Smile Politely

Suspension of Unbelief

Rodney Williams couldn’t believe it. His Gophers, so dominant at Champaign, crumbled against the Illini in Minneapolis.

But it makes perfect sense.

Without Williams (who sat out with an injured shoulder) the Gophers were forced to play their twin lummoxes, and a few other incompetents. Most coaches would shrink a rotation, keeping only the best players on the floor. Tubby Smith moved 10 guys in and out of the line-up, basketball skills notwithstanding.

Minneapolitans openly discussed the possibility of Shaka Smart.

Elliott Eliason is the last person I’d entrust with a basketball. I was sitting in the upper deck bleachers, openly rooting for Minnesota to pass the ball to him.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. I was quietly rooting for Eliason to get the ball. The guys next to me, from IlliniProductionsHD, were openly rooting. (There are rules about press row.)

Yeah yeah, he made a shot in crunch time. He stole the ball from Brandon Paul in mid-air. So Eliason is effective like a broken clock.

The final box score credits Eliason with three assists and only two turnovers. And yet Bad Things happened whenever he touched the ball. (Maybe that’s why I’m about to write a sports column about mysticism.)

Maurice Walker is slightly better. But you get the feeling his stomach’s not in the game. It’s thinking about doughnuts.

For Tubby, the Bigs Problem was just an element of the big problem: Who will score? Games cannot be won on rebounding alone. 

Dre Hollins and Joe Coleman shot a combined 3-for-18 from the field. A five-man (i.e. non-) rotation of Austin Hollins, Trevor Mbakwe, Andre Ingram, Julian Welch, and Maverick Ahanmisi seemed effective against Illinois. But if you play only five, you run out of gas.

Is Minnesota falling apart? Or did they suffer a bad-shooting day when their best player was injured?

“Wouldn’t it be great?” said one (and probably many more) gold-clad Lutheran, lumbering out of The Barn in deep dudgeon “if we had a team, just once, that got better as the season went along?”

Maybe Gopher fans forgot how important Rodney Williams is to their team. But they’ve seen a lot more Tubby than I have. As we know, stick-in-the-mud coaches bore people. The grass is always greener on the Shaka side.

For Illinois, the shots went in. Instead of suffering someone’s breakthrough performance, they celebrated someone’s breakdown. As the game neared crunch time, you could feel confidence drain from one side, absorbed by the other.

It really does work that way in sports. Yes, Bill James changed baseball forever by heeding statistics. Yes, that works for basketball too. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about believing. Right now, everyone believes in Illinois basketball. The fans believe. The players believe. The pundits believe.

If you believe, you can achieve.

No wait, that’s too Jesse Jackson. Try this: If you believe, the shot goes in.

Basketball, if heavenly, is not conclusive proof of the existence of god. But it’s a prime example of the power of faith. Minnesota’s Gophers lost faith. Illinois’ Fighting Illini found it.


Whatever works, right?

Tyler thinks there was something wrong with him. He’s not sure what it was. He asked people to help him figure it out. Anybody, even his old high school coach.

Now Tyler thinks he’s back on track. He never identified the problem, but it’s gone now. That’s what he believes. It’s belief that matters.

The other day, he played eight minutes. Sunday, he played thirty.

Yes, he grabbed only 4 rebounds to Elliott Eliason’s 10 (and Trevor Mbakwe’s 10 for that matter). But he hit 4-of-7 treys to Elliott Eliason’s none (and Trevor Mbakwe’s none).

If you regard Tyler as a wing, which is what he is, rebounding seems like a bonus.


It’s been three games since I posited Brandon Paul’s make-or-break final stretch.

His amateur status ends in a matter of days. He’s held up well. At Minnesota, his typical gaffes propelled the Gophers to a 13–2 lead. But Brandon dribbled off his leg only once. He banked an airball only once. He drove into an enormous shot blocker only … well, maybe three times.

He’s been better. His increased attention to detail plays a big part in the New Illini Mojo.

NBA status? It’s moved from sell to hold. Let’s wait for the harvest to come in.

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