Smile Politely

The Illini are going to be bad again, aren’t they?


From: Will Leitch
To: Tommy Craggs

So, since we’ve spoken last, since I asked if we were no longer cuck’d, if this was the dawn of the new age of Illinois basketball that will assure us that we have not been wasting decades of our lives obsessing over this team, here is the roster turnover:
  • Mark Alstork, a guy who was second-team all-Horizon league (at least as chosen by the coaches) and who was a worse 3-pointer shooter last year than Tracy Abrams and — and this is kind of important! — is only 6-foot-5, which makes him a smallish swingman on most teams but essentially classifies him as a front court guy on the Illini as currently constituted. We are so desperate for warm bodies — and good news — that we celebrated that we beat out LSU (LSU!) in his recruitment, though only because we could close the deal by telling him “we have so few players we have no choice but to play you.”
  • Jeremiah Tilmon, literally MINUTES after our first missive back and forth, which means I assume Kipper Nichols will transfer to UIC within minutes of this posting;
  • D.J. Williams, exactly the sort of dude who never worked with Groce but would seemingly be worth a run in an Underwood system;
  • Jalen Coleman-Lands, the Indiana product we were so proud we got, the one we thought could be a Corey Bradford but with handle his freshman year, the one who regressed in a way that represented Groce’s worst failures, the one who Underwood was going to make a star… and he might going to DEPAUL?! What decade is this? Does he think Gillian Anderson is still there?
Meanwhile, we’re praying for the third-leading scorer for a MAC team that couldn’t even get as far in the NIT as we did to transfer just so we can fill out the roster. 
I know there’s a lot of happy talk that Underwood never saw Coleman-Lands as his type of player — which is a little scary; if an elite shooter with length isn’t his type of guy, who is? — and it’s telling how the local loyalists (I say that with love, actually) are already playing the “he wasn’t going to mesh with Underwood’s ‘non-nonsense’ approach” card with JCL, like he wasn’t one of the tentpoles just two weeks ago. And bless Underwood’s heart for actually arguing this is a tournament team next year, when, to my eyes, it looks like it’s going to be another year of the nation collectively pretending Chris Collins isn’t a jackass and you and I just having to sit there and eat it while we check to see if State Farm Center is hosting Cirque du Soleil in mid-March again. Which means that it feels, once again, that this is all gonna come back to recruiting, like it always does with Illinois, and we just hired a guy who has proven just about everything in college basketball EXCEPT an ability to recruit.
Which puts us back where we were, only now we don’t have Tilmon or JCL. I recognize that I am making this request of the precisely wrong human being, but: Tommy Craggs, please talk me off the ledge here.


From: Tommy Craggs
To: Will Leitch

I’m bummed about Jalen Coleman-Lands, who had the prettiest jumpshot we’d seen in Champaign since Richard “nothin’ but Aquanet” Keene. I suppose there’s something grimly perfect about JCL’s ending his Illini career on the same clanging unresolved chord as the coach who brought him here. He never quite developed in the way we’d hoped, but don’t forget the stress fracture in his leg before his freshman year and the broken hand before his sophomore year. That’s the John Groce era in a nutshell for me, give or take a misdemeanor. The bad luck was so relentless that by the end it was impossible to tell apart the chronic conditions from the snakebite.

So now Coleman-Lands is supposedly fetching up with the Lazarists of Lincoln Park, and Jeremiah Tilmon is going to Mizzou, and Mark Smith aside we’re looking like a lot of Oskee without the Wow Wow, as you note. We did just land a fellow named Greg Eboigbodin, who pulled out of his UIC commitment and signed with Illinois. An investigation on the internet reveals that he is tall and ambulatory, and our roster needs right now are such that even if it turns out he has joiner’s mallets for hands, I’ll take it.

Dreary as the recent developments seem, I’m going to try and muster some optimism here. Two points:

First, let’s continue to hold out hope we have a real coach on our hands. As I said in our first exchange, Brad Underwood’s offense seems well engineered to hide the deficiencies of the roster. And at the very least, his defenses at Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State suggest we can count on the Illini to turn the other team over (or to adapt when the high-pressure stuff isn’t working). Coaches need talent more than talent needs coaches, but in college, at least, you still can win a decent pile of games with a system designed to get good shots for so-so players and take the ball away from the other guys.

Second, the Eboigbodin poach, while not terribly exciting news on its own, tells me Underwood has smartly acquiesced to some of the imperatives of coaching at Illinois. The assistant coach who brought Ebo aboard is Ron “Chin” Coleman, late of UIC, who’d initially recruited him to the Flames. Why does Chin matter?

  • The basketball community in Chicago so badly wanted to see Brad Underwood hire a “Chicago guy” as the final assistant on his staff, and that wish was granted on Wednesday with the report that Ron “Chin” Coleman will accept the position.
  • Coleman was an assistant at UIC, and he has also worked on staffs at Bradley and Colorado State. Prior to that, he was the head coach for the Mac Irvin Fire AAU program in Chicago from 2005-11.

Underwood used his last assistant opening on a Chicago patronage hire. Smart move. He may not have any proven ability to recruit, but with bird-dogs such as Chin and Orlando Antigua on staff, you might say the program is doing its best to hide the deficiencies of its head coach, too. 


From: Will Leitch
To: Tommy Craggs
Can I tell you how disturbing it is to find myself the pessimistic one in our relationship? I can always count on you — no matter the topic, Illinois basketball, the weather, the current (and constant) American condition, whether or not human beings are capable of experiencing a selfless, sustained love — to scowl and growl and grumble, in order to either bring me back to reality  drag me into the depths of sorrow, depending on one’s perspective. So that my first response to you is “man, Craggs must have a helium tank nearby” is… worrisome. 
First off, “joiner’s mallets for hands” might very well be what’s on Greg Eboigbodin’s Rivals page. Listed as one of his few attributes. Sure, he’s a warm body, but he’s also a project, a Ibby Djimde type, a lottery ticket. That might be fine for the long term, but if we’re hopeful for him for this year, that’s bad. Basically, after missing out on the few scraps left, Underwood, without even a Mike Thorne-type to draw on, just offered a guy no one was recruiting and had only been picked up by UIC. Sure, he’s “long.” But I’m not sure he’s going to have the slightest idea what to do with the basketball for about two years, which is bad because, since he’s a “warm body,” we’re going to end up holding one a ton next year. I mean, would you want freshman year Ibby Djimde in the rotation? That’s what we might be looking at. We don’t even seem to be going after that MiKyle McIntosh guy, who, while not outstanding, is still someone I have seen play in an actual basketball game for an actual basketball team. (One that would have kicked our ass if we’d have played them in the NIT last year too.) 
I mean, it’s legitimately possible, with the loss of JCL — who you’re exactly right to note had a descent that paralleled Groce’s, and it wouldn’t shock me to see him blossom at DePaul, and worse case, he’s their modern-day Bryant Notree — that this is the rotation:
PG Te’Jon Lucas/Trent Frazier/Mark Smith
SG Mark Smith/Aaron Jordan/DaMonte Williams (who isn’t going to be tip-top until January)
SF Mark Alstork/Kipper Nichols
PF Leron Black/Kipper Nichols/Greg Eboigbodin
C Michael Finke/Leron Black
Oh, and don’t forget Tyler, the coach’s kid.
The problem is not so much that there’s no talent. The problem is that other than Smith (and MAYBE Alstork, who we surely just told “we will let you shoot every 10 seconds and you’re going to play 25 minutes every game), we have had a bunch of swings and misses… again. Eboigbodin seems like a panic move, which is fine if it’s a graduate transfer senior. But he’s not. We just gave him a four-year scholarship. Sure, if he stinks, we’ll surely shove him out, Austin Colbert style, because that’s college athletics and college athletics are evil. But I dunno. We look to be operating out of positions of weakness rather than out of strength. I know it’s the first year. I also know it is only JUNE. But still. We might be pretty bad next year, and after the last decade, I’m a little worried the whole state turns into angry postgame WDWS callers if they lose that first game to DePaul. Which is sorta possible?
That said, if Chin wants to paper the walls of every Public League high school with iFund dollars, he’ll get no argument from me.


From: Tommy Craggs
To: Will Leitch

I’ve talked myself into Mark Alstork, who if nothing else will soak up possessions and draw some fouls — useful talents on any team, particularly one whose players will still be learning each other’s names come conference play. Only six guys in all of college ball used a higher share of his team’s possessions last season, per Ken Pomeroy. If Mark Smith isn’t ready to carry the load, I think we’ll be happy to have a grad student around who’s determined to chuck himself into the second round of next year’s NBA draft.

I don’t know if we’re a tournament team, but for the first time in a long time I can look at our roster, thin though it may be, and feel fairly confident that at worst we will be a lively disappointment. Te’Jon Lucas is a fizzy presence on either end of the court, and Kipper Nichols is an intriguing unknown who has some real bounce in his game. There are different ways to lose in sports. For the past decade we have lost badly. I’m not talking about scoring margins. I’m talking about how we’ve gone about the business of shitting the bed, about how every season since 2005 has been little more than a surly, undeviating march to a foregone conclusion. We were overcoached and dour under Bruce Weber and we lost, and we were undercoached and dour under John Groce and we also lost, and no one seemed to want to be here except for Tracy Abrams, who was around for so long that I believe his first knee injury was sustained during the Battle of the Somme. We have played unlovely basketball, and we have mostly sucked at it, and we have been too hidebound or terrified to try anything different. Has there been a season since ’04 after which you thought, with any conviction, “That’s cool, next year will be fun as hell”? Has there been a season since ’05 before which you thought, with any conviction, “We may not contend, but damned if we’re not gonna be exciting”? I can’t think of one. That’s losing badly.

All I want out of Brad Underwood’s first season is that we improve a little at being shitty — if we have to lose, let’s at least lose energetically, ambitiously, with some style. This is the mantra for 2017-18: fail better. Put that on your Orange Krush T-shirt.

We sent this to our editors after Matic Vesel, a Slovenian power forward, committed to Illinois. We know nothing about him, other than nothing that the strategy of “signing guys to four-year scholarships whom no one has ever heard of simply because we have an immediate need for big men” is a curious, untested one that, when it works, will surely make John Groce bash his head into the wall of whatever sad suburban Cleveland gym he happens to be in at the moment.

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