CHAMPAIGN — Not long after John Groce met Deron Williams and introduced himself as the new coach at Illinois, the conversation shifted to, of all things, fashion.
Illini fashion, in particular.
Impressed with Williams' fitness level, Groce asked the point guard how he transformed his body. That led to a discussion of the Illini gear in D-Will's closet.
"I think the one thing that stands out about him is just how fit he looks," Groce said.
"We coached against him when we were at Ohio State in '04-05. I don't know what his body fat was, but he was a bigger guard then. He was joking around, 'Hey, tell Rod (Cardinal), when you send me Illinois stuff, I'm a different size now. I used to be an XL (shirt) and XXL (shorts). Now I'm an L and XL. I went down a size.' "
And Williams continues to transform his personal brand. Groce is doing what he can to make certain the Illini brand goes with him.
Williams and the U.S. senior national team open the Olympics against France today in London. Groce attended USA Basketball's training camp earlier this month in Las Vegas. Illinois AD Mike Thomas reached out to U.S. czar Jerry Colangelo, who extended an invitation to the new Illini coach. It was Groce's first opportunity to connect with Williams — a critical relationship in the coach's long-term vision for Illinois basketball.
"The two most important things for me being out there were getting a chance to spend some time with Jerry and a little bit of time with Deron," Groce said.
Illini basketball needs Williams in the fold. The three-time NBA All-Star is their brightest star and one of only two former Illini certain to be on NBA rosters in 2012-13.
Only five players on this U.S. roster were on the gold medal-winning roster at the Beijing Games in 2008. Williams is one. The others: Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Chris Paul. It is an exclusive, elite country club.
And Williams' personal brand figures to grow from here. He's the face of a Nets franchise that will play in Brooklyn next season. Then there's his fresh $100 million contract.
"I wanted to make sure he knew how important he is to us. He's a huge part of the tradition of Illinois basketball," Groce said. "What he does for us in terms of playing at the level he plays at in the NBA and being a part of USA Basketball and the contract he just signed here recently — he's represented Illinois well."
Groce and Williams had three conversations in Vegas. For part of the training camp, Williams didn't participate in contact drills because he had yet to sign his new contract.
As an assistant at Ohio State, Groce wasn't responsible for the Illinois scouting report. That was Alan Majors. But since he has a healthy obsession with elite-level point guards, Groce found plenty to love about Williams' ability.
"If you look at that story on point guards (in The News-Gazette, July 1), he obviously fits a lot of those things you're looking for. My gosh — he's got a lot of those qualities," Groce said. "I appreciate how he makes guys better. That's just keeping it simplistic. He makes guys better. His vision is ridiculous. He seems to make the right play about 98 percent of the time — whether that's to shoot it, to pass it, he's got a great basketball IQ.
"And what makes him dangerous is that he can kill you by scoring the ball, too. He makes you dangerous. He's a dual-threat guy. He can beat you by making other guys better, and he can beat you by scoring it. He's got a great midrange game. He can hit threes. He's a dangerous point guard."
Michael Finke has become accustomed to the exchange.
A college coach contacts his AAU coach, Gavin Sullivan, who then informs Finke to expect a phone call from that coach.
"He tells me they're really interested and they might have a scholarship (offer)," Finke said.
Lately, there usually has been a scholarship offer for the Centennial junior. After a promising July with Peoria Irish, Finke on Friday had six offers: Eastern Illinois, Loyola, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota State, South Dakota State and SIU-Edwardsville.
"It's fun. It's awesome. I love it," the 6-foot-8 forward said Thursday from an AAU event in Fort Wayne, Ind. "Just to know that in the future, that (scholarship) is going to be there."
From the player's perspective, exposure is the biggest advantage of playing a full schedule during the July evaluation period. Finke has taken advantage with Peoria Irish.
"Gavin does a great job of getting everybody's name out there," Finke said. "He knows a ton of coaches, a ton of people. Without Irish I probably would not be where I am with all of these offers."
Jeff Finke, his father, was a four-time letter winner for Illini football in the 1980s. He was also a member of Lou Henson's Illini in 1986-87.
Michael Finke said he doesn't have a leader in his recruitment and wants to go through the process. He doesn't have a timeline for a decision on where he will attend college.
"Right now I'm just letting it all come in and let it all soak in. You can only go through this one time in your life," he said. "I'm just going to enjoy it."
Illinois hasn't played Southern Cal since a 90-77 win in the 1997 NCAA tournament.
That changes Nov. 19 at the Maui Invitational, where the Illini and Trojans will face off in an opening-round matchup on ESPN2. USC is expected to have a different look than last season, when the Trojans finished 1-17 in a historically bad Pac-12.
Start with the transfers. J.T. Terrell is a talented 6-foot-3 transfer from Wake Forest and Peninsula College. Renaldo Woolridge, who also makes YouTube rap videos, is a 6-9 transfer from Tennessee. Ari Stewart (Wake Forest) and Eric Wise (UC Irvine) will be eligible after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.
USC coach Kevin O'Neill also returns key players coming off injuries. Guard Jio Fontan (ACL) is a scorer, while center Dewayne Dedmon (knee) is a 7-footer getting pro looks.
O'Neill, whose colorful language filled Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena from 1997 to 2000, has told reporters this should be his deepest team through four seasons at USC.
One Pac-12 coach said "if the pieces fit" he expects a much-improved USC team. That won't be hard. USC lost 10 straight to close the season. Combined, Illinois and USC went 1-19 in February and March. Here's hoping both are improved by late November.
The Illinois staff wraps up the July evaluation period today. The final week saw coaches in Atlantic City, N.J.; Las Vegas; Orlando, Fla.; and Fort Wayne.
The new format — three five-day windows, instead of two 10-day windows — drew mixed reviews from the Illini staff. The old format led to tired prospects and tired coaches. The new format allowed for comprehensive evaluations, though it still might be too long.
"At least it gives you some time to come back, take a deep breath, return to the office and analyze what we've seen," Groce said. "We sit down and we meet and talk strategy. We figure out what calls we have to make, where we go next, who's going where. It gives you a chance to plan a little better. I like the fact I get to see my wife and two kids at least for 24 to 48 hours before going back out for five (days). That part's been good."
Illinois' approach to this July was twofold. Make up ground with the 2013 and 2014 classes, while getting in early on the better prospects in the 2015 and 2016 classes.
"I think we've made up a lot of ground," Groce said. "That's for sure."
Assistant coach Jamall Walker is the de facto recruiting coordinator on the staff. The former Murray State, Arizona and Ohio staffer identifies which coach should be where and at what time. Travel plans change as prospects move up and down their big board, but there were few travel difficulties for the staff in its first July at Illinois.
"As we should be, we're further along than we were two months ago. What that translates into, I don't know at this point. We'll see what happens," Groce said. "We need some guards for sure. We need an athletic 4 (forward). We're fighting and grinding it out. The staff's done a very good job. The staff is very organized.
"Jamall organizes all of our recruiting. I think he's been very, very good with that."
After a freshman season in which he couldn't crack the playing rotation, Mike Shaw asserted himself.
The Chicago De La Salle product is down 15 pounds and weighed in last week about 215. His body fat dropped and his weightlifting numbers are improved, coaches said.
Offseason disclaimer: None of that guarantees Shaw will develop into a player at Illinois. It does mean he took the freshman-season snub to heart. After Jan. 1, Shaw appeared in six games, all when the outcome was decided.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever gone through, for real," Shaw said after a workout at Ubben Basketball Complex. "I mean, I've played all my life. And to not play, that was tough for me. I'm not going to say it was a humbling experience because I was already a humble person, but it really opened my eyes. It made me a stronger person."
In terms of personality and attitude, Shaw remains a standout. His approach was steady enough that former coach Bruce Weber said at the annual banquet Shaw was the MVP of the team. But those qualities won't get him on the court. His sophomore season figures to show whether the 6-8 forward has the ability to contribute in the Big Ten.
"For me, personally, I just want to play," Shaw said of his personal goals. "I didn't play much last season when the season ended or when the season started, really. I just want to do what it takes to help Illinois win basketball games.
"Right now I'm more confident in my game. If I shoot the ball, I'm not thinking, 'Oh, if I miss this, what's going to happen?' I'm just playing. We're all just playing and learning. In the practices we have, it's a lot of teaching, learning the system. It's been great so far."
As a prospect coming out of Chicago, Shaw had a high-profile recruitment that led to unreasonable expectations. Weber's and Jerrance Howard's dogged pursuit convinced him to stay with the state school.
"They offered me in eighth grade. That really had a big impact on me coming here," Shaw said. "Through everything, Illinois was always there for me. When they heard I was going here or there, they still kept recruiting me."
The Illinois frontcourt is relatively established. Nnanna Egwu, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin are the top three big men, and Groce's system prefers a rotation of four. That leaves Shaw among the contenders for playing time off the bench.
"The (summer) workouts so far, it's great. The bigs do everything the guards are doing," Shaw said. "They've got me in the post, but we're also doing ball handling, shooting threes, everything. We work on every individual skill. They take your weakness and do what they need to do with it. They want to find what you can't do and make it better.
"They have me working on a lot of ball handling, shooting, shooting off screens, being low and shot-ready, my motor all the time, conditioning."