Smile Politely

Media Day 2011 Part 1


C’est la premiere fois que mes reportages arrivées à vous en Français.

I don’t think it matters what language you’re reading. Reports of the 2012 Illini basketball season would seem no less comprehensible in Swahili. You’ll get different answers from everybody.

Now, before reading the rest of this entry, you should know that I share your warm feelings about Illini basketball, its rich tradition, the wonderful people who’ve chosen to dedicate their finite eligibility to its greater glory. I am biased. I do not claim, and have never claimed objectivity. I tell what I perceive.

If you prefer only the happy stories, various websites recount the glory of Illini teams. You should visit those websites, and watch replays of the Arizona game.

Don’t get me wrong, this season could be great. I truly have no idea what lays ahead. If I seem like a downer, it’s because I’ve heard the optimism before. I’ve seen it wither. I like these young people and I want the best for them. And before you rant over my criticism at their million-dollar coach, trust me — he knows that averaging fourteen losses is unacceptable. He knows it’s not the responsibility of sportswriters to right the ship.

Now, here’s my report about this year’s media day.

We’re told it’s going to be different.

But, in my experience as an Illini basketball reporter, we’re told that every year. Recent seasons shared remarkable similarities. For every anticipated difference, there’s a lotta same.

The major questions posed (not only by me) at the outset of each campaign concern the number of players who’ll see playing time, and the tempo at which those men will lift Illinois basketball from tepidity. Perhaps reporters pose these questions because they hope to glean insight on which players to interview; and which nouns, verbs and terms of art to employ. Maybe reporters’ questions represent inquiries from their respective readerships.

{If there’s only one major newspaper (Chicago Tribune) posing tough questions to its flagship state school lately; readers might be interested to know that it reassigned its rookie Illini beat reporter, and replaced him with a veteran.}

Whatever the case, these questions could not persist in the face of overwhelming success.

We can’t be sure who’ll merit the brunt of the PT, nor whether our concept of “merit” computes for rationing purposes. We can be sure that Media Day 2011 produced these questions.

Answers from players proved that some have contracted coachspeak, while others remain open to dialogue. Some players seemed jolly, some weary. Almost to a man, they believe this team will run, employ a deeper bench, press opponents on D.

Their coach says Wisconsin dictates the tempo.

I don’t see how Weber 9.0 could succeed using the retread formula. While the past two Illini teams survived on chemistry , this team has none. They know their instincts as well as we know their instincts, i.e. not at all..

Relying on a short rotation of the inexperienced and the injured, grinding a half-court offense that vacillates between straight motion and motion with set-principles — with no experienced bigs and a first year point guard — this is a formula for disaster. Or perhaps it’s merely a formula mediocrity, which may seem comfortingly familiar.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The sixty-four dollar question: will it be that way?

Sam Maniscalco must be the starting point guard, and yet he plays through pain every day. If he wills himself through forty minutes of each game, that’s not optimal. If he could play forty minutes at full capacity, that may be ideal. It’s not realistic.

Meyers Leonard was entertaining to watch as a freshman. He’s fun to root for, personally. He’s smart and funny. It’s a pleasure to watch him grow. But whether his basketball instincts were correct, he rarely positioned himself on the floor per Weber Administration guidelines. He picked up a foul per possession. Contrast James Augustine, who needed a fourth year, and a change of position, before he stanched his chronic fouling. It’s too much to expect a paradigm shift occurred in Meyers’s game over the summer. How many minutes can we truly expect from him?

Meyers may not know it, but he holds a huge advantage over Augustine in terms of take-no-prisoners audacity. Where Augustine never finished a single contact-drawing play, Meyers will slam the ball through the hoop while happily hoisting his defender through the hoop as well. That’s Meyers’s cheerful nature.

You see reasons for optimism, and pessimism. It’s the same with Brandon Paul.

Brandon’s the talented, the beautiful, the charming, the daring. He also tends toward mind-boggling carelessness. He’s the only Illini I feel comfortable criticizing regularly, because he oozes talent (and I get get along well with his parents). Maybe this is the year he develops an overriding obsession with ball-control. That would help.

DJ Richardson is solid. People applied the word “funk” to him, for much of last year. I don’t agree. Offensive “sets” (I use that term loosely) weren’t geared toward his game. He was relegated to the deep corner. If no one found him open there, his opportunities for creating plays simply never materialized.

Why not?

Bruce Weber’s offense, his entire ethos, should (theoretically) tend toward propagation, genesis, engendering creativity. It worked in The Time of Deron. Since then, we’ve seen more frustration than fluidity. Can this devolution achieve transcendent change? Will the Weber Way verify its 2005 mystique by proving itself with an entirely different cast of characters?

Well, we all want to see that.

Nate Scheelhaase to AJ Jenkins proved again that everyone likes winning. The basketball team wins when its wings hit a majority of their 3-point shots. That’s been our dagger since 2006: hot-handedness. It accommodates DJ’s outside threat, but obscures his other talents.

Tyler Griffey, Joe Bertrand and Crandall Head are talented people I’d love to see succeed. So far, Bruce Weber has not deduced a plan to employ their talents. Blame it on them if you choose. Whether Tyler can rebound, whether Crandall can dribble, whether Joe can siphon Weber’s attention to his presence; I don’t know. I wish them all the best of luck in achieving court time.

And then there’s all these newcomers. Come back tomorrow. I’ll yarn about them a stretch.

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