Tate: I see an uphill climb for Illini

Tate: I see an uphill climb for Illini

“Thinking ahead (to postseason tournaments) at this point would inhibit us from being as good as we can be now.” — Illini coach John Groce

It’s the job of every coach to keep players in the moment.

That’s where my business differs. We get to speculate, pontificate and become thoroughly distracted. And with no Illini game at midweek, let’s haul out the crystal ball and look ahead ... way ahead.

It may come as a shock but, when Illinois honors four scholarship athletes (plus walk-on Kevin Berardini) on Saturday, the impact will be greater than any Senior Day among the 12 Big Ten schools.

In a conference deemed to be No. 1 this season, it is also extremely youthful across the board. Among the other 11 teams, no one employs seniors at four of its top seven positions. Illini seniors D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin number 86 starts. Closest is Wisconsin with Ryan Evans, Mike Bruesewitz and Jared Berggren.

Stunningly youthful Michigan has only one senior (Matt Vogrich) and he’s way down the bench. Other than Michigan State center Derrick Nix, Ohio State transfer Evan Ravenel, Purdue’s D.J. Byrd and Iowa sub Eric May, those four squads return intact. One senior each. Imagine the experience returning on those clubs.

Groce must replace four veterans who accumulated more than half the points (1,181) and nearly half the rebounds (445) this season.

The coach has one key transfer (Rayvonte Rice) and, at this point, five incoming plebes to compensate for a current freshman class with no scholarship members.

Illinois is the only Big Ten team losing its top two scorers. When the media evaluates conference teams next November, Illinois will be projected in the second division.

Defections abound ... maybe
This is where speculation comes in. The NBA draft and incoming freshmen offer diverse question marks, not to mention development of existing players. These factors raise havoc with predictions.

The draft could rock Indiana, where sophomore Cody Zeller is seen as one of the first three selections (worth $3.5 million and up), and junior Victor Oladipo has rocketed into the Top 10 of mock drafts. But don’t fret about Indiana. The Hoosiers have six incoming recruits including Rivals’ No. 7 player, 6-foot-9 Noah Vonleh of Haverhill, Mass., and another high-ranking recruit in Troy Williams of Oak Hill, Va.

Also likely to take a hit is Michigan. Trey Burke is a first-five All-American and two 6-foot-6 sons of NBA stars, Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr., already are assured of first-round draft status.

If Indiana and Michigan lose key veterans, look out for Michigan State at the top. Guard Keith Appling’s recent slump relieved concerns that he’ll turn pro, and he is expected to fit in alongside the powerhouse trio of Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Branden Dawson.

And before we overlook Wisconsin (which we always do), remember Josh Gasser will rejoin Sam Dekker, Ben Brust and Traevon Jackson in one of the sharper, most accurate backcourt groups.

Close counts
Groce is asking a lot of his incoming class. He faces 2013-14 shortages in ball handling and post play, and uncertainty at power forward. It is almost as though he is starting over, the four departing seniors leaving such huge holes.

And there is another consideration. How will next season’s team perform in tight situations? Overlooked in the UI’s 20-9 season is the fact that Illinois is 6-1 in games decided by five points or less, and twice won on last-second treys (Hawaii, Gardner-Webb).

Based on season stats, those game-winning shots had one chance in three of going in. Had Richardson and Griffey missed, the team’s NCAA status would look a lot shakier than it does now.

Take Iowa, for example. The Hawkeyes are 17-10, but the Illini’s opponent Tuesday in Iowa City ...

— Fought Indiana to the end before falling 69-65;

— Led Michigan State 56-53 at 1:04 before it got away 62-59;

— Rallied at Purdue to lead in the final minute before losing in OT, 65-62;

— Had Minnesota down 59-57 when Austin Hollins’ trey at :14 turned it for the Gophers.

— Led at Wisconsin 58-55 with 22 seconds showing when another big trey by Jackson tied it, and the Badgers won in 2OT, 74-70.

— Broke ahead of Nebraska by 16 but, with a late 58-52 margin, scored just one field goal in the final 4:50 and fell 64-60.

The Hawkeyes lost five games in which they led in the final seconds. By contrast, Illinois has gone through the season with no reversals of that nature. The Illini won every game in which they led in the final minute or minutes.

As we know, these things go in streaks for which there is no explanation. Just another of the mysteries that make it so hard to prognosticate.

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


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sparrowguy wrote on February 27, 2013 at 6:02 am

typical uninformed blather, there's a really good chance Harris & Payne are both gone for Michigan St..  And does anyone care if Appling is back?  He also fails to mention anything about the Illini's highly rated recruiting class coming in.  

Bottom line, a lot can shake out between this year & next from defections to player development.  

dhendricks71 wrote on February 27, 2013 at 7:02 am

This is from the same writer who said Illinois wasn't a powerhouse like Indiana and could take 5 years to rebuild after losing Webber and Myers Leonard.  I've grown tired of this man and his constant negativity.  Like the saying goes "with friends like this ....who needs enemies?'

IlliniMike05 wrote on February 27, 2013 at 12:02 pm

Well, it quite possibly could take five years to rebuild to the level we were at from 1999-2006. I think it might not be until the 2013 class are juniors before we're a legit Top 10 team like we were most of those years, if then.

Second, Loren is neither a friend or an enemy of the University of Illinois. He's a writer. Is this really that hard of a concept for some of you to get? (Rhetorical, because the answer is yes, it clearly is.)

Third: Weber. One b. And Meyers. Two e's.

And, yes, it's kind of a silly premise because there will be a TON of turnover in the conference next year, and a lot of it is far from certain yet. Indiana's losing two first-team All-Americans/top 10 picks, plus Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford. Vonleh and Williams are studs and will be good right away but they aren't replacing those guys to that level in year one. (Well, Vonleh might replace most of Zeller's production.) Still a Top 10 team? Probably. But Michigan's getting wrecked. No way Hardaway and Robinson stick around to not play with Burke. Thomas will be gone from OSU with no big star to replace him the way he replaced Sullinger unless Laquinton Ross makes a big leap (not ruling this out, that kid can get buckets). Minnesota loses Williams and Mbakwe; their guards will still be solid but their rebounding is their biggest strength, as we saw last night.

Illinois remains as difficult to project as any of those teams. The fact that we're the only team losing four seniors is meaningless, because every team that's better than us is losing better players to the draft except Wisconsin unless Appling, Harris and Payne all return to Michigan State. (Possible. Appling should be back but Payne's stock is going way up. Gun to my head, I think they're all back and MSU is preseason top 3 in the nation.)

Meanwhile, the seniors Illinois is losing? Let's not romanticize them too much: Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson are shooting a combined 39 percent from the floor and have almost as many turnovers as assists. McLaurin and Griffey are averaging a combined 8.1 points and 4.7 rebounds per 30 minutes. This is not like losing Luther Head, Roger Powell, Jack Ingram and Deron Williams in one season. It isn't even like losing McCamey, Davis and Tisdale. I don't want to belabor the point to throw them under the bus because they've obviously been the backbone of much of our success this season, which underscores the original point of how silly it is to try to project next year AT ALL at this point. But since we're here, I think Illinois could be a lot better next year. ("Could" being the clear keyword.) With the additions of Hill/Nunn/Rice and an expanded role for the efficient Bertrand, I think the wing play could actually improve. I think Nnanna makes a big leap forward much like Adrian Payne has at Michigan State this year. I think power forward remains a trouble spot unless Morgan or Colbert are surprisingly Augustine-like ready as a freshman (not impossible, they're both having great senior years and have clearly improved quite a bit in the last year) or Rice is capable of throwing his 230 pounds around as a small-ball 4. I think Tracy Abrams will thrive in using a lot more of the ball-screen action that Brandon's taking this year.

Or, like when Trent Meacham and Chester Frazier graduated and we all thought we'd be better with McCamey/Davis/Tisdale back as juniors and the far more talented Richardson and Paul coming in to replace Meach and Chet, we struggle to make a step forward and barely win 20 games.

Way too early to tell, but easy to see why Loren writes these columns: it's fun and gets people talking, even if it's silly. Roster turnover is a fact of life in college basketball and good coaches capably deal with it and keep things moving along. We have a good coach, and we have more talent coming in than any other Big Ten team except Indiana (I didn't say BETTER talent; just more). Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson are good players, but they aren't good enough to gnash our teeth about what we'll possibly do without them. I think we have a legit leader in Tracy Abrams, a veteran wing scorer Joe Bertrand and a blossoming big man in Egwu that is a strong enough backbone for the rest of the new pieces to figure out how they fit to form a quality team.



illinijcd wrote on February 27, 2013 at 9:02 am

Boys..Boys..take a deep breath...

It's only one man's opinion...his opinion is not written in stone!

I for one enjoy LT's column. He knows a lot more than I do...

blmillini wrote on February 27, 2013 at 11:02 am

Give yourself a little more credit.  While Tate may know a little more insider information than most of us due to his relationship with the program, his negativity is tiresome.  Anyone recall the article he wrote at the beginning of this season where he could not say a single good thing about this basketball team?  Their performance shows what he really knows... squat!  The old man's negativity is clouding any impartial, unbiased journalistic integrity.  He needs to go away!!!

calvin wrote on February 27, 2013 at 10:02 am

seems spot on to me.........the real Groce era begins next year.........so far, I like what I see

Moonpie wrote on February 27, 2013 at 11:02 am

Glad to see the comments above on Oracle Tate. He's not just negative--his columns ramble, are often just stating the obvious or summary, and believe me, he doesn't know that much more, if at all, than a lot of folks. He's a self-crowned "expert" stuck in 1951.

IlliniMike05 wrote on February 27, 2013 at 12:02 pm

And you're an obsessed douchebag that can't stop responding to him every single time he writes a column.

SanDiegoJoe wrote on February 27, 2013 at 2:02 pm

I've been following the Illini since I was 7 years old, growing up in Champaign, and have been reading this website (and comments) since its inception -- although this is the first time I have commented myself.  Just wanted to suggest that folks simply ignore those like Moonpie.  They are not interested in the team.  They are interested in attention.  Any fool knows that if you don't like a writer's style, opinion, etc., you simply don't click the link.  In fact, most of Tate's articles are entitled, "Tate: ..."  Instead, Moopie and others seem intent on clouding the message boards and apparently take pleasure in the dispute that follows their comments. These are trolls.  The more attention Moonpie and his cohorts receive, the more they will comment.  If they are ignored, like a cat begging for scraps at the back door of a restaurant, they will eventually go away.  Just a theory.


Go Illini.

IlliniMike05 wrote on February 27, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Sometimes the stupid need to be told they're stupid.

They're stupid, after all. So they probably don't know it.

illinidoc wrote on February 28, 2013 at 2:02 am

I agree with SDJ.  Responding to Moonpie's comments in a personal way is every bit as tiresome as  Moonpie's comments. 

tntsher wrote on February 27, 2013 at 12:02 pm

While many see LT as always negative, I prefer to think he is being more realistic than most want to hear. How many times in the last 10 years have we heard other commentators try to get us drink the kool-aid about how good the Illini FB or BB team will be this year or next! It has taken getting to rock bottom in FB to finally get people to realize how bad this program really is. And year after year of hearing the hype on all the incoming recruits in BB & then seeing the "legacy" that they left.........ouch! Let's admit it, it has NOT been a very kind 7-8 years in either sport. But I will end this on a positive note.........Coach Groce has done psychosurgery on this senior group and an A+ job of getting them to start buying into his system. And at least in BB, I see things on the upswing.

IlliniMike05 wrote on February 27, 2013 at 3:02 pm

I'm not sure what football has to do with this. Two entirely separate sports with separate issues; juxtaposing the two only serves to cloudy the respective issues they face. And Tate gets criticized just as much for perceived wrongful praise/optimism as it relates to Illinois athletics. Haters gonna hate.

GranadaClub wrote on February 27, 2013 at 1:02 pm

I've long appreciated LT's straightforward efforts.  It's a hazardous business -- if things turn out better than he projects, then some consider him "negative".  If he were more upbeat but the results fall short of projections, then he's held out as a "homer".  I like the fact he'll take an honest stab at looking ahead, knowing full well (certainly from long experience) there's reasonable chance of being wrong.  But from what we know now it looks quite likely the Illini next year will be down.

jjohnson wrote on February 27, 2013 at 2:02 pm

Love him or not, Loren is the consumate pro. Compare him to the ranting on sports talk radio or ESPN and then assess. I'll take Loren; less time to read, less pretentious, and Moonpie's comments to make me realize why sports talk radio exists -- and why I can do without it.

IlliniMike05 wrote on February 27, 2013 at 5:02 pm

"Compare him to the ranting on sports talk radio or ESPN and then assess."

What a meaningless statement. You're comparing one person to a)an entire genre and b)an entire network.

Which people on ESPN, specifically, are you comparing him to? And which sports talk radio hosts, specifically, are you comparing him to? And on what particular topics?

Most sports talk radio is bad. Some of it is really good. Give me Boers and Bernstein (though I dearly miss me some Jason Goff) and SVP and Russillo and I can do without much of the rest. Most of ESPN is bad. Their college basketball coverage- both online and on the TV networks- is actually really good, overall. Jason King, Andy Katz, Eamonn Brennan, John Gasaway, and Jay Bilas are all must-reads on ESPN.com for the informed college basketball fan (as well as Reggie Rankin and Dave Telep for those who follow recruiting). 

Making blanket statements comparing one person to thousands of people and providing no context for the comparison is pretty dumb.

dhendricks71 wrote on March 03, 2013 at 10:03 pm

I am reading your comments and I keep seeing you call people "dumb". For your information Illinois finished last in the B10 in 1999.  Some of those years they were in the top 10 intermittently not consistently. So it sounds like your the dumb one here.  Btw you have a lot of "must reads".  It sounds like you don't have much of a life.

IlliniMike05 wrote on March 04, 2013 at 1:03 pm

1999 would have been the start of the 1999-2000 season, in which Illinois went 11-5 in the Big Ten and was a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tourney. Schooling me on Illini hoops history is a losing battle, friend. So is trying to pick nits.

Yes, you are correct that Illinois wasn't consistently in the Top 10 in most of those years. Really, 00-01 and 04-05 are the only years they were consistently in it the whole year if you want to be technical. Again, you're picking nits at best. What I said was, "....before we're a legit Top 10 team like we were most of those years." If you really want to parse out that statement that badly, way to go, slugger. You got me. But from 2001-2006 we finished those years ranked No. 5, 10, 13, 11, 2 and 17 in the final polls. Considering each of those years saw Illinois in the Top 10 for multiple weeks and go to the Sweet 16 in four of those years, you're reeeaaally reaching here.

And speaking of reaching.....really? The "you don't have a life" card? "Durr, that guy reads! he must be a loser nerd!" What are you, 12? If you're gonna insult people, do it about the topic at hand and their inability to grasp it. (I know: you tried to do that too, but you seemed to realize it was a losing battle before I even responded, hence the ad hominem attack.) You're scraping the bottom of the barrel, bud. Especially when a)the subject is good college basketball writers- some of whom don't post more than once or twice a week- and b)you're posting about college basketball on a website devoted largely to that subject. Extremely weak sauce.

BPWHS80 wrote on February 27, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Look folks, I like Loren's straighforward evaluations. But I don't always agree with him 100%. And I don't think he expects folks to agree with him all the time. And this is the case this time: Yes we are losing, Paul, DJ, and McLaurin, and Griffey. But we are returning a much improved Abrams, Egwu, and Bertrand. I still feel strongly about Myke Henry and I am ever hopeful that Rice will give us some punch on the scoreboard. If at least two of the five freshman can contribute quickly, I think the Illini will be a fun team to watch again next year.And let us not dismiss the fact that Coach G will have his first year under his belt which adds a tremendous value factor going into next year.Do I think we are a B10 contender in 2013-14? Probably not. But do I think we can be 9-9 or better and win 20+ overall and make the NCAA's next year. Oh yeah!

Keep the faith Illini BB fans.

crackerman wrote on February 27, 2013 at 4:02 pm

I like anyone who say's they miss HBO's Deadwood!...........................O.K. i"ll shut up!

illini82 wrote on February 27, 2013 at 5:02 pm

The post from Illini Mike was spot on IMO. We aren't the only teams losing a bunch of talent next year. The B10 won't be the same as this year when all the stars alligned.

Loren just likes to be a wet blanket. He too is suffering from the Weberball hangover. For years we expected to be good, now we or at least Loren doesn't know what to expect given the last 5 years.

We have a great class coming in and Groce did a much better job with this group than many hoped to even dream. 5 Wins over top 50 teams  and all were in the top 25 at one time and with a win vs. NE a likely NCAA bid.

But, remember Loren is a product of his 60 some year Illini environment. It's easy to have low expectations. but with this column he is way premature to be casting doubt this early about next year.