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November 21, 2012

Illini fans have much to be thankful for




A wise person once said: "Be thankful for what you have; you'll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don't have, you will never, ever have enough."

That Oprah really knows what she's talking about.

The past year-plus has been rough on Illinois fans. Thirteen straight Big Ten football games have been lost. One postseason-less basketball season was suffered. Three coaches have been fired, and many more high-profile potential candidates either showed no interest in or turned down overtures from athletic director Mike Thomas.

But this week is for Thanksgiving, not airing of the grievances. So, Illini fans, this is what you should be thankful for as you stuff turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy down your gullets on Thursday.

• John Groce's ball-screen offense - I could easily just say "John Groce" here. His team's pace, his demeanor, his ability to instill confidence in a roster that had none last season, it's all been great to watch in a 5-0 start for Illinois.

But the biggest relief is that Groce is running a system that fits his talent, something Illinois hasn't seen for several seasons. Replacing Bruce Weber's motion with Groce's ball-screen offense has paid immediate dividends: five straight games of 75 points or more (Illinois had 75 or more points six times all of last season) and five straight games of 11 or more three-pointers (11 threes was the single-game team high last season) without adding a boatload of turnovers.

"I think the biggest thing is the system. I really like the ball-screen system," said Big Ten Network analyst and former Illini Sean Harrington, who served on the UI staff from 2008-2012. "I think it's something that should have been put in place probably two years ago."

Harrington learned the system while on Bill Self's Kansas staff and also implemented it under Rick Majerus at St. Louis.

"It's something that I felt very strong with the personnel on this team. It's something that should have been put in two years ago, and it wasn't," Harrington said. "I think this system fits this team great. It just really does. It plays to their strengths. If you really look at the team, there's not a great ballhandler out there on the floor. So how do you get your guys to be able to penetrate and how do you get them get them to be able to pressure-release without having the ball in their hands all the time. This helps. You get your screens. It gives you angles. It frees up a defender. It gives you that little bit of space you need to get a shot, and I think these guys are thriving with it right now."


• Endorsements from Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn - Down about Keita Bates-Diop's commitment to Ohio State? Well, I can't console you there. It was a big loss for an Illinois basketball program looking to find a possible McDonald's All-American, bonafide top-25 talent. But Bates-Diop won't hit the Columbus campus for another two seasons.

Illini fans will start to see the fruits of the UI staff's seven-months of intense labor when the Class of 2013 heads to Champaign next summer. It all started with a re-commitment from Belleville East's Malcolm Hill, a consensus top-75 prospect. Groce's added another quick notch on his belt with a commitment from consensus top-60 recruit Kendrick Nunn of Chicago Simeon in August. Illinois' profile immediately heightened. Those cool guys said it was cool, so it's cool, right? Well, not enough for Bates-Diop. But landing Hill and Nunn undoubtedly helped Illinois land top-100 prospect Austin Colbert out of New Jersey, and gave Illinois enough buzz to be considered by top-25 prospects Demetrius Jackson and Xavier Rathan Mayes.


• Mason Monheim's existence - Without the freshman linebacker from Orrville, Ohio, what's the bright spot of the Illini season? Corey Lewis getting back on the field after 2 1/2 years of knee injuries? In a season of very, very, very little to root for on the field, Monnheim gives Illinois fans some hope for the future. He subbed in for an injured Houston Bates early in the season and never relinquished the role. He leads the Illini and all Big Ten freshmen with 81 tackles.

"He put on some big shoes and played a big role and contributed significantly to the defense," defensive tackle Glenn Foster said.

The 19-year-old also already is taking a vocal role as well. Each player has to give a scouting report on an opposing player the Friday before games. Monheim's speeches are, well, shall we say, colorful?

"It's kind of confidential," Monheim said.

"I could say, but...," Supo Sanni said.

"He has an attitude, a leading attitude, like, 'Let's go punch these guys in the mouth," Foster said.

If you're looking for a reason to tune in or buy tickets next year, it's Monheim, who may be the best returning player on an Illini defense that could lose up to nine starters. He may not have the speed or quite the quick wit, but Monheim's style of play reminds me a lot of current St. Louis Rams player Brit Miller. He provides hope for Tim Beckman recruits. Beckman just needs a bunch more Monheims.


• Aaron Bailey's devotion - Like Hill and Nunn did with Groce, Bailey took the plunge and bought into Beckman and his staff before any other high-profile recruit. So far, the four-star quarterback's held onto that commitment and doesn't appear to be wavering at all - maybe because he knows the Illini could use him on the field right now.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound dual-threat Bolingbrook product will be the story most of the 2013 season. Will he compete for a starting job right away? Will he eventually replace three-year incumbent Nathan Scheelhaase? Bailey is to Beckman what Juice Williams was to Ron Zook. If Illinois struggles as expected, the Illini could hand the reins to Bailey - and give the Illini fans a reason to watch on Saturdays.


• Matt Bollant's resume - The statistics suggest you probably won't go to an Illinois women's basketball game. But when was the last time you even paid attention to it?

That's the Matt Bollant effect. The former Wisconsin-Green Bay coach went 148-19 in five seasons at the mid-major, including 85-5 in the Horizon League. He left the Phoenix after back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances because he was tired of losing out on the top players in the country. If he can win at Illinois, he said, he can get any recruits he wants. It's a gamble for Bollant, but a slam-dunk for Mike Thomas - by far his best hire on paper.

Bollant will need some time, but like Groce, he brings a fast pace that fans will enjoy. The team is averaging an attendance of 1,553 through three games, up from 1,070 last year. Bollant's résumé suggests it's a matter of when he'll turn the program around, not when. That'll get your attention.


• Rutgers and Maryland - I know, I know. This isn't your grandfather's Big Ten anymore. This isn't your father's Big Ten anymore. Heck, it's not YOUR Big Ten anymore. It hasn't been since Penn State joined in 1993. But few complain when you add gridiron powerhouses like the Nittany Lions or the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Time to snuggle up to the Scarlet Knights and the Terrapins, Illini fans. Not because they give you a better chance to win, but their additions ensure that the Big Ten is going to stay ahead of the curve.

My feeling: we're heading to four 16 team superconferences. I think it's inevitable. Commissioner Jim Delany didn't want to get caught flat-footed, like the conference did when Notre Dame aligned itself with the ACC for the foreseeable future. If the Big Ten doesn't add, the SEC, the Pac-12 and the ACC will. The Big Ten can't get left behind.

Traditionalists, this will take a while to get used to. But college conferences are no longer is about geography and history. It's about revenue. It's no longer about butts in the seats. It's about eyes on the screen. Maryland and Rutgers add some East Coast eyes and East Coast money, which will give all Big Ten teams, including Illinois, more ammunition in what is becoming the NCAA arms race.



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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