Smile Politely

Craggs & Leitch swear the Illini will be a real team someday

Editor’s Note: As the Illini Basketball season moves forward, Tommy and Will return for an installment in their series, which was written between last week and this one, thus mentions of future games that have since happened.

From: Will Leitch

To: Tommy Craggs

It was inevitable, as soon as we saw the schedule of home cupcakes leading up to Tuesday’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge game at Wake Forest — the first actual “test,” as it were, of the season — that the Illini were going to go 6-0 and I would be FAR too excited by it. None of the teams they have been beaten have been in the KenPom Top 100 (the Illini are just barely in it), and only one (DePaul) is in the top 200. We have squashed cupcakes, and often looked sloppy doing it: Lest we forget, our Illini needed Tennessee-Martin to miss a 3-pointer at the buzzer to sneak out that win, and that’s a team that lost by 17 to our old friend John Groce at Akron. Every brain cell is telling me to chill it with the shiver up my leg.

But my loins, Craggs! My loins are shivering! What a fun team to watch, right? Sure, there are so many mistakes, so many turnovers, so many extra passes in traffic, and so many missed shots for that matter: Eventually they’re going to start draining threes all over, I assume, or this is going to go south right quick. But what a revelation it is to have a team that has an actual offensive sensibility, one that whips the ball around, one that reverses the ball occasionally, one that (lo!) drives the lane. This is where my Mark Smith Fever takes over. It’s not a great shooter yet, and I’m not even sure he’s one of the three best passing guards on the roster. But his aggression, his energy, his relentlessness to take it to the basket makes me want to weep. This is what we’ve been waiting for, no? Not just Smith, but just a team that drives and kicks, that runs picks-and-rolls, that draws fouls, that has a consistent offensive strategy that the players both understand and enjoy being a part of. Wake Forest might not go well (though they look terrible early), and Northwestern this weekend might be rough (though they look lousy too), and this still might not be a tournament team. But they are a joy to watch, and they are young, and they look all the world to be having the time of their lives.

I think I am too. Again: There are losses coming, and surely some ugly ones. But this, Craggs: This I could get used to.

From: Tommy Craggs

To: Will Leitch

I saw Kenny Battle in Champaign on Saturday. He was wearing his ex-jock dress blues — Illini warmups, top to bottom — and the whole room fell into his orbit, the way Assembly Hall used to. It seems he was in town for the Parade of Lights, and afterward he’d decided to hang around one of the restaurants downtown, shaking hands and tolerating supplicants like some beloved old prizefighter making the scene at Toots Shor’s. By the time I’d gotten to the restaurant, our landlord hereabouts had already spent several minutes filibustering Battle on the subject of this year’s Purdue basketball team, of all damn things. This feels a little like securing an audience with Secretariat only to ask who he likes in today’s fifth at Del Mar. 
Kenny Battle was already on my mind after Friday’s game against something called North Carolina Central. It occurred to me during the game that if the team, as presently configured, has a patron saint, it’s Battle. This will change, as the team adapts to Brad Underwood’s system and vice versa. For now, though, I think we’re at our best when we’re summoning Battle’s old whirligig energies. The offense Friday night looked kludgy against North Carolina Central’s zone, with no one wiling to get the ball into its soft spots. The last few minutes of the first half were, let us say, Groce as hell: everyone tentative and halting — particularly Mark Smith, fire of your loins — and the offense a stammering mess. 
When things clicked for us, early on in the game and over the balance of the second half, it wasn’t because we’d worked out the kinks in the system; it was because someone found a way to get a little energy into the building. The best stretches came when we swarmed ballhandlers and took charges and won 50-50 balls on the offensive glass and just generally made Kenny Battle-ish nuisances of ourselves. Kipper Nichols did this for a few lively minutes, as he always does. Aaron Jordan did, too, and Te’Jon Lucas continued to do enough of the little coach’s things to make up for the big things he can’t quite manage.
We’re going to be a real team some day, I swear. We’re going to overwhelm even good opponents with the cleanly functioning Bavarian-clock logic of Underwood’s offense. Until then, we’re going to have to stir shit up. My tablemates report that Battle seemed ill at ease talking about the Illini, perhaps mindful  that ambassadors can never speak freely about their home country. But I’ll take his presence alone as a sort of benediction.

From: Will Leitch

To: Tommy Craggs

Yes, I’ll confess: My first missive had a little more excitement than I’m comfortable embracing today. It was written before the North Carolina Central game, in the warm haze of the Marshall game, which was insanely fun, not least of which because Marshall’s coach is Mike D’Antoni’s older brother and legitimately coached that game in a T-shirt. Against a team willing to run around like crazy just like us, the game is so frenetic and fun that you can feel like your team is part of some sort of movement, that Brad Underwood is her not only to reach the NCAA Tournament but also to start a revolution. And then they fall into the bog like they did in the NC Central game and you remember that, yes, they barely beat Tennessee-Martin and are about to face the tough part of the schedule.
That said: How tough, exactly? Wake Forest was supposed to take a big step under Danny Manning this year, but they’re 2-4 and look even farther away from the Chris Paul Wake Forest team that came into the Hall a decade ago than we do from the Dee-Deron-Luther team. Northwestern, bless their hearts, appear to be remembering they’re Northwestern (this is where I remind you that we beat your and Rovell’s — and Meghan Markle’s! — alma mater TWICE last year). And Maryland just lost to St. Bonaventure. KenPom has us losing all three games, but even with all the flaws, this team could win all three and we still wouldn’t have much idea of how good they are. 
Much of it, understandably for a team that’s a combination of young guys and Groce-scarred players staring at Underwood blankly and saying “you’re saying we REVERSE the ball here? That’s weird,” you’re going to get a different team every night out. The night you saw them was a regression, particularly that first half: That was how everyone in Mattoon said they looked against EIU. Those games will happen, and you just hope they happen against a team we were going to lose to anyway. But when it’s working, and the light begins to peek out, you can see what this could be, and I don’t just mean some indeterminate time in the future. Smith (who was terrible when you saw him) driving and picking up fouls. Black elbowing people in the face and dropping baseline jumpers. Finke hitting 3-pointers and picking up JUST enough rebounds. Lucas and Frazier whipping the ball back and forth around the perimeter. Kipper, the closest thing we have to Battle with a little Lucas Johnson in there too, leaping all over the place and causing all sorts of defensive headaches. And Aaron Jordan always there right when you need him. (It is noteworthy that I haven’t even thought about Alstork. It’s sort of a good sign that we haven’t actually needed him to be our Rayvonte Rice, whether he’s capable of it or not.) That’s not a Big Ten-winning team. That’s not what we want all this to be. But it’s probably enough for this year, yes? 
Point is, if I can get schedule wonky for a moment, here are the rest of the games in 2017:
  • Tuesday: at Wake Forest
  • Friday: at Northwestern
  • December 3: Maryland
  • December 6: Austin Peay (god, just seeing that name still kills)
  • December 9: at UNLV (I’ll be there!)
  • December 13: Longwood
  • December 16: vs. New Mexico State (for Lou Day in Chicago)
  • December 23: Braggin’ Rights against Missouri
  • December 30: Grand Canyon
If they can get through that with just two losses… I gotta think .500 in the Big Ten gets them in, yes? You don’t have to be that excited about this team right now to be excited, is what I’m saying. Which is a terrible way for me to temper excitement.

From: Tommy Craggs

To: Will Leitch

You mention Mark Alstork. I’m beginning to think we had him all wrong. He’s not Rayvonte Rice, who for all his virtues wasn’t much of a creator for anyone but himself. He may have Rice’s knack for getting into the guts of a defense, but he seems a lot more willing than Rice ever was to give up the pill once he’s there.
Wake Forest gives me there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-and-Ayo-Dosunmu-go-we vibes. It’s nice to be on the hopeful side of middling for once, isn’t it? Still, I can’t shake the feeling we’re in for a cold shower tonight. The Demon Deacons are lousy, but they can score a little, and they have Doral Moore, a 7-footer who will be scary if he ever figures out how to tell his left foot from his right. We’re going to shoot a lot of threes and stay away from the paint, and if we hit the same dead spots in our offense that we hit against North Carolina Central, we might very well boot this one away.

Illinois faces off tonight against Wake Forest, tipping off at 8 p.m. CST.

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