March Blah-ness

The NCAA Tournament has started.  For the first time in many, many years, I didn’t even fill out a bracket.  Just could not get into it this year.  Is this the inevitable consequence of your team(s) being irrelevant in March multiple consecutive years?  As my son would say, ‘probably.’

There’s also a lot of other stuff going on – soccer season starting up for the kids, school events one after the other, lots of house and yard work…  So many excuses.  If the Fighting Illini were in – as a projected seed or even a marginal lower tier team, I’d be plotting their upsets and inevitable second weekend appearance, scouring the matchups, figuring out who will advance.  Instead, Illinois fans are treated to the third arrest of a player within about three weeks.  Not good, Coach, not good at all…

So I guess it’s time to root, root, root for the underdog, look for some hardworking teams to upset the blue bloods, and scout for coaches on the upswing.  Games will still be on.  We’ll still watch the second weekend and the Final Four closely.  Maybe next year.

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

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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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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March Maladroitness

It’s that time of year!  And with our Fighting Illini back in the mix again, we will be following this year’s NCAA Tourney with the kind of relentless commitment that will make the wife sigh and roll her eyes.  Speaking of the wife:  she’s agreed to fill out a bracket this year and attempt to get into it a bit.  She probably hasn’t watched more than one or two basketball games all year (and then only begrudgingly in the background).  She will probably beat me like a drum.

I’ve really kind of given up trying to be all analytical and stat-driven about the tourney.  It never seems to work.  I also have to admit that I don’t watch as much college hoops as I used to, so my sample’s not as large.  I have watched a lot of Big 10 ball, though (ugly as it may be at times), and that’s one of my themes.

We’re all about the the themes.  This year it’s ‘B1G is legit’.  In past years it’s been ‘B1G is underrated’, etc.  I always pick too many from the conference.  I always pick against teams with coaches I don’t like.  I always pick some crazy upsets (sometimes it works).  So this year, I’m embracing these traits and themes.

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Pentagram: #1 De-Creaned

It’s been a rough 2013 for the Fighting Illini.  The promise of Nov-Dec. wins, surprising confidence and offensive execution, and a new uptempo attitude all slipped away as the Big 10 slugfest continued.  Realistically, the NCAA tournament has slipped off the radar.  Or maybe not…

Griff, the winner

One way to get over the hump is to end your home losing streak with a win over Indiana.  Who happens to be #1 this week…  On a last second shot…  After coming way back from behind in the last five minutes.

It just so happened that the Hoosiers were ranked at the top this week – a happy coincidence of scheduling and other teams losing.  They are not #1 (especially now), and certainly not the best team we’ve seen; that would be Michigan.  But we’ll take it.  If someone gets to knock the smirk of Tom Crean’s face, it might as well be Illinois!

Five points in the upset Pentagram…

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Response Plan Needed

The scouting report on John Groce’s Illini is in, and the best conference in the country will now take full advantage.  Hit them hard early and keep hitting them.  Against Minnesota  a karate chop to Brandon Paul’s nose sent him to the locker room for about ten minutes to stop the bleeding.  At Madison yesterday, Wisconsin gashed Tyler Griffey above the eye and he needed stitches.

In three Big 10 losses (including the last two games) the opponents have been physical from the opening tip and Illinois hasn’t responded.  The shooting has been awful, rebounding a joke, and the defense has regressed. We’ve seen this before.  Most recently in last season’s memorable collapse.

Part of this is the inevitable ebb and flow of a season – particularly a perimeter oriented team in a bruising conference like the B1G.  Part of it is identified player deficiencies that that better level of coaching in conference play always seems to hone in on.  But how much of it is attitude and response by the players and coaches?  We will soon find out.

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Checklists for Coach

Last Thursday, Illinois hired a new basketball coach, John Groce.  Formerly with Ohio University (Sweet 16 this year), Groce has assistant coach experience at Ohio State,, Xavier, Butler, and NC State.  Experts close to the program such as the News-Gazette’s Paul Klee and yours truly liked Groce as a a candidate from the beginning.  Just take a look at our own coach search checklist, filled out the day after Bruce Weber was let go…

Strong recruiter.  Check for Groce – he has a reputation as a very good recruiter as an assistant and quickly upped the talent at Ohio.

Up-tempo/pressure D/flexibility.  Check for Groce – Bobcats ranked third in the nation for forced turnovers.  They actually run a fastbreak and play at a much quicker tempo.  If you watched them in the tourney, you saw a team that executed after timeouts and were able to switch up D to confuse opponents.  Almost led them to upset North Carolina.

Can and will recruit in Chicago.  We shall see.  All indications are that Groce isn’t afraid of the Windy City; the same cannot be said for Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens.  Groce already has received an affirmation of commitment from guard Jalen James, and Chicago Simeon guard Kendrick Nunn will reportedly visit campus next weekend.

-Midwest/Big Ten guy.  Check for Groce, who grew up less than two hours away in Danville, IN.  Yes, that makes him a boyhood Hoosier fan.  We will cope somehow.  The majority of Groce’s coaching tenure has been in the Big Ten footprint, and he knows the coaches he will soon face.

-Big Name/National Rep.  No checkmark here.  And this is the box Mike Thomas hoped to check with guys like Smart and Stevens, the box the Chicago media were complaining about.  To that we answer – when has Illinois hired a big name?  You can argue that when Lon Kruger came over from Florida, that fit the bill.  Otherwise the Illini have always looked to up-and-comers from the smaller conferences.

-Can relate to players and help them improve.  Check for Groce.  He has a strong rep as a guy who can communicate well with players, while helping them advance their skills and basketball IQ.  This was getting to be a real issue for Weber.

For AD Mike Thomas, more importantly, John Groce wants to be an Illini.  Fans can pine for this big name or that known guy, but if they don’t want to come to Champaign, it really doesn’t matter.  Smart wanted no part of Chicago; neither did Stevens.  Other bigger names did not express interest, and if you looked at that list of candidates, many of them have other questions.  In Groce you (hopefully) get a coach on the way up.  This is how Illinois can succeed.  Look at Lou Henson and Bill Self. Continue reading