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2012-13 Preview: #7 Illinois Fighting Illini

Bruce Weber’s teams have had plenty of talent, but were unable to get the job done. After another flat performance in 2011-12, Weber’s contract was bought out and off to Kansas State he went.

Enter John Groce. The young, energetic coach comes to Champaign from Ohio University, one of last year’s NCAA tournament darlings.

Illinois returns several experienced players, including two senior guards and a number of talented sophomores ready to show their progression. We believe there are reasonable scenarios under which the Illini fight their way into the NCAA tournament this year.

The 2012-13 season isn’t a bad entry point for Groce. If he gets the right things out of the right guys, Illinois could be a solid team.  There are reasons to be skeptical, but the Illini faithful aren’t being unreasonable if they have expectations of a good year.

Glass Half Full

Talented roster

Center Meyers Leonard left for the NBA, but the resume of the guys on the 2012-13 roster is fairly impressive.

Brandon Paul (14.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.9 apg) is the most important player for this team. Expected to play point guard quite a bit, the 6’4” Paul is capable of huge games but has been inconsistent and inefficient.

Last season in consecutive games against the porous defenses of Northwestern and Nebraska he averaged 10.5 points on 36.0% effective field goal (eFG) shooting. Next up was Ohio State and Paul led Illinois to a win with 43 points on a 100% eFG performance (including 8/10 3FG; he also grabbed 8 rebounds and went 13/15 from the line).

Paul has never had a great season shooting the ball and has career eFG% is just 45.0% (including 32.4% 3FG). Better decision making as a senior could mean better shooting, fewer turnovers and inclusion in the discussion of first team all-conference players.

Also in the backcourt is 6’3” senior D.J. Richardson (11.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 71 3FGM, 34.8% 3FG). Like Paul, you’re never confident about what D.J. will give you on any given night, but he did have a higher offensive Value Add last year than any other returning player. Richardson is capable of improving his 3-point shooting and having a strong senior year.

The other senior on this year’s squad is 6’9” forward Tyler Griffey (4.9 ppg, 3.3rpg). He’s only made 27 3-pointers in his career and shot just 31.0% 3FG, but between his offensive rebounding and unproven scoring ability that we believe is there, Griffey could be a nice piece.

Joe Bertrand is a 6’6” junior guard averaged 20.1 mpg and 6.5 ppg and looked very good at times last season. He’s had a history of injuries, but when healthy can be a player.

6’11” sophomore center Nnanna Egwu averaged just 9.8 mpg as a freshman. He was rated #78 in the Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI) and the potential is there for a nice step forward this season. Egwu may struggle to stay on the court even if he’s playing well due to poor fouling habits, but that’s something Groce and staff will work with him on.

Mike Shaw (#65 RSCI), Myke Henry (#66) and Tracy Abrams (#69) were all respected class of 2011 recruits. Abrams, a point guard, was the only one of the three to log many minutes but struggled. The 6’6” wing Henry may be poised for the biggest year of the three as a sophomore, but eventually 6’8” Mike Shaw will be ready to contribute as a strong overall player. As of now Shaw has work to do, but he is an elite rebounder and may earn more floor time because of it.

Others who could contribute include Devin Langford, a 6’7” redshirt freshman wing, and senior center Sam McLaurin, a quality graduate transfer who stands 6’8” and averaged 10.0 ppg and 7.5 rpg last season at Coastal Carolina. McLaurin is a quality player and his defensive and rebounding ability could make a difference for the Illini. Definitely a player to watch.

3-point field goal shooting

Things can’t get much worse. Illini other than Paul and Richardson shot a miserable 24.9% from 3-point range in 2011-12. The following table illustrates team 3-point shooting for Illinois and their opponents last year:

Overall Conference
Fighting Illini 30.4% 29.5%
Opponents 37.9% 40.1%

Glass Half Empty

These guys have already had their chance

An experienced senior guard duo is great to have, but as juniors who were playing with a 7’1” NBA lottery pick, they weren’t nearly good enough. While there is room for Paul to improve, D.J. Richardson may have already shown his best in terms of usage and efficiency.

Coaching questions

Coach Groce may come out of this season looking like a genius, but he’ll need to earn it by making the right decisions.

For example, there’s an argument to be made that playing at a faster tempo could help Illinois this year, but this is a squad that had a turnover percentage approaching 21%.

Meyers Leonard was a force on the boards (defensive rebounding especially), but he’s gone. Mike Shaw can get rebounds, but is he far enough along to warrant big minutes? Are McLaurin, Griffey and Egwu better options?

Who takes the point for the majority of the minutes – Paul or Abrams?

How close are Henry and Shaw to being in the regular rotation?

Other Comments

  • New assistant coach Paris Parham played and coached at Minnesota State. He’s a Chicago guy who should be able to help with recruiting relationships in basketball-rich Illinois.
  • 2013 Recruiting: We’re huge fans of 6’1” Kendrick Nunn and his commitment to Groce was big. Granted, the relationship goes back to Groce’s time at Ohio, but there were some elite schools that had made great progress with Nunn as well.  Also from Illinois are 6’5” wing Malcolm Hill and 6’1” point guard Jaylon Tate. Big 6’10” center Maverick Morgan from Ohio has also given his pledge to the Illini.

A Look Back at 2011-12 Preseason Preview Quote(s)
“(Meyers) Leonard has some NBA scouts drooling even though he’s nowhere near ready. At 7’1″, 245 pounds with a lot of basketball skill, though, it’s easy to see why there is high interest. He averaged just over 8 mpg as a freshman, but should have a lot more confidence this season and knows what’s needed is really quite simple – “just be a beast”, he says.”

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Recruiting Notes – USA Basketball Mini-Camp for 2015 & 2016 classes [Oct/12]

Earlier this month, LateNightHoops.com attended the USA Basketball Men’s Development National Team mini-camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. There, 44 of the country’s top players from the 2015 and 2016 high school classes were on hand to be introduced to USA Basketball and to be evaluated by the staff, who was led by head coach Don Showalter (Iowa City HS/Iowa City, IA). Coach Showalter has led the USA Developmental National Team to four straight gold medals as head coach from 2009-2012.

If you have questions or comments, including inquiries about other players that attended the camp but are not included in this article, please send us a message via our Contact Us page.

Henry Ellenson
(Rice Lake, WI)
6’9”, 250 | Rice Lake HS | Class of 2015

October 2012 Notes
You may hear Ellenson called a center by some, but that’s selling him short. Physically he looks the part and he can certainly battle on the blocks, but his skill and athletic ability sets him far apart from other kids his size.

Henry is an excellent shooter with plenty of range well past the three-point line, but has also worked on developing his game on the blocks. Over the next few years he should be able to continue adding to his arsenal of offensive weapons, which is a scary thought for teams trying to defend him.

His strength and quickness are not areas of concern, but there is opportunity for him to be elite if these areas progress nicely over the next few years. In college, there is no reason Ellenson can’t be a 3/4 switchable type who can score at multiple levels and defend multiple positions.

Now, at this point in time you wouldn’t have him dribbling the ball all the way up the court on a 3-on-1 fast break, but there’s not a lot I’d give him a red light on doing.

At a minimum, he’s a very good college prospect. With hard work, I can see Henry winding up as a top 10 player in the 2015 class.

Other potential factors such as good coaches, supportive family and older brothers who also play basketball (the oldest brother, Wally, is a freshman at Minnesota and will be able to share his D1 experience and Henry’s father played college ball for Marquette and Wisconsin) all seem to favor the likelihood of success for Henry Ellenson. He’s legit and the sky is the limit.

Amir Coffey (New Hope, MN)
6’3”, 160 | Hopkins HS | 2016

Amir Coffey
2016 Amir Coffey

October 2012 Notes

The first thing that stands out about Amir is his length and how well he uses it. With the ball, he’s able to create passing lanes and make plays that others can’t. On defense, his instincts combined with long arms result in frequent steals and deflections.

He’s a good scorer, but with more consistency and aggressiveness he could become excellent.

Coffey can play off the ball or at point and his ball handling, passing and feel for the game is especially propitious considering he’ll likely wind up standing a solid 6’7”.

I’m very high on the future prospects for Amir and can see him at the college level as a versatile wing and distinguished defender.   Similar to Ellenson, Coffey’s family (father Richard played for the Gophers and his older sisters are excellent basketball players) and other factors should help him along the way.

With Amir now being just a freshman at Minnesota high school basketball powerhouse Hopkins and there being a special class of 2014 in Minnesota, it may be a little while before the masses recognize how good Coffey can be. Nonetheless, we here at LNH are sold and look forward to watching his progression over the next several years.

USA Basketball U16 Mini-camp, Selected October 2012 Notes – Public Version

Diamond Stone (Milwaukee, WI)
6’10”, 252 | Dominican HS | 2015

Stone can be as good as he wants to be. The big man controls space inside, but it’s his hands and seemingly delicate touch when shooting that are most impressive. Elite prospect. Likeable demeanor and court presence, he’s going to be a lot of fun to watch. Great voice too – post-playing career as an on-air talent awaits Mr. Stone.

Guys I Want With Me in a Brawl – Horace Spencer (State: PA/Height: 6’8”/Weight: 210/Class: 2015) and Andrew Fleming (TN/6’4”/185/2015).

Spencer had me worried about his safety – unquestionably willing to sacrifice his body to make a big play. It often looks as if his life depends on denying the opposition’s shot. He’s absolutely a full tilt player with good length. Offensively he’ll clean up the glass and put it back, but has a lot of room for improvement with the ball. However, Spencer’s ability to run the floor, block shots and rebound, as well as his borderline-crazy effort earns his game a ton of respect.

Coming off the bench for M33M this summer, we saw Andrew Fleming at several tournaments across the country providing a spark for his team. Sometimes it was relentless defense or a hustle play to save a ball heading out of bounds. Other times it was a deep three or an aggressive drive the bucket where he was able to absorb contact and finish.

Fleming is a good shooter, big time worker and fearless. In Colorado, we saw more of the same – tireless effort from a very competitive kid.

Jaw Dropper Harry Giles (NC/6’8”/205/2016)

Giles is no longer a slim, wiry young kid. It appears he’ll be able to add a lot of strength by the time he reaches college.  Very athletic, runs the floor well and is everywhere on the court. Would think it may be difficult to get him out of ACC country, but schools should sure try. He’s excellent at this point, but I believe he’ll be ridiculously good in a few years. I’m sold.

Who is That?! – Malik Monk (AR/6’3”/170/2016)

Monk was not a guy I was there to see, but his play dictated that I had to watch him. Time and time again he impressed when finishing at the rim, pulling up for jumpers and passing. His athleticism really stood out on certain plays – had several “woah, he just did that?” moments.

Wise Beyond His YearsJosh Langford (AL/6’5”/200/2016)

Strong all-around player who made smart decisions throughout the weekend. I think he projects more as a 2/3, but I really liked what he did when making decisions with the ball in his hand. Will be interesting to see if he continues to hold an edge in court IQ as time goes on, but right now looks like a guy who you’d want as your team captain.  Tough, strong and smart kid.

Other Selected quick comments:

  • Charles Matthews (IL/6’4”170/2015) – Matthews is 6’4” and a long combo guard who looked great scoring off the dribble. Worked with the point guards at USA basketball mini-camp and has the potential to be a dangerous point guard. May wind up as a wing, but if he becomes a good defender and continues developing his lead guard skills, he could be spectacular. Lots of possibilities for Matthews.
  • Simeon’s “next up” include D.J. Williams (IL/6’7”/186/2015) and Benjamin Coupet (IL/6’6”/180/2016). Both are long wings that can run and score in transition. Two to keep a close on eye.
  • Ivan Rabb (CA/6’8”/191/2015) is legit. Super active and a ton of fun to watch. It’s also obvious he’s having a lot of fun while on the court. Could wind up in conversation of top 5 in his class.
  • The camp’s youngest player Seventh Woods (SC/6’1”/168/2016) is unquestionably a superior athlete. Explosive. Has work to do if he’s going to play point in college, but at a minimum he’ll be one of the most athletic players in his class regardless of position. Head-shaking highlight-maker.
  • Eric Davis (MI/6’3”/161/2015) played a lot of point guard over the weekend, but he’s a combo guard that is always looking to score.  His shot wasn’t consistently dropping this weekend, but he showed no fear in taking the ball to the rim against an impressive collection of lengthy wings and big men who were there to challenge him on defense.  Quite animated and competitive. Lots of Big Ten interest.
  • Josh Jackson (MI/6’6”/175/2016) passes the eye test with his length and athleticism. Sunday morning during a four-on-four fastbreak/transition drill he fired up the entire gym with an impressive two-way display.  First on offense, he drove the lane and slammed home a contested dunk.  Quickly, his team had to turn their attention to defense.   Jackson turned on the jets for a sprint down the length of the floor and leaped high off the ground to block a dunk attempt from behind, drawing cheers from all of the players and setting the tone for the session.Not sold on his jumper, but he was effective slashing to the bucket this weekend.  Length and quickness allows him to come up with blocks, steals and boards in bunches.  Loads of realizable potential; future impact Big Ten player?
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