CHAMPAIGN — What stands out about Sam McLaurin’s four years at Coastal Carolina? Aside from leading the Chanticleers to a school-record 28 wins and a berth in the NIT as a redshirt freshman and pouring in 10 points per game and 7.5 rebounds last season, of course.
“He was always into shoes,” Coastal Carolina point guard Kierre Greenwood said. “He always had to have the latest shoes. He had the most and probably the best shoes out of anybody we had.”
The expansive sneaker collection has followed McLaurin, who has an affinity for Nike’s Air Max series, to Illinois, where the fifth-year transfer student will suit up for the first time as an Illini in Friday’s 7 p.m. regular season opener against Colgate. The collection, however, won’t grow much during the course of his one year in the Big Ten — for logistical purposes.
“It’s something I had to slow down, though, since I came here. I figured what I buy here I’m going to have to take it with me when I leave,” the Havana, Fla., native said. “That’s definitely something I’ll have to cut back on because I can only take with me what fits in my car.”
In terms of fitting in with his new Illinois teammates, McLaurin’s shoe game helps.
Team fashion expert D.J. Richardson respects McLaurin’s shoe collection, but the new guy isn’t quite on his level.
“It’s up there, but it’s not up there with me,” Richardson said. “Sam’s my boy, though; he’s got a nice collection.”
What’s earned the 6-foot-8 McLaurin even more respect from Richardson and the Illini, more so than his size 15s, is what he brings to the court.
Despite being on campus for a short time since transferring, McLaurin, who turned 23 Thursday, was voted one of four team captains along with Richardson, Brandon Paul and Tracy Abrams.
Besides helping the Illini by producing on the stat sheet, McLaurin is being counted on to help with the development of promising sophomore big man Nnanna Egwu.
“It’s invaluable to have a guy with his experience to help our 4 and 5s and really help our whole team,” Illinois first-year coach John Groce said. “Sam has a confidence about him, and I think that’s helped Nnanna. He’s played so many games and is so experienced as a fifth-year guy that I think he helps Nnanna stay even-keeled a little bit; not get too high and not get too low.”
After easing his way into a leadership role during his first few weeks with the Illini, McLaurin has become more vocal. Earlier this week in practice, McLaurin yelled at the guards for not getting him the ball in the post.
“That’s the first time that’s happened since I’ve been here,” Richardson said. “We never really had bigs who demand the ball down low like Sam does. We need that.”
It’s the same thing McLaurin did at Coastal Carolina. He showed the new guys around, he led the team workouts when the coaches weren’t around and he spoke up in huddles when necessary.
“It just comes natural to him,” Greenwood said. “He was that lead guy. He was definitely the spokesperson for the team.”
He’s already doing that at Illinois. At the Orange Krush’s Fall Kickoff, the basketball team, minus a few of the veterans like Richardson and Paul, was introduced to the crowd. Someone from the team had to speak. McLaurin, who holds a degree in communication from Coastal Carolina, grabbed the microphone.
“Somebody had to do it,” he said. “People seem to just like me. I’m one of those guys who’s easy to get along with. I usually don’t have too many problems with people. Some guys just are naturals at that.”
If the shoe fits.
Football got you down? Then the first night of big-time college basketball should lift you up. Games — other than John Groce’s debut — to follow Friday night, courtesy sports editor JIM ROSSOW:
Michigan State vs. UConn
— Last year, Spartans opened on a ship. Friday, it’s in Hangar 5 at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Very cool.
Ohio State vs. Marquette
— Speaking of games at unusual places (this one’s on the USS Yorktown), Hoopeston’s Thad Matta will try to improve to 13-0 in season openers.
SE Missouri State at Kansas
— Always fun to keep tabs on former Illini coach Bill Self, who will lead the Jayhawks to their 40th consecutive home-opening win.
Bryant at Indiana
— Bloomington’s Assembly Hall is going to be more crowded than Champaign’s: Indiana students purchased 12,441 season tickets, a 300 percent increase from student sales in 2008-09.
North Dakota at Kansas State
— It’s Illini West in Manhattan with Bruce Weber, Chris Lowery, Chester Frazier, Wayne McClain and Jimmy Price on or near the Wildcats’ bench.
EIU at Bradley
— Panthers rookie coach Jay Spoonhour is counting on big things from Centennial big man Josh Piper, the team’s leading returning scorer and rebounder.
Indiana State at UCLA
— Sycamores were picked to help open the new Pauley Pavilion because John Wooden coached there 1946-48.