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