Smile Politely

A Columbus Dispatch

Illinois lost a game they were expected to lose. They finished their conference season at 8–10, a bit better than expected. Next Sunday, they will receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament — far surpassing expectations for the season.

It’s hard to paint this season in an unflattering light. It’s not just four extra wins. It’s not just four fewer losses.

There was not an embarrassing are we Illinois? moment this time around. Yes, the game at Wisconsin was awful; but there’s no existential dilemma triggered. Getting walloped by Bo Ryan’s Badgers, at the Kohl Center, is predictable. It’s even a good bet.

Hell, The Flyin’ Illini lost by twenty at Wisconsin. (Pin that thought.)

Perhaps more important for our superego, ego, and Insecure Male’s Booyah! purposes: for the second consecutive game, no one noticed our differently able and especially-not-impotent potency specialness.

Instead, all eyes were glued to Ann Arbor.

Most of these eyes bulged in horror, as John Beilein’s career changed dramatically. After a six year slog, with the summit in view, Beilein’s sherpas abandoned him. The future-pro sons of ex-pros coughed up a five-point lead with under a minute to play. Million dollar dads proved incapable of empowering million dollar free-throws. (Let’s be honest with ourselves. Michigan’s Choke of 2013 is worth at least a hundred million dollars, when spread around all the campuses it affected.)

Meanwhile, the trailers of southern Indiana nearly rolled over for all the joyous jumping inside. Outhouses overflowed.

So we’ll have Tom Crean to kick around for a few more years. Beilein however, will now face perpetual skepticism. He’s probably my favorite coach in the league, so I’m bothered to say it; at 59 years old, Beilein will not easily recover from this devastation. Negative recruiting will now focus on his inability to close the deal, his age, and his nomadic career.

To this point, Beilein was consistent and consistently building. Crean is a comic book character, sometimes the hero. You feel good in any match-up against Crean, because he’s an intriguing loon. You feel increasingly worried about Beilein because he’s a kindly patrician, and tactician.

Oops, I digressed again. But that’s kinda my point: For purposes of The Big Picture, Sunday’s Illini loss doesn’t matter much. It was merely another irritating example of this Illinois team’s perpetual failure to capitalize on opportunities.

John Groce fingered a 12-2 Buckeyes run — closing the first half — as the difference in the game.

But there were plenty of missed opportunities after the break.

Consecutive airballs (McLaurin & Paul) failed to draw the Illini close in the third quarter. At the start of the fourth, Nnanna Egwu and Myke Henry allowed Evan Ravenel to slip between them for a rebound put-back. Illinois had just cut the lead to seven. A woulda-been/coulda-been five-point game expanded to nine.

Henry’s defense on DeShaun Thomas, buttressed by a Nnanna Egwu double-team, led to a Devin Langford interception and a fastbreak which … went nowhere when Tracy Abrams missed the front end of the resulting one-and-one. Aaron Craft’s transition lay-in at the other end capped another -4 point swing.

Illinois is not getting worse as the season goes on. Illinois couldn’t dribble, or pass very well, when the season began. Illinois is much better at dribble-drives, but still not good at regular ole dribbling.

Currently, they’re showing no interest at all in passing (six assists Sunday).

I’m not sure why the Ohio State Athletics establishment is so inhospitable. They have the B1Ggest arena in the B1G, and they’re famous for not selling it out.

Two months back, I had to jump through an unusual set of hoops to get credentialed for this game. Typically, the host SID simply sends a list of names/media outlets to the visiting SID for approval. This time, their SID checked out the various web pages and media outlets through which this stuff passes, and stamped your interest inadequate for photography purposes.*

Don’t worry, two wire services carry six pictures of this game, and three subscription-based websites carry an additional six pictures of it. They’re all medium close-ups, and Buckeye players are always on offense; but c’mon people, what do you expect?!!?? This is 1974 for crying out loud!!!??!?! It’s not as if we have digital media!!?!!!

Smile Politely applied for a credential only this past Tuesday, following the game at Iowa. (I’d been credentialed for a different media entity.) Five days notice is not unusual, but SP was denied because — according to the OSU SID — there were “no more spots” in the media room.

So I looked.

The empty seats among the arena’s three media areas (sic) (3) numbered over twenty, and possibly thirty. In fact, the only people stationed in the “press box” (on the top level) were friends of the program, not press. And I don’t mean the Illinois program.

So you get no postgame interview with Tracy Abrams, or DJ Richardson. You get only a static view of Thad Matta’s presser. I can hold only so many cameras and microphones by myself.

My right hand found out what Myke Henry thought about the game. I interviewed Brandon Paul with my left foot, like Christy Brown.

Earlier this year, Illinois SID Kent Brown told SP (and by that, I mean Seth Fein) that OSU is a bit on edge these days. It’s aftermath of Jim Tressel’s Trophies & Tattoos sanctions.

So instead, I’ve included a couple of snaps from our wonderful dinner at Alana’s. And to capture the essence of Columbus, there’s a poorly lit shot of a wretched frat house. The frat row at OSU is huge, and was once impressive. But “service organizations” aren’t what they used to be. Perhaps they never cleaned up after themselves. Now, they don’t even hire someone from the community to do it for them.

“The media” is only slightly more popular than Congress. So no big deal, right?

Well, the team’s families were treated with equal skepticism. It was Senior Day in Columbus, so maybe they needed more seats for Buckeye family members. Also, there were at least a dozen recruits sitting behind the Ohio State bench. Perhaps two dozen.

I knew something was off when I discovered Kelsey Anderson (Abe Djimde’s surrogate sister) and Mitch LaTulip behind the Illini bench, sans parents. Kelsey pointed to the empty seat where her mom wasn’t sitting, and said the floor ushers simply refused to acknowledge the Andersons’ ticket for that seat.


Alicia Anderson texted from the nosebleed section, writing that she was fine up there, just so long as she got to see Ibby after the game. (Ibby confirmed that she did.)

Still, what gives? No other B!G team sequesters its opponents’ families in the worst seats. That would be like a nuclear arms race.

I talked with major donors. Surely the Buckeyes’ foundation understands the value of treating them well. Right?

Leigh Anne Dorris was not okay with the nosebleed seats. These were assigned to (and subsequently passed on via) the DIA. She insisted her husband buy an extra set of seats near the court.

Watching the Buckeyes game, you’d think Devin Langford had never played basketball before. But he has, as recently as 2012.

Langford played critical minutes Sunday, because Joe Bertrand was out with an injured shoulder. He was visibly out of his element. He rushed his shots and passes. He bobbled the ball. When game-changing opportunities came his way, Langford was incapable of capitalizing.

It’s a matter of acclimatization. Langford has not played sufficient minutes in enough cavernous arenas. Practice at Ubben, or an empty Assembly Hall, is simply not the same.

A short bench is fine, so long as it’s effective. For Bruce Weber, not playing (and therefore not developing) Richard Semrau proved catastrophic in 2010, when opposing teams learned to drive directly at Mike Tisdale (an offensively capable if slow-footed small forward, whose talents could best have been exploited by playing him in a zone defense).

Not playing Langford this year seemed like a reasonable strategy, right up to the point where an acclimated Langford was needed. Unfortunately, the only solution to this problem involves the use of a time machine.

There is good news about Langford, and machines. Last year Devin was denied, in West Lafayette, when attempting to buy a postgame snack from a vending machine in the bowels of Mackey Arena.

Yesterday in Columbus, Devin outwitted the machine.

Before you think, “but Rob, who cannot outwit a vending machine?” I’ll tell you. Video Coordinator Andy Etheridge was just about to give up and walk away when that same machine left his Starbursts dangling from the distribution coil.

That’s when Tyler Griffey waltzed over, tipped the machine forward from its base, and then body-checked it (very gently) from the left. The Starbursts dropped. Etheridge got his sugar fix. And the Buckeyes failed in their final attempt to screw over everybody from Illinois.

Sometimes small victories are important.

Don and Mike Berardini were two of the lucky ones. They actually got seats behind the Illini bench in Columbus. They were in Ann Arbor on Saturday, watching youngest son/brother Danny score Oklahoma’s final points in a come-from-behind gymnastics win. “They were down six points, which is like being down thirty at halftime in basketball,” said Don.

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