Illini basketball is not dead. Sunday's shitty performance should not dissuade you from buying tickets for the 2015 season.
It's even possible that Illinois will play cohesive basketball this year. But here's the thing: The 2012–13 Illini are either going to click, or not. They will cohere with John Groce's system, or they won't.
Sunday, they didn't.
In the opening quarter of Sunday's final pre-season exhibition, Division II never-heard-of West Chester made Illinois its bitch. A team of west Philadelphian walk-ons ran straight down the lane, breaking the Pack Line perhaps every single time they tried.Occasionally, an Illini stepped in the way.
The starting line-up was
The free-for-all changed when Tyler Griffey enjoined the game. Griffey entered at a dead ball prior to the under-16 media time out. (Exact substitution stats and, regrettably, a shot chart are not tabulated for exhibition purposes.) Brandon Paul also entered the game at that point, and wound up tying DJ for minutes played at 29. (Abrams played 31, the most of any Illini. Sam McLaurin had 28.)
When Griffey checked in, the defense extended beyond the Pack Line. Griffey floated toward the key to trap West Chester's guards. It worked like clocks. In 11 minutes, Tyler collected four steals and three blocks. That's the bad news.
Say what? Bad News?!?!
Yes, it's bad news. Here's why: The Pack Line failed, badly. It's not that John Groce is wrong to apply that defense (designed for slow-of-foot, but persistent players) to this team. His assessment of individual capabilities is not disproved by these players failing to execute a defense tailored to their (perceived) frailties. But on a day when Bruce Weber outshined Groce for attention among Illini fans, Weber's defense also looked better than Groce's defense.
Arguably, Tyler was doing the wrong thing when he trapped at the high post and collected all those steals. John Groce strongly denied, in his post game presser, the notion that Illinois extended its defense. He instead said they simply tried harder. Maybe that's true. But the thing about a line on the floor is that it's a line on the floor. You can see it. When Illinois turned a 12–8 deficit into a 27–12 lead, their defense swarmed outward.
In the second half, when West Chester outscored Illinois 46 to 31, the Illini had packed it in again.
Don't sweat it coach. If the team can't adapt to your defense by January, hold a funeral for the old system. If that doesn't work, you can always blame the chancellor. Better yet, blame Pat Quinn. Everybody hates him.
THE PLAYER OF THE GAME
Joe Bertrand and Tracy Abrams sat with Groce in his postgame presser. That's because they scored the most points (13 and 17 respectively). Tyler Griffey was the game changer, despite a modest stat line.
Sam McLaurin was the player of the game. He hit 2-of-3 field goals and 7-of-8 free throws. He blocked three shots. He grabbed nine boards.
The unseen Sam McLaurin moment came at 7:55 in the first half, when Sam explained ass kicking to WCU's Tom Sharkey. Sharkey had ideas about asses and feet. But as it happened, these ideas were incorrect. McLaurin corrected Sharkey's theoretical mistakes.
As this all went down, it was clear that Nnanna Egwu was about to replace McLaurin on the floor. What's unclear is whether McLaurin explained the ass kicking as an Egwu-centric concept, or as a variable principle of Illini frontcourt badassness.
John Groce called an uncharacteristic timeout shortly afterward, despite the impending media timeout. In the postgame, Groce said he'd done it to give his guys an extra blow. I think it was to fucking fire them up, god damnit, and I base this assumption on the energy with which Groce attacked the huddle. I think that energy came from Sam McLaurin.
On two-point field goal attempts Illinois shot 60 percent, hitting 8-of-13 in the first half and 10-of-17 in the second.
The bad news came from three-point land, where the Illini were 4-of-12 in the first and 2-of-10 in the second. That stinks.
Brandon Paul was 1-for-5 from deep, missing the hoop entirely on one occasion. Tracy Abrams was also 1-for-5. DJ Richardson managed 2-for-5.
None of these data will go unheeded. Will they keep BP3 from the starting line-up? Will data knock Myke Henry from the rotation? Could Mike LaTulip be the ninth in John Groce's nine?
Ask me in March. That's when I'm holding a funeral for my assumptions about this team.