Smile Politely

A Lost Season for Bulls, Illini

Alas, Thursday’s snowstorm kept me from attending the University of Illinois women’s basketball game against Ohio State. And that’s a shame because the Illini beat No. 17 Ohio State, 68–64, behind sophomore forward Jenna Smith’s 20 points and 10 rebounds. It would have been a nice change of pace to watch an Illini basketball team actually win a game against a worthy foe. I’ll catch up with the ladies for a column in the near future.

It just so happens that I’ve almost completed the first season of Lost, the popular ABC drama. (Yes, I’m that far behind the rest of you. Sorry, I was busy with The Wire and Six Feet Under and Mad Men and, of course, The Sopranos.) So the theme for this week is not losing, per say, but those who are lost. The Chicago Bulls and the Illinois men’s basketball team provided the inspiration for this thematic selection with a pair of pitiful performances on Wednesday night.

Given how miserable reality can be, I’m certain that some members of both teams probably wish they were stranded on a distant tropical island right about now, even if that island contains a tribe of abducting locals, polar bears, whispering winds and a mentally unstable French woman with guns. Collectively, the Bulls and the Illini are both seeking a way to open the figurative hatch. And like mysterious island philosopher John Locke, neither team is quite sure of what lies beneath the hatch. The answer to what ails ya? Maybe. Maybe not.

Alright, so maybe it’s a flawed metaphor. So find the key around Jack Shephard’s neck, open the impenetrable suitcase, grab a nine millimeter and shoot me. Truth is, we have a pretty good idea as to what ails both of these teams. Let’s start with the Orange & Blue, who, ironically enough, began this season with a trip to Hawaii, where a majority of Lost is filmed. No basketball team above the junior varsity level should be caught in high top sneakers routinely flinging free throws to the rim at a success rate lower than 50 percent. Yet the Illini have achieved that dubious feat multiple times this year, most recently shooting 36.8% from the charity stripe in a 51–41 loss to Michigan State on Wednesday. As if to fully illustrate that their shooting woes are not limited to standstill shots 15 feet from the hoop, the Illini also converted just four of 22 from beyond the arc. Oh for the love of a peach basket hammered to a barn door, can this team just be put out of its shooting misery? I have no regrets about missing my first Illini Big Ten game on TV this season. Actually, I should thank the Big Ten Network for making it unavailable to my cable-subscribing household.

Illinois’s Windy City pro team is not about to be outdone by the state school. No sir. The Bulls managed to get blown out by the cellar-dwelling Timberwolves on Wednesday. Chicago had toppled feeble Minnesota on Tuesday at home, but then were manhandled by the same team over the final three quarters on Wednesday in losing by 16 on the road. How anemic is the Bulls offense, especially sans Luol Deng and Ben Gordon? It managed just 67 points against a team allowing its opponents over 100 points per game this season. The first quarter of Wednesday’s game had to be among the most repulsive quarters in the pros this season: Chicago 14, Minnesota 8. EIGHT. And the T-wolves still won — easily! When your team is getting owned by Ryan Gomes, I think you can safely assume that your frontcourt just doesn’t care all that much about the game’s outcome. So join me in firing up the Trade Ben Wallace Bandwagon. There’s plenty of room to climb aboard!

The future doesn’t look so bright for the Bulls. Even if they find a way to dump Wallace on another team before the trade deadline, they aren’t likely to get much in return. Maybe they’ll figure out a way to turn another team’s unwanted baggage into productive minutes. But it’s silly to expect Chicago to receive anything of real value for an unmotivated, overpaid veteran in sharp decline. Moving Wallace and admitting the mistake unfortunately puts the Bulls right back where they were before acquiring Big Ben — a youthful core in need of a dominant, inspiring force.

As for the Illini men, the future looks far better. They completed a promising recruiting class of 2009 by finding a suitable big man to go with a trio of in-state guards. Six-foot-eight forward Tyler Griffey, from suburban St. Louis, verbally committed to the Illini yesterday. That gives Weber six recruits in his 2009 and 2010 classes that all figure to be ranked in the top 75 nationally. Add in guard Alex Legion, who transferred from Kentucky and will be eligible in January 2008, and Weber has been on quite the recruiting roll. It’s just too bad we don’t have a fast forward button for the 2007-08 Illini, because I’m beginning to wonder if this crash of a season will produce any survivors.

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