Smile Politely

Illini can’t see the forest for the trees

Thad, thank you man. You are our hero.

We got beat last night at Iowa, and absolutely nobody noticed. Aaron, DeShaun, mad props to you. The distraction of attention from our performance was nearly as enjoyable as the look on Jordy Hulls’s face during his ruined Senior Night ceremony.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Illinois failed to show its appreciation on Sunday. I think the Illini match up pretty well with all you all. Kinda how they match up well with them Hoosiers. Kinda the opposite of how they match up against them Badgers and, as it turns out, them Hawkeyes.

Iowa defended our faux drives better than anyone so far this year. It helps that we didn’t face our hated conference rival until the first week of March. That gave them 1/4 year’s worth of material on this new Groce guy. Yep, they’ve figured out how he’s different from that Weber. It’s the driving. Our guards attack the basket now.

But the Iowa coaching staff also noticed that we attack in jest, much of the time. When Tracy Abrams and DJ Richardson drive the baseline, they are more likely to pass than shoot. They are likely to pass toward a small forward, standing stationary in the corner.

Iowa consistently double-teamed penetrating Illini guards. They forced our guards toward the baseline. They blocked kick-outs and shots (nine blocked shots in the first half alone).

When they didn’t block the shots, they blocked the lane.

The Illini strategy was not terrible. Futile attempts at scoring tallied nine first half fouls against the Hawkeyes (two each for Eric May, Devyn Marble, and Anthony Clemmons). But points are even more important than fouls. With eight and a half minutes left in the first half, Illinois had four of them.

Brandon Paul had a great game. Six-for-fifteen (3-of-9) from the floor is merely OK, but nine rebounds is excellent. He also collected two steals, and dished three assists (two turnovers).

DJ Richardson was only 4-of-15 from the field, with one assist. Tracy Abrams was 1-of-9 (but 9-for-9 in drawing defenders), Myke Henry 0-for-4, and Joe Bertrand 1-for-4.

Sometimes the shots just don’t drop. But on Tuesday, there was more to it than that. Iowa’s defense was really good, and Illinois persistently attacked at its strongest spots. I asked Fran McCaffrey about his team’s persistent ability to force Illinois cutters out of bounds (at 6:05), which invariably resulted in that kickout to the corner, or a shot block.

He made it seem as if it weren’t part of the scouting report, saying they really just wanted to defend the arc. They did that super-duper well, to be sure.

I asked John Groce whether Iowa’s post-trapping was the best Illinois faced all year (at 3:35), and he likewise demurred.

You can’t blame Groce for not dwelling on the issue. All coaches are loathe to provide strategic advice. By understating Iowa’s defensive dominance, he gave no clue to opponents: This is how you stop the Illini.

Unfortunately, opposing coaches are less likely to overlook the Illinois-Iowa game. But it’s one of ten losses, so it’s possible that underslept, overworked assistants won’t glean the lesson from this game.


Iowa has a great scheme. They’ve topped the Hoosiers for first place in B1G Visiting Bench Distraction Tactics. Yes, they’ve got the usual hecklers. But there’s a twist. Profane, obnoxious, and possibly intoxicated college students are buttressed by a team of sweeps.

Most arenas have a local kid on hand to mop the lane during dead ball periods. Carver-Hawkeye Arena has a whole bunch of them. At most places, there’s an adult supervisor. These kids seemed to be on their own.

And while most of them were 8-to-12 years old, one of them couldn’t have been six yet. He was the secret weapon. He kept getting up and walking around, banging things with the handle of his Libman drymop. He walked the baseline during live action. He cut through the Illini bench on his way to … wherever he was going. The Andies — Illini team managers tend to be named Andy — were perplexed, but amused.

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