MJ: Of Abrams, uptempo and Meyers Leonard
Five things beat writer Marcus Jackson learned during the fourth week of full-team practices
For years, Illinois basketball followers have been calling for the team to play at a faster tempo. With an influx of young talent on this season’s roster, they might get their wish, John Groce said. The coach’s desire is to play faster, but enough players have to emerge as dependable options to make that a reality. “In a perfect world you would play nine or 10 (players), then you can really play fast,” Groce said. “Last year we didn’t have that luxury. Are we going to have that luxury here in Year 2? We’ll see. We do have a team that’s built for speed, aggressive play and attacking, and we’ve got to figure a way to balance all that without fouling.”
The Illinois freshmen are getting better. The message being drilled into Austin Colbert, Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate is to be consistent. They’ll show flashes of brilliance but then have freshman moments. “They’ve still got a long way to go. I tell them all the time I’ll take consistency over greatness any day of the week,” Groce said. “Usually freshmen think they’re playing really hard and they are playing harder than what they played in high school; the game almost demands that to survive in our practices with the people that we play. I need them to play hard all the time. Right now, that’s the biggest challenge, which is not atypical or abnormal for freshmen.”
During his time at Illinois, Tracy Abrams has grown — literally and figuratively. He’s up to 6-foot-2. Shy and guarded with the media when he arrived at Illinois from Chicago Mount Carmel, the junior guard has developed a confidence about himself that was evident at Big Ten media day Thursday. “You’ve got to adapt to it, and I think I did a good job of adapting to it last year; I’m just so quiet,” Abrams said. “I’m more open (to the media). It’s fun. I don’t mind it at all, that’s just what comes with it. It’s definitely part of growing up. As you grow up, these are life skills. You’ve got to apply for a job one day and use these skills talking to the media.”
The consensus among Big Ten coaches at media day: they’re not sure how the rules changes in terms of officials calling more fouls against players guarding the ball will affect the game. Michigan’s John Beilein and Ohio State’s Thad Matta said they’re curious how it will impact the game. Most others had the same view and said they will adjust. One coach who had a fairly strong opinion about the new legislation was Purdue’s Matt Painter. Painter’s teams are tough, aggressive and physical on defense. With that style, it could become a problem for the Boilermakers. “If you’re telling me the way the games are being called and exhibition games are the way they’re going to call them in the Big Ten, we’re going to have a lot of good players watching basketball,” Painter said. “I don’t think that will sit with people in this room, with players and coaches across the country. It’s definitely not going to sit well with the fans. I think there’s a different way to increase scoring, if that’s what they’re trying to do.” The Boilermakers were third in fouls in the Big Ten last season, averaging 17.8 per game.
If you’re tuning in to Portland Trail Blazers games for a look at former Illini big man Meyers Leonard, you might be in for some disappointment. The former lottery pick has been demoted to Portland’s third-team center behind starter Robin Lopez and backup Joel Freeland. The News-Gazette All-Stater from Robinson didn’t play in the season opener against Phoenix and played one minute in a win against the Nuggets. Leonard spoke about his reduced role with BlazersEdge.com. “It’s just lit a fire under me in a good way,” Leonard said. “I wish I was in the same position I was a couple of weeks ago. But, hey, maybe this is a realization.” Had he played out his eligibility at Illinois, Leonard would be a senior on this season’s team. But he’s made $4.3 million and has been able to help his family financially. Now he’s got to find a way to get back on the court and become the player the Blazers expected when they drafted him 11th overall.
Northwood at Illinois, 5 p.m. Sunday
P Name Yr. Ht.
G Tracy Abrams Jr. 6-2
G Rayvonte Rice Jr. 6-4
G Joseph Bertrand Sr. 6-6
F Jon Ekey Gr. 6-7
C Nnanna Egwu Jr. 6-11
P Name Yr. Ht.
G Joe Ruhlman Jr. 5-11
G Dylan Langkabel So. 6-4
F Wes Wilcox Sr. 6-8
F Darvin Ham Sr. 6-6
C Will Bowles Jr. 6-7