There’s a poorly kept secret surrounding the Illini basketball family.
Last week, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Steve Greenberg asked John Groce about 5-for-24 Jon Ekey. “What are you telling him, and how’s he shooting in practice.”
Groce’s response was great filmmaking. “I tell him to keep shooting.”
In response to the anticipated next question, Groce added “Nnanna’s gonna keep shooting. They’re going to keep shooting.”
It’s hard to be sure which of the Illini starting quarterbacks the fans most want to bench in favor of his back-up. Joe Bertrand adds nothing. Tracy Abrams can’t pass and has no floor vision. Nnanna Egwu is useless. Jon Ekey is a Missouri Valley reject.
Critics even struck at Rayvonte Rice — godsend (or just plain god?) to Illini fans everywhere — for his passing, or his recent flirtations with futility.
But after two scoreless games, games which Illinois lost, games in which he grabbed a total of six rebounds; most of the venom is directed at Egwu.
For the last few weeks, The Nnanna Egwu Question has morphed from the delicate how can you shake Nnanna from his slump? (as phrased by x member of the Illini media pool) to the more frank What the fuck is Nnanna Egwu for? and its corollary What’s the purpose of Nnanna Egwu?
The latter phrasings come from everyone else who follows Illinois basketball, fairly or not.
At halftime of Saturday’s very winnable lost game against Michigan State, I talked with one major donor and one ex-Illini (a Henson-era player) who’d already decided there was no salvaging this season, and that it was best to simply play the freshmen, so they can gain experience.
In response to these questions and criticisms, Groce repeats his mantra that “players play players” which is his way of saying I can’t keep guys off the floor if they’re performing, or more simply performance equals playing time.
It’s confusing for reporters and fans alike when, for example, Malcolm Hill drops seven points on/grabs five rebounds from Purdue in the first half — and then watches from the bench in the second, as Illinois gets outrebounded and outscored.
Casual observers (and most experts) will never see the full picture that Groce surveys. It’s not just the games. It’s practice as well, because John Groce continues his tradition of closed practices.
To the inquiry is there something that (veteran starter) is doing that (freshman substitute) is missing Groce continues to answer succinctly.
“Yes,” is the response he gave Saturday night, and left it at that.
To the extent that Groce runs the program, it’s a fine answer. To the extent that major donors run the program, it’s an answer tempting a contretemps.
Except that no contretemps will ever arise, because of that dirty secret: The freshmen are already playing minutes which — as a losing streak grows into a lost season — nearly equal those veterans.
Here are facts: Kendrick Nunn played 29 minutes against 4th-ranked Michigan State. Egwu played 22, as did Joe Bertrand.
Maverick Morgan outscored Egwu 4-0, and outrebounded Egwu 3-2 in 16 minutes of floor time.
Morgan would likely have finished the game (evening his minutes with Egwu at 19 apiece) but for a Major Brainfart during a crucial possession at the two-minute mark. Groce very nearly hissed for Egwu to get back in the game. In the postgame presser, he rolled his eyes and shook his head at the memory of Morgan’s egregious boner.
Groce reacted similarly to a busted Malcolm Hill assignment in the first half. Conveniently for Malcolm, Michigan State read the play and followed the action as it should have unfolded, which left Malcolm wide open for an 18-foot jumper. He buried it.
Kendrick Nunn’s offensive impatience was, at times, frustrating to watch on Saturday. But at least it was something different.
Malcolm Hill’s unscoutable diversion entertained the crowd almost as much as Jaylon Tate’s gasp-provoking head-fake lay-up.
Bruce Weber never learned The Entertainment Principle: Don’t keep showing people a bad movie they’ve already seen.
John Groce will not throw his players under the bus, as Weber did routinely. But as he recites repeated votes of confidence, Groce is already moving in another direction. Or to put it more mildly, and in his words, he’s playing Players.
FAMILIES & FRIENDS
It was good, fun & unexpected to see Tony & Hope Foster at Saturday's game. You'll remember them from years & years of Poetry in the Motion following Alex Foster's recruitment.
Alex lives in Lubbock now. He decided he wanted to play for Tubby Smith, and he stuck with Tubby when Minnesota decided to stop sticking with Tubby.
Why were the Fosters in Champaign? It's because basketball is about friendship, growth, mutual talking points, getting together, enjoying a spectacle in which people sweat.
Alex Foster played high school ball at Chicago DeLaSalle. That was Jaylon Tate's high school right up until the end. It was also home to MSU's Alvin Ellis III, and Gavin Schilling (for about 15 minutes, once he returned to the states).
Alex Foster was also a teammate of Austin Colbert, during one of those non-scholastic summer basketball thingies, in New Jersey.
So to be melodramatic and preachy and perhaps to provide a speed bump to the thousands of anonymous assholes who write hateful things on message boards: We're all friends here.
Yep, there's competition. But at the end of the day, the people in competitive sports — the players, the coaches, the media, the administrators, the ushers and security personnel, those folks in the ticket office — we'd all rather get along than argue about Blue being better than Red.
We do what we do for your entertainment. We'd all rather you enjoy it for what it is, and stop basing your entire existence on its outcomes.
But also: Thanks for the money.