Oh, the quandaries, dilemmas and perplexities facing John Groce as his Illini try to live up to unrealistic November-December expectations!
Should they back off the long-range bombing? Where is the rebounding and inside punch? Shouldn’t Joe Bertrand be starting?
Protected by a 12-0 start, Groce is only now being questioned. Two losses do that.
Let’s take the concerns one at a time.
First, three-point shooting is never consistent for any team. There are always hot streaks and cold spells. Illinois now is wading through a down period (five games: 28.6 percent on 34 of 119) and trailed 61-52 going into the last 21/2 minutes Wednesday at Purdue before Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson hit three desperation bombs from beyond NBA range. Those strikes came too late in a 68-61 result.
Problem is, Illinois must put its chips on the trey when (1) tenacious defenders like those at Purdue stop penetration and (2) there is no pivot production.
Aggressive Purdue guards harassed UI ball handlers out front while 280-pound A.J. Hammons and the Boilermakers thwarted the UI’s inside game. Power forward Tyler Griffey got one rebound in 26 minutes and, in 47 minutes combined, Illini centers Nnanna Egwu and Sam McLaurin managed one field goal, no free throws and two offensive rebounds (Purdue had 17 offensive boards). All three of Egwu’s shots were perimeter jumpers.
Illinois isn’t playing midmajors anymore and has been outrebounded by 43 boards in three straight showdowns against formidable foes. That is a serious deficiency, one that may not have a satisfactory answer. When Meyers Leonard chose the NBA, he changed the look of Groce’s first team. And we were reminded Monday, in watching the huskies from Minnesota and Michigan State exercise their muscles, that more grown men will come our way. It is hard to win when the other fellows are knocking you around and controlling the lane.
No average Joe
There is much talk that “Joe Bertrand is one of Illinois’ best five players. Shouldn’t he be starting?”
Bertrand had 14 points and seven rebounds Wednesday, and he had converted 45 of his previous 73 shots (62 percent) before going 1 of 7 in the second half at Purdue.
Groce explained his lineup strategy when he pointed to Bertrand’s inconsistencies last season: “Joe played three positions last year. It’s hard to learn that many. For us, Joe is a 3 (small forward). He knows that position stone cold, and the last thing I want to do is mess him up. I’m more than ready to swallow that bullet, to keep him at one position, as long as he keeps playing this way.”
Since Bertrand doesn’t figure at the power forward, where Griffey starts, he’d have to enter for one of the guards. And even though Richardson is in an extended three-point slump (5 of 28 since Gonzaga), the Peoria senior speared nine rebounds Wednesday and played strong defense. Groce keeps expecting DJR to break out after getting just one trey in each of the last five games.
A big deal
Legitimate centers are hard to find at the college level. There aren’t enough to go around, and the blue-chippers leave early. This often separates the haves from the have-nots.
On that subject, Ohio State, which challenges the Illini on Saturday, has emerged as a dominant national force in large part because of Thad Matta’s ability to field powerhouse postmen since Terence Dials was Big Ten MVP in 2006.
But there is always a catch. The trio of Greg Oden, Kosta Koufos and B.J. Mullens played only one season before turning pro, and Jared Sullinger moved to the NBA (Boston Celtics) after his sophomore campaign last year.
That’s the difference in the current team. Sophomore Amir Williams has the look (6-foot-11, 250 pounds) but has been inconsistent in taking the next step. He is playing about 16 minutes per game and averaging 4.8 points. The scoring load has fallen on forward Deshaun Thomas as crack guard Aaron Craft struggles with his shooting (36.5 percent) and Illinoisans Lenzelle Smith and Sam Thompson try to pick up the slack.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.