Klee's Corner: Sam and the Fam
CHAMPAIGN — While most of the Illinois basketball roster will return for summer classes in early June, Sam McLaurin plans to be there for the July session.
His June is packed.
The Coastal Carolina transfer has a cousin's wedding to attend. And his younger brother, who is in the Army, soon will deploy for his first tour overseas, in Afghanistan.
"I'd like to hang out with him before he goes," McLaurin said.
Having graduated last week at Coastal Carolina, McLaurin is eligible to play immediately for the 2012-13 season at Illinois. It will be his final season of college ball.
One of his sisters is in the Army, as well. Sam also will spend time with his older brother, who will graduate from Florida A&M in December. So most of his schedule is full with family matters. One of four siblings, McLaurin wanted to make certain those came first.
"But I'll be ready when I get there," he said. "I can promise you that."
The Illini are hoping so. Illinois desperately needed to add depth — preferably the experienced, proven kind — to its green frontcourt.
The four returning big men combined to average eight points and 7.5 rebounds per game. In his final season at Coastal Carolina, McLaurin averaged 10 points and 7.5 boards — and six and eight against BCS-level competition over the past three seasons. He also set the school's single-season record with 60 blocked shots.
A 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward, McLaurin has played more minutes of college ball (2,464) than the other four big men on the UI roster combined (1,448). His introduction to the Big Ten figures to be quite different from what he saw in the Big South — what McLaurin described as "a guard's league" that didn't have the size he'll see next season.
And McLaurin said he doesn't mind that. On defense, he won't be chasing smaller players around the perimeter. On offense, he must contend with players his size.
"At Coastal we were a bigger team, a high-major sized team in a guard's league," he said. "A lot of times on defense — all we played was man to man — I was guarding guys that were 6-3, 6-4, 6-5. There's not a lot of bigs in this league."
As an all-state selection at East Gadsden High School in Havana, Fla., he mostly had scholarship offers from midmajor conference schools. College of Charleston, Florida A&M and George Mason were among the programs to offer.
"George Mason, they offered me right after they went to the Final Four," McLaurin said. "I was pretty excited about that."
His second recruitment was an interesting one. High-major programs hunting that rare recruit — a productive veteran with size — came out in droves.
"N.C. State, Baylor, SMU, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Xavier, Kansas," McLaurin said, listing some of the schools that expressed interest. "It was mind-boggling the calls I was getting. How do you decide out of all the schools? All these schools are throwing something different at you. And those guys are good (with their recruiting approaches).
"It's tricky. You've got to figure out the best situation for you."
Initially, his top choices were Illinois and Virginia. A campus visit sold him on Illinois. McLaurin said his main player hosts were veterans D.J. Richardson, Joe Bertrand and Brandon Paul. He also spent time with the freshmen.
"Tracy (Abrams) is funny," McLaurin said. "I like that kid."
"It was just something about that orange," he added.
McLaurin said he would pursue a master's degree in Recreation, Sports and Tourism at Illinois. He's eligible immediately through the same NCAA loophole used by Sam Maniscalco, who transferred from Bradley to Illinois for his final season. McLaurin said he spoke with Maniscalco about his experience at Illinois during his campus visit.
"Coach (John) Groce, he seemed like he had a lot of energy. Every time we were walking around, he was always four steps ahead of us," McLaurin said with a laugh. "I couldn't keep up. ... I'm looking forward to playing for him. It was just what I was looking for."
McLaurin was a match for Illinois, as well.
"He fits the way we play. That's what got us really excited," said Illinois assistant Dustin Ford, who oversees the big men and was the lead recruiter on McLaurin. "There were some other guys we were looking at that were available. But here's a guy that's been pretty productive and we're not going to have to tweak the way we want to play."
What caught their attention?
First, his mobility. On defense, Groce prefers big men that can apply the traps, pressure and quick rotations he wants to employ. That McLaurin had experience defending much-smaller opponents and can defend multiple positions was a plus, Ford said.
"He's not going to slow us down how we want to play offensively. He has a skill level," Ford said. "He can score in the post. He's capable of making shots when he needs to.
"We just like guys that are versatile. Those are the guys that can defend and are the hardest guys to defend. Now we've got a couple guys that can do that. I think Nnanna (Egwu) can do that."
Meyers Leonard's decision to leave early for the NBA draft left a considerable hole in the frontcourt and heightened the Illini's need for another big man. Traditionally, Groce will use a four-player big man rotation, with the top three getting the most minutes.
"The way we want to play — fast — ideally we'll have four big guys that can play. To just play three, that would be hard," Ford said. "Those things take a lot of effort and conditioning. And they've got to be in very good shape to do it."
Illinois didn't get the SEC team it initially approached for its annual United Center game.
But the eventual opponent might be a better choice.
Illinois and Auburn agreed to a semi-neutral court series that brings the Tigers to the United Center on Dec. 29 and takes the Illini to Birmingham during the 2013-14 season.
Illinois had talked to Alabama about the same series — one game at the U.C., one game in Birmingham. That didn't work out. And it could be a blessing. 'Bama figures to be better than Auburn, and Illinois needs a win more than a marquee opponent in Chicago.
The Illini are 1-4 in their past five regular season games at the United Center.
The return trip to Alabama also serves as a homecoming for Huntsville product Devin Langford.
Nic Moore figures to have a choice of destinations after announcing he will transfer from Illinois State.
Illinois is one of those options. The Illini are one of the high-major programs to express interest in and have contact with Moore.
A 5-9 point guard, Moore was named to the All-MVC Freshman team after averaging 10 points per game and leading the Redbirds in assists. He was most effective late in his first season — a promising quality in a lead guard. Moore averaged 23 points over his final three games, all against quality competition (Creighton, Ole Miss, Stanford).
The connection to the new Illinois staff comes from his high school days. Moore was runner-up in Indiana's Mr. Basketball voting (Cody Zeller). Then the coach at Ohio, Groce offered a scholarship to the Warsaw High standout.
Moore has been granted his release from Illinois State and can transfer to a school outside the MVC. He would have three seasons of eligibility remaining after sitting out the 2012-13 campaign due to NCAA transfer rules.
Once Jerrance Howard landed at SMU, the Mustangs immediately became the leader for Crandall Head. Howard has a decade-long relationship with Head, who announced Thursday he will transfer to SMU.
But SMU coach Larry Brown also was familiar with Head. Brown watched him when Head was a freshman in a game against Maryland at Madison Square Garden. He had three assists in eight minutes and drew the praise of ESPN commentator Bob Knight.
Brown also saw Head play against Kansas in the 2010 NCAA tournament in Tulsa.
Still, Howard was the central reason Head chose Illinois out of high school and the reason he chose SMU. Head also considered transferring from Illinois after his freshman season but Howard helped talk him into staying.
He eventually left in January — the midway point of his sophomore year. Head must sit out the 2012-13 season and will have two seasons of eligibility at SMU.
Myke Henry finished his final exams last week and said he would return to Chicago for a few days. The rising sophomore has a plan when he returns for summer classes in June.
"Hopefully I can get a job here when I get back," Henry said. "I'll work anywhere. You have a lot of free time in the summer. You don't want to waste it."
Henry is a gifted scorer who needs work on defense and played only a minor role as a freshman. The transition to a new coaching staff seems to have gone smoothly.
"I like the new staff. I think the other players like them, too," said Henry, who averaged more minutes in Big Ten play than in the weaker nonconference schedule. "I talk to them all the time. I'll just come in and pop into the office. I don't know about the other players. But they're real easy to talk to. I really enjoy them. I think that's the biggest part."
Groce's staff is still sorting out which players will play where. The most likely scenario has Henry shuffling between the small and big forward positions. He has no preference.
"Whatever gets me on the court," he said. "As long as I'm on the floor, I'm good."