Smile Politely

Is it March yet?

Friday felt like a weekend in early March. It was gray and rainy, and Illini Basketball buzz vibrated almost audibly around Chambana. Swagger came to town. It might stay for a while.

Millionaire Olympic Gold Medalist Deron Williams rolled into town on Thursday. He worked out with the team, and some recruits. We, the media, were not invited because the recruits participated in pick-up games. (NCAA rules are weird.)

Deron was back at The Ubben on Friday, and this time the cameras were rolling. He even brought his own camera. A post-Seattle grunge artiste named Myles captured Deron’s every move.

Hype Level Orange was enough to make current players feel, well, ignored. Dominique Keller called me out for not saying hello. Bubba Chisholm said “I would do anything for publicity,” so I took a picture of him. As hard as the kid works for so little floor time, he deserves some spotlight.

Poor Joseph Bertrand elicited zero requests for interviews from the media. The same would have been true of Tyler Griffey, except that I had asked to talk with him. That’s a good thing, because otherwise the world may never have known that Tyler’s uncle, former L.A. Raiders lineman Rich Stephens, wants him to stay away from dorm food, and eat organic.

To that end, Stephens escorted Tyler to Strawberry Fields, Urbana’s favorite bean sprouts and patchouli grocery store.

The bright lights weren’t avoiding Griffey and Bertrand for lack of talent. It’s just that the boob-tubers had footage of the other two freshman working out with a certain NBA point guard. And if you haven’t noticed this about teevee news, they like to match voice-on-tape sound bites with video footage.

So Dietrich Richardson and Brandon Paul met the press. Brandon is thinking he might like to major in Recreation, Sport & Tourism.

Dietrich may have a career in theater if basketball doesn’t work out. People named Dietrich are often very dramatic.

Apart from all the schoolwork, he’s encouraging Jeff Jordan to make a comeback. Jordan seems too obsessed with his new motorcycle.

The real basketball news has nothing to do with guards, and nothing to do with new faces. The most impressive action on the court came when Coach Wayne McClain brought big men Stan Simpson, Richard Semrau and the Mikes together for a rebounding brawl. I have never been so impressed with the strength and brute aggression coming from the mild mannered Mikes.

At one point, Mike Tisdale threw Semrau to the ground, laying his right arm across Semrau’s chest and literally throwing all 240 pounds to the floor. This would not have happened even six months ago. I wonder what Tisdale has been eating, and how much.

Simpson also displayed brute force. During a one-on-one drill, he came at Tisdale shoulders first, as if form-tackling in football — and Simpson was on offense. The move was intended to clear space for an incoming pass. It worked.

It’s weird to see dominance and physicality from this foursome, because these guys are all introverts. Big nerds, really. (Although Mike Davis is becoming cockier.) If Tisdale continues to progress in his physicality, he could live up to his hype. If Semrau can shake the (perfectly understandable) jitters he retains from his near-fatal street-balling chest injury, he could surpass anyone on the roster as primary inside beast. The skills are there.

Simpson has almost negative swagger in his personal make-up. Whereas a guy like Keller can fill the entire room with just his personality, Simpson tends to disappear right before your eyes. And yet, when he’s on the court, I’ve seen him block shots and dominate people almost without knowing it. He has those instincts.

I think the rest of the team recognizes that. They’re trying to beat Simpson down, and build him up anew. At the end of Friday’s practice, Coach McClain made a spectacle of Simpson failing to toe the line during wind sprints. “If you’re not going to give the effort here, where are you ever going to give it?” McClain demanded. The rest of the team began harassing/encouraging Simpson, but it wasn’t good enough. McClain called everybody in the gym over to the baseline. If Stan didn’t give 100%, everyone was going to run.

Stan ran.

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