Smile Politely

The metamorphosis?

Let’s take a moment to appreciate Wayne McClain.

On a freezing January day in Wisconsin, the Illini shot the basketball as if they were playing on Lake Monona, rather than inside the heated Kohl Center.

But Illinois stayed competitive for much of the game, by employing tools Bruce Weber hates. Full court press, long bench, dribble-drive.

At times, it seems this team is changing and evolving right in front of us. I like the dynamism, and the willing to try new things. I credit McClain for a lot of it.

For twenty minutes, it seemed like Illinois might hang with the Badgers, despite shooting only 30%. Developing the ability to win that type of game would be a major milestone.


Officiating was the story. It started early. Jon Leuer pulled Bill Cole out of bounds on Wisconsin’s first offensive rebound. Mike Kitts swallowed his whistle.

Newb D.J Carstensen must have suffered an itchy lip. His whistle sounded every other minute. Sadly for Mike Tisdale, Carstensen covered the southeast corner of the court, where Tisdale was easily spotted & flagged for under-the back, standing-with-menace, intentionally breathing on people, etc.

I can empathize with Tisdale’s distress at phantom fouls. They confused me, too.

Fans of hard-nosed, bruising Big Twen basketball hissed and booed. On the bright side, fans of free throw shooting enjoyed a fine exhibition on Sunday.

Who is this influential new guy, whose new approach bored the fuck out of 17,320 paying fat people?

Carstensen calls most of his games in the Mid-American and the Atlantic 10 conferences. He played the game for Utica College in the early 80’s. He’s a 2009 inductee to the Utica College basketball Hall of Fame. I am not lying.

The other two refs, Mike Kitts and Paul Janssen, work a lot of Big Twen games.They’re accustomed to looking the other way. But itchy lip is contagious, and soon all the stripes were breathing through their whistles.

Paul Janssen sees no foul

Players from both teams agreed the officiating, if inexplicable and show stealing, was equally applied. They weren’t quite sure about anything else, or if they were, they wouldn’t say.


Weber reasserted himself in the second half. He benched the reserves who’d closed the first half gap, reinserting the starters who’d created it. despite their collective bad day.

Wisconsin immediately burst forward to a twelve point lead.

I think McClain was coaching the game in front of him, while Weber addressed the season ahead. Weber inserted Joseph Bertrand in the first half of a competitive game. If you’re keeping track; that’s the first time, ever.

Why now?

Is Wisconsin a great match-up for Joe? Is Joe finally learning how to play basketball?

Or is Weber’s goal to inject some confidence in Joe? On the last weekend before the new semester, does Weber seek to reassure players of a future at Illinois?

Weber gave a full ten minutes to Tyler Griffey, a guy you might remember from last year. Even Crandall Head got (statistically credited) tick.

But Weber kept (unspokenly suspended) Jereme Richmond on the bench.

Jereme Richmond played cheerleader

His parents watched from behind the bench

Richmond could have won the game for Weber, and that’s the key clue to Weber’s long view strategy. This game, and any game, means less to Weber than… some bigger picture. Maybe that’s good.

On the other hand, maybe the most successful coaches work in the moment, one game at a time, adjusting to circumstances.

It’s ironic that Weber is not a moment-by-moment guy in that sense, because…


Recently, I read an interesting theory about Bruce Weber’s incessant involvement from the sidelines. Micromanagement, posits the author, prevents players from developing instincts.

In conference, the same chants emit from student sections Izzone, Paint Crew and Grateful Red. “Shut-up We-Ber/clap clap clap-clap-clap.” It’s usually seasoned with a lone heckler’s calling “GET OFF THE COURT WEBER!” It’s such an old story, it’s hardly even a story anymore.

In the first half yesterday, Weber directed Meyers Leonard on every Wisconsin possession. Sometimes Weber called for Meyers to help on the strong side. Other times Weber coached Meyers to stay on the block.

I thought back to that author. (Sorry, I don’t remember where I read it.) I remember memorizing lines for the spring musical, and mnemonics for the bar exam. It’s much easier if you put down the script.

I played four sports. I can’t recall in-game coaching in football, basketball or soccer. Only in baseball do I remember receiving instructions during play. It was standard stuff, field position on defense, bunt and steal signs at bat.

I remember basketball coaches at practice, and in the huddle. But not during play. (I was never a point guard.)

Thus, I don’t know what it’s like to try to play while receiving moment-by-moment instruction. I saw Meyers move to his spot when beckoned, so obviously the players can hear Weber, and process what he says. Do they learn from it?

If they learn from it, does that mean a time will come when Bruce Weber won’t need to remind them?

It’s been about five years since Weber’s sideline demeanor first attained public scrutiny. Wisconsin has not missed an NCAA tournament in that period.


More Articles