Smile Politely

Pictures of people shooting free throws

I don’t know, what do you think? Was that game pure shit? A great defensive battle? Ed Hightower at his most princessly?

Illinois hit the rim once in its first four possessions, not for want of trying. They turned it over (_____) times in the first ten minutes. (I’d be more precise, but Storm Q knocked the stat board out of commission for the entire game. Suffice to say that Illini passed the ball to Nittany Lions early and often.)

One of the turnovers, a five-second call on Brandon Paul, found him muttering to referee Terry Oglesby. Oglesby’s back visibly stiffened. His cheeks visibly flushed. His jaw visibly clenched.

John Groce sat Brandon after that play. Maybe Brandon was coming out anyhow. It was a good time for him to leave. He’d already airballed three or four shots, and the game had barely begun.

So, Brandon Paul reverted to the mean. Offensively anyhow.

But he wasn’t alone. Tyler Griffey launched a 24-foot three-pointer from 21-feet. He scored one point and grabbed two rebounds in seventeen minutes.

It was January all over again.

But they won! They beat the dreaded Lion! They purloined Patrick Chambers’s bag-of-tricks, and retrieved the Deed to Illinois Basketball conveyed by Ed DeChellis.

And in a way, I love this victory more than any Illini win this decade. Everybody failed, but everybody kept trying. Each player redeemed his mate’s mistake.

John Groce again credited Brandon for a superior performance, and immediately people began thinking oh, it was? The man is paid a million dollars because he knows more about basketball than we do. And perhaps something about psychology as well.

Groce tried to credit each play, and each player, in his postgame presser. And that’s proper. Each of them did something critical to keep Illinois just out of reach, as Penn State bled itself to death, for a ten-minute, thirty-seven second stretch that lasted for-fucking-ever.

Nnanna Egwu’s lay-in/steal/dunk segment between 8:03 and 7:48 was, perhaps, the turning point.

Or Tracy Abrams’ critical driving lay-up with four minutes to go. That was the turning point.

Yet they were both iffy on free-throws.

I’ll just say Jesus Fucking Christ with the free-throws, and leave it at that.

No wait, I take that back. I want to say more about free-throws. Illinois improved to 64% Thursday, after hitting 53% at Northwestern. But 89% of that was DJ Richardson. The rest of the team hit 55.55%.

On both nights, multiple Illini missed pairs at a time. They missed front-ends of one-and-one three times on Thursday.

Brandon was iffy on free-throws Thursday, but we expect that now, especially given his penchant for postgame enunciations about being “a better free-throw shooter than that.” 

So now Mark Morris will have to pull out his Ouija board and figure out which team meal, over the last ten days, killed the Illini’s shooting touch. Alternatively, the coaching staff could make a qualitative study of technique.

Groce’s practices are not open to the media, so I can only infer that his shooting-technique instruction is similar to Bruce Weber’s = they don’t have it. Sam McLaurin’s free-throws exhibit a positioning of the hands/release that Gary Nottingham called The Spinning Globe. DJ’s three-point shot has always featured a right elbow slightly more to the right than convention dictates, but that elbow seems to be moving even farther to the right, just like everybody’s crazy uncle.

Toward the end of February, as the team’s focus (and talking points) shifts almost exclusively to defense, can we rightfully expect adjustments? John Groce always talks about fixing things. He says it in every postgame. But is there time? Would it help? Does a midwinter afternoon with a shooting coach confuse the shooter? 

Maybe it’s the kind of thing one learns over a month, in July. Shooting is muscle memory after all.

The rest of the game, the non-deadball moments, Penn State played fierce defense. I don’t blame the Illini for struggling on (defended) offense. It’s only the free opportunities, the result of an overly-aggressive defense, that bother me.

And in the end, the Illini hit enough freebies to keep PSU just out of reach. Contrasted with the too-recent, too-memorable collapses of recent Illini teams, I’m over the moon about this game.

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