Rock bottom: A tale of blurred foresight

So this is what rock bottom feels like. I’ve been attached to some disheartening seasons in my four years at (post-Final Four) Illinois and (pre-Renaissance) Baylor. None of them compares to this. It’s off-putting to the point I don’t care to work in the geological puns that a more composed writer would include here.

As a freshman I saw a Baylor team roll into the Big 12 tournament as a No. 9 seed after getting picked third in the preseason conference poll. That veteran team folded (perhaps understandably) thanks to a coaching staff and roster still getting its “contender” legs.

As a sophomore and junior I saw two Illini squads finesse their way precariously into the heart of the AP Poll only to fall off the ladder and onto the NCAA tournament bubble.

And now this season — this week, to be specific, I am reminded of an episode of The Office in which Steve Carell’s character gives his two weeks’ notice only to emerge from his office with a loosened tie, glass of “scotch and Splenda” and one of those sticky frog tongue grabbers you get at the dentist’s office. The scene unravels as you might expect, and it is crystallized when John Krasinski’s character delivers one of his famous observations.

“Surprisingly,” he says, “there is a very big difference between Michael trying and Michael not trying.”

I had seen losing in a cute way, a jaw-grinding way and a head-shaking way, losses that were both meaningful and meaningless, but this is the first kind of losing that has a whiff of disgrace.

Apparently there is a big difference between the Meandering Illini trying and not trying. And you know what? It’s sad. It’s sad to see such talent go to waste and it’s sad that those who have little to do with the roster’s on-court hijinks will suffer as a result.

Looking back at a piece I wrote in August following the team’s intriguing pre-Alumni Game scrimmage, it’s hard to believe this was the case: “Fear not, because if this offseason’s early returns are any indication of what is to come in this next wave of Illini, Bruce Weber could be off the hot seat for good. This crop is, dare I say it, vested in playing the game with pride and determination.”

If you didn’t hear a “comical uncoiling spring” sound effect while reading that you may want to glance over it again.

What exactly is it about putting on an Illinois jersey that makes this group play like it’s being controlled by an 11-year-old playing Xbox in his basement? A lack of “basketball savvy,” as Weber so astutely pointed out, can only account for the ill-timed shots and low assist totals. Lacking savvy doesn’t make you the floor mop of Lincoln, Neb., nor a rag doll that’s paraded in front of 18,000 fans at Ohio State. It’s that want-to that coaches point out so often — not the want-to to score, but to play the game unselfishly.

Tell me that if Meyers Leonard, Joe Bertrand, Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams walked into an empty ARC right now with nothing more than a ball and took on Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas, Lenzelle Smith, Jr., William Buford and Aaron Craft that the score of that game would be drastically different. There’s just no way the Illini go down 28-8 in that scenario.

What exactly is it about the bright lights and orange jersey that gives the team the willies? Is it a lack of competitive fire? Selfishness? It’s difficult not to meditate on the latter these days when untimely shots greatly outnumber acts of leadership.

The part that puzzles me the most about this group’s attitude is that the kinds of things Weber drives into them over and over again (setting up others, working the ball around, the fact Deron Williams was the third-leading scorer in 2004-05, etc.) are marketable traits. Let me say that again. Even if the Illini were to take this “personal brand” thing to an extreme, displaying unselfishness, the ability to set up others, and putting up team wins are enormous boosts to one’s personal stock. You think a single draft scout looked at Williams’ 12.5 points per game that year and thought “I like him, but he needs to start heaving up more shots from 20 feet.”

Do you think Iona guard Scott Machado, who leads the nation with 10.1 assists per game, would be such a hot commodity in NBA scouting circles if he had decided to pad his personal scoring numbers in his final year in New Rochelle, N.Y.? Had he left after his junior season, Machado’s field goal percentage alone would have stricken his name from draft camp wish lists (.407). Now, the leader of the upstart Gaels has his personal stock at an all-time high thanks in part to his rededication to setting up others. While his assists have gone up from 7.6 to 10.1, his shooting numbers have improved considerably (.479 this year), and he has developed a marketable (I repeat: marketable) reputation as a playmaker who can make those on the floor look better.

Will this group wake up to the reality, that boosting one’s personal stock and heeding Bruce Weber’s pleas are one and the same?

_Gordon is a senior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GordonVoit._