Follow the leader: Kipper Nichols

Follow the leader: Kipper Nichols

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CHAMPAIGN — Tracy Abrams and Malcolm Hill served dual leadership purposes during the 2016-17 season. Abrams, a constant presence for six seasons, was the clear vocal leader. Hill spoke up more, but let his game and how he approached it do most of the talking for him.

Brad Underwood's first Illinois team has something of a leadership vacuum. Abrams and Hill are gone, two of six graduates. Just five scholarship players — none of them seniors — return for the Illini in 2017-18.

Illinois opened its summer workouts Monday. Five new scholarship players match the five returning. Five walk-ons, Underwood's son, Tyler, a newcomer himself among them, round out the roster to date.

"Big learning curve," redshirt sophomore forward Kipper Nichols said. "I think we're in a unique situation because it's new for all of us. With the new system and new staff, we have to get used to each other and build up that rapport with the team."

Underwood has said he's looking for leaders. Even with just half of a season of competition under his belt after becoming eligible last December, Nichols could be in a position to provide it.

"Try not to leave any moment to chance," Nichols said was how he was approaching the summer workouts. "Get in here and push my guys to be the best every day. That's all we can really ask of the team right now. ... Just go my hardest all the time. As a team I think that will be important for us."

Nichols came off the bench 20 times in 21 games last season for the Illini after his mid-year transfer from Tulane in the 2015-16 season. The 6-foot-6 Cleveland native's lone start came Feb. 11 against Penn State, and he averaged 4.9 points and 2.9 rebounds for the season while shooting a team-best 44 percent from three-point range.

"What I wanted to do was get open shots and try to knock them down," Nichols said. "I think I did my part there last year. I worked on my game a lot and put in a lot of time in the gym. I think this year is the same thing — continue to improve on my shot and ball handling skills."

Nichols characterized Illinois' spring as a "wild ride." Former coach John Groce was fired March 11. Underwood was hired a week later. Multiple players have left the team. Several were added.

The Illini's spring workouts were incomplete given just half the eventual roster heading into the summer was available. That time, however, helped lay the groundwork for the job to be done between now and the start of the fall semester.

"We learned a lot from the new staff — a lot — in the couple weeks we were with them," Nichols said. "If we keep developing and doing our job, listening to the coaching staff and doing what they tell us, I think the sky's the limit for us.

"I speak very highly of those guys up there (coaches). It's a great vibe every time you walk into the gym. There's great energy. That's No. 1 for me — the whole relationship deal."

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