Smile Politely

Arcs & Crafts

I’m still wondering about that loss to Purdue. You know, the loss that changed our outlook on the season?

It was the start of the B1G season, with back-to-back games against Ohio State and Purdue. We had a new head coach on the bench, and the big storyline for the second game was his face-off against dear friend/longtime mentor, the other team’s head coach. They’d had some great years, but the glory days were in the rearview. Their former assistant coach was now on our bench.

Despite early success, a lot of people were still unsure about this team. When they lost that game to Purdue, the message boards melted. The common sentiment: this new coach would not be able to manage the players left by his predecessor.

Two months later, the Illini finished the season with the return game at Ohio State, where they clinched an outright B1G championship.


Okay, so that was nine years ago. What happened this week? How did Illinois look so bad at Purdue and so good against Ohio State?

One difference is that Terone Johnson did not pass the ball. Lenzelle Smith did.

Three times in the first half, Smith passed the ball to Illinois. Deshaun Thomas did it twice, as did LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams. Sam Thompson and Evan Ravenel also handed the ball to the Illini. That’s eleven first-half turnovers, slightly more than the Buckeyes average for a game.

Illinois shot poorly from the arc, and the Buckeyes shot miserably from the arc. At Purdue, the teams were evenly average. But on two-pointers, the Illini hit half their attempts while the Buckeyes hit one-third. It really is that simple — making shots wins game.

The corollary to that rule is that great rebounding can redeem bad shooting. Purdue out-rebounded the Illini by ten. Illinois out-rebounded the Buckeyes by ten.


In a sense, the national pundits are correct to focus their attention on Brandon Paul. He can kill this team’s chances in any game. He can carry the team on his back. The last two games may be the best consecutive games of his career. It seems he’s recognized the value of consistency.

While he still had too many turnovers (four Wednesday, five Saturday), he only made a couple of inexplicably stupid passes. Some of his passes were excellent.

Brandon’s self-control could lead this team to a conference championship. His erratic play could back them into the NIT. It’s a fantastic responsibility to have because it affords Brandon an opportunity unavailable to 99.9 percent of the people in the world. He could play himself into a lottery pick.


Repeated attempts to kill DJ Richardson (verbally by chat room trolls/elbows by opposing teams) have failed. DJ will start again against Minnesota, and he’ll spend a lot of time and energy on irritating a Hollins or two. On offense, he’ll shoot from the arc. You can safely bet on these three predictions.

He may also continue to develop his dribble-penetration, and we should hope so. DJ has always been good in the lane. Over the last three years, it’s been coached out of him; but he still has the skill set, if not the instinct.

On Saturday, DJ’s best drive to the basket ended badly. He tried to get the ball past two Buckeye defenders and into the hoop. He should have used the rim to screen them.

It’s okay if he keeps shooting from the corner. He’s good at it. In fact, it took John Groce’s planned (I might even say contrived) explosion to persuade me that DJ’s shooting is an issue. Yes, I’ve read the boards. But I know the Internet is crazy. I have a great look at DJ’s shots, and although most of them missed over the last two months, they were all good shots. He squared up. They looked good on release. They just didn’t go in.

Contrast Brandon Paul and Tyler Griffey. Those guys frequently miss the rim entirely. Yes, frequently.

Illinois is an average perimeter team. Their best strategy going forward will be concerted effort to penetrate.

More mid-range jumpers from Nnanna Egwu. More pull-ups by Brandon. More finger-rolls from DJ. More reverse lay-ins by Tracy Abrams. When the defense sags, kick out to the open shooter.

In theory, that’s what John Groce’s offense should look like. On Saturday, 27-of-58 field goal attempts came from behind the arc. Tyler was 0-for-6.

Tyler keeps forgetting his newfound driving-to-the-hole trick. It’s delivered his best success this year. It’s something to watch for as the conference campaign unfolds. Driving might be the difference between a winning 2013 campaign and a bitter end to Tyler’s career.

Channeling Groce’s rigid defense, DJ had Tyler’s back after Saturday’s game. He drew specific attention to Tyler’s possession-saving dive for a loose ball.

I deduce from these comments that Groce has instilled the toughness and the togetherness. Now he’s got to instill the offense and the rebounding. Saturday’s game was a good first step.


Lou Henson got another standing ovation Saturday. He was part of a ceremony to honor the Orange Krush and its founders. Lou had a pair of friends at his side as he walked off the court that should be named for him. But he didn’t need them. He managed by himself. There’s a hitch in his gate, but for an 81-year-old survivor of cancer and encephalitic paralysis, he shuffled with remarkable speed.

The Orange Krush were not actually in attendance, so the reaction was not as crazy as it might have been. In fact, the crowd was not as loud overall, just in general, as you might expect from an aeronautical walloping of a “top ten” team.

Rhonda Rice said she try to get Rayvonte to wear a suit for this game. He wore an orange golf shirt. But Rhonda made up for it with some dazzling O&B threads.

Jamall Walker’s wife Rebekah brought eensy-weensy Braylon for the game. We will forgive him for sleeping through it.

It’s possible that Braylon hadn’t seen his dad much recently. Jamall had the scout for OSU, and he seemed to have accurately predicted just about every possession.

More importantly, he must have got the players to respond to his scout. After watching Dustin Ford’s apoplexy at Purdue, one might infer that attention to scouting equaled rebounding as top concerns behind Ubben’s closed doors.

After the game, John Groce spent time with Illini legend Bruce Douglas and the younger, larger generation of Douglases.

Brock and Bryce have seen pictures of Bruce from his leaner days, so they know it’s no myth. Brock marveled at the physical feats one can accomplish through “25 years of good eating.”

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