Back & Forth - Ups And (Mostly) Downs

Feb 17, 2017

Our emails began right after the Northwestern win last week and then ran right up through this week. So Tyler and I were, how should I say it, faux-happy at the beginning of this... and then right back to the new normal by the end.

I'm going to try a new format here, with Tyler's responses indented. We'll see how it works, and if you don't like it, we'll go back to bold text. Figured this might be easier to read. Here's my first email to Tyler after the Northwestern game.

It's not like I was waiting for a win to do the next Back And Forth post, but... I think I was kind of waiting for a win. Because how many times can you dissect the same frog?

Here's my main thought: I want to win a game where we don't shoot well. We beat Northwestern because we shot 58% and they shot 33% in the second half. You could maybe claim that our defense was responsible for that 33%, but really, it feels like we won because we went 14 of 24.

So my next goal (and, really, no idea why I still have goals at this point) is to see us win a game where both teams shoot evenly but we do all the little things to win. Because this whole "we'll shoot well about one out of every four games and when we do that, we'll win" is played out. I want something different.

But still, hey, YAY - BEAT THE NURDS.

I wouldn't be so quick to explain away our Nerd-stomping as merely a generous gift from the jump shooting gods. This win actually had a little meat on it.

Granted the Kitties were without their leading scorer, but we played a complete game on both ends of the floor. Yes, we shot well on offense - especially in the second half, but this was not a case of us winning the jump shot lottery like it was against NC State, Michigan, and Iowa. We shot 58% in the second half because for the most part we were getting shots from areas on the floor where good offenses tend to live. 60 of our 68 points came from either the paint, the arc, or the free throw line. I credit a lot of that offensive efficiency to one Te'Jon Lucas. He was just fantastic with 11 points, 5 rebounds, and 6 assists in 33 minutes. I remain juiced about his ceiling because I think there is also a good shooter hiding in there somewhere.

And defensively? Flying Illini assistant coach Dick Nagy was fond of saying "Defense Travels" and that was certainly the case last night. Northwestern finished with a meager 0.88 PPP. We continually forced them away from the rim (only 12 points in the paint) and happily invited them to be the team trying to survive on a diet of longish two point jumpers. Just an excellent all-around team defensive performance. In fact our defense has been quietly trending in the right direction of late.

I saw a legitimate and sustainable brand of basketball from us last night. The kind of foundational performance you could actually build upon - if only it were still December.

So now the question is... can we sustain that? The last time we started a game against Penn State, they hit 100 of their first 101 shots and we immediately trailed by 20. Can we slow them down? Especially in our building?

And if we do - let's be honest, I'm writing this about 12 hours before the game and this might be my only chance to say this before we stub our toe and the whole thing is shot - what happens if we roll off three or four straight here? I mean, we won't - defensive improvement or no defensive improvement, if we lose to Winthrop at home we're not going to roll off three or four straight - but what if we did?

I have friends who have so moved on from Groce. They've moved out, got their own place, signed their divorce papers, and are simply waiting for one final signature before the divorce is final. So imagine their reaction if...

Beat Penn State at home (we absolutely should)
Win at Iowa (not likely, we suck on the road, but possible because they're not that good)
Beat the Kitties again in Champaign
Win at Nebraska (honestly, we should)
Surprise Michigan State in Champaign (Bridges will dominate us but let's play pretend)
Win at Rutgers (they'll finish 14th in the Big Ten)

I mean, there's not a single (no way we beat Purdue or Wisconsin) game left. We don't have any potential good wins left, so, honestly, I'm not even sure running the table would get us on the right side of the bubble, but if we win at Iowa next week, my friends who are waiting for word that the divorce papers have been signed will begin to lose their damn minds. It's not all that far-fetched.

There. I've now successfully set up a scenario where there's no way we beat Penn State tomorrow. Way to go, me.

Here's a little "punch you in the face" nugget: we haven't won consecutive games in regular season conference play since 2015. That's almost two seasons worth of inconsistency. While I do think that run of futility ends today with a win against Penn State - I just cannot realistically entertain the thought of a season saving win streak right now.

While you are right that each of our remaining games is eminently winnable, the likelihood of that happening is close to impossible. I think the true statistical probability is less than 5%. But forget the math - it's more that we don't play the kind of basketball that might allow us to overcome those odds. We have been plagued by wildly uneven play for the better part of three seasons now. It goes back (it always goes back) to a jump shot-centric offense and unreliable defense.

Tell you what though - if we beat Penn State today AND we do it with a performance on both ends of the floor consistent with what we saw in Evanston last Tuesday - maybe then I'll give you license to dream a little bit.

Here is what I'm going to need to see to allow that to happen:

- On defense we hold Penn State at or under 1.05 PPP
- Less than 38% of our total shot volume coming from two point jump shots

We'll talk after.

First, let me get this out of the way first:

LOLOLOL at me last night.

I have probably said "it just blows my mind that…" at least 25 times this season. But here's another one: it just blows my mind that our final six games are against...

13-12 Penn State
14-12 Iowa
An 18-6 Northwestern team we just beat
10-14 Nebraska
15-10 Michigan State
13-13 Rutgers

...and it's LOL funny to even consider going on a run against those teams. This is easily the easiest closing stretch of my lifetime and we'll probably go what - 2-4? 1-5? The Flyin' Illini team.. wins every one of those games by 25 points? Hell, you probably would've gotten to play in the final two minutes of every game.

That will always be the thing that I will struggle with from this season. Over time, people might not remember just how bad the Big Ten was. Some middling team in the ACC could come over to the Big Ten and win 12 conference games this year.

And here we sit - 4-9 in the conference.

Don't sweat it - there's more than enough LOLOLOL to go around. Most of it reserved for our basketball team. But while we're self-deprecating...LOLOLOL at me praising our defense for playing well of late. I asked for under 1.05 points per possession (we had been better than that in the last six games). Instead we got one of our worst efforts of the season - giving up 1.20 PPP. Only the games against West Virginia and Indiana were worse. I didn't even bother to analyze our offensive performance because it didn't matter a whit.

My irritation with this season has largely manifested itself in two different ways - sadness and anger. Yesterday was all anger. Like needing to hide potential TV damaging projectile anger. When you see a visible uptick in defensive effort - like you saw from us in the second half - that's nice and all, but it's also a harsh indictment of the first half effort. It was flat out inexcusable. You mentioned the Flying Illini. While we did throw up a couple of clunkers after Kendall went down, the defense NEVER took the day off. Defense travels? Ours doesn't even bother to show up at home.

But you know, lousy Big Ten or not, we probably should have seen this season coming. We lost 19 games last year and were often not competitive. With the advantage of hindsight, it was unrealistic to work under the idea that that team was just Tracy Abrams, Leron Black, and a couple of sophomore leaps away from 20 plus wins. The signs were also all there in November when we were struggling with the likes of Northern Kentucky and IUPUI and getting annihilated in our first encounters with real basketball teams. Don't misunderstand me though - this is not an attempt at blame shifting. It's just more evidence that the reboot that's likely coming has been two full years in the making.

We've stretched this out over a week now and I think that's a good thing. I just read back through our emails... there I was, all happy (relieved?) after we beat Northwestern. And then beside myself after losing to Penn State. Reading your last email, the one thing that strikes me is - and this is going to sound awful - I don't know why I still care.

Most of my friends gave up on John Groce last season, but there I was, hanging on to "wait until we have everyone back and everyone healthy and in this Big Ten THIS TEAM CAN WIN". And when we lost to Winthrop, that was the moment where I should have stopped caring about this team and flipped the calendar to March. Most of my friends were right - the collapse at the end of the 2015 season was the end. Those final five halves - blowing a 13 point lead at Purdue in the final game (which would have put us in the Tournament), then the complete collapse against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, and then the complete destruction by Alabama in the NIT game (what was it, 41-15 at one point)? Several friends tuned out then and aren't going to tune back in until next month.

But I kept hanging on and hanging on, believing that the senior year for Malcolm's class would bring us back. And now we're there, and it's falling apart, and here I am still caring. I'll always "care", of course, but I'm not sure why I always hold out hope. You're right - the reboot has been coming. Yet up until this week, I was still hoping it wouldn't have to come to that.

I'm in a weird state of mind as well. While I will also always care to some degree about our games (really my brain knows no other way), I'm afraid I'm just about fresh out of emotional investment. And hope? Not much point in that either.

All that sadness and anger I mentioned earlier - I doubt that shows up the rest of the way. And man, it's rare for me to find myself in this place. Probably in 2012. Before that maybe never. I even kept spending emotional currency on last year's team even though it was arguably worse than this one. Probably for the same primary reason you noted - I still held out hope for this Malcolm-led core group. Plus since we knew Groce was likely returning as coach, performances in those late February and March games still carried some big picture relevance.

Now with the NCAA Tournament once again out of reach, and with Groce's job status tenuous at best, I'm not seeing as nearly as much in the way of relevance. The next three weeks will be like September for a baseball team heading for 95 losses. Just playing out the string - in every aspect.

There will be a few basketball things of interest to watch - mostly from the underclassmen. I want Lucas to continue to grow in the lead guard role, I want to see if JCL can regain his footing (figuratively and literally), and I'm looking for consistency from Mike Finke and Leron Black. Yet since everything will be so different come October - both with the coaching staff and the roster, it's going to be difficult extrapolate much from these last few games.

Finally I'm also hoping for Malcolm, Mav, and Tracy to have a strong finish over the final games of their Illini careers. It's been such a long and ultimately frustrating journey for those three (especially Tracy) and I'd really just like to see them smile some more before it's all over.


BelieveInIllinois on February 17 @ 05:51 AM CST

Basketball is depressing. I might be in the minority but I can only skim these articles. The coaching is terrible, the team isn't going to the NCAA for the 4th year in a row, so what is there to talk about until the end of the season and announcements are made? Let's only talk about football until the deed is done.

Sorry to be so negative. I know you guys work very hard on these articles and I appreciate that very much. I am just saying if you want to ignore basketball for the next month, it is OK with me

Robert on February 17 @ 08:34 AM CST

Believe you me, BelieveInIllinois, it's just as hard to write as it is to read. For the regular media, times like this are sometimes fun - a free pass to take as many shots as they want. For fan media, it's so incredibly keep-me-up-at-night depressing.

iluvrt on February 17 @ 06:09 AM CST

I used to watch every game. Even much of last season. Now I check the score on ESPN mobile, laugh, and don't worry about it. Down by double digits to PSU at the half at home - not tuning in or watching a rerun. I continue to DVR games, and will watch wins, but that is it.

Groundhogday on February 17 @ 07:08 AM CST

  • 2012-13 Surprising success with Weber's team. Not a great team, but reason for optimism.
  • 2013-14 Rebuild. 5 new freshmen, 4 new transfers (3 sitting out). Egwu, Abrams and Bertrand anchored the team, Ekey was a nice 5th year transfer, Rice could play. Big Ten swoon cost us an NCAA bid, but team competed at the end and the arrow was pointing up.

So I go back to 2014-15 and ask what the heck happened?

  • Abrams was injured. And we didn't have a replacement.
  • Too many recruits didn't work out. Transfer busts included Cosby, Starks, Paul. Disappointing HS recruits included Tate, Colbert, Morgan (who later developed into a solid center).
  • Top 40 recruit coming in, Black, had little impact.
  • Chemistry problems. What happened with Rice and Cosby? Whatever it was, the team gave up on Groce.

First and foremost, Groce has missed on too many recruits and even for the hits, most have been low ceiling guys. The 2014-15 team had four starters (Egwu, Hill, Rice, Nunn) and spare parts. The lack of a legitimate B1G PG was a killer.

Secondly, we learned that Groce wasn't the kind of coach who can win with a system, or coach spare parts into a coherent team.

Third, for all the rah rah talk, there was some serious dysfunction in Groce land. I'll give Groce credit for keeping a lid on dissent, but at least some kids have been tuning him out for years. That team flat out quit.

Walkon on February 17 @ 07:26 AM CST

Solid summary GHD. I concur on virtually everything you wrote.

Bear8287 on February 17 @ 07:17 AM CST

When you see a visible uptick in defensive effort - like you saw from us in the second half - that's nice and all, but it's also a harsh indictment of the first half effort. It was flat out inexcusable.

Pretty much totally sums it all up for me really and yes, the ending of the 2015 season really was the true indicator of where the program was heading under Groce.

I still care. I DVR games and play them at something like 1.25x speed because I still get audio and skip the commercials.

I can now sit and watch a game that I don't know the outcome and my wife can't tell by my reactions whether the Illini are winning or losing. (That's actually probably healthy progress on my part! :-D)

I guess that I've balanced it between still caring and really hoping that Malcolm would get a chance to play in the tourney and the realization that each loss was also just bringing the program that much closer to a much needed change.

Joe Edge on February 17 @ 07:38 AM CST

This is so depressing.... What's even more depressing is that most of the fans have given up... Which frankly, I can't blame them. I will probably wash and wax my car this Saturday, so I'll be missing the perceived fiasco as well... It's the middle of February and nobody is interested in UI basketball.... go figure...

orangejulius on February 17 @ 09:22 AM CST

It's not all that depressing if you realize from the start this was a bad team. Many experts had predicted this outcome before the season began. Illini fans were really the only ones really expecting this team to do much this year. Why? You finished 5-13 in the conference in 2015-2016. You lost your second best player in Kendrick Nunn. You added very little. A point guard ranked outside the top 100 and a fairly unknown wing player, also unranked. Sure, you got some players back. Your 6th year PG after two catastrophic injuries who was never better than average, your center who is still playing with bad knees, and a decent PF who lacks athleticism was overrated in high school. And Illini fans are somehow shocked with this result.

iluvrt on February 17 @ 10:06 AM CST

What am I not shocked at is your continued Groce nuthugging

HiggsBoson on February 17 @ 11:10 AM CST

The talent on the team is an order of magnitude better than the quality of coaching. And in any case, Groce recruited the team. So it is fair to blame Groce on all fronts.

Groundhogday on February 17 @ 02:16 PM CST

So knowing that this group would fall flat, did you argue for Groce's removal after the 2015-16 season?

And could you point us to where you predicted the 2016-17 team would inhale?

Groundhogday on February 17 @ 02:25 PM CST

Preseason predictions for Illinois (links):

Given that we are likely to finish 13th out of 14 teams, objectively this team underperformed even the most pessimistic preseason predictions. Also worth noting that analysts didn't expect the B1G to be quite as weak as the conference is at present.

Bear8287 on February 18 @ 04:41 AM CST

Michigan State, Arizona among college basketball's toughest teams to forecast

Nov 08, 2016

John Groce is one of only a few true power-conference hot-seat candidates this season. This team has the talent to be a top-36 at-large candidate this year. I know that. Groce knows that. But you could've said that about other Illinois teams, too, and in general this program is mired in mud.

It's about time to get this program out of the mud...

Groundhogday on February 18 @ 06:27 AM CST

Yes, the folks that were pessimistic about Illinois were in large part more pessimistic about Groce than the talent.

Groundhogday on February 17 @ 02:30 PM CST

After the Winthrop loss:

orangejulius on November 23 @ 07:40 AM CST I understand the frustration, but this team has the talent and depth to make the NCAA tournament, and I still think they get it done.

Bear8287 on February 18 @ 04:25 AM CST


orangejulius on February 19 @ 08:30 AM CST

Wow I check back after several days to see that I am persona non grata for the lynch mob. How fun! Its a pleasure to see that you have the time on your hands to research my posts from November. How long did it take? That makes me feel important.

So one cant form a different opinion after nearly 3 months of basketball? At that point I believed in the talent of the club. Abrams was healthy and seemed to have solved his shooting woes. Thorne was also contributing. Since then, things have changed.

You cited one publication out of several that believed we were an NCAA team in preseason? How does that prove your point? We still have plenty of time to meet the average of those expectations.

Also. Ask Texas how firing their coach (and bringing in our #1 guy from our last search) has worked out.

If Whitman chooses to do the unexpected and retain Groce, which I still think is possible, how soon after do you turn on him?

HiggsBoson on February 17 @ 11:08 AM CST

At this point I'm more interested in spring football and MLB spring training than in basketball. I'll continue to dvr the games and watch later if we win, but frankly what will pick up my interest in Illini basketball again is news that Groce is gone and a big time hire has been made.

An observation and a question for you:

O: When this team doesn't shoot well, their entire game collapses, which is kinda weird when you think about it.

Q: Where, exactly, does Groce show this "leadership" that is part of Whitman's bromance with him?

Illinimac68 on February 17 @ 11:30 AM CST

Whitman deciding to keep Groce another year is hardly a "bromance." He may well have not had a candidate for head basketball coach as he did for football. He also took a chance on Groce recruiting a highly ranked freshman class which turned out reasonably well. He's had some time now to survey the field for possible replacements. It was the right decision last spring even given the way this season turned out.

HiggsBoson on February 17 @ 02:17 PM CST

Keeping Groce last year isn't the bromance part. It's all the reports about how much he likes Groce including the invisible leadership and so on.

Bear8287 on February 18 @ 04:32 AM CST

invisible leadership

Very apropos.

ATOillini on February 17 @ 04:17 PM CST

I'd like to take the easy way out and simply blame this entire mess on Eric Gordon's switch to the hated Hoosiers 10+ years ago, but that's just not fair....Is it? Watching the Illini is like walking into a Sears store these days. It just makes you feel bad. What once was a force is now laughable. Yet, I think many of us still believe that line from Groce's first press conference upon being hired (I hope I have this correct)...."Why not Illinois?"

fuzzyarms on February 18 @ 02:19 AM CST

That Sears line. So much truth ... but oof

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