Well, that reverie didn't last long.
Illini basketball thought it was pretty hot shit for a few days there. Wednesday night against a .500 St. Bonaventure team, Illinois slurried from its brief flirtation with solidity.
Forgetting about the giant, NBA-bound athletic freak in the paint, the Illini devolved into a slippery slop not seen since... Cancun? Any Penn State game? Every year since Dee left?
Actually, every year since Deron left.
The disease is familiar. The cure continues to elude Bruce Weber.
Hey, I gave the man props on Saturday. Gonzaga was a beautifully coached game. Wednesday night, it was Noo Yawka Mark Schmidt who shined on the sidelines. His Bonnies were beautiful. Their game plan was simple, but sound.
On defense, the Bonnies denied the post. Whether double or triple-teaming Meyers Leonard, they challenged Illinois to run baselines and chuck threes. The Illini were happy to oblige.
The Bonnies ran a fairly simple motion offense. It led to numerous open shots, but also created opportunities for forward Andrew Nicholson to jig-step his way through Illini defenders. There was a lot of that.
The Bonnies lost because one Illini, a mellow suburban kid, finally figured it out.
Most people will tell you the play-of-the-game was one of Brandon Paul's drives to the rim. Sure, that's what saved the Illini from humiliating defeat. But Brandon recognized the genesis of his heroics.
The true play of the game was a sequence. It took 50 seconds to unfold. At 1:48, Nicholson tied the game at 43. The Illini, having just rallied from a 39-30 deficit, kept right on doing what got them the lead reverted to headless chicken.
Rather than feed the ball to the post, rather than drive it inside, the Illini chucked a couple of threes. Both missed, as did 19-of-26 attempts. With each miss, that NBA-bound athletic freak leapt 13 feet into the air to swat the ball out toward the perimeter, keeping the possession alive.
Perhaps sensing something special about this athlete, the other members of the Illini squad fed the ball back to him. And with :58 remaining, Meyers Leonard attempted his third field goal.
See for yourself:
Meyers swatted as many O-bounds as he attempted shots. That's an appalling statistic.
As the Weber administration tries to persuade teen-aged bigs to believe this program can change, can develop post players, can stop throwing them under the bus, can resist playing them out of position, can get them to the NBA ... really! Just give them a chance! ... perhaps the worst outcome is that Meyers left the Assembly Hall frustrated. SID staff said he wasn't feeling well, and wouldn't want to talk. Interpret that as agitprop or perestroika, it's your choice.
In the players' post-game press conference, I asked whether Bruce Weber ever told the players to simply stop shooting threes. DJ Richardson said no.
But despite DJ's contrition about shooting the long ball, the players seemed humbled and humble about this awful win. Their coach did not.
Bruce Weber's take on this game perplexed me. He regarded it as a no-big-deal early-season learning experience.
A 4/5ths-full arena sat on its hands. It did not contemplate buying more tickets. For most of the second half, it did not enjoy its experience. It dreaded.
I thought Weber's reaction was weird. I'm going to guess that the usual "anti-Weber" suspects will agree with me that it was weird (although they'll probably use stronger adjectives). I also presume that the "Weber First Fans" will find nothing but positives in the calm direction of Fearless Leader.
Here it is.
This game should be a learning experience, just as coach Weber suggests. But when will they learn?
I don't mean Sam, Brandon and DJ. I mean the coaching staff. This game is not an anomaly. It's hauntingly familiar. Maybe Wednesday's close shave was the players' fault, as Bruce Weber has suggested over the years. But even if that were true, it doesn't help. To be successful, this staff would eventually have to change the way it prepares players.
Problems at the post come in many flavors. Eventually we'll have to stop blaming James Augustine for being foul prone, Shaun Pruitt for bad attitude, Mike Tisdale for weakness.
There's a million dollar baby lurking just inside the paint. Whatever it takes, even if you have to draw up some god damn set plays: Get him the fucking ball already.