TRADITION AND INFLEXIBILITY

Okay, Illinois beat Vanderbilt 79–68 and Demetri McCamey scored 23 points. That's not the story.

The story of tonight's game is a coaching tree with roots so firmly planted, it can't tell which way the wind is blowing. The story began in West Lafayette, Indiana on April 11, 1980. Here are the characters.


Stodgy Old Coot #1

Gene Keady is so inflexible he can't bend to tie his shoes. That's a back problem, I assume. Or maybe it's a polish sausage and fries problem. The melted vinyl 7" he wears as hair may have been a warm and cheery Perry Como Christmas single, but it's brittle in the role of toupée.

The ungrateful old sinner was accompanied by the much more gracious Price family.

Keady wore Commodore colors to the game. I asked whether he flipped a coin when choosing his wardrobe.

His response was simple. "NO," he explained.

Coach Weber noticed Keady's black and gold, and said he was just being loyal to Purdue. But c'mon. Surely Keady has some nice sweaters that don't exactly match the Commodore cream?

Stodgy Old Coot — The Next Generation

Candid Coach Kevin Stallings confided in us about his buddy Bruce Weber's team. In an amusing repartee with the media, Stallings wore his own rigidity like a badge, and ascribed the attribute to his friend.

But it's Stallings whose resolve proved unbreakable, and therefore Achilles' Heelish. Despite conferring with his assistant coaches at every media time out, Stallings never shifted his philosophical bearings, nor his game plan.

To my kooky way of thinking, Vanderbilt should have at least tried throwing AJ Ogilvy and Steve Tchiengang at the Illini defense, simultaneously.

Ogilvy is not a banger, and Chain Gang is nothing if not a banger. The Illini defense was so geared toward Ogilvy that they completely laid off hedging to jumpshooters Tuesday night. "You have to let somebody shoot" Weber admitted in his press conference. But what kind of problems might the Commodores have posed were the Illini forced to deal with two vastly different monsters at the same time?

Steve Tchiengang is 240 pounds of hurt. Luckily, Kevin Stallings doesn't play him enough

One of the highlights of the night, for me, was watching the scrum between Chain Gang and Richard Semrau. I don't much care for pugilism, but two heavyweights going at it without fisticuffs provides one hell of a spectacle. Semrau held his own rather well, in his paltry two minutes of floor time.

You can see why Coach Weber doesn't play Semrau and Tisdale together more often — Mike Davis. But it might be a good idea to give Semrau more floor time, just in case Illinois ever plays a team whose inside guy is not a skinny pussy.

I enjoyed my foray into Kevin's World. I like that he's frank. I like that he's funny. I think he's a bit too macho.

When heckled by fans in the waning moments, Stallings turned toward A section and swore a few oaths. One of them was "the game is never over!" I didn't quite catch the other one, and when I asked him about it in the hallway after the presser, he wouldn't say.

I also found it interesting that he railed against his players for missing open shots. At 10:34 in the second half, as Vanderbilt's Brad Tinsley hit two charity tosses to cut the Illini lead to 14, Stallings went mildly berserk. "Don't be looking at me like I'm bullshitting," Stallings advised John Jenkins regarding the utility of hitting open shots.

I'd think this the wrong approach for psychological purposes. But in the press conference, Stallings said Jennings started hitting his open looks after that. So maybe that's the key: Tell players to make shots.

This admonition squares with my theory of basketball. I often point out that the winning team is the team that puts the ball through the hoop more.

Flexible Coot?

One of the themes I seem to be regurgitating this year: Bruce Weber is not so stuck on his philosophy that he can't recognize variables. Am I swallowing a bunch of hooey? After all, it's Bruce who keeps telling his press conferences that he always wants to run, has always been a fan of a high-scoring offense. (And I mean to tell you, he keeps repeating it and keeps repeating it.)

Bruce's bench was shorter tonight, and that's bad. He said as much. So that's an old habit dying hard (or not dying at all).

We've seen the zone. But it's still not the best variety of zone available for his personnel because it distributes liability too broadly at the low post.

I'm optimistic that Weber has shuffled off the mortal coil of stodginess. I think he can be flexible. To prove it, he persists in using "fresh" language to show how "groovy" he is with the young people. The resulting 80s and 90s anachronisms in his public fora demonstrate that he almost certainly has his charges rolling their eyes and suppressing a chuckle, but appreciating his efforts.

"Boombox" and "posse" were Tuesday's oeuvres.

A NIGHT AT THE PICTURES

I hope the Commodores find themselves plagued by technical fouls unless and until the god damned assistant coaches learn to sit the fuck down. Jeff Jordan had an impressive night on offense. And I spent the whole time looking at the back of cheap suits.

Jeff tallied a career-high 7 points. Lame Chicago-based sportswriters queried his "newfound" offensive capabilities, as if they were reading directly from the TV press packet. Truth is, Jeff has always been a great jump shooter. Where have you been?

Dietrich is underwhelmed by two-guards named Beal.

Richardson was the guy tonight, however much McCamey scored. Yes, DJ missed two free-throw shots at the two-minute mark. For that he will be duly flogged. But the game was decided at the five minute mark, and it was DJ doing the deciding. In one stretch he scored a reverse finger-roll so awesome that even certain theoretically neutral journalists eructed in astonishment/rebounded a Mike Davis stuff/broke a double-team half-court trap/drained a three.

In pictures, and from his reputation as a defender, you might think DJ is an asshole. That's far from the truth. His on-court demeanor seems nothing but sportsmanlike. On saturday, when Boise State's Ike Okoye stuffed DJ's shit out of bounds, the best part for me was the subsequent expression on DJ's face. It seemed to say "Okay, well done. Now what else?"

Off court, DJ is graciousness itself. I get the same vibe from his parents, and his brother. It's the kind of grace that might come easily when one's talents are very nearly supernatural.

In the first half Tuesday, DJ hit a short jumper that impressed because shooting was the third idea that came to him while he was in the air. The first idea seemed to be a shot fake plus a kick out to the wing. That plan was frustrated by a hedge from the lane. The second idea was a dump down to the low post. But then there was a hand in his face.

He was still midair.

The Assembly Hall froze for a while as I contemplated Robert Hays and Pam Dawber in The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything. Then, DJ feathered a soft jumper to flicker the net bottom. The room came alive again.

I hope he sticks around for a while.

Mike Tisdale was relatively awesome. The relativity involves his competition, which arrived from a hemisphere where the toughest guys play football without pads and helmets. They wear delightfully homoerotic short-shorts too. But credit where it's due; Tisdale hit his shots.

Tonight's observation about Bill Cole: He's the team's best at passing into the low post. This might be a function of his height. Having become a shoot-second wing, he's developed this capability remarkably.

Dominique Keller has a hokey shot. Still, we're glad he's not playing at Virginia Tech.