Five questions about UI basketball

Five questions about UI basketball

We’re 42 days from the start of the Illinois basketball season. Preparation begins in earnest today as John Groce & Co. start practicing at Ubben Basketball Complex — for up to 20 hours per week. Here are five questions to be answered, courtesy beat writer MARCUS JACKSON:

Who’s going to be the point guard?

The obvious choice is Ahmad Starks. It was about a year ago when Illinois received word from the NCAA that the Oregon State transfer would not be granted a waiver for immediate eligibility, news that didn’t sit well with John Groce. But with Tracy Abrams sidelined for the season with a torn ACL, having the fifth-year senior on board is a blessing for Illinois.

“For the first time in three years, we’ve really got some depth there,” Groce said. “With Starks, we know what we’re getting there.”

In addition to Starks, sophomore Jaylon Tate and fifth-year senior Rayvonte Rice will see time at the lead guard spot.

“He’s come along. He’s still got some work to do from a vocal perspective,” Groce said of Tate. “He’s trying to come along and become a better shooter. He’s getting stronger in the weight room.”

Regardless of which of those three guys is playing the position, the expectations remain high.

“We know what we’re getting with Starks and Rice and Tate, and the expectations to play to their strengths and help our team be competitive are not changing because of the injury,” Groce said.

What will Tracy Abrams’ role be?

The longtime starter isn’t available to help out on the court this season, and his top-notch play on the defensive end will be missed.

But the 6-foot-2 senior still has a prominent role.

“On the court is where he brings an element of toughness and leadership to your team, and we’re going to miss that from him. I told him he’s stuck with me for another year,” Groce said.

Expect to see Abrams barking instructions and words of encouragement from his perch on the Illinois bench. And if he sees something on the floor during a game or in practice, he’ll be in the ear of Groce or one of the assistants to relay his thoughts.

“The biggest thing is he’s certainly a good player, but his value is much more than just as a basketball player,” Groce said. “He’s an extension of me and what we’re about and how we do things, and he knows how I think and what we do from the standpoint of culture.”

What can we expect from Leron Black?

The freshman forward from Tennessee has made quite the impression through summer and preseason workouts. His relentless approach to rebounding and playing hard earned him the nickname “Savage.”

“His effort is disgusting,” assistant coach Dustin Ford said.

“He competes and plays really, really hard. He probably needs to channel that a little bit and that’s something we’ll get him to understand the next six weeks. He’s a really aggressive kid and it’s better to have to tone that down than to have to get a kid where you have to turn it up.” The bulk of the work for Black, Mr. Basketball in Tennessee last season, will be more cerebral and understanding the offensive and defensive principles of Illinois’ system. “We spent some time with him on the court this summer and some this fall, but once practice starts, its a little bit different because you’re going every day for three to four hours, roughly,” Ford said. “There’s film and you’re asking them to retain more information and teach the system. We’ve been very basic to this point. The next six weeks is to get him up to speed with what we need him to know going into that first exhibition game so that he knows what he’s doing.”

Will the team get into State Farm Center before the season opens?

In seasons past, the Illini regularly worked out there to get acclimated with their home arena. But with the renovation taking place now, court time will be limited ahead of the Nov. 7 exhibition game against Quincy. “We’re going to do a test run at the end of October so that’s really our only time in there,” director of basketball operations Mark Morris said. “We’re going to do a dry run with the scoreboard, the lighting so that if there are any fixes that need to be made, we can have them cleared up before the exhibition game.” Because of concerts and other events in State Farm Center, Morris typically has to schedule well in advance with Tom Divan and Sue Walker. There will be no concerts in the building through the renovation, but Morris will still be proactive in making sure there’s plenty of time for the basketball team. “They’ve been awesome to work with,” Morris said. “Coach Groce and I sit down with a master plan to get as many dates over there as we can. Ubben is our main hub with the weight room and training facility, so we try to keep that in mind. But we want to get over there as often as possible to have familiarity with the shooting background and home court.”

What’s the quirkiest thing about the preseason practices?

The conditioning drill known as 17s is one the players get somewhat nervous about. Each player is required to run the width of the basketball court 17 times for time. The players each run the 17s five times with 2 minutes, 30 seconds in between and have to average a certain time in those five tries based on the position they play. Point guards have to average below 60 seconds, wings get 61-62 seconds, forwards are 63-64 and a guy like (Maverick Morgan and Michael Finke) are 64-65. “The 17s test is like 20, 25 years old,” strength and conditioning coach Mike Basgier said. “Pat Riley is actually credited with inventing the test and people have been doing versions of it for decades.” The 17s test and the mile test are the drills the players least look forward to when returning to campus. “If I had to pick one or the other, I’d say the 17s is what they find most challenging,” Basgier said. “I don’t think they dread anything because we’re fearless around here.” Based on size and position, Nnanna Egwu is required to be at about 64-65 seconds, but he’s typically in the range with the guards. “He’s crazy,” Basgier said.