Smile Politely

What’s with all the hubbub?

Obviously, I reacted to the Northwestern loss differently than anyone else with internet access.

To my mind, the Georgia Tech loss was much worse. The Oregon game was very bad, too.

I didn’t see anything atrocious about the Illini offense at Northwestern, except for that fundamental ball-through-hoop aspect. 

The shots just didn’t go in. It was almost Twilight Zone weird how lid-on-the-basket things got.

A couple of threes went halfway down before corkscrewing their way back up. It’s just physics. Same with some of the lay-ups. They bounced out. It happens. On most nights, it happens at a fairly predictable frequency, with a contrasting frequency of not-happening.

Something very unlikely happened on Sunday evening. On Sunday, it happened every time. The tricky thing about likelihood is the anomaly, always there, ready to pounce.

I’ve been reading about this Illini offense, on the message boards, in the papers. It’s either awful or non-existent, they say. Their arguments seem strongly … argued.

I guess I’m just too stupid to understand the finer points. I see, in this Illini offense, a lot of driving and kicking. I see a lot of driving without kicking. Thus, I’ve seen a lot of open shots from distance, and a lot of contested shots near the basket.

I’m very excited to watch this aggressive/elegant style of play. I remember a time when Illini “offense” consisted of dribble, dribble, dribble — pass around the arc — dribble, dribble, dribble — 6, 5, 4, 3 — dribble, dribble — chuck a shot!

I couldn’t help but think of a different January night at Welsh-Ryan.

Four years ago, I witnessed the End of Bruce Weber. Well, it should have been his end anyhow. We all had our own moments of clarity about Bruce Weber, and January 23rd, 2010 was mine.

After his own inglorious loss at Evanston, Weber delivered the best passive-aggressive player trashing I’ve ever heard.

Sure, the Purdue presser gets all the attention. I guess that’s because it was video, not audio. Also, the fan base was exhausted by 2012, while in 2010, some of them still thought Jereme Richmond was going to Fix Everything.

Sunday evening, John Groce did not blame the teenagers. He said “I’ve never taken a guy out for missing a shot in six years. I might take him out for not diving on a loose ball, or — you know — blowin’ a play-call or somethin’ …

“They should be loose. We’ve always been a ‘let ‘er rip’ organization.”

Think back a few years, when the then Illini coach moaned, groaned or sometimes even shouted “nooooo!” when a player launched a shot. Contemplate that awful offense you had to watch.

I’m not saying John Groce is your personal savior. Maybe he’s not the answer. But if John Groce doesn’t land five-star recruits, compete for conference championships and make deep runs in the tournament; we’ll fire him too. It’s not that big a deal.

Groce likes to deal with dirty, grimy reality. Warts and all kinda stuff. I’m happy to meet him on that level, for better or getting fired.

John Groce is not light years removed from Weber as a personality. Groce says his wife described him as “awkward & dorky,” and that seems apt. 

He rarely departs from coachspeak. He’s always “on” so I have no idea whether his interpersonal dynamic is actually … dynamic. If John Groce has another gear, I’ve not seen it.

But I learned something else about John Groce last week. I learned it from Heather, with whom I share a roof (among other things).

Heather has been assisting with the press coverage (read: holding a point-n-shoot video camera while people are talking) in recent games. She’s a kindergarten teacher.

John Groce frequently references his teaching days, but that means little to us outsiders. Heather didn’t know Groce was a teacher, but she observed (and approved) his methods on various occasions. Twice Groce consoled/instructed Austin Colbert, following Colbert faux pas. Heather thought Austin was on the verge of tears.

She especially noticed the way Groce handles (physically, with hands) his players.

She observed the way he interacts with his own sons.

She likes that “he’s willing to be kind of nerdy” and feels unabashed about it. She likes “that he models the behaviors he wants in them. He’s really positive. He doesn’t blame the boys.”

It’s not like Bill Self or John Calipari. Those guys are cool. Perhaps it’s important to them to cultivate an aura of coolness. Maybe it’s natural. Maybe it’s contrived.

John Groce is none of that, either way. Perhaps he’s allowing the not-married, not-fortysomething dudes to be the Alphas. It makes sense, as they’re the ones who’ll, inevitably, be called upon to put that ball through that hoop.

Sometimes, it takes a child’s observation to crystalize a perspective. Children have no filters. They observe and report.

Middle-aged to elderly men (the demographic of message board melters-down) might learn from this clarity.

Nojel Eastern is not exactly a child. But in the grand scheme of things, he’s very young. Unusually tall and dexterous for a freshman in high school, he’s caught the attention of the graying men who coach Division I basketball.

After Illinois’ 15-point first half at Welsh-Ryan Arena, Nojel correctly observed that Illinois’ offense clicked fairly well. The only problem was that lid on the rim.

Nojel was one of many prospects in the gym. I spoke to another, because he’s Demetri McCamey’s kid brother.

Hey, it’s Tuesday. The best day of the week. Coffee is still strong. Women are still beautiful. It’s a bright, crisp day.  And if history teaches us anything, the Illini men will beat a top 5 team — in Max Abramovitz’s space ship — within the next seven games.

Cheer up already.

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