NFL First Round Draft Picks from the University of Illinois

First Round Draft picks from the University of Illinois over the last 20 years

 

If you take a look at most mock drafts, Illinois will more than likely have four players at least drafted in 2013. While that total is something to be proud of, only Akeem Spence is projected to possibly go before the fourth round. Illinois hasn’t had a lot of top end talent in recent years, but here is a quick look back at the five first round picks Illinois has had in the last 20 years.

Corey Liuget

The last Fighting Illini player to be taken in the first round was defensive end Corey Liuget. The 6’2”, 298 pound athlete had a great three years in Champaign, before leaving early for the draft. So far, he has 70 tackles and 8 sacks through his first two seasons in the league with the San Diego Chargers.

Vontae Davis

Davis made an immediate impact in Champaign, being named a Freshman All-American at cornerback. He would have two more outstanding years for Illinois before leaving early for the draft. He was drafted by the Dophins in 2009, and lasted until 2011 with the franchise. Since 2012, he has been an integral part of the Colts on the defensive side of the ball.

Rashard Mendenhall

In the last 20 years, no running back has been as good as Rashard Mendenhall for Illinois. After dominating the high school ranks in the state, he decided to stay close at home for college. He exploded his senior year, racking up 1681 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. After being picked by the Steelers in 2008, he has played every professional down with the franchise as one of their go-to running backs and a solid fantasy football pick. He will begin a new journey next season as he heads to Arizona.

Kevin Hardy

In 1996, Illinois had two of the top prospects in the country. Both Kevin Hardy and Siemon Rice (see below) would go in the first three picks of the draft. Other than Jeff George in 1990, Hardy going #2 overall is the highest position in the history of the school. Although he didn’t have an outstanding career in the NFL, he did make All-Pro and the Pro Bowl in 1999. In all, he would play nine seasons for three different teams.

Simeon Rice

After one of the best college careers in the history of the school, Rice became the #3 overall pick in the 1996 draft by the Arizona Cardinals. However, his best years arguably came when he was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2001-2006. In total, he made three Pro Bowls, four All-Pro teams and won the 2002 Super Bowl with Tampa Bay.

Looking back at Sergio McClain by Jeff Thomason @jefft24

Sergio McClain Illini Career

6.6 ppg. 4.0 rpg. An assist to turnover ratio of almost 1:1 (308 assists: 296 turnovers).  39% career field goals, 28% from three, 58% from the stripe. When deciding to dip into the history of the program for a topic, these career numbers hardly lead one to picture a player worthy of further research. That is of course before you attach the numbers to the man: Sergio McClain.

 

The term “March Madness” is almost universally known as the informal name of the annual NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament. We all know it as the annual event where $20 is thrown in the office pool, and someone’s wife or child picks the winning bracket based on favorite colors or names.

 

If you’re a hard core Illini fan, the term might make you think of the near misses in 1989 and 2005 for a program that can be argued as the most decorated ever to never win the title. What you probably don’t know is the term was first coined in 1939, here in Illinois, to describe the annual tournament that decides the state high school basketball champion.

 

Indiana gets all of the basketball love, deservingly so due to their long history of success, and undeservingly from the movie Hoosiers. That movie, without the cute and rube-like nickname, could have just as easily been set in any part of this state, at almost any time in history.

 

In any event, this state can proudly hold its hoop history against any in the country, and it would be easy to argue that Sergio McClain has the most accomplished hoop resume in the history of this state.

 

Sergio McClain in High School

 

While at Peoria Manual in the mid 1990’s, Sergio McClain was part of an unprecedented four consecutive state titles, and in 1997 was named Illinois Mr. Basketball. Sergio, along with Manual and eventual Illini teammate Marcus Griffin, went an absurd 16-0 in state tournament games.

 

While I have credited Richard Keene in a prior post for opening the recruiting floodgates after NCAA sanctions, Sergio took it to the next level. Including McClain, the next four Mr. Basketball recipients who attended college would attend the U of I.*

 

Sergio McClain*Kevin Garnett and Ronnie Fields, both of Farragut Academy in Chicago, never stepped foot on a college campus. Frank Williams, Brian Cook and Dee Brown followed McClain to Illinois.

 

While at Illinois, Sergio McClain, along with the personal stats listed above, was part of teams that went 86-46, culminating in an Elite Eight appearance in 2001, Bill Self’s first season at the helm…

 

While watching Michigan State play Indiana on CBS on Sunday, there was a phrase used about an Indiana player: “There are players you win with, and players you win because of.” What a perfect way to describe the play of Sergio McClain. Sergio McClain was a guy whose teams won because of him, not just with him.

 

Sure, the numbers aren’t going to blow anyone away, but when you’re in a starting lineup with Frank Williams, Cory Bradford, Brian Cook and Marcus Griffin, there is a serious need for a “glue guy”. The guy who defends the other team’s best perimeter player; the guy who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be a valuable part of the offense.

 

At 6’4”, 230 pounds, Sergio McClain was able to play the four in a small lineup, and as the son of a coach and proven winner, had the basketball acumen to initiate the offense with two guards who looked to get theirs first. Built like an NFL player, Sergio McClain was propositioned by Ron Turner to contribute to the football program. This, while it adds to the point I’m trying to make, might just be an indictment on the football program during Turner’s time at Illinois.

 

 

After college, Sergio McClain had brief stints in the ABA, and the NBA D-League. He also spent some time as the head coach at Parkland College, following in the coaching footsteps of his father, Wayne. When John Groce was hired, there was some sentiment that Groce needed to hire an “Illinois Guy” for his staff.

 

I personally don’t have any gripe with what Coach Groce has done to this point, and have no idea what Sergio is currently up to. However, in the event he is available and interested, I’m betting the program couldn’t do much better than to bring Sergio McClain back home.

 

Voted one of the “100 Legends of the IHSA Boys Basketball Tournament”, Sergio McClain started 81 games at the U of I, and was part of five NCAA Tournament victories. As part of the “Peoria 3”, he was a vital part of the revitalization of the program, and is an Illinois basketball legend in high school and college. I can’t think of any player who has put together as impressive of an eight year resume in the history of Illinois hoops.

 

If there is any other past Illini player, whether great or just interesting, that you’d like to hear more about, feel free to email me at jeffreyrthomason@gmail.com. Twitter: @jefft24.

Illini vs. Badgers Recap by Ryan Curi

Little needs to be said in regards to Illinois’ disappointing effort in Saturday’s 74-51 loss to Wisconsin.
First, hats off to the Badgers on what was their most complete game of the season. Another top four finish in the Big Ten standings for Bo Ryan is starting to look better, after previous doubts about this year’s squad.
DJ Richardson was the Illini’s best player in this ball game, as he was determined to get to the rim in a second half flurry of points. I’d love to see Richardson continue to aggressively attack the basket, while also regaining confidence in his three point stroke.
Brandon Paul shot an abysmal 1-for-11 from the field, though he also attacked the hoop but was unable to convert on a few free throw attempts. Mike Bruesewitz was certainly a thorn in Paul’s side all day.
Tracy Abrams did not convert an assist in the game as the team’s starting point guard. In fact, Illinois as a team only assisted on two baskets all day.
Joseph Bertrand made some athletic finishes at the rim, as well as soaring for seven rebounds, but let his flashy ball handling get in the way of a few careless turnovers.
After back to back strong performances for the sophomore, Nnanna Egwu found himself on the bench for a majority of this one. Egwu picked up three first half fouls and his fourth early on in the second half.
Tyler Griffey was just as little help on Saturday, only knocking down one jumper late in the contest. Griffey was replaced by Sam McLaurin to start the second half, though McLaurin and fellow forward Myke Henry were also of little help.
Devin Langford made another brief appearance in the first half. Mike Shaw found himself on the floor more than he probably anticipated, guarding the in bounds pass during a full court press that caused a few Badger miscues.
A 1-3 start to Big Ten play will likely knock the Fighting Illini from the national rankings, as it should. While there should be some cause for concern for John Groce and Illini nation, there is still plenty of talent on our side of the court that this year’s team can turn it around.
First things first, the orange and blue must get back into the win column in their next two matchups. First they must beat in-state rival Northwestern in Champaign, followed up by a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska.
As a final note, any Illinois fan that hasn’t had the chance to take a trip up to Madison and the Kohl Center should definitely do so. While the outcome may be similar to today’s, it was neat seeing other fans there wearing their orange and blue.
Ryan Curi
curi.ryan@gmail.com

Illinois vs. Minnesota Game Summary by Ryan Curi

As I sat and watched fans start to hit the exits with seven minutes remaining in only an 11-point ball game, I realized that maybe Illinois basketball isn’t over the hump.

Certainly I will give credit to Minnesota, who appears to be both a Big Ten and national contender, but maybe we did get too optimistic after the Ohio State win.

Illinois needs a minimum of eight, if not nine, Big Ten wins just to get into the NCAA Tournament. A loss on Saturday at the always tough Kohl Center in Madison and John Groce’s team would be 1-3 in the deep and rugged Big Ten.

 

First let’s look at the positives from Wednesday night. Nnanna Egwu scored eight points and grabbed nine rebounds, decent numbers against an incredibly strong Gopher front line.

 

Tracy Abrams played crowd pleaser, nearly singlehandedly bringing the Illini back from a double digit deficit. That was until back to back Abrams’ turnovers led to a Golden Gopher run of their own.

 

DJ Richardson seemed to do all the little things, but couldn’t hit a shot to save his life, though he wasn’t the only one. Brandon Paul hit his free throws, but his threes didn’t fall either.

 

 

Now onto the negatives. Tyler Griffey is not a formidable option at the power forward for a supposed Big Ten contender. Griffey’s strength is shooting, and when he’s cold like he was Wednesday, he’s essentially useless. Not to hate on the senior, but Griffey would have made a great mid major player, rather than the small role he’s player over the course of his Illini career.

 

Joseph Bertrand wasn’t his usual spark plug self off the bench, forcing plays that he usually converts with ease. Bertrand was not the only Illini reserve who failed to contribute though.

 

Senior transfer Sam McLaurin compiled his entire stat line on an offensive rebound that he put back in for a layup in the second half. McLaurin is more built for the Big Ten than Griffey and I’d like to see Groce extend some trust to the player formerly from Coastal Carolina.

 

Myke Henry failed to provide a lift as well. Slotted at power forward, Henry is a strong rebounder, though the box score may not show, but lingers around the arc more than banging in the paint. He too struggled with his shot from deep, the same shot that Illinois relies on for so much of their offense.

 

Devin Langford and Mike LaTulip each made brief cameo appearances in the contest, but made no noteworthy plays.

 

After last Wednesday’s loss at Purdue, I stated that I was much more worried about this Minnesota game than I was for Saturday’s rout over Ohio State. Looks like that was for good reason, as Tubby Smith’s bunch has many more weapons than Deshaun Thomas’ one man wrecking crew in Columbus.

 

Despite the disappointment that both myself and the Illini nation feel after this loss, the show must go on. Next stop is Madison, Wisconsin to face Bo Ryan and the Badgers. This would be a huge win to get back on track, in what would be the team’s best chance to win in Madison since their upset win up north in 2010. Can’t wait to be up in Madison for this one and I’ll catch up with you all, hopefully on a more positive note, after Saturday afternoon’s outcome.

 

Ryan Curi

curi.ryan@gmail.com

Illinois basketball is who we thought they….nevermind by Tejash Patel @tjpatel403

 

“I love that kid.”

Following a 74-55 thumping of Ohio State this past Saturday, John Groce decided to stick up for D.J. Richardson, his senior shooting guard currently going through a terrible shooting slump amid surrounding and consistent criticism. Instead of throwing him under the bus (ahem, Bruce), however, Groce basically stated that he wouldn’t trade D.J. for M.J., and reinforced his desire to see him shoot even more.

 

While some of us want to see Richardson benched for the more explosive Joseph Bertrand, Groce doesn’t see it that way. He doesn’t pull guys for their mistakes, but instead encourages them. He relates to these players. He is more or less the anti-Weber. This is why John Groce is the coach of U of I basketball. His positive attitude has rubbed off on this team, and he has instilled the confidence back into a group of young men who were all but sapped of their super powers by the former Lex Luthor regime. Remember Meyers Leonard crying on the bench during the Nebraska game? I sure don’t.

 

Last week, when the Illini fell to Purdue, the same thought crossed all of our minds – here we go again. This is where the collapse, like last year, begins. This is the start of the Illini turning their one loss record into a losses-greater-than-wins record. This is when folks start jumping off the slowly churning bandwagon, where the Groce honeymoon ends and the marriage finally begins. In the eternal words of Dennis Green…eh, you get the idea.

 

 

 

But after Saturday’s resounding win, I think most of us have stepped back from the ledge just a tad. Let’s be clear though – the Buckeyes are overrated. They have no inside game, and they are definitely not a top 10 team. WE out-rebounded them. Let that sink in for a bit. And let’s also remember the fact that the Illini performed the same feat last year, beating OSU at home and further bulking up their resume before The Collapse. In other words, we have seen this movie before.

 

With that being said, this win felt different. We weren’t relying on the heroics of Batman-Brandon to shove 40+ points down the throats of the Jokers from OSU. And we weren’t relying on a ridiculous amount of attempted and made threes either. We actually won the game by driving to the hoop, creating opportunities for others, boxing out, playing great defense, and getting after it in front of a rocking Assembly Hall like I haven’t seen in a LONG time.

 

The improvement from Purdue to OSU, after some apparently grueling practices, has further made me a believer in John Groce’s ability to not only motivate and relate, but to also understand the game of basketball itself. I saw concrete evidence in improvement boxing out and gang-rebounding. I saw guys getting after loose balls. I saw an improved offense utilizing the dribble drive, up-tempo pacing, and our tremendous athletes. Not to mention the remarkable improvement in Nnanna Egwu’s game. That guy was a liability at the beginning of the season. Now he has a jumper.

 

 

 

 

I’ll have to wait and see how the season plays out before passing judgment, especially with our slate of difficult conference opponents coming up, but to me, this season already feels different. My prediction: I see our Illini heroes putting on their capes come March, and this time, they’ll be there to stay.

You can read more from Tejash here.

 

Email:  tjpatel403@gmail.com

Twitter:  @tjpatel403

Illinois Basketball – Men of Perfection so far

 

Finals are underway and many students feel overwhelmed because they know they aren’t about to ace their tests, but remember to look on the bright side of things.  Brandon Paul and the rest of the gang don’t have the privilege of failing in private.

 

They have to have all of their failures broadcast to the entire basketball community, so all I have is one thing to say to you, “Stop complaining!”   The Fighting Illini’s most recent game against Eastern Kentucky allowed every fan to have 12 reasons to love our team and new coach John Groce.

 

 

 

 

 

The Illini are now 12-0 and are far from publicly failing which should inspire all of you studiers to push it to the limit and train (study) even harder because perfection is possible.

 

What is next for the Illini?  December 22nd our boys, I’m sorry “Men of Perfection”, take on Missouri on their courts.   If you can’t make it there in person, be sure to tune in to ESPN2 for all your Illini coverage because you don’t want to miss 13-0 and you definitely don’t want to miss a 12-1 result (Lets ignore the possibility of the that).

 

There is about a week until Christmas and instead of waiting impatiently for Santa to come or that gift you ordered from Amazon, be sure to emerge yourself in everything related to Illinois Basketball.  Before checking out the game this coming weekend, stay up-to-date with all of the players via Twitter and be sure to check out The Daily Illini.  There are too many ways to always stay updated with your favorite team and I want to be sure you know of all of them.

 

Be sure to follow:

 

John Groce @JohnGroce

Brandon Paul @BP3

DJ Richardson @djrich32

Mike LaTulip @MLaTulip_5

 

These are just a few names you should follow.  Be sure to check out the rest of the team and all of the team’s affiliates Twitter accounts.  There is nothing better than prompt information from the source.

 

I’m the newest edition to the blogging team for Illini News and I must say last week’s post was a bit dry.  It just wasn’t me and I definitely didn’t include an introduction.

 

I just jumped into the flow of things and tried to blend in.  Allow me to reintroduce myself (Jay- Z, P.S.A reference). I am a Senior in Marketing who loves everything there is to love about sports, especially my Fighting Illini.

 

I write my own blog, The Sarcastic Sports Commentator via blogspot.com.   I enjoy giving my opinion on things people assume I am not capable of providing an opinion on (i.e. sports).  Every week you will get to update yourself on important matters such as Illinois’ Basketball team and get to take a break from your hectic schedule while reading something entertaining for once.  I look forward to you reading my blog posts and if you don’t you should. Go Illini!

 

Twitter: @MsSportsBlog

Email: anders87@illinois.edu

Our State. Our Team.

 

Our State. Our Team.  This is the slogan that has been reiterated throughout the current season.  Despite our football team’s lackluster 2012-2013 season that ended with the disappointing record (2-10),  I think we can finally say the slogan with confidence.

Currently the record is an impressive 11-0.  The team’s new coach John Groce has clearly adjusted to his team and has few questioning his coaching abilities.  Last night Illinois sent Norfolk State back with a story they wish they could tell differently.  The final score was 64-54 Illinois.

The past couple of years the team has performed subpar under former coach Bruce Weber.  This was my second game I ever attended and I can say impressive is an accurate description. After maneuvering through the crowd of blue and orange fans, I settled in only to become anxious.  Can we really win 11?  I sat through the entire game quiet.  I observed the fans and the players.

Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson didn’t hold back scoring a combined score of 25 points.  The fans were at ease because many knew going into the game we would end victoriously because no one really knows about Norfolk State.  As I listened to the crowd some whispered “Where is Norfolk? What is their record?”

 

Norfolk is a University located in a city in Virginia of the same name.  The Spartans record currently is 6-6.  That is all the information you need to know.  The bigger question is can we win 12 in a row?  Sunday December 16th Illinois takes on Eastern Kentucky.  This will be an interesting game because Eastern Kentucky will also enter the game undefeated (9-0).  How much longer will the streak continue?

 

The only way to predict how the season will go would be to consider all of the factors that contribute to the much coveted W.   These factors include the coach and the players.  Brandon Paul, the player who scored 35 points in this past weekend’s game against Gonzaga was named Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week this past Tuesday.  Let us not forget DJ Richardson who was escorted from the game in the first half after colliding into a player from Norfolk.  He suffered a upper shoulder contusion.  Despite his injury he continued the game contributing 11 points to the winning score.

 

John Groce, the same coach who led his previous team Ohio to the NCAA tournament twice and ended with a record 85-56, has proven that looking at old records can be a clear indicator of success.  He has exceeded expectations and has taken a team in need of new direction to a place no one could have guessed they would be.  If we win Sunday’s game every game following will be entered with a great amount of anticipation because fans will be expecting the undefeated record to end.  Only time will tell if the team can continue this winning streak, but according to our record. I believe we have a good chance.

 

Twitter @MsSportsBlog

Email anders87@illinois.edu

Image Source: thesportsbank.net

Looking back at Illinois vs. Gonzaga

Down 12-3 at Gonzaga, the first thing that came to my head as a jaded Illinois basketball fan was, “it’s over”.

 

As a self-proclaimed sports pessimist, this way of thinking, from the Bears to the Bulls to the White Sox, is very common with me.

 

But with the Illini, it isn’t just pessimism driving my inner-monologue. It’s habit.

 

Having spent countless hours sitting in front of my TV watching the Illini lose game after game the last few years under Bruce Weber, I couldn’t get myself to think any differently. Whether getting down early by not being able to put the ball in the basket, to taking the air out of the ball and blowing late game leads, to standing around the perimeter for 34 seconds before chucking a long three, I’ve grown accustomed to the short comings of Illinois basketball. I even stopped watching games last year to make the pain go away. You can call me a bad fan, but who likes torture?

 

So on Saturday, down 12-3, pessimism started rearing its ugly head again. But what followed was different. I saw a confident John Groce call a timeout with a sense of calmness in an otherwise hostile environment, clapping his hands to encourage the team. I saw a coach who didn’t bench his players anytime a shot was taken and missed. I saw the Illini NOT melt the shot clock on every possession. I saw steals. Fastbreaks. Teammates supporting one another during team huddles. And I saw guys DRIVING TO THE HOOP when the shots stopped falling! That was a sight for sore eyes, to say the least.

 

And then there was Brandon Paul – 35 points and a block party. He has transformed his game through the new coaching staff, where his ability to get to the rim will make him some coin in the NBA next year. Last year, BP3 would have setting for the 3-ball more often then not, especially during the times when the shot clock was running down or when we were down early. This year, his thinking seems different. Big time players make big time plays, and Paul was a prime example of the good things that happen when you attack the basket.

 

In the NBA, the players more often than not determine the outcomes of games. In college, the head coach is responsible for much of the outcome. His job is to recruit the right players and put them in the best possible position to succeed. With that in mind, I believe in John Groce. From his “attacking” style of play to his post-game interviews to his media sessions to his ability to relate to players, I see someone with the knack for big-time college basketball. Though there are still a ton of shortcomings on this team (post play, over-reliance on BP3, ball handling), I believe that JG will recruit high quality players to address these weaknesses down the road. I believe that, once he gets his own players into the system, there won’t be such an emphasis on the three-ball, which is always a good thing. I believe that Groce has completely changed the culture and outlook of Illinois basketball in less than a year. I believe that Christmas has come early for Illini fans.

Twitter – @tjpatel403
Email – tjpatel403@gmail.com

Illinois Basketball passes the Eye Test by Jeff Thomason @jefft24

Some random thoughts during what has become an exciting week for the Illini…

First and foremost, after several years of watching the team treat Bruce Weber with something between indifference and disdain, it is awfully encouraging to see these young guys respond to Coach Groce. The enthusiasm and effort are there, so far.

So much of defense and rebounding is effort, and effort is a direct result of buying into what the coach is saying. If you had the pleasure of watching the USC thrashing, you saw a team that was clearly giving max effort on defense, and dominated the glass. However…

Turnovers are going to be a big issue if they continue at this pace. I had previously mentioned the ugly amount in the exhibition game, and 20 more against USC is the only thing to pick on. Tracy Abrams was credited with 8 of the 20, and that’s just not going to fly in conference play.

Anyone who knows me well can vouch for my affinity for Bill Self. I’m not one of these Illini fans who hold him in contempt for taking a better job and more cash. That said, my John Groce man crush is growing at an uncomfortable rate. They’re fun to watch; Will Leitch (@williamfleitch) spoke for Illini Nation during the USC game, when he accurately stated that the first 11 minutes of that game were the most enjoyable we’ve had in seven years.

I have seen the 2013 recruiting class ranked anywhere between 10 and 25 nationally. Regardless, a complete class* with some Simeon love was crucial, and Groce made it happen. Lastly, it looks like there are expectations this year. The 3-19-13 bracelet Groce is sporting (TNT Bracelet) is the date the 2013 NCAA Tournament begins. It would be easy for the coach to check out on the guys he didn’t recruit, but instead there appears to be a culture of accountability, and a goal to make a tournament that most didn’t think was a possibility a few weeks ago.

Illinois 3_19_13 bracelet NCAA Tournament

*Malcolm Hill, the ESPN100 guard from Belleville East, is in my neck of the woods. I watched him play live once last year, and hope to give a first person account later this year.

Nnanna has some range. The ESPN crew mentioned how hard he worked on his shot over the summer. Let’s hope he doesn’t develop too quickly though, as the morons who populate NBA front offices love to speculate on bigs with high ceilings. I would like to see at least one more year of Egwu development.

A quick pat on the back for me, as Brandon Paul is averaging 21.3 PPG and is shooting it 48% from three. Not saying he’s going to be a star in the NBA, but picturing him as the first guard off the bench, providing some instant offense next year is not a huge leap of faith anymore… As a unit, the Illini guards are an underrated bunch. You could do a lot worse than Paul, Richardson and Abrams giving you 90 minutes a game.

This space will mostly be dedicated to hoops, but football has been front and center in the Big Ten this week. The knee-jerk reaction to adding Maryland and Rutgers is that a fledgling football conference is adding two football lightweights. We all know money makes the world go round though, and getting out in front of the inevitable 16 team super conference format while gaining a presence in the New York and D.C. markets can be nothing but good for the conference.

I have family who lives in Indiana, including cousins who attended IU. A Season on the Brink is among my favorite books. I’m a Cardinal fan who actually thinks the Cubs being good would be a great thing, so my opinion might not fall in line with most Illini faithful, but I couldn’t be happier that Indiana is relevant again. In the same respect that college football is better when Alabama is good, golf is better when Tiger Woods is in contention… Whatever parallel you want to draw, college basketball is better when Indiana is good.

Feel free to email me at jeffreyrthomason@gmail.com. Twitter: @jefft24

Illini Basketball Season Preview by Jeff Thomason @jefft24

Well, I can’t lie to you. I’m nervous. Turning it over 21 times in an exhibition game against something called West Chester will do that to a guy.

I’m having a hard time picturing the trip to Gonzaga a month from now going very well, but in an effort to accentuate the positive, let’s take a look at some keys to the upcoming season.

You never know; if everything breaks right maybe Selection Sunday won’t be something to dread this year…

The New Guys – While there is some early talk of walk-on Mike LaTulip cracking the rotation, it’s apparent that Sam McLaurin is going to be the newcomer who will most impact the bottom line. The 6’8”, 200 lb. Senior transfer from Coastal Carolina will add some athleticism and rebounding to the front court.

The competition might not have been Big Ten caliber, but Sam averaged 10 points and 7.5 rebounds last season. With the loss of Meyers Leonard, any production from the post will be welcome. Speaking of post play…

The Frontcourt – Early season rotations are far from permanent, but it doesn’t appear Mike Shaw, Devin Langford and Ibby Djimde have earned the trust of the new staff. That means, along with the aforementioned McLaurin, big years are needed from Nnanna Egwu* and Tyler Griffey.

Nnanna is a beast, and if you look close enough with orange and blue tinted lenses, you can see some of the physical gifts that have Meyers Leonard currently checking Dwight Howard in the League. However, with one season of sparse minutes, there is nothing to go on but projection.

Tyler Griffey is a different story. I never understood why Tyler spent so much time in Weber’s doghouse, and I believe there is going to be a big difference this season. As long as you can accept the fact that Griffey isn’t going to haul in a ton of rebounds, there is a lot to like.

There is certainly a place in an up-tempo offense, with an emphasis on spacing, for a big with range. If this is going to be a happy season Tyler Griffey will need to be successful.

*On www.fightingillini.com, Nnanna says his favorite player growing up was Deron Williams. Writing about someone whose favorite player growing up is also significantly younger than you will make a guy feel pretty old…

The Guards* – This is really where the rubber meets the road. Coach Groce’s Transition Offense will rely heavily on guard play, which happens to be the strength of the roster. Not to marginalize the contributions of D.J Richardson and Joe Bertrand, who will have to be good if this team is going to compete in the Big Ten, but I think the key will be the other two guys…

D.J. is looking to close out a solid career, one that mirrors the man who was the topic of my last post. D. J. has shot 35% or better from 3 every year of his career; his deep range and Senior leadership will be greatly needed. Joe Bertrand was a revelation last year, showing the ability to play almost anywhere on the floor and get his without getting in the way.

However, this is all going to boil down to how Tracy Abrams and Brandon Paul perform. The Sophomore Abrams was voted team MVP last season, I would assume for good reason. I am not in the locker room, so this is all speculation, but Tracy appears to be the successor to Steve Bardo and Chester Frazier; a point guard, team leader, and glue guy.

Abrams is a guy who will probably never put up gaudy numbers, but will be vital to the success of the team on and off the floor. His ability to take care of the ball and be a coach on the floor will be desperately needed. I think we all know where this is headed though…

*I realize I have given no love to Myke Henry. What can I say? He kind of slipped through the cracks of this preview. Hopefully he’s like a lottery ticket that you forgot about and ends up hitting big.

Brandon Paul – If there is a bid to the 2013 NCAA Tournament, I think it will coincide with Brandon Paul cracking the first round of Chad Ford’s NBA draft projections. My opinion certainly carries some bias, but for the last three years I have been looking at Brandon Paul and picturing him as an NBA talent.

The range on his jumper, the breathtaking athleticism; at the very least, if his head* is in the right place he should be able to carve out a Luther Head-like professional career. The possibility of @BP3 running the point this season is not only good for his future professional career, it is imperative to the potential success of this team.

I’ve done a little homework on the offense Coach Groce runs, and combined with the little bit of hoops knowledge I possess, I am of the opinion that the only way this team thrives is with the ball in the hands of its best player. That player is, and must be, Brandon Paul.

*Pun somewhat intended.

Coach John Groce – We’ve touched a little bit on the dynamic offense. The recruiting looks acceptable at this early date… I was not a big fan of Coach Weber, and have been leading the charge for change for too long. I was among the disappointed that Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens turned the job down.

At first glance, it felt a lot like when Bill Self left; Tom Crean and Thad Matta turned the job down then. If you dig a little deeper, and are willing to take a small leap of faith, it also feels a lot like the hire made on June 9, 2000.

At that time Illinois hired a guy who had just taken Tulsa to the Elite Eight; a guy who showed promise as a charismatic recruiter. If we’re lucky, the fertile recruiting ground in Illinois is getting ready to be locked down by a guy who just took Ohio to the Sweet 16, who as an assistant at Ohio State has a proven track record as a charismatic recruiter, and whose dynamic offense will be attractive for recruits and exciting for fans. Let’s hope we’re in for a good run, and that our next coaching concern will be when Ohio State is looking for a replacement for Matta.

Feel free to email me at jeffreyrthomason@gmail.com. Twitter: @jefft24