If you hadn't gathered from our new, nearly impenetrable but not quite absolutely mandatory paywall: Smile Politely wants your money. To make it up to you, SP invited you to its fifth birthday party last Saturday, and offered to buy beers from 5:00 pm to about 5:04 pm.
I arrived at ten.
[Editors note: Rob McColley can be quite bullshit when it comes to anything but Illini basketball, so we'll let that last comment slide and assume that you, the reader, totally understands that. All that said, the following is a really excellent preview of the Illinois / Gonzaga game.]
Aggravatingly sober, I realized people were asking me about basketball. It's a bearded and flanneled crowd, so I wasn't expecting sports talk. SP staffers know I'm not much interested in sports. And as anyone will tell you, I don't know much about basketball.
They especially wanted to know about basketball that hasn't happened yet. And that's where I draw the line. I never make predictions. I don't understand why anyone does. I've never been able to see the future. I hate Hawk Harrelson, and Picks to Click is ridiculous.
But I can tell you that this Saturday's game at Gonzaga is eminently winnable. Everyone is saying this Bulldog squad is the best Mark Few's ever had. They're saying Illinois is overrated.
I say Gonzaga is the paper tiger.
Here's what John Groce said about them in today's teleconference.
Bruce Weber recruited a great shooting team. Two years ago, great shooting trounced the Zags in Seattle. Last year in Champaign it was spacing that won the game. Sam Maniscalco to Meyers Leonard killed. Groce preaches spacing and shooting. That's why he's so cool.
Gonzaga fields a team* of individuals you'd hate to rely on. Their best player is Elias Harris. He's the power forward version of 2011's Brandon Paul: athletic, smart, occasionally spectacular, and prone to mistakes so boneheaded, so egregious, you'll wonder why you root for him. He's got outside range and inside moves. He handles the ball like a guard. He has an afro, and wears his socks at 1977.
Except for Harris, the entire Zags roster plays like a team of coaches' sons. They have no intuition for streetball. Everything is textbook. You wonder whether they'd be playing it if their dad didn't make them do it. Contrast Illinois' floor generals. Ball is life for guys like Tracy Abrams and DJ Richardson. To paraphrase Ford Prefect: We care, they don't, we win. If Abrams can penetrate effectively, Illinois will have a field day.*
The Zags' other starters are solid, but unremarkable. Gary Bell Jr. is average in every way. He's considered their marksman because he hits four shots out of every ten, from distance. He plays defense, but does not dominate games. He's just kind of there.
Center Sam Dower has the body of a small forward. He averages ten points and five rebounds. You won't notice he's there.
The most interesting thing about Guy Landry-Edi is his name. The next most interesting thing is that, as a starting wing, he barely shoots from distance. He's unlikely to extend the defense, and this fact plays directly into Illinois' hands.
There's an irritating shoot-first point guard named Pangos. He does shoot from distance, and he has a great stroke, and unfortunate ginger facial hair. But he's tiny, and can't jump. He will bother you more than he will bother Illini guards. (Gonzaga is better at getting open looks from pick-n-rolls, rather than off-ball high-post screens.)
No Zag plays thirty minutes per game, but ten guys play ten or more. It's the Zags' bench that features its interesting characters. Mike Hart is the glue guy. He's a quieter version of Lucas Johnson. He does everything correctly, from rebounding (he does) to turnovers (he doesn't). He's also handsome, with a chiseled physique. He hits the shots he takes, and takes charges at the other end. He's such a perfect teammate that Mark Few gives him barely ten minutes a game. For that reason, I believe he's actually a robot, with short battery life.
Their non-press release but soft-sold best player is sixth-man hippie surfer Kelly Olynyk. He's got the body — but not the foot-speed — to be the quintessential NBA power forward. Listed at seven feet tall, he's certainly more mobile than Olaf Blab. But he plays like a Canadian snowboarder. One assumes it's because he's a Canadian snowboarder.
Olynyk sat out last year, and then sat out the first three games of this year for A Violation of Team Rules.
He leans. He grabs. He gropes. He spends a lot of time and effort balancing. It hasn't looked terrible against the Zags' plodding opponents. It will be interesting to see how slow and goofy he appears against the sharp relief of really quick guards. It will be fun to see him wrestling on the block versus Sam McLaurin, Illini bad-ass and shit-talker extraordinaire.
Olynyk's defense recalls the strategy Jay Price instilled in Bill Cole, or the 2006 version of James Augustine. It's hands high, feet together, straight up and down. It's passive-aggressive, and makes a great target. Look for Brandon Paul or Joe Bertrand to T-bag Olynyk's Cousin Itt hairdo.
Where Olynyk will present problems, defensively, is if McLaurin continues to attempt lay-ups. Against Ga Tech's Dan Miller, McLaurin discovered the difference between SoCon opponents and major conference ballers: height.
On offense, Olynyk moves like a heron. Not as awkward as Stan Simpson (a giraffe), but reminiscent of Jens Kujawa, or Michigan State's über-soft Paul Davis — one of the most disappointing opponents I've ever relished watching while he failed miserably.
Watching Olynyk play is even harder than watching Davis. Basketball can be graceful, like ballet. But not for Kelly Olynyk. You'll enjoy Elias Harris, whose body control is unmatched for a man his size, and you'll say, "aaah!" You'll watch Kelly Olynyk and you'll say, "oof."
So far on the year, he's gotten away with a lot of charges, and general lack of body control. Saturday's B1G officiating crew may view Olynyk's China Shop Bull impression with an unprecedented degree of skepticism.
Gonzaga's other 7-footer is eighth-man Przemek Karnowski, a Polish sasquatch. He's only been with the team for a couple of months, and he seems completely out of sync on some offensive possessions. But he's really big. And, perhaps because he's from Europe, his footwork on defense is almost perfect. He understands spacing and ball-movement (weak-side versus strong-side positioning). On offense, his failure to finish at the rim would have me ripping my eyeballs out, were I a Zags fan. And yet, he has some great low-post moves. Inconsistency, thy name is Freshman.
Anywho, great footwork is not the same thing as speed. It's merely a compensation. This is the guy Tracy Abrams can spurt past, go around, or under.
Gonzaga's back-up point guard David Stockton will continue to garner media attention in the same way that Jeff Jordan garnered media attention at Illinois, and from the same sources, referencing the same history. If I were picking a team for streetball, I'd take Jeff. If I were picking a team to run a strict offense with a point guard who could follow instructions to the letter, I'd take Jeff. Sometimes you want a point with instincts as well as book learnin'.
THE SEASON SO FAR
Gonzaga's wins include Clemson and Oklahoma. Doesn't that mean something?
No. Clemson's wins, apart from South Carolina (a blistering 5-3 on the year, including a loss to Elon), came against teams with losing records. The Tigers got bludgeoned by Purdue, and Purdue sucks.
Oklahoma squeaked past Texas-Arlington, Northwestern State and Oral Roberts by 4, 4 and 1 points respectively. They beat West Virginia and UTEP by 7 points each. Those are two big name schools (with losing records).
Wednesday night, the Zags needed a last second lay-up to beat 5-4 Washington State 71-69 at Pullman. Wazzu's other losses include hapless Pepperdine, and a weak Texas A&M team.
I guess I don't see Mark Few as a basketball genius. I see him as a guy who milked a phenomenon for all its worth. Since Adam Morrison, his teams have enjoyed media attention for two reasons. They play in the Pacific Time Zone without an exclusive Fox Sports contract. They play a patsy schedule of little sisters of charity. (Because their conference is the West Coast Catholics, there's some degree of relevance to that appellation.)
From what I've seen of the Zags, this Illini team is well-suited to winning in Spokane. Gonzaga's interior defense is soft. If Tracy Abrams, and especially Brandon Paul can penetrate the lane, the Illini can exploit the Zags' tendency to collapse. Olynyk relies on height, rather than bulk. He'd rather block a shot than get in the way of one. Karnowski simply can't move fast enough. Neither can Dower. Abrams might draw fouls, and he might draw a double-team. Paul can leap over these guys for bank shots.
All these possibilities might be stymied were the Zags to go zone. It's been rumored that they fall into a zone at times. I'll believe it when I see it. They play bullfighter's man-to-man, and they stop dribble-penetration as effectively as prayer stops lust. Illinois could go cold from three and still win this game.
I don't ever like to make predictions, so I won't. That would be like saying "Georgia Tech will give these Illini fits on the glass."
Intriguingly, A Violation of Team Rules became legal in the state of Washington just this week. I don't know what that means for the Zags effort, but I will do my best to make sure Marcus boards his return flight.
* "court a team?" "court day?"