McLaurin, Henry, Griffey, Bertrand all can contribute at power forward
It’s called the “4” or the “power forward,” which denotes size and bulk. Every basketball coach is tempted to play his biggest non-center at the position.
At Illinois, it worked when Lou Henson had the duo of Efrem Winters and George Montgomery (1984 and 1985), and he had no better alternative when he paired Deon Thomas with Shelly Clark. Brian Cook provided an ideal 1-2 punch with Marcus Griffin and later with James Augustine.
Later on, the pairing of tall Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis, and joined by similarly lanky 6-9 Bill Cole, wasn’t exactly ideal.
Smaller and quicker often works better. We hark back to lithe Peorian Mark Smith (6-7) when Illini fans saw the advantages of ball handling and explosiveness at the position. Henson came to understand, after several years of trying Smith at guard, that he provided a more advantageous mismatch at the 4.
Roger Powell (6-6) was the reincarnation of Smith more than two decades later. For several years, every effort was made to employ him on the wing, but ultimately his greatest value was at the 4. If there is one major similarity between the UI’s Final Four teams in 1989 and 2005, it was the excellence of medium-sized (for the position) athletes Kenny Battle and Powell where some might consider them undersized.
This is pertinent because, as you might see in Monday’s Orange & Blue Scrimmage, coach John Groce has several options at the position.
On one hand, he has the option of 6-8 seniors Sam McLaurin and Tyler Griffey, or more mobile, explosive options in 6-6 scorers Myke Henry and Joe Bertrand. It is a work in progress with sophomore Henry, whom Groce calls “wired to score” and “our best rebounder in practice,” offering long-range potential if he can reduce mistakes and successfully defend the position.
From my cloudy view, it appears most likely that McLaurin will be called on to share center with Nnanna Egwu because that position is so foul-vulnerable. And Bertrand is a better fit at small forward.
So a lineup of Tracy Abrams or Brandon Paul at point, Paul or D.J. Richardson at shooting guard, and the trio of Bertrand, Henry and Egwu offers the kind of speed and athleticism that Groce would prefer for his up-tempo game.
Around the league
Indiana finished 11-7 in the Big Ten last year after going 8-46 the three previous seasons. So it’s hard to wrap your brain around the No. 1 ranking the Hoosiers will carry into the new season.
Actually, it’s quite simple. When 6-10 Cody Zeller elected not to turn pro, the Hoosiers retained all their main standouts while perennial powers lost their best players to the NBA.
Tom Crean’s club was far from dominant after starting red hot (12-0), hitting a 5-for-7 tailspin in mid-January. The Hoosiers lost to Wisconsin 79-71 in the Big Ten tournament. They barely escaped Virginia Commonwealth 63-61 on Will Sheehey’s jumper to reach the NCAA Sweet 16, where they bowed to Kentucky 102-90.
Indiana returns extraordinary depth, the most serious loss being Champaign’s Verdell Jones III. Zeller is exceptional on the block, and fleet freshman Yogi Ferrell will challenge hustling senior Jordan Hulls at point.
Other Big Ten contenders are strong but have question marks. Here are some of them.
Michigan State: Who’ll replace Draymond Green, and isn’t it a shame what happened to Delvon Roe (knee)? Can sophomore Branden Dawson and freshman Gary Harris take leadership roles? How good is 6-10 Adreian Payne?
Ohio State: With Jared Sullinger leaving early, will Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft be asked to carry too much of the load? Will Illinoisans Sam Thompson and Lenzelle Smith Jr. step up?
Michigan: Can the frontline keep pace with exceptional guards Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke? Why did hotshot recruit Mitch McGary (6-10) drop in the ratings? Will 6-7 Peoria redshirt Max Bielfeldt get to play the role of departed Evan Smotrycz?
Looking around, we see Carolina missing four starters and Kentucky without all five, Kansas will likely have three freshmen among the top six players, the Pac-12 is recovering from its worst-ever season. Austin Rivers left Duke, Bradley Beal left Florida, and many others (like Illinois) were similarly affected.
Meanwhile, Indiana was able to keep Zeller, and that’s the difference. For now. When the games begin, the landscape will change yet again.
Money, money, money
How much money does the community lose when the Illini football team struggles?
The economic impact of basketball doesn’t change much because the games are shorter, attendance is consistently around 15,000 and not many fans stay overnight. Football is a different animal, and we’re thankful to Jayne DeLuce, president and CEO of the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau, for the rundown.
“It’s generally off this year,” she said (like we didn’t know). “But the homecoming game with Indiana (Saturday) hasn’t changed much since the start of the season. Most people who attend have made plans, and we have sellouts in our hotels. One game like this can have an economic impact of several million dollars.
“As for the restaurants, shopping and other aspects, we’ll know later. It appears that more people are inclined to celebrate and spend (in bars and restaurants) when the team wins.”
DeLuce says there are reduced reservations for the mid-November home games with Purdue and Minnesota. With nine straight Big Ten losses, fans are becoming despondent and less likely to attend in chilly weather.
Outside of football, DeLuce points to April’s Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon as providing the greatest impact, estimated at $10 million. Last weekend’s Illinois Futbol Club Fall Cup soccer tourney came in at $3.1 million, and Don Flynn’s nine First Pitch baseball tournaments this summer were in that neighborhood. No figures have yet been compiled for the IHSA wrestling finals, which drew 40,000 over three days and accounted for multiple millions spent by families here.
But the whopper is football ... when the Illini are viewed as a positive experience. If the Illini fall Saturday, or even if they win, the last two home games will hit bottom in terms of the turnstile count and economic impact.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.