Smile Politely

Griffey shifts from neutral to drive

John Groce’s substitution patterns are nearly as up-tempo as his offensive system. The first rotations start even before the first media time out. Line-ups change constantly. Players alternate positions with some, but not all substitutions.

If you think they might confuse the Illini, imagine how these constant changes monkey-wrench their opponents: your assistant coach calls out “three’s your man” as you, the point guard, return from a time out. But wait! Brandon Paul (3) is now playing alongside Tracy Abrams, who’s just returned from a blow. Your coach says you’ve got three (Paul) because he’s the one (point). But now 1-3 is the one and three is the two. (Two moves to four and one to three if the Illini go small.)

On Monday, Tyler Griffey’s one missed three came playing the five position. Go figure.

Maybe it’s because the team plays fast. Maybe it’s because Groce is still testing his new charges to see how they’ll perform in different combinations and situations. Maybe he’ll contract the rotation to seven or eight players by mid-February.

If you assume Abrams, Egwu, Paul, Richardson, Griffey, Bertrand, and McLaurin are definitely “in” and Myke Henry is probably “in,” then you’ve reached eight already.

Right now, Mike LaTulip still seems like the most likely “out” candidate to secure a permanent spot in the rotation. He’s more versatile than PJ Bowman, but provides the same spark plug and intelligence.

But then, there’s also Devin Langford.

Groce said he wanted to get Devin Langford in the game before halftime. It’s another indication that Groce gets it. He understands the psychology of the game. He knows no amount of practice time can prepare a teenager for the bright lights big time.

It’s all so new to them. Groce wants it to become used to them, as soon as possible.


Tyler did it again!

He put the ball on the floor and moved in for a mid-range jumper. This time, everybody noticed it. Brian Barnhart said on the radio, “I don’t think we’ve seen that before.” Marcus Jackson asked Tyler about it in the postgame presser (which you should totally watch, especially for John Groce’s candid dread of impending economic doom; it’s not Obamacare, it’s wife Allison in Hawai’i for ten days with a working credit card*).

The newspaper regulars gently pummeled coach and players with questions regarding newfound happiness, effectiveness, competitiveness … in a nutshell, Weberlessness. Tyler was the main target. He insulted no one, but complimented Dustin Ford in acknowledging his bolder new direction.


Another game, another memorable moment of McLaurin mindfuck. Who knows what Sam said to Matt Milk, Saint Francis’ biggest Terrier. Milk (ineptly named) quickly gauged that no referees were watching, and then thrust a shoulder, hard into Sam’s solar-plexus.

I watched Sam for four straight possessions afterward. He never expressed any emotion. He did make a play at the offensive end, and it bought him a pair of free-throws.

What we’ve learned so far is that Sam McLaurin — the amiable philosopher, the college graduate, the erudite exponent of all things Illini — is also a shit-talker, and perhaps an unparalleled shit-talker. Dee Brown is the last, best known Motor Mouth of Illini lore. If Sam can sabotage half the brains Dee broke, if he can penetrate opponents to the depth Lewis Jackson mentally spelunked Illinois the last four years, soooo-weeet.


Tyler and Sam graduate and graduate again (respectively) next spring. Their successor at the four-slash-five spot may be on the bench already. Abe Djimde and Mike Shaw came from nowhere and everywhere (respectively) from the standpoint of prep recruit hysteria. Neither has gained much expectation among Illini observers.

But astoundingly, Djimde has developed a soft touch around the rim, in just over a year. Shaw buried a three on Monday, and dived for a mishandled ball, creating a steal. (His young female supporters went nuts: “Okay Mike!”)

Shaw’s best skills (perhaps best on the team) are short drives to the basket, offensive back-to-the-basket moves and rugged rebounding.

Next year, Djimde and Shaw will compete with Austin Colbert for minutes. Colbert announced his college choice on Monday, and will sign a letter of intent on Wednesday.

With PG Jaylon Tate, SG Kendrick Nunn, WF Malcolm Hill, and C Maverick Morgan, Colbert completes an unusual five-man class, with one player for each position.

*John, you’re making $1.4 in a down economy. Let her go. And thanks for the stimulus.

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