Smile Politely

Smart People

Hard workers, good character, good work ethic, good families — these are concepts you’ve heard about recently regarding Illini basketball. Lately, they’ve been cited as advantages, not shortcomings.

Bruce Weber specifically cited the families of The Four when he announced their signing on November 11. Weber looks to personal integrity when assessing athletes. But The Four are our future. It could be that the best guy ever to don the uniform is here, right now. He has his priorities straight. He will not stop working. He will come at you. You can knock him down, but he will rise again. To stop him, you may have to kill him. And even then, don’t be so sure. He may rise again.

Chester Frazier will be with us for only a few more months, as far as you know. You should be horrified. Like Kenny Battle, Roger Powell and “Otis,” Chester Frazier is powered by a spirit incalculable by contemporary scientific means. He plays beyond his abilities, and without regard for pain. You cannot stop him. He is a machine.

Chester Frazier is among the most important figures in Illini basketball history. Chester Frazier is one of the most important people in the concept of sports. Hyperbole? Not these days, unfortunately.

Here, you have a guy who came from nothing. He worked, worked, worked. He used what talent he has. He applied the remarkable gift that you might not ascribe to a kid from the toughest part of inner Baltimore: his brain. He is right now on the verge of that rare transformation: The American Dream.

I tear up, and get chills, when I think of the American Dream as it is properly dreamed. This is the antithesis of the cold chill in my spine that comes from that post-9/11 enforced patriotism — the extra song in the 7th inning, the military plane flyovers, et cetera.

Chester Frazier is on the verge of fulfilling that promise. And although there are a handful of internet tough guys still bemoaning his play, there are also a quiet thousand standing steadfast behind him, waiting to ensure that he if he ever stumbles, he never falls.

Heather did photog for the first couple of Illini games this year. After one, we went for Mexican with Paul Klee, a total chum whom Heather is trying to set up with every single one of her friends when she’s not swooning over him herself. (No worries, it’s charming.) The thing that Paul tried to impress upon me, as a “new” basketball reporter, was the significance of the concept of Chester Frazier.

Heather queried, “What about Dee Brown?”

“A showman,” I replied. And that’s not an insult. After all, where would Dee be without his personality? It’s half of his business equation. It works for him, and he represents Illinois well.

But Chester Frazier is the person for whom you can feel tearfully, patriotically thankful. He embodies all that is good. Really. I don’t mean that in just an afternoon magazine kind of way. For example, he was not gushing and charming to me last week as I asked about the team’s fast start. He was guarded. He didn’t trust me. Admittedly, I dress like a freak, and I ask weird questions. But if Chester were thinking only of Chester, he wouldn’t really notice me. He’d be thinking about himself. It’s not his nature.

It’s difficult to get him to talk about himself. For example, what will he do when his eligibility is up? He’s a shoe-in for a position on the staff side of the game. But you’d have to amputate a limb before he might consider his playing days over.

What are the alternatives to Chester Frazier? What if …


The LewJack “haunting” begins this year. It’s a great example of the Weber philosophy, I think. I may be projecting, but what I saw from 5-foot-9 Lewis Jackson as an AAU/high school performer was a mouthy, thuggish pipsqueak. What’s more, posted web video made him out to be a shoot-first point guard. So I’ll let others deconstruct his talents. This Illini team talks about attitudes more than talents. As in, “we have a better attitude this year.”

Sherron Collins singlehandly lost Kansas’ game with Syracuse last week. I mean singlehandedly. Had he even shared the ball with his left hand, then Kansas still might have pulled it out. You can see it for yourself if you have access to Collins tried to do it all himself, and occasionally failed to garner iron.

Frank Williams was the same way at Illinois: The Duke game in 1999, the Maryland game a few days later. “Frank tried to do it all himself” is a nice way of putting it. “Ballhog” is not nice, and more accurate.

Patrick Beverley clamored for an Illini scholarship. Myopic fans clamored for him. Bruce Weber didn’t budge. The story goes that Beverley wouldn’t submit his high school transcripts. Most colleges and universities require them for admission. Beverley is not exactly a point guard, and he’s not exactly college material. He couldn’t even make grades at Arkansas. But in proving that booksmarts is not allsmarts, Beverley went to the Ukraine, where the women are warm, the vodka is warming and the thermonuclear accident zones are hot! We might have liked his scoring last year, but for our growing sense of institutional integrity, a Beverley scholarship would have hurt.


It’s December, when visions of sugar plums no longer dance in anyone’s head, because no one knows what a sugar plum looks like. Instead, fantastical notions of a coming savior perpetuate themselves.

‘Round these parts, his name is Alex Legion (right).

Dullards project added bench time for various of the players who got Illinois to 6–0, because Legion will take all the minutes, possibly curing cancer in the bargain. These are the same dullards who predicted transfers for Calvin Brock and Richard Semrau. I have news for them: Chester Frazier will get the most minutes of anybody on the team. He is the MVP. This team goes as far as Chester’s back has strength to carry it. Brock and Semrau can write their own ticket. However many minutes they want; defense, screening, and rebounds will take them there.

Dominique Keller is in the same boat, theoretically. But his five minutes Saturday ended when he failed to find his position on consecutive trips down the floor. Keller garnered two boards, but he was never in the right place. When he does find the right place, he’s hard to contain. But the grenade must land in the adversary’s foxhole. Otherwise, it’s just a loud pop.


The two South Padre games featured more similarities than the box score might indicate. Mike Tisdale was the hero at the end of both contests. He tried to establish low post position at the beginning of both games. And his overall performance in the two games must be rated no higher than “fair” if also “encouraging.”

After the Kent game, which Illinois won in overtime, 69–63, Bruce Weber said of Tisdale: “He tends to do better against bigger centers because quickness bothers him.” This is a nearly true statement. Tisdale does best against centers who are both smaller and slower. He does especially well against opposition which has no arms, and club feet.

Kent has strong arms. And they strong-armed Tisdale throughout. They also strong-armed Frazier to the ground. As usual, he bounced right back up and drilled two free-throws. But it was at this point that many of us realized that Kent was making us, Chester excepted, look like a bunch of pussies.

It worked, too. We played to our weaknesses. Illinois shot only 74% from the charity stripe. That’s still not good enough. If you fail on one of four trips to the line, you lose; 80% and up should be the goal. A slightly deeper analysis shows that point guards were perfect from the line. That’s hugely important for end-of-game situations. But the bigs missed 30% of the time, and it’s your power forward and center who should be getting most of the free-throws throughout a game.

The Kent game looked like what many people expected at the beginning of the season — occasional flashes of competence, rather than extended flashes of greatness. The Illini will continue to get pushed around (or “punked” as Kent’s Geno Ford called it) until we’ve proven that it doesn’t work. And maybe this team will prove that it doesn’t work. The Mikes, Davis and Tisdale, are the scorers. They are the skinny guys. But so far, they are undefeated, and unflinching.

Frazier took a first-half charge that slid him 15 feet across the floor. This was immediately after being tackled to the floor. He went three rows deep saving a vital possession late in the second half. He attacked the basket for an un-Frazierlike reverse lay-up at 9:15 in the second half. He made a gorgeous lob to Tisdale after drawing the defense to the arc. He was everywhere, and this may have been his finest game.

Having a different scoring leader every time out makes this team hard to scout. I’d like to see the starting line-up change from game to game, based on match-ups rather than tradition.


Despite the four-point final margin for the Illini, Illinois and Tulsa both lost, and Tulsa lost worse. The Illini shot 40% from free points, 0% from 3-points and lost the rebound battle 38–33. For Tulsa, Ben Uzoh shot 0-for-7 from three, and that was the ballgame.

Illinois played as if they’d just run a marathon. Shots came up short. So did passes. The last possession of the first half was disgraceful. Same at the end of the game. With 2:30 to go and the game tied, Illinois deflated the ball. They ran 34.8 seconds off the shot clock, and Frazier was forced to vomit a piece of masonry towards the rim, nearly shattering the backboard.

Tulsa was tired, too. It was an ugly game. So why’d we win? Here are some things we did right:

At the opening, Mike Tisdale sought to silence his critics. He positioned himself a key offensive rebound in the early going. Moments later, he was in position for a key defensive rebound. Somebody’s been talking to him. Evidently, he’s listening.

Calvin Brock mainlined adrenaline into a sagging team midway through the first half. “Bouncy” ignited a spark with an aggressive drive to the basket (+1). Moments later, he hit for a two. And a minute after that, he dished to Semrau underneath for an easy bucket. Semrau, as the previous sentence implies, finished. On successive touches he also finished. Finally shedding his early-season skittishness, Semrau became The Guy Who Gets Things Done under the basket. His footwork is good. He can move people. He rebounds.

Tisdale and Semrau played together in the second half. That’s unusual. And in one sense, it worked. Tulsa didn’t score until the 14:39 mark. On the other hand, Illinois still couldn’t buy an offensive board. Both guys somehow found themselves in the high-post when shots went up.

On defense, Tulsa redshirt Freshman Steve Idlet lost them both, and Mike Davis, whenever he got the ball.

Trent Meacham displayed near freakish athleticism as he again (twice!) took taller Tulsa players to the hole for buckets. (He missed a free-throw that would have capped a three-point play on one of them.) Meacham (again!) took one in the nuts for the team; this time he was called for blocking, but it’s the thoughtlessness that counts. Gary Nottingham keeps a “play hard chart” for such sacrificial play. I keep an internal Altenberger Rating.

One man’s gain (Legion, Semrau, Brock) is not another man’s loss (Frazier, Tisdale, Meacham). The worn out paradigm holds that Weber must shave his rotation to eight players. This is the disproven theory of Mercantilism — that wealth is finite. In fact, the bigger the economy of offensive & defensive efficiency, the better the columns for all the guys.

Jeff Jordan displays toughness and defensive energy whenever he’s in. Brock can rebound with anybody. Even Billy Cole can play his way in from the end of the bench, as soon as his Antarctic shooting touch warms up. In fact, Brock and Cole might be the secret keys to the team, because Cole too has a nose for rebounds, and Brock also has a soft touch from outside. Turpin & Tate still seem to think that Cole is fighting for minutes at the 4 spot, and in one sense they’re correct. If Cole can rebound, he will find the floor.

It’s not insane to think that all of these guys can make major contributions, so long as you can disabuse yourself of the eight-man theory. While you’re at it, throw out the old idea “starting five.” Bruce Weber holds on to it like a religion, but he’s displayed a nimble mind lately. As I said, it would be nice to see starting fives based on match-ups, and contemporary performance, rather than tradition. It would also make the Illini even more difficult to scout.


I don’t predict the future. I can’t begin to guess what’s going to happen between these two undefeated teams tomorrow night in the ACC-Big Ten Walloping … I mean “Challenge.” But I think Illinois has a reasonable chance of winning.

Ken Pomeroy rates Clemson exactly twice as highly as the Illini. This is the Pomeroy rating, not RPI. The RPI is dead. And the rating doesn’t pretend to know much at this early point in the season. But it will tell us that Clemson’s best opponent (Temple) is rated two spots lower than our best opponent (Vanderbilt). The Tigers win over Charlotte raises fewer brows when one realizes that Charlotte now trails Illini-vanquished Eastern Washington in the Pomeroy index.

The polls have the Tigers at 31 (media) and 39 (coaches). To varying degrees, these people are also pulling these numbers out of their asses. But Clemson and Illinois have played enough games to give us an idea of what we’ll see. For one thing, the Tigers have shot well, hitting half their field goals, and 40% from beyond the arc. They launch about 18 treys per game, to the Illini’s 13, which could pose a problem. Illinois can’t defend the three for shit. Every team this season has had plenty of open looks. The Illini’s only defense for kick-outs has been fervent hoping that the other team will miss. So far, it’s worked well enough.

Interior defense is another story. Illinois has been strong inside. But Clemson shows no preference for where — or how — they score. The balance of scoring among their starters is almost shocking. They average 9, 10, 11, 14 and 14 points. One of those 14s is junior forward Trevor Booker, who hits 55% of his shots. The other is sophomore guard Terrence Oglesby, who hits threes at a rate of 48%.

One thing that’s easier to predict: More people will be attending Illini games from here on out. If you don’t have tickets yet, look into it=. On that note, two bench tickets could be yours, if the price is right.

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