Klee's Corner: Of Nunn, XRM and the senior class
CHAMPAIGN — Born and raised in Chicago, Melvin Nunn has a soft spot the size of Millennium Park for the city's basketball history.
Then you consider the other factors that have shaped his life — a diploma from Simeon; memories of playing alongside Nick Anderson and for coach Bob Hambric; his son, Kendrick, working on a record fourth state title in the same Simeon uniform his father wore.
Wondering how John Groce and his coaching staff convinced the Nunns that Illinois was the best possible place for Kendrick? The coaches hit home, almost literally.
"A big part of the presentation they made to us was about that Simeon-to-Illinois connection that is such a big part of history here," Melvin Nunn said by phone. "I played there. Kendrick is playing there. He's going to win four state titles at Simeon; nobody's done that before. Then Illinois, it's like Illinois and Simeon go hand-in-hand."
Searching for the right buttons to push, the Illini staff emphasized the Simeon greats who later sprinted from the tunnel at the Assembly Hall. The staff reminded the Nunns of Anderson's buzzer-beater that stunned Bob Knight and Indiana and recalled the all-time career of Deon Thomas. Simultaneous with the recruiting pitch, Kendrick Nunn wore a No. 25 Illinois jersey — the number worn by Simeon alums to honor the late Ben Wilson.
The whole production was enough to make Melvin Nunn's basketball pride swell through the doors of the family's Chicago home.
"It was one of those moments that showed how Illinois and Simeon (share) a part of history that nobody else can give you. That was one of the big reasons we chose to go to Illinois with Coach Groce," he said. "With Kendrick having that kind of relationship with the coaching staff and it being your state school, it's just obvious.
"It's like they told us, 'Our state, our team.' "
That might be more applicable for father than for son. Melvin Nunn shared a Simeon locker room with Anderson, arguably the finest player to roll through Illinois.
"Nick and I were pretty close in the two years we were there together," Nunn said.
After graduating from Simeon, Melvin Nunn attended Casper (Wyo.) College on a basketball scholarship. He later returned to Casper as an assistant coach under John Morrison, the father of former Gonzaga star Adam Morrison. Nunn helped the Thunderbirds to the NJCAA tournament.
The Chicago ties continued. Nunn helped recruit Robert Smith to Casper College. As the coach at Simeon, Smith has won a record five state championships, three with Melvin Nunn's son on the roster. "It's (come) full circle," Melvin Nunn said.
That was the pitch from the Illini staff: represent your state school after representing your state's pre-eminent high school program. Shortly after, Kendrick Nunn said he would be the next Simeon alum to wear No. 25 for the Illini.
"Everything that you want in a program they had to give us," Melvin Nunn said. "Now it's all about us rebuilding it, getting some more players down there."
Illinois began recruiting Xavier Rathan-Mayes this time last year, when former assistant Jerrance Howard first contacted the 2013 prospect. The new staff has a long-standing relationship with Huntington Prep coach Rob Fulford and has built on both relationships.
"I was actually talking to Coach Howard before Coach Groce got there," Rathan-Mayes said prior to his official visit to the Illinois campus this weekend. "I met Coach Howard last year. Then they (Groce's staff) got the job. And then I think they were down here to see me the next couple days after they got there (to Illinois)."
Rathan-Mayes took notice of Kendrick Nunn's commitment to Illinois. Nunn, who committed to the Illini on Sept. 15, passed along his phone number.
"We talk through texts, mainly," Rathan-Mayes said.
Rathan-Mayes, who was raised in Canada, has another associate in the UI program. He was a Huntington Prep teammate of current Illini sophomore Ibrahima Djimde.
"Me and Ibby are pretty close," he said.
One of the attractions to Rathan-Mayes is his ability to play both guard spots. He switches between the point and off-guard positions and said he can play both in college.
"I'm a pretty good passer. I can pass the ball pretty well. And I can score the ball. That's something I can do very well, put the ball in the basket," he said. "When I need to play on the ball, play the point, if they need me to do that, I can do that. If Coach needs me to score, I can definitely do that. When you can do more, you stay on the floor longer and you're more of an asset to your team."
Rathan-Mayes said Oct. 13 is his decision date. If that turns out to be the date of his decision, the announcement might be televised.
Rathan-Mayes had a full itinerary on his official visit to Illinois this weekend. The prep senior had multiple workouts at Ubben Basketball Complex before attending Saturday's football game at Memorial Stadium with the coaching staff. Prior to the football game, Rathan-Mayes joined the current players at a tailgate near the Assembly Hall. They played "Bags" and tossed around a football. He is scheduled to fly back to West Virginia today.
Tuesday afternoon at Ubben Basketball Complex, players posed for photos that would be used on the team poster for the 2012-13 season.
When his modeling was over, Joe Bertrand dribbled a ball and watched the others.
"I just kind of had a flashback," he said. "I remember when me, Brandon and Tyler and D.J. took that picture when we were freshmen. Now I'm out of the picture."
Yes, the high school graduating class of 2009 is as tight as ever. But it's down a man. Paul, Griffey and Richardson are entering their final seasons at Illinois. Since he took a redshirt year as a freshman, Bertrand has two seasons of eligibility remaining.
The redshirt year was brought on by a knee injury, in particular. Bertrand underwent surgery and watched as his classmates played their true freshman seasons.
"It was really hard at the time. Really hard. But I'm definitely glad I sat out that first year," Bertrand said. "It gave me a chance to get stronger, learn the system a little more. It helped me mature as a player."
The new coaching staff considers the fifth year a blessing, as well. He figures prominently into its plans because Bertrand, on offense, fits the profile of an attacking player. His strength is driving to the basket, either for a layup or a pull-up jumper.
"We want him to make what I call 'straight-line drives,' " Groce said. "Sometimes you can get caught up dribbling back and forth, back and forth (on the perimeter). We want him to go — go straight at the basket and attack."
The individual highlight of Bertrand's career, so far, arrived during a promising stretch midway through last season. With the Illini on the verge of being run out of the Scottrade Center in the Braggin' Rights game, Bertrand erupted for nine points during a 17-3 run. He finished with 19 points, a career high at the time, on 9-for-9 shooting.
Missouri couldn't do anything with him. The outburst was entirely unexpected; Bertrand had scored two points over the previous six games. He said the game remains a blur, and he hasn't watched a replay of the Tigers' 78-74 win against the Illini.
"It would've been a lot better if we won," he said.
In late December and January, Bertrand followed up with double-digit scoring games against Northwestern (10 points), Nebraska (25), Ohio State (10) and Wisconsin (15).
Really, there could be a simple explanation for his improved play: "It seemed like I had more chances," he said. In the dozen games leading into St. Louis, Bertrand averaged 11.2 minutes per game. From the Missouri game to the end of January, he averaged 25.
"All the games I was getting to the basket, I didn't really change how I played," Bertrand said. "Other than that, I don't know what was different."
As the Illinois players prepared for the next workout with Groce's coaching staff, they could predict that day's theme.
"I would say 80 percent of what we've done is on the defensive end," Groce said last week.
The offensive structure, too, will be different than the five-man motion employed by Bruce Weber. But Groce sought to emphasize a point by focusing almost entirely on teaching his defensive philosophy during the first two weeks of workouts.
"Basically what we've done is a lot of defense," Bertrand said.
"The defense is different," sophomore Tracy Abrams added. "We're not denying the ball like we used to. We stay packed in, and you've got to know where you're supposed to be and guard those lanes. It's a big difference from what we did last year. And it's different for me because in high school we denied the ball. You have to change how you think."
The clinics (and camps) are coming.
The Illinois basketball staff will host a coaching clinic for area coaches Oct. 6 at Chicago's Kroc Center. The annual Illinois Coaches Clinic is Oct. 19-20 at Ubben Basketball Complex. The latter includes three practice sessions with the current Illini.
Also in October, former Illini assistant Jay Price and player Trent Meacham will host youth camps at the Stephens Family YMCA. The camps are for third- to eighth-graders and will take place each Sunday in October. For registration, go to www.ccymca.net.
During his freshman year, Abrams played at least 30 minutes in five games — all in Big Ten play when fellow lead guard Sam Maniscalco was slowed by an ankle injury.
Provided Abrams can stay healthy, his workload is about to increase. He's the only lead guard on the roster. And perhaps no player will determine the Illini's success or failure more than Abrams, who's in the process of learning what Groce wants in a point guard.
"So far it's a lot of spacing and using ball screens. We didn't use as many ball screens last year. And this (system), it's more about spacing," Abrams said after a recent workout. "I'm working on a lot of things that I need to do better, to be more consistent with. I'm working on a lot of shooting, learning the screens, taking care of the ball."
Abrams performs most of his individual workouts under the instruction of assistant Jamall Walker, his position coach. And the Chicago Mount Carmel product is honest in his self-appraisal. His shot and ball handling are improved. His quick decision-making — in a new scheme — remains a work in progress.
"I have watched tape and asked a lot of questions, as well," Abrams said. "But you've just got to be open to learn. And you've got to pay attention to the little things."
The four scholarship seniors on the Illini roster — Sam McLaurin, Griffey, Paul and Richardson — also figure into the playing rotation for the upcoming season.
And that fact figures into the Illini's recruiting pitch: Want to play early? There will be playing time available.
"One thing John (Groce) can do is offer minutes," said Reggie Rankin, a recruiting analyst for ESPN.com and former Division I assistant. "That (2013) class, when they come in, it's up to them how much they play. The minutes are available."
Groce's staff still has work to do to secure the kind of first-year recruiting class that fans dream about. The Nunn commitment showed one thing, at least. If the pieces don't fall together for the rest of the 2013 class, Groce has shown it probably will in the future.
"He's a worker. And John has been around winning his whole career — as an assistant and as a head coach," Rankin said. "They put together that (2006) class at Ohio State (Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook), and they were on probation at the time. I think he does a great job relating and selling. He can prove it by what he's done in the past with his former players. I think people see his sincerity and his hunger to do well."