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November 5, 2012

Excitement and concern, as Illini season nears




John Groce will use the Illini's two exhibition games to evaluate his team's progress after a month of practice and determine what groups and rotations of players will be most effective for Friday's season opener against Colgate. I used the exhibition games to evaluate Groce's use of an Illinois roster that lost 10 of its final 12 games last season.

Illini fans will enjoy Groce's intense sideline demeanor (just don't get too close to his thrashing limbs), his attacking style on offense and his matchup-zone defense. Outside of his schemes, I found three reasons to buy a ticket (if you haven't already), and three reasons to start biting your fingernails.



What excites me:

Joseph Bertrand: At this time last year, Bertrand sat near the end of the bench seemingly in line for his third straight season of inaction. Then he scored 19 points on 9-for-9 shooting against Missouri. Bertrand's first significant season had ups and downs, but it's clear he gained gobs of confidence.

Bertrand has been one of the Illini's most assertive offensive threats during the two exhibition games. The redshirt junior's floater remains nearly indefensible because of his high vertical and high release. His midrange game is improved. He's stretched his range past the three-point line. If the 6-foot-5 redshirt junior wing hits a respectable percentage from three, defenses must respect it making him even more dangerous off the dribble.

It wouldn't surprise me if Bertrand was the team's second leading scorer behind Paul, but he looks destined to be a top-three scorer on the team. He's learning to take over on possessions, which will be key for the 2013-14 season, when he may be the Illini's go-to scorer.

"I think it's a little bit of my job to get to the basket, create for my teammates," Bertrand said. "The ball screens (in Groce's offense) really create a lot of shots for my teammates."


Sam McLaurin: Illini fans might have grown leery of fifth-year transfers after the Sam Maniscalco experiment didn't go quite as planned. Maniscalco helped Illinois avoid early nonconference defeats (everyone remembers the Illinois State and Maryland games, right?) but faded down the stretch with poor shooting efforts.

Regardless, Bruce Weber's idea of Maniscalco was correct. He fit exactly what Illinois needed: an experienced ball-handler with the ability to hit an outside jumper.

Like Weber, Groce is going with a fifth-year transfer to fill the Illini's biggest need: an experienced post presence. Like Maniscalco, I like the idea of Sam McLaurin. The 6-foot-9 Coastal Carolina transfer sure looked the part during the two exhibition games, totaling 22 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks.

Expectations for McLaurin should be realistic, but he will be a key contributor for the Illini. He fits what they need: a big, physical who can rebound, block shots and - wait for it - screen well. He's also a good passer, as Groce said he has a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio during practice.

"He's bringing some things to the table I think that are going to be good for our team," Groce said. "The one thing I really like about him is you know what you're getting from him every day, and he clearly thinks about winning and the team first. So Sam has a great mindset, and it's going to be one we're going to count on moving forward."


Myke Henry: The highest-ranked prospect out of Illinois' highly touted 2011 recruiting class got lost in the shuffle last season. While the 6-foot-6 forward showed flashes last year, he never fully broke into Weber's circle of trust. Groce is more able and willing to be patient with the Chicago Orr product.

Henry started the first exhibition game and produced 11 points and six rebounds in 16 minutes. Groce has touted the trimmer and stronger Henry as the team's best rebounder in practice. Henry especially has a knack for the offensive glass (see, he has this liking for scoring). He seems at least a tad more interested in defense.

Maybe he knows it'll get him on the floor more. Henry can be Illinois' matchup problem. He can post up smaller wing defenders and can extend less mobile bigs beyond the arc.

I've come up with this very loose comparison for the highest end of Henry's potential: a tad smaller but better shooting Raymar Morgan. Henry's ability to play the 4 gives Groce much-needed versatility with his rotations, allowing him to rotate a combination of McLaurin, Nnanna Egwu, Tyler Griffey and Henry among the two post positions.

Consistency is the key for Henry. He shot 1 of 4 and had four fouls in the second exhibition game. Henry doesn't yet have the star power some envisioned, but he has the potential for a big jump in production - and possibly a jump into the starting lineup.


What concerns me:

Turnovers, turnovers and more turnovers: For all his faults last season, Maniscalco took care of the ball, averaging 1.0 turnover per game during an average of 24.2 minutes per game. He was the only true point guard on the roster last year. And while Tracy Abrams has grown more comfortable at point guard since playing mostly as an off guard in high school, he takes over for Maniscalco as the only point guard on the roster - and it's shown.

Abrams is the only Illini scholarship player with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio (7-to-4) during exhibition play. As a team, Illinois had 21 assists to 36 turnovers during its two exhibition games. West Chester must've watched film of Illinois because they bothered Illinois with its full-court press.

Ball-handling remains an endangered skill at Illinois, and Groce won't have a quick fix this season. He'll need to recruit the Illini out of its dearth of dribblers. In the meantime, Groce has tried the always turnover-prone Brandon Paul at point guard with mixed results (Paul had seven assists to eight turnovers during exhibition play) and also has demanded that Richardson and Bertrand share some ball-handling duties. The strategy allows Groce to put his best playmakers on the court all at once. But it comes with a risk of added sloppiness.

Groce tells his players he's OK with turnovers that come with aggression and that he doesn't expect them to be flawless with the ball.

"At the pace that we play at and the way we want to attack and the way we want to be aggressive, these guys will tell you, basketball's not a game of perfect," Groce said. "…We'll play with about 12 (turnovers). I don't ever say, 'We're going to go play with zero.' I think once you do that, guys start overthinking and they're too cautious. We just want to eliminate the sloppy and unforced ones as much as we can."

Depth: We've covered the point guard situation. But there's not a lot of depth elsewhere either. If McLaurin, Egwu and/or Griffey get in foul trouble, Illinois would likely turn to Ibby Djimde, a burly 6-foot-8 sophomore who can play solid defense but has an incredibly raw offensive game, for meaningful playing time. Mike Shaw, a 6-foot-8 sophomore post, does a little bit of everything but nothing exceedingly well. Redshirt freshman wing Devin Langford's physical attributes intrigue but his developing skill level isn't yet as intriguing.

The ninth player in the Illinois rotation could be 6-foot preferred walk-on Mike LaTulip, who has a pretty jumper but an underdeveloped frame and little athleticism. An injury to one of the key contributors could be devastating for the Illini because there is a big drop off in skill after the top eight in the rotation.

As seniors go, so do Illini: Along with Bertrand, Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey were supposed to usher in a new era of winning at Illinois. But after three seasons, the Class of 2009 has a Big Ten record of 25-29, hasn't beaten Missouri and has played in just one NCAA Tournament.

Of course, it's not all on them. They had no help from the 2008 class. The 2010 class barely helped (Meyers Leonard was an NBA lottery pick after one productive season, while Jereme Richmond and Crandall Head combined for five semesters at Illinois). The 2011 class has talent but lacks a premier playmaker. There are no scholarship players in the Class of 2012. So the pressure is squarely on the trio of seniors. As they go, so do the Illini.

That's not overwhelmingly comforting given past results. Again, Groce won't cure the seniors' past ails. But if Paul lessens just some of his mental miscues, if Griffey gains some confidence and if Richardson adds just a tad more mid-range and slashing firepower to his overly reliant three-point arsenal, Illinois should be dancing in March. But those are a lot of ifs for a class with a questionable record.



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 jeremy@espncu.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU


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