Smile Politely

The Execution

One of these years, not recruiting a point guard will stop killing the Illini.

Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered Sunday. Maybe the Illini lose at seventh-ranked Michigan — undefeated at home, four total losses on the year, obvious NBA talent — even with a great point guard. Illinois came in as a .500 conference team. What were we expecting? Why were we expecting it?

Our fans were high, emotionally drunk as Voldemort might say, on our recent success. But it wasn’t unreasonable to believe Illinois could win at Michigan. All they had to do was everything right.

When they hit their shots to open the game, when Nnanna Egwu haphazardly tipped missed shots through the hoop, the 8-point lead further intoxicated our expectations. The first mojo-killer came with John Groce’s typical under-18 substitution. Playing seven starters, he always gets two guys in the game at the first dead ball after the 18:00 mark.

Sunday, that meant Joe Bertrand took over at point, and Tyler Griffey at power forward.


Joe couldn’t handle point guard duties against Michigan’s future pros. Tyler’s stretch four positioning opened the lane, affording the Wolverines better positioning. Or something like that. Whatever changed, it was change for the worse.

Joe clanged an open three on Illinois’ most beautiful possession of the year. It was a passing clinic. Illinois moved the ball better than they’d done since 2005. Wow it was a great possession. Until Joe clanged that three to end it. (Michigan’s SID does not keep a record of missed shots, as Illinois’ SID does. So I can’t tell you exactly when it happened. Sorry.)

Joe’s play was a little below average for him. Illinois needed him to be very good against Michigan, to have any chance of a win.


Tyler’s game was good, but not great. He was aggressive on offense. He hit half his shots (3-of-6 and 2-of-4), but grabbed only two rebounds in 18 minutes. To win at Michigan, Illinois needed Tyler to be aggressive in the lane and aggressive on the boards.

Brandon Paul was not awful. 3-for-8 (2-of-5) shooting, four rebounds, and two blocks.

He merely seemed awful. Missed passes, four turnovers, and failure to achieve that most precious of ineffable/unchartable qualifiers: the dominant takeover of a marquee match-up.

Brandon’s gaffes were occasionally useful. He drew defenders. Once drawn, these defenders were not always ideally positioned for rebounding, hedging, blocking shots. It happened in the first half. Brandon drove for a dunk over Mitch McGary. Mid-air, too far from the basket, he tomahawked the ball into the edge of the rim. A moment later, Nnanna Egwu laid the ball in. Brandon’s play looked ridiculous, but it pulled the defense from its position. In a way, Brandon’s play worked.


His worst cock-ups came at the least opportune moments. We remember game-changing moments. We remember clutch plays. We remember game-changing errors.

When Tracy Abrams stole the ball under Michigan’s basket and charged to the opposite end of the floor, everyone did everything right. The team didn’t force a shot. They set up the offense when Michigan cut off the fast break. They passed the ball from corner to wing, to paint. And then Brandon got it. He immediately turned around and handed it to any of four waiting Wolverines. There was no Illini in sight.

We boggled.

For Illinois to beat Michigan, we needed Brandon to be spectacular.

Tracy bulldogged his way through the forests of Michigan on multiple occasions. One admires his chutzpah. His percentages weren’t as good. 4-of-11 looks much better if one excises the 0-for-3 from the arc. But one assist to three turnovers cannot be qualified with a conciliating companion statistic. It’s more subjective than that.

In my opinion, Tracy’s performance was excellent, but not perfect. Sunday required a perfect performance from Tracy.

DJ Richardson missed 3-of-5 three pointers, and made three turnovers. To win, Illinois needed 4-of-5, and zero turns.

Sam McLaurin grabbed two rebounds in 22 minutes. Illinois needed six rebounds from Sam.


These are the little things, the punctuation points of execution, where Illinois failed to cross T’s and dot I’s.

Trey Burke’s 26 points and 8 assists (one turnover) were impressive, but not insurmountable. And that’s why Illini fans were so upset Sunday afternoon.

Tomorrow is Tuesday, the best day of the week. Everyone will have had a good night’s sleep. We’ll already find ourselves knee-deep in soft-lens memorializing of DJ and Brandon’s careers as they approach their last game in Champaign.

We’ll beat Nebraska. We’ll play in the NCAA tournament. We won’t remember the game at Michigan. It’s not very important in the big picture. John Groce is recruiting ball-handlers. You’re going to be all right.

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