Back & Forth - Out Of Town

Mar 09, 2017

I was in Boston. Tyler was in... a little nicer place than Boston. He sent me that pic above saying "here's where I'm writing the response". So while we were both out of town, we celebrated the highs (Michigan State) and the lows (Rutgers).

I'm going to flip things from how I did them last time. My words will have an indent. Tyler's responses will be after. Starting with my email to him after Michigan State...

Let's call this one "Back and Forth - The Surge". Because I don't think we have done this since we made our little run.

So let's begin with this: I feel like winning five out of six here can be looked at two ways:

1) We have come such a long way. Once we figured out this eight-man rotation (Te'Jon, Tracy, Malcolm, Leron, Mav, JCL, Kipper, Finke), everything fell into place. The offense improved, the defense vastly improved, and everyone settled into their role. This is a completely different team.

2) We've beaten Northwestern (twice) plus Iowa, Nebraska, and Michigan State. Not exactly murderers row. None of these teams are even sniffing the top 25. Before the season we would have said that we shouldn't lose any of those games. So "5 out of 6" is really just a list of games we should have won (including the Penn State loss).

It's maybe half of one, half the other?

I look at "The Surge" in three ways. Defense. Defense. Defense.

I mean we've been the best defensive team in the Big Ten for a month - after being maybe the worst (save for Indiana) over the first half of the conference schedule. The transformation from January to now has been nothing short of remarkable. Seven games in February with only one defensive clunker in the bunch - Penn State (which we may end up lamenting more than Winthrop). Our rotations are tighter, we are suddenly all over the passing lanes, and we are trapping/doubling to great effect. The perimeter traps we ran on Wednesday gave Sparty absolute fits. Give John Groce a ton of credit here - this is not a fake rally. It's a full month of playing at a high level. Now it's fair to ask why it took three months, but let's worry about that later.

So back to your question. Without a doubt I believe this run has been personnel driven. We shifted the bulk of the point guard minutes to a terror of an on-ball defender in Lucas (I love watching that dude get over the top of ball screens), eliminated the lumbering Mike Thorne from the equation in the post, and added 15 minutes a game of a defensive everything in Kipper Nichols. Your schedule point is a fair one, but you don't stack road wins in this conference - no matter where - without playing solid basketball.

In the last two games the offense has been a tad reliant on some unsustainable three point shooting (46% - 24 made threes), but we shouldn't need that to beat Rutgers - they are the worst offensive team in the Big Ten. Saturday screams "LETDOWN ALERT!", but I think we'll be OK as long as that defense shows up again. Because as you surely know by now - defense travels.

I had this discussion on The Deuce the other day but... do we have a reliable core for the next few seasons? It's not a "this team will be amazing in a few years" like we saw in 1987 or 2000 or 2004, but more "as we rebuild, I think we can absolutely count on these five players". The five: Te'Jon - JCL - Kipper - Leron - Finke. I feel like those five have already proven that they can be counted on the next 2-3 seasons. Relied upon.

Which is kind of crazy for a recruiting guy like me. Adding lower-ranked three-stars like Te'Jon and Kipper seemed to say that Groce had lost his recruiting fastball but now it looks like... it might be his best class? Leron and Finke has turned out well, but the 2015 class, ranked much higher (DJW, JCL, Jordan) just hasn't shown the potential that the 2016 class is currently showing.

So it's surprising to me that those five have shown so much potential for the future. Leron and JCL I expected (both top-50 recruits), but Te'Jon, Finke, and especially Kipper are way further along as underclassmen then I ever thought they'd be. I've been lamenting that we haven't had players out-perform their recruiting ranking in forever, and now it feels like we have several.

I guess the concern is what this will look like when those five move into starring roles. Kipper is the perfect every guy off the bench playing 15 minutes - what does that look like when he plays 28 minutes? Can Te'Jon score enough to move his game forward next year? Mav has become our post scoring threat - can Finke score in there or will he just be a jumper guy?

That's for future worries. For now, let's get two more wins. Starting Saturday with a game I cannot watch. And I'm kinda glad. If there was ever a "just turn on my phone and check the score after the game is over", it's this one.

This reply is so weird because it's a total limbo post. I'm writing this on Friday night and your response won't likely come until after the Rutgers game, so it feels like anything I write will have either all the meaning or none of it. And really this is just the game that allows us to get to the next game. Doesn't mean much if we win but means everything if we lose. I hate this game. Of course, I can't watch it either - being that I'm on an island right now and we booked an all day snorkel trip for tomorrow. I'll be doing the same phone check you'll be doing tomorrow afternoon.

So yeah - it's probably a good time to write some stuff about next season. Funny thing is that I've been so caught up with "The Surge" that until you asked this question I hadn't given next year even a single thought. To be honest my mind has been more consumed with who our coach will be in October. So after a little bit of thought, while think the core of TJKLM is solid, my concern is ceilings. As if I wonder if we've already arrived at the ceilings of JCL, Black, and Finke, and if so, will there be enough boost from the underclassmen to make this team competitive in 2017-18? Lucas and Nichols are oozing with sophomore leap potential, and I like the freshmen coming in, but I wonder who is our next "Malcolm". The guy who gets the ball down one and ten seconds left. I don't know if we have anyone on the roster right now with the game to fill that role. Regardless of who is coaching, it will be intriguing to see who emerges out of the core and the incoming freshmen as the "go to" guy(s?) on offense. The defensive potential is fun to think about, though. The same players spearheading the turnaround on defense this year will all be returning, and that's a great foundation on which to build. But again - future worries.

So now Rutgers. Let's reconvene after for either an early post-mortem or some genuine NCAA Tournament possibilities discussion.

Post-mortem it is.

I just got back from my trip. I suppose the best way to watch the Rutgers game was to do what we did - not watch it at all. None of the in-game angst, all of the post-game depression. The tournament was right there on a platter (somehow) and we totally blew it. An epitaph, perhaps.

I see lots of coaching shortlists going around this morning but as you know, I can't ever participate. Not until the actual firing. Otherwise, it's the guy who might get divorced going through; if he reconciles with his wife, then he's going to be the guy re-entering his marriage thinking about all the matches who seemingly had no issues or problems. So I'll look after it's known that we need to look.

I just noticed that I typed "" above instead of TOTALLY leaving it.

College basketball lovers! Are you looking for a dating service for college hoops junkies? Have you ever signed a petition asking that a Thursday and Friday in March be designated nations holidays? Are you tired of hearing "you want to spend TWELVE HOURS at a bar watching basketball"? Dating Madness.

I'm with you on discussing short lists right now. It's more often than not a pointless exercise anyway. A good rule of thumb is to take a look at the short lists compiled by the various media outlets in February - and then bet on the field. I don't know - maybe I just feel that way because no realistic name I've seen floated resonates with me at all.

I was so looking forward to the end of the 2011-12 season because the prospect of hitting the reset button was genuinely exciting. Liberating almost. As this season nears the end I'm much less enthused. Our two options: keep spinning our wheels or roll the dice in the coaching lottery with what appears to be an underwhelming field of candidates. Those aren't energizing reboots - they each feel more like mundane exercises of circumstance. Kind of like the NIT.

I will say this - I don't believe the Rutgers game even factors into the equation. At least I hope it didn't. Meaning I have to assume Josh Whitman isn't making his decision based on the basketball vagaries of the final minute in Piscataway. Either he believes that John Groce is still his guy or he has reached the opposite conclusion. Whether Tracy made or missed that layup (I really wish he had made that layup) or whether that Rutgers dude made or missed that three should not be the deciding factors in determining the long term vision of the program. Really the same logic should also apply for even if we somehow miracle our way into the NCAA Tournament.

So instead I'm faced with yet another limbo post. While it feels kind of disingenuous for me to write any words specific to the upcoming Michigan game, it also feels premature to discuss our coaching situation. Of course I will be able to shift gears and get caught up in the moment of a Big Ten Tourney run if it does start to happen, but my true wish right now is to write about a known quantity. I want to start thoroughly dissecting a coaching search or trying to reconcile #WEWILLWIN with John Groce returning.

For now, I'm just looking at the Michigan game tomorrow (well, probably tomorrow, given that their airplane slid off the runway and I'm not sure they'll make it to DC in time). Had we won at Rutgers, it was a simple win-and-we're-in, but now I think it takes two wins. And I don't think we'll even get one.

Michigan fans like to claim that Maverick Morgan saved their season with his "Michigan is a white collar team" comments. The guys at MGoBlog were encouraging Michigan fans to chant "MVP... MVP" when Morgan has the ball tomorrow. They've been playing really well of late, except for maybe letting Northwestern throw a 85-foot pass for the winning basket. I kinda feel like they might steamroll us.

Can we stop a team where all five guys shoot the three? Can Mav and Leron get out there and defend? Might Walton simply carve us up?

I just don't feel good at all. Rutgers took all the wind out of my sails. I was all prepared for ONE MORE AND WE'RE IN, and now I might be on "fired?" watch in 12 hours.

Yeah there is no way to predict how Michigan responds to their plane mishap. Just not much precedent for something like that. It appears that their current plan is to fly early in the morning to DC and then bus directly from the airport to the Verizon Center for the game. They could either be running on fumes or on pure adrenaline - I just don't know what to expect from them.

If you are looking for a positive angle - it is worth noting that our defense once again came to play at Rutgers, and I have no reason to expect it won't show up tomorrow. As noted above, defense is what carried us over the stretch we deemed at the beginning of this B/F as "The Surge" (seems a little hollow now), and I have to believe that's the way to a win tomorrow morning.

On the other hand, while we carved them to pieces in Champaign, that was one of those nights we won at "Jump Shot Roulette", and we know all too well about the sustainability of that strategy. We tried spinning that wheel against Rutgers and lost the house. Plus Walton was kind of lousy in that first game and that's not likely to be the case tomorrow. He's probably been the best lead guard in the league over the last month. Also DJ Wilson is a really bad matchup for us. So I'm not exactly flush with good vibes about this game either.

What I can't erase from my mind is our 2015 Big Ten Tournament game in Chicago. Exact same scenario. The "8/9" Friday morning game at the BTT versus Michigan with a possible NCAA Tournament bid on the line - and we were dead on arrival. Run out of the United Center by halftime. I remember we tried out a "live blog" Back and Forth for that game so I went back and unearthed a few of our "Greatest Hits" from that day:

"No words"
"Just abysmal defense"
"Tough to watch a team seemingly going through the motions with so much on the line"
"What is happening??"
"This is unreal - hard to even comprehend"

And my personal favorite:
"Nothing feels nice - the sun shines only darkness"

It just occurred to me at this very moment that the John Groce era never really recovered from that day.


Groundhogday on March 09 @ 08:27 AM CST

Defense matters. Defense travels. And when we don't play defense, Groce teams are frequently blown out.

But the real problem with the Groce era has been horribly inefficient offense. Our Kenpom offensive efficiency rankings under Groce: 47, 147, 90, 143, 115.

It is hard to reconcile these numbers with Groce's claim to being an analytics guy. Anyone who studies analytics knows that the key to efficient offense is generating easy shots and/or taking high value shots (3 pointers). You can get better shots via fast breaks, post ups that draw double teams, drive and kick, screening, etc... And yet too much of the time, we take contested 2s, we fail to break down defenses, we hardly even attempt to run a fast break.

Sometimes the legs are tired and the shots won't fall. You have to generate offense through the system to carry you through those spells. If not... well, you get blown out by Michigan by 20 points.

Groundhogday on March 09 @ 08:45 AM CST

As for next year: We have essentially five returning players, and they all played in the Michigan game. Abrams was the only guy to keep us in the game, and he'll be gone next year (last Weber holdover).

If Groce is coaching those five guys, hard to believe next year isn't a major rebuild.

Bear8287 on March 09 @ 08:59 AM CST

I still think that with the right coach, next year's team could have a legitimate shot at the tourney. There are some good pieces to build around and if we get a coach who knows how to get freshmen into the lineup early so that they're mostly ready by the time B1G play starts, there's some upside there. If the new coach can bring in some good recruits, the second season could really be pretty good.

I was surprised, no shocked, to see DJW on the floor. GHD, you don't seem to be very high on him but I keep thinking that there's a quality B1G player in him somewhere. If nothing else, maybe a good 6th or 7th man coming in off of the bench. I'm still hoping to see DJ back with a new coach next season.

Groundhogday on March 09 @ 11:11 AM CST

With the right coach, there is enough talent to have an outside shot at the NCAA tournament. With the right coach. But clearly if Groce can't reach the tournament with the experienced team we had this year, hard to see how he manages it next year.

As for DJ, I'd be shocked if he is back next year. I just don't see a high major player. But I thought the same thing when he was coming out of high school, so I could be suffering from confirmation bias.

Joe Edge on March 09 @ 10:38 AM CST

I don't think many teams not named Kansas, Dook, or Kentucky can loose 49% of their offense and 45% of their rebound capability and have it not be a rebuild year.... So I definitely agree.... So if (big IF) JG is still around, those 'great recruits' have really got their work cut out for them to get us to ANY tourney.... IMHO...

Bear8287 on March 09 @ 09:02 AM CST

seemed to say that Groce had lost his recruiting fastball ...

Wait a minute. Don't you have to have something before you can lose it? Can someone remind me again how many McDAA's Groce has signed in his 5 seasons at Illinois? (Must be so many that I just can't count them...)

Groundhogday on March 09 @ 11:32 AM CST

But being in contention for Big Ten titles should be the norm. Being competitive in a first-round Big Ten Tournament game should be the norm. Playing in the NCAA Tournament should be the norm.

I’d be disappointed if Josh Whitman doesn’t see it the same way.

Tupper pulls the plug

thumpasaurus on March 09 @ 03:15 PM CST

I was just thinking last week "when was the last time we had a really sick dunk?"

I remembered. Near the end of the first half of the 2015 Purdue game. Shortly before the John Groce era began to unravel. That dunk was essentially the last great moment where I really believed.

ATOillini on March 09 @ 03:17 PM CST

I'll simply say thanks for the soothing picture of the beautiful ocean wherever that was. Otherwise it's best I refrain from any further commentary. Piling on probably doesn't accomplish much at this point.

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