Friday, November 9, 2012

2012 Illinois Basketball: What to Watch For

Tonight, a new era of Illinois basketball begins. Hopefully gone are the seasons of underwhelming results with overrated teams. Now, in this new era, square talent isn't being forced into a round hole. Under John Groce, the Illini should transition to a basketball program that recruits, signs, and develops talented basketball players that fill whatever role Groce feels is most appropriate, rather than plugging them into a system that does not fit their style.

This could be the biggest difference between the last few years and this season. Bruce Weber finally started to bring in good talent, but didn't bring in players that fit his system. His motion offense, the same one that was so undeniably successful in 2004-05, was predicated on ball movement, screens, and moving without the basketball. For it to work well, he needed good ball handlers, good passers, and players that understood how to set screens and work a half court offense without the ball.

Weber, however, faced a dilemma. Should he seek out players he knows will fit his system, thereby pigeonholing his recruiting efforts to a specific type of player? Or should he recruit the best available athletes and worry about making it work later? Obviously, Bruce chose the latter, and his decision wasn't helped by the fact that he struck out in a major way in recruiting for those first couple years after the 2005 National Championship game appearance. The result was a team stock full of good athletes who were out of place in Weber's system, and the results on the court were underwhelming at first, maddeningly inconsistent after that, and finally towards the end of last season, disastrous.

The Groce Era begins tonight
In steps former Ohio coach John Groce. Groce, a Thad Matta disciple, follows the Matta mantra of coaching: go hard in recruiting to sign the best available players regardless of system and mold a system every year to fit the players that are on the roster. Matta does this very same thing. He had one system that revolved around Greg Oden in the post, with Daequan Cook and Mike Conley on the perimeter. Then he had another that ran through Evan Turner creating on the wing. And then the last two years he had still another system that centered around Jared Sullinger in the post as well. It's a philosophy that leads to consistent success, both on the court and in recruiting. Matta never has a problem recruiting kids to Ohio State because they know they're going to play in a system that is tailored to their strengths and be successful at the same time in the win column.

There is one wrinkle, however, that Groce has added to that Matta philosophy: constant tempo. Groce is one of the modern coaches in basketball that loves to push the ball up the court and attempt to create as much offense as possible. Groce knows that more possessions equals more opportunities to score points, so no player on his team will be punished or sat on the bench for hoisting up shots. It is obvious, after all, that more possessions in turn leads to more shots, which subsequently leads to more points. By adding this wrinkle to his philosophy of molding a team identity to the actual players on the roster, though, Groce does necessarily require one major thing on any team of his: ball handlers.

Which brings us then to the current Illinois team and what it may look like under Groce. As the season gets underway tonight, there is exactly one primary ball handler on this team, Tracy Abrams, who is really more of a natural off-guard/combo guard type who was thrust into the role as point guard. The need for ball handling is a primary reason why Groce had DJ Richardson working on ball handling above anything else over the offseason. The more ball handling the better, as it can lead to turnover-free possessions that create a more fluid offensive flow.

Abrams is the primary ballhandler
As we watched the two exhibition games the Illini played in the past week or so, one thing is clear: this is a team in progress. There were spurts where the free, up-tempo style worked wonders and looked like Illinois could be a team to surprise in a relatively loaded Big Ten conference. And then there were other spurts where the Illini looked horrible, more akin to a turnover-ridden mess than a team that belonged in the top half of the conference. I imagine that it will take a big chunk of the beginning of the season for Illinois to adjust to a style that does not stifle the athleticism that seems to be everywhere on the roster, but the lack of ballhandling will be a concern for this program until Groce can recruit and develop players that fit that bill.

What we do lose in ball handling we certainly make up for in athleticism. Players like Brandon Paul, Richardson, Joseph Bertrand, Myke Henry, and Nnanna Egwu should thrive in an offense that finally takes advantage of their actual skill sets. Shooters like Paul, Richardson, and Henry should thrive in an open style that allows them to chuck up shots without the fear of Weber's eyes burning a hole in the back of their heads as they run back down the court after a missed shot. Same goes for players like Tyler Griffey, Bertrand, and even Abrams to a certain extent.

I really feel that with the increased level of freedom that this players should have to create and take shots in Groce's system, that Paul, Richardson, Bertrand, and Henry will be able to step up their games considerably this year. Paul was the unquestioned offensive leader last season, and his 43 point outburst against Ohio State was something special. But as the season wore on, and the majority of the offensive burden fell on his shoulders, the team began to break down. Now, natural shooters like Richardson, Henry, and Griffey should help ease that burden and at the same time spread the floor. A player like Myke Henry, who was a great shooter in high school, should thrive in a system like this.

If the team is able to spread the floor, it should open up the offense in an additional way: dribble drive. That particular style of offense, which has helped Kentucky dominate college basketball the past couple seasons (not to mention their, ahem, constant flow of talent), is great for a couple different reasons. First, it has the dual purpose of both leading to more open looks for shooters, while those jump shooters also help spread the floor for the dribble drive to work anyways. Second, it takes advantage of the natural athletes that are already on the floor. And third, it's a style of offense that is fun to watch and play in, which helps market Illinois basketball both to fans and recruits.

Groce also differs from Weber on defense. Unlike Weber, who seemingly never called for intense pressure on defense, Groce will go to what he eloquently calls an "orchestrated chaos" style of defense. Much like his offense, his defense is designed to be aggressive. Groce wants to force the opposing team to make mistakes, turn the ball over, and give the Illinois offense an opportunity to score on the fast break. It certainly helps that Illinois has the athletes to make it happen, but it might be a rough transition as well because it differs so much from the style that Weber ran. Again, Groce isn't afraid to be flexible to ensure his team is effective, unlike Weber who wouldn't even budge on the strict man to man defense he always played.

Also, expect Groce to go with a deeper rotation than Illinois fans are used to. Year in and year out, we heard Bruce Weber talk about how he was going to finally use his bench only to see Weber wear his starters out with a ton of minutes. Under Groce's system, however, the usage of a deep rotation comes not only from his own personal philosophy, but also from necessity. Playing such an uptempo style on both ends of the court necessarily requires more stamina and energy from players. As a result, more guys will play on a consistent basis to ensure the team stays fresh. That means we'll (finally) see more of Tyler Griffey, Mike Shaw, Devin Langford, and a 9th guy off the bench that will probably vary from game to game.

Finally, it will be interesting to see how well the new culture of toughness and togetherness formulates as the season unfolds. Illinois has been the antithesis of a tough, physical team for years, so developing that is key in the Big Ten. I do feel that Illinois has a great natural leader in point guard Tracy Abrams, who should help instill that sense of togetherness that is so key in a team sport like basketball. All too often last year, and in years prior, the Illini looked more like a collective group of individuals rather than a team. With a leader like Abrams and a culture that Groce looks to install, it should help this group reach their potential on the court. It's hard to quantify something like chemistry. It's something that you absolutely notice when it isn't there, but can, at the end of the day, make the difference between wins and losses.

Here's to hoping that Groce can get all of these moving parts moving in the right direction sooner rather than later. No one is expecting a deep run this year, but if they get his system down and play with a sense of toughness and intensity, they †could potentially make some noise. Groce has said and done all of the right things in what has shaped up to be a fantastic offseason for him (even if they did miss out on stud 2013 PG Demetrius Jackson), one in which he reopened the Chicago pipeline, made Illini basketball exciting again off the court, and gave us a glimpse of the type of players that could be on their way to Champaign in the future. Yet, as we are mere hours away from the start of his tenure as Illinois coach, all of those things don't matter nearly as much as showing some results on the court.