Smile Politely


Step back from the ledge.

Yeah, Illinois lost again Sunday. But Michigan is really, really good. And if you’ve paid attention for a few years, you knew what was coming.

Sunday’s basketball “contest” seemed to begin well when Nnanna Egwu jammed a lob on the opening possession. But in truth, the game was over before it started. It was over on October 26, 2006.

That’s when Jereme Richmond verballed to Illinois, thus extending Bruce Weber’s Illini career by, perhaps, four whole years.  Weber solidified his status 50 weeks later, getting verbal commitments from Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson and Joe Bertrand in a 72-hour period in October 2007. Without Richmond’s commitment, those three might have looked elsewhere.


It was the promise of those much-heralded-cum-much-maligned recruits that kept hope alive, just as Illinois basketball sunk to its deepest, darkest depths.

The 2007-08 season was awful. Illinois basketball’s downward spiral took the team from a Final Four to (a program record) 19 losses in four seasons, each worse than its predecessor. Weber’s recruiting was a punchline. Chicago’s best high school players rarely considered the Illini.  Richard Semrau and Brian Carlwell were commanding an enormous about of space on the Illini bench, while garnering no time on the court.  C.J. Jackson, having seen enough of the bench, went off to look at the football team’s bench for a year. Stan Simpson awaited his chance to sit on the Illini bench..

Miami of Ohio beat Illinois in Champaign. Tennessee State beat Illinois in Champaign.

Illini fans were so unaccustomed to complaining about basketball, they barely knew how to react. National Coach of the Year Bruce Weber seemed … not … um … good?  That can’t be it, we thought, as we rubbed our figurative fists to our figurative eyes. But no, that didn’t clarify the picture.

Would Ron Guenther have fired Weber in March 2008? Assuming the three amigos had chosen other schools? Maybe not. But it’s hard to imagine Weber roaming the sidelines in 2010 with a team of two-star recruits.

Illinois fans do remember Tim Geers, Scott Pierce and Brooks Taylor. But we’re accustomed to compiling such rosters in the face of major NCAA sanctions, not by choice.

This year isn’t over. The recent string of conference ass-whoopings doesn’t change the fact that these Illini can beat anybody on the right night.

That’s not what the program needs, though. We need a team that can beat anybody on all but the worst nights. That’s the only way to conceive a six game win streak in late March and early April. It’s difficult to imagine this year’s team pulling a double-Maui. That three-game stretch, you’ll recall, was bookended by cardiac moments versus Hawai’i and Gardner-Webb.

Things should get better. Not necessarily right away.

Illinois has no junior class.

The sophomores might gel into something special, and they might not. Myke Henry looked tough, uncharacteristically hard-nosed against Michigan. But he played only ten minutes, and attempted only one shot from the field. Nnanna Egwu looked thin and over-matched against Michigan’s Mitch McGary, a 20 year-old freshman.


It’s interesting that JaQuan Lyle and Larry Austin Jr. sat together Sunday. They’re clearly chummy, perhaps thick as thieves.

They’ve visited Champaign, individually, on a number of occasions. So why is it interesting? Because they both play point guard.

You’d think they’d be in competition. Certainly that would be the case if Bruce Weber were still here. Weber preferred to recruit combo guards and wings,  then try to convert them.

Lyle said Weber wanted him to play combo guard. He said John Groce is recruiting him as a pure point. Lyle wants to play point, period.

Groce likes ball-handlers. Playing two point guards simultaneously makes sense to Groce.

Weber liked wings. His 2011 squad could fill a nine-man rotation with nothing but wings: Tisdale, Davis, McCamey, Cole, Paul, Richardson, Richmond, Bertrand, Griffey.

Illinois continues to have problems with the very first fundamental skill of basketball, dribbling. Tracy Abrams didn’t bounce the ball off his own leg on Sunday. But Brandon Paul had all kinds of problems at the point. (Actually, he had only two kinds of problems. The more obvious of the two was Trey Burke.)

Watching Michigan execute its offense should have pleased any lover of the game. It should remind Ron Guenther of October 2007. John Beilein held his first practice in Ann Arbor. He finished that season tied with Illinois, at 5-13 in the B1G.

Since then, he’s built a program from ashes.

Meanwhile, Bruce Weber has charmed his critics in Manhattan, KS. Even the GoEMAW board is now defending him.

They might revert as Weber’s recruiting alters the face of the Kansas State roster. But it’s hard to see his career change as a bad thing.  Weber’s earning twice the money he made last year. He’s working for a school that doesn’t demand Public League connections.

Meanwhile, back in Champaign, youngest daughter Emily finally rejoined the cheerleading squad. She’s been out with a broken wrist since a drunken oaf knocked her to the floor, and then fell on her, at a campus bar. She missed the whole football season, and Sunday was her first men’s basketball game of the year.

It wasn’t until Dafna and Deon Thomas left the building that I got it.  I recognized the reason so many greats were on hand Sunday. It wasn’t just to watch a great basketball team. They came to honor a great man.

Govoner Vaugn and Manny Jackson arrived on campus during Adlai Stevenson’s second hopeless run at Dwight Eisenhower. They’d been teammates at Edwardsville High. They were the first Illini basketball players to earn varsity letters despite having brown skin.  As it turns out, having brown skin is not necessarily detrimental to one’s basketball skills  In fact, following the lead of these two trailblazers, a number of brown-skinned athletes did okay at Illinois.

After the game, Deon visited with Kenny Battle and Melvin Nunn. Can you imagine Illinois basketball without Deon Thomas, the greatest scorer in our history? Can you imagine Illinois basketball without Kenny Battle, the greatest everything in our history? I’d rather not think about it.

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