CHAMPAIGN — The Simeon boys’ basketball season had just ended.
Wolverines coach Rob Smith walked out of his office about a week after Simeon won its fourth straight Class 4A championship.
He was greeted by a familiar sight.
Point guard Jaylon Tate hoisting jump shots and working on his ball-handling.
“He’s always in the gym,” Smith said in late March.
Now he’s in the Ubben Basketball Complex on the Illinois campus.
Workouts were slated to start Tuesday for Tate and the four other incoming freshmen, along with the returnees and transfers John Groce will have to work with this winter.
Even with Tate having a stellar senior season for a Division I-laden Simeon team featuring Jabari Parker (Duke), Kendall Pollard (Dayton) and his future teammate at Illinois in Kendrick Nunn, Groce’s point guard next season is Tracy Abrams.
That doesn’t mean, though, that Tate will find himself stuck on the bench next season. Groce craves ball-handlers. Tate fits that role, even if his scoring during his final two high school seasons didn’t stand out. His assist total with the Wolverines (7.2) nearly matched his points per game (8.0) last season, which came after he spent much of his junior season in a reserve role following his transfer from Chicago De La Salle.
“That’s the coach’s decision on who starts and who plays,” Tate said. “I’ll come in and do my part to play hard. It was great seeing that Coach Groce came in his first year and made a lot of progress. Hopefully we can continue that this season.”
Tate burst onto the recruiting scene during his two seasons at De La Salle, where he played with former Illini Mike Shaw and incoming college freshmen like Alex Foster (former Minnesota commit following Tubby Smith to Texas Tech) and Alvin Ellis (former Minnesota commit now will play at Michigan State).
He’s used to playing with talented players and having the pressure that comes with high expectations. He experienced that firsthand during his two years with Simeon, which consisted of a national schedule, a multitude of games on ESPN’s family of networks and a well-documented path to another state title.
“It was something I started to get used to,” Tate said. “I know that people are always watching. We made history at Simeon, and we knew there was a lot of pressure on us. We had a bad beginning during the season, but for us to win, it was a big relief.”
Now he yearns to win at Illinois. In a big way.
“I just want to do whatever it takes to help my team win,” he said. “I want to win a Big Ten championship.”
Illinois won’t head into Tate’s freshman season with many people thinking that will happen. There’s Michigan and its plethora of returnees, Gary Harris and Michigan State, and Roy Devyn Marble and Iowa, among others, to contend with.
All Tate said he can control is how hard he works and gets after it in front of the coaching staff during summer workouts and fall practices. He welcomes the addition of transfers like Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks (“They’ll make me better and give me someone to compete against,” he said) while welcoming the opportunity to get into Ubben whenever he can.
“I’m a gym rat,” Tate said. “I try to get to the gym every day I can and get in as much as possible when I’m there.”
Jaylon Tate is the only true point guard Illinois will welcome in its Class of 2013. Here’s a look at what the other Big Ten teams have in the way of incoming ball-handlers:
Indiana Evan Gordon, Stanford Robinson
■ Younger brother of Eric Gordon (still a reviled name around these parts) and Robinson are known more for their scoring but could help out Yogi Ferrell in spurts.
Iowa Peter Jok
■ Jok, who was born in Sudan, is the only guard Fran McCaffery will bring in, and he’s a big one (6-6). But he played high school ball in Des Moines under Jeff Horner, Iowa’s all-time assists leader, so he might know a thing or two about passing.
Michigan Derrick Walton
■ Not saying Walton, a four-star recruit, is the next Trey Burke. But John Beilein should feel comfortable with Walton running the show if Spike Albrecht comes back to Earth after his performance against Louisville.
Michigan State None
■ Tom Izzo went big with his two recruits, Alvin Ellis and Gavin Schilling, while relying on Gary Harris, Keith Appling and Travis Trice to handle the ball.
Minnesota Dre Mathieu
■ Richard Pitino went the way of the junior college ranks, bringing in the Tennessee native by way of Central Arizona Community College the first week of May to ease some of Andre Hollins’ responsibilities.
Nebraska Tai Webster
■ Tim Miles knows he doesn’t have the history to lure blue-chip recruits to Lincoln like Bo Pelini. So Webster will arrive at Pinnacle Bank Arena via New Zealand in an effort to complement Ray Gallegos’ game.
■ New coach Chris Collins lost out on Austin Colbert’s high school teammate, Jaren Sina (Seton Hall). For the foreseeable future, Benet product Dave Sobolewski will continue to run the point.
Ohio State Kameron Williams
■ Williams is more of a scorer, but the Baltimore native might have to help out in this department once Aaron Craft (finally) leaves Columbus.
Penn State Geno Thorpe, Graham Woodward
■ Patrick Chambers got a commitment out of Pittsburgh native Thorpe early in his junior season. He gives the Nittany Lions a bit more size (6-3, 175) than Woodward (6-0, 165).
Purdue Bryson Scott, Kendall Stephens
■ Scott is a true point guard from Fort Wayne, and Stephens, son of former Purdue standout Everette Stephens, is a versatile scorer from St. Charles East who could bring the ball up if need be.
Wisconsin Bronson Koenig
■ Bo Ryan has sewn up basically every position with the Class of 2013, and Koenig is the lone point guard. He could spell Traevon Jackson or Ben Brust at times next season.