Klee's Corner: Of tickets, Groce and Meacham

More times than not, the introduction of a new coach boosts ticket sales.

Seeing that coach win more games provides a bigger boost.

So Illinois is pleased with its renewal rate for men's basketball season tickets. That number was right around 90 percent as of Friday.

"I think with Coach (John) Groce, having a new coach and with his energy, that helped retain some people," said Jason Heggemeyer, the assistant athletic director in charge of ticketing.

The nagging issue, however, is attracting new ticket holders, specifically in the student body. For example, in 2005-06, the season after their Final Four run, student sales topped out at roughly 4,500. Last season around 2,000 student season tickets were sold.

The home schedule featured one sellout in the cavernous Assembly Hall — against Wisconsin on Jan. 22, prior to the Illini's late-season collapse.

"The numbers (for students) hasn't been where we'd like it to be," Heggemeyer said. "And students usually wait until the deadline. So you've got to be patient with that. But that (students) is where a lot of our focus is."

Double the number of student tickets, and the season-ticket base could return to what it was six years ago. As it is, Illinois is forced to attract non-students into filling that void.

"We've been renewing people at a high clip because we have these great fans that have been around for a long time," Heggemeyer said. "We have a lot of work to do on new ticket-holders."

Like almost everything else, winning is the critical factor with ticket sales. For a program that shows a 50-56 Big Ten record over the past six seasons, enticing new ticket holders presents a challenge. One C-Section season ticket goes for $399 and includes 19 events.

"We're going to be aggressive this year. It's a new coach, a new style of play, that I think a lot of people will enjoy," Heggemeyer said.

***

Despite arriving at Illinois in April, relatively late in Demetrius Jackson's recruitment, Groce's staff has done more than its due diligence in an all-out pursuit of the 2013 prospect.

At least one Illini coach, often more, was in attendance for all of his games in July. The Mishawaka (Ind.) senior is elusive in terms of phone contact, although Groce's staff has built on a relationship that was established when Groce was at Ohio.

Eons of available playing time, a coach with a history of developing point guards and a memorable official visit to the Illinois campus?

Check, check, check.

Really, to this point, it's doubtful the Illini could have done anything more to entice their No. 1 recruiting target.

One critical aspect of the process, however, is entirely out of their hands. If the other suitors — namely Kansas — land another point-guard prospect, the Illini's odds of signing Jackson in November would improve significantly.

KU last weekend hosted Cat Barber, a highly regarded point guard from Virginia. Barber told one website the visit rated a "10."

That's one example of a positive development for Illinois. The Illini staff will watch competing schools and say a basketball prayer their recruiting classes fill up as quickly as possible.

For now, it's an anxious time for a program in dire need of a top-tier point guard. Illinois has an in-home visit with Jackson in Mishawaka today.

***

The Big Ten's youngest head coach turned 41 on Friday.

Groce's gift when he arrived at work? A fresh batch of chocolate chip cookie sandwiches, courtesy five-star baker Julie Pioletti, the Illini basketball secretary.

***

Fortunately for a man that grew up with sunshine and sand, Sam McLaurin has a seasoned tour guide in the Midwest.

"Since he's from Florida he hasn't really been around here," C-U native and UI teammate Rayvonte Rice said. "He told me the other day he hasn't seen this many rabbits in his whole life."

Central Illinois' wildlife wasn't part of the attraction to the Illini program, however.

When McLaurin announced he would leave Coastal Carolina and play elsewhere for his fifth season, he immediately became one of the most coveted commodities in recruiting.

"Every Monday a new set of teams called. At that time, they all said the same thing: 'Big men are rare, especially big men with your experience,' " McLaurin said after recent workout. "What it came down to was the coaching staff and the players (at Illinois). I was only here for two days, but I felt like I knew these guys for a lot longer."

N.C. State also was a consideration. "Mostly because they're going to be a preseason Top 10 team," he said. Georgia Tech and Xavier also expressed interest.

Ironically, McLaurin met Rice when he took a recruiting visit to Drake in the spring. Rice transferred from Drake, McLaurin from Coastal Carolina. Now they're roommates at Illinois.

"Initially, I wanted to go to the SEC. Kentucky just won a national championship. If I wasn't going to Kentucky, I wanted to play against Kentucky. That's how I always thought about it," McLaurin said, showing the current allure of Kentucky to all levels of recruits. "I had a lot of ACC schools, but none that actually fit what I was trying to do. So when Illinois called, it was just like, that's it.

"Everybody in the South knows Illinois basketball from the 2005 team. That caught my attention. It's known as a basketball school. That's one of the reasons I wanted to come here. I wanted to come to a basketball school and get that experience.

"This is a basketball school. My last school was a beach school."

***

Now that his playing career is over, Trent Meacham enters what he calls "the real world."

Illini fans still can benefit from his experience as a three-year starter at Illinois. Meacham is joining the broadcast team at WDWS 1400-AM for the station's postgame show for the 2012-13 season. Alongside program host Brian Moline, the UI graduate will analyze the Illini's performance and take calls from listeners.

"Trent gives us the viewpoint of a player, someone who has been in the huddle and taken the big shots," said Steve Kelly, the executive producer. "We're excited to have him on the GameDay team."

Meacham recently retired from the game after playing professionally in Austria, Germany and France. He and his wife, Theresa, are living in Champaign.

"I'm excited to be around the program again," said Meacham, who's become familiar with Groce's staff since returning to C-U. "When you're overseas, you still keep tabs on the program, follow how they're doing. But you're not directly involved. This is a chance for me to be involved and be around it again. I'm looking forward to it."

The first postgame show is Nov. 9. Illinois hosts Colgate in the season opener.

***

One campus visit over the summer flew under the radar.

It was the most enjoyable recruiting visit of Tyler Griffey's three-plus years at Illinois.

Trey Griffey spent a weekend on campus with his older brother. The 12-year-old, an offensive and defensive lineman in his youth football league, toured the campus and even "helped" Tyler with his summer classes. Trey also got up 500 jumpers at Ubben Basketball Complex.

"We had a blast," Tyler said.

The elder Griffey had the same take on workouts under the new coaching staff. The senior forward seems to be reinvigorated after the staff's first six months on campus.

"The thing I want to see is us having fun. Yeah, we're going to compete. Yeah, we want to win," Griffey said. "But Joe (Bertrand) and I talk about it every day. We're excited every day to come in the gym. We can't wait to go to workouts with these guys. With all of their positive encouragement, this coaching staff makes you want to go (all out) for them."

It remains to be seen if the positive vibes equal positive results. The past six seasons justifiably created a believe-it-when-I-see-it attitude when it comes to expectations.

There's one game on the schedule that already has the attention of the Illini roster.

And Griffey wants to end Missouri's three-game winning streak in the Braggin' Rights series more than anyone. When he returns home to the St. Louis area, Griffey hears all about it.

"We've got to get them one year. We have to," he said. "All my friends go there. I've told you before, 75 percent of my school went to Mizzou. We have to get one."

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bernies wrote on September 10, 2012 at 3:09 pm

OK, so Tyler Griffey says: "We're excited every day to come in the gym. We can't wait to go to workouts with these guys. With all of their positive encouragement, this coaching staff makes you want to go (all out) for them."

What does that say about the previous coaching staff?