When he’s not following his son J.T. play at Olney Central College (the Unity standout will be a sophomore for the Blue Knights this season), former Illinois guard T.J. Wheeler is keeping tabs on the Illini. He caught up with our beat writer to discuss the potential of this year’s team and his teammate and friend Deon Thomas’ upcoming Illinois Hall of Fame induction:
What positive did you take from last season?
I think those young kids showed so many different flashes of just being great. You go back to (the Maryland game) where Tevian Jones just had an unbelievable game. That’s with freshmen. They’re going to be up and down. You’ve seen signs where Ayo (Dosunmu) could just take over a game. I really liked the big kid Giorgi (Bezhanishvili). When he figured out he can’t get four fouls in the first half and we need him on the floor 30-plus minutes, he could take over a game. Then the (Alan) Griffin kid off the bench can come in and light it up. We saw signs last year that these young kids have an unbelievable amount of potential ahead of them that it could be a very interesting year.
How does that potential project this year?
Those freshmen got unbelievable experience and got unbelievable minutes. Now you’ve got to hope that they develop into great sophomore years. Then you’ve go to hope that Kipper (Nichols) and Da’Monte (Williams) and (Trent) Frazier step up. They’ve been in the system a long time now. Your veterans have to stand out and play better than the sophomores sometimes. Then it doesn’t hurt to throw Kofi (Cockburn) in the middle. Now you’ve got bigs down there that can bang. It seems like (Illinois coach Brad Underwood’s) built an old school team.
Your Illini teams were built with Illinois players. What do you think of the change with a roster trending national and international?
I just think everything has changed with college basketball. I’ve been out 25 years now. The style of the game has changed. Watching some of these kids come down and pull a 3 from 25 feet, Coach (Lou) Henson would have run on the floor and grabbed you. Back then Steve (Bardo) and Kendall (Gill) and Marcus (Liberty) and those guys set the tone that, “We’re from Illinois and we’re going to play at Illinois.” You come in right behind them and still have success with all Illinois kids. We’ve had so many different coaching changes, and now if you can get one kid out of Chicago that’s a top-20 or top-30 kid like they did with Ayo, that’s amazing.
What does it mean to you to see your teammate Deon Thomas inducted into the Illinois Hall of Fame?
You could go back to even the first HOF class that you would think, A, somebody like Coach Henson would have been in the first class and somebody like Deon should have been in the first class. It’s the Illinois Hall of Fame and you look at his Illinois career and there’s not one like it. It’s well deserved. It’s couple years too late in my eyes. We lived together. He was just at the house for a couple days. It’s not only a teammate. It’s one of my closest friends, too.