Tate: Illini forecast might not be all that sunny

Tate: Illini forecast might not be all that sunny

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 ltate@news-gazette.com.

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peterborich wrote on January 04, 2013 at 12:01 am

The Illini roundballers have, for quite some time now, been the 100-pound weakling on the beach with the sand kicked in its face by its Big Ten brethren bullies.   Coach Bruce's horrendous recruitIng is to blame.  Until Coach Groce can bring physical, strong players into the fold, the bullying will only worsen.  

By the way, Loren, how is a .500 team that lost to Eastern Michigan and barely beat William & Mary at home earlier in the week a "formidable foe?". The Boilers will be lucky to win four or five games the rest of the year.  If Purdue is a formidable foe, then every team we play from here on out should be so monikered as well.

Amen wrote on January 04, 2013 at 6:01 am

If the Illini shoot in the 43-48% range they win the last game.  Making the baskets for this team is key to everything.  They did this early on and that is why they were being successful. 

Moonpie wrote on January 04, 2013 at 8:01 am

So funny! Now Oracle Tate slips off his cheerleader skirt and tosses the team toward the bus if not under it and seems to forget he was part of those unrealistic expectations he so conveniently now hangs on the fans he hates so much.

Did anyone really believe the Illini deserved to be ranked 11th when they barely escaped a 5-6 team and struggled against bottom feeders?

A decent year is still possible as well as the Big Dance. But this ain't the 11th best squad in the nation.

OKOMIS wrote on January 04, 2013 at 10:01 am

A few bounces our way and baskets made we beat Missouri and Purdue… a few the other way we lose 2 to 3 more games…  we had some lucky (or let’s say too close for comfort) wins against some weak teams (although Auburn just thumped FSU)…. We had some IMPRESSIVE wins against some high quality teams…THAT’S BASKETBALL… we’re not as good as some think… and not as bad as some think.. but we’re a hell of lot better off than we were the last few years…

Illinix4 wrote on January 04, 2013 at 11:01 am

I completely agree, Okomis.  Furthermore, like most other Illini fans and alums, I didnt have high expectations going into this year based on how things panned out last year.  My expectations have evolved thus far this season, however, I am not naive either.  Although we are only half way through the season, I believe this team can finish in the top 5 of the Big Ten (best case) and earn an invite to the Big Dance.  However, due to the glaring weaknesses we have, we could possibly end up 7-9 in the Big Ten and not make the Dance either.  Regardless, this team is playing better ball this season than the last two and deserve our (Illini Nation) unwavering support to the end...despite what the media reports.

Proud to be an ILLINI!

OKOMIS wrote on January 04, 2013 at 12:01 pm

And depending on who we draw and if our shots are dropping win A game OR TWO in the tournament… and anybody who bitches about that after the last few years isn’t a nut.. I don’t expect to win the B1G… I don’t expect to make the final 4… but after that disgrace in Nebraska last year… making the tournament and possibly winning a game or two is plenty for now.

Piemoon wrote on January 08, 2013 at 10:01 am

That IS so funny! So funny that you spend so much time thinking about an old man in a cheerleader skirt.

jheadington wrote on January 04, 2013 at 11:01 am

Two thoughts:

  1. Regarding Joe starting, I've been arguing that Joe should be getting some of DJ's minutes.  I don't really care if Joe starts, but he should be getting more minutes than DJ as this point.  Joe is getting 22 minutes to DJ's 32 and perhaps that should be flip flopped.  Tate's argument about DJ's rebounding is not a good one as Joe averages 2 more rebounds / 40 minutes than DJ.
  2. Regarding the lack of rebounding overall, I thought I remember hearing in pre-season workouts that Henry was perhaps the best rebounder on the team.  I suspect his lack of defense is keeping him on the bench, but you can't argue that his defense would be much worse than Griffey's.  I like Griffey's pick and pop game, but if rebounding is what we need, is it worth giving Henry some extended minutes to see what happens?  It would seem Henry could make up for Griffey's scoring and Henry's rebounding rate is about 2.5 more / 40 minutes than Griffey's.

I trust in Groce and understand that he watches them practice and we don't, so I'm not suggesting that I know better, just throwing out ideas that I see when watching our beloved orange and blue.

Go Illini!

Illinix4 wrote on January 04, 2013 at 12:01 pm

I've had the same thoughts about JB since the Gonzaga game.  JB has averaged more points and rebounds over the last five games than DJR.  I like DJR, but I would rather see high flyin' JB in the game more.

I have also heard the same comments about Henry regarding his rebounding.  We need the rebounding capability that Henry offers at the cost of defense, which in my humble opinion, couldnt be much worse than what Griffey is giving on the defensive end either.  Sorry Griff!

In both cases, I am not saying that these two guys (JB and Henry) should start, but their minutes should be, at least, given a boost.

And just as JHead stated, I dont know more than the coaches just observations from a beloved fan and alum.

Go Illini!

illinigator wrote on January 04, 2013 at 4:01 pm

I think we need to over to Europe, like the Gonzaga team and find somebigs.  With Illinois high schoolall is hurting for any big men, we need to go overseas.  Illinois isn't going to out recruit the big time programs for any of the elite big men.