Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Relapse of Illinois Basketball

As we see it right now, after a drubbing at the hands of a woeful Northwestern team at home, after a beating of epic proportions at Wisconsin, which followed a terrible loss to Minnesota, it is clear that the "new era" many (including myself) thought had arrived for Illinois basketball has not. It turns out, after all, that the Bruce Weber era of basketball, that of the slow, dull, uninspired, weak, and underachieving sort, was simply in remission. Sure, John Groce may yet succeed at Illinois. Hell, he made this group start the season 12-0. But it is obvious to anyone watching now that the downtrodden Weber years have not, in some recognizable fashion, left Champaign.

What happened to this team? They started the season with such inspiring, collective play. I wrote about it earlier in the season, how this team had bought into the Groce philosophy of togetherness and toughness. They were playing hard, as a unit, and initiating an uptempo style that suited their athletic strengths. Sure, there were detractors, those national critics who felt that the Illinois collapse, so prominent in the Weber years, was merely waiting around the corner. But no, our fan base stood in denial, falling into the confirmation bias trap that what we were witnessing was the arrival of the John Groce era much, much earlier than expected.

And who could blame Illinois fans? We're a fan base starving for consistent for success. At this point, we'd settle for exciting basketball. We saw a coach in Groce who finally adhered to the tenet that echoes through all of coaching, in any sport: he knew his personnel. Gone was the slow, plodding motion offense from Weber's teams that never seemed to jive with the athletic roster we (mistakenly) thought we had. In was an uptempo style that capitalized on three point attempts and forcing turnovers. The modern era of basketball, we all thought, had arrived to Assembly Hall.

Groce is understandably frustrated
Little did we know that the energy that Groce instilled in his team would collapse about halfway through the first game of the Big Ten season. In that opener against Purdue, Groce's team came out flat, unable to string together enough scoring possessions to hold off a pesky team that capitalized from the frustrations of this Illinois squad. This team rebounded to punish an overrated Ohio State team that didn't know what it had coming, but since then has struggled mightily to find any semblance of consistency.

You can look at the basketball side of things and notice that this team is atrocious at rebounding. The brilliant three point shooting has, predictably, fallen off for a roster that is not chock full of good natural shooters. You can see that really, there just aren't that many good scorers on the team that can create their own shot. Individually, the players aren't good defenders, and when they swap into a zone they don't know how to effectively execute it, especially considering they didn't do it hardly ever when Weber was still here.

But I want to stop short of blaming Groce, and to a certain extent, stop leaving the failures of this squad at Weber's doorstep for once. When it comes down to it, these players just aren't that good. Sure, on paper they have talent. But exactly zero of them, maybe besides Tracy Abrams, are good leaders. Even worse than that, they're mentally and physically weak. They exhibit no toughness. This team gets bossed around in every game. Look no further than rebounding, a facet of the game that can be won as a team or individual through hustle, physicality, technique, and energy. Illinois sucks at rebounding more because they lack any of those traits than any perceived lack of size or strength.

The lack of toughness permeates this team and defines the kids that were recruited by Weber. Weber struggled to gain a foothold in recruiting after the Eric Gordon saga and seemingly took any highly rated kid he could find. In doing so, he forsake recruiting kids like Chester Frazier, who made up for his supposed lack of recruiting stars with a natural toughness and leadership that won Illinois games. On this roster, only Tracy Abrams seems to have that natural, tough, leadership ability. Abrams is a bulldog that with the right team, can help lead you to conference championships.

The problem though, is that the upperclassmen on this team, especially senior stars Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson, are not like Abrams at all. I used to dismiss the stories of Paul refusing to work hard in practice, his getting sent home by Weber or forced to ride the bench as little more than desperate motivation attempts by a coach who knew he had one foot out the door. Now, I realize that maybe, just maybe, these players aren't wired to win at all costs. They're not like the Abrams' or Frazier's or Dee Brown's of the world that can turn a game around just from all out hustle and leadership. Instead, when this squad gets down, they can't turn to their senior leaders because they just don't have it in them to lead.

Paul just may not have it in him
It's hard to say this about Paul because without him, it's doubtful Illinois would have won any games and he certainly has brought some great moments to the table. But to me, he's almost the go to guy on this team by default because there is no one else to go to. Paul all too often disappears in games and has never looked comfortable putting the team on his back. Richardson hasn't shaken confidence problems that have plagued his entire career; nor has Tyler Griffey. To me, more than anything, these are the reasons Illinois can't come out and not only beat a team like Northwestern, but even make it a game once they get down.

I still have full confidence in John Groce. Just think of how amazing of a coaching job he did in the first 12 games to get this team to even start the season that deeply undefeated. But somewhere along the line, the magic wore out and these players fell back to their original selves. At this point, after watching Illinois slug along to a horrific start in conference play, I find it hard to believe that the program will turn around as long as these upperclassmen, all recruited by Weber, are around. They just do not have it in them to be leaders or winners. They're that one word that hurts in sports more than any other: soft.

Groce has time to turn it around, and you can see how hard he's trying with this bunch. But try all he might, all of his mojo might have run out a third of the way through the season. Maybe that's all this team is capable of. He has some natural leaders on the way in the 2013 class, with Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate from powerhouse Simeon ready to play. He's in on other recruits in the 2014 class, and you can expect more commitments as surely there will be some transfers from this squad after the season as players who can't jell with Groce's mantra for tough basketball could face the decision between riding the pine and transferring out. In my opinion we won't even see the true, full impact of Groce's recruiting ability until the 2015 class (where he's already in on several top prospects).

Still, that's all in the future. Focusing on the here and now, we have to understand that it might be a difficult rest of the season. This team has shown that when they get behind in games, they don't have the leadership or mental/physical toughness to get back into the game. If that's how they act when they get down in a game, just imagine what happens when the get behind in a season. The rest of the way could get bumpy, with a nice juicy landing spot on the bubble in the forecast - if we're lucky.