When Illinois Wolves wrapped up another successful run on the club circuit last weekend, the action really got started.
After three days of games in the first "live" evaluation period — a time when college coaches can attend NCAA-sanctioned events — 11 Wolves players received multiple scholarship offers.
There was Nate Taphorn, a 6-foot-7 forward from Pekin, earning Big Ten offers from Iowa and Northwestern. There was David Cohn, a 6-2 guard from York, getting one from NIU. There was Jordan Ash, a gifted freshman from Westchester St. Joseph, earning an offer from Purdue.
"Our whole frontline (on the Wolves' U16 squad) got offered by DePaul," said Mike Mullins, the director of the state's finest club program.
More exposure for prospects is one by-product of the NCAA's decision to allow college coaches back on the road again this spring. The second live period was this weekend.
The Nike Spring Showdown at Merrillville, Ind., was one of multiple events the first weekend that drew coaches and teams from across the country.
Just as an example, the Merrillville event had 162 teams and roughly 1,600 players — most looking for exposure, some just for the competition.
Between 100 and 125 college recruiters also attended — each paying a $50 one-day pass or $200 for the weekend and a roster book.
Some were hunting the next commitment. Some were watching their own recruits. All were there to be seen in their orange-and-blue, crimson-and-cream or maize-and-blue colors.
Michigan assistant Lavall Jordan watched as 2013 commitment Zak Irvin put on a show with 21 points in a half. Indiana assistant Steve McClain watched 2013 commitment Collin Hartman. Purdue coach Matt Painter watched undervalued 2013 recruit Kendall Stephens shine.
Ten of the 12 Big Ten programs were represented, including head coaches Bill Carmody, Tom Crean, Tom Izzo, John Groce, Tim Miles and Painter.
Five of the six power conferences were represented. There was NCAA champion John Calipari, paying the entry fee and watching two prospects before heading to the next stop. There was former Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich, wearing neutral "Missouri Valley Conference" gear as he mulled a job offer from SMU.
Eight states were represented among the participating teams, some well-established and others poorly prepared. One team from Mac Irvin Fire was disqualified from the event — before it even started — after attempting to participate with an ineligible player.
There was Chicago Curie prospect Cliff Alexander, a 6-9 forward, shattering a backboard in what appeared to be his eighth game of the day. UI assistant Jamall Walker was on hand.
A little bit of everything, really.
For the new staff, the reintroduced live period was priceless. Instead of waiting for the July evaluation period, the coaches got a jump on identifying and evaluating future Illini.
Groce and Walker sat front and center for multiple games featuring recruit Malcolm Hill. It also marked their first chance — as the UI staff, at least — to observe recruit Jalen James.
This weekend the Illinois staff had coaches in St. Louis, Arkansas and Virginia.
"At this point (thanks to the April period) we've been able to evaluate a heavy number of kids," said Groce, who can't discuss prospects until they've signed a letter of intent.
The prospects being tracked by the Illini staff seem to fit a certain profile — tough, hard-edged and aggressive. The passive types scare them away.
"One, a guy that wants to get better as a person and a player," Walker said when asked their profile of the new Illinois prospect. "Two, a guy that's not about himself, that knows he's not bigger than the program. The program's going to be here long after they're gone.
"And the third thing is a guy that wants to win championships. We talk about getting rings and cutting down nets."
On the rise
Roger Powell still had some game left in his 29-year-old legs.
"My wife said a couple weeks ago that she missed me playing," the former Illini said.
But he saw an opportunity in coaching — under a head coach he trusted — and jumped on it. Now Powell is entering his second year as an assistant on Bryce Drew's staff at Valpo.
"I think the biggest thing is being able to work with Coach Drew and Homer Drew, who's always around and has been kind of a mentor for me," said Powell, who played five seasons as a pro. "What I'm learning is so valuable for me. And the mentorship they've been able to give me."
And his winning ways have continued. Powell was a part of five championships at Illinois — three Big Ten regular season titles and a pair of Big Ten tournament titles. In his first season on Valpo's staff, the Crusaders won the Horizon League regular season title. Baylor coach Scott Drew even flew in for a victory dinner to celebrate the championship.
"Coach (Bryce Drew) jokes with me all the time: 'You don't know any different (except winning),' " Powell said with a laugh.
Valpo reached the title game of the Horizon tournament — and built a three-point halftime lead — but Detroit claimed the 70-50 win and automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
Powell since has secured his first recruit — former Chicago Foreman point guard Lavonte Dority, who is transferring to Valpo after two seasons at South Florida. And he keeps close tabs on the Illini program he helped to the 2005 NCAA championship game. Powell scouted prospects and conversed with new coach Groce at the Merrillville event last weekend.
"He seems like a great guy. Obviously I don't know him too well, but just from the little interaction I had with him, he seems like a genuine man," Powell said. "It was cool to get to meet him for the first time. Obviously I look forward to seeing him at Illinois."
As he listened intently during an Old Chicago pizza with coaching peers, it was clear Powell has the desire to move up in the coaching ranks. Those clamoring for a former UI player on the coaching staff would be wise to monitor Powell's career path.
No one knows what's in store for Rayvonte Rice better than Trent Meacham.
Both starred at Centennial. Both began their college careers elsewhere — Meacham at Dayton, Rice at Drake — before transferring home to Illinois. And both faced questions of how their games would translate in the Big Ten.
"I don't know him real well, but I do know there's no doubt he's a high-major talent," Meacham said from France. "He's so versatile that I think he'll be able to fit in and impact the game from a number of spots. Plus, he seems to be one of those players that was made for the Big Ten. It won't be easy, but I think he'll really make a big impact here."
Perhaps because of his local roots — scrutiny seems to intensify when you're a hometown product — Meacham was undervalued in three seasons at Illinois. He averaged 29-plus minutes and 10-plus points as a junior and senior — at a time when more celebrated off guards were falling through (Quinton Watkins, Jamar Smith, Eric Gordon).
Meacham is nearing the end of his first season in the top league in France. Paris-Levallois has three games left in the regular season before the playoffs open about May 20.
A pair of C-U products will be in the Big Ten when Rice becomes eligible for the 2013-14 season. Jay Simpson, who played at Central before transferring to an Indiana prep school for his senior year, would be a sophomore at Purdue.
As a transfer, Rice will sign a financial aid agreement before arriving at Illinois in time for the summer session in June.
Managers making moves
Andy Etheridge didn't know it, but his first three weeks helping the new Illinois staff was a job audition.
Etheridge made a strong impression and landed the job. The former Illini student manager has been hired as the graduate assistant on Groce's staff, a big step for a UI senior who wants to get into coaching.
"He's embraced it wholeheartedly," Groce said.
Etheridge grew up an Illini fan. His first game at the Assembly Hall was Illinois-Illinois State in 2004. Now he will handle video and anything else the staff throws his way.
"Obviously I'm pretty excited," said Etheridge, who played shooting guard at Normal Community High School. "They've been extremely helpful. They've put a lot of trust in me that I can help with what they want to do."
A business marketing major, Etheridge was a manager for the past three seasons at Illinois. He will join a list of former managers who translated their experience into basketball jobs after their graduation. Recent examples include Matt McCumber (SIU, grad assistant), Dustin Yoder (Parkland, assistant coach), Luke Hemenover (St. Edward's, grad assistant; Indiana Tech, assistant), Eric Anderson (EIU, video coordinator; Indiana Tech, assistant) and the late Jeremy Izzo (Joliet Catholic, boys' coach).
One vacant position that hasn't earned much attention outside the program is the strength and conditioning coach. Groce said he has "narrowed down" the list of candidates to replace Jimmy Price, who left for Kansas State.
"That's a critical position," Groce said.
Yes, Groce teaches basketball as a team game.
But he also wants players who can score a basket on their own — "go-getters," as one staffer put it. One-on-one ability has been lacking in the Illini scheme. Most of the scoring production has been a product of the system or a set play.
But with five or six seconds left on the shot clock — someone better draw on his own playmaking ability so Illinois doesn't settle for a fadeaway three at the buzzer.
That's partly why coaches pitted teammates against each other in a one-on-one tournament last week at Ubben. Juniors Tyler Griffey and Brandon Paul advanced to the championship.
Paul, the leading scorer last season, claimed the one-on-one title.
"From what people have told me, I'm really going to like (Groce's) system," Paul said.
Count the 6-3 junior guard among those who quickly became a fan of the staff's workouts.
"I got better after the first day," he said.
But the main reason for the one-on-one tournament had little to do with scoring baskets. It was more about scratch-and-claw competition, staffers said.
"We want guys that are going to get after it every time out," assistant Jamall Walker said.
Rules to live by
A list of NCAA rules changes figure to benefit the new staff.
Perhaps most important, coaches now can work with players during the summer. They are allowed to supervise eight hours per week — six in conditioning and two on the court. There's no limit to the number of players they can work with at one time, either.
The summer workouts are allowed when classes are in session.
"That's huge for us," Groce said.
The recruiting spectrum is changing too. Starting June 15, coaches are allowed unlimited phone calls and text messages to prospects who have finished their sophomore year. Prospects also are able to take official campus visits starting in January of their junior year — instead of waiting until the start of classes their senior year.
One hope is that these moves might help curtail the record number of transfers as high school prospects make better-informed decisions of where they will attend college.
Hey, I know you
The strength of the new staff isn't necessarily in the higher-profile areas of coaching: recruiting, player development or game management.
It's their familiarity with each other.
In turn, that familiarity should make them successful in the aforementioned areas. Recruiters Isaac Chew, Dustin Ford and Jamall Walker know what Groce wants in a point guard, for example. The assistants know how to run a Groce-style workout and how fast he wants to play. Administrative assistant Ramon Williams knows how Groce wants to plan a recruiting visit, for another example. There's no guesswork or gray areas in communication.
"I've been on different staffs, but this staff by far is the tightest together," Walker said.
It's youthful, too. Groce is 40 and the youngest head coach in the Big Ten. (Purdue's Matt Painter and Penn State's Patrick Chambers are 41.) Further, Walker is 34, Ford is 33, and Chew is 37. In workouts, Chew coaches the wings, Walker the guards, Ford the big men.
"Those guys are on the cutting edge of developing guys at those positions," Groce said.
Whether it matters or not, all of the coaches played in college — Groce at Taylor University, Chew at Iowa Lakes Community College and Avila University, Ford at Ohio and Walker at St. Louis University. Ford said staffers once played a pickup game at Ohio — but won't again.
"We played our first year at Ohio," Ford said. "And 'Walk' and I are really, really good friends. We spend a lot of time together not only at work but off the court. We played for about five minutes and we were ready to fist fight each other."
And when the head coach trusts an assistant with his hair — or lack of, in Groce's case — there must be a level of trust, right?
"Dustin's been my barber ever since we started working together," Groce said with a laugh.
Paul Klee covers college basketball for The News-Gazette. Reach him at 217-373-7422 or at email@example.com.