Piper's points: Illini PG play has been crippling

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks down Illinois' major point guard problem.

Illini head coach John Groce came to Champaign less than four years ago with a plan to reconstruct and revitalize a program with high standards.

There were necessary ingredients to go along with that, and Groce certainly seemed to have the recipe based on his previous successes. As an assistant under Thad Matta, Groce was part of programs (Butler, Xavier and Ohio State) that consistently won or competed for a conference championship, and made some noise in the NCAA tournament.

As a head coach at Ohio, he won three NCAA tournament games in four years - reaching the Sweet Sixteen in 2012.

The ingredients weren't complicated. Get guys who can play up-tempo and in a free-flowing offense. Build a culture of toughness, grit and resiliency. Let defense spark offense. Always play your best basketball in March. Recruit with relentlessness.

Last but certainly not least, get a high-level point guard to run the show.

In fact, that was arguably the most crucial ingredient given Groce's style of offense. With a ball-screen system, he needed a point guard who could be a triple-threat (shoot, drive or pass) off the action and open things up for other weapons. He also needed someone to push it in transition to establish his desired tempo.

After just a few months on the job, Groce talked about "his" point guard with The News-Gazette basketball beat writer Paul Klee.

"From a personality standpoint, we look for guys that are in attack mode," Groce said in June 2012. "They have to understand their job is to connect the team: 'Yes, I have the ability to score if I need to, but I also understand my job is to connect the team.' He has to be able to bring the team together."

"When you put all those things together, that's why I'm probably really picky about who we have at that particular position."

A big part of that description is the ability to score.

"Other teams that see our guy (at the point) might say, 'He plays like a combo (guard) more than he does a pure point," Groce told Klee. "He needs to be able to score at a certain level. If he doesn't, then guys don't guard him. He has to be a dangerous scorer."

***

Fast forward to Sunday night at the State Farm Center.

The Illini fell 63-55 against Wisconsin to drop to 2-7 in the Big Ten and 10-12 overall. Groce now sports a 26-37 record in the Big Ten, and he is 16-16 in conference games at home.

It's not ideal - as the overarching phrase attached to University of Illinois athletics clearly states.

Groce has been faced with plenty of insurmountable challenges this season when it comes to the health of his roster. That is undeniable fact. Good luck finding a program in college basketball that has been more snake-bitten this year.

After Sunday's game, the Illini have had six different players miss a total of 64 games due to injuries and other circumstances. Those misfortunes have come at a bad time with the Illini on their way to missing the NCAA tournament for the third straight season. That is further compounded by the inevitable change in leadership that is coming with the hiring of a new athletic director.

But given the difficult situation, Illini fans are still hungry for success and at least want to see signs of progress. They want to be assured that the program is still heading in the right direction with Groce at the helm.

The Illini have two of the most productive offensive players in the Big Ten with juniors Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. But the Illinois offense as a whole has struggled mightily of late. For the third straight game, the Orange and Blue failed to score more than 60 points in regulation.

Illinois shot just 36 percent from the field against the Badgers and scored a season-low 55 points. That raises some key questions, but it's not too hard to point out one of the detrimental causes - and it's not one that is new to this season.

The Illini don't have a Big Ten quality point guard in their starting lineup. For a coach that once talked about having a "dangerous scorer" at the position, Groce has the exact opposite.

Jaylon Tate and Khalid Lewis played 40 minutes combined on Sunday without scoring a point. Over the last two games, they have scored two points combined while jointly totaling 85 minutes of action. Tate and Lewis are shooting 37.5 percent combined in Big Ten play, and they are 1-of-8 from three.

That is one way to kill an offense. The duo has been good at taking care of the ball. Between the two, they have 45 assists and just 15 turnovers in nine conference games. But lacking a point guard who can create and make his own shot is a crippling issue.

***

Groce has always been a coach that has focused on solutions rather than dwelling on problems. As the leader of the program, he hasn't had any other choice. Groce discussed his point guard challenge after Sunday's game.

"Obviously, it's the coach's job to adapt. We've done that. We've had to adapt a lot - probably last year more than any year I've coached up to that point - and this year more than last year," he said. "There's no need to cry over spilled milk. The milk is spilled and you've got to figure it out. When a guy is out, then a guy is out. That's not changing - you've got to figure it out."

That guy Groce is talking about is fifth-year senior point guard Tracy Abrams, who suffered a second straight season-ending injury this summer. As they did last season, the Illini were counting on Abrams being their solution at the position.

On one hand, it's easy to sympathize with that kind of a bad break. But to be fair, the Illini were supposed to have an answer for Abrams' absence at this point in time anyway. Had he been healthy last season, Abrams wouldn't even still be on the Illinois campus. Would Illinois have been an NCAA tournament team last year with Abrams? It's impossible to accurately speculate.

Without Abrams, the Illini have gotten an average of 4.9 points per game from their starting point guard in 28 contests against Big Ten opponents since last season. But playing the "Abrams card" only carries so much clout. It's not a stretch to say that Abrams isn't exactly the type of point guard Groce described as "his" guy.

In fact, Abrams isn't his guy at all. Groce inherited him when he took over for Bruce Weber, and he spent plenty of time on the recruiting trail trying to find someone better - even with Abrams fully healthy. Those failures have caught up to the Illini now.

It's a fair question to ask if any other high-major programs are getting less offensive production from their point guards. With that, Illinois is forced to sorely miss a guy who shot just 33.3 percent from the field and 27 percent from three when he was last healthy. At least Abrams was a threat to score, and he averaged 10.7 points per game in 2013-14.

But during Big Ten play that year, Abrams' offensive rating (87.6) was 35th of the 36 Big Ten players who were utilized on at least 20 percent of his team's possessions - according to Ken Pom. For reference, offensive rating is calculated based on the average amount of points a player produces (points, assists & free throws) every 100 possessions.

***

Why doesn't this program have the point guard that it needs? It certainly hasn't been for a lack of trying. They aimed high on the recruiting front, and basic logic would tell you that they should have gotten a hit with that many swings.

Securing that prized point guard was right at the top of the priority list from the day Groce started in Champaign. Right off the bat, the Illini were in the mix with four-star point guard Demetrius Jackson - who is now projected as a lottery pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Groce and his staff managed to secure an official visit just more than five months after being hired. Illinois was one of two finalists, but Jackson ultimately picked Notre Dame.

At that point in time, it was disappointing to miss but it seemed that Groce was on the right track. Then came the 2014 class, and Groce started to show off his recruiting prowess - which is what made him an attractive coaching candidate. On Sept. 1, 2013, the Illini landed a commitment from four-star forward Leron Black. Less than two weeks later, Groce got a pledge from four-star point guard and former Louisville commit Quentin Snider.

The Illini program looked ready for launch, and they still had a shot with five-star big man Cliff Alexander. Unfortunately, Illinois fans know the story after that. Snider flipped back to Louisville during the signing period, and the Illini were hat-tricked by Alexander during his national announcement.

Once again, it was a tough blow. But if the Illini were that close with Jackson in a short period of time and they had Snider before he went back to his hometown program, it made sense to shoot high again in the 2015 class. That's exactly what Illinois did, as they chased McDonald's All-American point guards Jalen Brunson and Jawun Evans.

They had the perfect sell for those two, and they worked as hard as anyone to position themselves to land one. As their recruitments progressed, the Illini were in the top-two for both targets. It was essentially a foolproof plan - at least in theory. Both targets were lined up back-to-back weekends on official visits, and whoever wanted the spot first would get it.

For different reasons - some outside of the realm of basketball - Brunson and Evans each ended up elsewhere. Those were crushing, and the size of the impact is even more apparent now. Brunson is averaging 10.2 points per game, while shooting 42 percent from the field and 35 percent from deep. Evans is putting up 13 points and 5.1 assists per game, while shooting 46.3 percent from the field and 47.5 percent from three.

They were perfect fits, but it showed that there are no sure-things when it comes to recruiting. That is where this staff errored and the leaks in their plan have had ramifications.

If the Illini wouldn't have shot for the stars, they would have likely landed four-star point guard Glynn Watson Jr. The brother of former Illini point guard Demetri McCamey took a visit to the Illini campus the summer after Groce was hired. But the Illini elected to aim higher and never extended an offer. Watson now looks the part of a Big Ten point guard, but he is doing so at Nebraska.

Watson is averaging 8.5 points per game, and shooting 40.2 percent from the field. Those numbers may not jump off the page, but he has scored in double figures in each of the last four Big Ten games. Watson has sported a very nice mid-range jumper, which would be a huge benefit to Groce's system. Instead, the Illini are getting 2.9 points per game from Tate in nine Big Ten contests.

That isn't the only Watson that is making the hindsight tough to look at. Former Boston University point guard Maurice Watson Jr. was a transfer target for the Illini back in the spring of 2014. Watson averaged 13.3 points and 7.1 assists at Boston during his sophomore season. The Illini even got an up-close look during an NIT matchup, where Watson posted seven points and 12 dimes.

Groce went out to Philadelphia to visit Watson, and there was discussion about him visiting Champaign. Meanwhile, Watson set up an official visit to Creighton. The Illini were reluctant to dive all-in with Watson - with Brunson and Evans still on the market - and he committed to Creighton without visiting Illinois. Now, Watson is averaging 14.1 points (No. 12 in the Big East) and 6.5 assists (No. 2 in the Big East) per game.

***

Making those kind of recruiting decisions are far from easy. That is why coaches get paid the big bucks. But since they do make that kind of money, they are expected to make the right ones.

Each person can evaluate Groce's decisions in hindsight to their liking. Was it a poor strategy? Would someone else have done it differently in the same situation? Was it just another matter of bad breaks? The results are more subjective.

Having a legit point guard is invaluable, and Groce knows that as much as anyone from first-hand experience. D.J. Cooper was a huge part of Groce's success at Ohio, and he finished his career as one of the most statistically successful point guards in D-1 college basketball. He is the only D-1 player in history to post at least 2,000 career points, 900 assists, 600 rebounds and 300 steals.

After getting hired at Ohio, Groce saw Cooper play with MeanStreets on the AAU circuit and he became No. 1 on his wish list. The Chicago native was undervalued by most high-major programs. Cooper held an offer from Baylor, but he was not their top priority while they were chasing John Wall.

Cooper respected the loyalty and opportunity that Groce presented, and the rest was history. Groce talked about Cooper leading up to the start of the NCAA tournament in 2012, when the Bobcats went on to the Sweet Sixteen - later giving Groce the opportunity at Illinois.

"I trust him a great deal. I tease him that 80 percent of the time he makes me look like a million dollars, and the other 20 percent, like I don't know what the heck I'm doing," Groce said in an ESPN article.

If only the same applied at Illinois. Cooper was such a good find that Baylor and Tennessee (coached by Bruce Pearl) reportedly tried to poach him from Ohio after his freshman year. Surprising that Pearl would be involved in such a thing, right?

Nevertheless, it was obvious what Groce had in Cooper and what that did for his offense.

"When he first got here, he was just a great talent, honestly, with skill sets like vision and ball-handling and passing," Groce said in an article by USA Today. "(I can't) claim I taught him half that stuff. He had it."

***

Groce is sorely missing a point guard that has IT.

The Illini are hopeful that four-star point guard commit Te'Jon Lucas will be the long-awaited answer. Lucas is having a great senior season by averaging 18 points and eight assists per game. Other high-major programs are already regretting that they didn't notice him earlier. If Illinois is lucky, the parallels to Cooper won't stop there.

Unfortunately, Lucas won't arrive on campus until Year Five for Groce - and it's not guaranteed that he sees one just yet. That will be up to the athletic director to decide, and Groce will certainly have a case for one more year. The Illini will bring back a number of talented pieces and they'll have something to be excited about at the point guard position.

For now, Illinois has to find some damage control. Hill and Nunn are averaging 35.2 points per game combined in Big Ten play, which amounts for more than 49 percent of the team's offensive production. An offensively capable point guard would do wonders for them and this offense - even with Illinois' starting frontcourt (Leron Black and Mike Thorne Jr.) in street clothes.

Maybe that shows how close this team is to being a contender next season. But it doesn't erase the frustrating failures. Lucas will still just be a freshman next season. Relying heavily on Abrams may not be smart. And the Illini know what they're getting in Tate.

Groce hinted that a guy like Jalen Coleman-Lands, who was considered a combo guard out of high school, could potentially develop into a scoring playmaker in the future.

"Right now, we're developing some guys. Obviously, we'd like to be able to get back to having some of those traits," Groce said on Sunday. "And that certainly helps, not only with point guard play, but with guards who have the ability to make plays and not only make plays for themselves, but for others as well. Right now, we've got some guys that are maturing in that area. We've got some young guys who we hope will be able to do that some as well."

"I think of a guy like Brandon Paul - he matured and became more of a playmaker as a senior. I don't know how much point guard he had played before we got here, but he played quite a bit that year and he did a good job. He really evolved and he really grew, and he got better. I'm hoping that happens with some of our other guys as well."

It's ironic and unfortunate that what was a big reason for Groce's ascension at Ohio is a significant cause of why he's fighting for his job right now.


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