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

The Importance of Richard Keene to Illinois Basketball by Jeff Thomason @jefft24

Welcome to my corner of illininews.com. While there will certainly be the time and place to break down what’s happening on the court, I would like to use this opportunity to tell you a little bit about myself, and why you should care at all what I think about Illini basketball…

While I currently live and work in St. Louis, MO, I grew up and went to high school in Collinsville, IL, living and dying with the Illini basketball program. Like every young man in Collinsville in the 80’s and 90’s, I dreamed of one day wearing the purple and white, and playing for what was briefly during my high school years, the winningest program in America. Alas, yours truly was a bit too short, a bit too slow, and had (has) a broken jumper. That didn’t stop me from becoming the basketball nerd that I am to this day. While I sit and write this, there are several memories that lead directly to the passion I still maintain for the program today:

I’m 34 years old, and while I have faint memories of watching the Illini in the mid eighties, the formative season for most any Illini fan my age was obviously the 1988-89 campaign. On January 16th, 1989, shortly after watching the Flyin’ Illini beat Georgia Tech and briefly take over the #1 spot in the polls, I went to my first game at Assembly Hall.* On this day they beat Michigan for the first time that season. They would sweep the regular season meetings, but I’m sure we all know how that third meeting turned out…

*Since 1989, I have attended at least one game at Assembly Hall almost every year, and am a regular at the Braggin Rights game against those evil Missouri Tigers.

April 1st, 1989 was the date. My mom had bought two tickets at an auction for a St. Louis Blues hockey game that afternoon, which was going to be my first NHL game. After a rugged contest in the Elite Eight victory over Syracuse, which, if memory serves, left Steve Bardo with a bloody jersey, there was absolutely no way my dad Rich and I were going to that hockey game. Instead, we took to the recliners and watched the gut wrenching loss to a Michigan team that was coached by a newly promoted Steve Fisher. As painful as 2005 was, 1989 was truly the one that got away.

After those Flyin’ Illini moved on, the program was hit with probation over the Deon Thomas recruiting scandal. Let’s just say there were no tears shed here when Bruce Pearl lost his job… This led to my next monumental Illini memory, an underrated score for the program that hit very close to my Collinsville home. In the fall of 1991, the McDonald’s All American guard Richard Keene* had narrowed his college choices down to three schools: Duke, Indiana and Illinois. I watched Rich play almost every game in his high school and college careers; he was by any measure my hero growing up. I wore #24 all through grade school, and was the king of the no look pass that rarely found its target. While it seems quaint in the year 2012, in 1991 my dad called down to the Collinsville athletic office on decision day to find out where Rich was going to college. I’ll never forget him, with Collinsville athletic director Frank Pitol on the other end of the phone, saying “he’s going to Illinois!” We were going to get to watch our hometown hero play for the Illini.

*The Peoria guys get a lot of well deserved credit for bringing the program back from probation, but Richard Keene is an underappreciated piece of Illini history. After the recruiting scandal, a guy who started the McDonald’s game in the same backcourt as Jason Kidd spurned the advances of Coach K and Bobby Knight, stayed home, and paved the way for other major recruits to do the same.

Richard Keene #24 former Illini

 

If you’re taking the time to read this, you have lived through the near greatness of the Peoria Manual guys, the travesty of watching Bill Self walk away, and the absolute thrill of the 2005 title game. I’ll put my X’s and O’s up against any other guy who is past his prime but still loves the game, and will be here for analysis after the games this season. Along with that, we’ll dip into some history of the program on those slow weeks, and most of all, I will do my best to give the perspective of this loyal and lifelong fan. Here’s to what is hopefully a nice final season for a deserving group of seniors, and the start of something special with Coach Groce.

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

Where did current Illinois basketball coach come from?

After a few seasons of disappointment, Illinois basketball decided to go in a different direction by letting Bruce Weber go. Fan reaction was mixed initially, but the hunt for the next basketball coach certainly renewed optimism in the program.

While the majority of fans initially were hoping for either Brad Stevens from Butler or Shaka Smart from VCU, both coaches quickly made it known that they were not going anywhere. This began to send a little bit of panic through the Illini fanbase, until a little-known coach named John Groce started to make a splash on the scene during the NCAA tournament.

Groce led the Ohio Bobcats to the Sweet 16 in 2012, and actually had them one free throw away from the Elite Eight. While he has long been known as a strong recruiter in the Midwest (he was an integral part in helping land the “Thad Five” as an Ohio State assistant), many casual basketball fans originally were upset with the hire. They felt Illinois needed to make a bigger splash and hire a well-known name.

Once the dust settled, Groce headed to work. He has the task of taking over a team that did not make any postseason tournament last season, not to mention being forced to do without NBA lottery big man Meyers Leonard.

Groce has wasted no time in trying to do whatever possible to restore the faith in Illinois basketball. He was able to land Drake transfer, and former Illinois player of the year, Rayvonte Rice almost immediately. He then signed Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan and top 50 recruit Kendrick Nunn. With Nunn, a Simeon product, on board, that could really help open the Chicago flood gates that Illinois desperately needs to return to their former glory.

This first season in Champaign could be a bit rough, but Groce needs to first get the proper players to fit his system for it to really shine. He loves to play a high-tempo game, and his most recent success at Ohio was due in large part to a quick, heady point guard from Chicago named DJ Cooper.

Ironically, how he recruits Chicago in general will probably end up making or breaking his coaching career at Illinois. With a great upcoming class led by Jabari Parker not to mention stars Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander in the 2014 class, it starts early and often for Groce. It’s unfair to judge him much this season, but time will be ticking as soon as he is able to get the recruits he wants in Champaign.

This has been a guest post by the basketball guys at www.fanduel.com. If you play in fantasy basketball leagues you will love the daily play on their site.