At least it’s Hoops Season

Fighting Illini fans have watched their football team implode, with the Orange and Blue in the midst of a long conference losing streak that’s not likely to end soon.  But across the street at the Assembly Hall, the basketball team looks intriguing.  The old Central Illinois saying once again rings true:  At least we have basketball…

The football team’s offense is just terrible.  Not much hope of scoring or moving the ball.  The venerable one checks in with his analysis here.  It ain’t pretty. At A Lion Eye, Robert breaks it down (again) with clear emphasis on recruiting misses and general unluckiness with offensive lineman.  This, right here, is the key.  Until we upgrade the line, it doesn’t matter what system you run, who calls the plays, etc.  No time to throw it and few holes for running backs.  And all you have to do to get better is win some recruiting battles for O-linemen in your home state.  If Beckman and company want to keep their jobs, they must address this trend first.  Until then, like many others, I just don’t have a lot of time and patience for this team.

On the other hand, John Groce has been building something.  In seven months on the job he’s already accomplished two things his predecessor either couldn’t or wouldn’t do.   1) Bring in a top recruiting class and win some recruiting battles.  2) Run a fast break and transition offense.

With the recruiting, we now have a five player class – the Reboot Five – with guys at every position.  Wing guard Malcolm Hill, Shooting Guard Kendrick Nunn, Center Maverick Morgan, Point Guard Jaylon Tate, and Power Forward Austin Colbert.  Sun Times recruiting guru Joe Henrickson breaks it down here.  And don’t forget transfer Rayvonte Rice, who will provide an immediate impact next year.  The previous coaching staff simply couldn’t have signed a class like this for a number of reasons – a big reason they’re no longer around.  Now Groce just needs to land an elite player or two and we’re back in business.

We also have the first two games to consider.  Both of them were blowout wins over weaker opponents.  Both of them saw the Illini score 88 and 89 points.  But when you consider last year’s team only scored 80 or more once all season, you can feel optimistic.  Groce’s Illini will push the tempo, which is something we haven’t seen in a decade or more.  This may get them blown out by better teams, and you can only push tempo so much in the Big 10, but it’s a welcome change.  These Illini will run sets and a lot of ball screens, which are easier to grasp than the intricate motion offense that so rarely worked the last few years.  They will also shoot with confidence.

If there’s one aspect to Coach Groce and his staff to applaud on game day, it’s their projection of confidence and how that has seemed to rub off.  Tyler Griffey, Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu… all seem more confident and assertive.  It remains to be seen how this all works when the team matches up with more talented opponents.  And the Big 10 appears to be as tough as it’s been in about 20 years, so…

If the football team has taught us anything in this coaching transition period, it’s don’t get ahead of yourself.  I honestly thought Beckman’s crew could get to 6-6.  So we have to remain realistic with the Hoops Squad.  These are still the same guys (minus an NBA Center) who lost 12 of 14 down the stretch.  These are the same guys who throw bad passes under no pressure and can’t find the open man on a dribble drive.  Same guys who get beat off the dribble too often.

But when you watch an actual fast break, when you look up and notice we’ve only run the shot clock down once the entire game, when guys get into driving lanes and find the open shooters…  I’m glad basketball is back.

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