Smile Politely

Better late than never

Sorry I was late this morning. I had a lot of work over the weekend. After finishing the radio story last night, I crawled into bed, and stayed there.

A similar thing happened to Ray Rice. He’s worked his ass literally off (his gut too) over the last 18 months, so it’s understandable that he was asleep when he was expected in class.

John Groce wasn’t all that hard on Ray. Groce held him out for the first quarter of Sunday’s game, reminding Ray that this Illini team needs everybody to be successful, and it only takes one person to screw things up. You might even say Groce helped Ray.

Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate started at the guard spots. It reminded me of times when Illinois basketball was good. If freshman are starting, recruiting is going well.

Rice was on fire when he finally got on the floor. He hit a trio of threes in the second half that knocked the wind from the (mightier than expected?) Northwood Timberwolves of Midland, Michigan.

Rice added four assists, a steal and three rebounds to his team-leading sixteen points.

Illinois’ second-leading scorer was Mike LaTulip. He tallied fourteen points in fourteen minutes, including 3-of-5 from downtown, and 5-of-6 from the line.

What about this Northwood team? How did they erase a 24-point Illinois lead? How could they allow the Illini the first 14 points of the game, and still manage to take a second-half lead?

How bad is Illinois?

That last question has no answer. Not yet. Certainly not with Tracy Abrams sitting out the entire game (sore hamstring) and Groce continuing to tinker with his rotation.

What about Northwood?

Old Timers* will remember Brian Johnson, the starting PF for Illinois’ 1998 Big Ten champions.  John son was about six-and-a-half feet tall, and extremely bouncy. He arrived at Illinois as a string bean, and left with swollen pecs. By 2000, he was dunking on everybody at the (Bill Self-hosted) summer reunion game.

Sunday evening, the Illini faced a pair of Brian Johnsons. Will Bowles and Wes Wilcox are good enough to have (like Johnson) walked on at the D-1 level. They’re both athletic, about six-and-a-half feet tall, and bouncy.

These two outmaneuvered the Illini in transition. When Illinois got its pack line defense set, Bowles and Wilcox combined to hit 5-of-8 from distance.

Bowles finished with sixteen points and ten rebounds. He added four steals and two blocks to complete his everywhere, all the time routine. Wilcox led all scorers with 25, and also speared ten boards.

As a team, the more experienced Timberwolves frustrated the younger Illini. Austin Colbert looked like a foal trying to sort his legs out. He was twice penalized for stepping before dribbling, in only six minutes of floor time.

Fellow frosh Maverick Morgan (actually named for a wild young horse, or a person who doesn’t go along with the program) showed soft hands in his nine minutes. He handled a dump pass in the short corner, and promptly buried a ten-footer.

Morgan also grabbed two boards, and dished one assist. Importantly, he committed no turnovers in those minutes. I’ll try to remember to ask Groce, after the coaching staff has analyzed video of the game, how Morgan’s defense graded out.


Some of the Flyin’ Illini descended on Champaign this weekend, to celebrate Steve Bardo’s new book The Flyin’ Illini. Teammates who showed up were Dr. Philip J. Bowman, Kendall Gill, Ervin Small, Marcus Liberty, Larry Smith and his cousin Travis Smith. (That’s an inside joke, Travis Smith was the self-described “short white guy” of the team. He walked on after receiving encouragement from Liberty, and scored three points in three years. He now owns a dental practice in southern Illinois, along with his wife, the dentist.)

Here’s a video of the team, reminiscing. It’s grainy, but worth watching.

Longtime Illini Glue Guy Rod Cardinal was there, along with the unknown hero of 1989’s Final Four team, administrative assistant Dorothy Damewood. They received high praise from the team, as you’ll see in the video.

That was Friday.

On Saturday, none of those guys stopped by Ubben to watch the 2014 Illini practice. That’s the report I got from Centennial’s Michael Finke.

John Groce invited Centennial’s Bowman to come watch Centennial’s Rice et al, but Finke has no idea who PJ Bowman is (these kids today, I tells ya) so if Bowman turned up,  Finke didn’t notice. 

Bowman is only 5’8″ so he’s hard to see. And in Finke’s defense, Michael was working in the weight room with Illini strength & conditioning coach Mike Basgier, not people watching.

However, Finke was able to report that Cliff Alexander and Jayson Tatum were both in the gym for Saturday’s practice. Tatum, from Saint Louis Chaminade Prep, is rated in the top five nationally among the Class of 2016. If you don’t know who Cliff Alexander is, how did you possibly make it to the end of this column?

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