CHAMPAIGN — At the end of a practice session last week, the Illinois basketball staff asked Ahmad Starks for a meeting in the offices upstairs at the Ubben Basketball Complex. It was there the Oregon State transfer was notified by John Groce & Co. that his request to the NCAA to grant him eligibility to play this season was denied.
Starks left the Pacific Northwest to move closer to his Chicago home so he could be near his ailing grandmother, Mazola Robinson, while finishing his degree and college basketball career at Illinois.
“We sat in silence for a little bit,” Starks said of his meeting with the coaching staff. “Everybody was disappointed. Coming into this, we thought we had a legitimate chance with my grandmother and everything. She’s dear and sincere to my heart.”
The hope, Starks said, was that his grandmother would get the chance to see him play in person this season.
“I’m still hoping for the best with her health and everything,” he said. “She’s almost 90 years old, but being close to her is definitely great. Just having that relationship with her where I get to see her way more than I expected.”
Starks and the staff were disappointed with the decision. But Groce vowed to move forward, echoing that sentiment at Wednesday’s media day address.
“At this point for me to belabor that is a waste of time, to be honest,” he said. “They made a decision, and we have to move on.”
Regardless of the decision, Starks is happy with his decision to finish his career at Illinois. The style of play, the coaching staff and even the school colors were factors in his decision to pick Illinois after leaving the Beavers. Being close to home helped, too.
“It’s the type of program I always wanted to be in growing up,” he said. “I’m still excited to be here, just being in the home state, playing for Coach Groce and this institution.”
Including Starks, Illinois has an impressive array of talent to trot out for its scout team in practices. In addition to the 5-foot-9 point guard, Seton Hall transfer Aaron Cosby and Western Michigan transfer Darius Paul will sit out this season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules.
“We have some good guys coming in, putting it on the guys preparing them for the games as best as possible as well as working on our individual games while the guys are on the road or whatever the case may be,” Starks said
Cosby is healthy after missing time in the summer after undergoing hernia surgery. It was an injury the 6-3 guard dealt with toward the end of last season while starring for Seton Hall.
“It just kind of got worse as I was going through the summer workouts,” he said. “Coach wanted me to get it taken care of now since I’m sitting out this season. I’m back to the full swing of things now.”
Paul, the younger brother of former Illinois star Brandon Paul, has followed the program closely for years. After a standout rookie season that saw him earn Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year honors, he noticed via Twitter that Illinois was overhauling its roster with four players deciding to leave and others deciding to transfer in. The 6-8 forward felt like following in his brother’s footsteps could be a real possibility, so he left the Broncos’ program and started weighing his options.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen, but after it all started happening, it was real exciting,” Paul said.
Paul has spoken regularly with Brandon, who is playing professionally in Russia this season.
“I just texted him last night. They start their season (today), and he’s excited,” Darius Paul said. “He’s been playing well and just traveling around Europe and seeing everything. He’s enjoying it.”
The three players sitting out this season will be allowed to practice every day with the team and go through all the same workouts and conditioning drills as everyone else. They can’t travel, however.
“Once practice started, it kind of hit me that I wouldn’t be playing,” Cosby said. “I’m looking forward to the year, getting better and improving my game and helping the team get better in practice.”
It sounds like an easy enough process but take it from a guy who went through what this trio is about to embark on: It’s not easy.
Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice sat out the 2012-13 season.
“It was most frustrating at first, just letting it sink in that you’re not going to play. But you’re practicing every day doing what everybody else is doing, but you’ve got to be patient,” the Champaign native said. “I just tell Aaron, Darius and those guys their time is coming, be patient. Just do what the coaches tell you to do and you’ll be good.”
Rice took advantage of his year off, dropping about 35 pounds and shedding body fat. He was awarded with one of the team’s most-improved player awards at the season-ending banquet, and Groce has repeatedly said Rice’s sit-out year was the best he has seen in 19 years in the business.
“What he did was hard; it’s not easy to do that,” Groce said. “I told them the story the other day about a bricklayer, and I said three people were laying bricks, and they asked the first one what he was doing and he said, ‘I’m laying bricks.’ They asked the second one what he was doing and he said, ‘I’m building a wall.’ They asked the third one what he was doing and he said, ‘I’m building a cathedral.’ Ray understood he was building a cathedral.
“He understood the big picture that was going to pay off for him when he became eligible to play.”
One of Rice’s strengths is his versatility on both ends of the floor. Freshman guard/forward Malcolm Hill also is seen by Groce as a versatile player, but he’s got a ways to go to reach Rice’s level. Part of the reason is he’s 17 years old.
“Malcolm doesn’t turn 18 until (Oct. 26). Ray’s a grown man, literally,” Groce said. “Malcolm’s in a little bit of a different position mentally and physically than Ray, and you’ve got to make adjustments and do the best thing we can to bring Malcolm along.”
According to Groce, Hill made 30,000 shots during the summer and spends more time in the gym working on his game than is required by the coaching staff.
“Malcolm is an extra guy,” Groce said. “I talk about guys who are empty, even and extra, Malcolm Hill is clearly extra. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to be a good player for us as long as he keeps working hard and is open-minded.”
Hill left Belleville East as the program’s all-time scoring leader with 2,067 points. He’s found scoring in college isn’t as easy.
“It’s about what I expected because I know this is a whole lot different than high school; this is the Big Ten, one of the toughest conferences in America,” Hill said. “So far I’ve been learning the physicality.”
Joseph Bertrand and fellow fifth-year player Jon Ekey are the lone eligible seniors on the Illinois roster this season. They’re the leaders, though the vocal piece of that isn’t something that comes naturally to either player.
Each has been on successful teams — Bertrand at Illinois and Ekey at Illinois State — and each has played on teams that struggled to post wins.
“Every time I see (Bertrand’s mother) Lorita, I tell her how much I enjoy coaching her son,” Groce said. “Joe would be the first to tell you I’ve asked him to be more verbal. Joe has so much to share. He knows what the seasons are about, what conditioning is about, strength training, how to take care of his business. Joe’s very good at that; Joe’s very reliable. What I want him to do is share more of that with our new guys verbally as well as non-verbally, and that’s a big step with Joe. I’m trying to get him outside his comfort zone with that.
“They don’t come any better with him; he’s a great kid.”
It’s a role Bertrand is working on embracing.
“I’ve got to share what I know. I think that can really help out the younger guys, and that can help in practice,” he said. “It’s just talking. I know all the guys, and I know basketball.”
Ekey, Groce said, has been solid in practice from the summer workouts to this point. The Illinois State transfer is completing his final year of eligibility, the third consecutive year a fifth-year player has transferred into the program following Sam Maniscalco (Bradley) and Sam McLaurin (Coastal Carolina).
“Jon is consistent, which is awesome. I know what I’m getting every day from Jon when I go to practice,” Groce said. “He’s going to be in the top third in rebounds in that given practice, he’s going to take and make open shots; his shot selection is excellent; he knows how to pass; he plays the game the right way. He’s very consistent in his mental approach; he doesn’t get too high or too low, and it’s great to have a fifth-year senior with Jon’s mentality on our team, especially valuable when you’ve got so many new faces that are younger.”
Tracy Abrams was voted a team captain as a sophomore, and as the returning starter at point guard, he’ll again be looked upon to provide leadership.
He made tremendous strides in that area throughout the offseason, according to Groce, probably more than anyone on the roster. It’s a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly.
“You’ve got to embrace your role. I’ve just got to do what I can to be helpful and help my teammates out,” he said. “We’re all close. We spend a lot of time together.”
Abrams has spent time with the five freshmen and has been impressed with their willingness to be led.
“They adjusted pretty well. Those guys have had a positive attitude, and that’s helped them out a lot,” he said. “The more you buy into it, the better off you’ll be, and I think those guys are doing a pretty good job with that.”
The preseason predictions are starting to be released, and Illinois has been picked by most to finish seventh or eighth in the Big Ten. Briefed of that Wednesday, Groce said he doesn’t spend much time thinking about those things. Last season’s team was picked ninth or 10th and ended up making the NCAA tournament.
“I don’t get caught up in that stuff. I hope our guys have a chip on their shoulder,” he said. “I thought last year’s team did with some of that stuff. But at the end of the day, we’re trying to control what we can control. We can’t control the predictions and prognosticators. I know they have a job to do; we certainly respect that.”
Nnanna Egwu walked around the media day session Wednesday at Ubben sporting a smile until some devastating news was broken to him: Joe Girardi had turned down the job to manage Egwu’s beloved Cubs to remain with the Yankees.
Just last week, Egwu told assistant coach Dustin Ford that Girardi would come to the North Side and deliver a World Series title within three to five years, and he was convinced he was correct.
“I don’t know where we’re going to go from here,” Egwu said. “I don’t know who gets the job now. This is going to set us back.”