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Illini basketball

Whew.

KNunn hit The ShotIllinois NCAA Tournament chances took a huge hit when Illinois’ NCAA Tournament aspirations remain alive today, after a gutty defensive war in which Our Side wore down Their Side by sheer numbers.

Ahmad Starks saved the day for the second consecutive game. In both instances, he provided the level head. He was the guy who’s seen it all, good and (mostly, at Oregon State) bad. Once again, Starks was the unflappable assassin, almost disinterested. He played as if he were already dead, and you couldn’t hurt him anymore.

If Michigan had more players, Michigan wins. Our roster is depleted, bad. Their roster is depleted worse.

Spike Albrecht and Zak Irvin were awesome on defense. John Beilein’s offense was splendid to see. It’s just a pleasure to watch his teams — whether they play five future pros or a band of Rudies.

Albrecht seemed like a Rudy during his coming out party in the 2013 National Championship Game. But he’s not a one trick pony. His defense stifled Illinois’ perimeter for 38 1/2 minutes.

Max Bielfeldt did Peoria proud in his final State Farm Center appearance. His 12 points and 7 rebounds nearly cost Illinois athletics a basketball season. Oh, the irony.

Michigan’s communications staff didn’t make either player available to media after the game, instead offering Andrew Dakich as team spokesman.* Wolverine SID Tom Wywrot couldn’t make the trip due to a sinus infection. His deputies may not have realized the significance of this game for Bielfeldt.

It’s possible that Spike simply didn’t want to talk. John Beilein said Albrecht took the loss hard, and personally.

I say bully for Spike Albrecht. He’s exactly the kind of guy you’d want on your team.

I thought most of the Michigan team played with exceptional poise, for much of the night. The lone exception may be Aubrey Dawkins. He was targeted & pilloried by the Orange Krush, and he wilted.  The adult beat writers from Michigan’s traveling media pool did not notice. Their student reporters could talk about nothing else. I guess it’s a generational thing.

It worked out for Illinois. If you’re into bad sportsmanship, celebrate.

Elsewhere in the student section, one dweeb kept shouting at Spike Albrecht even as Kendrick Nunn walked to the line to shoot crucial late game free-throws. And yes, just as Kendrick tensed to release the ball, that dweeb shouted “SPIKE!”

That was Kendrick’s lone charity miss of the night. It nearly cost Illinois the game.

Fortunately, the only thing Illinois had to do to win: never give up. They simply wore the Woverines out.

John Groce wouldn’t say it in his post-game presser, but the reason Illinois won is the same reason that U.S. Grant beat Robert E. Lee: In the end, there weren’t enough bodies on the rebel side.

That’s fine by me. Whatever it takes.

Losing to Michigan last night = N.I.T. The Illini resume simply isn’t that strong.

Winning, on the other hand, put them inarguably into the NCAA conversation.

Speaking of Dakiches, I had a funny moment with Leroy William Rice prior to the game, and Dan Dakich might want to know about it. Ray’s grandfather had some choice words for Dakich, who’d referred to Rayvonte as “stupid” and “idiot” according to the Rice entourage.

Leroy walks with a cane. He gripped that cane tightly as he spoke his venom. I couldn’t quite make out all the words, but the idea was that Dan Dakich will need new knees if he comes within Leroy’s range.

I don’t doubt it.

Leroy’s grandson beat Michigan’s ass in the final showdown. He wasn’t as gimpy as his wizened relative, but he was a lot gimpier than the Ray you’ve known.

The previous entry on these pages suggested that Ray might not be 100% Ray on his return. It also posited that Kendrick Nunn will cut you, without compunction. Both proved true against the Wolverines.

Ray was not in sync, offensively. Not even with himself.

But where he could make a difference, Ray made a difference. In the end, Ray won the game for Illinois. It was almost like a Harry Potter story. You knew what was coming.

Ray and Kendrick were badgers. They displayed the anti-social tenacity of the wolverine. They were Spartan warriors with hawk eyes. In a buckeyeshell, they looked like all-conference performers. Kendrick from halftime on, and Ray during the endgame.

As hard as Michigan played on defense, Kendrick and Ray fought for this game as well.

That goes for Nnanna Egwu, too.  Egwu didn’t score until overtime, but he was everywhere in overtime. It’s important to consider those two points jointly, together.

The point is that he never stopped trying. He never gave up.

Nnanna Egwu has been asked about his “April” quote a lot. It was probably based on a genuine Egwu quote, but has now devolved, in the cynical world of promotions & marketing, into a PR stunt. But the fact is that Egwu plays that way, all the time, regardless of promotions & marketing people.

 

*Andrew Dakich played only five minutes, all in the first half. I didn’t stick around to hear what he had to say. I don’t blame him for his dad, but I wouldn’t rely on his insight either.

Categories
Illini basketball

The Return of King Nunn

The game at Breslin felt like the first time Kendrick Nunn was truly back. His knee may have been physically 100% for weeks, or months.  But once healed, it took longer for his neurotransmitters to adapt to its fitness. You could call that a “mental” thing, or distinguish “mind” from “brain” if you want. It doesn’t matter.

The reason it took Kendrick longer to mentally recover his aggressive game is that the brain is so good at learning habits, and protecting the body from harm. When you discover a sensitive tooth on the left jaw, you’ll begin chewing on the right, without giving much thought to it.

I talked to Nick Anderson about Kendrick Nunn. I followed up by talking to Melvin Nunn about Kendrick Nunn. And Kendrick himself. That’s all below.

On this day, when Illini fans see the return of two injured players, I want to draw attention to the non-physical aspect of returning from an injury.

I read a lot of popular neuroscience. There’s Malcolm Gladwell, of course. Everyone knows him, right? Steven Johnson is a personal favorite. I totally recommend  Incognito by David Eagleman.  The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is another winner.

They’ll all tell you the hippocampus is great at rerouting neural signals, based on stored information. Kendrick’s hippocampus signaled that his knee was wonky, even when it was healed, because it had learned to be cautious about that knee.

John Groce kinda understood that point when, on Wednesday, he said that Kendrick had been 100% for a while now, except maybe for the confidence.

When Rayvonte Rice steps on the court against Michigan, it will be interesting to see whether he demonstrates any hesitancy in deference to his left hand. On Wednesday, Malcolm Hill said Ray has practiced just like the Ray of old. Malcolm detects no reluctance, on Ray’s part, to dice competitors.

That makes sense, because Ray plays without a conscience.  Or maybe it’s “Ray plays unconscious.” That’s the brain/mind thing again.

Ray will rip your intestines from your belly if you’re standing between him and the rim, but he’s soft-spoken and genteel if you’re not on a basketball court, impeding his progress.

I live in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.  After five to six years experience, I’ve learned to avoid underestimating Ray. Maybe he’ll be Ray against Michigan. But I wouldn’t hold it against him if it took a while for him to become Ray again.

I believe Kendrick has a similar mindset to Ray:  He will kill people with his bare hands. That’s how I see Kendrick Nunn. He will cut them up, and eat their remains.

So to my mind, it was odd that the word “confidence” came up re: Kendrick Nunn. But I think I understand it now.

In the December game at Miami, I talked to Nick Anderson about Kendrick. He talked about “confidence.” It was an open-ended conversation.  I wanted his general impression. I knew he would have something to say, because Nick played at Simeon with Kendrick’s dad Melvin, who is now a dean and assistant coach at Simeon. They’ve maintained a friendship for three decades.

Frankly, I was surprised to hear what Nick had to say.

CONVERSATION WITH NICK ANDERSON, DECEMBER 2, 2014

When did you first meet Kendrick Nunn?

Through his dad, when he was a little fella. I’ve known him for a while.

As far as his development, I watched him throughout high school at Simeon, and I think he’s come a long way. There’re still some things that need to be worked on.  He has a pretty jump-shot. I’d like to see him get to the basket a little more. Play with a little more confidence.

Sometimes he looks like he’s a little bit shaken/don’t know what to do at times.

Just play basketball. Let the game come to you. But I think his development has come a long way.

Were you watching him last year?

Yeah. I watched him last year. I seen the growth. It’s shown here.

But I want consistency to that jump-shot, that confidence. When you play with confidence, the game is much easier. Sometimes I think he doesn’t play with confidence.

You know, if you miss a shot, guys have a tendency to hang the head. Just play!

How about his defensive footwork?

He’s an excellent defender. He reminds me of a kid – from Chicago – who played for the Magic and a few other teams – DeAndre Liggins.

When it comes to defense, I think he’s a good defender, and you can make your living as a defender, too. But he also has offensive skills. If he can put both of those together, he can be a pretty good ball player.

Last question: We want some dirt about Melvin Nunn. Some stories that he doesn’t want known.

(Laughs) Well, you know you have to ask him about his nickname “Slope.”

I texted him about that and he said he might have to charge me for using that name. He said “It’s old school.”

(Laughs) But no, he’s a good guy. Always a funny kid on the (Simeon High) team. We just had a lot of fun being around him. Great teammate, great friend, you know?

What’s more special about it, you know, some twenty years later we still keep in touch.

You see Ben Wilson’s number (25) on his son’s back – how does that make you feel?

You know, it just shows that Ben Wilson is gone but he’s not forgotten. And I think, not only the players at Simeon – but Chicago players in general – we’re gonna carry his legacy on.

He will never be forgotten.

MELVIN NUNN ON KENDRICK NUNN, PART 2

I would never have guessed that Kendrick Nunn would be described as lacking confidence. To me, he looks like a street fighter. He plays with an aggression that’s tempered only by guile.

But Nick Anderson has forgotten more about basketball than I’ll ever know.

For a second opinion, I asked Nick’s old friend Melvin Nunn. You’ll recall that Melvin has experience at being Kendrick’s dad as well as his coach.

Tuesday night, I asked Slope um, Melvin, if he agreed with his old friend about his son’s game.

I think his confidence is there. He’s been pretty much consistent. He’s had maybe one or two bad shooting days, but you know, you’re going to get those.

But his confidence after his knee? You know, he always had the confidence. It’s just that he had to get back in the rhythm after the knee, and the other injuries he had.

He’s never lost the confidence. But now since he’s got in the starting line-up, getting more touches and getting more reps; now his confidence has grown. Because now he has confidence not only with the jump-shot but also with his drive.

Did it surprise you that Nick Anderson thought it was a matter of confidence?

Well, yeah … because Nick ain’t really seen him play a lot in the Illinois uniform. So I guess he saw him in that game (at Miami) — and I don’t remember if Kendrick started in that game or not (he did not) — but maybe he didn’t look like he was confident in a couple of possessions. Maybe that caught Nick’s eye.

But he (Kendrick) was just getting back in rhythm during that time. You know, that was early in the season so he was really just getting back in rhythm.

You saw the Michigan State game, right?

Yes, I saw the Michigan State game.

That was the first time that Kendrick really started driving it to the hoop all season. Would you agree with that?

Right.

Yeah, he was driving ’em because once you get a second game where the jump-shot is not going in; you’ve got to dig deep inside yourself and say ‘”let me start driving the basketball.” and then he was driving the basketball against players that was his size or a little bit smaller. So he took advantage of that. He used his natural strength to create space, and he did well with that during that time of the game.

Did you hear what Dan Dakich said about playing organized ball versus playing pick-up?

Yeah. Dan Dakich was giving Kendrick a lot of praise on the way he was playing.

I always said that about Kendrick anyway, that he don’t try to press what he’s trying to do. He don’t do too much to get what he wants. You know, if it’s there, it’s there. If it’s not, it’s not.

But the things he was doing — and Dakich was commenting on — is that Kendrick was being patient in what he wanted to do. He looked at the defense. He held his dribble. And then when he saw an opportunity he took it. It wasn’t like he was trying to bogart over four or five players: He took his time.

Do you have any updates on Kezo (Brown) and Zach (Norvell) for Illini fans watching the recruiting trail?

Well Kezo is young, so he has a lot of growth (to do) on how to play the game at a certain level. He pretty much hasn’t been in that situation as a freshman. You know he’s been playing varsity but he still hasn’t been in that position to see what kind of player he’s really going to be.

He’s got a lot of time. As he goes on and develops, he just gotta keep people out of his ear, and let the Simeon coaches coach him, and he’s going to be like the Kendrick Nunns, the Jabari Parkers, the Kendall Pollards, the Jaylon Tates — you know, all those guys who are still playing good basketball, that are still only 18 or 19 years old. But they’re playing like they’re juniors and seniors right now.

And with Zach, Zach is growing. He’s starting to understand how to play the game the same way all the time. You know at first, Zach got lazy. He didn’t play hard defense. But now as he’s growing, he plays hard all the time.

He wants to win. He plays hard. He’s a dog on the court. He doesn’t care who’s on the court, he’s going to give it 100% of the time. And that’s what we (Simeon coaches) like about Zach in his growth compared to what it was as a freshman and sophomore.

How’s his passing?

Zach can pass.

Zach can pass off the drive. He reverses the ball — he’s not a “ball stopper.” He can shoot the deep three. He’s a nice lefty. He just maybe needs to work a little on his defense. He’s not a bad defender. He just needs to be a consistent defender.

I notice that Kendrick and Malcolm have been kicking out more when they drive. They’ve been developing that capability, better.

You know what, those two guys know how to play basketball.

Neither one of them really takes bad shots. They play and take what the defense gives them. Malcolm is a smart basketball player. When he’s driving, he knows how to get those guys to make contact with him, when he’s got the ball.

I know those guys be scouting him. When he picks up his dribble, he throws a shot fake. But he gets it every time.

So when you’re out on the basketball court, and you’ve got to think about all that, it’s not going to work. Because basketball instinct is — when somebody throws a shot fake at you — you’re going to jump.

So Malcolm does that great. And he knows how to create space to be a 6’5″-6’6″/235 lb. player.

You think Zach can follow in that mold?

Well Zach is not a 3-4 (small forward-power forward). Zach is more of a 2-1.

Really?

Yeah, Zach is more of a 2-1. He’s a combo.

Could he play point for John Groce?

Yeah, he can play some point. Because h’e 6’4″ and he can handle the ball. He’s an exceptional ball-handler. We played him at the point last year, as a sophomore. But since our senior point guard pretty much developed, we’ve played Zach more off-the-ball now.

That’s why our team looks a lot better. Because Zach is playing off-the-ball now instead of having the ball in his hands all the time.

Does that mean they’re going to be backing of of Marcus LoVett?

No, not really. Because you’ve gotta think. Jaylon will be a senior when … if Zach comes. Jaylon will be a senior. LoVett will be a sophomore.

So, when you’ve got a freshman and a sophomore that can play — you know Zach can play multiple positions, he can play the two or he can play the one — LoVett is only a one. He can’t play off-the-ball. So having Zach who can play two positions, you could use him at either. So that’s a good fit.

LOVETT STILL INTERESTED?

Following my conversation with Melvin Nunn, I texted Marcus LoVett Sr., having read about his rumored infatuation with Queens, NY.  I asked if he’d like to update his son’s recruitment status.

I received no reply.

KENDRICK ON “CONFIDENCE”

I get it that, in the lexicon of basketball, the word “confidence” gets overworked. It’s the go-to noun for describing wildly different states of mind.

In his pre-Michigan media availability, Kendrick used the word “confidence” once, and the word “confident” another time.

I asked him afterward what he meant by employing that word.

I was using “confidence” in general, to describe anybody.

Confidence is a big factor in playing basketball. If you have confidence you can perform at a high level. If you don’t, that’s when you go toward down.

It’s just a certain level of confidence that you need to have. And if you’re feeling really high about yourself, if you think you can do it, then you’ll go out and do it.

You seem confident to me, generally

Yeah.

I have confidence in what I do. Not trying to do too much.

MICHIGAN WOLVERINES. 2/12/15

So as far as Kendrick’s concerned, it’s a go. Ray is another story, and one that we’ll all be extremely interested in watching, I’m sure.

Because even Ray doesn’t realize that his hippocampus is looking out for him. And it doesn’t give a damn about Illini basketball.

Categories
Illini basketball

Glenn Mayborg Finds His Whistle

The Big Ten never penalized Pat Chambers for criticizing the officiating in Penn State’s loss at East Lansing on January 22. Maybe that encouraged Chambers to complain some more.

He hated Glenn Mayborg’s game-changing whistle, which came with 33 seconds remaining  in a tied game, which took the ball (and the win) from Penn State, which handed the ball (and the win) to Illinois.

Chambers said the game should be decided by the players, not the refs.

But that’s unfair to the Illini. The truth is that Glenn Mayborg (and Earl Walton and Rob Riley) had been deciding the game for all of the first 39 and a half minutes, too.

Mayborg and Riley were especially responsible for allowing Penn State’s bigs to wrestle and batter the Illini on the interior. Chambers should be thanking them effusively for keeping his team in the game. It certainly abetted The Nittany style of play.

On the other hand, Mayborg et al decided early on that every ticky-tack touch was a foul.

And this choice also benefited the Nittany Lions. e.g. not only did Nnanna Egwu spend 12 minutes on the pine (especially after his 4th “foul” with 12:29 to play) but when Austin Colbert checked in to spell Egwu; Donovon Jack, Julian Moore and Jordan Dickerson were given carte blanche to toss Colbert around the lane like a rubber chicken. (That said, Colbert stood his ground pretty well.)

I have not seen a more brutal game, perhaps ever.

The good (frankly fantastic) news abut Austin Colbert is that John Groce, spurred by the Mother of Invention, has figured out how to use him. Groce thinks Colbert is too weak to hold his own in the pivot. (Colbert is a lithe and lengthy small forward, but he’s been asked to play center for some reason.)

When Bruce Weber had Mike Tisdale and Richard Semrau on the roster, he never played them together. It could have been a great combination, but only if Weber could use zone defense effectively, to hide Tisdale’s slowness as a small forward. Groce figured it out. He used Colbert in combination with both Egwu and Maverick Morgan, hiding Austin in the zone.

Mike Basgier loves to talk about Austin Colbert, and point out that Austin works out more often than the rest of the team.

Basgier likes to point out that Austin is near the top of the charts in certain statistical categories (behind Rayvonte Rice).  Yet the concern for Groce & staff is Colbert’s strength in the post. Squats and bench-press equal keeping a B1G big off the glass.

AHMAD STARKS ON FIRE

Heather went to dinner & movie with a girlfirend while I stayed home editing pictures and audio. She reports that Ahmad Starks was at Savoy 16 “surrounded by girls.”

Good for him.

Starks shot 3-of-4 3FGs against PSU. He grabbed two rebounds, one of which dropped in his lap when Kendrick Nunn boxed every mofo who dared charge the lane. Starks also boxed mofos on behalf of his teammates.

ABOUT GLENN MAYBORG

A cursory search told me that I’ve written about him twice before. Once was an article about great officiating (which Jim Schipper really liked.) The other praises Mayborg for his patience.

Glenn Mayborg’s baseline activity is unlike any official I’ve seen. He moves constantly, which is frustrating for photographers, who all sit along the baseline. But it means he’s trying to get the best angle on every aspect of every movement.

In this day and age, plenty of digital recording renders each B1G basketball game as a searchable document. The data may prove me and 14,597 fans wrong. But we all thought there was something weird, incongruent, disjointed about the officiating.

Pat Chambers should be Nittany Lionized not only for his game plan, but for his manipulation of the conference and the media. He’s doing everything he can to maximize the potential of his team. Good for him. And great for Illinois that he didn’t get away with it.

A WEEK OFF

At least two of the lads used their free time to obtain a haircut. Leron Black opted for a fade, now resembling Kid n’ Play circa 1991. Kendrick Nunn got it all chopped off, now resembling Kendrick Nunn circa 2013.

DJ RICHARDSON RETURNS

Dietrich Richardson says he had a great time playing pro-ball in Finland.  He learned about the jet stream: It wasn’t as cold there, despite being way farther north. He also learned about jet lag. The flight home threw him for a loop, especially because he’s been living on three hours of sunlight per day.

D.J.’s agent advised him to get back to the states last week, because the folks in Finland were having a hard time finding their wallet. It’s a familiar story with pro-ball overseas.

He’s not sure where he’ll be balling next, but added that he should find out within ten days to two weeks.

ZACH NORVELL OFFERED

John Groce takes longer in getting to his postgame presser than any major conference coach I’ve observed in seven years of covering college basketball.  A week ago in Minneapolis, Groce’s dilatory attitude to media seemed to be the story among the twin cities’ beat writers.

What is he doing? we all wonder. We see the locker room speeches via the TNT series on YouTube. We hear his radio interview with Brian & Jerry (which today didn’t start until Penn State was practically on board its return flight). Neither of those postgame duties accounts for a full ten minutes. So when 40 minutes have passed,  we become curious.

Saturday afternoon, we got one inkling of Groce’s postgame, behind-the-scenes.

I tried to interview Zach Norvell during a media timeout, early in the second half. He was sitting with Saieed Ivey, about four feet behind me. Plenty easy to access.

Way too close to the pep band.

I could hear him fine, but it’s not good for microphones. I knew the sound quality would be terrible if I pressed “record.” One thing that I did hear him say clearly is that he did not have a scholarship offer from Illinois.

That seemed strange to me. Yes, the Illini team is composed purely of wings, and Zach is a wing; but Norvell seemed like an Illini target, not just a plan B.

Well,  it turns out that John Groce spends his post-locker room, pre-media room time offering scholarships to Simeon standouts. By the time Groce showed up for his postgame session, Zach Norvell was the proud recipient of an official offer.

By the time Groce finished his press conference, Norvell was still in the building only because his Simeon assistant coach Melvin Nunn is media savvy.  A pair of pleading texts kept the Simeon contingent around for the duration.


There are many reasons that Simeon’s coaching staff finds scholarships for all their guys. One of them is knowing how to play the game.  Another is knowing how to play the games.

“You owe me one,” said Melvin.

But it’s not true. I owe him many.

As for Saieed Ivey, he’s currently a freshman playing point guard at Governors State University in Will County.

BRENDA COLBERT ATTENDS

I was worried that I’d seen the last of the Colbert family. It had been long enough since I’d seen their son, who was once upon a time a basketball player at the University of Illinois.

But Saturday, Brenda Colbert showed up for the first time in ages. And Austin played meaningful minutes for the first time in ages. “Did you get a tip that he might be getting some real PT?” I asked at halftime.

“Nope. I just came on faith,” she replied.

Austin Colbert is a personal favorite of mine.  I freely admit I’m biased in his favor.  He’s simply a very warm, positive, funny and smart guy.

SUSPENDING TWO GUYS WHO WEREN’T GOING TO PLAY ANYWAY

Let’s just bookmark this moment. It’s brilliant, or it’s idiotic, or it reflects an actual moment of marijuana smoking.

Why would John Groce suspend two guys who can’t play? Did he do it from a sense of justice & rightness? Is he playing mind games with opposing coaching staves?

For purposes of the PSU game, it doesn’t matter. Neither of those two dudes would have played.

Is it an insult to the players themselves? Yes, it is. That’s why Groce didn’t elaborate on their purported malfeasance.

Is it all a farce? Probably not, but that would certainly be the coolest purpose for the suspensions.