Vashoune Russell was on the sidelines again, along with his fancypants cameras. Here’s what he snapped.
I took a couple of pictures, too. You may not recognize them now, but hopefully some day they’ll be household faces.
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 shit stuffed 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.
For every season that Tracy Abrams has played basketball at Illinois, he’s always been a focal point for the fans. As Tracy goes, so go the Illini.
Writing about Tracy Abrams can be fun and/or frustrating, just like watching him play basketball.
You like it that he has a killer instinct, and wants to take over ball games. You like it that he takes responsibility for leadership.
You remember the endgame in victories where Tracy put the team on his back and carried it across the finish line. At Minnesota 2013. Braggin’ Rights later that year.
But then you remember how that 2014 season ended. Ray Rice and Jon Ekey, two proven game-winning shot-makers, watched from the corners as Tracy short-armed a floater against Michigan, and a long three at Clemson.
The Central Michigan Game of 2016 will never approach legend & lore status in Illini sports history. But it made a notch on the Tracy Abrams column.
The Good Tracy showed up, which was fortunate. Because for much of that game, it appeared no other Illini had.
Tracy’s game has always given him an advantage over certain types of players. Four years ago, I predicted he’d do pretty well against Gonzaga’s big men, and overrated guards. That was an easy call to make.
Tracy doesn’t perform well against athletic wings, or anybody with quickness and long arms. That latter combination might be rare among the general population, but it describes a lot of basketball players.
Illinois could finish the non-con at 10-3. The Illini are picked to finish in the lower tier of the Big Ten. That might change if The Good Tracy continues to heed all the little lessons he’s learned about his limitations.
It’s all on his shoulders.
(All photos by Vashoune Russell.)