Returning Illini don't want a youth problem next winter

Returning Illini don't want a youth problem next winter

CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois men's basketball team spent most of the spring in the weight room with strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher.

Per NCAA rules, Fletcher gets quadruple the time with the players than the coaches do on the basketball court.

One look at a photo of the eight remaining players on campus this spring that made its way around social media reveals the fruits of those labors. Gains on top of gains for the Illini this spring.

But that wasn't the only place for growth.

Multiple transfers, Leron Black's decision to turn pro and Mark Alstork exhausting his eligibility changed the dynamic of the Illinois roster. The Illini went through the spring with just eight players. Managers had to play so they could go 5-on-5.

Illinois' remaining players rallied around each other.

"For us, it's been a lot about camaraderie in the locker room and really honing in on building this culture up to where we want to be," redshirt junior forward Kipper Nichols said. "We come in here and push each other to be the best we can be every day. Right now all we've got is us, and we take pride in that."

Last spring had its own challenges. Brad Underwood had just been hired as coach. He began installing some of his new scheme and system, but didn't push hard on that with Mark Alstork and Matic Vesel not on campus in the summer.

This spring was different. The Illinois players knew what was expected of them. Refinement of Underwood's system — not installation — was a focus along with individual skill improvement. But the departures from the team led to a different dynamic for the team.

"We've got different faces in the locker room and young faces," Nichols said. "With that landscape on our team right now, we've really got to push hard and not just on the court. Coming together as a team and learning different things. This year we don't want youth to be an issue."

Youth will come into play in about a month. That's when Illinois' roster grows, as six new players — five freshmen and junior college transfer Andres Feliz — will officially join the team.

Aaron Jordan said he didn't see adding so many new faces in the summer as being a challenge. They're all basketball guys. They all have similar goals. But Jordan, the lone senior on the roster, does see helping those younger players as a responsibility he must undertake.

"I've been here for a while," the now-longest tenured Illini said. "I know what to do and what not to do. Relaying that to the younger guys. Keeping their heads on straight. Just being a voice for them."

Even Greg Eboigbodin sees his role changing to include more leadership. Only a sophomore, he's the current veteran of the Illinois frontcourt that will include incoming freshmen Samba Kane and Giorgi Bezhanishvili.

"I have to be a leader this time," Eboigbodin said. "I'm really confident with who's coming in. My role is to push us every day, and they can push back. We're a team. I'm really excited for the challenge, and I would like to push them as hard as I can and hopefully I get the same treatment back."

The chemistry the Illini were able to generate this spring is something Nichols said will prove pivotal this summer. Those eight players will help set the standard for the 2018-19 season.

"If all the guys right here in the locker room at this moment can come together and have that strong sense of camaraderie and have a strong bond between each other, it will be easier to hold each other accountable and it will be easier to hold the younger guys accountable when they get here," Nichols said. "Knowing what we're doing and doing it every day and giving it your all is what's important."

Scott Richey can be reached at 217-351-5605, by email at srichey@news-gazette.com and on Twitter@srrichey.

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