Basketball writer Paul Klee spent Wednesday at Illinois media day. Here were some of his takeaways:
Follow the leader
Tyler Griffey added a minor to his kinesiology major. “Leadership studies,” the senior said. And Griffey agreed the level of success achieved by this Illinois team will be determined by something intangible — the “L” word. Where will the leadership come from? There was class division last season. One player quipped, “You could see that if you were watching a game from Europe.” The freshmen were tight with each other (and now live in one apartment), but there was a divide elsewhere. “That was one of the first things Coach (John) Groce told us: ‘You can’t have different groups,’ ” Tracy Abrams said. The division wasn’t malicious — guys got along just fine — but as the losses mounted, personal agendas took priority over team success. Likewise, these Illini aren’t good enough to win games on talent alone. As cheesy and indefinable as it sounds, leadership is the key to their season. Illinois has one established leader, and the role comes naturally to Abrams. “To be honest with you, I’ve never actually thought about being a leader,” Abrams said. “It’s something that just happens.” Others are trying to assume that role. Griffey is taking classes on leadership and applying those theories in the locker room. Sam McLaurin was a two-time captain at Coastal Carolina. “I’ve always been on winning teams,” he said. “The only way you win is if guys are together on and off the court.” But the most important piece came from the coach. Groce put himself on watch. Sometimes leaders don’t emerge among the players. “When that happens, it’s got to come from me,” he said. Refreshing, isn’t it?
Big (man) improvements
Nnanna Egwu, all 6-foot-11 of him, finished the mile run in 5 minutes, 24 seconds. He made 22,000 jump shots over four months, and there’s documented proof. Last week he made 73 of 100 three-pointers. “Don’t worry,” he said with a laugh, “I’m still going to be a big man on the block.” All of these were reasons why coaches went out of their way to compliment the sophomore’s blue-collar offseason. No player made bigger improvements than Egwu, who will replace Meyers Leonard as the starting center. “I think he’s the one guy that has consistently gone above and beyond the norm on his own,” Groce said. Egwu still has bad days. It’s uncertain if he recorded a rebound during Tuesday’s skill workout. But his offseason was as promising as his arms are long. “Once he gets that consistency down,” said assistant coach Dustin Ford, who works with the big men, “He’s got a chance to be really good.”
John Groce got a haircut Wednesday. Assistant coach Dustin Ford did the buzzing. Fortunately, the head coach’s shaved dome didn’t show the slight sunburn it had a week ago. Perhaps that color came from sitting outside at Memorial Stadium. And as the Illinois football season freefalls into a crater, that puts a brighter spotlight on Groce’s first season. It’s no surprise that patience was a central theme at Wednesday’s basketball media day. The coaches are hoping for plenty. And Groce made several subtle references to having patience in 2012-13. He referenced the lack of ball handling — his biggest concern — in a system that is predicated on featuring multiple ball handlers. He referenced the early departure of Meyers Leonard, the focal point of opposing scouting reports in 2011-12. “When you lose a player the caliber of Meyers, at the juncture that we did, you have to replace him by committee,” Groce said. He added, “The staff reminded me today to be patient,” and that’s sound advice for those who follow the program. In the long term, Illini basketball appears to be in great hands. In the short term, patience will be a virtue.