Tate: It's up to the transfers
As you may have noticed, three-point shooting matters in the NCAA tournament. Very often a single arc-shot decides a game.
Accepting this, it is significant that during the 2012-13 basketball season, Aaron Cosby made 40 percent of 165 treys for Seton Hall while Ahmad Starks converted 39.5 percent of 162 threes for Oregon State.
They are long-range strokers, and they appear to be exactly what John Groce’s Illini need.
In consecutive years, the Illini checked in at 32.1 and 31.7 percent from the arc, no small reason for overall marksmanship that fell to a sub-par 41 percent both years. And two of the UI’s best perimeter shooters — Joe Bertrand (38.5) and Jon Ekey (36.6) — have completed eligibility while two returning bombers, Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams, have yet to show consistency.
Rice shot 29.5 and 24.1 from the arc at Drake, and 31.2 this season. Abrams shows 25.7, 27.2 and 27.7 as a three-year Illini regular.
So one huge question looms in advance of next season: Are Starks and Cosby sufficiently well-rounded to grab extensive minutes in a lineup that returns all its late-season starters? Defense matters. Are these deadeye shooters good enough otherwise to crack the lineup?
In his news conference Tuesday, Groce spoke extensively about Cosby, Starks and a third transfer, 6-8 Darius Paul (Western Michigan).
“What stands out the most collectively is their ability to score,” he said. “All three produced double figures in their college careers, and all three have a knack for scoring, two in particular being really good from the arc.
“The unique thing, and it’s the first time we did it, we started in mid-January to use all three on a scout team to imitate our opponents’ offense. We had mostly used managers in walk-throughs previously.
“Different guys played with the three of them, and it was a breath of fresh air for Ahmad, Aaron and Darius to imitate the teams we were playing. It was more fun for them, and practices were more competitive, and sometimes chippy. I thought all three excelled from mid-January on, and did some really good things.”
The 20-15 Illini hit some stunning lows at Northwestern (49-43), at Indiana (56-46) and at home against Ohio State (48-39) before the offense picked up in late February.
“I thought at times we struggled to score,” said Groce, “and needed some consistency in shooting. These three transfers add an experience level to that.
“Biggest noticeable difference in all three is how their bodies look. They pulled off the Ray Rice deal. Paul gained 29 pounds. They had a different lifting regimen because they weren’t in season like everybody else.”
Their addition, said Groce, will allow him to be more aggressive in style, and more like his third and fourth years at Ohio when he tended to use a rotation of eight or nine.
“Our team here in Year One was more equipped to do that than our Year Two team. We played this season the way we felt would be best to take this team as far as it would go. If we’re blessed with health, we’ll have an opportunity to be more aggressive offensively and defensively next season.”
It’s nice to share
While the 6-3 Cosby is learning multiple positions and seems destined to start, the 5-9 Starks will operate exclusively at the point, the position held by Abrams for three seasons.
It is assumed that they’ll share it.
“With Tracy, we talk a lot about him making others better, and to be a more efficient shooter,” Groce said.
“Ahmad has improved and shoots extremely well. Oregon State used more of a Princeton offense, and his assist numbers (170 in 67 games the past two years) were not indicative of his ability to make others better. Our system is different. I think he’ll have the ability to do both. It’s just a matter of getting in the lane and making the right decision.”
Freshman Jaylon Tate backed up Abrams this season, going 1 for 22 from the arc. Groce emphasized the need for all five freshmen to become stronger with the help of strength coach Mike Basgier.
“With them, strength is first in the off-season. Mike hasn’t had those freshmen for a full year so we haven’t yet seen the body transformations that we want. They need better definition and cardio-vascular improvement so they can play hard longer. Body transformation is where it starts with those freshmen. And each has been individually given things that we want them to improve on.”
As a group, the five freshmen lack physical maturity. Age-wise, Malcolm Hill should just now be graduating from Belleville East. Tate and Austin Colbert are very much on the skinny side.
The three transfers have advanced beyond that point. They’re mature. And they can shoot. But the UI’s five returning starters won’t easily give up their positions.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.