What’s The Worst That Could Happen?

While Robert is pounding away at his keyboard working on his Signing Day post, I want to talk basketball. Specifically, this: we don’t have a point guard. I’m sure you’ve heard. That’s what our narrative as fans has come down to in Groce’s time as head coach. He has not been able to recruit the score first lead guard that should unlock the potential of his dream spread pick and roll offense. That player isn’t on the team now. That much is obvious. Much of the burden of orchestrating the offense has fallen to Malcolm Hill. To his credit, he’s done the job admirably as Tyler illustrated in his recent article.

What isn’t obvious is why we continue to play a nominal point guard at all times? Given the load Malcolm shoulders, would that roster spot be better served by a player that creates better harmony with him? I propose a thought experiment in which we do not play Jaylon Tate or Khalid Lewis for significant stretches. What would that team look like?

First we must ask ourselves “what functions or roles does a point guard fulfill?” A point guard traditionally does more or less the following:

– Advance the ball to the front court
– Initiate the offense
– Create good shots for teammates
– Create good shots for himself
– Take care of the ball
– Dictate the pace and tempo

That list is in no way exhaustive, but it fleshes out the broadstrokes tasks a point guard has been traditionally asked to fulfill on offense.

Now ask yourself, what would the offense look like if we couldn’t play Tate or Lewis? What do those two players provide in our current state that no other player can? We would struggle to bring the ball up the floor, particularly against defenses that like to set up pressure off of makes. Tate and Lewis are our two strongest ball handlers without much question. Would anything else suffer? I tend to think not.

Initiating the offense is a simple matter: pass to or execute a dribble handoff with Malcolm/Kendrick. The issue with Tate and Lewis is that once that action is complete they no longer threaten the defense. Stashing either player on the weak side of some action invites their defender to sink into the lane and crowd the spaces our scorers want to operate in. Aaron Jordan or Jalen Coleman Lands could just as easily execute the pass that gets us into our set and then become a much more menacing agent lurking in the weak side corner. They generate spacing as defenders can’t so easily abandon them, and if left alone they become an outlet that leads to a high value shot rather than a reset.

I don’t think I need to touch on Tate and Lewis’ inability to create their own offense. Tate has been openly passing up shots at the rim over the past few games. Lewis turned down a wide open three against Wisconsin. To Lewis’ credit, he made three or so strong runs to the rim in the second half, but he was unable to finish. Let’s put some numbers to this. In the 2015-2016 season, Tate and Lewis have made 16 and 25 field goals respectively. Leron Black has made 15.

In terms of setting up teammates, both Tate and Lewis have put up solid assist numbers. Malcolm leads the team in assist per game, but he logs significantly more minutes than either player. Malcolm gets his 3.18 assists over 35 minutes, while Tate gets 3 in 21 and Lewis chips in 2.7 in 21 minutes per game; however, a non-trivial number of those assists come from waiting at the top of the key while Kendrick Nunn skids around multiple screens for threes. Those are easily replicated by another player. The tougher set ups to replace come off the pick and roll. Mav, in particular, has benefited from Tate and Lewis’ ability to time passes and hit teammates in the shooting pocket.

I believe that in a vacuum Malcolm creates higher value on a pick and roll than Tate or Lewis. The question becomes, whether he can shoulder those extra plays given he’s already doing so much. It would be a serious burden. Can AJ, JCL, and Nunn take a few of those plays each? I tend to think so. I don’t love JCL’s handle, but he’s a threat to throw it in with even a whisker of space. AJ has had several nice takes at the rim this year, including a strong move against Wisconsin where he put his shoulder into Nigel Hayes. We’ve gotten away from the Nunn/Finke left wing pick and roll, which feels like it should be a staple. The turnovers on these plays would certainly go up. AJ and JCL are particularly prone to give aways. But would the additional scoring punch offset the occasional loss of possession? Given Tate and Lewis are near zero threats to score on those plays, I think it’s at worst a wash if you give all of their pick and roll action to one of AJ, JCL, or Nunn.

So where have I come out here? It seems to me that since Malcolm already shoulders so much of what we consider the traditional point guard role, there is little drop off in turning the remaining auxiliary duties over to our bevy of wings. In fact, I believe it would ease the burden on Malcolm by creating better spacing for the times he goes to work one on one. It’s the exact reason we had so much success getting to the rim against Purdue. The Boilers had their point guards glued to non-threats, and with Finke pulling Hammons 18 feet from the hoop no one could stop Hill and Nunn from romping to the bucket all night. That same effect can be created against savvier teams by placing an additional shooting threat on the floor rather than using a nominal “point guard” for the sake of time honored traditions.

Now all that said, I’m not in practices. Maybe Groce has tried this. It could be the case that what they saw was “wow we turn the ball over way too much without Tate or Lewis to take care of it for 8 -10 seconds every possession!” That’s a totally plausible scenario. Even if that’s the case, at this point in the season I would like to see it tried. My biggest personal struggle with Groce has been that he was touted as a “math guy.” I majored in Math at U of I. I analyze data for a living. I worship at the alter of Thomas Bayes. Groce’s strategies have been distinctly not math-y.

Numbers demand the strict pursuit of a polarized strategy on offense: shots at the rim or threes. The only reason to take any other shot is to create the illusion of the need to guard a place other than the rim or the arc. This illusion generates space for more shots at the rim or threes. We haven’t really moved in that direction at all. In our stagnant state against Wisconsin, JCL and Nunn piled up bricks from 15-18 feet. Then there’s the matter of lineup optimization. Groce’s deployment of a traditional point guard when it seems possible to better optimize the lineup without one leaves me scratching my head. If Malcolm does the majority of the point guard things and the rest can be done by committee then get another shooter out there.

In all honesty, I imagine shake ups to the norm like this do more harm than good. A strictly polarized offense or funky line up optimization probably leads to questions from your players or assistants. At the end of the day the players have to play. If you don’t have an aligned and motivated unit then strategy doesn’t really matter. You’ll never execute.

I guess what I’m really struggling for is something to keep this season interesting. Like Tyler said in his recent article, it’s hard to keep writing the same story about the awful defense or our disjointed offense. So please Coach Groce, give me 10 minutes of AJ, JCL, Nunn, Hill, and Finke. What’s the worst that could happen?

PRAMBS

I watched this game looking for something different.  A unique angle.  A new insight.  An unexplored narrative.  Something – ANYTHING – that was different.

At the State Farm Center this evening, the Illini offense went to sleep after a nice opening stretch (stop me if you’ve heard that before) and lost their ninth consecutive game to Wisconsin in a game fully devoid of anything anyone might describe as exciting.  Whatever the opposite of scintillating is – that was this game.  It was very easy to adhere to the “No Cheering On Press Row” mandate tonight.

(Ed. note: To clear up some confusion in the comments below, this is a Tyler post, not a Robert post. I mean, come on, Robert would never write anything called “PRAMBS”. He sticks to normal, every day acronyms like WIFAWCBT and HSVFTI.) 

Still, I’m not sure I have any more words in me about injuries, rebounding, poor shot selection, and awful defensive rotations.  I also wanted to touch on something that would resonate (at least with me) beyond the usual rousting of the John Groce pitchfork brigade.  So let’s talk about Malcolm Hill.  A solid if unspectacular effort from him tonight with an efficient 22 points on just 12 shots plus three rebounds and an assist thrown in for good measure.  He also turned in a nice defensive game on Nigel Hayes who didn’t do much until a bunch of free throws late.  But let’s look beyond tonight.  I want to talk about PRAMBS.  What is PRAMBS you ask ?  We’ll get to that.

It’s a time honored Illinois fan tradition to focus our collective basketball angst in two places – the head coach and the best player.  Over the course of my lifetime as an Illini fan I have borne witness to (and in some cases participated in) the ritual skewering of a parade of head coaches.  Lou Henson, Lon Kruger, Bruce Weber, and now John Groce.  The only exception was Bill Self, because, well, he was kind of awesome.  This is not unique to Illinois basketball, of course.  Fans of every sport at every level are always ready to discard coaches like so much pocket lint, and the easiest target is generally going to be the face of the franchise.

Far too often, though, even a good old fashioned coach roasting is not enough to sate the ravenous appetite the angry masses have for scapegoating the failures of the program.   That hunger runs too deep.  So the knives are sharpened anew and the focus of the criticism is directed towards the roster – and usually the best player on it.  In recent history, Frank Williams, Brian Cook, Demetri McCamey, Brandon Paul, and Rayvonte Rice have all been the focus of withering, and more often that not – unfair – criticism.

Now those collective arrows are pointed squarely at Malcolm Hill.  “Malcolm Hill is lazy.”  “Malcolm Hill pouts when things don’t go his way.”  “Malcolm Hill has terrible body language.”  “Malcolm Hill takes too many contested two point jump shots.”  “Malcolm Hill is not a leader.”

Here is the inherent problem – Malcolm Hill has been assigned the dreaded title of “Best Player On A Bad Team”.  People have a basic need to assign blame, and the “Best Player On A Bad Team” seems convenient enough.  My question is why does the title of “Best Player On A Bad Team” have to reflect more insult than compliment?  My theory is that fans often presume the best player on the team should be able to make those around him better (as if by sheer will if nothing else), and since the team keeps losing, it must due in large part because the best player isn’t doing enough.  He’s the most visible guy, and for fans tired of watching a bad team, his struggles are a convenient proxy for those of the entire team.

OK, but I’ll tell you what else Malcolm Hill is the most of – literally everything else.

Earlier I mentioned PRAMBS.  Through tonight’s game, Hill is leading the team in PRAMBS.  What is PRAMBS you ask?  Well, it’s basically anything one can objectively measure on the basketball court.  Points, Rebounds, Assists, Minutes played, Blocks, and Steals.  PRAMBS.  Just rolls off the tongue – no ?   The only other player in the nation who I could find currently doing this as well is some guy you’ve probably never ever heard mentioned on ESPN named Ben Simmons from LSU.  He’s going to be the number one pick in this summer’s NBA draft.

Malcolm Hill is not going to be the first pick in any NBA draft.  He doesn’t even project as a first round pick, and he may not even end up as a second rounder.  What he is, however, is the best thing this struggling Illinois team has going for it, and I think that’s worth noting in response to his critics.

His is the first name on every scouting report so he goes into each game knowing the opponent’s scheme is largely devised to hold him in check. Yet despite scoring in double figures in every game so far this year, his efforts are not an “I’m going to get mine” thing in the vein of say, a Terran Petteway or DeShaun Thomas.  Don’t misread me, though, the dude wants the ball.  He’s not afraid of the big moment, and although it didn’t work out on Thursday night against OSU, he’s demonstrated time and again that he’s not one to shrink from the challenge.

He often struggled last season with strength and conditioning, so he spent the offseason transforming his body, and while he’s still never going to jump over anyone, he’s now able to finish through contact and go 35+ minutes most nights without losing effectiveness.  That improved strength and quickness has also turned him from a minus into a plus defender.

Still, there are many who would question his effectiveness by citing shooting percentages, or are skeptical of his leadership – pointing out lapses in intensity or snapshots of poor body language.

To those detractors I would counter that his role on this team requires him to take a lot of tough shots, and that while you may see his shoulders sag a bit on occasion, let’s be fair – he’s carrying a heck of a lot of weight.  Keep on PRAMBS-ing Malcolm.

Horses

I like to listen to random high school basketball games on the radio. I’m weird. So on my way up to Champaign tonight, I listened to St. Elmo-Brownstown absolutely take it to Neoga in the second half of the consolation semifinals of the NTC Tournament. I mean, that six point halftime lead stretched to 18 in a hurry. I have a point here. Stay with me.  [Read more…]

Fool’s Gold

Robert was at the symphony Saturday so I have postgame duties. Whatever it is he took in there had to be a hell of a lot prettier than what those of us who watched the game saw. We squeaked out an overtime win against a team KenPom had as 196th in the country. The means it took to get there make the win even less uplifting. We had to zone a team that ranks 232nd in Division I in points per possession because we couldn’t stop dribble penetration. We only managed 60 points in regulation against a team that ranks 235th in Dvision I in defensive points per possession, largely due to Malcolm being an absolute boss. Things didn’t look great folks.

We were definitely discombobulated on offense. Kendrick seemed at a loss for what to do when slashing towards the rim, which was quite un-Kendrick of him. I imagine that’s just a short term blip. Maybe being a new father has him sleep deprived. Mav did some nice stuff and Malcom’s still an elite offensive player. Also in case you hadn’t noticed we don’t have a player who can turn the corner on a pick and roll, which is literally what the play is designed for. That isn’t changing any time soon so we are where we are. Nothing much to say here other than we scored enough points to win.

Let’s get to the defense. That’s what I want to talk about. Those of you who watched know we played long stretches of 2-3 zone. I can’t stand this as a defense with anything short of vintage Syracuse style wings, long aggressive athletes. You’ll notice the pantry’s a bit short on rangy run and jump athletes at Illinois. In that case, you’re just giving up uncontested threes to teams who commit to at least one ball reversal per possession.

Now, we went to the zone because our pick and roll coverage is a mess and Minnesota was running all over us to start the game. Minnesota jumped out to an early lead on the back of some simple pick and roll action. It seemed like our communication was off. Let’s take a look at a couple of plays early in the game.

In this first one, I think Malcolm probably doesn’t call the screen out early, which is why you see Jaylon jump over late to take the screen away. We’ve run ICE on wing pick and rolls all season. Malcolm knows he needs to be deeper to take the drive away and quicker to call the screen out. No excuses you should know where you need to be.


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Honest

I’m doing it again. I’m sitting here, three hours after the game ended, stalling. I know what’s on my mind, but I don’t want to write about it. Because it will be unpopular. There’s this huge (false) pressure to write a post that people will adore. But I promised myself to never do that, so here’s honesty from the heart. [Read more…]

Scouting Javon Pickett

I’m going to leave the Nebraska postmortem to Robert and Tyler. I would much rather speak to you of happier things. Specifically, I want to talk about the thing that took the sting out of the loss to Nebraska, Javon Pickett’s commitment.

I tend to be awful about keeping up on recruits during the season and do most of my research during the summer months. Given that, when Javon committed I knew basically nothing about him. I had heard rumblings over the summer that there was a rising junior at Belleville East making noise. A long bouncy athlete doing big things the summer AAU stage. After that I hadn’t heard much. When the official commitment news broke. I searched far and wide for scouting reports and highlight videos. Aside from a few sentences about his big summer from Henrickson or the Schmidt bros, I couldn’t find anything. I had to go to the source to learn something about him.

I watched two recent games Javon played to get a better idea of who he is as a player and what we can expect from him when he puts on the Orange and Blue. In the first of those games, Javon put up big numbers in a tough loss to East St. Louis on December 11th. I had him with: 11-18 FG (1-3 3FG), 12-12 FT, 8 REB, 1 AST, 2 STL, 4 BLK, 7 TO. The 35 total points I have him down for falls short of the 40 I believe the official scorer had so take those numbers with a grain of salt. Against Granite City just last Friday, I had him with 4-8 FG (0-1 3FG), 2-2 FT, 4 REB, 3 AST, 4 STL, 1 BLK, 3 TO. This came in limited action as the Lancers blew out Granite City. I also know I missed a couple of Javon’s buckets in this game because the video feed went out just after half time. Dead batteries in the camera. If you have time watch both of those games, which are posted on Youtube (hat tip to Obelix over at Illinois Loyalty with the links). The announcers in both games are freaking hilarious.

Javon was one of the biggest players on his own team as well as the teams he went up against. Given that, he often went to work around the rim on offense and defense. I don’t think you can take much from his deep post work and extrapolate that into anything he’ll see in college. Still, there were elements of his game you could see and project to the next level. The athleticism and defense are there. He’s got a shooting stroke you can work with as evidenced by the perfect 14 for 14 free throws in the two games I watched. The handle could use work as could shooting from distance. All in all you’re looking at a young player with a good deal of potential.

Let’s take some examples of the athleticism first because that’s really what I think he was recruited for. Javon’s #23 in dark blue in all vines. In the first he gets a chase down block after a teammate turns it over, and in the second he can’t quite corral an alley oop.


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Back & Forth – Nebraska

A loss at home to 10-8 Nebraska is just so hard to take.  Just the concept of it is alarming.  You know how Nebraska football fans felt in October – “we lost to ILLINOIS??” – well, right back atcha.  Illinois Basketball should never, ever lose to Nebraska at home.  [Read more…]

Keep Standing, Hannah

As I sit here, 10 minutes after the buzzer sounded, I’m watching all of the people who purchased Krush tickets take photos on the floor. Some have even snuck out on the court. It’s one final dagger for the thing I’ve been ranting about since this morning: Get. Krush. In. These. Seats. Over. Break. [Read more…]

Eight Games Where We’ll Learn Something

We have one really difficult game remaining, in my opinion: at Maryland. We do play one other ranked team – Iowa – but they might not be ranked by the time we play then. We’re done with MSU, we’re done with Purdue, and we’re done with Michigan. So… how many of these can we expect to win? And will we learn anything? [Read more…]

Tower Defense

It’s always easier to write an article after a win. Earlier in the day yesterday I wasn’t looking forward to sitting down and writing my weekly column after an abysmal week that saw us slide to 0-4 in conference. A throttling by Michigan State and a slow suffocation by Purdue’s Clydesdales was going to be tough to get fingers to keys about. [Read more…]