I knew this would happen. It’s so impossible to not get sucked in. Rayvonte Rice is going off and I’m barely able to contain myself and I forget all about the expectations I had for this team. I spend the offseason telling my friends that this team will struggle for most of the season as the new players get settled in, and then, as soon as I see us come back at UNLV, I think we’re a 23-8 team and capable of the second weekend. [Read more...]
Started to write a postgame post last night when I got home, but then I realized it was 1:30 in the morning and the post sounded like the insane ramblings of a man at 1:30 in the morning, so I deleted it. So, given some time to digest, here’s my post-postgame post.
It’s almost been a full week now. According to Deuteronomy, one is to wear sackcloth and ashes for one week after the best recruit in 27 years hat-fakes while choosing your former coach and your former player who is an assistant to your former coach at the school that simply owns you. At dawn tomorrow, that period comes to a close.
Which means we can start to look at 2015 recruiting. I’m not going to get into any names yet – to do so would be too painful. Pretty much every 5-star player we’re chasing just represents someone else who will break our hearts. But I do want to look at our current roster for 2015 to find our needs. That’s a safe place to start, I think.
As of right now, the 2015 class will be four players because we’ll graduate four guys at the end of the 2014/15 season: Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Rayvonte Rice, and Ahmad Starks. I’m guessing the actual class will be five players, given that we’ve averaged around one player transferring out every year in the last decade. Which means that by the time the 2014/15 season ends, we might actually have two spots to fill. But for now, given that roster, let’s see where the guys on the roster line up.
As you know, I like to do this by filling nine spots. Each of the five positions and then a hybrid guy between each of the spots. I like my basketball teams all interchangeable and stuff.
Here’s how I see that 2015 roster right now:
1 – Jaylon Tate
1/2 – Aaron Cosby
2 – Kendrick Nunn
3 – DJ Williams
3/4 – Malcolm Hill, Michael Finke
4 – Darius Paul, Leron Black
4/5 – Austin Colbert
5 – Maverick Morgan
Some thoughts on that before we move on to needs:
+ I’m making the assumption that Aaron Cosby can play a little point guard. I’ve heard that, but we haven’t seen that, so it’s hard to put him in the combo guard spot until we see if he can really do that. Still, I think 1/2 is a better spot for him than the 2.
+ Malcolm Hill is the hardest player to place on this list. When I saw him in high school, all 6′-5″, 165 lbs of him, I figured he was a 2/3. Now, at maybe 6′-7″ and 215 lbs, is he a 3/4? Will he be a 4? He just turned 18 last month and is still growing – will he be 7′-3″ 310 lbs before he’s done?
+ Paul, Black, and Finke were hard to place, too. Paul shot 44 threes at Western Michigan last year, so it’s hard to call a guy like that a true power forward. Finke is like Griffey or Ekey – if your last name ends in “ee”, you’re a stretch four. And I’m never sure where to place a stretch four on this list. Leron Black is probably the closest to a true four, but he’s also kind of a wing. So maybe all we have are 3/4 forwards. And a lot of them.
OK, on to the needs. With Abrams, Rice, and Starks graduating, it’s obvious that we’ll need to recruit some guards. But with only Colbert and Morgan in the paint, we’ll need at least one big, too. We’ve already added the first player to that class, DJ Williams, and I’ve plugged him in as a true three, which was a need. Here’s how I’d rank the needs after that.
1. Impact Big
It’s Impact Big by a nose over Impact Lead Guard. Based mostly on the fact that we’ve seen more from Jaylon Tate in the first four games than we’ve seen from Morgan and Colbert. My hopes for those two are along the same lines as my hopes for offensive linemen: get them in the weight room and see what you have once they’re juniors. So maybe we’ll be OK in the paint in 2015 as they’ll just be rounding into form. But I’d sure like to find an impact big man we can place in the paint immediately.
2. Lead Guard
It’s been so elusive for John Groce. He arrived talking about how he liked to have a lead guard run his offense (like DJ Cooper at Ohio). Not really a point guard, but a scoring guard with enough handles to run the offense. He thought he had him in Demetrius Jackson, but Jackson opted for Notre Dame. Then he landed him in Quentin Snider, but Scott Snider pulled a Matt Cushman so we were left standing at the altar again. So for 2015, third time must be a charm.
Malcolm Hill can shoot the three a little bit. So can Michael Finke, hopefully. Kendrick Nunn can probably shoot the three a little bit. Maybe even Darius Paul. But besides Aaron Cosby, there really isn’t a spot-up shooter on that roster. And Cosby will be a senior that season (2015/16). Man, maybe I have shooting guard too low on this list. We really need to pick up someone who can shoot it from deep.
I didn’t really have an idea where I’d land when going through this exercise, but I think the three needs are crystal clear. To DJ Williams we must add an impact big, a lead guard, and a shooter.
Which players we’re recruiting fit those roles? I have some ideas, but I can’t say yet. Still too painful.
I hung around press row after the game. Pretty much just because it’s cool. After the events of this week, I felt like I needed to have an Illini moment. So I just kind of sat there soaking it in. Remembering my days in Krush. Thinking back on games like Wake Forest. As I’ve mentioned during football postgame posts, I do this all the time. “There’s the spot where Frankie hit the shot to beat Ohio State”. I’m weird.
I got up to leave just as John Groce was coming back in to do the postgame radio interview. So I stood there and watched. You know what’s coming next.
Have you heard it said about someone that they “command a room”? They just have one of those personalities that draws everyone’s attention. Tonight, it felt like John Groce commanded a room that holds 16,000 people.
Brian Barnhart asked him a question about the game to start, and Groce put the question on hold and began by offering his thoughts and prayers to the tornado victims today. Any coach would do that, so no big deal, but then he listed every town that was affected. Something like “our thoughts are with those in Gifford, Thomasboro, Hoopeston, East Peoria, Pekin, and Washington”, and then he shared a personal story about being at Washington High School recently.
I may have the cities wrong, and I certainly have the order wrong. And that’s kind of my point. He’s one of those people that makes a point to list each city that was affected by tornadoes, from memory. But that’s not the only way he commanded the room.
When he was finished, he walked across the floor to greet some people who were waiting for him (relatives?), saying hi to an usher on the way (chances he knew his name: 97%). He saw a Bradley player coming out from the locker room and grabbed him by the arm and spoke with him for 25 seconds, making a few motions like he was describing something good he did in the game. Then it’s off to hug some people, and glad-hand some people, point at some people, laugh with some people, and then back down the tunnel to go to the press conference.
He commanded the entire room. I looked around to see other people watching him as well. Sure, there’s the celebrity aspect of it, but this was more than that. He’s just one of those people. Leaders are just leaders, and you can tell when the walk into a room. Even if that room is a 16,000 seat arena.
+ That was an impressive performance. Outrebounding Bradley 49-25. Shooting 40% from three. Holding Bradley to 35% shooting. The starters had 8, 7, 7, 7, and 5 rebounds. We pushed out to a double digit lead early and never let up.
Part of that is our first hot shooting game from behind the arc, including 5-7 from Jon Ekey. But part of it was a team that, apart from maybe a sloppy three minute stretch in the second half, never let up.
I’m a score watcher – I’d much rather win 71-59 than 69-61 – so I started doing the math late in the game (I’m weird). I really wanted to get into the 80′s, and I wanted to hold Bradley in the 50′s. 79-60 would have been an unsatisfying score. So what did we do? Extend the lead from 19 to 26 late. Even the second string guys were getting after it.
We won’t shoot like this nor rebound like this during the Big Ten schedule (except for when we play Northwestern), and we’ve yet to take this team of newcomers on the road, but this was a really encouraging performance.
+ Speaking of newcomers, if you didn’t watch the online feed, go find some highlights. Rayvonte Rice threw down some thunderous dunks tonight, including a lob from Jaylon Tate that was my first “I want to stand up and scream but I’m not supposed to cheer here” moment of the season. He puts it down with authority. Kenny Battle-style. Violent dunking. Throwing it through the hoop at 96 mph.
And he missed his best dunk, a putback that he just couldn’t grab. This is setting up for a really nice story. Remember how Ryan Blackwell came back to the town where he grew up but it didn’t work out? And how Carvell Ammons transferred back to Illinois but it didn’t really work out? This might be a really special homecoming story in March of his senior year.
+ The first time I got to interview John Groce a month after he was hired, I asked him about each of the seniors on his first team. And he had this to say about Tyler Griffey:
I think in terms of our style of play, Tyler is going to benefit big-time in terms of how we play. He’s going to stretch the floor for us – we’ve always played a stretch 4 – and he’s going to be able to get threes off penetration. He’s going to have a lot of freedom to shoot the ball.
And then we saw that on the court last year. Penetration and kicks to the stretch four for threes. And that’s what we saw tonight from Jon Ekey – penetration by Abrams, Rice, and Tate and kicks to Ekey for three. And that’s something we’ll see from Michael Finke. And maybe Malcolm Hill, depending on where we use him in the future.
Ekey was the player of the game tonight, not only leading in scoring, but also getting some key rebounds and even a putback dunk. I mentioned this on Twitter during the game, but Ekey only scored 11 points and then 4 points in Illinois State’s two games against Bradley last year. In their new offense, he really wasn’t a stretch four, and all of his numbers dropped from 2012 to 2013. In this offense, if he can do that, he’s going to put up better number than he did last year at ISU.
+ One more tune-up game this week against Chicago State and then the real fun begins. After that game, five of the next seven are at UNLV, at Georgia Tech, Auburn in Atlanta, at Oregon, and Missouri in St. Louis. Right now I’d say 2-3 in those five games would be the expectation. Find a way to win three of them, and this team might be a little further along than I thought.
They certainly looked that way tonight.
It wasn’t the easiest win of the young season for the Illini, but it was the type of game this team needs. Illinois was able to build up leads in both halves, but Valparaiso never wilted under the Illini’s pressure; in fact they applied some of their own. The pesky Crusaders went as far as cutting the Illini lead to just two points at 49-47 with 6:43 left in the game. The Illini responded with a 15-5 run to close out the game, and their third straight victory to open the season. Rayvonte Rice once again led the Illini with 18 points and 8 rebounds, while Jon Ekey pulled down 15 rebounds, almost doubling his numbers in the first two games. [Read more...]
The Illini are two games into the season, sitting at 2-0 with a 17 and 24-point win over what can only be described as inferior competition in Alabama State and Jacksonville State. That’s fine, the Illini are taking care of business, John Groce is attempting to figure out his rotation, and the team is gaining the experience they will need once the schedule gets tougher at the end of November. But what conclusions can we draw from two games worth of numbers? Let’s find out in Behind the Box Score.
I was in Orange Crush (with a C) back in 1991. An easy walk from Forbes 2 South to the Assembly Hall in my long sleeve t-shirt with the soda logo. I’d save every ticket stub and write the score on the front. I went to Illinois for the football and basketball, so why not?
I arrived in the fall of 1991. Here were our Big Ten finishes the nine seasons leading up to that year: 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 4th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 4th, 3rd. So even though the Bruce Pearl probation had hit, the buzz around the program was still strong. For my first game in Crush, walking into the Assembly Hall was everything I had imagined. A buzz in the air. Packed crowd. THIS is Illinois Basketball.
That faded over my five years. We weren’t allowed to recruit off campus, and we were only allowed two scholarships each year, so things fell apart pretty quickly, starting with that 91/92 season (13-15). In my five years at Illinois, we had one single NCAA tournament win (Long Beach State in 1993). The crowds at the end of the 1995/96 season just didn’t have the buzz that the 1980′s had. The program had lost most of its momentum.
That started to come back in 1998, and after a rebuilding season in 1999, things really started to roll. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. The crowds in Assembly Hall from 2000 to 2006 were legendary. We simply didn’t lose at home. Walking into the Wake Forest game in 2004 was the largest buzz I’ve ever felt in any arena ever, sporting event, concert, or otherwise. That place was electric.
And that’s coming back. Fairly soon. The way John Groce is recruiting, the middle of this decade will be a return to just that. If he lands Cliff on Friday, next year is suddenly Final Four possible.
That’s what I was thinking about at the game tonight. If you follow my Twitter feed, you know this. I was watching the game, yes. But during every timeout, I was looking all around the arena. The mostly empty (and I mean empty) non-Krush student section. That will be a thing of the past in two years or less.
Have you ever been in some concert venue before anyone arrives? The stage is set up, the lights, the sound, but the place is dead quiet. And you know that in two hours, that place will be so packed and loud that you won’t be able to hear yourself think. But at that moment, some physical space, completely different environment.
That’s what I’m talking about. The crowd tonight was fine. Thin, but it’s a Sunday and we’re playing Jacksonville State. Getting to E-14 was a breeze – no traffic at all. Walking in had one-fiftieth the buzz that Wake Forest had. As it should. It was simply a low-end non-conference game for a program that hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 since 2005.
But three years from now? Like, three years from tonight? If we play Jacksonville State again three years from tonight, that place will be completely different. And I’m not talking about the renovations, either.
What do we know about three years from tonight? Let’s just assume that everyone is still here (they probably won’t be). That’s Tate, Nunn, Hill, Colbert, Paul, and Morgan as seniors, Black, Snider, and Finke as juniors, and DJ Williams as a sophomore. And I think it’s safe to say that John Groce will add at least two more top-100 recruits by then. Given the players he’s targeting, possibly even 5-star kids.
With that talent and that team, the brand new State Farm Center will resemble Assembly Hall in 1988 or 2004. The buzz will be palpable. The students will be fighting for tickets. Krush membership will skyrocket. Tickets for even Jacksonville State will sell on the secondary market. All of that is coming back.
So it was fascinating to watch the crowd tonight. The calm before the storm. Again, it was fine. It wasn’t two years ago where the crowd was actively upset with a smattering of boos for Bruce Weber. It was fine.
But it’s about to get exceptional. Maybe even starting Friday.
+ I suspect the majority of postgame articles will be about Jaylon Tate. That kid… that kid good. I think it was two years ago when I was begging for our very own Aaron Craft or Jordan Taylor – a kid outside the top-100 who shows up and pulls a Cory Bradford. From low expectations to “is he the best player in this class?” in an instant. It has probably been since James Augustine and Deron Williams that we’ve had a player far, far outplay his high school ranking.
And after two games, I feel like we might have one on our hands. I’ll stop short of calling him Bradford – we need to see more offense first – but this kid’s basketball IQ appears to be off the charts. Eight assists and one turnover tonight. No turnovers on Friday night. Always looking for the lob to Bertrand or Colbert. Yes, it’s just two games against two really bad opponents. But he’s all everyone was talking about after the game. A point guard’s point guard.
And I can’t help but think Turner/Notree here. Two guys from Simeon, one the big-time recruit, the other an add-on late. Hopefully Nunn follows Notree’s path (without the transfer) where he gets a cup of coffee in the NBA. And hopefully Tate follows Kevin Turner’s “lead us to a Big Ten title as a senior” ways as well.
+ John Groce emphasized in the postgame that he’s going to play all 11 guys in all of these non-conference games. With all of these newcomers (again, only Bertrand, Egwu, and Abrams return), he’s going to give everyone a lot of time on the court to see what he has.
Which is kind of fun for us. In the past, especially with Bruce Weber’s short leash, we didn’t get to see much of the guys on the end of the bench. Now, everyone gets at least 10 minutes. I’m sure that will shrink come Big Ten season, but for now it’s kind of fun.
+ It’s fun for now, but I feel like Nnanna Egwu’s fadeaway is going to bother me this season. He had one play where he caught the ball in the low, low post, with a guard covering him… and he went with the little fadeaway. From my angle, he could have just turned and dunked it. A layup easy. But it was a jump-back fadeaway instead.
Now, he made it. And he made almost every other fadeaway in the game. So why question something that works so well? I guess I just feel like this team needs him to be a true low-post presence, not a fadeaway guy. Shelly Clark, not Chris Gandy. I know Egwu won’t ever be Clark, but would a post move or two hurt anyone?
+ It’s a silly comparison, but since I’m in this “take me back to 1993″ mood, I’m going to make it anyway. Their games are different, but when Rayvonte Rice takes the ball to the hoop, his moves remind me of Kiwane Garris. Not really the dribbling part, but the taking-the-ball-in-traffic-and-somehow-getting-it-off-the-glass-and-in part. In my book, Kiwane was the best ever at geometry. No matter where he was on the court, he understood the angle required to use the glass.
Rice had a few drives in the exhibition games and another drive tonight where I struggle to understand how he A) kept from getting it blocked and B) somehow got the right angle off the glass.
I feel like I need to stress this some more. Overall game, ball-distribution-skills, all of that – not like Kiwane. The ability to go into the lane and get the ball to hit the square – just like Kiwane.
How many 90′s player comparisons can I make tonight? Hey, that’s how I’ll close this post. Here’s the 2013 recruiting class comparisons:
Tate – Turner
Hill – Robert Bennett
Morgan – Scott Pierce
Colbert – Chris Gandy
None of these are actual comparsions, of course. I just wanted to bring up Robert Bennett again. If he could have just caught that baseline pass against the Fab Five, he could have dunked it and I could have run out of my seats in Krush and danced at mid-court. (It was Krush with a K by then.)
What is someone supposed to do at 9:00AM on a Saturday morning after taking his dog out for a walk? In my world, it is load up WatchESPN on my laptop (for the live version of the game, I watched it on the AppleTV), pray that I didn’t get the Russian Cable Access version of the feed that I got at times last night, and then Check the Tape.
Earlier today on Twitter, I said “this is the first time in 5 years that I am really excited for an Illinois Basketball season to start.” I have no idea what to expect heading into this year, but I know one thing the team we see on the floor this season is the core of a team that Illini fans hope is going to bring the Illini back into national discussions. Today marked the first step toward that re-entry for the Illinois Basketball program.
The Illini opened up the season with an 80-63 victory over Alabama State, their 15th straight season opening win (meaning the last time they lost a season opener new Illini commit DJ Williams was still in diapers), and extended their home court non-conference winning streak to 23 games. (Damn it feels nice to be able to highlight a winning streak in Assembly Hall, err the State Farm Center, again, even if it is just a non-conference winning streak). Rayvonte Rice, playing his first game in a Fighting Illini uniform led the Illini with 22 points on 6-12 shooting and 9-10 from the free throw line.
I just realized that it has been about five years since I wrote a story like this, so my story telling ability is a little rough right now. Take this mini paragraph as a transition away from a traditional game story that you could find all over the internet tonight and into a collection of quick hitter thoughts from tonight’s game on each player.
Rayvonte Rice: Rice was the Illini’s best player on Friday night. He led the team in scoring, and was getting to the free throw line with his driving. He isn’t a great outside shooter (though I am expecting no one on the roster is), but he was good at finding holes in the Alabama State zone off the dribble.
Nnanna Egwu: Put up a very quiet double double. The Alabama State zone took Egwu out of the game. I am going to go back to the tape either tomorrow morning or evening to see why he wasn’t getting the ball. It is probably a combination of the team not being prepared to play against a zone, Egwu’s inability to find the soft spot in the zone, and the guards not looking for Nnanna in the post. Expect more on that in my next post.
Tracy Abrams: I didn’t think he played a good game at all. He was pressing, and wasn’t in control for most of the game, even though he only ended up with two turnovers. I felt he let the team just pass the ball around the perimeter early against the zone and never really set the tone that his team (and as the point guard, this should be his team) needed to attack the defense.
Joseph Bertrand: Bertrand is going to be asked to do a lot more than he did last year, and his consistency is key for this team. He had some very athletic plays, but I am hoping for more than highlights from him this season.
Jon Ekey: Ekey only had two points, but he seemed to be able to find the hole in the zone from the free throw line to the top of the key and was able to get the ball moving from side to side against the Hornets’ defense. In general, Ekey had a very non-descript game.
Mike LaTulip: LaTulip isn’t shy shooting the three, and since he appears to be the only one on the roster that can hit it consistently he may see time. And that scares me.
Now, on to the five freshmen. Each freshman ended up playing at least 10 minutes, so we got to see all of them get up and down the court and do some good things, and make some mistakes. I have some quick observations on each of them, but I think I am going to go to the tape tomorrow morning to get more on how each of them played. That being said, it is very tough to make anything more than a snap judgement after tonight’s game.
Malcolm Hill: I thought Hill was very active, and he had a nose for the ball on the defensive glass.
Jaylon Tate: Of the five freshmen, I thought he looked the most ready to be playing key minutes for the Illini this season. He had the hockey assist in the highlight of the night, a behind the back pass from Tate to LaTulip, who then left it behind his back to Malcolm Hill for the dunk. Tate was aggressive with the ball and I think showed enough to highlight that he can be a solid back up for Abrams this year.
Kendrick Nunn: I didn’t think Nunn did much tonight besides play some lackadaisical defense and use his hands a lot to make up for the fact that he let his guy get by him. I know John Groce is going to be working with him on that, but in a college basketball world that is trying to reduce hand checking, he may be spending quite a bit of time on the bench in foul trouble.
Maverick Morgan: I don’t remember much from Maverick, outside of one pretty post move against the zone. I will have to look for more in a future watching.
Austin Colbert: For one, I still can’t get over the fact that the “T” in his name is pronounced. I guess I watch too much Comedy Central. But enough with that, Colbert had a nice reverse dunk, but he is very stiff in his movements and seems to be thinking way too much instead of reacting and playing. That will get better with more experience, though I am not sure how much he will get this year as the competition gets stronger.
Offensive Efficiency (Points per Possession): 1.16
Effective Field Goal Percentage: 47.5%
Turnover Rate: 21.7%
Offensive Rebound Rate: 52.6%
Free Throw Rate: 49.2%
Outside of the effective field goal percentage, there is nothing that I can highlight in these numbers that is bad. We knew the shooting was going to be a worry this season, and game one has done nothing to alleviate that concern. The Illini did a great job finding the rebounding holes against the Alabama State zone and took massive advantage of it.
Defensive Efficiency (Points per Possession): 0.92
Effective Field Goal Percentage (Alabama State): 42.4%
Turnover Rate (Alabama State): 10.2%
Offensive Rebound Rate (Alabama State): 23.8%
Free Throw Rate (Alabama State): 19.7%
The most interesting number here is the lack of offensive rebounding from Alabama State, but that was by design.
Alabama State is following the San Antonio Spurs strategy for offensive rebounding, not trying. Want to keep the #illini in the halfcourt
— John Brumbaugh (@IlliniBoard) November 9, 2013
Alabama State had just nine offensive rebounds, but that was by design. They were more focused at keeping Illinois in the half court than they were in crashing the offensive glass. They wanted to be able to set up their zone defense before Illinois was able to attack the rim and put the Illini into a half court game. By minimizing their turnovers and not crashing the glass, Alabama State was able to minimize the Illini’s ability to get run outs for most of the game, limiting the Illini to just 10 fast break points.
There is not much that can be taken from one game against an obviously inferior opponent like Alabama State, but playing teams like this is by design for a very young team. It is obvious John Groce is trying to figure out his rotation and is working through many different combinations of players to see what will end up working for when the schedule gets tougher. The Illini have four games before they head to Las Vegas to take on UNLV and I expect a lot of experimentation leading up to and through that game until Groce figures out what sticks for this team.
If you’ve noticed, I haven’t said much about Cliff Alexander. Because I just can’t find it within me to think we could actually stare down Bill Self and win. Someday, maybe. In two or three years when we’ve built some momentum, sure. But go head to head with Self and win when we haven’t been to the Sweet 16 since 2005? How do you shoot the devil in the back? What if you miss? [Read more...]