Smile Politely

Dance, baby, dance!

And we’re off to Portland!

The Illini face Western Kentucky Thursday night, in Oregon, at 8:55 p.m. CST. It’s the 5–12 match-up of the NCAA tournament’s South regional. If you’re thinking “Portland is not south,” well done. You have already surpassed much of America in geographic aptitude. If you are thinking “the NCAA’s pod system is not working out very well,” you’re right again.

Illinois will practice in Champaign on Monday and Tuesday before departing for Portland. No media will be allowed in practice this week, as everyone in the Illinois program assumes a River-in-Egypt stance regarding Chester Frazier’s injured hand. A North Carolinian hand-specialist looks at it this morning. Frazier will not divulge the doctor’s name. Frazier will not divulge much of anything. Frankly, he’s not a very good interview.

Just about everyone on the team will miss mid-term exams due to travel. Bruce Weber found it odd that the NCAA is asking teams to keep costs down, but sent both Illinois and Purdue to Portland. “Maybe we’ll share a charter,” Weber quipped. “Maybe we’ll meet in Danville and have dinner at the Beef House before flying to Portland.” Illini Radio Network play-by-play man Brian Barnhart’s Pavlovian reaction to this idea drenched a spot on the press box carpet.
Illinois is a slightly over-rated 5, and WKU is an under-rated 12. Hence the almost immediate predictions, among the beautiful people, that the Hilltoppers would oust the Illini on Thursday. When confronted with this perception, the coach and players gave rodomontade remarks about “motivation.” But I think they were generally upbeat about a 5-seed. Dominique Keller was pretty frank regarding Saturday’s Purdue disaster. He expressed some surprise, certainly relief that the committee was taking a nap during that telecast.

The committee also slept through the Penn State and Minnesota debacles. (Whew.) It’s nice to know that objective observers found those games soporific, rather than outrageous.

Keller and Calvin Brock are the keys to the tournament. The energy, the enthusiasm, the heart, and the rebounds will come from those two. Or not. And therein lies the rub.

All of those factors have been attributed to Chester Frazier for most of the season. But Chester’s time at Illinois is done. Whatever mixed messages you hear about his injured hand, he’s not going to be playing. Bruce Weber made light of the training staff conjuring a special glove for Chester to wear, but it doesn’t add up. We know that Chester plays even when his right leg has been sawed off. The fact that he played no minutes in the Big Ten Tourney demonstrates that this time, he’s really hurt.

This is my opinion. I may be wrong.

Fuck, who knows? They’re not telling us. And the analysis changes if Illinois makes it to the third weekend of the tournament, which likelihood you’ll find only among long-stakes gamblers.

What you’ve seen this year is a team that wins when it shoots well. If the shots don’t fall, there’s no rebound put-back. That could be different, and Keller and Brock are the guys capable of elevating their games to make that change. Frazier knows that too, so he called upon Keller to host a team-only meeting Saturday night at the team’s hotel in Indianapolis. From what each member of the team told me, they held nothing back, and emerged a cohesive unit.

This is also, to a degree, rodomontade. But frankly it’s true that if KaiserKeller and SuperBrock emerge from a phone booth without their neckties and glasses, Illinois has a chance to make it to the next weekend. And that’s irrespective of falling shots. If you’ve been reading me for the duration, you know that I believe Keller and Brock to be the electric players on this team.

If Davis, Tisdale, and Meacham are firing on all cylinders, this team can beat almost anybody. And if all things are clicking for Illinois, and the top teams (UNC) have a bad day … well, you know the story. That’s the reason they play the games.

I think none of us expects the season to extend past next weekend. But realistically speaking, Illinois has a great chance at the Sweet 16. No one has worn the “over-rated” label this year more than 4-seed Gonzaga, whom Illinois would face if each team got past its first round opponent.

The Zags, a Catholic Coast Conference team, beat nobody this year. And by nobody, I mean Bruce Effing Pearl. They gave Bruce the reach-around twice this year, God (and the other two, plus Mary) bless ’em.

The other nobody Gonzaga beat was NIT-bound St. Mary’s, a good team whose only fault was not beating anybody either, Our Savior nothwithstanding. The five losses Gonzaga suffered this year represent the four decent teams they played, plus Portland State. The fact that a 4-seed went to Spokane shows that the Pope should not give up hope completely.

But overall, the NCAA committee adopted the pervasive national anti-Catholic sentiment, giving St. Mary’s berth to the Mormons. The Utah Utes also played nobody, and lost nine times (including Idaho State, and something called “Southwestern Baptist” which Google probably knows about).

If Paul Klee hadn’t attended Gonzaga on a golf scholarship, their perception among the local press would be 70% worse.


Criminally, Penn State was left out of the dance. On this one occasion, the committee noticed a team’s lacking strength-of-schedule. But unlike some of the dancers, Penn State plays in a conference with real teams not comprised solely of 13-year-old girls. (Oh geez, I probably shouldn’t mention jailbait in reference to Penn State. Sorry, Stanley.) I emailed PSU’s SID to get a comment, and to ask who made the schedule for them. If he gets back to me, I’ll pass it on. (Memo to self: Say nice things about Jay Price.)

Bruce Weber began his coaching career at Western Kentucky. He earned a master’s degree there, as Gene Keady’s graduate assistant.

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