Smile Politely

Zoned in

I’m completely confused. I wrote the wrong column.

After watching Georgia Tech waltz through our interior “defense” for an entire half, I can only explain why Illinois lost Wednesday night. Because the Illini won, that explanation is useless.

It’s my job to tell you what happened and why re: Illini basketball. I’m flummoxed by the Georgia Tech game. They completely kicked our ass. They owned us. They took over our floor. They silenced the crowd.

They ran the baseline, seemingly on every possession, and scored without effort or obstacle.

And then by halftime, we had the lead.

What happened? I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know. John Groce squatted on the sidelines for quite some time, and watched the game. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t talk to anybody. He removed himself from his assistants and his rotation. He positioned himself at the end of the bench, and he observed.

Okay, reset. Re-adjust.

We come out FIRED UP in the second half. It’s full-on ass-kicking time. All cylinders firing. Major reversal of fortunes. HA-HA! Take that suckers!

And then that clever bastard Brian Gregory calls a time-out.

We retreat. We worry.

Gregory owned us during the 2007 recruiting class’s woulda been golden years. We quickly discover we’re right to worry. Suddenly, Illini basketball sucks again. Tech storms back.

We are vanquished?


And why not?

It’s here that I’m left without answers. The statistical indices help only a little. Illinois had positive margins for the first twenty minutes, but only in rebounding (18 to 13) and points (36 to 35).

Turnovers, steals, fouls and free throw attempts, size advantage … these all favored the Yellow Jackets. They made Illinois look silly, or at least unprepared, in the low post and the wings. The game was tense only in the sense that Illinois stayed alive for three quarters. Tech took our best punch, and then just kept pounding the ball in.

For some reason, momentum shifted.

By the under-4 media time-out, the game was over. No one cared anymore. For reasons I can’t explain, it was a lopsided blowout for the guys in white.

Perhaps it’s because I, as an observer of predominantly Illinois basketball, am unversed in concepts such as adjustments and playing to your strengths and — for the love of Pete Maravich forgive me if this phrase violates your sense of decency — zone defense.

Illinois’ 2007 recruiting class would be celebrating the second, and possibly third, anniversary of its B1G Championship(s) if it’d employed a zone.

Veteran Illini reporter John Supinie asked Groce to further explain zone defense, and added it’s been a long time since we’ve seen it ’round these parts.

I lose my cool at this point. I’m so incredibly excited to have a coach who adjusts to situations, who exploits advantages, who eschews paradigms as if they were a bad religion.

I think it’s brilliant that Nnanna Egwu is a starter and Sam McLaurin is a finisher. It’s not only about psychology; it’s about idiosyncrasies. Nnanna plays outside of reality, with enthusiasm and helium. Sam plays as if he had to re-grout your bathroom by Monday morning. It’s gritty and real.

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