Smile Politely

NIT part 2 – At Season’s End

Welp, that’s the 2013-14 Illini men’s basketball season. For better or worse (and there was a fair amount of each), it’s in the books, belonging to the ages, etc.

I’m in Nashville, where Illinois should be playing another basketball game tonight. The Belmont campus is small, but cute. People here are upset, just like you are, that Belmont won’t be hosting an NIT game. But unlike Illini fans, they are probably incapable of reducing their frustration to two words.

We knew the question, going into the game: Would Tracy Abrams be able to control his Tracy Abramsisms? John Groce said Tracy had improved. He acknowledged that Tracy’s tendency to drive on groups of taller defenders had been a problem during the year. He added that Tracy and Ray Rice had grown better at recognizing situations in which a drive should lead to a kick-out, and not a shot attempt.

Tracy Abrams’s Clemson stat line shows a 2-for-14 success rate on field goal attempts. Not all of those misses came when Tracy drove the lane and got his shit stuffed. But when Jaylon Tate spelled Tracy in the first half, Nnanna Egwu immediately scored two easy buckets.

As the game wound down, seemingly toward another do or die possession, Jason Marry, videographer for IlliniProductionsHD said “I hope Tracy gets the last shot.” Jason is a warm, kind, considerate person. He wanted an opportunity for Tracy to redeem himself following the eerily similar endgame versus Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, where Tracy failed to find an open man (Kendrick Nunn) in the corner, and instead launched a three that found no iron.

I’m not as kind as Jason. I told him I wanted Kendrick Nunn to get the last shot, and I was excited to see Kendrick check in to the game as the team huddled with :09 remaining. 

We don’t know what John Groce wanted to get from that last possession. We do know that he wanted Tracy to take the floater on the second-to-last possession. We do know that he didn’t want Tracy to launch a three as time expired.

Kendrick, Ray Rice and Jon Ekey — in that order — should have been the go-to options for preserving the season. But unlike the Michigan game, it really doesn’t matter. It’s the NIT.

After the game, talk immediately switched to next season (with a respectful amount of appreciation for the two guys who won’t be able to participate).

And indeed, next year can be better. But it won’t be better. It will be exactly as painful and thrilling as this year, unless something happens at the point guard position.

  • Tracy Abrams could learn to pass
  • Tracy Abrams could move to two guard
  • Tracy Abrams could relinquish his role & minutes to a passing point guard

Next year’s Illini team can go as far as Tracy Abrams allows someone else to take it, whether by passing the ball to that guy, or just getting out of his way.

The best passer playing major minutes is Kendrick Nunn. The best shooter playing major minutes is Kendrick Nunn. The best passer on the team is Jaylon Tate. The worst shooter on the team is Jaylon Tate.

John Groce continues to keep practices closed to the media; so I can’t tell you whether Aaron Cosby or Ahmad Starks could fill Tracy Abrams’s shoes defensively. But I can tell you that John Groce will find the honeymoon hard to remember, and the seat warming, if March 2015 finds Tracy Abrams airballing threes as the season ends with losses tallied in the mid-teens.

Groce has never talked about winning, and that’s good. Instead, he talks about execution. It’s fair for the Illini fanbase to question offensive strategy, and its execution, two years into the Groce Administration. On Sunday, Tracy Abrams did not execute the endgame as John Groce wanted. In 2015, it’s John Groce’s responsibility to ensure that his will is done.

Sunday’s game at Clemson wasn’t all bad. Crabapple blossoms burst forth along the fjords of Lake Hartwell. Tigers fans skipped church by the thousands, packing Littlejohn Arena.

Barb Ekey got to see her son play his last college game, and he performed well. So that’s good. Rhonda Rice made it from Champaign with a group of friends, and saw Rayvonte almost carry the team to victory, again. So that’s good.

Sam McLaurin couldn’t make it up from Florida, because he has a job. That’s good, too.

Best of all, the Illini and their traveling contingent were treated to the best student jeering section of the year. With Conner Groce sitting just behind the Illini bench, they kept it clean. These were true southern gentlemen, but also clever psychologists.

Maverick Morgan’s brief stint elicited the best of the heckling. “Morgan? That’s a girl’s name!” chimed Alex Davis. “Landry,” called John Lipsey to Clemson’s starting center, “he can’t be that good, or he would have started the game.”

When Morgan returned to the bench minutes later, the hecklers had a banter prepared.

  • Lipsey – “Your team has no more points than when you entered the game, Morgan.”
  • Davis – “You didn’t really have an impactful (sic) performance there Morgan.”
  • Lipsey – “Except that the other team scored.”

Rhonda Rice called over to Lipsey, to say she liked his necktie t-shirt.

Clemson is not a very good team. They finished sixth in an ACC that’s already eliminated from NCAA Tournament play, excepting first place Virginia. If Illinois had brought its B game, the Illini would be here with me, in Nashville.

But why prolong a season that continues to prove its gauling tendencies? After seeing this movie last week in Indianapolis, and again on Sunday in South Carolina; who wanted to watch it play out in New York?

Well, we all did. But we wanted the director’s cut, with an alternate ending.

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