CHAMPAIGN — When Illinois basketball staff members went on the road recruiting last summer in Year 1 of the John Groce regime, there were questions about them coming from players they were targeting.
Who are these guys? What are they all about? Are they going to be able to have success in the Big Ten?
“In Year 1, you’re going out recruiting guys based on what we did at Ohio and people thinking that’s great and all, but can you do that here?” assistant coach Jamall Walker said. “We were really selling a vision.”
After the first season on the court which saw the Illini win 23 games — eight more than the previous season — and reach the NCAA tournament before losing a heartbreaker to Miami in the round of 32, it’s no longer a vision. Recruits, their parents and coaches know what Groce and Illinois are all about, and the reception for Groce, Walker, Dustin Ford and Paris Parham on the AAU circuit in July was a favorable one.
“We were able now to present something that’s more of a reality,” Walker said. “There might still be some questions for some people, but now we’re able to present or sell more of what we’re capable of by what we accomplished last season and continue building our program and going in the right direction.”
That’s not to say it was easy for the Illini coaching staff to make inroads with the high school stars it was courting this summer. But having tangible evidence of better things to come in the future made the process smoother.
They’ve seen how Groce conducts himself during games and makes adjustments on the fly. They’ve seen the style of play and how it relates to the Big Ten. They’ve also received a behind-the-scenes look at how the coaching staff interacts with the players daily, thanks to the Illini Productions’ “TNT” series that chronicled the 2012-13 basketball season. Leron Black, for example, said last week he’s seen every installment.
“Kids have mentioned that, and they get the inside look at what we do and how we interact with our players. We didn’t have all that stuff last year,” Walker said. “Guys I have talked to have watched an episode, two episodes or all of them.”
It was a whirlwind summer for the Illinois staff. It spent Wednesday through Sunday in July on the road across North America checking in on players in the classes of 2014-17. On Mondays and Tuesdays, they were on campus working out the current players for the two hours the NCAA allows as part of the new rule that went in place last summer.
They got some time off at the beginning of August.
Ford went to Florida with his family. Parham got out of town with his family. Walker stayed home with his wife and 9-month-old son. Wherever they were, though, one thing was certain — they had a cell-phone handy. They have it within earshot in case a big-time prospect calls or sends a text.
“You can’t put the phone down, you just can’t,” Parham said. “My wife (Keisha) understands that; there’s always a third party in the bedroom — the phone. Sometimes I fall asleep with it in the bed. The other day it was under my pillow when I woke up. She’s all right with it; she really understands it all.”
Said Ford: “Recruiting, that’s a 365-day job. Your phone is constantly on. There’s never a time where you can go on vacation for four days and decide you want to leave the phone off. My phone is normally always with me unless I’m doing something in my house.”
For Walker, being on the road so much, this past summer in particular was tough because it meant extended time away from Braylon, who was born in November.
“You find yourself wanting to get home a little quicker, but you’ve got to adjust,” he said. “That’s a part of the job.”
With regards to the current players, Groce and the coaching staff were back at it during the first week of classes with individual workouts. Coaches can spend two hours per week with the players, like they did in the summer. The only difference now is full-team workouts are prohibited. A coach can work with up to four players at once until Sept. 15, when the NCAA allows full-team workouts.
The official start date for Illinois’ first practice is Sept. 27.
“I thought it was a good opportunity for the young guys to get their feet wet — they did. I think that rule with the NCAA in the second year, it’s a great rule to get them acclimated to how we do things, especially with so many new guys,” Walker said. “We took complete advantage of it these two years. Last year, we were all new and this year with so many new guys. We know what Illinois is about a little bit more, but our team had no idea how we do things.”
Walker works primarily with the guards: Tracy Abrams, Ahmad Starks, Aaron Cosby, Mike LaTulip and Jaylon Tate. He says they’ve all made strides through the summer until now.
“I have such a high-character group of guys,” he said. “I really have some good dudes. Tracy’s really trying to take charge as the leader of the program.”
After taking time to adjust to the new system, Starks, who is awaiting an NCAA waiver for immediate eligibility after transferring from Oregon State, emerged as a playmaker.
Cosby, the transfer from Seton Hall who’s sitting out this season, missed the last couple of weeks after undergoing hernia surgery. He’s back to participating in drills.
“He just needs to get his wind back a little bit before he really gets back out there, but he’s fine,” Walker said.
Another Illini who underwent offseason surgery is fifth-year senior Joseph Bertrand. The guard had surgery in early April to repair the labrum in his right shoulder and spent the summer rehabbing that injury. Parham, who works primarily with Bertrand and the other wing players, said Bertrand is back to full-go.
“Joe can do everything now,” he said. “He surprised us in his workout the other day without doing any conditioning all summer. He’s been playing some pickup games. He’s a competitor. He’s been in every day getting up extra shots.”
While he was sidelined this summer, Bertrand watched his teammates and helped acclimate the nine newcomers with the system and emerged as a leader. That’s something that has translated to the court since his return.
“He’s getting better and more vocal,” Parham said. “He’s realizing this is his last year. When you become a senior, you kind of step out of your body a little bit and do some different things.”
Two weeks ago, Walker was hit with a reprimand and a two-game NCAA tournament suspension by the NCAA for what the college athletics’ governing body deemed “inappropriate contact” with a game official following Illinois’ NCAA tournament loss. Walker declined to further discuss the situation, saying he simply wants to move on. But he has received support from family, friends and colleagues since the ruling was announced.
“I received a lot of support. There are people who know me as a person and my character, and a lot of people had my back,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it all happened; we’re moving on.”
While Illinois was hosting Black, the 2014 forward from Memphis (Tenn.) White Station, over the weekend, another 2014 target, Quentin Snider, was on the West Coast making an official visit of his own.
The point guard from Louisville, Ky., made his trip to UCLA, his first official visit. Snider, a 6-foot-1, 160-pounder who was once committed to Louisville, is scheduled to visit UConn and has a visit set up at Illinois the weekend of Sept. 27. He previously had a visit set up with Memphis that weekend.
Snider, ranked 31st in the Class of 2014 by Scout and Rivals, cut his list of schools last week to seven. Illinois, UCLA, UConn, Cincinnati, Michigan State, Oklahoma State and USC make up his list.
Former Illini forward Tyler Griffey became the third member of last season’s team to sign a professional contract to continue his basketball career.
Brandon Paul signed a deal with Nizhny Novgorod of the Russian Professional Basketball League earlier this month. Sam McLaurin, the one-year wonder who transferred from Coastal Carolina, is headed to Finland to play in that country’s top league with Korihait.
Griffey, who was undecided on whether to pursue a basketball career after college, signed with Allianz Swans in the Austrian Basketball League.
A fourth senior, D.J. Richardson, remains unsigned, though agent Eric Fleisher expects he will sign an overseas deal.
Demetri McCamey, who played last year in the NBA Development League, signed recently to play in Australia with Cairns Taipans. The 6-3 point guard played with the Minnesota Timberwolves’ summer team alongside Brandon Paul last month in Las Vegas.
3 pointers: What’s happening outside Champaign-Urbana:
Boy, how freaked out would this fan base have been this week if former recruiting target Xavier Rathan-Mayes had picked Illinois last fall instead of Florida State? The combo guard last week was ruled ineligible for the upcoming season with the Seminoles because the NCAA did not accept a full year of credits the Canadian took at a North Carolina prep school. Rathan-Mayes was steered there by a Toronto-area coach, and his mom says she sold her house to pay for the school. Academics were not a priority at Christian Faith Center Academy, according to Rathan-Mayes. He told the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer, “We were basically on our own. Yes, basketball was everything. That’s all we did. School was there, but it was basically basketball, nothing else.” The Top 50 prospect attended Christian Faith his junior year before spending last year at Huntington (W.Va.) Prep. That’s a headache John Groce & Co. don’t have to deal with.
It’s been close to three months since Ahmad Starks (right) arrived at Illinois after transferring from Oregon State and still no word from the NCAA on whether the guard from Chicago will be eligible to play this season. Dozens of decisions have been made in that time. Some have gone in favor of the athlete, and others haven’t. Minnesota got bad news this week when forward Rakeem Buckles was denied the waiver. Buckles followed new coach Richard Pitino from Florida International to the Twin Cities, and it was thought he would be fine to play right away because FIU is banned from the postseason and FIU teammate Malik Smith was granted a waiver to play immediately at Minnesota. Starks, a Whitney Young product from Chicago, wanted to be closer to home and his ailing grandmother. There doesn’t seem to be any consistent approach within the NCAA regarding these decisions, so the best guess in Starks’ case is 50-50. As well as he practiced toward the end of the summer, he’d be a major asset for this season’s team.
Such a big deal was made last week about the top point guard in the Class of 2014, Emmanuel Mudiay, committing to SMU with the likes of Kentucky and Kansas in hot pursuit. It’s a huge get for Larry Brown’s program and a tough blow for the ‘Cats and Jayhawks, but something tells me those programs will be all right. You know what school wasn’t in consideration for the Dallas product? Texas. Rick Barnes’ program is a mess right now, and he’s was a nonfactor in the recruitment of an in-state player who decided to stay in the state to play. Barnes used to recruit at a high level: Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge, Avery Bradley, etc. He’s got one of the premier jobs in all of college sports, but if things keep going this way — only one elite player from the state has committed in seven years — his job will be open. There are plenty of coaches around the country who would love that seat and those resources.
1-10: Best games of the 2013-14 Big Ten schedule
Michigan State vs. Kentucky
The game at the United Center will feature a pair of teams each likely to be ranked in the Top 5
Arizona at Michigan
Wolverines are loaded after reaching NCAA title game, and the ‘Cats are a Final Four contender
Duke at Michigan
Coach K’s squad will again be a Top 10 team, and this one should have the Crisler Center jumping
Illinois vs. Missouri
With Indiana-Kentucky no longer playing, this is the premier interstate nonconference rivalry in the nation
North Carolina at Michigan State
The Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup could be a classic if troubled UNC guard P.J. Hairston is eligible
Indiana at Syracuse
The Carrier Dome folks might move the court to the middle to accommodate a crowd of better than 30,000
Marquette at Wisconsin
The in-state rivals will likely each be ranked in the Top 25 for their annual clash
Notre Dame at Iowa
The Hawkeyes are a trendy pick to make a jump this season, and the Irish are always solid
Michigan State vs. Georgetown
Spartans and Hoyas will meet in Brooklyn the night before the Super Bowl, which is being played nearby
Ohio State vs. Notre Dame
Aaron Craft & Co. get the new ACC member in a marquee matchup at Madison Square Garden
3 questions for ... ... former Illini and Champaign Central guard Nate Mast, the former Parkland coach who’s now the director of operations at Southern Illinois
How did the first year at Southern Illinois go?
From the point where we are now compared to the same time last year, we’re night and day. We brought in eight new guys, and it’ll be a big change. We put in a lot of work and kind of overachieved, winning 14 games after they won only eight games before. It’s a process, but we’re finally getting our head back above water. It’s been really good and refreshing being around a group of guys who want to get better.
As the director of operations, what exactly do you do?
I explain it to people that I pretty much have my hand in everything, from scheduling practices and weights and helping with academics to film and editing, travel, camps, golf scrambles. Anything that we do, I’ve got something to do with it. I get to be involved in some of the coaching stuff with how we’re going to play and what we’re going to do. I just can’t be out on the court teaching it.
Is the goal to land a position as a top-three assistant?
Coach (Barry) Hinson has publicly announced about five times that whenever someone on the staff leaves that I’m the next guy to move up, and I’m just trying to be patient and hoping for an opportunity. I like it down here. I think it’s a good level for me to get bumped up and get on the road. Being in the state of Illinois and coaching junior college, I think I know quite a few people at the high schools and junior colleges to make some connections that would help. We’ll see what happens. Time will tell.