Smile Politely

A chink in the armor

To look at the stat sheet from Friday night’s 77-53 win over Chicago State, you’d probably get entirely the wrong impression.

First, it was a close game. The 24-point margin can’t tell you that it was a four point game with seven minutes left.

Second, you’d be tempted to look at Minutes Played and conclude that John Groce is settling into an 8-man rotation.

Numbers lie.

The reason Austin Colbert got 15 minutes and Maverick Morgan played for ten seconds is that Colbert has foot speed. Mike LaTulip shared those same 10 seconds with Morgan. He’s still not regarded as being a go-to defense wizard versus up-tempo opponents.

And then there’s the Numbers Theory of Basketball, complicating analysis of this particular contest. KenPom would have no problem answering the question Did Chicago State want to run, or slow things down?  But his (its?) answer might be wrong.

Kendrick Nunn’s foot speed is not an issue, but his instincts for defensive positioning are just developing. He doesn’t always see the cutter in the corner. (More on KNunn next week.)

This game was not suited for LaTulip, Morgan or Nunn. And while it may be true that they’ll see a lot less PT in the B1G season than they do now; it’s not a good barometer for The Final Rotation.

Chicago State was a lot better than their historically awful brand. They executed their zone with a lot more action and intensity than you expect when talking about zone defense. In transition, they made Illinois’ athletes look gammy-legged.

The Cougars exposed a hitherto unexplored  Illini vulnerable spot: transition defense.

Ooh, that hurt.


A short bench seems likely for this team. Apart from Tate, no freshman demonstratively imposes his utility on the observer. The veterans opened a 12-2 lead over the Cougars. The subs gave it back.

The freshmen may improve. If not, we’ll hope the starters commit fouls at Friday’s rate. Only Ekey collected four. Egwu had three.

Ekey was the shooting star Friday. Let’s hope he’s not a Shooting Star, because no one else was able to find the rhythm.

Ball handling was a bright-ish spot. In the last 34 minutes of the game, Illinois committed four turnovers.

In the earlygoing, the Illini turned the ball over once per minute.

We live and learn.

In his postgame question time, John Groce said college basketball teams either get better or worse. “There’s no in-between.” This absolutism was almost immediately leavened by a frequent Groce-ism: “It’s never as good as it seems. It’s never as bad as it seems. Don’t believe all that. Stay somewhere in the middle, stay grounded.”

Groce’s intensity is often leavened by earthy realness. The remark that sticks with me the most came (at about 6:45 a.m.) during this summer’s SEAL Training media op. Groce said everyone has fear. Everyone has weakness.

It seems that Groce wants to prepare his charges to do enough things right, enough of the time. He wants them to feel comfortable and familiar with situations.

The rebounding looked solid again, on paper, a 39-20 advantage for the home team. But can you learn anything from playing Chicago State?

I may be on drugs*, but I was impressed by the Cougars execution at times. CSU moved into a once-legitimate conference this year. It’s not legitimate anymore, though.

Maybe I can judge only based on Illinois. The Pack Line looks solid.  The Flowgame looks confused. When Jaylon Tate is in the game, the Flow looks more fluid. The team is running a lot of sets so far, and they execute their sets well. Transition D is a problem.

Call me tomorrow and we’ll talk more about it.

*if so, they will help me stop sneezing. Also bourbon.

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