Confidence can be a fickle friend. One day it’s, “Bring it on. I got this.” The next, nothing goes right and you have no idea what you’re doing or where you’re heading. Those individuals who radiate self-confidence stand out. Aaron Rodgers, quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, is one example. Three games into the 2014-15 season, the Packers were 1-2, and fans and media types were getting anxious. Rodgers told everyone to relax – R-E-L-A-X – and then went out and beat the Bears. Okay, so maybe that in itself wasn’t so impressive, but the Pack did finish 12-4 that season, won the division, and won a playoff game.
There are also teams that cultivate a culture of confidence. The Yankees are a prime example. The Jordan Bulls of the 90s. The 2004-05 Illini. Do you think they come back in the Arizona game without a supreme sense of confidence? How about the 2016 Cubs? Listen to what David Ross and Jason Heyward said to their teammates when they were down 3-1 in the Series and blew a big lead late in Game 7: We got this. We’ve been down before and come back. We’ve won 3 games in a row all season. We are good. We got this.
Illinois is not a confident team. Hasn’t been in a while. Maybe since Dee left? There are a ton of factors that go in to establishing collective confidence, and different guys respond to different motivational strategies. A couple of key ingredients, though, are leadership and past success. This seems unfair, right? How can you need confidence to be successful, but need success to develop confidence? This is where leadership comes in. And in college basketball, where players play a maximum of four years – and many of the best only 1 or 2 – a significant part of that confidence needs to come from the coach.
Coaches read up on this sort of thing, and John Groce seems to take his role as leader and mentor very seriously. But is it working? Major college coaches are under a ton of pressure to win as much and as soon as possible. Every move is criticized and critiqued by in-game announcers, sports writers and TV analysts, and fans, not to mention their players and athletic directors.
So it only seems fair that I get to take a stab….
Remember when Bruce Weber used to criticize Demetri McCamey in pretty much every postgame interview? McCamey surely had his faults, and it sounds like Weber was pushing back against other sources inflating the ego of his star point guard, but the coach came off as petty and all too eager to pass blame on to his players rather than accept more of it himself. It sounds like Weber was trying to motivate his player, but did having his coach criticize him frequently and in public help or hurt McCamey?
The issue of player criticism is in the Illini news again because of the way John Groce defends his decision not to give more minutes to freshman point guard Te’Jon Lucas. Outside observers see Lucas’s ability to create for teammates off the dribble, take it to the rim, and make a jump shot, and they wonder why he doesn’t get more playing time. Groce has preferred to give the backup point guard minutes to senior Jaylon Tate. Tate plays hard, but at this point his limitations are clear. He’s not much of an offensive threat from anywhere but the free throw line. Opposing coaches know this and instruct their defenders to turn their attention elsewhere.
Groce suggested in the postgame press conference Sunday that Lucas has shown improvement in practice in both understanding scouting reports and in playing the team’s defense (insert smirk here), so we may see him earn more minutes going forward. However, Groce did point out two key mistakes the freshman made. One was when he helped on defense off of Blackmon, who promptly nailed a three. This happened twice (once to Lucas and once to Coleman-Lands, I think) during Illinois’ comeback attempt.
The other incident Groce brought up was the inbounds play after a time-out when Illinois had cut the lead to nine. Lucas took the ball out on the baseline, and after the primary and secondary options were covered, he threw it long to the outlet. Just a half-second too late. The five-second call turned the ball over to Indiana. Groce said Lucas needed to throw the outlet sooner, but that the play was “on me and him.”
The emphasis, though, was how it was on Lucas. At the time I wondered why a coach would call time out there and then have the least experienced and shortest player on the court throw the ball in on the baseline in a crucial situation. I still wonder. And Lucas is not just a freshman, he’s a freshman who hasn’t played much because of the coach’s decision. Had it worked out, it would have been fine, but to single Lucas out for criticism on this play is unfair. He was put in a really difficult position by the coaching staff. They took the time to set up that play, didn’t prepare him to succeed, and then criticized him for the error. Is this the kind of leadership that breeds confidence?
Groce has to be feeling the heat. He’s under pressure to win now with this team. Last year the team was decimated with injuries and suspensions (actually, technically, more than decimated), so there is an excuse for the down season. But after 4.5 years, has Groce given anyone confidence that he’s the guy long term? I don’t’ think he has. Here’s an idea. One of the primary arguments for keeping Groce in spite of a lackluster season (assuming Illinois doesn’t make the tournament this year, and I’m not giving up on this squad yet) is to retain the highly rated recruiting class he just signed. The class may get better yet with offers still out to 2017 guard Mark Smith and big man Jacob Epperson. What if Groce committed to that future by finding more playing time for the young guys on this team? I’m not saying they need to start, but see what you have in Lucas and Nichols. They certainly show more raw athleticism than the older guys. If fans, media, and the administration see improvement in the freshman and sophomore classes, see them learn to build a culture of confidence through playing hard and learning to win – even if that takes some time – then I think most people would have more confidence in Groce’s ability to continue to lead that squad in the future.
Next year’s challenge looks to be replacing the experience and talent of Hill, Morgan, Tate, Abrams, Thorne, and Alex Austin. That’s a lot of minutes graduating. How about we start thinking about next year this year and work the younger guys into the rotation? Hey, it worked for the Cubs!