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Klee's Corner: A big idea | IlliniHQ.com


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Klee's Corner: A big idea | IlliniHQ.com

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Photo by: Robert K. O'Daniell

John Groce waves as he and UI AD Mike Thomas walk from Bielfeldt Athletics Administration Building as he heads to the Assembly Hall to be introduced as the next UI basketball coach at the Assembly Hall in Champaign, IL. Thursday, March 29, 2012.

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This semester as lab partners in a Chemistry class, Illinois freshman Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu were charged with several unique assignments.

Identifying fingerprints. "Like in CSI," Egwu said. Testing diapers to find the most absorbent — complete with fake urine. Mixing chemicals to create a bar of soap.

"I didn't use the soap," he said. "But we could have."

In spring workouts over the past two weeks, Egwu has entered into a new big-man lab.

And Dustin Ford — the big-man coach on John Groce's staff — is the professor.

"I love him, man. He knows what he's talking about," Egwu said after a workout at Ubben Basketball Complex. "And everything we do, there's a reason for it. He gives us specific times in a game where we're going to use it."

If one item has stood out in the staff's first three weeks on campus, it has been their focus on individual player development in workouts. And the big men — namely Egwu, Tyler Griffey, Ibrahima Djimde, Mike Shaw and swingman Myke Henry — are ecstatic at Ford's post-play regimen.

Some drills are new to the Illini, players said. Griffey, a junior and the only non-freshman in the bunch, said he found himself with a basketball in one hand and a tennis ball in the other. He dribbled left-handed while tossing and catching the tennis ball off the wall.

"It's harder than you'd think," Griffey said, but he caught on.

Another drill called for one-handed everything; touching the rim while rebounding with one hand, tip-ins, etc.

"His message is to build strong hands and be strong with the ball, even if it's using one hand," Egwu said. "Most of the time we'll have a guard hanging on one arm when you're trying to get a rebound with the other arm. It makes sense when you think about it."

"I'm big on mixing skills together," Ford added. "Challenge them with ballhandling to passing off the bounce to a post move. Then you're knocking off three things instead of doing a ballhandling drill for 10 minutes."

Ford said his biggest influence in post work was former Ohio and Western Carolina coach Larry Hunter, whose specialty was working with big men. Ford played for Hunter at Ohio and later joined him as an assistant at Western Carolina.

"Myself as a player, I was tough. That's how I got by," Ford said. "And if you don't like to be aggressive and nasty you're probably not going to be successful in the paint."

Illinois can hope its big men show improvement like the bigs did at Ohio.

Whether it was 6-foot-8 DeVaughn Washington (improved skillwork), 6-8 Ivo Baltic (footwork) or 6-6 Jerome Tillman ("He was an undersized guy. But Tillman could just dislodge guys at the basket," Ford said), their big men got better.

"Every guy we've had has been different," Ford said. "And the same is true here."

Improved post play is critical for Illinois. The frontcourt has a long way to go if the Illini are to improve from last season's 17 wins. Meyers Leonard (13.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks) is gone to the NBA. That leaves more question marks than bodies in the paint.

"We've got a great group of kids. You tell them to do something and they're going to do it," Ford said. "I've had so much fun working these guys out. They're getting better.

"It's a shame the semester is getting ready to be over (in early May). I'd like some more time before the summer."

NBA prep

The Meyers Leonard NBA project is well under way.

The Illini sophomore — he's finishing classes this semester — has been working out at Ubben with trainers from Pro Hoops, an outfit based in Manhattan. Trainer Tim Burns, who played on George Mason's 2006 Final Four team, worked with Leonard all of last week.

Pro Hoops has trained players from Kemba Walker to Joakim Noah to Illini great Deron Williams. Leonard's individual workouts are scheduled to continue until semester's end, when he will travel to Long Island to continue his predraft training.

In the meantime, NBA personnel are doing their background work. One scout from an Eastern Conference franchise called a News-Gazette reporter with a series of non-basketball questions. Who's in his posse? Does he party? Is he married?

Teams view potential first-round picks as a million-dollar investment and leave no stone unturned. The same figures to be true in predraft interviews.

"He's sort of an enigma," the scout said. "He's got that great size. He's really athletic. His upside is off the charts. But nobody knows for sure. He's got a lot of room to be a good player. Is he willing to work hard to get there? That's what we want to know."

Leonard's freshman-to-sophomore leap was impressive. His numbers improved across the board.

Still, the Illini's disappointing season left some questions for their NBA prospect, as well.

"The times I saw him he never got the ball. That was frustrating to watch. You could tell he got frustrated," the scout said.

The scout said Leonard right now is projected to go in the middle of the first round. He noted, however, that Leonard is a "classic" example of a prospect whose stock could rise after teams witness the 7-foot-1 center's athleticism in predraft workouts.

Homegrown talent

Former Centennial star Rayvonte Rice arrived for his official visit to Illinois on Thursday night. He spent time with current players, toured campus and the basketball facilities and met with academic advisers Friday — a traditional recruiting visit.

Rice is transferring after two seasons at Drake. Illinois could be considered the leader to score the All-MVC selection — at least to this point. Marquette also figures to be a player. Xavier is another possibility, as Rice took a visit there last weekend.

Two other prospects made campus visits. Marlon Jones (6-8, 2014) and Tyquone Greer (6-5, 2015) made the trip with Chicago Orr coaches Louis Adams and Phil Gipson. Myke Henry's former coaches watched the freshman swingman go through a workout with the Illini coaches Thursday.

On schedule

Groce left a Sweet 16 team at Ohio — a 29-win roster that returns all of its key players — for a team that finished ninth in the Big Ten. His first schedule is anything but cake, too.

The 2012-13 schedule is highlighted by the annual Braggin' Rights game vs. Missouri (former Tigers assistant Isaac Chew should have the inside scoop), a home game in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge (matchups usually are released in mid-May), three games in the Maui Invitational (field includes North Carolina, Marquette, Texas and Butler) and a pre-Maui stop at the University of Hawaii (Illinois won there 79-77 on its 2007 trip to Maui).

There's also a true road game at Gonzaga, which earned a No. 7 ranking in an early preseason poll on CNNSI.com. In fact, 11 of the 32 teams of CNNSI.com's power rankings could be on a robust Illini schedule next season.

The nonconference schedule needs one more game. Illinois is working on an opponent for the annual trip to Chicago's United Center. One possibility is Alabama, with the Illini returning the game to Birmingham for a sort of homecoming for freshman Devin Langford.

Spring circuit

This weekend marked the first "live" recruiting period for college coaches, who could attend NCAA-sanctioned events to evaluate prospects. Illinois coaches were scheduled to attend events at Eagan, Minn., Merrillville, Ind., and Pittsburgh.

Both of the Illini's 2013 commitments — Malcolm Hill (Southwestern Illinois Jets) and Jalen James (Illinois Wolves) — joined their teams at Merrillville.

"This (early event), it's a lot about working the kinks out," said Patrick Smith, who coaches Hill on the club circuit. "I'm sure Malcolm will go through some of that, too. But he's still scoring in bunches. He always does. He can fill it up."

Arguably the most attractive part of Hill's game is how he draws fouls. The 6-6 swingman averages around 10-12 free throws per game, Smith said.

"He'll double or triple anybody else we have. It's amazing how he gets to the free throw line," Smith said. "And he finishes quite a lot. He gets a significant number of and-ones."

And that would be an attractive skill on a Groce-coached team. Ohio led the MAC in free throw attempts last season (749) and shot the second-most during the previous season (769).

The new UI staff goes way back with St. Louis-area club programs. Assistant coach Jamall Walker, as an assistant at SLU, once spoke at a clinic for a group of Jets sixth-graders.

"He came in and did a workout for us," Smith said with a laugh. "I remember that."

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