CHAMPAIGN — Don’t let the expression on his face, or lack thereof, fool you.
Jaylon Tate is excited to get this whole college basketball thing going. You just wouldn’t know it by looking at him.
The freshman point guard from Chicago maneuvers about the Ubben Basketball Complex with an indifferent expression, looking as though he’d rather be anywhere else in the world. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“This whole experience so far has been real fun; I’m really liking it,” Tate said. “All of it, college life, it’s been exciting. Coming here and getting to play basketball and work on my game every day just makes it better.”
Tate could walk around smiling, laughing and outwardly expressing to everyone else exactly how he’s feeling inside; that’s just not his style. It never really has been.
“He’s very laid-back, very easy- going,” said Tate’s mom, Arisa Johnson. “He’s got a very calm spirit.”
That serenity has served Tate well on the floor to this point in his basketball career. The 6-foot-3 point guard didn’t get too high or too low while helping lead Chicago power Simeon to a pair of state titles the last two seasons, and the low-key floor general has been a bright spot on the court during the first week of practice for John Groce’s club.
In the first five practices, during live-action situations, Tate dished out 14 assists while turning the ball over twice. No one else on the team had more than eight assists during the same stretch.
“He’s been rock solid,” Groce said. “He has great command and presence. He’s really coachable, really teachable, learns fast, cares at a high level.”
Inside the slender freshman with the demure disposition lives an intense competitor who carries himself with an edge. Perhaps that developed through all the years of being an afterthought to most while playing alongside more heralded players like Jabari Parker, Steve Taylor and Illinois teammate Kendrick Nunn on a juggernaut high school program.
In Illinois’ Top 15 2013 recruiting class featuring Nunn, Malcolm Hill, Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan, Tate always has been a bit of an afterthought.
“It gives me a chip on my shoulder. I just want to go out there and play hard and show people what kind of player I am,” he said.
At the same time, though, Tate always has been the consummate team player and is all right with everyone else’s attention focused elsewhere.
“That’s one of the very special things about him,” Johnson said. “It’s never been about him. There have been times when people say he’s not selfish enough.”
Despite how her son might come off, Johnson laughs at the assumption that he’s shy. She would know: Her house was always a destination for Tate and his many friends.
“He’s always been a social butterfly. There were kids at my house all the time,” she said. “He just seems to have the type of personality that people are drawn to.”
The social aspect of college life has been just as rewarding for Tate as anything that’s happened from a basketball perspective.
“I’ve been meeting so many new people, and that has been a lot of fun for me,” he said. “I spend a lot of time with my teammates; we’re real close. And I’ve got some friends here from Chicago, and I hang out with them a lot, too.”
As a pass-first point guard, Tate has had no trouble making nice with his teammates on the floor.
“Guys like him, he’s a great teammate. They love playing with him because he makes guys better, and he competes,” Groce said. “Those are all good qualities to have.”
With senior guard Ahmad Starks being denied a waiver last week that would have allowed him to suit up this season for the Illini, Tate is in line to earn significant playing time as a freshman.
Regardless, though, he’s preparing for the upcoming season the same as he was before a decision on Starks’ status was announced.
“I haven’t even thought about what that does for my role,” he said. “I’m still trying to do whatever I can to help the team win games, whatever role that might be in.”
It’s been a promising start through the first week for Tate, but it’s been a small sample. It’s still too early for Groce and the coaching staff to make any determinations on what his role will be for the 2013-14 season.
“After a couple more weeks, I’ll have more of a feel of if he’s able to continue taking care of the ball like this, defending like this for the next two weeks,” Groce said. “We’ve still got a lot of practice left.”
Whatever the role, you can count on Mom making the two-hour trip down Interstate 57 to see it all unfold. When deciding between Illinois, Xavier and Ohio, proximity to home was a major selling point for Tate, as was the pride in representing the state school.
Though he traveled quite a bit with his high school team and on the AAU circuit, this is the first time Johnson has been without her only son for an extended period.
“It helps a great deal that he’s close, and I feel a real sense of comfort with that,” Johnson said. “I’m so happy, though, because Illinois was his dream school, and he’s been on cloud nine ever since he got there.”
You might not be able to see it by the look on his face, but Tate’s really loving this college experience.
Five things basketball beat writer Marcus Jackson learned during the first week of practice.
Ahmad Starks’ eligibility this season has been a hot topic in Champaign-Urbana since the spring, but after the NCAA’s decision to not grant the Oregon State transfer a waiver for immediate eligibility, folks around the country weighed in. ESPN’s Jay Bilas used it as another opportunity to continue his assault on the NCAA. Bilas’ colleagues, Jeff Goodman and Andy Katz, were stunned by the decision. Not everyone was sympathetic toward Starks, though. On Twitter, ESPN analyst Dan Dakich wrote, “Explain granting a waiver 2 a player that transfers home to be close to a sick relative. If that sick, wouldn’t player want yr off 2 spend time?”
Michael Finke needed some dental work this week and a few bags of ice. While playing some pickup hoops at the Champaign YMCA, the Illinois recruit took a shot to the face that knocked out his two front teeth and caused some serious swelling in his upper lip. For photos of the damage, check out Finke’s Twitter feed (@Finke_Michael). The Centennial senior said the swelling in his lip has gone down dramatically, but he’s still experiencing pain in his teeth. He’s scheduled for a root canal Tuesday. While dealing with the injury, Finke can’t scrimmage or have any physical contact for two weeks.
With the NCAA decision preventing Starks from playing this season, sophomore walk-on Mike LaTulip is now in line to see meaningful minutes at point guard along with returning starter Tracy Abrams and freshman Jaylon Tate. LaTulip appeared in 16 games last season, averaging 2.4 minutes. With his experience in the system and the work he put in during the offseason, LaTulip has given himself a chance to see action. “He’s gotten stronger, physically stronger,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “He takes care of the ball better. He knows our system really well. He’s smart. The biggest thing is the commitment he’s made to strength and conditioning. He’s pound-for-pound maybe our strongest and most-conditioned, in terms of cardiovascular and strength, when you combine both those areas of any player we’ve got on our team. It shows he made an extraordinary commitment to get better in those areas. His work ethic has paid off.”
Groce has a plan for everything, and that includes practices well in advance. Illinois’ second-year coach said he had the first four or five practices scripted with what he wanted the team to accomplish and which parts of the offensive and defensive systems implemented. He’s had to deviate from that already, though. With so many new faces on the roster, it’s taken longer to move on from one lesson to the next. “We’ve got to be more adaptable than we’ve ever been,” he said. “We can’t get to ‘B’ by the third practice like we thought because we don’t have ‘A’ down yet. That’s going to be a natural part of the progression when you’re dealing with the number of new guys we have.”
Watching Illinois’ exhibition and early-season games will be difficult. BTN finalized its schedule last week, and both exhibition games are on something called BTDN, which will be available on FightingIllini.com. Additionally, three of the first four games are broadcast online whether on ESPN3.com or the aforementioned BTDN, so a high-speed Internet connection and a reliable computer are a must. BTN, however, is stepping up its game with regard to hiring talent. As you know, former Illini guard and ESPN analyst Stephen Bardo has joined the network as a lead analyst, and CBS and Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis joined the network last week as a studio analyst.