Tate: How long before Illini get act together?

Tate: How long before Illini get act together?

Illini Nation is losing sleep these days: It’s disturbing enough to be 2-7 in the Big Ten and facing No. 1 Indiana. But, in perusing the crystal ball, how long will it take for John Groce’s basketball forces to return to contention?

The faithful carries an assumption that, at a point not too distant, it will happen. But with Indiana in the forefront tonight, don’t base calculations on what the Hoosiers have done. The Illini comeback could resemble, for example, Michigan, which bounced around for most of a decade after the Fab Five sanctions. Or Iowa, still striving to right its ship after the Pierre Pierce episode contributed to Steve Alford’s departure in 2007.

Indiana is different. Basketball consumes the populace. If they’re bad at football, it doesn’t discourage the Hoosiers.

For golfers, Augusta becomes links heaven during the week of the Masters. The Kentucky Derby draws weekend focus on Churchill Downs. Both are brief concentrations. The fixation on jump shooters in Hoosierland extends from New Year’s Day through December.

The power of Indiana hoops is best demonstrated by the way the Hoosiers have raided Illinois for some of their greatest prospects, most notably Quinn Buckner and Isiah Thomas and ranging all the way up to Champaign’s Verdell Jones III.

It doesn’t work the other way.

For the Illini, an invisible wall exists east of Danville. Indiana preps resist UI overtures as though this is the land of the Taliban. Since 1970, when Mike Price was a starter and Bob Windmiller a reserve, the UI has handed one scholarship to a Hoosier, Noblesville’s Scott Haffner, and he lasted one season in 1985.

Coach Bruce Weber got close to drawing a signature from Eric Gordon, but the Indianapolis star decommitted when Kelvin Sampson arrived and in-state pressure mounted. More recently, Illini coach John Groce challenged for Mishawaka guard Demetrius Jackson, but he ultimately favored nearby Notre Dame. This is basically a 43-year shutout, even for Illini coaches with an Indiana background.

Only the best will do
There are myriad examples of how Hoosier passions impact their pastime:

— Mike Davis replaced the controversial Bob Knight, who captured three of Indiana’s five NCAA crowns. In 2002, Davis led the Hoosiers to the NCAA title game, a notable accomplishment, but the folks still complained. Davis wasn’t Knight, and he was replaced by Sampson after a 19-12 season in 2006. Hoosier leaders overlooked Sampson’s NCAA sanctions for 550 impermissible telephone calls at Oklahoma ... and he soon lost his Indiana job for similar infractions. Indiana faced devastating player defections for reasons that included grades and drugs.

— There was attendance falloff in the 1-17 Big Ten campaign of 2009. But the season-ending crowd was listed at 15,006 when a lineup featuring Jones, Kyle Taber and Tom Pritchard fell to Michigan State. A year later, freshman Jordan Hulls scored 24 points as the Hoosiers snapped an 11-game losing streak, 88-80, over Northwestern before 17,277.

Bad teams, big crowds. Earlier this season, overcrowding caused several thousand fans to be turned away from the Hoosiers’ preseason tuneup.

— Last year Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Michigan’s Trey Burke shared Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. Both declined major NBA bucks to turn Indiana and Michigan into 2013 title contenders. The 7-foot Zeller was voted preseason National Player of the Year, and Burke is deemed the national leader at this juncture.

— The face of college basketball changed when 49 underclassmen, most of them below Zeller and Burke in talent, turned pro. Among them was Illini sophomore Meyers Leonard — he had $2 million reasons, this year alone — even though he wasn’t named among the league’s top 15 players by either the coaches or the media last March.

Leonard is still on the come, missing 11 Portland games in January due to an ankle sprain. In his 37 games (not counting late Wednesday), he is averaging 15.1 minutes, 4.3 points and 3.2 rebounds, and he has three points in the last five games. As when he was drafted, production must be separated from potential.

How low can they go?
In this extended downturn, the Illini’s best athletes and some of their best coaches are jumping ship prematurely. The question has become: “When has Illinois sunk so low in both major sports at the same time?”

For the record, Illinois has lost 14 straight Big Ten games in football with no end in sight, and it has dropped 19 of 23 against conference opponents in basketball.

And we’re already starting to wonder: Will Groce’s cagers be better a year from now?

Seniors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin comprise half of Groce’s customary eight-man rotation. Is it reasonable to assume that Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice and five incoming recruits can match the production of the departing quartet next season? And will anyone make Oladipo-level improvement — Indiana’s Victor Oladipo is shooting 64.4 percent from the field — from the foursome of Illini returnees Joseph Bertrand, Nnanna Egwu, Tracy Abrams and Myke Henry?

There is reason for hope.

Freshmen excel much more rapidly than a generation ago. As we’ll see tonight, rookie Yogi Ferrell gives the new Hurryin’ Hoosiers a blistering 1-2 punch at point guard alongside Hulls. Three of Michigan’s top six scorers are freshmen. Iowa is leaning heavily on three newcomers, and Michigan State has a budding star in Gary Harris. At Purdue, big A.J. Hammons is making rapid strides with 64 points and 30 rebounds in his last three games.

With that as background, much is expected of Belleville forward Malcolm Hill, who has outplayed Simeon’s Jabari Parker thus far and deserves strong consideration for Illinois Player of the Year. The Illini signee is scoring at a phenomenal pace, racking 37 points in East’s 90-85 loss to East St. Louis on Friday.

But freshmen develop at different rates. Michigan’s newcomers are outperforming their expectations and benefit from a sophomore (Burke) who is the best setup man in the country. The importance of a point guard can’t be overstated. That’s why Indiana coach Tom Crean elected to go with two at a time, even if they don’t average 6 feet. And that’s why Groce is searching heaven and earth for a special playmaker who makes everyone else better.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.


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Bear8287 wrote on February 07, 2013 at 12:02 am

The question has become: “When has Illinois sunk so low in both major sports at the same time?”

As a matter of fact, I was wondering the same thing.  So Mr. Sportswriter, what is the answer? 

Perhaps it's a new low? It used to be that the worst you could finish in the Big Ten was 10th place.  This past year we had the 12th best football team in the conference and the men's basketball team is currently in 10th and if they fail to defeat #1 Indiana they'll have the same conference record as the team currently in 11th place.


Oh, what sad times are these when passing ruffians can say Ni at will to old ladies. There is a pestilence upon this land, nothing is sacred. Even those who arrange and design shrubberies are under considerable economic stress in this period in history.

geriatricillini wrote on February 07, 2013 at 9:02 am


HoosierIllinois wrote on February 07, 2013 at 9:02 am

And 5 of the freshmen you mentioned are from Indiana.  If they can go to Michigan and Michigan St., why not Illinois?

aaeismacgychel wrote on February 07, 2013 at 10:02 am

I think the answer to that might simply be that they grow up understanding the rivalry. I wonder how many high-caliber Indiana kids went to Kentucky during that same time span. My guess is not many (though they did get Teague). Illinois and Indiana were a huge rivalry throughout Knight's tenure and was amped up with the Eric Gordon affair after he left. When Illinois is painted as an evil rival, kids grow up hating them and not wanting to go there. The Illinois-Indiana rivalry simply doesn't play as well in Chicago where there's Bears-Packers, Cubs-Cardinals, Hawks-Red Wings, Bulls-Pistons, Bulls-Knicks. All of those are more important. In Indiana, it's Indiana-Purdue, Indiana-Kentucky, and Indiana-Illinois. Thus, if you aren't going to Indiana or Purdue, you might consider Michigan, MSU, or Notre Dame, whereas Illinois is still not desirable.

Think about when you were choosing a college. I know when I went, I was looking for a great engineering school. So I applied to MIT, Illinois, Wash U. When my mom brought up I should apply to Purdue, I was hesitant- I didn't like Keady or their basketball team (I grew up an Illinois bball fan and Northwestern football fan), but I figured, well, they are a good school maybe if they give me a deal. Then my mom brought up Michigan. All I could see was their football players prancing around and the Fab Five and that '89 team that beat us in the Final Four. I said, "I am not ever going to that school. I HATE the Wolverines. I cannot and will not cheer for them. I will not be one of them. I don't care how good academically they pretend to be. I am not going there. So no, I'm not even going to bother wasting time and money applying."

While looking back, that does seem a little crazy- letting teams you cheered for and hated as a kid guide your choice in college, but I have to think that many Indiana kids do the same thing. When it comes to Illinois, there's a lasting bias from childhood. And it's likely the biggest reason we can't recruit there, but Indiana can recruit Chicago.

Illini Bball0511 wrote on February 07, 2013 at 10:02 am

Great article Tate.

DaisyJ wrote on February 07, 2013 at 10:02 am

Don't count on a big turnaround. Groce has lost this group, this team. Lost it. They had it to beat Gonzg, Butler, Maui tournament. It is lost. Kids are not listening or doing what it takes. Obvious that this group has problems. BP is at least getting sat. Long overdo. Abrams should be also, but  he is the only guard left. They are toast. Watch the passing the other teams do. We dribble drive all night long.

calvin wrote on February 07, 2013 at 10:02 am

Are you saying that coconuts are migratory?

Bear8287 wrote on February 07, 2013 at 11:02 am

Oh yeah, an African swallow, maybe, but not a European swallow.

BPWHS80 wrote on February 07, 2013 at 12:02 pm

Loren, I have a lot of optimism for the near future of Illini Mens BB. I really like the looks of the incoming class. There is a lot to say about guys like Malcom Hill and Kendrick Nunn. Both are established 4 Star guys. I think that we will see a different ball club in 2013-14 and the Freshmen class will play a bigger role than past freshmen classes have in recent history. But let's face it....Freshmen are just that...Freshmen. No matter how good they are, it will take some adjusting to the college game. However, I still think we will see an imroved ball club next year. Groce is re-building a roster that was out of balance. The 2013 class is very balanced and you may see a couple of surprises outside of Hill and Nunn. I believe that Jaylon Tate may be a gift that flies into our program under the radar.

BTW - Isn't it interesting that Coach Groce still has offers out to kids in the 2014 class and officially doesn't have a scholarship available?.....will we be hearing more about possible transfers in the near future?

godisdad wrote on February 07, 2013 at 2:02 pm

I totally agree about optimisim for the future. This first recruiting class could be even better than expected, honestly.

Hill is absolutely killing it this season after a serious medical issue that kept him out this summer, and he could actually be better than his ESPN and Rivals rankings.

Jaylon Tate could also out perform his rankings, too. Based on what I've read, the kid was pretty highly touted at De La Salle before falling off the map in his junior year at Simeon (because he was coming off the bench), so he could be a great surprise. I've watched a few Simeon games this year, and have been pretty pleased with what I've seen.

Maverick Morgan seems to be a consistent double-double guy and a more natural post player than anyone we've got right now.

I wonder what the rotation will look like next year? Something like this hopefully:

1. Abrams/Tate

2. Rice/Nunn/Hill

3. Bertrand/Hill/Henry

4. Egwu/Henry/Colbert/Shaw

5. Morgan/Egwu/Shaw

I'd really love to see some progress from Henry, Shaw, Langford, and Djimde because they still don't have too much depth at the 4 and 5.

I'm really excited about Groce's first recruiting class.

walker wrote on February 07, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Isn't it time that we see something out of Langford & Shaw by now?  Or are they just going to be busts on the bench for the rest of their time here?

Malcolm Hill is an absolute stud and will be the best player on our team as soon as he arrives. BTW, kudos to Bruce Weber & Jerrance as they were the guys that did the heavy lifting in getting this kid to commit to us.


crackerman wrote on February 07, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Still wondering if anyone will transfer?

houstonillini84 wrote on February 07, 2013 at 4:02 pm

we will have more talent next season, but we have a huge hole at PG. Tracy just isnt a playmaking PG. We are ranked 307th (!!!) in assists per game but 73rd in points per game. Thats just awful. Its a shame that we are getting such talented wing players and they will have no one to pass them the ball. I hope that they are great at creating their own shot because as far as I can tell, it will be two more years or more until we have a talented playmaking point guard on the roster.

increvable wrote on February 07, 2013 at 8:02 pm

About 20 hours or so, judging from the timestamp. Well done, Illini! Gotta steal one on the road from Minnesota, Michigan or Ohio State, but six more wins are there for you to take!

The thing I'm most surprised by is that they pulled the upset shooting 38% on 3-pointers. Better than they have been doing, but certainly not lights out.