowa, just like everywhere else. But that’s no reason to overlook his remarkable feats. Saturday saw him reach the 1,700 point threshold. Barring an unusually anemic — or outrageously prolific — outpouring in the final weeks, he should end his career as the #4 all-time Illini scorer.
The Lesson from Iowa City is that Illinois needs every player’s contributions, but it doesn’t need every player.
Again, there’s a bittersweet aspect to this lesson. We’re always bothered when guys never get a chance (Richard Semrau was the poster child until DJ Williams inadvertently stole the spotlight) to help a team that’s not surging toward an NCAA bid.
In this case, it’s utilizing guys rather than not-utilizing them that held the team back.
If John Groce were coaching this team in a vacuum, with no audience and no million dollar salary (and accompanying expectations) all his players would get equal PT, and he’d still be encouraging them to make better decisions.
If he’s fired at the end of the year, maybe he’ll regret that he didn’t harden his heart sooner. But then again, maybe he won’t.
Was John Groce crying yesterday because he hadn’t done the right thing? Or was it because he had done the right thing, and now realizes that he’s going to pay for it?
The End of The John Groce Era began in earnest on New Year’s Eve eve afternoon, when Groce betrayed a thorough misunderstanding of his dire situation. Bret Beherns tossed a softball which Groce perceived as a curve. How can the coach reassure a fanbase distraught by a 25-point loss?
Groce blanched at the question, then ridiculed it. An hour later, his reaction was viral & universally panned.
John, what do you want to tell fans concerned about a 13-0 start at IND?
As a group and as individuals, we talked about the Behrens Moment after Groce left the room. I told Bret it was a perfectly fine question. Scott Richey wondered whether the moment would be excised from the Official Upload (it wasn’t, but you couldn’t hear the question either, which is unfair to Bret … this is why you should always watch the Illini Report version; you get the audio).
I wondered aloud whether Groce lives in a Rebounders’ Club bubble, and honestly doesn’t know that Illinois basketball once sold a lot of tickets, at non-fire sale prices, and had more than 200 retirees attending its every move. Has he truly not heard the criticism? If not, that would be extraordinarily Todd Lickliterish of him.
Should we tell him that it’s not just the 25-point loss? Should we tell him that he’s never had a winning conference record at Illinois, and people have begun to notice?
Bret conjectured that Groce must, by the necessity of high-profile coaching gigs, be tuned out from the word on the street. Derek Piper and I agreed that the assistants seem to have a nose to the ground that Head Coaches don’t.
An hour earlier, as the media gathered for player interviews at Ubben, Groce’s future was already the subject of speculation. TV, radio, newspaper and web reporters huddled by the trophy cases, which display championship hardware from zero seasons of the Groce Administration.
One asked who’d be the Missouri coach next year? Another followed up with the same question, but referring to Illinois.
I don’t actually remember who said what. I was trying to get my A/V gear up and running, and was experiencing technical difficulties. I was also sleep-deprived, and obsessed with the thought that the next Mizzou coach would be crazy not to court/hire Jamall Walker (admittedly assuming that the next Mizzou coach is not Jamall Walker).
The tone of that conversation continued as everyone moved across the street, where a media meal (chicken & cheese quesadillas with all the trimmings plus a mixed green salad with sliced cucumber and carrot shavings, and cookies) was served in the State Farm Center’s bowels.
It carried up the two flights of stairs to the media work room, where bright lighting, microphones and a mult box make the job of capturing coaches comments a little easier. With only a cameraman representing DIA staff, and no SIDs in the room, the conversation turned to outright complaint. I was a bystander and witness. I didn’t say a thing during Groce’s subsequent presser, either.
Two points that came across were that Groce is — if not difficult to work with — than at least more difficult to work with than Bill Self, Lon Kruger and Bruce Weber. It was mostly to do with scheduling and punctuality.
At eight minutes past the bottom of the hour, Groce entered the media work room for his 12:30 press conference.
Many media outlets rely on deadlines. Timeliness is important to these people.
Tom Crean is considered, by far and almost unanimously, the very worst B1G coach in this regard. John Groce is #2. Crean has three major conference championships and a Final Four on his résumé. Groce led a team to a 3rd place finish in the MAC’s eastern division, twice.
Sports reporters frame & characterize their subjects for the public. They guide public perception. Why would you want to irritate them?
The business model of local newspapers, commercial radio and fan-oriented websites relies on public enthusiasm for local sports. If you’ve already eviscerated their cash cow, why would you dare to irritate them?
Illini sports sells newspapers. Or, as we’ve learned these last ten years; it doesn’t. We’ll always have 16,618, but we’ll never again have 16,618.
Whether Josh Whitman or Robert Jones gives a damn about basketball; Scout.com still wants to make money. So does the News-Gazette.
But if nobody wants to read about the team you cover, it’s hard to sell subscriptions.
If you can’t sell newspapers by writing about a winning team, you turn to the next hot topic that spurs reader interest: the coaching search. Rush Limbaugh did well when Democrats controlled the White House. Jon Stewart did well under Republican rule. We’d prefer to read about our universal and ultimate glory. But short of that outcome, we’ll rally around those willing to persecute our tormentors.
Through his tone-deaf reaction that Friday afternoon, John Groce made it a little easier for everyone to turn the page on him, and start talking frankly about his successor. He took the gloves off.
It looked like things might get messy from then on out. But snarky Groce retreated into his shell, and cheery Groce returned. We haven’t seen a recurrence.
After the second Penn State beatdown, which insured that Groce would finish 5-of-5 seasons without a winning conference record, the same group of regulars convened in the media room to do our thing.
“I know you guys don’t know what to write any more,” I told a couple of newspaper people. The ongoing joke is that they’ve run out of things to say, because every game is the same. “But I think we’ve run out of questions to ask. So I’m counting on you guys to come up with something. That’s your job.”
“Do you have a Realtor?” posited one writer, who shall remain nameless.
Maybe Whitman will learn that he can’t find a fantastic replacement, and choose not to make a change this off-season. So far, the names being bandied about are uninspiring or implausible. Illini fans, like all fans, value their program more than neutral observers. They think rebuilding a thoroughly broken, irrelvant program will appeal to the top five names on every other school’s list of prospective hires.
Tomorrow, I’ll publish my list. It might have some of those same names on it, but only in passing, or to emphasize that they’re not coming through that door.
Groce still enjoys a lot of support with people who matter. He’s not a sociopath.
He’s a guy who’ll eschew winning in favor of teaching basketball players to be better people and, eventually, better players — what his predecessor called “coaching not to lose.”
That appeals to those concerned with the educational mission of the university.
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.
The Purdue game was fun right up until it started. Most Illini fans already know that.
What they don’t know, unless they were there, is how cool Purdue’s pre-game ceremony was. Loren Tate mentioned it, referencing the legends involved in the recorded video portion (presented, like all pre-game videos, on the center-court jumbotron).
Loren is still the best Illini sports writer, so it’s no surprise that he took note of the presentation. It was meaningful.
Purdue’s pre-game ritual is not a passive experience. It requires the entire audience to work. Fans download the “BoilerBall Lights” app, which takes control of a smartphone’s LED light, and flashes it in coordination with everyone else’s LED light.
The combination of swelling music, the involvement of thousands, and the quasi-nationalistic call to arms video referenced in Tatelines (in which recorded Purdue greats ask rhetorically “Whose House? and the entire crowd responds “OUR HOUSE!”) achieved an atmosphere that Leni Riefenstahl might have admired.
At State Farm Center, our crowd watches an embarrassingly derivative, inescapably passive video & lighting montage that seemed pretty cool when the Bulls (first?) did it in 1993 or whenever it was.
Opponent introductions/dim the lights/crank the smoke machine … yeah, yeah. We’ve seen it. Everybody does it, and it’s just as embarrassing in Bloomington, Indiana as it is here.
Luckily, our school prides itself on innovation. Right?
A couple years ago, I told my friend Jeni that Illini athletics should trailblaze a new approach to pre-game ceremonies. We were discussing the National Anthem, and our preferred styles & performances.
I suggested that Illinois — an international university with a stated mission to embrace not merely diversity, but indeed university — should scrap the worn-out tradition altogether. If we want to remind attendees that they’re in the United States, why not let’s read a passage from the Constitution instead?
Sure, there’d be a “conservative” backlash. But those people can be invited to center court, to read the 2nd Amendment for all the “snowflakes” they so strongly revile for disrespecting … the Constitution.
We could show our international visitors what this country is really about.
Jeni’s husband Mike was in charge of Illini athletics at the time. But she recommended I mention my idea to Mike Waddell, whom she described as “the ideas guy.”
He’s gone now, as are Jeni and her husband. So we never got any further with the reading a passage from the Constitution discussion. But fortunately, the new DIA boss already knows about our founding document. He’s studied it. He knows why, like winning, “it’s important.”
I don’t hate The Star-Spangled Banner. I enjoy some renditions. But after decades of constant repetition, it rarely gives me chills.
I’m philosophically bothered that it’s performed de rigueur. That’s the antithesis of the freedom from our British monarchist overlords it chronicles. Is it too soon to stop cowering before the mighty UK?
My conversation with Jeni took place long before Colin Kaepernick’s knee hit the ground. But that later development only furthered the argument for scrapping the Banner: To replace rote recitation of a poem that promised to hunt down all the black people with a different recitation, one that changes each game.
A pastor could join a journalist to read the first amendment. An international student might read Article II, Section 2, Clause 2, which provides the formula for treaties with foreign nations. Maybe Al Gore or Donald Trump would come to read the Twelfth Amendment, which refined the electoral college.
Solemn. No light show. No piped music.
Canned noise is the worst. Penn State’s automated lion growl is the most annoying sound in sports. (Northwestern uses it too, but they pretend it’s a wildcat.) Fortunately, someone at DIA recognized this fact in time to scale back the aural onslaught for the 2016 football season. A gameday tech confirmed to me that some of the canned noises were eliminated before the Lovie Era got underway.
It would be great if DIA did the same for basketball. Take out all the fakery, and let the crowd make the noise. (This last part might require some other changes, of course. Nudge, nudge.) Keep the band, lose the pre-recorded crap. If the basketball team can’t generate crowd noise, don’t pretend 100 dB of screaming Ron Burgundy will make up the difference.
DIA has a lot of dedicated people. They have a lot of great ideas. But sometimes, those ideas don’t translate.
The Mandarin simulcast is a perfect example. It languishes in obscurity, mostly because it’s not actually a simulcast. The audio isn’t synchronized with the video.
So it’s unwatchable. Or at least, if you did watch it, you wouldn’t understand what was happening (which was kinda the point).
DIA has no plans to implement a synchronized Mandarin presentation (the way they synchronize Brian Barnhart’s radio clips to video highlights).
Josh has a lot on his plate.
But Tuesday night in West Lafayette, he saw & heard everything that I saw & heard. Maybe he’s begun to have some ideas.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane as we prepare for tomorrow’s loss at Purdue.
First up is the Bruce Weber Explains Losing At Purdue postgame video that everyone always forgets. The February 2012 video went viral after Weber pined for Robbie Hummel fours years after completely ignoring eager recruit Robbie Hummel.
But this was the game that exposed Weber. Illinois jumped out to a 13-point advantage, with Demetri McCamey leading the way. But then McCamey picked up his second foul. Weber, the hideboundest of hidebound coaches, sat McCamey for the duration of the half. And that was that.
Can a struggling Illini team conquer Matt Painter’s current Jekyll & Hyde?
Oh yeah, definitely.
First off, Isaac Haas sucks. He’s just an awful lummox. And while Caleb Swanigan is double-double machine, his team still finds ways to lose despite him. Against Minnesota he went for 28 & 22, and the Boilers still lost, at home, to Little Pitino.
But Painter is familiar with The Halftime Adjustment, and this would seem to give him an advantage over John Groce.
That’s not to say that Groce doesn’t make adjustments.
Anyway, here’s what the players had to say about Tuesday’s game. Michael Finke was getting his ankle wrapped. But we did get to speak with four other Illini.
If we were Gonzaga, we’d feel this way most mornings. Playing lousy teams is an excellent way to ensure wins. Competing against matador defenders ensures that your offensive sets will look great!
That’s why Mark Few and Ggreggg Marshall aren’t looking for jobs in competitive conferences. It’s why Bryce Drew may learn, over the next few years, that money isn’t everything.
Michigan stinks. They’ve got the worst defense in the Big Ten.
OK, that’s an exaggeration, statistically speaking. Michigan can’t stop other teams from scoring, and they can’t rebound on those rare occasions when the other team misses.
John Beilein laughed about it, noting that Michigan didn’t get schooled on the boards because Illinois didn’t miss any shots (64% on twos and another 64% from three).
Beilein also readily admitted that Kipper Nichols was nowhere to be found on the Wolverine’s scouting report. Wouldn’t it be great if John Groce were so candid?
Now that Bo Ryan is gone, there’s no contest about who’s my favorite B1G coach. Like John Groce, Beilein is known more for his teams’ offensive capabilities. Defense? Not so good.
Te’Jon Lucas has been the proverbial back-up QB for the last three months. Now he’s the actual back-up QB, and based on the minutes he’s played in the last two games, moving in on the starting QB position.
Compare his Wednesday stats to Tracy Abrams’s. Lucas’s ATO was 8-to-1 in 23 minutes. Abrams was 3-to-1 in 24 minutes.
Each had a steal. Abrams grabbed two rebounds and Lucas one. Abrams committed three fouls and Lucas zero.
Lucas didn’t miss any shots. Tracy was 1-of-3 from the field and 2-of-3 on FTs. Lucas didn’t get to the line.
Each made a thrilling no look pass for an assist.
Kipper Nichols is unlikely to live up to the outrageous expectations foisted upon him by demented fans. Since joining the program, he’s been the fantasized savior among people with pseudonymous message-board identities & access to the Internet.
And yet, every time Nichols touched the ball on Wednesday, something really exciting happened.
Whether it was yanking a rebound from the hands of an opponent, offensive rebounds and put-backs, or nailing shots from the low post or the arc; Kipper dazzled the crowd of 11,404.
Dazzling a crowd is exactly what John Groce needs to keep his job. And he also needs about four thousand more people per game. And he needs those people to pay more for tickets.
The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, to its credit, has become far more flexible, in recent years, about ticket prices and packages. Ticket supply continues to exceed demand, so DIA dropped prices dramatically. Good for them, but bad for the bottom line.
Thrilling players like Kipper Nichols and Te’Jon Lucas sell tickets. Think of the days when Bruce Douglas lobbed & Efrem Winters dunked.
Indiana gets 50% more people per game. They probably don’t sell tickets for $6.78/per, either.
Jalen Coleman-Lands connected on 4-of-5 threes, for 12 points. His passing remains underrated (4 assists). Maverick Morgan also dished four assists from the center position, and converted eight of his nine attempts from the floor.
With Jaylon Tate and Mike Thorne combining for exactly zero minutes, one wonders whether Groce will contract his rotation to the degree that mentor Thad Matta usually does … something like six or seven players per game.
But as long as The Producers continue to produce, the non-producers are likely relegated to cheerleading and spectating.
Illinois was lousy on defense, and that’s okay. Most people don’t care about defense, just so long as the home team leads by 15 to 20 points throughout the second half.
If he can’t ensure that his team connects on 64% of shots night-in/night-out, John Groce may want to hire a defensive mastermind, like Chris Lowery or Wayne McClain, to instill defensive toughness in his matadors.