Duke gets too many calls

Back from vacation, having recovered from my college basketball illness in time to have watch most of the Sweet 16 games down to last night’s final.  And the title of the post says it well.  Duke and Coach K get too many calls.  They just do.  Yes, their guys made plays and shots when needed.  Yes, they run an offense designed to open driving lanes and draw contact.  Yes, they were lucky the Badgers were worn down from the Kentucky game.

However, if you look at last night’s championship, you’ll note a very key point in the game, with Wisconsin playing well and up by about 7-8 at around the 15 minute mark of the second half.  Suddenly, the refs find their whistles.  The same thing happened against Michigan State and Gonzaga.  Four fouls in a row.  Every bump is a foul.  A Duke player jumps into the defender it’s a foul.  Duke charges are instead blocks on the other team, etc.  On the other end, Duke hand-checked with abandon and it wasn’t called.  Maybe the refs can only take so much of Coach K’s voice and at some point they just capitulate and start making those calls.

No one was more surprised or annoyed than Wisconsin coach, Bo Ryan.  As he told reporters after the game, and as he’s said many times, “We just don’t foul.”  It’s pretty much true.  The Badger haven’t been whistled for many fouls this year or in recent years with Ryan as the coach.  It’s how they play and also testament to Bo Ryan’s own sideline presence.  So it must have been pretty disheartening to see Duke in the double-bonus with so much time left.

As an Illini fan, I truly didn’t like the thought of Wisconsin winning a title.  It just doesn’t seem right.  But as a basketball fan I was really pulling for the Badgers down the stretch.  A big part of it was the officiating.  Too much.  And that’s a shame.

March Malaise

I don’t have a bracket this year.  Just don’t have the inclination.  This is what those awful final three games of the Illini season have done.  No tourney analysis, no matchups that can’t be missed.  Bah.

chief_logo_upsideHow does this happen?  A question for the coaching staff and all fellow suffering Illini.  How do we wake up today and it’s been 10 years since our last deep tourney run.  How do you not show up for half the game against Purdue and the entire game against Michigan, when all you need is one win to get in?  And as far as that NIT game – let’s all do ourselves a favor and try to forget that one…

We’ve known for some time this team was flawed, capable of bad stretches, offensively challenged at times.  But this ending collapse revealed flaws in the whole system – the recruiting, the offensive and defensive systems, the bench coaching…  And now we’re all asking ourselves if John Groce can be the guy.  Because nearly everyone wants him to be the guy:  he works hard, he says the right things, he’s a Midwest and Big 10 type of coach…  Really don’t want to head into this off-season with these kinds of questions about him. Continue reading

Storms and Late Starts

It’s been many, many years since we failed to make it to at least one Illini basketball game during the season.  For me, this  streak very likely goes back decades to when I was in high school.  Yes, we’re those kind of fans…  So when I looked at the calendar today and saw that tonight’s final home game against Nebraska begins at 9:00, and realizing that if I take the kids to this game they wouldn’t get home until 1:00 or so, and knowing that we have our own basketball practice tonight along with the new PARCC standardized tests at school this week, well, looks like no Illinois hoops for us this year.

I suppose I could go myself, maybe try to talk my brother into going with me.  Get home late and be tired tomorrow.  But with his new mini-Rube at the house this probably isn’t an option.  It’s a shame because I really have a lot of respect for our team’s seniors – especially Nnnanna Egwu and Ray Rice – and would like to cheer for them in person one last time. Continue reading

Blame the Refs!

This weekend, Illini fans were treated to one of the strangest, most head-scratching, end-of-the-game referee decisions we have seen.  It was a potential game changer with about 30 seconds to go, and because of the thin margins for teams like Illinois and Michigan State, it was a potential season changer as well.  Hard to give this call justice, but here it is.

Your basic hard screen-out on a bonus free throw…  What you don’t see in that little clip (or actually you start to see it) is the Spartan player looks over to be sure the ref is watching, then doubles over in agony as if he’s been groin-smacked.  Maybe he was…  Sure doesn’t look like it.  Anyway, the refs called nothing, so they went to the video screen for a replay and assessed a technical foul – fouling out Jaylon Tate, giving the Spartans two more free throws and the ball, and sending the Illini Nation into a collective rage.  Fortunately the Spartans only made one FT, gave up the ball, and Illinois won in the end.  But speaking to my brother and others, we can’t remember ever seeing such a poor decision, so clearly influenced by the home crowd and the reputation of the coach (Tom Izzo, Dean of Big 10 hoops coaches).  This call resulted in a twitter slap-fight between ESPN talking head Dan Dakich and the mayor of Champaign, Don Gerard (no vote-trolling there). Continue reading

Shifting to Cover

Victory Badge

We haven’t had much analysis on Illini Hoops of late – mostly because the results have been disappointing and hard to figure.  When they play better on offense, they can’t seem to sustain their defense.  The shooting is off.  Then Rayvonte Rice broke his hand this week on the heels of a two-game winning streak…

And Illinois responded like they needed to – backs against the wall and a home win against a Top 10 Maryland team.  It was a really nice performance.  Good to see the coaching staff mix up the rotations and the defenses to come up with a plan.  Good to see guys Like Hill, Egwu, and especially Jaylon Tate step up. Continue reading

D Needs Work

Illinois’ loss to Villanova  Tuesday night was a lost opportunity on the big stage.  Just like last week’s game against Miami, this was a chance to beat play a highly ranked team and show something.  The Illini did show something – fighting back from a double digit deficit, playing some good basketball…  But then, once they tied the game at around the 8-minute mark, Illinois proceeded to let Villanova score the next five possession and go 8 for 9 to close it out.  Must…   Defend…  Better….

Say one thing for the offense:  our boys took it inside this time.  Rayvonte Rice and Malcolm Hill went at them.  But the stat of the game:  Rice with no free throws.  And he was hammered multiple times.  Just don’t know how the refs let that happen…

At one point the cameras focused on Jay Wright working the officials hard, and the ESPN guys talked about the ‘strange relationship’ between refs and coaches.  Next play- tic-tack reach-in on Egwu.  Very next play, junk call on Egwu under the basket.  And meanwhile Rice and Hill getting hammered…

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The Brick Coda

Coach Groce applauds an assist

Illinois finished the basketball season with a one point loss at Clemson on Sunday.  It was a painful gain to watch:  open shots, plenty of chances, but the ball just would not go in.  14% from three and 37.5% from the field doesn’t get you many wins.  It was the type of offensive performance we’ve grown accustomed to this year.

If you look at the gross stats on ESPN, you’ll see the Illini ranked in the bottom quarter of all Division I schools for points per game (64.6 points, ranked 311).  There are a few good teams that score that little, a very few, but the remaining teams in the NCAA Tourney all score more.  Illinois shot 40.9% from the field (320th) and 31.9% from three (293rd), still in the bottom quarter to bottom third of all teams.  In assists, we were 10.1 per game, good for 330th, which is bottom 10%.  There are lots of other statistics that measure tempo, offensive efficiency per possession, etc., but bottom line, this was a bad offensive team.  Hopefully we won’t see worse offense in many years to come.

The real question:  how did this team actually manage to win 20 games and make it to the post-season?  Defense, obviously, and grit and toughness.  When Nike unveils their rebrand concept soon, they damned well better place ‘FIGHTING’ above the ‘ILLINI’ on the basketball jerseys.  And yes, this toughness and sound defense can keep you in a lot of games, even allow you to steal a few.  You can build an identity around ‘Fighting’.  This last game against Clemson, for example:  Clemson shot close to 50% and out-rebounded Illinois, and yet we were one better possession the final minute away from stealing that game at the end.

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7, 31, and 10.4

7, 31, and 10.4…  7 of course being the current Illini hoops losing streak, the worst in years.  Last night the Orange and Blue got down big to loathsome Iowa – 21 down in fact in the first half.  Texted my brother that they looked football-team bad.  Now that’s saying something…  People where booing in the Hall State Farm Center, which not only ticked off Coach Groce (and yours truly), it seemed to trigger something.

chief_logo_upsideIllinois started playing hard and making some shots, and they roared back.  Went to halftime only down four.  The Illini actually took the lead and built it to five in the second half, but then Iowa countered. And the emotional toll of such a big comeback as well as the now familiar lack of execution in the final 3-4 minutes yielded another defeat.   There were plays to be made at the end, and Illinois couldn’t make them.  Egwu couldn’t quite catch the ball on an in-bounds right in front of the basket (would’ve been a dunk).  Abrams’ contact drawing-drives drew no fouls, while on the other end Marble’s drives (even with no contact) got the whistle.  Classic Big 10 Refs.  Jon Ekey airmailed an open three (he was cramping up from too many minutes).  And down we go.  Again. Continue reading

Early Gut Check

chief_logoThe Fighting Illini basketball team have almost no margin for error.  We’ve seen that the last two games.  With Rayvonte Rice nursing an injury and far from himself, Illinois managed to drop two they should have won – two games they needed to win against Northwestern and Purdue.  Most likely, those two losses have sunk any NCAA tourney aspirations.

So now Michigan State comes to town, looking like the top team in the conference (7:00, BTN).  They’re very tough as usual, but they too, have some injuries.  It’s a home game, and Coach Groce says Rice is nearly 100%, so we’re saying there’s a chance…  And the Illini better take it.  Road games against good teams are on the horizon.

To beat the Spartans, a couple of things need to happen:  Ray Rice needs to be himself again and drop in about 20 or so.  Tracy Abrams needs a strong game offensively and he must avoid turnovers at key points.  Egwu needs to snap out of it and provide something on offense (which means he has to play and avoid foul trouble).  And someone – Ekey, Hill, Nunn, Bertrand – needs to hit some timely 3s.  As we said – little to no margin for error.  Steal a win and keep those slim post-season hopes afloat.

We admit it’s a lot to ask.  We realize it’s unlikely.  All the same – go Illini!

Pentagram: Road win in Vegas

Coach em up

For the Fighting Illini basketball team, the first real test came late last night against UNLV on the road.  After beating up on some lesser opponents in Champaign, Coach Groce and Company traveled to Las Vegas in preparation for a December stretch that’s looking much tougher.

Illinois went down by 10 at halftime and looked pretty bad the final four minutes of the first half.  We knew the halftime adjustments were coming, though, and Coach Groce indeed had them looking better in the second.  It’s such novel idea to come out of halftime knowing your team will shift and change to exploit identified weaknesses…  We still aren’t used to it.

The Illini out-toughed and out executed UNLV in the second, with good performances by Ray Rice, Nnanna Egwu, and Jaylon Tate.  Final score 61-59, thanks to switching the defenses, running the right set plays in given situations, and hitting some clutch shots towards the end  This is an early season belief-win that will surely help the RPI come March.

Five points in your first road-win pentagram…

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