Polar bears love snowy icebergs; kangaroos the Aussie outland.
Werewolves lust for a full moon; geese flock to the water; Br’er Rabbit is at home in a briar patch.
And young basketball hotshots thrive on a feverishly supportive fandom and friendly rims. Home cookin’.
There’s no better example in this road-wreck of a season than the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers, who reached 17-0 at the friendly RAC (they’re 1-8 elsewhere) Saturday with a 72-57 rout of Illinois. With Ayo Dosunmu on the bench because of Tuesday’s leg injury, the Illini hung within 43-42 before two huge droughts led to a late 29-11 Rutgers run. Ron Harper Jr., son of a former Chicago Bulls star, erupted for 27 points while the Illini clanged the rims on the other end.
Of concern now, as Illinois stands 10th among 14 Big Ten members in the Net rating system, is that they’ll fall below their current No. 36 and toward the 40s where NCAA bubble teams reside. An 8-6 Big Ten audit continues to be offset by early losses to Missouri, Miami and Arizona.
While Illinois struggles to get back on track — its next chance is at Penn State on Tuesday night — machinations behind the scenes are running full bore. Illini athletic director Josh Whitman is obliged to take a strong look at Brad Underwood’s contract with reports growing that the University of Texas may be looking to replace Shaka Smart.
This is the same Smart who took Virginia Commonwealth to the Final Four in 2011, and was high on Illinois’ list a year later (but declined) when John Groce was ultimately hired. Smart’s Texas team is 4-8 in the Big 12 after Saturday’s embarrassing 81-52 loss at Iowa State, and is 18 games under .500 in the conference over the last four seasons.
If Smart is pushed out, the Longhorns will look for a big splash, perhaps with Texas Tech’s Chris Beard. But if faced with early rejections, they might consider a coach (Underwood) who took another Texas school, Stephen F. Austin, to three NCAA tournaments and lost just one home game in three years.
The Longhorns top the nation in revenue, generating and spending over $200 million per year, and contributing millions to the university budget. So if Texas gets interested, money is no object ... as we saw with Kansas in 2003 when the basketball-mad Jayhawks outbid Illinois for Bill Self. If Illinois had tripled Self’s salary, it wouldn’t have been too much.
Yes, it’s Monopoly money. Latest example: Mel Tucker had a single 5-7 season as head coach at Colorado when Michigan State doubled his salary, giving him six years starting at $5.5 million. Actually, you wouldn’t even be that careless with Monopoly money.
Behind the scenes
So with Underwood on a roll in recruiting circles, Whitman might consider a preemptive strike ... restructuring a contract that currently brings him $2.95 million in this third year of a six-year, $18 million deal (having paid off his $3 million buyout at Oklahoma State and with a $600,000 bonus coming May 30).
And at the same time, it is critical to extend and upgrade assistant coach Orlando Antigua’s soon-to-end deal.
You see, future Illini teams are structured around players from great distances and without deep Illinois roots — some originating from beyond U.S. borders — and are more closely linked to Underwood and Antigua than to the university itself. It must be obvious, with an average of 700 Division I basketball players transferring each of the last three years, and with players able to gain immediate eligibility elsewhere if their coaches move, Illinois needs to retain the coaches who attracted them.
We don’t know everything happening in the drawing rooms but, if we did, it might be more interesting than the games.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.