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Keep Shooting January 23, 2013

In the second half of the Minnesota game – I want to say we were down by 2 – Brandon kicked it to an open DJ Richardson behind the three point line. He let it fly… and it rattled out. So close to going down and giving us the lead.

The rebound went out of bound off us, and the camera zoomed in on John Groce. It was easy to read his lips:

“DJ! Keep shooting.”

Nobody wants Tyler Griffey to make a three more than me. OK, maybe his parents, but I’m third. Wait, my wife used to work with his Aunt, and she was a huge Tyler supporter, so fourth. OK, fine, other family members. And his girlfriend. But I’m at worst 9th on the “really want Tyler Griffey to knock down a three and break this streak” list.

In the second half tonight, with about four minutes left, John Groce called a timeout with maybe 14 seconds on the shot clock. I think the main reason was to settle the team down – protect the ball, be smart on defense, this game is ours. But he did design a play for that 14 second shot clock: get Tyler Griffey open for a three. The kid had missed 16 straight, but John Groce designed a play for him to get an open three.

The message: keep shooting. When you have an open shot, take it. Be aggressive.

Would Groce have designed that play if it was a four point game? Of course not. You put the ball in the hands of your best scorers at that point, and Griffey clearly hasn’t been our best scorer in the past month. But I think I see the method to John Groce’s “keep shooting” madness: get this team to be aggressive in everything they do. Change last years’ tentative mindest to aggression.

It’s no secret that the biggest struggle for this senior class has been tentative basketball. Dribbling around until there’s 4 seconds on the shot clock, rebounding, lazy passes, defensive lapses – all part of our 6-12 finish in the Big Ten last year. John Groce set out to flip that, and the biggest change he’s made, in my opinion, is to change last year’s Weber “no” when DJ rose to shoot to this year’s “DJ! Keep shooting.”

When I got the chance to interview Coach Groce this past summer, I asked him about a quote where he said he never got upset at DJ Cooper (at Ohio) when he took a bad shot. His answer was that he always wanted DJ in attack mode. He’d put up with the 10-20% dumb plays to get the 80-90% attack plays.

Other quotes I’ve read talked about how players being aggressive on the offensive end changes their entire game. They’re more aggressive on defense. They chase more rebounds. They fight through screens. Get players into a battle-ready mentality by pushing them to stay aggressive on the offensive end.

Is there a flipside to all of this, where it seems ridiculous to tell Tyler Griffey to keep shooting after he’s missed this many shots in a row? Of course. There’s always a limit. But from what he’s said, I think John Groce believes that letting shooters shoot their way out of slumps helps their overall game. Tyler still hasn’t hit a three in Big Ten play – but he’s rebounding the ball better than I can remember. DJ was on fire tonight, but his defense was just as impressive.

Again, he isn’t telling DJ or Tyler or Brandon to take bad shots. He doesn’t want them shooting every time they touch the ball. But he wants them mentally prepared so that their ready to let it fly (or drive, or dish, or dunk) when they see an opportunity. To quote Groce from that interview last summer when talking about his aggression project at Ohio, DJ Cooper:

The worst thing you can do is handcuff him and get him overthinking things – where he’s in a mode where he’s reactionary instead of in attack mode.

Keep shooting. And driving. And rebounding. And slowly but surely, your entire game will come around. You’ll understand the mindset it takes to be successful in this rugged conference. You’ll no longer be known as a weak-willed team that just tried to run out the clock with the lead. Stay aggressive. Fight back when you’re punched in the mouth.

The results so far? Mixed. Punched in the mouth to at the beginning of the Gonzaga game and then a slow and steady fight back. Punched in the mouth at Wisconsin and then a complete meltdown. Taking it right to Ohio State in Assembly Hall. Rolling over and letting Northwestern walk all over us at Assembly Hall. We can’t seem to find consistent effort.

Just like last year. If there’s one phrase that describes our play last year, it’s folding when the heat was turned up. The Purdue game on New Years Eve. The game at Nebraska. The Iowa game in the Big Ten tournament. So many fans and media questioning our fight. Our weak-willed mentality.

I think that’s the number one thing John Groce has attempted to change about the culture in Champaign. To mixed results so far. But tonight, the player who has struggled with confidence and aggression put up 30 points. And when you think through our last 3-4 games, DJ might have played the best of anyone on this team. He’s aggressive on both ends of the court, and tonight, it paid off immensely.

Does that mean last year’s “when the going gets tough, we fold” is gone? No. We still lost to Purdue and Northwestern. We’ve still gone from top-10 to bubble in three short weeks. Northwestern was about the weakest effort we’ve seen in several years.

But tonight, we were aggressive (opening possession Sam McLaurin back-down dunk for the win), and we got after it on defense, and we fought through some screens, and we got our hands on some passes, and we pushed right back every time Nebraska made a run. Sure, it’s just Nebraska, but a 20 point road win in the Big Ten is still a good way to kill this slide.

We still have a long, long way to go. Play like we did tonight and, 30 points from DJ or no 30 points from DJ, we’re losing our next five games. We have to keep getting better. We have to keep pushing. We need more from Brandon and smarter decisions from Tracy and greater focus and drive from Myke Henry. There’s still a lot to work on.

But this team showed some spunk tonight. On the road. Sure, it’s just Nebraska, but both Wisconsin and Purdue struggled in Lincoln before eventually winning by six and nine. A 20 point win is a great way to start the road back. Next step: find some way to win two of the next five. And then close the season 5-2.

No problem, right?

bkenny January 23rd, 2013

Griffey hasn’t hit a shot in seemingly a month. And if he’s not making shots, specifically threes, he’s basically worthless out there. You can’t just let him keep shooting. Anyone else catch his 2 point attempt tonight where he had half his foot on the line? Worst shot on the court. He missed it, but that’s just terrible. He shouldn’t be playing more than 10 minutes a game at this point. Come in for your 1-2 minutes of breath for other guys and get out of there. He doesn’t hit shots, makes terrible decisions with the ball, and doesn’t defend well.
We played 7 guys tonight against a weak Nebraska team. I obviously have no idea what goes on in practice, but that’s not a good sign. Remember when Shaw was going to get minutes in the rotation?
One FG attempt for Tracy tonight. Real quiet game for him.
Our next 5 games are ridiculous. Hope to win 1, and 2 would be amazing.

illiniranger January 23rd, 2013

there’s a fine line between reckless and aggressive. i don’t think we know where that is. the coach has to teach that. aggression for aggression’s sake is no better than Weber’s caution for caution’s sake.

GrogsBBQPepperoni January 23rd, 2013

We had someone with double digit rebounds. That alone is enough to give me (some) hope.

illinitrueblue January 23rd, 2013

You can only play he cards you are dealt. I think Griffey is and has been dreadful. I find it almost impossible to believe that a player who has missed, what? about 20 shots in a row can continue to get major PT. He can’t defend, he can’t pass and he can’t shoot. What’s left?

And yet, he’s still better than the 2 guys behind him, Henry and Shaw.

I hope the incoming class is a whole lot better than I think.

ATOillini January 23rd, 2013

The good news is that we won a Big 10 road game with only 2 players playing well (Nnanna and DJ). You already pointed out the bad news. More of the same and we’re going to lose a ton of games. Many will be blowouts.
Don’t know what to say about TG. As pointed out by others, he is one dimensional and that one dimension is not working. Tracy is also really struggling, and it seems BP3 hasn’t had a good game in ages. He continues to force things and makes way too many bad decisions. I don’t like holding my breath every time he has the ball. Not a good feeling.
Also, Henry and Shaw were highly ranked recruits that I’m sure we were all happy to get when they signed. Well into their second seasons and nothing to really to show for it.
I shouldn’t be this much of a downer after a win. I’ll just shut up.
On a final note, for those of us who always think the refs have it in for the Illini, it sure appeared we got the best of things last night. The clean steal by Nebraska that was called a foul might have been their last chance to make a run at us.

Lou-a-villini January 23rd, 2013

Hey, if we win the next five in a row we’ll probably be back in the top 15. Lightning-in-a-bottle time! :)

IlliNYC January 23rd, 2013

This team has already shown it can beat very good teams–we just need a couple guys hitting shots (which is tougher than it sounds!).

SouthernIllini January 23rd, 2013

Well, since I’m the resident eternal optomist, I’ll just say that if they were going to go stupid-cold shooting the ball for 3 weeks, I’m glad they picked this particular 3 weeks.

Now maybe they will heat up again for a good stretch run through February and into the tournament.

Illinigrad January 24th, 2013

I was nice to win in a blowout.

I hope the team stays aggressive. It sure beats the Weberball slow down and losing in the last two minutes. Somebody should count the games we LOST with that strategy. Seven more wins and we should be in the NCAA.

LongLiveTheChief98 January 24th, 2013

I’m still sticking by what I said earlier in the season that even 8-10 gets us into the tourney.
With that said, I’m hard-pressed to see six more conference wins. I’m not going to get back on the band wagon after a win over Nebraska. These next five games are brutal, and should be telling of what this team is really all about.
The losses against Purdue and NW are really going to kill us in the end, IMO.

Steve January 24th, 2013

IMO, we need 9 conference wins to make the tournament, but they can come in the regular season, they can come in the BTT. If we lay an egg and only win 7 in regular season, I think that we must win twice in the tourney, which is probably only enough to get to Saturday. Get to Sunday (play in the championship game) and we go dancing regardless of our record. Not the path to take, obviously, but I think it works.
We have clearly made the road a lot harder, losing some of our more winnable games against PU and NW. That hurt, but it can be dealt with, I would guess. JG will be a real asset to this team, since he doesn’t give off any sense of freezing up or backing off. It might not work, that is obvious to all, but he is the right leader for the challenge.

illiniranger January 24th, 2013

i think there are 5 wins left in our schedule. we will lose to someone we shouldn’t. we’ll beat somebody we shouldn’t. i think we end up 7-11. That home loss to NW and road loss to PU are KILLERs. Win both (we should have) and we are a slam dunk into the tourney.
i think we are on the bubble on Selection Sunday. Wins over Butler, Gonzaga, and tOSU should get us in at 8-10. if we are sitting at 7-11 and win a B1G tourney game i think we are in. Lunardi currently has us right on the bubble.

SouthernIllini January 24th, 2013

I’m on board with the rest of your folks. I think we need to avoid any further upsets at all, and maybe add 2 good wins, then we’re in. We have revenge games with Purdue and NW later on that can get rid of a bit of that blemish on our schedule if we won those. Just winning the games I see as must-wins, we get 5 more. Purdue NW, Iowa, Penn State, and Nebraska.

If we can win any 2 of the other 7 games, I think we’re in easily. Surely we can sneak up on one team. We get Wisconsin at home which I think we can and should beat. All we need is one good surprise victory against Michigan, Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Minnesota.

7-5 over our last 12 conference games puts us at 22-10 going into the conference tournament with several really good wins on our record. 6-6 should get us in the tournament too, considering what our SOS will wind up at. We’d be 21-11 and carry wins over Ohio St, Butler, Gonzaga, and one of Minnesota, Michigan, Indy, Wisc, and Mich. State.

gusher January 25th, 2013

We beat an Ohio State team that didn’t show up, and a terrible Northwestern team. We’ve fallen apart in every other Big Ten game.
This is the worst Illinois defensive team in over a decade. I don’t think we can shoot our way out of that.