By Bill Liesse
Photos by Blake Stubbs/Greenroom Photography (greenroom-photo.com)
By Bill Liesse
Photos by Blake Stubbs/Greenroom Photography (greenroom-photo.com)
If you had to pick a local venue for the regional community-theater premier of Les Miserables, Eastlight would be it.
The technical superiority of the operation housed inside East Peoria High School is consistent and sometimes vast. While Corn Stock is the only site to offer theater in the round, Eastlight does not battle the limitations of CST’s outdoor space. While Peoria Players’ stage has great height and depth (and that fun trap door which PPT often uses well), the high school’s perfectly proportioned auditorium is more comfortable and offers more bells and whistles.
Mostly, though, Eastlight has Steve Cordle. The technical director behind every show east of the river, Cordle is tireless, extremely talented and thinks big. And few shows require one to think bigger than Les Mis, the epic’s epic, the most successful show in the history of Broadway and the West End by a number of definitions.
Eastlight took on this daunting endeavour (English spelling, thank you) starting June 22. The first weekend continues with a Saturday night show and a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee. The run picks up with 7:30 p.m. shows Wednesday through Saturday, June 27-30.
Seven performances. You’ll probably wish there were more.
Your author and his wife were privileged to attend a sneak preview of the final dress rehearsal on Thursday. The overwhelming takeaway was “What voices!” In a world in which you may choose among myriad renditions of this classic at your local record store, you’d be delighted to have this company on CD in your car for as long as cars still come with disc players.
The sheer pull of the show surely attracted massive talent to auditions for this regional premier. But by employing the always-smiling, universally liked Robin Hunt to be director, Eastlight ensured its talent conglomeration would be all it could be.
Hunt unveils a delicious mix of old reliables — honestly, who within 100 miles should be Madame Thenardier but Barb Couri? — and standouts new to our community. The latter classification includes no less than the show’s Fantine (Mary Kate Smith) and Eponine (Stephanie Myre), each making their Eastlight debut.
Smith, a Petersburg native who boasts a terrific Mary Magdalene at Springfield Muni’s Jesus Christ Superstar among her credits, started out a little quiet in “End of the Day” on Thursday but ultimately acted and sang her tragic part with great passion. Her dying scene was crafted exquisitely by Hunt.
Few characters in the history of the stage make you like them as much as Eponine, and Myre is an impeccable choice in this regard. A veteran of professional work in Chicago (as well as one of several voice teachers among this cast), Myre nails the show-stopping “On My Own” and offers stage movement of great grace while others’ is sometimes clunky.
Another of the vocal teachers is Jason Morris, who plays Javert. However Hunt unearthed him, Germantown Hills resident (and father of six) Morris regales us with first-class pipes and Javert’s requisite spite … after a 20-year hiatus from local stages. Few things are better than deeply talented, local residents being coerced to get back out there and remove the bushel from atop their bright light.
At the risk of going over more of key characters and turning this preview into a review, let’s skip ahead to Jean Valjean.
Roger Roemer, a likeable big guy who is physically perfect for the part, was an excellent thieving Valjean early and executed
the bedside clash with Javert so well it was almost frightening (another feather in Hunt’s cap).
Roemer did strike me as perhaps having more of a “this is only rehearsal” approach than some during the middle of the show. Then came “Bring Him Home.” A song of heartstopping beauty, it tends to separate the wheat from the chaff among the brave men who presume to play this most demanding of lead roles.
Roemer killed it. Sensitive, beautifully paced … I can’t even keep my eyes dry writing about it a day later. The seminal moment of the evening for me. It took this Les Mis from a tad passionless — one can guess the all-but-empty theater didn’t help — to the emotional boxing match that it is.
My family will go back in part to see Jarod Hazzard perform his nice Marius. In part to further examine the wall-to-wall barricade for which Cordle’s team painstakingly acquired and placed items thrown out by EP residents over five-plus years of junk-removal days. Also, to see the nicely blocked and beautifully sung “Heart Full of Love.”
An aside on how big Cordle thinks: We see the other side of the barricade. Professional tours of this show don’t even aspire to such dimension. Spinning the middle portion of the three-part barricade on the stage’s renowned turntable, we get to actually see Gavroche climb down and pick the pockets of fallen soldiers from the opposition. When Enjolras dies over the barricade, he actually dies over the barricade, giant red flag and all.
Whatever your reasons or favorite parts of this almost unimaginably excellent work, you should go. For me, it’s enough knowing a “Bring Him Home” that precious is filling the air within minutes of my house. It’d be wrong to miss it.
Joe Ricketts’ political action plans should give us all a greater appreciation of John McCain.
Ricketts unwittingly rocked the political world Thursday when the New York Times revealed his super PAC’s plans to effectively sabotage the Democratic National Convention in September. At the center of the plan – yet to be finalized and ultimately subject to Ricketts’ approval – are television ads revisiting President Obama’s relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
It’s virtually impossible to count the strategic holes in “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good.” Let’s just say the Chicago Cubs’ bullpen looks like a Wrigley Field brick wall by comparison.
Ricketts, of course, is the patriarch of the family that owns the Cubs. That the family includes daughter Laura, a key fund-raising figure in the Obama reelection campaign, is but a small irony here. A seeing-eye single amid a barrage of extra-base inconsistencies and hypocritical home runs.
The big blow, of course, is that Ricketts is going after Chicago’s favorite son while his family asks Chicagoans to pony up for improvements to Wrigley. Crain’s Chicago Business’s Greg Hinz outlined the project’s costs, and the family’s bond and tax-break requests, late last month.
No, you’re not confusing things. The Ricketts family wants you to help fix Wrigley, and to do so needs the blessing of former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. And the family patriarch has a super PAC called Ending Spending Action Fund, and its proposal says, effectively, America doesn’t hate Obama enough.
According to Thursday’s Times story, the 53-page document “lament(s) that voters ‘still aren’t ready to hate this president,’ “ and Ricketts is upset with McCain for nixing an inflammatory Wright ad in 2008. “If the nation had seen that ad,” the Times quotes Ricketts as saying in the proposal, “they’d never have elected Barack Obama.”
Lest we conclude that Ricketts is this wantonly tone-deaf or arrogant, he did react quickly Thursday to the massive strategic blunder that is this document’s leak. Ricketts retreated via a statement from his camp that said, in part, “(this proposal) reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects.”
The statement concluded that the idea to run the Rev. Wright ads has been rejected.
In fact, statements are flying around everywhere and Emanuel is none too pleased. Hinz again.
Which brings us back to McCain. Maybe the 2008 Republican nominee isn’t “a crusty old politician who often seemed confused,” as the super PAC’s attack plan indicated.
Maybe the longtime Arizona senator had the foresight and political acumen to know what it took an embarrassing leak for Ricketts to see: That attacks on character, on either side, do little but lather up voters you already have locked up. And they can be counter-effective by causing resentment among those of us in the forgotten political middle.
And just maybe, the nation’s interests were better served before the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which overturned much of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Bill.
Because maybe unfettered spending by the founder and former CEO of TD Ameritrade has more to do with enabling the privatization of Social Security than it has to do with Jeremiah Wright’s views on race, much less Barack Obama’s.
When Mike and Jenny Thomas were transitioning to Champaign-Urbana from Cincinnati, Lou Henson put them up in his house.
When a vacancy developed in the basketball-coaching seat from which Henson amassed the most wins in University of Illinois history, Lou had an outside-the-box suggestion to Thomas as to who should fill it.
Thomas never interviewed that candidate.
What Thomas has done has been a hiring circus of historic proportions. The Bears’ “hiring” of Dave McGinnis will look as smooth as an NHL sheet of ice by comparison.
So badly has Thomas crashed that the university arranged for a 3 p.m. press conference Tuesday to announce John Groce as coach and booked a flight to get Groce to Champaign from Athens, Ohio. Then had to call off said presser and flight when the day started shrinking and the Board of Trustees started rumbling.
Whether Thomas should have hired Reggie Theus is a matter of rather lively debate. We can agree that in better times, Illinois would have no need to turn to Theus, who is developing a persona of “the perpetual candidate” as he continues to try unsuccessfully to return to a college game in which he coached five years (2002-07), the first three under Rick Pitino at Louisville and the latter two as head man at New Mexico State.
How Thomas can look Henson in the eyes upon returning the keys and say that nothing could have come of a Theus interview? Well, that will be his problem. If he tries to con Henson by talking about the token moves that were made — a short phone interview between Theus and Thomas’ assistant; a phone call to ask a former employer about Theus (in which the review was glowing) after Thomas had reached out and essentially decided on John Groce — you can rest assured Henson won’t be fooled.
Also not fooled by those shady, cover-your-tracks maneuvers will be the BOT, as mentioned, as well as the greater Chicago amateur basketball scene. Overcharacterized as (take your pick) crooks, boycotters, a single voice, bad coaches, etc., these mostly African-American coaches and AAU personnel know a diversity sham when they see one.
The reality is Thomas made a run at one coach of mixed race, Shaka Smart, apparently leaked that reality for what many consider to be trustees-appeasement reasons, then concentrated on a string of white guys.
News reports provide a list of other African-American candidates as if to indicate Thomas worked tirelessly to remove Illinois from its embarrassing role as the rare BCS-conference school with zero coaches of color in its revenue-sports history. They mention Lorenzo Romar, who has been known to not be moving from Washington this late in his career. They did the same with Leonard Hamilton of Florida State, who is even older.
They even were clueless enough to mention Anthony Grant. Grant’s associate head coach at Alabama is Dan Hipsher, who was fired at Akron by one Mike Thomas in a move of maximum bitterness. It’d be a cold day in 2012 before Grant would have anything to do with Thomas.
We are not here to say Illinois had to hire an African-American coach. That kind of limitation is nonsense in any search.
We are here to question a search that landed on the latest mid-major white guy with a spotty record when an African-American with an equally impressive resume was ready to interview and never got the courtesy of that interview. At a time the program badly needed to be spiced up, Thomas provided brown sauce on beige food.
Basically, Thomas listened to a search firm from Atlanta but not his own constituency. The search-firm method is popular for all the wrong reasons, driven by plausible deniability. Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart get to say “I haven’t talked to anyone from Illinois” and blah, blah.
What it prevents is Thomas getting in a room with one of those home-run hires and actually putting Illinois’ best foot forward. He could play a video of how crazy the Assembly Hall was a few short years ago, play audio of Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale calling the Orange Krush unmatched and the atmosphere being as good as there is in the country. He could point out Illinois is the winningest program in the nation’s historically co-best league (with the ACC). He could offer testimonials about the job (Seth Davis saying it is among the top few). He could assuage fears of the change in U of I presidents by talking about how universally liked Bob Easter is. He could point to CAA champ Drexel’s exclusion from the NCAA tournament or Butler not even getting an NIT call.
Did any of that happen? We’re left to doubt it.
The bad form out of the AD portends many gloomy days ahead as Illinois tries to recruit its own state. While Groce might earn the favor of Tai Streets’ Meanstreets AAU program, from which Ohio standout D.J. Cooper was launched, it likely will be a long, long time before Groce is accepted by the Chicago Fire. The Illinois Wolves, from which so many current Illini came, fall somewhere between. To say Fire chief Michael Irvin is upset about these developments is like saying one-time Groce recruiting coup Greg Oden has been known to get hurt from time to time.
In other words, Mike Thomas has found a way to alienate the University of Illinois from the robust recruiting classes of 2013 and 2014 in Chicago and the rest of Illinois. Sources say prize recruit Malcolm Hill is as good as gone.
He has found a coach who inexplicably has lost about half his games in a mess of a league that includes annual 20-loss programs Toledo, Northern Illinois, Central Michigan, Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Ball State, Miami … pretty much all but Akron, Buffalo and Kent State. By doing that, Thomas has all but assured his interim head coach, Jerrance Howard, will leave his alma mater.
That in turn calls into question the verbal commitments of 2013 standouts Hill and Jalen James. It essentially ensures current center Meyers Leonard will leave for the NBA, a decision that was not the fait accompli that the Illini’s hometown press has made you believe all season with its relentless references to Leonard’s lottery status (which, in reality, is shaky).
Whether any or all of the incoming sophomores transfer out remains to be seen. It is feared Tracy Abrams will leave when Howard does, and that Mike Shaw and Myke Henry might follow. But those things are always said before the new coach gets a chance to talk to his new kids. A great deal of persuasion tends to take place in those meetings.
Any kind of legitimate research by Thomas of his actual constituency and playing field at Illinois would have told him that a Theus hire spelled extreme acceptance by Chicago, the best chance at retaining Leonard, the best chance at retaining Howard (short of a Buzz Williams coup), the best chance of James and Hill staying aboard, the best chance at major hauls in 2013 and 2014, the best chance of exciting revered alums in the media business, Kendall Gill and Stephen Bardo … and thus the best chance to be really good really soon.
Thomas was too smart for all that. He acted without Henson’s input. Outside of the recommendations of Jerry Sloan, Rick Pitino and the aforementioned alumni. Instead, he found himself another MAC coach after underwhelming the world by going to that league for his football coach.
At least the MAC has a nice history of producing football coaching stars. It is utterly devoid of that history on the hardwood.
John Groce, your table is ready. Nobody from your new school is sitting at it, but it’s ready nonetheless.
Mike Thomas, it’s pretty simple.
You have a chance to go from this:
Has a program that needs an image makeover ever been presented with such a tailor-made opportunity?
I know you have been slow to warm up to the idea of Reggie Theus, Mike. Your fan base has been, too.
Let Reggie take care of the latter part. By the time the introductory press conference is over, this lifelong playa will have the Illini world in a frenzy. When the university’s all-time wins leader, Lou Henson, offers his reasons why Reggie is the answer, they will echo loud and true.
You see, Lou isn’t a guy trying to promote a former assistant, admirable as those motivations can sometimes be. Lou simply wants the best for Illinois basketball. Having seen Theus take Lou’s other love, New Mexico State, from Henson himself in 2005 and turn the Aggies around dramatically, Lou saw Reggie’s good coaching firsthand.
It was an admirable thing Coach Henson did, guiding the Aggies for $1 a year in the wake of Neil McCarthy’s mess. But Henson’s health issues and other factors took NMSU off the rails, to the tune of six wins the year the Illini were amassing 37.
Theus, fresh off Rick Pitino’s staff at that same St. Louis Final Four, coaxed a 16-14 season out of NMSU in Year 1. He was up to 25 wins and an NCAA bid in Year 2. Then the NBA called. Well, sort of the NBA. It was Sacramento, with a roster roughly equivalent to Florida’s at the time. Theus ostensibly failed with the Kings, despite improving them compared to the year before he arrived. He didn’t survive a second season there, like so many NBA coaches don’t.
But enough of the history lesson, anyway.
What Theus means to Illinois is tangible, immediate and exactly what the doctor ordered.
Start with Jabari Parker, who will take his place alongside Derek Harper and Marcus Liberty as the biggest recruiting coups the school has seen. Theus isn’t a lock to snare Jabari, but having known Sonny Parker since the days of their summer games 30 years ago, he’s as close as it gets. (The one lock is that Illinois, without Theus, won’t sniff Parker’s services.)
Next step: An hour in the office with Meyers Leonard, telling him what he might well know, deep down, and what is true. It goes something like this:
“Meyers, you’re too unique of a talent to crawl into the league unsure of yourself, a 50/50 proposition to ever sign a second contract. Does Patrick O’Bryant ring a bell? Didn’t think so. NBA execs told him he’d be lottery, too, and he was. Taken 9th in 2006 by the Warriors. The former Bradley center was in the D-League by midseason of his rookie year, got shipped to Boston, fell out of the league.
“You can tiptoe in now and be B.J. Mullens, a bit part on a 5-50 team after getting dumped by the team that drafted him. Or you can listen to me, an NBA all-star and coach, about what it takes to survive. You can get stronger, learn real post moves, be part of a winner, and barge into that league a year from now as a sure-fire Top 10 pick. Odds go way up that a team is far more invested in you, and you’re more mature and a better player, and you have a 15-year career that matters.
“Your choice. Worried about an injury? News flash: There are no career-ending knee injuries anymore. That went out with Danny Manning. People return from ACLs in 6 months now, and are good as new in 18.”
From there, Theus pulls in more top-flight Chicagoans, largely because of a lifetime of relationships in the city of his first and best NBA playing days. He has known Michael Irvin, son and AAU Fire heir of the late, great Mac Irvin, since he was 20.
The Irvins (Nick, too) won’t just hand every player to Reggie Theus. They don’t have the power if they wanted to. But they will encourage Fire players to consider Illinois strongly and not have their hands out. Each case will be its own in the future, but you start with more than a fighting chance.
You don’t want to find out where you start, Mr. Thomas, if you never interview Theus and trot in some random, elevated mid-major guy. Or worse, let Duke play you a fool and use you as their bullpen for Chris Collins to get his arm loose for the day Krzyzewski hangs ‘em up.
What about Theus’ coaching style? Well, he played for the greatest basketball mind still drawing breath, Jerry Tarkanian. Coached under Pitino. These are two giants who thrive on defensive pressure, score off it, but don’t rely on it entirely like that Flavor of the Month 34-year-old who turned you down the other day.
Hey, I like Shaka Smart like the next guy. Think he’s a fine human being of unbridled enthusiasm who loves his players and whose players love him. But I feared his system — one basketball expert called it “a high school offense and high school defense” — would fall down under the counter-moves of Big Ten giants such as Izzo, Ryan, Matta and the like.
No matter. That’s over. The abundant pining for Smart by Illini Nation will have to turn into something else.
You fear a reaction of “Reggie Theus? What the hell?” And you’re right. Nobody ever offers a reason they don’t want Theus, but it is strangely fashionable for message-board denizens to spout about what desperation he would constitute.
Trust me, they’re fickle. With all the people behind Reggie — Henson, Pitino, Jerry Sloan, many more — goofy fan reaction will last maybe a day, probably more like an hour.
This hire is for 12 or 15 years. The second of those, and maybe even the third, probably involves Jabari Parker playing for your university.
All 12 or 15 involve a coach who likes uptempo basketball, but adjusts to his personnel. ADJUSTS! Did you hear that!? It can be done.
And what personnel it will be. Think a dapper, Hollywood actor who was an NBA All-Star and coached in the league as recently as last season will be good in a living room? God bless John Groce and Gregg Marshall — basketball genius Brad Stevens, even — but I think I’ll try to win Chicago back with Reggie.
“I’m uptempo. I’m NBA. I’m engaging. I can coach. I have the right Chicago friends, and they trust me to do right by their kids. Wanna play for me?”
That’s the opportunity you have, Mike Thomas. A guy who wants the job more than any of these others you might be trying to woo.
He won’t say no.
You shouldn’t either.
Illinois fans don’t have the convenient excuse on Jabari Parker.
While the Simeon junior superstar is the epitome of close to the vest on his recruitment, Illini fans know darn well he won’t be heading two hours down I-57 for his lone season of college ball. And unlike the cases of Sherron Collins, Julian Wright, Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis, there are no suitcase-of-cash murmurs as to why Illinois isn’t in the Parker picture.
No. Illinois will watch Parker go elsewhere because Illinois’ program isn’t good enough.
Reason enough to need a new coach. Not for missing a single recruit, even if it’s about the 30th single recruit.
Because of the state of the state school.
You all know it is in shambles. We come to you after Athletics Director Mike Thomas provided “read between the lines” criteria to Illinois’ two key radio audiences — at home on WDWS and in Chicago on The Score — that made it clear even to the proverbial child of 3 that his coach was gone.
We come to you even after the coach admitted as much himself in a depressing, meandering postgame to his umpteenth straight Purdue loss. In eight minutes Wednesday night, Bruce Weber managed to say “that’s my fault” about a half-dozen times while deviously painting a picture of it being his players’ fault, specifically his best players’ fault.
Taking the blame, passive-aggressively.
How ironic, those two words. Weber’s nine years are marked by a series of stunningly passive teams, by all measurable means:
Weber on Wednesday lamented not establishing a culture among his kids, one of toughness. But through three roster makeovers after the divine group he inherited, the list above is this program’s culture.
Add this season’s glaring weakness that has confounded just about every color analyst to call the Illini on TV — the oft-fleeting interest in establishing gifted 7-footer Meyers Leonard on the block and an almost funny inability to pass him the ball — and you have a program that is a strategic step or two behind the opposition almost every night.
You want to know the real problem? Weber is a better game coach than he is a program coach.
The man’s undoing was his roster-building, from the days of embarrassing recruiting hauls in the afterglow of the 2005 Final Four to all these years of the biggest myth out there: that Jerrance Howard fixed everything.
A C-minus recuiter could have conceded Rose’s recruitment was shady from the start — could even have endured the spurning of Eric Gordon — and still signed a 2007 class of Evan Turner, Robbie Hummel, Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale. Possibly with E’Twaun Moore to boot. It bordered on stunning to watch Weber fumble away Turner and essentially un-recruit third-generation Illini legacy Hummel.
To watch a single team at the last Nike All-America camp ever, and know Illinois had said yes to Bill Cole and Jeff Jordan and gone out of its way not to welcome Hummel, as I did in July of 2006 at Indianapolis, was to know that trouble lied ahead. Hummel, while still vastly underrated at the time (to the extent people thought his Valparaiso prep teammate Scott Martin was better) was dazzling all weekend. Cole acquitted himself OK. Jordan was an obvious courtesy invite. (To be fair, Illinois recruited him as a preferred walk-on.)
Quiet little smear campaigns by the Illini staff ensued against local favorites Lewis Jackson (“He’ll never qualify”) and Verdell Jones (“too skinny”) before both filled roles for Indiana schools that Illinois could have used filled at home. But woe is the program that pines for LewJack or VJ3. Indeed, had Bill Self stayed, those two wouldn’t have received a sniff by the U of I, either.
The difference, of course, is Self practiced what he preached on the second day he was ever around Illini basketball. The occasion was a midsummer Flyin’ Illini reunion, and Self was there with assistants Billy Gillispie and Norm Roberts. Self said he liked to have two point guards on the floor if possible, or at least two guards who could at times play the 1.
He backed it by leading Illinois’ best recruiting class — ever? — with Deron Williams and Dee Brown. Those two would grow up to go 37-2. Self kept exhibiting the philosophy at Kansas, where a team with Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson and Sherron Collins won a title. Then Collins and Tyshawn Taylor overlapped, and so on.
Weber left himself visibly deficient at point guard on every team after Dee Brown left. I beg you not to cite McCamey’s gaudy assist numbers as a junior as counter-evidence. It reached crisis proportions at times, as even the departure of the do-nothing Jordan could not be overcome when nary an able backup PG existed in his stead.
Weber all but doesn’t have a PG in this, his last season, with ghastly low assist numbers out of his Sam Maniscalco-Tracy Abrams duo and a team slate that shows more turnovers than assists virtually every game.
I see a college coach who tries to build a team without a PG and I think of Dave Wannstedt, a football coach who tried to build teams without an offensive line. It’s beyond belief they don’t understand the leadpipe necessity of having such positions filled.
Weber was also nearly immune to forwards as he mismanaged his rosters again and again. The decidedly unstable Jereme Richmond was about the only forward recruit of note as Weber fell in love with the three-guard idea in 2005 and never let go. Such an approach can be done successfully if, say, you are Duke and spread the floor with skilled ballhandlers and generate dribble-drive offense on almost every trip.
Alas, Weber’s teams do nothing of note off the bounce, perpetually seeking the mythical day when the motion offense is finally understood by these juniors, darn it, and they get shots other than turnaround 3s after running from one far wing to another. (Translation: Weber is waiting for Deron to come back and use that last year of eligibility.) The most telling quote from the Purdue postgame: “You don’t need to make plays. You need to be solid and do what you’re supposed to do.”
Duke aside, most college champions do it with a bevy of bigs. Whether it was Florida’s Horford-Noah combo with 6-8 Corey Brewer at the 3, or Kansas’ Arthur-Aldrich-Kaun-Jackson assault, or North Carolina’s Hansbrough-Davis-Thompson-Zeller depth or whatever Jim Calhoun throws out there each new cycle.
Weber left himself bankrupt there, too. Only now, with a good starting 7-footer and another promising center the class behind, has Bruce shown any emphasis on defending the rim.
But it’s too late, because Weber’s teams remained devoid of the other element you need to win at any level: shooters. His last team at Illinois will essentially be a 1-out-of-4 squad on 3-pointers. That’s largely because of the stagnant offense; it’s partly because the annual whipping boy was sharpshooter Tyler Griffey; it’s partly because the best offensive player in the program, Myke Henry, has been brought along at Weber’s trademark freshman speed (think continental drift).
Ours, however, is not to worry about why. All of Weber’s team-building errors converged on him, even now, after three allegedly Top 15 hauls occupy three of the four classes.
Chasson Randle and Ryan Boatright would have been better shooters. Anthony Davis and Wayne Blackshear better interior players. Hummel and Turner better leaders.
The latter two would have come if you had even the slightest sales pitch. That would have brought the elusive status Illini fans are always seeking: a sustained elite program. In that case, the other four listed above, of whom only Randle flirted with the Illini, would have come of age under an entirely different vibe in Illinois, a program with a dozen years of serious mojo. They wouldn’t have looked the other way because the program was not worthy.
So when Weber friends and apologists Doug Gottleib and Tom Izzo, et al., preach to Illinois fans about how they should accept Weber’s .670 ball because Illinois is not the elite program it thinks it is, ask them something:
Whose fault is that?
If you beat those two schools by the same five points in basketball, at home, 80 hours apart, it stirs debate. Basically: are you good, or was the big upset of the No. 5 Buckeyes an aberration?
We decided to delve into this conundrum in point/counterpoint fashion.
First up is Bill Liesse, a journalist who columnized from both of Illinois’ color-TV Final Fours after covering Ken Norman and the formation of the Flyin’ Illini for the D.I. He will argue that Illinois fans shouldn’t read too much into Tuesday’s 79-74 win over Ohio State.
Illini fans are longing to recapture the swagger they felt from 2001-06, when the team was ranked in the Top 10 more often than not, virtually never lost at home and won four Big Ten titles. The game on Tuesday held the feeling of those days.
That does not mean the team is returning to that time.
The easiest way to dismiss this upset is to look at Brandon Paul and his 43 points. On the Ohio State side, they’re probably saying “We got beat by a kid going out of his head. What can you do?”
That’s only partially on point. Tuesday was a team win, with Joseph Bertrand, Meyers Leonard and D.J. Richardson all contributing significantly before Paul completely took over late.
It is true, however, that Paul’s uncharacteristic shooting — 11-of-13 overall and 8-of-9 on 3s after missing his first two shots — renders impossible a repeat of this particular winning recipe. It’s also true that Paul’s numbers led to a 60 percent shooting night by the team.
Funny numbers in the box score scream “outlier” and won’t mean a thing when the ball goes up Jan. 19 at Penn State.
Look deeper into that box and you see ongoing Illinois problems: Only 45 shot attempts, 21 fewer than the Buckeyes. This on the heels of 44 FGA vs. Nebraska. The team does not offensive rebound, it regularly turns it over more than 15 times and it plays catch around the 3-point ring for most of the shot clock on many possessions.
You can’t score enough to beat good teams with so few possessions and the inherent pressure on each one. Not when you perennially reside toward the bottom of the NCAA in free throw tries. Shoot your usual 45% on those 45 shots, Illini, and you’re scratching and clawing to get to 60 points, per usual.
It’d be nice to think the Illini have figured out how to score in the 70s now, but you thought that after Gonzaga and Missouri, didn’t you? They reverted right back to teeth-pulling wins over the likes of Cornell and Minnesota. There’s a reason, too. With half the box scores this year reading “0″ for transition points, and 20 FTA nights about as common as 80th birthday parties at the Hall (forget it on the road), Illinois simply has to be an extraordinary shooting team to succeed, and it isn’t.
Other concerns include the annually shrinking bench, which contributed zero points vs. OSU, its third shutout in the last 10 games; two point guards with astonishingly low assist numbers who simply don’t get the ball to the scorers in the right spots; evidence from the huddles, if not the floor, that Leonard and Paul have tuned out Bruce Weber; the 214 national rank in rebounding; the even-worse rebounding ability on nights when Leonard is called for fouls; and the nagging scare that Bertrand, a 3 ppg scorer through a dozen games, is not the 14 ppg guy he has been for three weeks.
Illinois’ 15-3 record belies the fact it has played pedestrian or lousy in 13 of the games and large parts of two others (Maryland and Missouri). Weber’s teams have had sterling records through the holidays a few times during the now-six doldrums years since Dee Brown left campus. Virtually every season grinds to its conclusion.
You’re looking for a hot streak out of a program that couldn’t win two straight games over the last two months a year ago. Ain’t gonna happen.
For the countering argument, we turn to Bill Liesse, who would have attended the Eddie-over-Magic-Johnson game in 1979 if it weren’t a school night, wore wrist bands well up his arm to emulate Derek Harper and took in Tuesday’s win over OSU roughly one outstretched Nnanna Egwu from Lou and Mary Henson.
Bill, you ignorant slut. (Sorry, had to be done.)
Get out of your box scores and sense what is happening here. This is 2003-04 all over again.
You remember Bruce’s first year. Dee, Deron and Luther not getting the offense for a while, and thus turning in stinkers like Providence and a 20-point loss at Wisconsin.
Then, they got it. And ran off 12 straight conference wins for Illinois’ first outright Big Ten title in 50 years. Twelve straight! Who does that?
Any college team anywhere would be lucky to re-create MV3 (Dee, Deron, Luther). The sheer greatness of Williams makes it almost impossible. So while The Ingredients (a nickname assigned by lifelong Illini hoop afficianado Doug White to the three guards who committed within 24 hours some four years ago) might not be MV3, they are nonetheless a good fit for Weber’s motion. They will turn the same corner the 2003-04 team did, and after they do, look out.
The current three scorers complement each other nicely. You have a catch-and-shoot guy in Richardson, a slasher in Paul who can also shoot well if he does it off the pass and not the bounce, and a midrange expert in Bertrand. The intelligent, fifth-year senior who has been watching for three games, Sam Maniscalco, should see how he can facilitate The Ingredients upon his return. Get it to JoeBert on cuts. Kick out to D.J. when defenders cheat toward Leonard. Implore Paul to drive more, despite Tuesday’s rainbows, and choose his 3 tries more wisely.
Furthermore, as good as James Augustine and Roger Powell were, the current roster has assets that 2004 and 2005 lacked: Leonard, destined to be the best big man in program history, and Egwu, probably a future NBA 7-footer himself. While the chances of the latter helping significantly this season are in the long-shot category, at the very least Egwu has a zest for defending the rim that has been completely lacking in the program for years.
Jared Sullinger, while scoring a few above his average with 21, made a single free throw at the Assembly Hall. That alone reflects a giant step forward for the Illini. It also reflects a defensive makeup that will allow this team to compete in upcoming games while the offensive metamorphosis continues to evolve.
Paul and Bertrand provide wing D that can adapt to opponents from 6-foot-2 through about 6-8 or so. Richardson and Tracy Abrams will dog ballhandlers. Leonard and Egwu have the rim. This defense is a large part of the reason the team is 15-3 and half-game out in the Big Ten despite flawed efforts in four of the five league games thus far.
Weber used very little bench vs. Ohio State, leading some to say he’s following an annual pattern of cranking it down to a seven-man rotation in league play. Not so fast on that assessment.
For one, he had a nine-day layoff coming up, so that game allowed an extra-heavy reliance on starters. For another, Maniscalco was out of the equation.
From my seat, Weber has been masterful at minutes allocation this season. He began it with Griffey at a traditional PF, and sprinkled in plenty of Mike Shaw as a backup there. He deftly got Abrams ample time behind his senior PG. He went so far as using 12 players before halftime in the foul-heavy Gonzaga game and has kept Egwu nicely involved despite extremely rare foul trouble by Leonard.
The Bertrand emergence changed everything midstream, and Bruce has adapted. Griffey might have been tossed aside too abruptly for some, but three points on that. 1) Tyler is going to have to find and front some cutters in his life to not be a huge defensive liability to this team. 2) Traditional 4 men are hard to find on many a college team right now. 3) It’s not over yet. You could see bounce-back minutes out of Griffey as this team finds and redefines its identity.
Weber also has shown increasing confidence in Myke Henry. Like Egwu, Henry might not contribute significantly before this year is out. But drawing on the 2004 parallel again, the main subject at play here is building for what should be a nationally prominent run in the 2013 NCAA tournament. Henry, the most likely pro on campus behind the 7-footers, needs to grow along that timeline. He owns an inside-outside offensive game that is reflective of his Chicago westside predecessors of yesteryear, the aforementioned Eddie Johnson and his superstar Westinghouse teammate, Mark Aguirre.
For all the times you have heard, or said, “I thought Weber was going to do better with all the good recruits here now,” realize that it requires some patience. It is a process.
And it’s happening.