Categories
Illini basketball

Weekend 4: Things I’ve Never Seen Before

It took me an extra long time to collect my thoughts this week, largely because I still can’t believe my eyes. I waited to meet with the participants, to ask if I really saw what I think I saw.

They said yes.

Tuesday afternoon, Brad Underwood emerged from the film session and told a small group of reporters that his team had just watched Te’Jon’s oop over and over.

He ran us (the reporters) through a number of hypothetical situations. What to do with the ball if you have 10 seconds left and a two-point lead. When to foul.  How do those situations change with each additional 5 seconds, or each additional point in your favor. These are things he coaches.

At no point was a 40-foot oop mentioned.

(Photo of Te’Jon Lucas by Vashoune Russell)

Then, as Fletch finished the team’s stretching, Underwood got back to coaching. You’ll never believe what the team focused on Tuesday.

Oh, did you say inbounding plays? How did you guess?

Maryland was probably the most exciting Illini game I’ve seen in my life, for better and worse.

  • I watched @Indiana with my dad in 1989, and we both leaped into the air when Nick hit The Shot
  • I was in the last row of C section when Frank beat Michael Redd’s Buckeyes
  • I sat under the basket for the Tyler Griffey lay-up

That Indiana game was sloppy. It wasn’t artful. I feel in my gut that the 1989 Georgia Tech game was much better, but it’s not replayed incessantly, so I haven’t seen it in 28 years.

I don’t remember anything about the 2000 tOSU game, apart from Frank’s three. Perhaps it was the best ever example of competitive basketball. If so, please excuse my faulty recollection.

The Tyler Griffey lay-up will forever be remembered for Tyler Griffey’s lay-up, rather than D.J. Richardson’s amazing performance. That’s how these things work.

I attended a 1987 game in which Illinois led Iowa 61-39 at the half. I met Dick Vitale that night. I said he should have a “Windex Award”  for the guy who best cleaned the glass each game. He liked the idea. I never got paid for that.

Anyway, Iowa’s victory may have been more impressive than the 22-point comeback Sunday. I just don’t remember it that way. I think I was annoyed by Jeff Moe.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Sunday was hearing a referee say “we screwed up.”

That’s never happened before, to my knowledge.

Terry Oglesby & Kelly Pfeifer were the two stripes closest to the goaltending that wasn’t. Pfeifer has always been a chummy guy, which is unusual for the stripes.  Few interact with others.

Oglesby always seems solid to me. I will say that he was the first game participant whose performance really stood out on Sunday, even before Anthony Cowan.

I watched Oglesby swallow his whistle on a number of plays where heavy contact, audible contact, occurred. “Wow, they’re really letting them play,” I observed to a pair of fellow camerapersons.

Sure, they called fouls. But they let a lot of stuff go.

Flopping might not be a concern against Austin Peay, but legitimate charge-taking will be a big part of tonight’s game, according to Underwood.

 

Whistle-swallowing is okay with me. For one thing, it allowed Leron Black to be Leron Black. He needed some time to adjust, but by the second half, Leron recognized the parameters, and exploited them effectively.

Apart from the fact that Tom Eades-Pfiefer-Oglesby cost Illinois the game by missing one seemingly obvious call, it was a well-officiated game.

How did 12,735 people see Trent Frazier’s lay-in swatted away while three professional observers didn’t?  It’s unfathomable.

But it’s also not reviewable according to current NCAA rules. Terry Oglesby felt bad about that. So he did the unthinkable. He apologized to the heckling fan.

Here’s Jeff Butler, yelling at the refs.

Jeff and his son Connor both told me that Terry Oglesby apologized to them for screwing up, and said he’d make up for it. That’s astonishing, and discomfiting.  I spent the rest of the game watching for Oglesby to retaliate.

Jeff Butler is a member of Dave Downey’s Club 53. Butler paid enough to get his name affixed to a plaque, which itself is affixed to a wall in the bowels of the State Farm Center. There’s a lounge, snacks, booze. You won’t get to see it, sorry.

The New Aaron Jordan is actually The New Brad Underwood

The new AJ is allowed to shoot even when he’s double-teamed by tall dudes. (He made it.)

Brad Underwood might be the most intellectually nimble Illini basketball coach of my lifetime. He seems predisposed to conservatism, with a progressive demon perched on his shoulder, constantly reminding him that he needs to adapt, to keep up with new trends.

(Photo of Brad Underwood at Allstate Arena by Vashoune Russell)

Conservatism and liberalism are not at odds, despite what you’ve heard. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But when you realize it’s not working anymore, be open to new ideas.

Underwood is stodgy and open to new ideas. He proved that at OKState, when he abandoned his defensive principles and adjusted to what works for this group.

You could see that intellectual progression this week. At Northwestern, the nation’s leading three-point shooter attempted one three-point shot.

Days earlier, Aaron scored 20 on 4-of-6 from the arc. But he also opted against shooting in a number of situations where he seemed open-ish, or open enough.

I asked Brad whether Aaron was too hesitant (here at 2:30). Brad said AJ is the best three-point shooter for a reason. That’s not a cop-out. It’s a logical response.

But Illinois lost.

When AJ launched a single three versus the NUrds, Illinois lost again.

(Photo by Vashoune Russell)

And then, Brad Underwood evolved.  He stopped defending AJ’s caution, and took the responsibility upon himself to see that Aaron gets more shots, more minutes, more open looks.

It began Monday night in the first installment of The Brad Underwood Show, at BW3 in Savoy. It continued in his Tuesday presser.

Underwood shared another personal moment with the media, after Tuesday’s presser, and before the Te’Jon-centric film session. He spoke (again) about the culture of losing, and how he’s never been around a group of guys who just seemed to accept it the way this group accepts it.

I don’t think John Groce enjoyed losing. Groce prepared his teams for life lessons, and part of life lessons is failure.

Underwood is not unsympathetic. But he’s a lot more aggressive, basketball and otherwise. He’s more human, less robotic, and a lot funnier than Groce.

You can already see that dynamism within this team. It was Groce’s team, but it’s becoming Underwood’s team.

Maryland beat Illinois 92-91, the same score that ended Underwood’s season in Stillwater.   A week before that NCAA Tournament game, the Illini folded against the same Michigan team that beat Underwood. That score was 75-55.

Look for a pattern here. The Illini are likely, during Underwood’s tenure, to give up more points than they did under Bruce Weber, or any other coach of Boring Basketball That Hurts To Watch.

If this were Weber’s team, that lob would never have been thrown. In fact, nothing exciting would have happened.

The future should look like the Lon Kruger era. His teams were so exciting that we hardly noticed how great a coach we had.

Categories
Illini basketball

Musings of a Hypocrite

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?

This wouldn’t have happened under Bruce Weber

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.

Skip & Mary Ann Thoren watched Mike Tisdale against Wisconsin in January 2011. Skip agreed that Tisdale’s game was classic SF, apart from the dribble-penetration.

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.

Guess the villain? Hint: Not the unpaid underage person.

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 Lucas spotted a flaw in the Northwestern defense.

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.

Categories
Illini basketball

The Missed Milestone, the Missed Miracle

Ex-Ohio State assistant coach leads team to astonishing comeback! Champaign kid goes off in miraculous conference road win!

Both those things happened this weekend, just not to us.

At this point, I’m surprised only that people are surprised. Everything we’ve seen this basketball season is consistent with everything we’ve ever seen from the individuals involved. They are who we thought they are.

Yes, it’s been a while since I posted an Illini Report. What was there to say that you couldn’t read elsewhere?

Well, there’s a lot, actually. I started writing it four times. That is, there are four unpublished pieces in my drafts folder. I had a lot to vent, and some lovely insider gems.

But it’s all hurtful stuff. It’s all borne of frustration, anger and cynicism.  You can read plenty of that elsewhere, too.

John Groce watches from the sidelines (Vashoune Russell)

After 3 of the last 4 games, I was never tempted to follow The Good Tracy with The Bad Tracy. That’s not to say I didn’t write it. I just didn’t publish it.

It would certainly have been appropriate.

John Groce continues his misdirection strategy in defending Tracy (a refreshing change from Bruce Weber’s incessant player-trashing) to emphasize the qualities Tracy brings every day.

I feel bad for Tracy Abrams. I take no enjoyment from berating his failures. I’d love to see him leave Illinois as a champion.

Tracy Abrams disappointed at Indiana (Vashoune Russell)

As the “play Te’Jon Lucas” hue & cry makes its way across all forms of media, the usual suspect is Jaylon Tate. But Tate’s passing at Indiana was, like always, dynamic and exciting. He had three times as many assists as Abrams in half the minutes.

From a passing standpoint, D.J. Williams and Michael Finke are better PGs than Abrams. Jalen-Coleman-Lands continues to fly under the radar for his court vision & ability to find open teammates.

Jalen Coleman-Lands for the save!

Tracy Abrams is undoubtedly a leader, and a disciplined worker. He’s an almost perfect soldier in his willingness to execute orders, and a model sergeant for his determination to motivate his troops to implement the policies dictated by his commanders.

In year five of the Groce Administration, those policies tempt military analogies. The Maginot Line for defense. Vietnam for understanding our opponent.

Mike Thorne boxes out (Vashoune Russell)

I introduced the season by writing that Mike Thorne’s interior tendencies would frustrate Illini fans, and that Te’Jon Lucas should consider redshirting. Neither observation was intended to insult the player involved. Mike Thorne is one of the most likeable guys on the team. And Te’Jon’s repeated DNPs are not his fault nor his choice.

Thorne never plays much, and continues to start. I’m good with that. Through 16 games, Maverick Morgan averages 21 minutes to Thorne’s 15. In conference, Thorne has played even less.

Maverick Morgan blocks OG Anunoby (Vashoune Russell)

It’s fun to think about opponents taking the time to scout Thorne. It’s especially fun if one dreams that Thorne may — as intelligent, introspective persons sometimes do — completely change his modus operandi upon catching a ball in the low post.

It’s a turnover waiting to happen, I wrote at the beginning of the year. (Oh, I didn’t? Well, it was something like that anyhow.)

ABOUT THAT COMEBACK FROM 20+ DOWN

When the Illini cut Indiana’s lead to 12, the Hoosiers went on a 10-0 run.

Then Illinois cut the lead to nine.

And then, John Groce made the Bruce Weberest decision of an already thoroughly Bruce Weberish career, calling timeout as Te’Jon ran the ball toward Indiana’s (admittedly well-defended) bucket.

On the subsequent (surely much intellectualized) inbound play, Te’Jon turned the ball over.

Erstwhile Urbana High School varsity coach Vashoune Russell had an opinion about this sequence of events. (Vashoune took pictures of the game with some really expensive cameras. It was almost worth the $64 I put in his gas tank. Holy shit those GMC Suburbans.)

Vashoune couldn’t understand why Groce thought he could get away with the same inbound play twice in a game versus a well-coached team.

ELSEWHERE IN WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

Jordan Caroline made an unofficial visit to Illinois is 2012. As far as I know, that was the extent of his recruitment. He signed with SIUC,  made the MVC all-freshmen team and transferred to Nevada.

If, after Illinois’s second stab at persistence cut the lead to 9 on Saturday, you decided you’d like to see a team come back from 20+ down to win a game, you’re in luck. No TV subscription required. If you have an internet connection (which you do) you can watch the replay at ESPN3. Here it is.

Caroline is the grandson of an Illini/NFL legend. He was sired by another Illini legend, who also played in the NFL.

But Jordan clearly, distinctly put his own stamp on all-time legend status with a single game. 45 points & 13 rebounds is not all-time material, but recovering from a 14-point deficit with a minute to go is all-time anything. That was Saturday’s astonishing performance at New Mexico.

If you want to relive the magical 15-0 start of Saturday’s Hoosiers fiasco, you can watch that too. How often will you get the chance to see Illinois’ best player collect a third foul before the team has scored a single point?

PLAYING NICE

Coaches on the Hot Seat sometimes recognize that Being Friendly will serve them better than Being A Dick, or isolating themselves.

After his regular (i.e. B1G mandated) time with the media Saturday, Tom Crean made a beeline toward the Illini media pool, all assigned to workstations in the far corner of the media room.

“Does Chicago need anything else?” he asked, perhaps oblivious to the slight, and perhaps recognizing that Shannon Ryan was the only reporter in the pool whose audience should concern him.

No one needed anything else. Vashoune and I shook his hand, thanked him for the offer, and congratulated him on the win.

Kipper NIchols dives to the floor for a loose ball (Vashoune Russell)

Crean left the room, but engaged a pair of TV reporters (and their cameras) in the tunnel outside. Meanwhile, Scout.com’s Jeremy Werner and Derek Piper joined Indiana’s Scout correspondent Jeff Rabjohns in a discussion, in the media room.

At some point, Crean re-entered the room. He engaged an Indiana beat writer in a long discussion. It’s the first time I’ve seen a B1G coach hang out in a media room after exhausting his official duties.

After a long talk, Crean again walked to the other side of the room, toward the Illini pool. “Is Jeremy Werner here?” he asked.

By this time, Jeremy and Derek had returned to the court, to record their usual postgame video commentary.

“He was,” we responded.

Crean gushed about Jeremy’s statistical analysis. He said he’d read it earlier in the week, and “actually learned something from it.”

A lot of coaches pretend they don’t read their press clippings. Some coaches don’t seem capable of reading. So it might feel rewarding to know that a coach not only reads, but learns from ones writing.

I emailed Jeremy to tell him about the query, and also to ask WTF column Crean was foaming about. It was Jeremy’s Rapid Recap of the tOSU game, according to Jeremy, who also observed that the column was “nothing special.”

John Groce also stayed in the visitor’s media room for a few extra moments, and made small talk at Chicago Tribune‘s Shannon Ryan. Then he moved to the tunnel to allow Louie del Rio and Bret Beherns a better opportunity to frame him with their cameras. (The IU visitor’s “media room” is a secretary’s office, and it’s tiny.)

Groce is no idiot. A week after dissing Bret’s softball about disgruntled fans, he offered himself to his most important conduit. WCIA has the largest local TV audience.

Leron Black rebounds at Indiana (Vashoune Russell)

Ryan reaches the largest number of Illini fans, in theory. That is, the Trib has a huge subscriber base, most of which lives in Illinois. Nobody necessarily reads Shannon’s columns, if they can be bothered to comb through the sports section, past all the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Notre Dame, Marathon, etc. coverage.

Tracy Abrams takes a ball screen from Mike Thorne Jr. (Vashoune Russell)

Groce reserves all his inside information for CBS Sport’s Jon Rothstein, but it behooves him to make nice with those media members who can access a national audience. The Tribune company publishes the Los Angeles Times, too. And the Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and Sun-Sentinel. On a slow day, any of those papers might run an article by any of the Tribune company’s reporters.

The pleasantries lasted only a moment. By comparison, you can see why Tom Crean has won two B1G Championships.

Jalen Coleman-Lands launches a three over Indiana’s James Blackmon Jr.

But in fairness to Groce, he’s been on the hot seat for only about three years. Crean has been on the hot seat since the day he was hired. But as we’re all interested in the success of Illini sports, let’s all keep an eye on Groce’s interactions with the media.

Bret’s question was only the beginning of a Pandora’s Box, Groce should do everything in his power to keep that box from opening. Unfortunately for him, five years of inaccessibility hampered that possibility. All the reporters he’s marginalized will have a column ready, whether they publish it after the Michigan game, after the Maryland game, after the Purdue game …

Is it fair and/or ethical to criticize Groce for not buttering the media? Yes and no. Everything keeps changing. Newspapers gave way to web content, etc.

But the fact is that Groce does butter the media, just not anyone local.  Take that as you will.

Meanwhile, Loren Tate is still good friends with Lou Henson.

 

Categories
Illini football

Pictures from the Big House

Vashoune Russell made the trip to Ann Arbor, where Illinois covered the spread! (Hey, you gotta take your bright spots where you can find them.)

Here’s what he saw through his lens.

Categories
Illini football

Introducing Vashoune Russell, photographer

Lovie Smith says “oh no he didn’t get to the three yard line” or something of that sort. (Vashoune Russell)

Perhaps you noticed a change with the pictures here at IlliniReport. Suddenly, after years of mediocrity, they don’t suck.

After 14 years coaching Urbana High sports, including the last seven as head boys basketball coach, Vashoune Russell decided to hang up his whistle and instead wrap a Canon Mark IV around his neck.

Some of you may remember Vashoune as the skinny, quiet kid on the Leal School playground. I know I do. On the other hand, many of you will be stunned to learn that Vashoune was once skinny.

Our long association is the reason IlliniReport is the place you’ll see his photography this season. But I expect you’ll see his work elsewhere, too, once the secret gets out.

Here’s a sampling of the moments he captured Saturday in Lincoln, Nebraska.

 

Categories
Illini basketball Illini football

In hindsight, it was a pretty good day

Yeah, Illini football got walloped by a basketball school. Let it pass. Saturday was magical.

A lot of the attendees had never before seen a full Memorial Stadium. They weren’t alive when Mike White and John Mackovic’s teams were forced to build temporary bleachers to accommodate 76,000+ fans.

No Illinois undergrad was alive the last time a packed Tailgreat (look it up) celebrated perfect weather buttressed by unfettered optimism for the program’s future. The 80s Belonged to the Illini (look it up).

You might even blame excitement for the team’s mistake-prone performance. They were just that hyped up. Thirteen penalties and six fumbles might, if we’re lucky, stand as all-time records for the Lovie Administration.

Scroll down a bit and you’ll find Vashoune Russell’s pictures from the evening. This one captures Center Joe Spencer’s once in a lifetime 9 yard rush. It would have been the play of the game except that Gabe Megginson severely twisted his ankle just as Spencer was scooping the ball from the turf.

Illini center Joe Spencer nearly gained a rushing first down after picking up a fumble (Vashoune Russell)

But let’s stick to happy thoughts.

It wasn’t just a vibrant atmosphere among long-suffering tailgaters. The north end zone was packed with unofficial visitors, potential football recruits who’ve taken note of the NFL pedigree now running the Champaign show.

Garrick McGee continued to look like a 1940s leading man as he introduced priority target student-athletes to one-another. It’s the mustache, but it’s also the demeanor.

At the northeast corner of Zuppke Field, John Groce entertained FOUR Official Visitors and their families. Yes, three of these Visitors have already verballed to Illinois. But that doesn’t answer the question: Has any D-1 basketball program ever hosted FOUR Official Visitors on the same weekend?

Maybe this is the year John Groce turns things around. Even Jalen Coleman-Lands looked pumped as the team convened in the north end zone, and he’d had hand surgery just a day earlier.

So, yeah. Larry Fedora’s Flash In The Pan put a hurt on your orange for the second time in as many seasons.

Next year, he’ll be coaching somewhere else. UNC will be on probation. Lovie et al will have signed the most widely discussed recruiting class since Dwight Beverly (look it up).

Illini head coach Lovie Smith admonishes Ke’Shawn Vaughn after the latter’s personal foul Saturday night in Champaign (Vashoune Russell)

T.J. Logan eludes Illini Chris James (Vashoune Russell)

Luke Butkus and Hardy Nickerson Sr. are bemused (Vashoune Russell)
Bad form tackling by Lovie Smith versus Carolina RB Elijah Hood (Vashoune Russell)
Dawuane Smoot is not bemused (Vashoune Russell)

 

Categories
Illini football

The Gaps

Darta Lee (61) got the start at right guard and Nick Allegretti (53) moved to center.

The game is won or lost in the line. We know that. It’s what your Pop Warner coach taught you. It’s no less true today.

This year’s Illini team will go as far as its O-Line can carry it. How far is that?

Ke-‘Shawn Vaughn couldn’t find his way up the middle on Illinois’ first drive against Murray State.  Starting Center and captain Joe Spencer was out with an injury, and guard Nick Allegretti moved into the position. True freshman Darta Lee filled Allegretti’s vacated RG spot. The majority of first drive snaps were running plays, but the big yards came on passes to Malik Turner in the flat. Vaughn’s biggest run on the drive, a ten yard gain, went outside of right tackle.

Play-by-play of first Illini drive versus Murray State

That Illinois waited ’til third down for Wes Lunt‘s first pass is thoroughly unremarkable among old school football fans. That Vaughn managed only 4 yards on the first two downs is remarkable. Murray State was 3-8 last year against a schedule that featured two total FBS teams (Northern Illinois, Western Michigan).

A moment later the Illini offense got another shot at moving the ball, when Racer QB KD Humphries threw the ball directly to Illini DB Taylor Barton.

Mikey Dudek (right) watches as Taylor Barton tries to decide what to do with his interception.

This time, Illinois skipped the run altogether. Lunt found Turner again, firing his longest career pass, 40 yards in the air and 68 overall. The pass hit a sprinting Turner in the fingertips. Somehow, Malik reeled the ball in. He claimed afterward that he’s not especially fast, and isn’t equipped with especially long fingers.

The offense then waited on the sideline while Murray State waffled through a two-punt drive (owing to one of Dawuane Smoot’s three penalties) before Darius Mosely made a nice punt return (22 yards) which could have gone for six if he’d stepped left behind his blocker rather than right.

Darius Mosely nearly broke a punt return for touchdown.

Illinois’ third drive yielded two first downs via one 13-yard Vaughn scamper, two short rushing gains and a third down pass conversion, but Illinois punted on its third series of downs.

The fourth drive was worse. An incomplete pass on first down, Vaughn gaining two on second, Lunt sacked on third. At this point, the O-Line wasn’t clearing room, and wasn’t protecting the passer.  For what it’s worth, Jordan Fagan had taken over for Lee at RG.

More terrible Murray State offense (and a 22-yard punt) next handed Illinois the ball at the Racer 39. Vaughn immediately lost two yards. His next rush gained one. But his third rush of the series might have gone for 99 had he not started it at the Racer 2.  On this occasion, the offensive line created a hole you could drive a (insert cliché here).

Whether Fagan was more effective than Lee (once he found his footing) will probably be determined by the time Illinois’ first team O trots out against North Carolina on Saturday. By the end of the second quarter, the line had cleared the way for two rushing touchdowns (Vaughn, Kendrick Foster), but both were run toward the left guard. Foster’s 56-yard scamper was the third play (and third down) of a drive that began with a 9-yard completion and an incomplete toss to Vaughn on 2nd-and-1.

Kendrick Foster hits the hole of all holes.

Whether the Illini O-Line had figured things out by this point, or whether the Racers were bored with getting beat in the flat, and spread their resources toward the sidelines; it seemed clear that the passing game opened opportunities for the running game, rather than the other way around.

Lovie Smith, in his postgame remarks , rejected a theory that the O-Line needed some snaps to find a working chemistry.   He observed the first unit comprised the same individuals that practiced together all week. Depending on your interpretation, this response could be comforting or alarming. But keep in mind, Lovie does not part with information or insight if he can avoid it. He’s not necessarily going to tell you what he really thinks.

Mike Phair advises Lovie Smith.

Lovie also rejected the idea that Illinois intended to use the run to open the field for its passing game. But the play-by-play is right there, at FightingIllini.com, for all to see. Illinois was the run-first team everyone anticipated, including Wes Lunt (who seemed genuinely pleased when claiming he’d be happy to throw fewer attempts, and take fewer licks from opposing defensive linemen).

Run-first failed. Take away Foster’s two 56-yard scampers, and Illinois achieved 175 yards on 38 carries. Its #1 tailback averaged 2.9/carry for 55 yards against an awful FCS team.

Will everything come together, now that Illinois’ first offensive unit has had a chance to work out the kinks against an unfamiliar opponent? Will Joe Spencer’s return solidify the line? We’ll probably know by 7:15 pm on Saturday. If Ke’Shawn Vaughn has fewer than 10 yards rushing by that time, you may be in for a long season.

All photos by Vashoune Russell.

Lotta horny dudes at the game.
Categories
Illini Basketball

Mikey Dudek is running, jumping and stop-starting

Yesterday, I went to the Illini football practice with photographer Vashoune Russell. We were interested in seeing which O-Line guys got the most reps as a “starting five.”

We failed. It wasn’t really that kind of practice.

Instead, we saw Bob Ligashesky repping with the punt team. We saw Tim McGarigle running the linebacking squad through a tackling drill.

 

Yes, we also saw Luke Butkus working with the O-Line, but the rest of the offensive unit didn’t join them. And no particular group seemed to be working together. It was technique work, not teamwork.

While Vashoune was taking pictures of the O-Line, Mikey Dudek and Dre Brown (both in uniform, neither in pads) ran 40-yard sprints on the sidelines. Dudek wore a functional post-op ligament knee brace to keep his twice torn ACL in place. But he moved well, particularly when jumping repeatedly from left to right as a wide-receiver might do when attempting to juke a cornerback.

He appeared perfectly healthy, and by no means taking it easy. I took that as a good sign. Brown did not join in the jumping, but he too ran at top speed.

Images by Vashoune Russell.