Helpless

Sugar’s album “Copper Blue” got me through the 1993-94 school year. It came out in late 1992, but I was always a little slow on the uptake, so I associate it with 93/94. Tonight, while watching yet another burst out of the gate where the opponent takes a 15 point lead, the lyrics to “Helpless” popped into my head. The whole album, really. Let’s explore that. [Read more…]

Back & Forth – Michigan And Maryland

A high and then a low.  Stepping on the gas in the second half and running away from Michigan and then slamming on the brakes and blowing a double digit lead over Maryland.  One step forward, two steps back.  Here are the emails Tyler and I shared in the last week – from the high (Michigan) to the low (Maryland).  [Read more…]

Bright Spots

Whimpering down the stretch to Maryland surely has most of the fan base feeling justifiably grumpy. Let’s maybe look at the bright side though shall we? Te’Jon and Kipper have been released from their cages, and both provided a positive impact this past week. The use of both Kipper and Black for significant minutes, along with the relegation of Mike Thorne to the furthest corner of the bench, pushed Finke to the five. I’m a huge fan of all of those rotation and configuration changes. Our offense gets zippier (the 10 abysmal minutes in the second half against Maryland aside), and we don’t lose much if anything on the defensive end. [Read more…]

Nostalgia

I’ve been really nostalgic lately. Not sure why. Last night I’m binge-watching an Amazon show called Red Oaks and one of the episodes ended with the Billy Joel song “I’ve Loved These Days”. Being me, I pulled up the song and listened to it five or six times before falling asleep. (Stay with me – this is going somewhere, I promise.) [Read more…]

Something Different

Tracy got fouled in the lane and threw up a shot backwards over his head. It went in. Malcolm got fouled on the baseline and a half second before he came down he tossed up a prayer which bounced straight up in the air.. and in. Te’Jon banked in a three as the shot clock expired. It was one of those nights. And I loved it. [Read more…]

Identity

Who are we? Besides the team that leaves the visitor’s locker room in a fog when we’re on the road. I know we’re mostly a “we go as Malcolm goes” team, but I cannot remember an Illini basketball team entering January where I didn’t really know our identity. We always have a good idea who we are by now. Who are we? [Read more…]

Buckeyes Breakdown

On Tuesday the Illini went to College Park and were absolutely turnstile’d. Maryland’s fantastic perimeter play made cracks in the defense look like the Grand Canyon as Trimble strolled to the rim over and over again. It was five long days of bemoaning yet another embarrassing blowout before we got to watch the Illini take the court again.

Sunday’s match up with Ohio State provided not only a much needed win, but some signs of life from a team that faces a stiff early schedule. The team showed fight after watching it’s big early lead evaporate into the second half. They gutted out a win to be proud of.

There were also positive elements on offense and defense to feel like we’re better than we showed at Maryland. Tracy and Malcolm got to the rim with regularity against a good defensive team in Ohio State. The defense was also pretty damn good for long stretches. It just so happens that JaQuan Lyle can play like a first round pick when he wants to. We probably relied on zone a bit too much, and the offense ground to a halt when Tracy went to the bench, but overall there were more positives than negatives when you project forward.

Tracy against the Buckeyes looked the part of what John Groce wants out of his point guards. He’s not going to toss up the acrobatic lay ups of a Ray Rice, but he’s got a tight handle and plenty of guile around the bucket.

He astonishingly finished the game with zero assists, despite regularly collapsing the defense and putting teammates in excellent positions to score.

Tracy also showed a young Buckeye group a little of the old man savvy he’s developed during his 6 years in office.

That kind of early offense was big during the first half, and sorely lacked during the second. We don’t have the type of creative genius on the team to live in the half court against set defenses. Early rim runs can provide some much needed punch to the offense.

Something else I loved was Malcolm Hill going left off of screen action and putting his head down to blow by a big rather than settling for the step back. When he goes left it feels like 95% of the time he wants the step back, but against the Buckeyes Hill barreled the rim.

And while it’s great to get Malcolm the occasional high ball screen, he really feasted on the dribble hand off. It’s extremely difficult to track players running off of baseline screens and then popping out to the perimeter. Too often though, we bail teams out by passing to Malcolm as he pops to the three point line, but has his back to the basket. In that position, he has to turn before he can threaten a defense. As he turns to face, his man has a chance to recover.

Against Ohio State, we utilized the dribble hand off to get Malcolm the ball working towards the hoop or the center of the floor.

You’ll notice in that action that without the “trigger” of Finke setting a screen that Trevor Thompson isn’t ready to contain Malcolm. Loving who was guarding Hill was already in a trail position due to a screen by Black. Ideally Thompson would be on the B1G logo or deeper to contain Malcolm and give up the jumper, but with Finke dragging him away using the dribble he can’t recover quickly. Malcolm gets head and shoulders past him forcing Thompson to give his 4th foul.

We got whatever we wanted off of that action all game long.

It’s such a difficult move to defend. Above you’ll see Jae’Sean Tate, an excellent defender perfectly navigate the switch onto Malcolm, but then get rung out on the Thorne screen. Because he can’t get around cleanly, Thone’s man Thompson has to stay with Malcolm. This gives Tracy’s man Loving responsibility for tagging Thorne, and that leaves Abrams wide open for three. The shot doesn’t go down, but it was very encouraging to see the Illini running the type of multifaceted stuff necessary to unlock set defenses.

To answer Robert’s question that sufficed as his brief summary of the game, “how did Malcolm inbound the ball and get all the way to the rim with 5 seconds on the shot clock?” Hand off play going to his left.

Guarding Hill is Bates-Diop who, after turning and looping around a Black screen, can’t get an angle to stop the ball. Loving, who was guarding Leron, should probably take some responsibility and switch onto Hill there, but Malcolm had been eating his lunch all day. There was a reason he was tasked with guarding Black on that inbounds play. With Morgan and JCL providing just enough spacing this had to be the easiest shot Malcolm took the entire game.

Outside of Tracy and Malcolm, we got incredible play from the 4 spot in this game. Black and Finke were both exceptional. Black’s rebounding and defensive effort were massive, and Finke provided offensive lift whenever he was on the floor.

Black played like a madman all night, rebounding outside of his area, snatching balls away from friend and foe alike. His new disciplined defense also showed out against a very physical Jae’Sean Tate. Last year Malcolm drew the short straw, and had to take body blows from a kid that might not make a bad defensive end one day. That pounding sure affected his offense in those games. With Black in the team he got the cushier job of shadowing a very loafish Marc Loving.

Jae’Sean isn’t the most fluent post player, but he plays a gritty face up game and draws plenty of fouls. A year ago Leron more or less tackled anyone who took a dribble in his vicinity. Now he’s cool as you like, taking away preferred options (for Tate his left hand) allowing help to come or forcing tough shots. Only giving one foul all night allowed Black to influence the entire game.

If Groce could somehow Voltron together the best parts of Black and Finke he’d have a two way monster on his hands. We saw some attempts at that against the Buckeyes with late game lineups that featured both Finke and Black. Keep an eye out for more of that because it will be difficult to keep both of them off of the floor.

Black gives so much on the glass and on defense, but Finke is a brilliant offensive player. He doesn’t just do it by popping out for three anymore either. A year ago he faded around conference play, but against the Buckeyes he provided a ton of energy off of the bench, popping up in useful places around the baseline and the lane.

We don’t have players like Trimble or Lyle who can get downhill and use their superior phsyicality to finish around the rim. Our guys need an outlet if they get in too deep. Finke cutting and showing to useful spots on the floor should give our ball handlers confidence to continue to force their way into the paint.

So, yes we were crushed by a so-so Maryland squad, but I saw enough offensive nuance against Ohio State to feel better. We looked like a fluid team for large portions of the game, and not because mid ranger jumpers were falling. Tracy and Malcolm probably both have to show up big most nights, but the Buckeyes game provided a formula for continued success. Get Tracy early screens in semi transition. If that doesn’t yield anything, recycle and bring Malcolm off of a baseline screen to a dribble hand off. We’ll need everything working punch out results the rest of the month.

Back & Forth – Maryland

Warning: these are the thoughts of two depressed fans trying to sort out their depression. It’s about to be 2017, and the last time Illinois Basketball was Illinois Basketball was 2006. So we’re creeping beyond a decade now, which makes this conference opener destruction by a so-so Maryland team so incredibly depressing. [Read more…]

Urgency

Maybe I missed something here, but, um, I don’t see any urgency. A coach who I believe absolutely has to win now or his entire career is over at age 45. Five seniors who have to win this year or they’ll never have played in the NCAA Tournament. The epitome of a must-win season and THAT’S our performance in the conference opener?  [Read more…]

Leron Black Is On A Tear

Leron Black is on a tear. I can’t claim to have known what to expect from him coming off a year lost to injury and a preseason lost to suspension, but he’s come back focused with a mind to stake his claim to the top dog title next year. Through the 8 games he’s been eligible for Leron’s averaged about 13 and 7, second on the team in scoring and leading in rebounding. BYU game over the weekend aside, he’s been consistently productive since serving out his suspension. [Read more…]