Smile Politely

Craggs & Leitch, volume one

One of the fun parts of publishing a magazine like this one is that it’s always being reinvented, oftentimes without prediction. This column, and the idea that it’d be a series of some kind, is a perfect example of that.

Will Leitch and Tommy Craggs are not people who are living in Champaign-Urbana, and as such, that sort of diverges from our standard. Additionally, they are both professional journalists, and that’s not the sort of thing we do either. In the end, we are a community journalism project, and hold that to standard week in and week out. 

But in both of them, we have two former residents, and two people with tremendous insight and interest in the happenings inside of State Farm Center and Ubben.

Tommy grew up here, and I have the 1986-era video cassette recordings to prove it. Will grew up just down the road in Mattoon, and spent long hours at the Daily Illini while he was a student here in the 1990s. Both of them have spent considerable time writing about sports of all kinds on the national stage. If you don’t know their credentials, I hope you will use your Google to learn more about their histories, respectively. 

In the end, we thought they’d bring a unique voice to the Illini basketball discussion, and would pair nicely with our venerable Illini basketball coverage via Chris Davies, whose stories become more profound and comprehensive each year. 

Please enjoy! — Seth Fein, Publisher


When you and I first discussed doing this series — whatever this series turns out to be — we were doing a general background assessment, post-Underwood hiring, of where Illinois stood heading into the 2017-18. Not necessarily recruiting, or even Underwood’s style, but what, roster-wise, we even had in place for next year. In the midst of our conversation, you brought up Jeremiah Tilmon, and I mentioned, sort of lazily, that his mom and friends all seemed to be signaling that he would be honoring his commitment to Illinois. (However ugly and misleading that phrase is, “his commitment to Illinois.”) I said I wasn’t all that worried about it. Within roughly five minutes of me saying that, Tilmon requested to be let out of his NLI. You responded with an all-time Craggs Classic: “God, we are the biggest cucks in college basketball.” 

And this of course has felt true for a long time, from recruiting “successes” that turned out to be disasters (Jereme Richmond, Crandall Head, even Alex Legion) to all the misses, from Eric Gordon to Demetrius Jackson to Quentin Snider to the infamous Cliff Alexander hat fake. It has felt true ever since Bill Self left, frankly. Even with some of the impressive players they have brought in — and make fun of him and his perpetual dunked-on face all you want, but Meyers Leonard just signed a $41 million contract — it has always just felt like we’re the simps, we’re the losers, we’re the ones still believing we’re a top 25 program with recruiting pull while everyone whisks blithely by us. It hasn’t led — as I might like it to, temperamentally speaking — to us feeling like sad sack losers, though: It has turned most of the fanbase angry and scowling and “FIRE THEM ALL!” and “it’s totally OK to boo an unpaid 20-year-old the minute you hear his name because you wish he had a better jumper” and all the ugly parts of fandom and being alive. We might be the cucks, but the fans have turned into Bannons. 

So: Does Mark Smith change this? This is a Mr. Basketball recruit, someone pursued by Michigan State and Kentucky and Duke, not only signing with us, but doing it while extolling the virtues specifically of Illinois, and its history, and Underwood, and all the catchphrases and buzzwords Josh Whitman has programmed us all to salivate upon hearing. (It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if Whitman wrote the statement for him himself.) Smith isn’t just saying he’s going to play basketball for Illinois. He’s saying he’s going to restore Illinois basketball to what it once was, what we’ve always believed it should be, what it can be again. This is a lot to put on a guy who was playing baseball 110 days ago. Oh, and is a teenager.

We’re so desperate for something that after spending the last two years obsessing over Tilmon, we’re acting now like we never wanted him in the first place, now that we’ve got someone better. (Unless you want to come back, Jeremiah. He hasn’t signed anything yet!) Smith is the vessel not just for our hopes and dreams, but our faith in Underwood, and Whitman, and the whole possibilities of Illinois basketball itself. He is the sign that Things Are Changing. He might be the most important Illini recruit since Dee Brown. That is a ton to put on someone. 

So: Have things changed? Are we less cuck’d?


Leitch —

These are metaphysical questions you’re asking. What is an Illinois fan who doesn’t feel perpetually cucked? What is a Michigan fan without his unearned hauteur? What is a Penn State fan without his persecution complex? What is a Northwestern fan without his Princeton rejection letter? What is a Wisconsin fan who isn’t drunk?

We’ll come back to that. Let’s talk about that Mark Smith announcement. As with everything the Illini seem to be doing these days, it was a nice bit of fan service. “I want to make my state proud. I want to join the likes of Dee Brown, Brian Cook, Deon Thomas, Frank Williams, and other Mr. Basketballs that have chosen to stay in state,” he said, summoning all our favorite friendly ghosts. This was a slick move, and of a piece with the Brad Underwood era thus far, which has been a sort of rolling seance. Our new coach has no connection to the program, but he will talk about the ’05 team and the Flying Illini to anyone who’ll stand still long enough. He will claim that when he first watched Mark Smith, he was reminded of Deron Williams. He will tell you his son’s first jersey was a Brian Cook jersey. “Every elite program puts their arms around former players and embraces them,” Underwood has said. The message here was for us fans, as well. It seems the new guy understands the psychology of a thwarted and ungratified fanbase in a way that perhaps the last guy didn’t. You sell us on the future by idealizing our past. How’s the song go? Like men of old, on giants placing reliance.

It is nice to be pandered to, of course, but our man here is laying it on a bit thick, isn’t he? A Brian Cook jersey? Really? All right, if you say so, but at this rate we’re a handful of news cycles from Underwood claiming to have been a Whiz Kid. And our colleagues in Stillwater remind us that Underwood said a lot of the same stuff when he blew into town for his yearlong stint at Oklahoma State. He talked about Henry Iba and Eddie Sutton. He talked about “the history, pageantry, and tradition.” “I dream big,” he said on the day he was introduced as the Cowboys coach. “I dream big,” he said on the day he was introduced as the Illinois head coach.

Watch these crestfallen homers at an Oklahoma City TV station. They compare Underwood unfavorably to Kevin Durant and barbecue him for “looking like a total phony” after having presented himself as an “everyday guy.”

Look at these guys. Look at those faces. By all means laugh, but tell me we didn’t look a lot like that when Bill Self or Lon Kruger skipped town or for that matter when, as you mention, Cliff Alexander deked us with the hat or when Eric Gordon bolted to play for Kelvin Sampson’s cell phone. You ask if things have changed, and I look at these guys and can’t help but think that, at bottom, this is who we are. And however good we might feel about ourselves right now, this is who we will be again. “Less cucked”? Nah, look at those gomers. There but for the bad suits and the grace of God go we.

As for Smith himself, I’m not ready to declare him our starting point guard, let alone the messiah of South 1st Street, as you seem eager to do. But I like what we have there. Underwood claims to see Deron Williams there. I see Demetri McCamey, maybe even a little Kiwane Garris. He’s a better, more natural shooter at this stage than any of those guys were, but the main thing you notice is that, like those guys, he plays burly. You don’t want to draw too many conclusions from a YouTube video in which Smith seems to be throwing it up against the Vienna Boys’ Choir, but there’s enough pure basketball stuff going on there to start feeling excited.

You call him “the vessel not just for our hopes and dreams, but our faith in Underwood.” While I abstain from college basketball’s cult of the coach, I wonder if you have things a little backward. Surely Underwood is the key to everything. We have a system now, Underwood’s spread motion, that is a pleasure both to watch and to play. It’s a wheeling and diving offense that manages to liberate rather than restrict, that among other things seems effective at getting the best possible shots for the worst players on the floor.

Leitch, you’re a longtime coach cultist. How psyched are you to watch some prescribed movement?


Craggs —
Yeah, Fan Service is what’s for dinner in Champaign these days, and while I’ll agree that’s sometimes a little bit hacky — I love me some Brian Cook (downstate forever!), but I’m not even sure Brian Cook’s mom ever wore a Brian Cook jersey — I will take all of it I can get right now. There’s no question that Illini fans have long had an outsized view of their program’s national prowess and prominence — my grandmother used to regularly cuss out Lou Henson — but still, cuck’d as we might or might not be, the last 10 years have been a historical aberration. We have watched Wisconsin pass us and Purdue pass us and Michigan State and Michigan and Indiana get farther and farther away. As far as Maryland and Rutgers know, we’re freaking Nebraska. We’re not what we imagined ourselves to be. But we’re not THAT either. It’s been a long 10 years, Tommy. It has beaten us down.
So even if one sees through the fan service stuff — and one should — that doesn’t mean it isn’t appreciated nonetheless. We need it. I was a Groce defender for way too long, but his stubborn Motivational Speaker technique and his stubborn resistance to change had fans downtrodden in a way that goes beyond just psychology; they’re having trouble putting butts in seats, and that causes real, lasting problems. (Even back in the Deon Thomas, Tom Michael, Lack of Institutional Control days, fans were still showing up.) Part of the job description, whoever got the job, was making us feel like, we is special, we is important, and that Underwood and (especially) Whitman have executed that so thoroughly and relentlessly is something I’m taking as a sign of competence rather than pandering: Just getting the basic blocking and tackling right. They had to do it. They’ve done it well. Even if it is physically impossible to buy a Brian Cook jersey anywhere on this planet right now. Maybe I can barter for the one that Underwood’s kid had. It surely doesn’t fit anymore.
(Just a side note, by the way, in case the Okie Yokels have gotten to you: Underwood’s contract has a pretty massive poison pill if he tries to leave after one or two years like he did Stillwater. He’s not going anywhere.)
One of the nice touches of Underwood’s hiring is that he appears to actually play the style that we thought we were getting with Groce. Fast-paced, efficient, with an analytical bent, he’s the Mike D’Antoni I desperately wanted Groce to be. The difference between the two, if last year is an indication, is that Underwood is willing to change everything if what he’s doing isn’t working. Oklahoma State got off to that terrible Big 12 start, and Underwood did something that Groce never could: He turned everything upside down, concentrating on scoring like crazy and worrying about the defense later. Groce had his plan, and he was sticking to it no matter what: He was a one-plan man. But Underwood has already shown that his “style,” as much as anything else, is just doing whatever works. He doesn’t try to impose a style on his players; he sees who they are and does what he can to get them to win. This is something that a coach cultist like myself, and a “just roll the ball out there” anarchist like yourself can agree on: He’s a coach who understands that sometimes, he needs to get out of the way. That’s what has me excited about him. Not his “style,” though last year’s version was certainly fun. It’s that he didn’t try to shove a square Jaylon Tate into a round Combo Guard.
Of course, another big difference is that Underwood actually went out and got that top-shelf combo guard that Groce just never was able to lock down. You talk about how Smith is like McCamey or Garris. If Groce ever had a McCamey or Garris… I bet he’s still here.
So, I ask you to close out our opening correspondence by answering these two questions:
  1. Is it untoward, even a little pathetic, to still be openly daydreaming about Jeremiah Tilmon, even after how much his recruitment has jerked everybody around? (Not that I’m begrudging him that, by the way. I think if either William or Wynn ever get recruited, I’m going to tell them to make those 50-year-old coaches those unpaid kids are making millionaires to sweat it out at every opportunity. Dick ‘em over! They have it coming!) Point is: We need big dudes, we need a lot of them, and we need them fast. Should I even be hopeful that he still hasn’t signed with Missouri? Should I let it go?
  2. As currently constructed, who’s the best player on next year’s team? Because if it’s Mark Smith, even if he’s everything we want him to be, I’m still not sure this is a tourney team. And transitional year and all … I really need me some tourney, and soon. 
This conversation is making me feel less cuck’d, it really is.

By all means Illini fans should still dream of Tilmon, and by no means should anyone begrudge him this opportunity to extract maximum value from his next employer. Let me bang this tired old drum for a moment: One of the many obnoxious things about recruiting is that nearly everyone with skin in the game, from the coaches to the sportswriters to the fans, plays along with the NCAA-enabling illusion that what we are discussing here is something other than a series of contract negotiations between a talented worker and his would-be employers, negotiations presumably involving actual money and big-ass Lincoln Navigators and whatever else gets passed under the table these days. For the first time in his career and for the last time until he’s done with his NBA rookie contract, Tilmon has honest-to-god leverage, and that simple fact goes a long way toward explaining why he withdrew his commitment to Illinois and is now dangling it over the heads of so many powerful coaches. Everyone understands this dynamic in other contexts. Yet in college sports, a pervasive false consciousness prevents people from talking about a decision such as Tilmon’s in the transactional terms appropriate to a young man’s shopping himself around for his first big job. Instead the whole thing unfolds in the realm of polite euphemism, with fans and journalists joining the NCAA in its preoccupation with rigorously policing the boundaries of the euphemism. To care about college sports — whether for work or for fun — is to be in some way a narc. It is excruciating.

All of which is to say that I hope Tilmon gets paid, and paid well, and I hope to see him next season parking a big-ass Lincoln Navigator outside the State Farm Center.

I don’t think this is a ridiculous proposition, either. We hired Orlando Antigua for just this sort of thing, did we not? He’s the former Kentucky assistant — and a former Globertrotter! — who seems to have made a paper hat out of the NCAA rulebook during his time as head coach at South Florida. If we want to talk about a change in the institutional culture, we should probably talk about Antigua. He is not a very Illinois sort of hire. He has no links to the program or the state. Nor does he have any connection to Underwood. He’s a talent bird-dog brought in from out of town, a maestro of the one-and-done era from which the Illini mostly have absented themselves. He “connects with recruits,” we’re told — a classic euphemism. This is a thing people say about a good assistant right up until he sticks the program with a show-cause penalty. If the Underwood hire signaled that Illinois basketball was at last eager to have some fun, Antigua’s arrival tells me that we’re willing now to walk on the wild side if we have to.

Tilmon would obviously be a major coup for the new regime. The knowing coves say that he has the court sense to be something more than a boards-and-blocks guy, and from what I can tell, Underwood has never had a skilled big man through which to run his offense. I’d love to see what the two of them could do together, and I’d be bummed if he decided to run with Cuonzo Martin instead. But am I crazy to be buoyed somewhat by thought of Michael Finke at the 5? The big man in Brad Underwood’s offense needs to be comfortable working out of the high post and beyond, opening up space around the basket. That’s Finke’s game, and it wouldn’t shock me if he wound up being the principal beneficiary of a system premised, as we’ve noted, on getting clean looks for otherwise limited players.

Or what about Jalen Coleman-Lands? You ask who our best player is. The smart money is surely on Mark Smith, but shouldn’t Coleman-Lands at least be in the conversation? Even if he does no better in his junior year than to put up the sort of numbers we were expecting of him in his sophomore year, it would mean having one of the most efficient scorers in the nation. And for no other reason than that I am still in a deep golden mellow over Underwood’s hiring, I suspect that the new coach will make better use of Coleman-Lands than the last guy did.

The idea of this exchange was to take each other’s temperatures, in regards to the state of Illinois basketball. The thinking was that, as you are generally a sunny optimist with a soft spot for fascist basketball and as I am typically a low-hanging gray cloud who likes his hoops to be free and unconstipated, we might find something of note at the intersection of our emotional weather patterns. And what we have we found? I’m an optimist, and you’re no longer a fascist. I-L-L!

Stay tuned for more from Craggs & Leitch as Illini Basketball moves ahead this season.

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