CHAMPAIGN — Last spring, shortly after the Illinois coaching staff was hired, one of the first non-committed players it scouted was Curie 2014 big man Cliff Alexander.
With assistant coach Jamall Walker in the stands in Merrillville, Ind., the 6-foot-9, 245-pound Alexander shattered a backboard in an AAU game.
On Saturday, he attended his first Illinois game this season, sitting near the team’s bench. Alexander, one of the most high-profile recruits to visit the Assembly Hall in recent memory, smiled as the Orange Krush attempted to get a chant of “We want Cliff” started.
“Coach (John) Groce, the coaching staff and the players like Tracy Abrams, Myke Henry, I know all those guys,” Alexander said. “It’s a big shock that Coach Groce came in here and did his thing.”
With Chicago players like Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate already signed with Illinois, Alexander is taking a longer look at the program.
“It means a lot. These are my homies. I love them,” Alexander said.
Alexander and Curie have a big game Wednesday in a Class 4A sectional semifinal against Whitney Young and highly touted big man Jahlil Okafor.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Alexander said. “I’m just going to come out and play my game.”
Nunn and Tate were also on hand Saturday along with 2014 Illinois commit Michael Finke of Centennial.
The Simeon backcourt duo will play in the same sectional as Curie and Whitney Young at Argo on Tuesday against DuSable.
“I’m not even sure what round we’re in, it’s just the next game,” Nunn said. “We’ve been playing pretty good. We’ve got good chemistry; we’ve stepped it up defensively. Jaylon has been leading the team, getting everybody together and passing the ball real well. He’s just been a great leader for us.”
Nunn and Tate, who sat with Alexander on Saturday, have been working on him to join them in Champaign.
“I’m definitely trying to get Cliff down here at Illinois,” Nunn said.
Sam McLaurin’s Senior Day didn’t go as planned as the starting forward played eight minutes against Nebraska while dealing with a sprained right ankle he suffered in the first half.
McLaurin tried to play on the ankle in the second half but wasn’t effective.
“I don’t know at this point; I’m waiting to get some feedback on that,” Groce said of the severity of the injury. “I know this: Sam is a tough kid, and he tried to go there in the second half and he just couldn’t. He turned his ankle. How bad is that? Don’t know. We’ve got phenomenal doctors here at the University of Illinois and a big-time trainer, so those guys will diagnose it and I’ll get more of a read on it here shortly.”
As a result of McLaurin’s injury, Myke Henry played extended minutes Saturday, and the sophomore was one of the difference-makers for the Illini.
The Chicago product scored 12 points and grabbed a career-high nine rebounds in 26 minutes.
Henry was asked what sparked his stellar play against the Cornhuskers. Before he could answer, Groce chimed in.
“I’m anxious to hear this,” the coach joked.
The offensive numbers stand out in Henry’s performance, but it’s his growth on the defensive end that’s transformed his game.
“Definitely one of my weaknesses coming in as a freshman. I really wasn’t a defensive player. As I’ve progressed, I’ve figured out the defensive part of the game,” Henry said.
Groce credits the efforts of assistant coach Dustin Ford, who works with Illinois’ frontcourt players, for Henry’s growth.
“I think the biggest thing with Myke is when he plays with a motor, he’s really good. He and Coach Ford have a unique relationship, and he’s really done a good job with Myke,” Groce said. “They know each other well, and Dustin does a good job working with Myke and kept him engaged. I feel like Myke has continued to get better all year, but tonight he kind of put it all together because Sam was banged up. We needed him to play the way he played or we probably don’t find a way to grind it out. We needed Myke Henry to make some plays, and I thought he did a great job of that.”
With the anniversary of the Assembly Hall and the Senior Day festivities taking place before the game, Groce worried if his players would be able to flip the switch and be ready when the ball was tipped.
The Illini didn’t play as well defensively in the first 30 minutes as he hoped, but Nebraska’s Dylan Talley and Ray Gallegos had a lot to do with that, combining to score 43 points.
“I thought the two guards were a handful; Gallegos and Talley made big shots, made plays for them,” Groce said.
The Illinois players had a full week with all the festivities leading up to the game, including the Jock Jams event the student-athletes put on Wednesday.
The seniors attended a luncheon Friday with the Rebounders, and the team gathered for a meal at Groce’s house Friday night.
“We had a lot of things that were awesome, they were great. The seniors did a great job yesterday at the Rebounders luncheon; they were terrific,” Groce said. “We had a dinner last night, a meal at my house. There were a couple things on campus during the week, then they’ve got class. You’re trying to get them rested up physically and mentally, but that’s part of college. Those things are all good things.”
For the second time this season, Groce wore an orange blazer with his shirt and tie, a look made famous by former Illinois coach Lou Henson.
The Illini are 2-0 this season when he wears it. Groce wore it in December when Illinois knocked off Eastern Kentucky, a game Henson attended wearing an orange blazer of his own.
“I didn’t decide that until last night. I knew I would know kind of instinctively when I wanted to do it,” Groce said. “Out of respect for our seniors and out of respect for this building, I thought it was a good time to wear it.”
Nebraska battled with the Illini, essentially playing with six players. Reserve Andre Almeida was unavailable after suffering an injury in Tuesday’s loss at Wisconsin. Benny Parker played nine minutes off the bench before fouling out, and Jordan Tyrance played a minute.
With regular starters Abrams and Nnanna Egwu coming off the Illinois bench because of Senior Day, the Illini reserves outscored the Nebraska subs 38-0.
Nebraska coach Tim Miles said fatigue wasn’t a factor.
“If you can’t enjoy playing college basketball, you’re in the wrong gym. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” Miles said. “We tried to manage timeouts to make sure we were rested. You have to be mentally stronger than that if that was a factor.”