Smile Politely

Togetherness: A pack mentality

It’s still too soon to say which Illini players will best adapt to John Groce and his system.

We know what Flowgame is intended to do. It may be January or February before we get a good idea of how well it works.

I expect the D will gel sooner than the O, because the emphases aren’t especially different from Bruce Weber’s man/help philosophy. Toughness n’ Togetherness: The defensive strategy is to pack the lane against penetration, and flare out at shooters from a base (as opposed to running around after them). Later this week, we’ll see how Groce employs a pack line and a pin line to keep the Illini at home on defense. 

We know who the starters are. John Groce indicated that his line-up will be static. It won’t be guided by match-ups. It’s not a reward for a good week of practice. He left himself some leeway as to the final, dried concrete five. For two weeks, it’s been Paul-Richardson-Bertrand-Henry-Egwu.

We know who got starters’ minutes against Lewis. They were all guards. Only DJ Richardson, Joe Bertrand, Brandon Paul and Tracy Abrams played more than twenty minutes. No one played thirty.

It’s refreshing to know that while John Groce may be guided by old-school paradigms, he’s not hidebound. Playing Myke Henry at the four, and adding Rayvonte Rice to the roster (perhaps also as an “undersized” power forward) were simply not considerations for the previous regime.


During the game, assistant coach Dustin Ford seemed to be making the substitutions. “Nnanna, go get Sam” he said at one point. “Ibby, sit next to me” he said later, prior to Djimde entering the game.

After the game, Ford explained the process. It’s the head coach who makes the call, but the assistants prep the players for entering game situations. Thus, Groce can maintain a moment-by-moment vigil over ongoing events. Togetherness includes delegation of responsibilities.

The substitutions I observed involved big men. Ford is the big man coach. But I don’t believe it’s a positional thing.

Ford, so far, appears to be first chair among the assistants, for in-game purposes. On the other hand, I would expect Jamall Walker to be the guy in charge of practices when Groce is out of town. So which is the associate head coach in waiting? Well, let’s not spoil this “togetherness” theme just yet.

Besides, assistant coach Paris Parham makes $160,000 per year, while the other two are paid $155,000. Do not read anything into this information. It’s just numbers.

Earlier this month, when DJ Richardson showed me his toughness and togetherness (TNT) wristband, and explained its significance, I was not overcome with emotion. Although DJ was especially forthcoming that day, I’ve seen Illini players talk about wristbands before (here, at 9:46 for example).

After the Lewis game, DJ joined Groce and Myke Henry for the presser. It’s not the first time I’ve seen coaches and players together. It’s generally dictated by the head coach whether he faces the media with his players or separately. Togetherness includes facing pesky reporters.

Another thing that changed with the staff (I was surprised to find out) was Kendrick Nunn’s interest in the program. Having seen Nunn in the stands enough times over the past few years, I figured his interest in Illinois was fixed. Nunn made it clear that the coaching change was a factor.

Nunn was one of eight major recruits on hand for the exhibition. Also attending were St. Rita point guard Charles Matthews, point guard Hyron Edwards of East Chicago, Simeon’s swingman DJ Williams, and Champaign’s Michael Finke.

Officially Visiting this weekend were Maverick Morgan and Jaylon Tate. They’d both committed to the Illini earlier, but are smart enough to accept a paid vacation. Their status as Official Visitors made them off limits to the media.

Malcolm Hill is also committed, and was also scheduled for an Official. But he sat for the ACT Saturday morning, so he skipped the football game and came up later in the day (very wise). Accompanying Malcolm were two kid brothers, who enjoyed a spirited roughhousing on the Assembly Hall court, after the game. Malcolm will take his Official next weekend.


If you haven’t heard players and coaches say “spacing” enough already, you’re in for a treat. The offense is all about staying apart, except when players come together.

Confused? So are they.

But it’s early. It’s way too early, for example, to start analyzing the capacity for Illini players to run the Groce offense efficiently. (Sorry Doug).

Spacing is the first of two fundamentals to Flowgame. Knowing when to go is the other.

I can’t decide which of these two principles more confounds the Illini, and it doesn’t matter. We’ll know if the two concepts fuse in their minds. We’ll be able to see it.

So far, it’s clear that most of the Illini have not yet developed a sixth sense for the flow. Also, it’s clear that Mike LaTulip gets it. In two public performances, LaTulip, more-so than any other Illini, has demonstrated an understanding of spatial relationships, where to be, and when to go.

On Saturday, a few Illini joined DJ in hollering encouragement from the bench: “Tulip, go get the ball!” But Mike stayed on the wing. He was closely guarded, and the flow had stopped on the opposite wing. Three seconds later, the defense had shifted, and Mike hit a trey.

Does it mean LaTulip will be in the rotation? That’s immaterial to the point. Here’s the point: if you want to know what John Groce expects from his offense, watch Mike LaTulip.

As Joe Bertrand said, this offense sets the table for the guy that comes after you. That’s togetherness.

I expect other players to catch up. But they’ve all spent a year or three under Bruce Weber.

They’ll need to be broken of tendencies learned in that time.

You’ll see a lot more of Brandon Paul throwing passes across his body on reverse pick and rolls. You’ll see more of DJ penetrating from the key, rather than perching on the wing. I hope you’ll see something like Tubby Smith’s flex motion, which this offense most resembles when it’s running smoothly. i.e. ball-handlers will make multiple attempts at penetration, kicking out when stymied by defenses, followed by further forays into the lane, and more kickouts. Eventually, someone finds a seam or a wide-open three.

I hope you’ll see more dump downs off high-post ball screens. So far, the bigs seem magnetized toward the low post and the wings. But to reiterate, it’s early.


I think I speak for everyone at Smile Politely in saying we will miss Paul Klee. Not only is he an unabashedly balls out, tough questions/honest answers no-holds-barred journalistic motherfucker, but he also likes beer.

Despite having to sit through the last six seasons, Paul has never (to my knowledge) expressed doubt that Illinois basketball was good once.

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