Opportunity Lost

Mar 06, 2017

This post was supposed to be about a turnaround. This post was supposed to be about how our seniors rallied on senior night to put themselves solidly in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament. After a botched Saturday afternoon in New Jersey, I feel like that's supposed to change.

This post should be about how and why we lost to the worst Big Ten team in the last decade. Or maybe it should be about what our chances are with a fairly weak bubble. We look pretty rosy by RPI, an antiquated metric that will no longer stand alone after this year, meaning there's an opportunity there. Losing in New Jersey just makes it tough to get your hopes up again.

Let's stay the course, though. Let's spend some time talking about how this team came back from the dead to get to be in the conversation. I feel like we need to pay some respect to what got us there (defense) because we were really really good over the last five conference games. And also we need to ask ourselves why the hell it took so long to be able to do it.

The Michigan State game really showed off what we could do on the defensive end of the floor. Yes, I'm saying this about a game where the opposing team shot 55% from inside the arc and 38% from three. We forced them towards crap shots all night, and they manged to convert a lot of what they got. If we hadn't played as well as we did on the defensive end it would have been an absolute blow out.

The game changer for us has been running shooters off of the three point line, while still managing to prevent the drive to the rim. We've actually done well this season forcing teams to settle for two point jumpers. Illinois' defense forces the 12th highest proportion of 2 point jumpers, and opponents convert a measly 35% of those opportunities. The problem is that when Illinois opponents get to the rim they finish 71% of the time. That's ranks the Illinois defense at 347th in the category.

Good examples from the MSU game:

In every one of those plays, an Illinois player is in a shooter's shirt on the catch AND his teammates are there to stop a run to the cup. You absolutely have to do both because the only shot more valuable than a three pointer is a shot at the rim.

Want to make a run to the tournament? Start by continuing to do that all day against Michigan on Thursday.

There's not much else to say about the run the team went on. Malcolm played really well. He increased his role as a facilitator, averaging 4.8 assists over the last five games. That certainly made our offense more fluid and dynamic. Mav allowed us to get quality possessions through post touches, a type of offense I've certainly been critical of. He's got two moves from each block, and passes the ball out of double teams extremely well. On a team that lacks dynamic ball handlers, Mav's ability to put defenses in scramble mode has been invaluable.

And yet, much like the defense, none of this should be news. I wrote back around the beginning of the season that Mav's post touches would act like dribble penetration for us. We saw all last year how Malcolm could run the offense, make candlesticks, and do all sorts of other nursery rhyme stuff. What happened to all of that during those long stretches in the doldrums this year?

We went on three separate three game losing streaks this year. That's actually a new unprecedented mark in the John Groce era. Although he's been on longer losing streaks, most notably the 8 game skid from 2013-2014, we've never seen the triple triple as it were. How can a team with two seniors who should be providing massive consistency, and defense that works when there's effort fall into so many slumps?

These questions are, of course, all fairly pointless and rhetorical, but I can't help but vent a bit. When you see guys chasing MSU shooters into bad shots all night or catch Mav whipping passes out of the post to open shooters or you see Kipper and Leron getting all over guys, what do you do with this feeling that a massive opportunity has been missed this year?

This isn't the team from a year ago that was just Malcolm. We have so much more.

We've got a big with great hands and ball skills.

We've got a headband guy who can legitimately defend 5 positions who can best be described as a bully on that end of the floor.

Leron played 30 minutes and only fouled 3 teams while defending the best freaking combo forward in the league!

This feeling of an opportunity lost is tough to stew in. I can't even imagine how it feels for the guys on the team. I've never had to lead a group through the type of adversity a college basketball season surely is. I can't imagine how difficult it is for the coach and the kids out there.

I have somehow over the course of this post worked myself back into hoping that we've got another two or three game spurt in us. Wins over Michigan and Purdue put us in a really good spot. Sure it's not likely, but why stand and watch the good ship opportunity sail away when you can hope against all hope that you can catch it if you swim fast enough.


Sweetchuck13 on March 06 @ 02:47 AM CST

Missed opportunity is right. The way the team played during that 4 game run showed what they were capable of. 12-6 was absolutely within their reach had they played this way starting in January, instead of late February. We've seen similar patterns all 5 years, where we fall into a deep rut and make a run to almost be respectable come March. That just doesn't cut it in the B1G.

Not to mention the Rutgers game looked exactly like our miserable early conference games. Not exactly inspiring confidence for the BTT - which team will show up?

iluvrt on March 06 @ 03:31 AM CST

After the thumping by Michigan, I am hoping JW will make a press announcement about a different direction

Groundhogday on March 06 @ 04:52 AM CST

The past four years have been disappointing, but this year is the most disappointing there really aren't any excuses. Okay, so Abrams isn't a real PG and Lucas wasn't ready at the start of the season. So run offense through Mav and Hill?!?!?! This isn't rocket science. Get the ball to Mav on the low block or baseline, get the ball to Hill on the medium post. Let Finke and JCL stretch the floor, slide Black to the basket on slip screens.

I just can't fathom how such an experienced team with a number of shooters and a couple of legit scorers is #111 in Kenpom offensive efficiency?!?!

Groundhogday on March 06 @ 05:14 AM CST

  • 2014 - Abrams/Rice/Bertrand/Ekey/Egwu took a while to gel with Groce's freshman class. January swoon of 8 straight losses took us out of the NCAAs. Best defensive team of Groce era, but offense was offensive.
  • 2015 - Wheels came off late, with internal chemistry problems, when we seemed destined for the NCAA tournament.
  • 2016 - Wheels came off early, middle and late with injury and disciplinary problems.
  • 2017 - Experienced/deep team farted away most of the season before finally playing with some focus and urgency when it was too late. Inexplicable.

Groundhogday on March 06 @ 05:44 AM CST

Speaking of opportunities lost, I'd forgotten how close we were to making the NCAA tournament in 2014. That team finished with a No. 52 Kenpom ranking, second best for Groce at Illinois (best was 39 in 2012-13).

  • Returned three Jrs from previous team: Egwu, Abrams, Bertrand. Really solid defensive core that led to No. 14 defensive efficiency on Kenpom.
  • Added two transfer starters, Ekey as a shooting PF and Rice as a slashing 2/3. Both were effective.
  • Added five freshmen, Nunn and Hill played important roles in a late season resurgence.
  • Really ugly offense in stretches (Kenpom No. 147) before Nunn and Hill added a new dimension.

This was the year that Abrams took way too many shots, with horrible shooting % numbers. Teams packed the lane on us with Abrams and Egwu unable to stretch the defense.

We started the season 13-2, including B1G wins over IU and PSU. Then the wheels came completely off, with 8 straight losses. Feb 9th, Nunn & Hill were inserted as a starters and we beat PSU on the road. We lost the next two, but then played strong down the stretch - beating ranked MSU and Iowa before losing to Michigan by one point in the BTT.

If Groce figures things out a couple weeks earlier, this team makes the NCAA tournament. Maybe just finding a way to beat NW in the middle of that losing streak would have been enough. Clearly this team had flaws (perimeter shooting), but on the whole this was a long, athletic, strong, physical team that had a realistic shot at the NCAA tournament. And hard to believe in retrospect, but this was Groce's second best team at Illinois.

HiggsBoson on March 06 @ 06:26 AM CST

One factor that I think tends to get glossed over in that season was that inserting Hill and Nunn into the starting five also put Ekey and Bertrand on the second unit, which was all freshmen earlier in the season. This move IMO strengthened both units by spreading out both talent and experience.

Groundhogday on March 06 @ 06:48 AM CST

We also started playing small, with Ekey at center when Egwu was out. All of these changed helped get better offensive chemistry on the floor.

Season after season, Groce takes a LONG time to figure out how best to use available talent. The exception to this was his first season, when we really only had 7 guys to play!

Groundhogday on March 06 @ 06:10 AM CST

The end of the 2014-15 season raised huge red flags about Groce's coaching abilities. This was the team built around Rice, Nunn, Hill and Egwu -with spare parts at PG (Tate, Starks, some Cosby, some Rice). Losing Abrams hurt, but we appeared to be heading for an NCAA tourney bid before Rice was suspended for 7 games, and Cosby left the team following undisclosed incidents in late January. Oddly enough the wheels seemed to come off AFTER Rice returned to the team, and we lost 6 of our last 8, including blowout losses to Michigan in the BTT and Alabama in the NIT.

I still wonder what the heck happened with Rice and Cosby, a sign of things to come with Nunn, Black and Darius Paul. We had major chemistry/discipline problems in 2014-15 and 2015-16 that really set back the program and gave us a huge public black eye. Funny that no one mentions all of these problems when arguing that Groce needs another chance despite mediocre on-court results.

Trevor on March 06 @ 06:50 AM CST

Yeah that team went on a bizarre meandering path. By the NIT game against Alabama, the only person who seemed interested in playing was Hill.

Joe Edge on March 06 @ 07:50 AM CST

I also wonder what went down with the Rice/Starks situation. I have mentioned this before, and now I've forgotten which of the last games it was (Purdue or scUM?)... near the middle of the 2nd half, something happens during a play by Rice - missed shot... and while heading back on defense, Hill gives Rice an earful, and Rice looks really angrily back at Hill... Something was NOT RIGHT on this team...

Bear8287 on March 06 @ 08:26 AM CST

Yes, unfortunately this in retrospect was the beginning of the end for me with John Groce as the head coach. In my mind, the melt down at the end of the season and the team chemistry problems were a huge red flag (and this was after being so high on Groce after the first season). Frankly, I would've been okay if he had been let go after that season.

Robert has written about how you'll know all that you'll need to know about a coach after 3 seasons. Hey Robert, you were right. To sound like a broken record, Robert was also right about his Eight Games Where We'll Learn something article. 3-5 instead of 0-8 means that team goes to the NIT and can at least use it as a building experience. And if that wasn't enough, there were all of the other off court issues too. I would've been okay if he had been let go after that season.

Which now brings us to this season. The table is set, 5th year, experienced team, all of "his guys", unbelievably weak B1G and... thud!

I can understand JW wanting to deal with only one dumpster fire at a time and I don't think that there's much argument over which fire needed to be addressed first, so we just dealt with it for another year, but now it's time to address that other dumpster. How in the world could anyone justify paying out a $500K retention bonus plus extending Groce's contract after this year's performance on top of the previous 3 seasons?

Groundhogday on March 06 @ 08:32 AM CST

In the vast majority of situations, you know if a coach has it after the third year. That doesn't mean the potential has been realized, but by year 3 you see their system installed, their culture installed, their players (even if inherited) developing on the court.

That said, I was fully supportive of giving Groce a 4th year and resigned to giving him a 5th year. 6th year? With this record? Hard to fathom.

Bear8287 on March 06 @ 08:10 AM CST

what do you do with this feeling that a massive opportunity has been missed this year?

Find a new coach?

ATOillini on March 06 @ 09:50 AM CST

I just keep thinking about that Bill Parcells quote someone used in the comments section several weeks ago: "You are what your record says you are." Almost 5 full years....91-73 with a 37-53 conference record. I just have a hard time seeing any real downside to a change at this point.

Groundhogday on March 06 @ 10:22 AM CST

Yep. Five years in, too late for excuses.

Bear8287 on March 06 @ 11:24 AM CST

  • 8-10
  • 7-11
  • 9-9
  • 5-13
  • 8-10

If you want to have a Top-20 Program, you need to have one of the top 3 or 4 coaches in the conference, or at least a coach who looks to have the potential to get there.

In Coach Groce's case, it's not so much a matter of who would you rank above of him, but rather who would you rank below him?

Two programs in the dumps, PSU and Rutgers, both went undefeated against Groce this year.

Programs like Iowa and Northwestern, that the Illini swept this season, are both sitting with 10-8 records in the B1G this year. A feat that John Groce couldn't accomplish even once in his 5 seasons at Illinois.

Yet, what I find truly astounding is that the Illini are 0-5 against teams that will play their first BTT game on Friday this year. Has that ever happened before?

Even if the Illini somehow manage to get by Michigan on Thursday, there will be a team that they weren't able to beat in the regular season waiting for them on Friday, top-seeded Purdue... Perhaps what is even crazier though is that the Illini do have the personnel to win against any team in the B1G this year. Of course the last regular season game against Rutgers isn't exactly confidence inspiring.

Here's how John Groce's teams have ended the past two seasons:

  • 2015 (L) 58-79 to Alabama
  • 2016 (L) 58-89 to Purdue

Do we extrapolate that to a 58-99 loss to end this season? :-D (Well, my expectations haven't sunk that low, yet.)

It's been a while since the last 20+ point blowout (January 17th, (L) 68-91 to Purdue). That's a long time in Groce weeks. Are the Illini "due" for another one?

It will be interesting to see where the Illini's heads are at when the ball goes up on Thursday.

Go Illini!

Groundhogday on March 06 @ 12:16 PM CST

And what reason do we have to believe next year will be better? Losing our two best offensive players from an offensively weak team. Depending upon freshmen to play major minutes. How long will it take Groce to get the freshmen up to speed? How long before he figures out the right rotation, gets guys to buy into particular roles? The odds are pretty good we have a January swoon and then have to fight for an NCAA berth with the freshmen coming on late. Why? Because past performance is the best predictor of future outcomes.

Sweetchuck13 on March 06 @ 01:58 PM CST

I can see it now....we feel our way to an unimpressive but decent non-conference season (say 11-3 or so) with one semi-decent win, then another terrible January slump as the team appears unprepared for B1G play. Once we get to 2-9 in the conference, Groce settles on a rotation and begins playing the freshmen more, leading to a 5-2 finish to end at 7-11. Many in the media point to the 5-2 finish and the fact that the heralded freshmen took time to come along as signs that the arrow is pointing up the following year and that "entitled" Illinois fans should support Groce.

Groundhogday on March 06 @ 02:19 PM CST

Hey, that's my scenario! :)

Groundhogday on March 06 @ 07:42 PM CST

As people go, they don't come any more likable than Groce. As coaches go, Illini basketball can do better.

Tribune calls for Groce firing

iluvrt on March 07 @ 05:55 AM CST

I find Groce despicable - a cliché spewing clown coach. I don't care about likeable. I care about coaching acumen, player evaluation, calling an in bounds play that works, selecting players that fit your plans, having actual plans........

Duce20 on March 07 @ 07:27 AM CST

The other thing that is so frustrating... OSU IU MSU UW UM

All with one of their worst seasons in a while, couple that with Iowa and MD suffering major attrition and we return what we return and we ..... Finish 9th!

italianfan on March 07 @ 07:41 AM CST

What Italian legend coach said "Nice guys finish last"? To you youngsters .....no it was not Izzo or Pitino. Near the end of the MSU game, I said to myself JG's going to pull our two wonderful freshmen Lucas and Kipper. But No!! To my amazement JG left them in! Some say the best defensive play of the game was then made by Lucas deflecting the ball from Bridges (Big Ten Freshman of the year).And who got the tough rebound ? Kipper!! Two freshmen combined to seal the monster win. Against Rutgers unfortunately JG didn't have the backbone to do it again. MH 39 mins! Kipper 5 mins! Near the end of the game I could only see four Illini standing in the attacking half of the court with Lucas holding the ball. Then the camera switched to the back court. An exhausted MH was slowly walking up. Rutgers was supposed to have less depth than Illinois. Why not rotate Lucas, Kipper and MH on their star guard and wear him down? The coaching decision to slow our offense down helped them and hurt us. There's more but I'll leave it at that. Sorry...JG is a nice guy a bad coach and a loser.

thumpasaurus on March 07 @ 09:04 AM CST


This is what that coach would say about Saturday

Bear8287 on March 07 @ 12:29 PM CST

Yes, you bring up an excellent point about the number of minutes played by Malcolm. The commentators even mentioned it and pointed out how exhausted he looked.

Malcolm took a 3PTR at 4:40 in the second half and made it. He then took 3 more and missed them all. What if he would've had fresher legs? Even if only one of those 3's goes in, it's a different ball game.

All-in-all though, for some of the substitution patterns that Coach Groce has used during the season, this probably wasn't even close to being one of the worst.

It probably at least in part explains how he can take a team with 12-6 talent and go 8-10 in the B1G this season...

italianfan on March 07 @ 07:48 AM CST

I forgot to add... in another year under JG, Lucas will begin to look and play like JT.

Groundhogday on March 07 @ 09:57 AM CST

Lucas won't play like JT. But I think is more of a facilitator and complementary scorer than someone who can be counted on to generate offense.

So with Mav and Malcolm gone next year, fans might be frustrated that Lucas isn't able to meet expectations as an offensive creator. Great to have a true PG on the roster, but he probably isn't in the top half of league PG next year.

Bear8287 on March 07 @ 12:20 PM CST

It was refreshing to see the energy that Lucas and Nichols brought to the defensive end of the court.

My only explanation was that they hadn't been fully indoctrinated into the Groce defensive "system" yet, but yes given another year I'm sure that they could be "taught" too.

Groundhogday on March 07 @ 05:24 PM CST

In 2013-14 we had a terrific defensive team. Abrams was a bit quicker prior to injuries and could better keep PG out of the lane. Rice, Bertrand and Egwu were all terrific defenders. Though effort and fundamentals can go a long way, and this team inexplicably didn't play defense, Groce has had good defensive teams in the past when he had good individual defenders.

Where we have consistently struggled is on offense (particularly offensive efficiency). Groce's first Illinois was the 47th best offense, and next best was 90th in 2014-15. The other three teams have been ranked below 100 in offensive efficiency. That is terrible. We don't consistently run plays that break down a defense and create good shots. Way too often, we pass the ball around with no obvious purpose and chuck up a low quality jumper.

italianfan on March 07 @ 08:11 AM CST

Joe Edge on March 07 @ 10:20 AM CST

Listening to the post-game pressers again.... After the Rutgers loss, JG said how 'proud' he was of x, and proud of y, and proud of z.... etc.... Sounded like to me, he was boning up for his post-firing presser. Maybe it's just me, but it sure sounded like finality to me....

Groundhogday on March 07 @ 10:42 AM CST

“I’m so blessed with Tracy (Abrams) and Malcolm (Hill) and Mav (Morgan) and even (Mike) Thorne and (Jaylon)Tate and Alex (Austin). I’ve challenged them to leave a phenomenal legacy and I said to my wife, ‘I feel as good about how we’ve played in the last month as I have at any time since I’ve been here.’

“I feel very good about where we’re at now culture-wise.”

Failing to reach the NCAA tournament in four years makes it difficult to leave a phenomenal legacy. And if it took you 4.75 seasons to establish a successful program culture, maybe you aren't cut out for P5 coaching, John.

Tupper blog

Groundhogday on March 07 @ 10:45 AM CST

And as long as I'm feeling snarky: Didn't you feel better about how we played at the end of the 2012-13 season: when the team actually reached the NCAA tournament and came a play away from the sweet 16?

Bear8287 on March 07 @ 12:33 PM CST

I would hope so too, but maybe he doesn't?

Not quite sure how anyone could feel so good about falling so far short of the potential outcome, especially when everything was so aligned in his favor this season.

Groundhogday on March 07 @ 12:42 PM CST

Groce's argument is that we have JUST turned the corner, and the program is going up up up from here. Believe me. Pretty bold claim based upon a 4-game win streak against unranked competition and a loss to the worst team in the league. Particularly when your best players won't be on the team next year.

Groundhogday on March 07 @ 04:14 PM CST

After starting the B1G season with a 3-8 record (including 4 blowout losses), here is Groce’s evidence he is coaching his best Illinois team, the culture is in place, and the seniors are leaving a tremendous legacy (Kenpom rankings):

  • W 68-61 @ Northwestern (#36, best player out)
  • L 70-83 Penn State (#82)
  • W 70-66 @ Iowa (#67)
  • W 66-50 Northwestern (#36, best player recovering)
  • W 73-57 @ Nebraska (#104)
  • W 73-70 Mich State (#50)
  • L 59-62 @ Rutgers (#131)

What I see are two nice victories over Northwestern when they were clearly struggling, a superb win over a surging but NCAA bubble team in MSU, a tight road win over a weak Iowa squad, a blowout win over collapsing Nebraska, and two embarrassing losses (PSU at home, Rutgers on the road). Groce has a closing record of 5-2 with no wins against a top 25 opponent, and two bad losses. And this should give us confidence that the program is headed in the right direction? In Year 5, with four straight years out of the NCAA tournament?

iluvrt on March 08 @ 06:42 AM CST

I'm so excited. #tonsofprogress. We have won. The nicest man in the world is coaching this great group of young men. Wheeee

Groundhogday on March 07 @ 06:44 PM CST

Kenpom Offensive efficiency rankings under Groce: 47, 147, 90, 143, 109.

So our only decent offensive team had a primary top-7 rotation of Paul, Richardson, Abrams, Bertrand, Griffey, Egwu, and McLaurin -- with Mike Henry getting 10 mp. The big three offensively were Paul, Richardson and Abrams (all in double figures), with Bertrand and Griffey chipping in ~7 ppg. Paul was a terrific offensive player as a senior but this wasn't a team overflowing with offensive talent. Hard to believe we haven't come close to that level of offensive efficiency in the four subsequent seasons.

Perhaps the key was that team had clearly defined roles and a tight rotation. Egwu was defense and rebounding. McLaurin set picks, grabbed a few rebounds and provided some physical inside play. Richardson and Griffey were outside shooters. Paul was the primary scoring option. Abrams was the guy who could take the ball to the rim with nifty ball handling. Bertrand was the utility defender who could hit an open jumper. I'm not sure we've ever had roles so clearly defined since.

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