Smile Politely


The odds suggest an old Illini fan, somewhere in the world, quietly passed away overnight.

It was a great time to go, the very best time for an Illinois fan. In the last 48 hours, Butler toppled Indiana from its poll-perch, Gonzaga pummeled Kansas State, and John Groce completed the best start for an Illini coach in the modern era.

Lou and Mary Henson got gussied up, and came out to the roar of 15,029 fanatic Henson appreciators. Bruce Pearl’s wheedling halftime presence on ESPN’s least watched network reminded tens of viewers that he’s not allowed to coach basketball.

Today, the world is perfect. So remember this moment, because it won’t always feel this way.*

In his postgame comments, Groce championed Nnanna Egwu, both for his defensive presence and his mid-range game. He defended Nnanna’s starting role. So let’s remember that. Good on Nnanna.

But the player of the game was you. I saw you just before tip off. You’d filled every section in the house, all in orange. Only the top two rows in C-23 were visibly gray.

Something stirred within me, a presence I haven’t felt since …

Groce felt it too, and he also gave you props in the postgame, especially the radio version. He said you formed the biggest walk-up crowd in the history of Illini basketball. He dialed that back a little for his media session, so perhaps one of those pesky SID officers got to him on the walk through the tunnel. They’re so meticulous about “facts.”

The Eastern Kentucky team proved to be just what we thought they were: tough, disruptive and (eventually) overmatched. They executed well, and provoked 20 Illinois turnovers. They held Illinois to 6-of-23 from three (for the second consecutive game).

But they proved insufficiently athletic/tall to stop the Illini from hitting inside the arc. Illinois shot 70% for the game, and 10-of-11 in the second half, from two point range.

It’s an important strategic distinction between the malaise days and the bright new era.

Back then we could beat anybody when the shots were falling. Anybody could beat us when we went cold. We saw the former at Iowa City and Seattle in December 2010. We saw the latter at Columbus in 2005.

Now the Illini can win when they’re cold. The new coaching staff encourages penetration, and when Illinois dawdles on the perimeter, it even gives them a little push.

On Sunday evening, John Groce found Tracy Abrams and DJ Richardson asleep on the near wing. The Colonels defense had no problem guarding both of them as long as they loitered in the same spot.

Spying a seam in the defense, Groce whispered to DJ, and pointed the way. “Go go GO GO GO.” I couldn’t hear the first part. It was brief, but I expect it featured slightly more substance than “moooooove!” A made basket ensued. The photogs and family section giggled at the spectacle.

Everyone enjoys an upset, especially the top-ranked team, and super-especially if it’s Indiana. There’s no need to explain the joy we all felt when the Butler Bulldogs pulled off that win at Indianapolis. Because Illinois already beat Butler, it felt personally redeeming, even if it’s a wash in the RPI for Illinois.

The Gonzaga beatdown in Seattle will help Illinois in the RPI. But that’s not the reason it felt so good.

It’s not about gloating. It’s not about kicking someone when he’s down. It’s about us. The weight has lifted. It wasn’t our fault. We weren’t bad fans. It wasn’t the kids’ fault. They can do it. We’re together, and we’re going to be all right. Our national nightmare is over.

Every man an Illini.

I laughed myself to tears Saturday night. But by early Sunday afternoon, I found myself tiring of goEMAW. For one thing, I’d read it all before. I’ve written it before. The concepts were not eerily familiar, they were depressingly the same. (Hint: That’s the problem.)

Also, I like Manhattan, KS. They were good to me back in the days when I drove around the country, playing a guitar at people.

I wish all the EMAWs a bright future. We’re showing them it can be done, and how.

*Jamall Walker is already losing sleep about Phil Pressey.

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