Smile Politely

Regression toward the mean

The Ducks were on the pond.

The Illini had them in their sights.

We couldn’t pull the trigger.

A few more games like this, and we won’t need to watch anymore. I won’t need to fly all the way across the country. We can just expect that Illinois will look great, take a huge lead, collapse at about the three-quarter point of the game, and lose ignominiously.

The Abrams-Egwu wiring continues to fritz at the least opportune moments. The Ray Rice train keeps a rollin’.  Joe Bertrand makes a spectacular play.

Toss in a handful of nuts for texture, and you’ve got Illini basketball 2014.

I feel tempted, from time to time, to declare this group my favorite Illini team of those I’ve covered. The 2010 group featured a group of guys that I liked as people, but they performed badly. This team can be personable off the court, and exciting on it. I’m soooooo glad Weberball is gone.

But I may be driven insane if this trend continues.

In Saturday’s postgame press conference, I asked John Groce about two turnovers, two lobs intended for Nnanna Egwu.

Groce didn’t understand the gist of my nub. He thought I was criticizing the passer.

I refer to two plays which changed the game for the worse. One came from Tracy Abrams. The next time, it was Jon Ekey.

Sitting under the Illini goal, I could see the eyes of Abrams and Ekey as they shoveled brilliant passes toward Egwu, only to see him vanish from the requisite trajectory.

Tracy and Nnanna are close friends, as far as I’ve observed. I think Tracy would stand up for any of his teammates, because that’s the kind of guy he is. But I think he’s especially close with Nnanna.

That said, Tracy is continually frustrated by Nnanna’s pedantic basketball IQ.

Nnanna is, according to One Sheet telecast materials, one of those very tall people who “didn’t play basketball until he was x years old.” Nnanna views this legend as apocryphal. He played, just not within “organized” basketball.

But whatever his experience, Nnanna does not have a sense for streetball. Not at all. He plays the game with a figurative slide rule in his figurative breast pocket. It’s a left-brain/right-brain thing, maybe. Nnanna is the economist, the scientist. He’s regarded as “extremely coachable” and “the hardest worker.” He listens. He studies. He analyzes. He learns.

None of that matters when Tracy Abrams drives to the hole, baits three defenders, and then shovels a five foot pass that looks like an errant shot. Nnanna Egwu, Robot, has already established a textbook position for rebounding. As he does so, an Oregon Duck spears the pass from mid-air.

It was a perfect pass. It should have been an awe-inspiring dunk. But while Tracy plays ball from the heart, Nnanna plays by the numbers. It’s what he’s been taught to do.

The Abrams-Egwu disconnect isn’t new. It’s the mean. It’s what we should expect until further evidence demonstrates a paradigm shift.

John Groce seemed happy-ish about the loss. He said Oregon was a really, really good team. Maybe that’s true. But Saturday’s game in Portland was winnable, and was not won.

Instead it’s another dent in the Groce armor. The Illini could be 11-0, and these two losses — when contemplating a rugged conference schedule — might be the difference when The Committee makes Its Decision, in March.

The Oregon game 12/13 felt like the Gonzaga game 12/12. And then the reverie stopped. The Illini reverted to the mean.


I liked the refereeing on Saturday. I don’t remember seeing any of the three officials before. From my perspective, they did a remarkable job. So I remark.

David Hall was especially vocal, frequently shouting “easy! easy!” at the bigs, as they tussled in the low post. Hall engaged in conversations with the players, concerning technique. He let them know what was fair play, and what would elicit a whistle.

The game’s crucial play (from the Illinois perspective) saw Tracy Abrams stuffed at the rim. Abrams pleaded for a call. Pleading for calls is not the road to championships. Hall saw no foul.

We all admire his spirit, but Tracy will either learn to pick his spots or he won’t. I’m not pessimistic on this point. The next time Tracy drove, he tossed that brilliant lob-cum-turnover. As he evolved, mid-air, it was Nnanna who regressed toward the mean.

Will the Illini put it all together this year? No, probably not. These two losses have “NIT” stamped all over them. Tracy was the angriest, pre-season, regarding low expectations for this year’s team. He was also really angry about my questions in the Oregon postgame press conference.

Luckily for him, the ball is in his court. He’s the point guard. He’s the guy who can make things happen for this team. So the question now is whether he’s good at statistical modeling, and its avoidance.

More Articles