Wed, June 11: UI recruit still in the classroom
CHAMPAIGN – While his teammates spend their summer vacations working on their tans and their jumpers, Leighton Nash is stuck in some stuffy Iowa classroom, wishing he were here.
He won't be, not for at least another two months – if ever.
Nash, the University of Illinois' lone spring basketball signee, stumbled academically this past semester at Iowa's Southeastern Community College, jeopardizing his Division I future.
His summer school plate already was full, with three English classes to make up. If Nash has to retake another course – it's likely, but not definite – the load could get too heavy.
"I've been preparing for this," Nash said. "Academics are something that have to be taken care of before the basketball can be played.
"There is no doubt, I will be at Illinois."
UI coaches, stunned about Nash's spring struggles, aren't so optimistic. They may know more after Southeastern coach Joe O'Brien gets back from a recruiting trip in Puerto Rico and sits down with Nash and his professors.
If the 6-foot-7 Nash doesn't make it, Illinois would be left with four options at power forward and center next season: 6-9 Rich Beyers, 6-8 Jarrod Gee, 6-7 Victor Chukwudebe and 6-6 Brian Johnson.
"Hopefully, I'll be there in mid-August," Nash said.
Most of the returning Illini already are here.
Chukwudebe's a busy bee, taking three classes and hawking Nikes at All About Shoes.
Jerry Hester's doing construction for English Brothers.
Jelani Boline's yanking weeds at the U of I golf courses.
Gee's coaching the little ones at the Lon Kruger Basketball Camp.
Kevin Turner's doing yardwork at Memorial Stadium.
Only Matt Heldman and Johnson split for the summer – Heldman working as a runner at the Chicago Board of Trade, Johnson making cellular phones as an intern at Motorola.
So what's new with the new Illini this summer? Here's a look:
The former Centennial whizbang makes what could be his last Champaign-to-Evanston drive on Friday for a statistics final, his final final.
After that, his brief life as a Northwestern Wildcat officially is over.
Under NCAA transfer rules, his life as an Illini can't begin for another fall, though the UI could use the Big Ten's leading freshman rebounder now if Nash doesn't make it. Ammons will stay busy, getting in the nightly scrimmages at Huff Hall and playing in the Prairie State Games with Heldman later this summer.
"It's going to be great," Ammons said. "I've got a whole year to work on my shot."
He moved to town Sunday but hasn't quite settled in yet, as you can tell by the older woman's voice on his answering machine, saying no one's home.
Mom move in with you, Rich?
"No, the tape came with the machine," Beyers said.
He's living away from his Shelbyville home, but the freshman-to-be still sees his dad every morning when he reports for work. Together, they paint – and we're not talking Picasso, either.
"Mostly barns and machine sheds around Champaign," Beyers said.
Beyers' prep farewell happens July 28 in Peoria. He's among three UI recruits who'll take part in the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association All-Star Game.
His summer basketball project? "Get stronger." A must, the 225-pounder found out Monday after joining the older Illini in a scrimmage at Huff Hall.
"Naturally, as a freshman, he needs to get stronger mentally and physically," Hester said. "But he can help us a lot next year. He can do so many different things. He can pass the ball well for a big man. And he can shoot it. He's a difficult player to defend."
Illinois fans better hope he takes to the summer bridge program better than the last guy (Willie Coleman).
Bradford, who's signed up for the UI's academic boot camp, is scheduled to arrive June 29 on campus.
By then, he hopes to know the results of his last crack at the ACT, which he takes Saturday morning in his hometown of Memphis, Tenn. He's a fractional point shy of the NCAA-required minimum score and has been preparing for the big day by getting instruction at Kaplan Educational Services, which specializes in such matters.
"I'm trying to keep myself focused because this is the last chance I've got," Bradford said. "Gotta knock it down this time."
Bradford's foot, which he had minor surgery on after his senior season at Raleigh-Egypt High, feels fine. He got his cast off about a month ago. Time now to take off a few pounds.
"I'm running pretty hard, jumping pretty good," he said. "I'm just out of shape."
No, that was not Dennis Rodman you saw mowing the grass outside the Bielfeldt Athletic Administration Building.
It's new UI shooting guard Arias Davis, who may have the Worm beat in the tattoo department.
He mentions everyone in the family somewhere on his arms. He's got tattoos for his mom and his sister (with drawings of flowers next to both), another for himself and, taking up his entire right forearm, one for his 9-month-old son, Arekwon.
Davis won't have to find a baby sitter while he's doing maintenance work for the university or hitting the weights. The tot lives with his mother in Waycross, Ga., where Davis grew up.
"He's the reason I go home," said Davis, who said goodbye to the South for a while two weeks ago.
The svelte Davis, who's spent the last two years shooting threes at Otero Junior College in LaJunta, Colo., plans to close IMPE many a summer night.
"I've got to work on my pull-up jumper," Chukwudebe's roomie said.
Said Hester: "You could compare him to Alex Dillard, who played for (NCAA champ) Arkansas a few years back. He'll spread the defense out a lot."
Mr. Basketball's summer project is easier than most's: Selling the UI to good buddy Frankie Williams, one of the nation's top seniors-to-be.
McClain guarantees he'll deliver.
Things actually have slowed down a bit for The News-Gazette's 1997 Player of the Year, who last was seen at the White House, talking hoops with Al Gore, who had the national high school champs down for a photo op.
A few more stops, and one of the most storied careers in IHSA history will be done. McClain will join teammate Marcus Griffin in Boston and for the IBCA game, and is among the top attractions at the Wendy's Classic, set for July 19-20 in Fort Wayne, Ind. It's a four-team tournament with all-stars from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio squaring off.
Fourteen Big Ten signees and all four Mr. Basketballs will be on hand (McClain, Duke's Shane Battier, Indiana's Luke Recker and Ohio State's Michael Redd).
Like Robbie Reid, the prized Peorian's plans include a few weeks of school shopping.
Academically ineligible to play for the UI, Griffin's next stop is likely junior college. Southeastern's O'Brien would be happy to have him, but Griffin and Kruger have not talked specifics yet.
"I can't say nothing right now," Griffin said.
When he's not washing trucks with McClain at Star Trucking in Morton, you can find Griffin on a basketball court somewhere across the United States.
Could be in Boston, where he'll be next weekend for an Adidas shootout. Could be in Peoria, where he's working on his "handle."