CHAMPAIGN — One night last January, 4-year-old Mason Miller planned an evening at home with his father.
"He said, 'Daddy, it's time to sit down and watch basketball,' " Brandon Miller recalled.
It was moments like that when Brandon Miller reveled in his decision to exit the coaching game. Nights at home — free from scouting reports and hectic recruiting trips — were priceless to Holly's husband and Mason and Michael's dad.
After six seasons as an assistant to Thad Matta at Ohio State, Miller had left a promising career in the business. He took the coach out of basketball.
But he couldn't take the basketball out of the coach.
Now Miller has returned to the game as the special assistant to the head coach on John Groce's staff at Illinois. His basketball hiatus lasted roughly 10 months.
"After sitting out and being out of basketball for the first time since I can remember, I missed it. I love the game. I love basketball," Miller said from his office at Ubben Basketball Complex. "It was the first time I have not been part of a team since I played in a league in the first grade, either as a player or a coach. You miss that aspect of it.
"In saying that, I would not have gotten back into the game at any place with anybody. The opportunity here — to coach at the University of Illinois, to coach with coach (John) Groce — was a huge part of my decision."
If the opportunity weren't with Groce (a close friend) in familiar Big Ten territory (he's an Indiana native), Miller would still be pitching pharmaceuticals as a well-paid salesman.
But their friendship was strong enough that Miller jumped back into the business. When Miller was a guard at Butler, Groce was his position coach. Groce and Miller later shared an office at Xavier, a staff that featured four future head coaches — Matta, Groce, Alan Majors (Charlotte) and Sean Miller (Arizona). He's worked with Groce for four seasons.
"I've known Coach Groce for a long time," Miller said. "When you're a player you think you know everything there is to know about the game of basketball. What I realized in that first year as a coach, sharing an office (with Groce), is that you don't know a whole lot.
"Learning from him on an every-day basis — what to do, how to go about being a coach — was educational on the highest level. From that experience, my respect for how he does things, how he works, what type of coach he is, it all grew to the highest level."
Separating himself from basketball was more difficult than he expected. He grew up in a culture where life revolved around basketball, which partly explains why his knowledge of the game is striking. Miller played his high school ball in New Castle, Ind., including one season of varsity ball under Sam Alford. (Yes, Steve's dad). He later played on Sweet 16 teams at Southwest Missouri State and Butler. Matta recruited him to Butler.
Winning followed Miller as a staffer at Xavier (Elite Eight), Butler (NCAA tournament) and Ohio State (NCAA title game, two Sweet 16s, four Big Ten titles).
"A lot of my influence in coaching comes from coach Matta," said Miller, who also spent one season on Brad Stevens' staff at Butler.
Miller's sudden exit from the game came as a surprise in the coaching fraternity. Coming from a highly successful tree, he was thought of as being on the track to becoming a head coach.
Frankly, the 33-year-old is overqualified for the position he accepted at Illinois. Since Miller was an assistant at Ohio State for six seasons — and Ohio State currently is the benchmark in the Big Ten — it stands to reason he would be a top assistant at any of the 12 programs.
Instead, his position doesn't allow for on-court coaching or off-campus recruiting.
But he's OK with that.
And Illinois is really OK with that.
"To have Brandon on our staff, I can't tell you what a big deal that is. It's huge," Groce said. "You'll see. Brandon is a very impressive individual. I'm thrilled we were able to get him on our staff."
The Illinois staff last week continued its preparations for the July evaluation period, which is broken into three windows: July 11-15, 18-22 and 25-29.
And for Groce this evaluation period has an emphasis on "evaluation." As a new staff, the Illini had only a short time in April to observe many of the targets on their board. The coaches are still learning which prospects are worthy of scholarship offers.
"We've got an idea obviously of whom we're going after in (2013). We spent pretty much all of the spring dealing with '12s and '13s — transfer '12s, late-signee '12s," Groce said after a recent coaches meeting. "And then with the '13s, we knew we were going to sign four or five 13s in the fall. And we were a little behind on that class (2013). And I think our staff has done a great job of putting us on some guys."
Illinois has verbal commitments from two prospects in the class of 2013: Belleville East wing Malcolm Hill and Springboro (Ohio) center Maverick Morgan. The Illini right now would have three scholarships available for 2013. The priority is a dynamic point guard, and that search seems to be getting tougher by the day.
Their immediate focus is prospects that will be high school seniors in the fall — the Class of 2013. But the coaches will split their time watching younger prospects, as well, to get a better idea of which players should or shouldn't be on their radar.
"For the '14s, we're somewhat limited (with knowledge). We've got a fairly good idea there," he said. "But there are some guys we'd like to evaluate that maybe we didn't have a chance to (in April). Then obviously '15s, we've seen probably a grand total of four or five '15s.
"So if there's a slot in the day when we can go see a couple (prospects in the 2015 class), we'll be evaluating those guys at a high level, because we didn't see those guys as much as we did the '13s and '14s."
In a sense, having a new staff could be a benefit in July. There are fewer preconceived notions of which prospects should be on their radar.
A prospect might have a lot of hype, but if he doesn't play well in front of the Illini coaches, he might fall off their board. Likewise, a prospect that doesn't carry much same notoriety might play well and earn their attention. It's a clean slate for evaluation.
"I'm very confident in our guys' ability to evaluate players and identify talent," Groce said.
The language barrier in Austria proved to be a challenge.
More than once, Trent Meacham bought the wrong groceries. Then it was on to Germany. Trent and his wife Theresa loved it there, too. Finally, they moved to Paris, where his coach allowed for more off days, and the Meachams explored all corners of the glorious city.
"We've been all over Europe, to a lot of great cities," Meacham said. "But I don't think there's anything as great as Paris."
Now he's hanging 'em up. After three seasons overseas — in Austria, Germany and France — Meacham is retiring from basketball. The Centennial and Illinois graduate said he's excited about researching career opportunities in his hometown of Champaign.
"That was a tough decision (to stop playing). And it was something that took a while. We prayed about it and talked about it for about a year and a half," said Meacham, a starter for 65 of 68 games over his final two seasons at Illinois. "There were a number of factors, though. One was my motivation to really work at it. That had gone down. And I have an interest in pursuing something different. We're ready for a new challenge.
"And also being able to come back home and get rooted in one area, not bouncing around every year. That was big for us. I never set out to play for as many years as I could or to make as much money as I could. It was always more about the experiences we had."
Since returning to C-U, Meacham has reunited with his Illini roots. He attended the wedding of Chester Frazier, who was married a week ago in St. Louis. Former Illini in attendance included Mike Davis, Rich McBride, C.J. Jackson, Jamar Smith, Jeff Jordan, Jerrance Howard and coach Bruce Weber, among others. Meacham also met the new UI staff.
"It's an impressive group. I think they're going to do great things," he said. "I'm looking forward to seeing how it all plays out. And I'm excited to be a fan again (in C-U). I've read everything and followed (the program). But it will be nice to be around and watch as a fan."
As Groce's newest assistant, Paris Parham has been touted as the man that can help crack the Chicago recruiting barrier in terms of elite prospects. The city has produced its share.
Yet history suggests those players rarely attend Illinois.
"I think one of the reasons might be the bright lights. You're in a city where there's every professional sport. And when you see this stuff all the time — you've got a downtown that lights up the world — kids dream big," Parham said Friday. "When you have some of these (college programs) now, where kids are being able to leave after one year consistently (those are attractive schools). Every kid that plays and works out, their dream is to play in the NBA. But I don't see why this isn't a place (you can do that).
"There have been a number of guys that came from Chicago or the state of Illinois that came to this university and this institution and was drafted or picked up in free agency and had a lot of success (in the NBA). It's just something that we have to build, to make that 'I' sexy. And we're willing to work and do that."
One former Illini still chasing that NBA dream is Demetri McCamey.
After playing last season in Israel and Turkey, McCamey said last week he will play in the NBA summer league as a member of the Bulls roster. The Bulls' first summer league game is against the Celtics in Las Vegas on July 17.
Former Illini Dee Brown was invited to play with the Mavericks summer league team, according to a DallasESPN.com report. The Mavericks first game is July 15 against the Nuggets.
Former Illini Meyers Leonard also begins summer-league play July 15 when the Blazers meet the Hornets in Las Vegas. Former Illini Jamar Smith will be on the Celtics' summer league roster.
It was late Thursday night when Robert Archibald sat down to consider his whirlwind tour with Great Britain's national team.
"My body's holding together and we're enjoying it," he said from Loughborough, England.
When Archibald officially was selected to Team Great Britain for the Olympics in London, it wasn't a surprise. The Scotland native was a likely addition. He will be the third former Illini to play in the Olympics (Jens Kujawa, Germany, 1992; Deron Williams, U.S., 2008.)
It also means Illinois will have two former players in London. Deron Williams began training camp with Team USA on Friday. The U.S. and Great Britain are in different pools, however, and won't meet in the preliminary rounds that open July 29.
Great Britain also held a two-week training camp in Houston. Leonard had a predraft workout with the Rockets during that time. Archibald attended the workout and spent a minute chatting with the Blazers draft pick.
"It was good to meet him," Archibald said. "He's obviously got a bright future ahead of him."
Archibald chose a grand stage on which to end a succcessful playing career. After 10 seasons of pro basketball — two in the U.S., eight overseas — he will retire from the game after London. Robert and his wife, Molly, have a son, Robert V, who soon will turn 1.
"The Olympics are it for me," he said. "I had a rough year last season, in many different regards. I think we just kind of felt it was time for us to go onto the next chapter."
Sam McLaurin, Illinois.
Illinois, Sam McLaurin.
The fifth-year senior began graduate-school classes Thursday and took part in his first offseason workout the same day. The 6-foot-8 Coastal Carolina transfer had been limited to pickup games when he was on campus in June.
"I'm excited about him," Groce said of McLaurin. "I think he's going to be able to give us something on the frontline, as far as having an M.O. of an athletic defender, rebounder, shot-blocker. And he brings something to the table offensively.
"As you know, if you asked about the M.O. for most of the guys we have on our team, their M.O. is more on the offensive end than on the defensive end. And I think with Sam, he takes pride in the rebounding and defensive part. I think that's really going to help us."
Paul Klee covers college basketball for The News-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.