The story of Atlanta Part II was the crowd. There were 2500 tickets sold, and some of those people attended. All were dressed in orange & blue, but most of them were Illini fans.
Maybe Auburn chose to site the game at the NBA Atlanta Hawk's Philips Arena because they believed their football team might be also be in Atlanta, winning the SEC Championship Game. The calculus was apt, but not even a merry Saturday could persuade Tigers fans to watch basketball. It probably cost a buhzillion dollars to schedule the event, given Philips's first-rate accommodations; but that's not an issue when your athletic department is flush with cash.
Georgia Tech has an awful basketball team. Auburn is simply a mess. Coach Tony Barbee would have been fired already, if the Auburn community were aware that their local university had a basketball team. A few years ago, Barbee was a hot name on the coaching carousel.
The “game” was more like a home run derby, less like a competition. Before the second half's under-16 media timeout, John Groce had already called off the attack. At that point, four freshmen played alongside Ray Rice. Later in the game, Joe Bertrand was the lone vet. In the final moments, Mike LaTulip played with four freshmen.
Groce said that he wasn't as happy with the second half effort, and made no mention of the fact that he deliberately chose against running up the score. 81-62 still seems like a beatdown, but it fails to convey the thorough domination of one team by another. Illinois led by 30, and might have won by 40, had Groce not taken his foot off the accelerator.
It's hard to say whether we learned anything from this game, except the obvious: Tracy Abrams looks better when all his shots go in. But the Bruce Weber teams all looked great when the shots fell. Games at Wisconsin (2005, 2006, 2009) demonstrated that point. So did the 2005 home game against the Badgers, when Dee Brown was unstoppable from 30 feet out. (How, really, do you stop someone who's shooting from 30 feet?)
Illinois attempted only five free-throws. Maybe that's cause for concern. The Illini were whistled for 19 fouls to Auburn's 10. Maybe that's cause for concern.
But maybe neither stat is an issue. Illinois won by a landslide. They shot 62% from the floor, and 52% from the arc. Why bother attacking the rim when you're raining into the ocean?
Because there were so few attendees, I'm going to see if I can name them all.
Jay Price was in the house, with his new boss Tina Howard — the Assistant Dean of Development for the College of Business. They were hangin' with Larry & Rita Smith. Larry, the Mattoonian most recognizable from his many years at CNN, is now the sports director at Atlanta's CBS affiliate. And while all of them went cross-court to socialize with Charles Barkley, Jay respected the coaches' protocol, and did not make contact with former charges. He did, however, give Malcolm Hill's mom a big ole hug.
Sam McLaurin came up from Florida, where he's rehabbing a torn meniscus. He sat behind the bench, and visited with the team in the locker room. Sam's roommate during his one-year at Illinois was Rayvonte Rice. So naturally, he also spent a fair amount of time visiting with Rhonda Rice.
Sam plays professionally in Finland, and takes saunas.
Because there were only sixteen Auburn fans in the building, and another 44 Illini faithful; I was able to hear pretty much everything John Groce said (not even yelled, mind you, said) from the bench.
“If the press is on, I want Ray taking it out.”
When Ray Rice got poked in the eye, Groce yelled “contact, Mike” perhaps to Mike Kitts and perhaps to Mike Basgier. Groce was watching Ray struggle to open his right eye, post finger.
Mike Kitts responded, saying there was no foul. Groce clarified: “No, contact/eye.”
To Jon Ekey, after a made basket:
“Hey, press coming. If there's a press, we're 4-out Jon.”
With 12 seconds remaining on the shot clock: “Shot clock Jaylon!” And with 7 seconds remaining on the same shot clock: “Shot clock Joe!”
It wasn't just Groce, though. I could hear pretty much everything said by anyone. When Mike Kitts called Tracy Abrams for hand-checking, Tracy protested “Hook! Hook!”
Kitts said “You got him before the hook.”
Jamall Walker to Jaylon Tate, on defense: “Get in the gap J-Tate!”
Paris Parham: “Close the gate!”
Ted Valentine to battling pugilists Ray Rice and Asauhn Dixon-Tatum: “You two stop it right there.” And when John Groce agitated about the non-call, Mike Kitts followed up: “You could have had a double-foul.”
Throughout the last two weeks, media kept asking Groce about the oddity of two trips to Atlanta. Groce consistently shrugged-off the question. It makes sense. These guys spend the first three months of every year on planes, hopping 200 or 1,000 miles as if it were boiling an egg.
They didn't look tired at all. Moreover, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu were both "under the weather" according to Groce. So perhaps this team needs more weather-related layovers, and rhinoviruses. Whatever it takes.