The turnaround Illinois has made over the course of the last two weeks is one of the more shocking developments in a season where nothing should come as a surprise.
There’s a reason that I’ve dubbed this “The Year of WTF?!?”
The Illini won their first 12 games of the season — including big wins at Gonzaga and against Butler in the finals of the Maui Invitational — and looked to be a candidate to finish in the top four of the Big Ten after whooping up on Ohio State at home in the second game of the conference season.
And then the wheels fell off.
They were embarrassed against Minnesota at home. They were smacked around by Wisconsin at the Kohl Center. They lost by 14 points to Northwestern at home. But things started to look better near the end of January. Illinois hung with Michigan at home, gave Michigan State a scare in East Lansing (they were up 10 at halftime), and nearly picked off Wisconsin in Champaign. Finally, on February 7th, Illinois broke through, using a 13-2 run to close out an upset-win over No. 1 Indiana and following that up with a win at Minnesota and blowout victories over Purdue and Northwestern.
All of a sudden, the Illini team that we thought could make a run in the Big Ten two months ago is back.
What’s so surprising about that is we’ve become accustomed to Bruce Weber’s Illinois teams collapsing after a tough stretch. And after this group lost six of seven, it was easy to connect the dots — this wasn’t a coaching issue, this was a player personnel issue. This group just couldn’t handle success.
“The coaches never gave up on us,” senior guard Brandon Paul said. “They want to see us succeed. They said, we’ve had this rough stretch but gotta fight through it. No one on the team gave up on each other.”
“Don’t give in,” Paul said. “Don’t let what outsiders say affect us. I think that’s definitely been in our minds. A lot of people doubted us when we went through that rough stretch. [Groce’s] a guy with unbelievable energy. He comes in every day and he gives us the passion to want to compete and get better every day. That’s something you need in a coach.”
“It’s a whole different staff, whole different team, whole different attitude,” Richardson said. “Everything’s different. This team is no comparison to last year.”
Now, I’m not going to pretend to know the inner-workings of the relationships between Bruce Weber and his team last season. And even if Weber did give up on last year’s Illini team, that’s not an excuse for the players giving up as well.
But more than anything, what those quotes tell us is that Illinois got themselves a steal in John Groce.
Tom Izzo landed his second commitment in the Class of 2017 as big man Xavier Tillman announced that he will be attending Michigan State.
A 6-foot-7, 235 pound power forward, Tillman is a physical-if-undersized player that is rated as a three-star prospect. He’s not a one-and-done player, but he’s should be a good program guy for the Spartans.
“Tillman is another big and strong interior presence for Michigan State,” said NBCSports.com recruiting analyst Scott Phillips. “What separates Tillman from a lot of big men his size is his passing ability. Tillman is an intelligent player on the offensive end and he rebounds his area well.”
Tillman joins Jaren Jackson, his AAU teammate for Speice Indy Heat, in Michigan State’s recruiting class.
He picked Michigan State over Purdue and Marquette.
PHOTO: Arizonas Kobi Simmons puts his chin above the rim
His vertical is … 45 inches? That’s pretty impressive, but not quite as impressive as the pictures that he tweeted out, the full effect of which you cannot receive until you see the picture in it’s entirety:
1. Look how high he is off the court.
2. Look at where his hand is in relation to the top of the back board.
3. … LOOK AT HIS CHIN!
I know that the angle of this picture is probably playing some visual tricks on us, but think about how high you have to be able to jump just to have a camera visually trick someone’s eyes into thinking your chin is above the backboard.
You know the feeling. You’re flipping between games and stumble upon him. Maybe it’s a team you only rarely catch, or maybe it’s a conference foe you’ve watched play dozens of times over the last few years, but as you watch for a few moments, that’s when you see him. You could have sworn he graduated last year. Or even maybe the year before. But alas, there he is. That four-year starter. The dude who got a medical redshirt. A graduate transfer. It’s one of college basketball’s enduring and unique phenomena.
We present, to you, the Perry Ellis All-Stars.
PERRY ELLIS ALL-STARS, FIRST TEAM
MVP G Spike Albrecht, Purdue: After averaging just 2.2 points and 0.7 assists per game for Michigan as a freshman, Albrecht broke through with one of the most memorable NCAA tournament title game performances of all-time against Louisville, hitting four of five 3-pointers, scoring 17 points and letting loose one of the most epic heat checks of all-time.
@KateUpton hey saw you at the game last night, thanks for coming out! Hope to see you again 😉
Albrecht’s career was set to come to a close with the Wolverines last year, but recovery from hip surgery didn’t go as quickly as hoped and he sat out with a medical redshirt. That paved the way for an intra-conference graduate transfer to West Lafayette, where the 24-year-old will bolster the backcourt and make legions of fans wonder how the hell he’s still playing college basketball.
G Phil Forte, Oklahoma State: Once best known for simply being Marcus Smart’s best friend, Forte has grown into his own and become one of the top – and most enduring – players in the Big 12. He’s averaged double-figures in scoring in every season and was set to be the face of the Cowboys last year in his senior season, but a torn elbow ligament delayed that final season to this year, when he’ll try to help the Brad Underwood era get off the ground as a likely all-conference player. Not bad for an unranked Class of 2012 recruit who many thought had his high-major opportunity only because of his friendship with a future top ten pick.
G Bryce Alford, UCLA: Alford gets his spot on the first time because it feels like he’s been a major topic of conversation in hoops circles for a half-decade, even if it’s only been a little over two years. That’s what happens when you’re the shoot-happy son of the UCLA coach. He’s been a flashpoint for Bruins fans who have been less than thrilled with coach Steve Alford, given how much the offense – and shots – have gone through Bryce. With a monster freshman class coming to Westwood this season, Bryce’s role will be one of the more interesting subplots in college basketball this season.
F Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina: The Charlotte native arrived in Chapel Hill as a McDonald’s All-American with expectations as large as his 6-foot-9, 315-pound frame. He averaged just 16 minutes per game as a freshman, but a productive NCAA tournament and as offseason dominated by talk of all the weight he lost propelled those expectations. He averaged 11 points and 7 boards in 23 minutes per game as a sophomore, but saw his minutes and production drop as a junior. A career that some thought would be a quick one at North Carolina will now reach its four-year conclusion this season, with Meeks a topic of discussion for the Tar Heels each and every offseason he’s been in Chapel Hill.
F Amile Jefferson, Duke: Jefferson, another Class of 2012 recruit and McDonald’s All-American, returns for a fifth season with the Blue Devils due to a medical redshirt that was a product of a foot injury that cut Jefferson’s season last year short amid him putting up the best numbers of his career. It may turn out to be a blessing in disguise as he’s now part of a roster many have pegged as the best in the country, giving him a chance to pair another ring with the NCAA championship he won in 2015.
G Stevie Clark, Oakland: Best known for his arrest after police said he was urinating out of a moving car, Clark attended two junior colleges and has now resurfaced at Oakland with two years of eligibility remaining.
G Katin Reinhardt, Marquette: After stops at USC and UNLV, the one-time top-40 2012 recruit — the supposed second-coming of Jimmer Fredette — is finishing his career in Milwaukee.
G Rodney Purvis: He started his career at N.C. State, transferred to UConn and submitted his name for NBA draft consideration, but the former top 15 prospect is back for his fifth year of college ball.
F Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin: The Badger senior was both a reserve and a starter in Wisconsin’s back-to-back Final Four runs and became something of an internet sensation with his fascination with stenographers. He’s now become one of the faces of the Wisconsin program and an outspoken socially conscious voice.
F Alex Murphy, Northeastern: A potential McDonald’s All-American in the Class of 2012, he enrolled at Duke a year early only to redshirt the 2011-12 season. After a year and a half seeing limited bench minutes, he transferred to Florida where, in the second half of the 2014-15 season, he saw limited bench minutes. An injury kept him out last season and, after receiving a sixth-year of eligibility from the NCAA, will play at Northeastern this year.
C Przmek Karnowski, Gonzaga: The 7-foot-1 Poland native is the veteran of 113 career games, but only five came last year after a back injury forced him to take a medical redshirt.
According to Buckeyes video coordinator Kyle Davis, who took the Twitter photo, the staff was looking for a way to to show off the team’s new uniforms on social media before media day kicked off in earnest. He and OSU director of basketball operations David Egelhoff were laying the uniform out on various surfaces — tables, floors and so on — when Matta, en route to his daily workout, walked by.
“He asks us, ‘What are you guys doing?’ and we tell him we’re trying to show the new uniforms but we don’t really know what to do with this — we don’t have a mannequin,” Davis said. “And he says, ‘Why do you need a mannequin? I’m right here.'”
“We thought there was no way he was actually going to do this,” Davis said. “But Coach said ‘give me two minutes,’ and sure enough he came out wearing the uniform. He wanted everyone to know he still had it.”