Smile Politely

Our long national nightmare is over

Bruce Weber is comedy gold. 

Or tragedy. It depends on your perspective.

For Illini fans, Weber is now a punchline. A year removed, the heartbreak mending, Illini fans can joke about Weber like most divorcés do… after a loooong healing process.

Illinois opened its basketball season with an 80-63 (or was it 64?) win over Alabama State. Some fans wanted to analyze the game. But more were analyzing a different game. Weber’s Kansas State team lost its home opener to Northern Colorado, of the Big Sky conference.

I don’t write this opening salvo as a salt in the wound exercise. I want to (continue to) point out why Weber failed at Illinois. I want to point out why John Groce succeeds.

It’s very, very simple.

Groce teaches his players to attack the basket. Weber teaches his players to run in circles. “Running in circles” is an idiom. It connotes futility. You’d think Weber would catch on.

As of November, 2013, it’s especially utilitarian to teach basket-attacking. This year’s new officiating guidelines reward offensive penetration. They protect ball-handlers.

2013  is the worst time to implement Bruce Weber’s theories. It’s the best time to implement John Groce’s style of play.

Friday night, Illinois shot 4-of-20 from three. but hit 59% of their two-pointers. They out-rebounded the Hornets 52-to-28.

Consider the outcome for this same team, playing this same game, but with Weber principles. No penetration. Reliance on movement and jump-shooting.

The Hornets’ zone would have killed the Illini. In Manhattan, Kansas, that’s what happened. Wildcat Will Spradling was 2-of-9 from three. At least that was better than Marcus Foster, who was 0-for-6. (Shane Southwell was 0-for-3.)

Consider Rayvonte Rice, a consensus all-stater and champion, whom Weber chose not to recruit (despite Loren Tate’s practically demanding/begging throughout 2009). Groce recruited Rice in 2009. Groce re-recruited him in 2012.

Rice rampaged through Alabama State’s defense, connecting on five lay-ups and 9-of-10 free throws, garbaging his way to 22 points.

Rice also missed four of five attempts from three. That’s probably what Weber saw.

Joe Bertrand too was a fearful garbage collector on Friday. Playing above the rim, Joe tapped offensive rebounds for points.

Apart from one highlight reel slam (assist from Jaylon Tate), Joe’s 14 points and 8 rebounds were the product of smart positioning, and opportunism.

Nnanna Egwu had 10 and 10. His position coach, Dustin Ford, said the coaching staff has decided to let Nnanna be Nnanna.

That means he’ll be a forward playing center. He’ll rely on his fade-away. He won’t post up as much as you might expect.

In other words, it’s square pegs in square holes. This Illini staff recognizes its players for what they are.

I hope Mike Tisdale is not crying somewhere. I hope Richard Semrau is not thinking god damn it, why did I play for that guy.

At the end of his postgame press conference, I asked Groce a question unrelated to basketball. If he were a bullshitter, he would have been completely unprepared.

He’s not a bullshitter.

Groce and his wife participated in Friday’s ground breaking ceremony, in Urbana, where the College of Applied Health Sciences plans to build a center for wounded veterans. It’s part of the overall Illinois mission to provide educational opportunities to the differently capable.

Judge for yourself, but I’m satisfied that Groce was—off the cuff—completely conversant with the program and its mission. He gets it. He believes in it. It wasn’t for publicity.

When Cliff Alexander announces for Illinois next week, you will have begun to understand why.

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