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

Patience Required, Dammit

The search for the next Illinois basketball coach has entered stealth mode, which of course hasn’t kept leaks from internet hoops gurus and third-party sourced tweets from ramping up hype and speculation.  Earlier this week it was Shaka Smart.  The media frenzy was so intent he issued a statement of non-interest.  Meanwhile, ‘sources’ claimed a generous multi-year offer had been extended.  The venerable one says, “not so fast…”  and I’m with him.

Illinois AD Mike Thomas has to tread carefully, which is why he hired a search firm to vet out skeletons in the closet and act as an intermediary.  He likely has a couple of top objectives for this method:  1) Satisfy the political braying of certain members of the Board of Trustees, 2) Ensure plausible deniability, which in turn allows for the protection of the eventual new coach’s ego, as well as covering Thomas.

Think about it:  if/when Thomas hires a lesser-known coach and the Chicago media blasts him, he can point to these ‘leaks’ and overtures to Smart and most recently, Butler’s Brad Stephens, and say, I made an attempt for the obvious candidates – they weren’t interested.  Or maybe Stephens is interested.  We just don’t know yet. Continue reading

Bracket Time

With no rooting interest or teams to follow, this year’s bracket picks should be much improved.  Right?  RIGHT?

We’re going against the usual form and trying to avoid personal bias as much as possible.  This means not overestimated Big 10 and Missouri Valley teams and not picking upsets for teams or coaches we despise.  Also, we didn’t spend hours doing statistical analysis this year, instead we went by teams we’ve seen and the general absorbed commentary of the talking heads.

So here’s a Sweet Sixteen, with Final Four picks italicized:

South: Kentucky, Wichita State, UNLV, Duke

West: Michigan State, New Mexico, Murray State, Missouri

East: Kansas State, Vanderbilt, Florida State, Ohio State

Midwest: North Carolina, Michigan, San Diego State, Kansas

A few surprise and upset entries, but nothing to outrageous.  Let’s see what happens.

Illini Fight off Bad Month

February has been one of the more brutal months in recent memory for the Illinois basketball team.  Last night’s 65-54 win over Iowa was the first this month, stopping a six game skid, and reminding us this team is capable of effective basketball – at least in stretches.

Coach Weber went to the old motivational handbook, bringing his two best players off the bench.  Meyers Leonard responded with one of his best, hard-working performances of the year.  He had 22 points, 14 rebounds, and 2 blocks, and he fought inside the entire game.  Brandon Paul played unselfishly for the most part and played furious defense on Iowa star Matt Gatens.

The team fought hard, rebounded hard, and threw the ball away and let the shot clock run down hard.  In short, they won the only way this team can: fighting through their flaws.  Full credit to the coaches and players for coming out with great effort and intensity.  These Illini can beat about anyone on a given day, but they can also lose to about anyone. Continue reading

Missing Ingredients and Current Illini Woe

Another loss, this time to a middling Purdue team at home.   Seven losses out of the last eight.  And Coach Weber, by his own comments, seems resigned to, well – resignation (or worse).  It’s a sad day for this Illini fan.  Bruce Weber is a good man who does things the right way.  He works his butt off, recruiting, teaching, impacting the community.  He’s a guy you want to succeed.

We’ve criticized the motion offense for years.  It always seems less effective in the second swing of conference games due to over-familiarity and predictability.  No need to rehash that.  This team needed a strong defensive identity to win, and that just hasn’t happened.  This is on the coaches and the players.  It also comes down to the fact that a lot of the guys on this roster are decent role-players who are asked to do too much.  We’re not going to call guys out here, so instead we will highlight some other guys, who chose to go elsewhere who would have made a difference. Continue reading