Smile Politely

A blur sharpens

Paris Parham will be delighted to know that every picture I captured Saturday was accidentally deleted from my camera, and will never be seen.

It’s too bad for you. Saturday was immensely enjoyable. The team was loose and jocular, the staff  in a playful mood. I got great pics. And now they’re gone.

The NCAA mandates open locker rooms throughout its tournament, as does the Big Ten. John Groce, given his own policy direction, allows zero access. So it feels weird to be in there with them, when you get the de jure sense that they don’t want you there, and the de facto sense that they’re pleased as punch to entertain you.

To put it simply, this staff is fun.

It rubs off. The players, faced with the biggest game of their careers, seem carefree. Rotation players aren’t as loose as the voyeurs, but that’s partially a product of these mandatory media engagements. While DJ Richardson has 13 cameras and 24 microphones stuffed in his maw, Mike Shaw plays on his iPhone.

Groce was hired at Illinois because he won the 2006 Rivals Recruiter of the Year award, because he led Ohio U to two NCAA tournaments including a Sweet Sixteen, because he interviewed well.

On camera, Groce is disciplined. Always focused, always intense, gracious but not fawning. In camera (see what I did there?), he may be a completely different person, and that’s what I’ve begun to ponder.

His public persona seems too tightly wound to afford the easygoing spirit of Saturday’s locker room. It could be that this team, these guys, are not His Guys. But that theory fails in the context of his chosen team:

Dustin Ford is a bouncing ball Good Vibes — which works because he has a dark sense of humor, and knows how to employ it.

Paris Parham is King of Cool; he lets it be known that he’s the boss, and that he might allow you to kiss his ring — it works because he puts his arm around you while he’s delivering the boilerplate.

Jamall Walker is the most reserved of the staff, but the most first-person personable. He’s not a glad-hander. He’ll never sell cars for a living. And that’s why you know he’s being real.

It’s this collection of personalities leading Illinois against the (arguably) Best Team in the Nation™.

I’ll bet they’ve figured out some specific tendencies of Miami’s offense. I’ll bet they’ve instructed the team to observe those tendencies. I’ll bet they’re hoping — and not completely expecting — the team will recognize patterns, plays, personnel.

A couple of weeks ago, Groce said he wants the team to be “physically loose and mentally tight.” It’s not the best expression of his sentiment, if my observations are apt. I think he meant something along the lines of “relaxed, but focused.”

Groce is a coffee addict. He’s a guy who gets second sleep at odd hours, and probably does his clearest thinking in quiet hours.

He refers, regularly, to his brief stint as a math teacher. He often talks about logic. Apart from his frequent misuse of went when he means gone, he’s an effective communicator.

Maybe the shots won’t go in tonight. Maybe Illinois will lose. But then again, maybe the shots won’t go in and Illinois will win. Maybe every shot will go in, and Brandon Paul will memorably GIF the entire Miami fanbase.

That’s the weird thing about this season, this team and this staff: For the first time in six years, you and I cannot predict exactly what will happen.

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