Before the Illini Basketball Banquet began Monday night at the i-Hotel, Rob Jordan said players’ families were wondering who’d show up.
Would John Groce return as Bruce Weber had in 2012? No.
Paris Parham also didn’t attend, despite his continuing residence in Champaign. Dustin Ford and Darren Hertz weren’t there, but they have new jobs in Ohio.
Brad Underwood, who lives in the i-Hotel, was there. And he stayed as long as anyone.
One idiot was in attendance, and because he forgot to check whether he’d packed the batteries for his expensive camera, the following pictures will be blurry.
Paul Schmidt and Adam Fletcher were the only remaining staff sitting at the coaches table. Underwood, Josh Whitman and Chancellor Robert Jones joined them. You wouldn’t call it the head table necessarily. It was off to the side. Really, everything about the event was low key. Unlike years past, the players never spoke.
Josh Whitman spoke twice. The first time around, he profusely praised the previous staff. “I can’t say enough good things about our outgoing coaching staff.” (listen to full speech here).
He told of dark, difficult days throughout the 2016-17 season, and especially public opinion of the program. He promised better times ahead. The public perception of Whitman seems largely if not hugely favorable, and his comportment Monday night did nothing to change that perception.
Jamall Walker and Brian Barnhart emceed. Barnhart and a series of sponsors from the community announced individual awards (link to video) and Walker thanked all the people behind the program who’s names you rarely hear (link to video), then handed out goodies to the players (link to video) which were fitted letterman jackets for the freshmen, and blankets for the upperclassmen. Jalen Coleman-Lands regarded the blanket as high-level swag.
Kipper Nichols, who said his body fat is 5%, acknowledged that someone measured his sculptured physique rather than guessing his jacket size.
Jaylon Tate and Mike Thorne were absent. Tate had a family issue, and Thorne is out somewhere looking for a basketball job. That’s how Walker explained it, anyhow. (The family issue seems to be that Tate’s family was pissed off about the way Jaylon’s career ended.)
Two players who were distinctly present, and seated at what you might call the head table, were Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams.
Te’Jon Lucas and his mother Marie were also at that table. The Lucas parent are divorced, and Thomas Lucas sat at a table on the other side of the room. He lives in Milwaukee. She lives in Texas. Both parents are engaging people, and it’s not hard to see what brought them together. And it’s not hard to see why it fell apart.
Marie is brimming with personality and opinions, you might even say attitude, but in a good way. She’s the type of mother often found behind a D-1 athlete. Laura Finke and Machanda Hill are likewise women to be reckoned with, but again, in a good way. Strong women.
Thomas Lucas is mellow and approachable. In conversation with Underwood, he gracefully accepted frothing praise from this reporter, with agreement from the coach, that his three-piece houndstooth suit and tie elevated him into competition for best-dressed attendee. He’s almost sixty, but after changing his diet and losing 25 lbs. over the last year, he’s now back to playing competitive basketball. He’s eating less meat, and more ginger and garlic.
It gives us hope, especially the idiot, who gained 25 lbs. in the last year after his aging knees forced him to stop running six miles every other day, and is basically falling apart physically.
2016-17 Fighting Illini Basketball Awards
Most Outstanding Player: Malcolm Hill
Matt Heldman “Matto” Award: Maverick Morgan
Lou Henson Courage Award: Tracy Abrams
Orange Krush 3-Point Shooting Award: Tracy Abrams, 40.2 percent (51-127, min. 3 att./g)
Illini Rebounders Award: Leron Black, 6.3 rpg (196)
Ralf Woods Free Throw Trophy: Malcolm Hill, 80 percent in Big Ten play (76-95)
Malcolm Hill doesn’t really need any more accolades at this point. He just needs what Rayvonte Rice should have had two years ago. He needs the NBA to recognize that, whatever his physical limitations, he finds a way to get the ball in the hole.
Malcolm’s AAU coaches Patrick Smith and Doug Sitton attended his final banquet. And Patrick observed that Malcolm is not the next Michael Jordan. But maybe he’s the next Larry Bird. He has crafty old-man moves.
Smith and Sitton have been part of Malcolm’s life since third grade. “Seriously, you could tell when he was …” I queried.
“Oh yeah,” said Patrick.
“We knew,” agreed Doug.
That seems odd, but it doesn’t conflict with anything we’ve known about Malcolm all these years. You’ll recall that even during his freshman year, his teammates universally recognized him as the gym rat of the team (video link).
The second-best part of the evening was a tag team by Underwood and Whitman, in which they simultaneously praised & roasted Tracy Abrams and Malcolm Hill.
The best part of the evening was watching Malcolm greet a very young man with forceful enthusiasm, complimenting him on a particular sartorial choice.
Malcolm gets that he’s a star, and on these last two Illini teams, the star. But he’s also motivated by human kindness. He gained no advantage by showering attention on a pre-teen with a sharp outfit, but he expressly acknowledged the kid not just for looking good, but for having earned the outfit himself (paper route?).
Jamall Walker emphasized that Malcolm never thought Illini basketball was about him.
One current roster member expressed shock about John Groce’s closed-door media policy. On Day One, Groce said practice would be closed to the media because he wanted to maintain a teaching atmosphere. But as the players know, the Groce practice was a revolving door of Willie Hortonesque proportions. Basically, the only people who weren’t watching were reporters.
Underwood is unfazed by the media. He doesn’t use the amplified headset Groce relied on. He doesn’t even use a whistle. That’s probably the reason his teams execute so well. They understand what he’s saying, and aren’t subconsciously trying to block-out the onslaught of sounds.
One final, gratuitous observation from the banquet, along as the topic of not understanding what people are saying, here’s Maverick Morgan mouthing syllables while an elderly crowd sings Hail to the Orange
At the end of the night, Walker said Trent Frazier’s dad was in a tizzy about the Portillo’s beef story from last month. Walker had to explain “no, Trent is not in trouble and no, you are not in trouble.”
It’s just another example of silly NCAA rules creating anxiety. Look here for more of that in the next couple of weeks.