Tate: Late success talk of the night
With each passing day, John Groce’s Illini are gaining ground.
Take Monday. While Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III and Michigan State’s Gary Harris were committing to the NBA draft, the Illini celebrated their 92nd Kiwanis Club banquet featuring five returning starters and three promising transfers who have already enlivened practice sessions.
With a trickling snow reminding one of the winter sport, a turnout of more than 500 fans applauded repeatedly at the I-Hotel as Groce praised a 20-15 team that recovered from an eight-game losing streak “to play it’s best basketball in February and March for the second year in a row.”
The team finished 7-5 with road wins over Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa.
Groce gave special thanks to seniors Jon Ekey and Joe Bertrand, who started the first 23 games and made strong contributions as reserves in the last 12.
“These two were in every sense standouts as students, persons and athletes. They gave more to me and our program than I can ever give back. Their willingness to come off the bench was crucial to our late-season success.”
Groce let them share the annual sixth man award, saying: “Good teams require sacrifice.
Next year’s team will be deeper, and will need players like them who commit to the team agenda and don’t get caught up in personal agendas.”
Handing out some awards
Champaign junior Rayvonte Rice received the award as outstanding player, Groce changing the name from MVP because, “No one on our team is more valuable than any other. Rice made an impact on offense (15.9 points), defense and rebounding, and was a two-time Big Ten Player of the Week and all-conference honorable mention.”
Other awards were handed out as follows:
— Top rebounder: Nnanna Egwu had 211 rebounds to Rice’s 210.
-— Matt Heldman “Matto” Award: Ekey and Egwu.
-— Defensive Award for the UI’s 12th-ranked defensive team: Ekey, Egwu and Malcolm Hill.
— Three-point Award presented by the Orange Krush, whose 850 members gave $150,000 to charities: Ekey at 36.6 percent (Bertrand and Kendrick Nunn shot 38 percent but did not average one per game).
— Lou Henson Courage Award: Tracy Abrams.
— Ralf Woods free throw trophy for Big Ten accuracy: Abrams at 79 percent.
— Kenny Battle Leadership Award: Egwu.
— Most Improved Award: Nunn, Hill and redshirting Aaron Cosby, transfer from Seton Hall.
Said Groce: “This was a team of road warriors who got on the bus expecting to win, and had a winning record away from home. Defensively, we held four straight opponents under 50 for the first time since 1947.”
Pinpointing the two freshmen who started late, he said: “Nunn is a winner. He is tough mentally, and improved because of a mind-set that also led to him being Scholar Athlete of the Week. Hill came in at age 17 and, after a time, we told him that he wasn’t allowed to be young any more.”
Last year’s standout, Brandon Paul, was in attendance to support his brother, Darius Paul, who redshirted with transfers Ahmad Starks and Cosby.
It was a joyous evening and, unlike similar affairs at Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Missouri (among others), not conducted under a cloud of eligible stars departing.
Just win, baby
Paul Klee, former News-Gazette basketball writer plying his trade in Colorado, beat me to the punch.
Klee revived an old quote from the late Royce Waltman, who was anticipating his firing near the end of his sixth straight losing season (2007) at Indiana State.
“If you get fired for cheating, you can get hired right back again,” Waltman said. “If you get fired for losing, it’s like you’ve got leprosy. Cheating and not graduating players will not get you in trouble. But that damn losing!”
Sure enough, two members of what I call John Calipari’s Repeat Offenders Club — Kelvin Sampson and Bruce Pearl — are back at the helm.
All I ask is this: Just tell me the truth, that winning games is all that matters at Houston and Auburn, and don’t feed me this drivel (definition: nonsense, rubbish, garbage) about character and honesty and graduation rates.
Two more reasons why it’s increasingly more difficult to keep faith with college basketball.
— When Athletic Business produced a 32-arena bracket to determine the nation’s top college arena — based on design, scale, amenities, atmosphere, tradition and functionality — the State Farm Center was not included.
There were 30,000 votes in the quarter-final round which left Nebraska’s new arena as one of four finalists. UI publicist Kent Brown cited the UI’s omission as a reason why the half-century-old facility should be renovated.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com