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All five of John Groce's commitments have sent their LOI into Illinois. Beat writer Marcus Jackson had a take on the matter during his weekly chat.
Good afternoon, welcome back to another Illinois basketball chat. Big day for the Illini program as John Groce and Co. sign their first recruiting class. It's been a well-received bunch with at least two scouting services ranking Illinois' coup among the top 25 in the country. Still waiting word on which NLIs have been sent over and I'll let you know as soon as I get an update.
I'll be here for about an hour. Let's get going.
Marcus, do you think the Illini get any advantage from other teams not having seen them in their current incarnation? They've seen Groce, and they've seen the current Illini players, but they will have very little -- if any -- film on this combination of coach and players? Are the Illini doing anything markedly different from last season or from Groce's time at Ohio that might surprise someone in Maui?
The biggest advantage for Illinois in that regard is early on, when there’s not much film circulating of them playing under Groce. That’s going to change, so any advantage they had in that area will fade. Illinois looks completely different than it did last season. More ball screens, more of an emphasis on penetrating and getting the ball in the post more often and really getting after it in transition. Those are the things you notice right away. And the individual skill development has been impressive. Guys are showing wrinkles to their games we hadn’t seen in recent years. I know some people were disappointed in D.J. after the opener at Colgate when looking at the box score (3 for 12 from the floor, 3 for 10 from 3) but the coaches were pleased with what he brought to the offensive end. He wasn’t just standing around behind the three-point line. He took good, open shots and did make an effort to penetrate a few times. He got to the basket once and lost the ball. The other times nothing was there. “D.J. played well. He’s going to be fine,” one of the coaches told me after the opener.
Marcus, welcome back! a couple of things. tell us something about austin colbert (col-bert)? or (col-bare)?. something intangible that maybe we don't know about him. what kind of kid he is. did sandy affect him and his family? secondly, for those of us not in chambana and obviously can't watch on tv, how has the team looked thus far? how will their play versus these 2 cupcakes translate to tougher competition in the upcoming weeks? just reading articles and checking box scores one word comes to mind when talking tyler griffey is efficient. i like tyler, i don't think he has been used effectively throughout his career. he's not a banger. he's a spot up shooter with a great stroke. what are your thoughts?
It's COL-BURT. Colbert's family wasn't overly affected by Sandy, but he said the storm did delay his announcement as he wanted to be sensitive to the folks around him who were greatly affected by it. I talked with him on the phone a few minutes after he made his announcement on television and he said he was relieved to have the decision out of the way and just excited to know where he's going to be next year. In the few minutes I had him on the phone, he might have said 'family" a dozen times when referring to the Illinois program. They really made a strong impression on Colbert during his visit and that's a testament in large part to Dustin Ford, who was the point man on Colbert. When this staff gets around guys, they impress. He's really impressed by the academics at Illinois, too, though he's not sure yet what he will study.
Tyler Griffey looks like a completely different player. He's still got tat deadly stroke, you referenced, but he put the ball on the floor a few times in the game against St. Francis the other night and made a couple of tough buckets in the lane. He hit a couple of mid-range pull-up jumpers. Tyler credited Ford for working with him on diversifying his offensive game and said he feels so much better than he has during the previous three seasons.
Too early to draw any conclusions but is there anything you can say with certainty regarding this team?
Probably that they won't be allowed to just go through the motions whether they're trailing by 20 or leading by 20 in the seond half. Illinois was up by 33, I think it was, the other night and John Groce got on them for not getting back quick enough on defense "Sprint back! You guys are just jogging!" If guys let up, they're coming out. One of the quotes that got a big response from fans after the game Monday was when Groce said something like he felt guys were trying to eat clock and not being aggressive when the lead swelled in the second half. He didn't like that and that's something he said needs to improve.
Two things struck me at the basketball game Monday night. #1, the number of points scored. If not for some sloppy play and subbing at the end, they could have easily hit 100 points. Very unBruce Weberish. #2, the lack of bodies in the stands. That place was empty. I'd be surprised if there were more than 8,000 people in the building. Do you think there's a carry over apathy from last season and football? Do you think Groce's uptempo style will help the team win and get back the fair weather fan base?
Winning usually does the trick, huh? I was actually quite impressed with the crowd at the opener. They announced it at 14,683 and I'd say it was actually about 13,000. The St. Francis crowd was bad, but that's understandable, it being a Monday. There is a carry-over there with some taking await-and-see approach with a roster comprised primarily of the same players as last year's 17-15 team that lost an NBA lottery pick at center. The style is attractive — Illinois has scored 40-plus points in the first half of both games this season; they did it only once all of last year. I was told before the season that season tickets were about on par with where they've been the last couple of years. It's the student tickets sales that are behind.
I can't believe how much better and how much harder this team works compared to last year. I mean it looks like we are actually PLAYING basketball instead of SHOWING UP. We scored 89 points last game and last year when we had Meyers Leonard, we couldn't even get to 70 most of the time. I know we have only played 2 games, but we look like we are better than we were last year already. John Groce has already proved to me that he is a great coach. I know I'm supposed to ask a question but I just had to say this. Okay here is the question. Do you think that maybe people have underestimated this team and that maybe we are a top 50 team? I know we struggle at rebounding and are ify at ballhandling, but I would be surprised if we didn't make the NCAA tournament. I mean we are ILLINOIS! That should be a given right?
I think it's still too early to say if this team has been underestimated. Check back after Maui. But I think the early returns are very positive. The coaches were sweating before the St. Francis game, they really liked that team and the way it plays. Groce said St. Francis said the Terriers were going to come in and try to 'punk' the Illini. Well, Illinois punked St. Francis and then some. More than anything, that tells me these guys are developing a toughness that's been missing.
As far as the tournament, if Illinois can find a way to finish in the top six, maybe top seven of the Big Ten, they'll give themselves a chance. Illinois should be in the tournament every year, but the last few years have set the program back.
Something I wanted to emntion about Griffey earlier. He's been much more aggressive on the defensive end and attacking the boards. The officials had to review a play the other night because they thought Tyler elbowed a guy in the neck. He didn't, but he's pushing guys around enough to warrant a video review.
How has Nanna Egwu looked in the first two games? Much has been said about how hard he's worked over the summer - is it showing in the games? Who could he most resemble - James Augustine, Mike Tisdale, or Leonard Meyers, and why?
Nnanna was OK in the opener. He looked nervous. He seemed tight and hesitant on his shots when he was open and most of them came up short. He was much better in the second game and I think he hit a jumper from the wing just inside the three-point line. He's going to be fine and you know he's going to give you everything he's got each time out. He's still learning the game, only been playing for a little more than five years now.
He's not as good an outside shooter as Tisdale or Augustine, but he's probably better than Meyers was. He's got the potential to be a very good rebounder, but right now he's better on the offensive glass because you just attack. Defensively, he's such a good listener that he gives full effort on the box out that he forgets to go after the ball when it's time to do so. He'll get better in that area the more he plays and with Sam McLaurin in the fold for a year, Nnanna will become a better back-to-the basket player. His upside is as good as any on the roster.
Have your expectations of this team changed at after the first two games?
No, they have not. You expect to take care of Colgate, but I'm still stunned at how easily they beat St. Francis. Illinois is much better than it was last season and this group of players is energized. They executed well and played hard Monday. The St. Francis coach commented after the game that Illinois beat his guys to all loose balls and that was the most troubling aspect of the loss for him. That tells you how hard the Illini are playing. It's encouraging, however, to see them play with such a high energy level for an entire game.
I'm interested to see how they fare at Hawaii and in Maui when the competition level increases. I saw a little bit of the Hawaii game Monday night on TV and they're going to be real tough. Illinois hasn't seen big men like Vander Joaquim and Christian Standhardinger yet. And tthey've got a guard from Chicago, Brandon Spearman, who will be out to prove something. Not to metion, it's always tough to win at Hawaii.
I don't follow recruiting all that much and maybe that's why I don't understand everyone's excitement about a three star guy who picked us over two pretty ho-hum schools. Please tell me why landing Colbert is such a big deal.
I'm not sure I'd call Villanova a ho-hum program, the 'Cats were in the Final Four a couple of years ago. That's a big deal, especially since Jay Wright typically does well with New Jersey players. Villanova prioritizes New Jersey because its lagest alumni base is there.
Colbert is a 6-9 and he is exactly the kind of big man Groce looks for with his up-tempo system. He reminds the Illinois coaches of a guy they had at Ohio, Jon Smith, who started on the Bobcats' Sweet 16 team last year. Smith was top five in the MAC in blocks and offensive rebounds and he runs the floor like a deer. Colbert is a high-major version of Smith. He's better and will have a similar impact in the Big Ten that Smith had in the MAC. Colbert probably needs to bulk up once he gets here and that'll help him become more of a banger. They couldn't be more excited about landing him and it shows Groce is willing to go outside the "breadbasket" to find players who he thinks fit.
Always enjoy the chats! First off, since I have not yet got to watch any of the games yet due to them not airing on TV, I can only develop my opinion based on what you have written and I must say that your articles and columns have been very positive so far in regards to this team. I understand there is a sense of a new beginning around this program and team with the new staff but outside of that aspect and just the normal excitement of a new season is it fair to suggest that this team might be better than expected? I know its only two games but looking from the box scores and the highlights I have it seems like some of the guys are just playing basketball instead of looking over there shoulder and thinking to much.
Also, your thoughts on the roles of Bertrand, Henry, Shaw, and Langford this season? I believe these guys could be the keys for us not just this year but in the coming seasons. They are long, athletic, and very versatile and can cause mismatch problems for other teams if we were to play small.
Thanks and apologies for the long winded questions. Just a very optimistic illini fan!
Bertrand has already played a large role and I don't see that changing. He's extended his shooting range to go along with his ability to get to the basket and finish in the lane. He hit a step-back three on Friday that is just deadly if he continues to use that floater in the lane after breaking down his defender. Langford has been the ninth-man so far and he still needs to get better. Groce said the big thing with Devin is bringing it every day and continuing to get a better understanding of the system. If he can do that, he's got a place. Shaw is a little bit behind right now. The big thing for him is consistent effort every day in practice. If he shows that, he'll find some minutes. He hit a three the other night and grabbed four rebounds in te few minutes he played against St. Francis. They key for him is to own the boards.
There has been much talk about players transferring, especially those not getting much playing time this year. IllinoisLoyalty website thinks Shaw, Djimde and Langford will transfer to make room for 2013 & 2014 commits. I think Devin will get increased playing time and stay.
Do you think it likely that any players might transfer or that Coach Groce might "crean" some players (pressure them or force them to leave)? If so, who?
Personally I don't think it's right for coaches to "crean" players or so-called fans to talk about why some specific players should be pressured or forced to go. Not every nice.
We talked a little about this last week. It's always a possibility. There were something like 300 transfers last year for various reasons. No one thought Crandall Head was going to transfer and he's at SMU now. It happens. It's too early to guess on who might go after the season. You've got to let things play out a little bit more and see which guys find roles.
What should we expect from this team at the Maui Invitational?
I'm impressed with Groce's honesty at not being sure on where this team is yet, because they haven't been hit in the mouth.
How do you think this team will react to that situation and do you think the senior/captain leadership can grind out a few wins that we probably should have lost like in Chester's senior year?
We won't know how they react until it happens, but if I'm guessing, I'll say that they react favorably to getting popped in the mouth. Tracy Abrams and Sam McLaurin are two of your captains and those are two of the tougher dudes around. Tracy has a lot of Chester in him and though he's young, he's a voice that stands out among his teammates. And the coaches will be on these guys and won't allw them to fold. That's just my opinion after watching them for two games.
That's going to do it for this week. I've been asked whose letters are in so far. The only one I know for sure is Maverick Morgan. He tweeted his. The staff is in Hawaii, so it's been tough to nail down which other guys are signed. John Groce will address the media today at 4 p.m. CT to discuss the signing class and Friday's Hawaii game, so we should know who's in by then.
I should mention, assustant coach Jamall Walker is not in Hawaii with the team. He and his wife, Rebekah, will welcome a son to the world any day now, so Jamall is in C-U taking care of his family business.
Thanks again for all the questions.