We have a special HALL OF FAME guest for our pregame Q&A series today. Will Leitch, who writes for Sports on Earth, New York magazine, and Bloomberg politics among other places, is here to discuss Illinois basketball with us. I began reading Leitch's work back when he was the original editor-in-chief of Deadspin. Under Leitch, Deadspin was one of the first blogs to really be written from a fan's perspective, and was critical of the sports media (particularly ESPN) in a way that hadn't really been seen before. Thus, it was a great precursor to all the excellent blogs here at SB Nation. And Leitch made his fandom clear on Deadspin, particularly with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Illinois Fighting Illini. As a result, I invited Leitch to answer a few questions about his alma mater here. Our discussion went as follows.
1. Illinois is now 12-6 and 2-3 in the B1G so far. How are Illini fans feeling about this team, and how has the absence of Rayvonte Rice affected the squad?
Leitch: We're extremely frustrated, not so much with the team as much as ourselves for having such elevated expectations. After missing the tournament last year, this was supposed to be the year John Groce finally had HIS team. Bruce Weber, who gets a bum rap but still probably had to go, was famous for only caring about defense, which led to the logical extension of that home loss to Penn State in which we only scored 33 points. Groce, who's a big KenPom and advanced stat guy, was all about finding scorers -- specifically, shooters -- and teaching them defense. So really, we've just been desperate for a team that can make a damn shot. In the pre conference, before we played anybody good, we were draining shots all over, even leading the nation in scoring after three games, which I think is illegal for a Big Ten team. And then, once the competition stiffed ... they just stopped making shots. The frustration isn't as much with the record -- this is the record we'd all expected after the first five Big Ten games anyway, and the only real BAD loss in the non-conference was Oregon -- as much as it is with having to watch yet ANOTHER Illinois team that can't hit the side of a barn with an oar. Losing Rice hurt mostly because he was the only guy who was driving the lane AND hitting shots. And that said: They're now 2-1 without him.
2. With Rice out, Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn have been called on to provide the scoring for the Illini. Who else will attempt to exploit IU's often criticized defense, and can center Nnanna Egwu take advantage of our undersized squad?
Leitch: Egwu is maybe the best defensive player in the Big Ten -- watch this awesome possession against Maryland -- but Illini fans have been waiting for four years to develop a consistent post game, and it's just not happening. (It's very possible he'll become the school's all-time blocks leader against you guys; he's just three behind Deon Thomas.) The Illini have become so reliant on the three because they don't have a post presence outside of the limited Egwu and because nobody drives. Maverick Morgan has been awful for two weeks, and Leron Black is an energy guy who will eventually be the badass every other team hates but right now doesn't really understand basic offensive principles. The offense against you guys, no matter your deficiencies, will be the same as it is against everyone: Shoot shoot shoot shoot and pray this is one of the nights they go in.
3. Thoughts on John Groce in his third year with the Illini? I thought Groce was an excellent hire for the team, and he's caught a few bad breaks in his time as coach, but are fans beginning to get antsy since the team is consistently in the middle of the pack in the B1G?
Leitch: Fans are definitely get antsy, but they're being pretty stupid in doing so. First off, it's his third year. Second: Both of his first two teams, with Weber "recruits," were overachievers. Third: He has already proved himself a solid, ambitious recruiter; he already has more five-stars than Weber ever had (see here) and I love that he goes after big fish (Cliff Alexander, Carlton Bragg, Quentin Snyder) even if he doesn't get them. (Because eventually he will.) He's high-energy, he's smart and he works his ass off. I sometimes question his offensive acumen, but honestly, we're lucky to have him, and if they stay the course (and they will), the Illini are going to be just fine. If an Illini fan thinks Groce should be fired, he's a reactionary idiot.
4. The Illinois-IU rivalry isn't as intense now as it was around the time of Eric Gordon or when Lou Henson and Bob Knight were coaching, but there's definitely still bad blood. Historically I think Hoosier fans would put the Illini as their third most hated hoops team, after Kentucky and Purdue. How do Illini fans feel about IU as a rival?
Leitch: Yeah, you're right: It's not as intense as it was. Good Lord, growing up in Mattoon, about 45 minutes south of Champaign, Indiana was the WORST. Bobby Knight -- who, oddly, I've grown to respect a bit more since he left Indiana (and as I've gotten older) -- was Public Enemy No. 1 in our household: I think my uncle had his face on a dartboard. But that was genuine, earned antipathy: You hated Knight because you respected him. We mostly just think Crean is a wienee. That said: When it comes to hoops, you're still No. 1 in our book, followed not all that closely by Iowa and Missouri. Beating you guys is always our favorite win.
5. It's been almost 7 years since you left Deadspin. Did you ever expect the site to become the juggernaut thatit is today, and how do your gigs at Sports on Earth and New York Magazine and Bloomberg compare to writing for Deadspin? Any other new projects coming up?
Leitch: I never imagined the site getting this large, and if I would have stayed in charge, I'm sure it would not be. They're doing great work, though, and they even let me write movie reviews sometimes. I like to think I've grown a bit as a writer since then -- I have been writing every day for seven years, so I'd HOPE so -- but generally speaking, the work I do for Sports On Earth and NY Mag and Bloomberg is pretty much the same thing I did there. Just a little longer.
6. When you're not rooting for the Illini, you're also a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan. As a fan, what do you think gets opposing fans so riled up and irrationally mad about the Cards? (I am a Phillies fan and Swick is a Pirates fan so we both have our reasons.)
Leitch: I think it's because they win all the time. I know that's exactly the smug answer you'd expect a Cardinals fan to give, but I haven't seen a single change in the Cardinals fanbase -- for better or worse -- for 30 years, but people have only started hating them since the last five years. There are things annoying about the Cardinals fanbase just like every other fanbase, maybe even a little more, but nobody cared about any of them until the team started winning so much.
7. Football talk: We like to make fun of Tim Beckman on our site, especially because he lives in his own alternate reality in pressers. "IF ONLY THEY HAD PLAYED THE FOURTH QUARTER AND THOSE TOUCHDOWNS WERE NOT WORTH POINTS WE WOULD'VE WON." However, he did lead Illinois to six wins and the promised land of the Heart Of Dallas Bowl this season. Is the future bright for Illinois football, or has Beckman worn out his welcome in Champaign?
Leitch: I think he has worn out his welcome, though I'm glad they didn't fire him. It's important to note just how toxic the environment has gotten for Illinois football: It's not just that Beckman has lost a lot, it's that he's looked like such a boob doing it. That said: It's difficult to overstate what a mess Ron Zook left this program in. It would have taken coaches far better than Beckman three years just to start constructing a recognizable football team again. What Illinois needs, more than anything else, is some stability. Do I think Beckman is the guy to give it to them? Probably not. But I do think he has earned at least another season to try.
8. Prediction time: Who wins in the Spaceship on Sunday and by how much?
Leitch: I think we lose by six or eight. And I will spend most of the game screaming at Ahmad Starks after he shoots his eighth fall-away 3-pointer with 28 seconds on the shot clock.
Thanks again, Will! Indiana takes on Illinois at the State Farm Center on Sunday at 1pm. Coverage will be on BTN.