Smile Politely


The Elephant in the Room? The Mouse that Roared?

It’s becoming difficult to overlook the fact that among five freshman, it’s the also-ran who’s launched himself into the rotation conversation, perhaps the starting line-up.

Jaylon Tate Reggie Woodward.

Jaylon Tate doesn’t exactly equal Kevin Turner either, but that’s the better analogy. Woodward was Efrem Winters’ high school buddy at Chicago King. For four years, Reggie kept Efrem company, watching from the Illini bench, while enjoying a free education.

Turner was thought to be that guy, too. When Lou Henson landed Bryant Notree, a Simeon leaper, Turner was the side of fries.

Graying Illini fans recall that Notree transferred to UIC. Turner was the star (emphasis is required here; THE star) of the 1998 Big Ten Champions.

Jaylon Tate was the also-ran of the 2013 Illini recruiting class. Now, he’s running the Illini offense. Like a machine.

Jaylon Tate’s movement is disjointed, herky-jerky. You’d never label him as fluid, or (dare I say it) poetry in motion. But whoa, does he ever get the job done. It may be that Illinois basketball hasn’t seen a True Point Guard since The Deron. And frankly, Jaylon Tate is more True.

Jaylon’s court vision, his quick passes and his alley-oops are the talking points of the Illini basketball season, thus far.

Here’s what John Groce said when I asked him whether Jaylon’s performance surprised the basketball staff as much as it pleased the general public:

No one is disrespecting Tracy Abrams by saying it. Within the team, the poorly kept secret is already acknowledged: The offense runs faster, and better with Jaylon at the point.

Tracy did great work at the shooting guard position. He was a beneficiary of Tate’s performance. Tracy also acquitted himself at the point. Abrams and Tate tied for most minutes played at 25.

Here’s what John Groce said about Tracy, following the Jax St. game:

[[mp3 john_groce_defends_tracy_abrams]]

For those wondering about Joe Bertrand, the answer came tonight. And the answer, again, was “Jaylon Tate.”

Joe doesn’t yell. He doesn’t thump his chest.

He’s a shy guy with incredible athletic ability. And when someone throws a lob in the air, Joe slams it through the hoop. When a teammate misses a shot, Joe slams that through the hoop, too.

If you didn’t see the game, know that five Illini scored double figures. Nnanna had 10 and 7 with five blocks. Joe scored 20, and grabbed 10 boards. Ray and Tracy scored 13 each.

And Jax St. out-rebounded the Illini by 44-to-37.

John Groce got really pissed off about “loose balls” on Sunday. “Loose balls” is not a term that describes the typical Politely Smiling reader’s understanding of those words. It refers to a basketball which no one holds. The “loose ball” is typically found rolling on the basketball court’s hardwood floor, unpossessed.

Groce blew a gasket about loose balls on Sunday. He exploded on the sideline, yelling at his team in frustration. By the time he spoke to the media, he’d cooled down considerably, and was more philosophical about the loose balls. He said he’d “take a look” at video, to see what could be done about it. My take was that, in many cases, “shit happens.”  Illini players were simply not in the area when balls came loose.

Two games is still a small sample size. But we’re starting to see some patterns. Jaylon at point. Joe cleaning up. Rayvonte knocking people over.

This team is fun to watch. It’s more fun to watch than any Illini team in recent memory, including last year’s.

Whatever happens, let’s enjoy it.

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