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October 22, 2012
Illinois will have a gaping 7-foot-1 void in the center of the floor this season. First-year Illinois coach John Groce doesn't have a player capable of filling the cavity left by the early departure of last year's sophomore star Meyers Leonard, the program's first lottery pick since Deron Williams. Groce instead will use a center-by-committee approach until he can develop or recruit a go-to post player.
Until then, Groce hopes Coastal Carolina fifth-year transfer Sam McLaurin can be the player to "bridge that gap" during the 2012-13 season.
McLaurin averaged 10.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks last season for the Chanticleers. The 6-foot-8, 220-pound grad student is taking a big leap from the Big South to banging bodies with the big men of the Big Ten, but he already is the strongest and most battle-tested Illini post player.
"Sam's one of those guys that's just kept getting better," Groce said. "I think he's played his best basketball the last couple weeks at our workouts and our team stuff. He's starting to get settled and feel more comfortable I think in being at Illinois and how we do things. He's a bright young man. I think one of the things really like about Sam is his versatility. He can play both the four and five."
Groce sees McLaurin as the Illini's version of the Junkyard Dog, a dirty-work big man capable of cleaning up the glass, keying the fast break and pushing up against the more physical posts in the Big Ten. The affable, quotable Tallahassee, Fla., native appears to have fit in to the fun-loving UI locker room. Starting with tonight's Orange and Blue Scrimmage and the subsequent exhibition games, Illinois fans will start to see if McLaurin fits into the Illini's winning formula for his one season in Champaign.
OrangeandBlueNews.com columnist Jeremy Werner caught up with McLaurin to chat about transitioning to the Big Ten, his interactions with Illinois fans and his role on the 2012-13 Illini.
What's it like for you to be at a Big Ten University now and what's the transition been like for you?
McLaurin: "Man, it's been everything I could've imagined and what you dream of when you're growing up as a kid: playing at the big stage. Everybody here wants to talk to you. Everywhere you go, everyone's excited about basketball. It's just a good atmosphere to be a part of."
What are the biggest differences between Coastal Carolina and Illinois? Is everything just bigger?
McLaurin: "Yeah, it's just a little bigger. People just care about basketball a little more. It's really exciting to be a part of something like that, especially with the game I love so much, to have everyone around me excited as much as I am."
It sounds like you've had some interactions with some of the Illini fans. What's one of the most memorable interactions you've had with a fan so far?
McLaurin: "This little kid came up to me on one of the early days that I got here. I can't remember where we were but he was like, 'My brother really enjoyed how you committed here, and I can't wait to see you play.' (Laughs) So I was like, 'All right man, good.' It was just a little kid."
You've had some practices here as well. What's stuck out to you about Coach Groce and his staff's approach?
McLaurin: "Just the way they push for competition every day. The way practices are set up, you compete every day. If you don't compete, your team loses, you run, and no one wants to just keep running all practice so you find a way to win. That's the thing. I feel like their system installs in everyone, just to find that way to win."
What's been your role? When you're in practice playing against another team, what role do you play?
McLaurin: "Just that vocal leader. If you need that stop or that encouragement, just make those tough plays. I try to be that guy who if we need a stop, I need to get us that stop one way or the other to win this set or win this competition. I try to instill that in the guys around me and just bringing that energy."
I'm sure you've been asked about replacing Meyers Leonard, a lottery pick. Coach Groce said you will have to replace him by a committee and said he has a lot of bodies but needs to see who's going to step up. What's the competition been like in practice for playing time and possibly a starting spot?
McLaurin: "Aw man, it's intense, man. But the thing is, the guys that we have everyone does things different. You look at a guy like Tyler. Tyler's the best three-point shooter on the team. That's his skill set. Then you got Nnanna, who's 6-11 and athletic, can run up and down the floor, shoot jumpers, block everybody's shot. Then me, I'm the strongest guy on the team. Everybody just has different skill sets but we're all going to contribute at a high level."
Can you describe your game and what the skill set you bring here?
McLaurin: "I'm a pretty good scorer. I'm really unselfish. I think that's the main problem in that category because I'm always used to getting things easy. When I was in high school, I played in a pretty much all-defensive team. We score our points off defense. We pressed the whole game. That's kind of my mentality. You play hard on defense, you get things easy on offense. That's how pretty much things went for me. I like to crash the boards a lot, block shots, defend and score when I get the opportunity."
Do people still talk about your commitment tweet at all?
McLaurin: "Aw yeah. I'll never live that down. (Laughs). But I'd do it all over again."
No regrets, huh?
McLaurin: "No regrets at all."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU