Illini basketball

Jalen Coleman-Lands — point guard?

furniture lounge orange couch adLast week,  after Jalen Coleman tweeted his commitment to study at the University of Illinois, we learned a few things about him. For one, his name: It’s Jalen Coleman-Lands. Piankhi Lands is Jalen’s father. Dionne Coleman is Jalen’s mother. They live together in Indianapolis.  Also, they are married.

Jalen’s parents waited way longer to get married than you’d expect if you got all your news from CBN, or watched re-runs of Ozzie & Harriet and Leave it to Beaver, excluding all other media. In truth, though, they’re simply part of the majority of Americans who wait way, way longer to get married, if they do get married at all.

I talked to a number of people about the Coleman-Lands family, about Jalen as a person, and as a student. It’s a feel good story for Illini basketball.  That’ll publish later.

For now, here’s an excerpt from my interview with Jalen’s coach at La Lumiere Academy. Shane Heirman was a college basketball player himself, not too long ago. Here, we talk only about the basketball aspect of Jalen Coleman-Lands, which is a teeny-tiny fraction of the story.

On the other hand, it’s important to know — as Illini Nation sweats out Jawun Evans’s college choice, scheduled for Wednesday — whether Coleman-Lands can play point-guard.

Heirman points out that anybody playing in Illinois’ offense better be capable of handling the ball.

Here’s the audio. The text is below.

People in Illinois are thinking he might be playing point guard. Is that the case?


Ultimately what he does best is make shots, and he does that at a very elite level. He’s got good ball skill, and he works hard on that position. I think he’d ultimately like to make that transition. It’s going to be an evolution for him, though. It’s not going to happen overnight.

He’s going to go through some growing pains of transitioning to that position. I think it’s still a little ways out. You know, I think he’s still going to be productive, just with his shot-making abilities.

What position is he going to play for you this year?


He’s a combo. I think the same thing for him; I don’t think he gets wrapped up in the title, you know? I think he’s a guard that’s going to affect the game in a lot of different ways.

So he’ll play a little point, or play a little two (shooting guard), but more than anything, he’s a guard for us.

Do you know anything about how his position in college was sold to him? Because, you know, Illinois fans are still looking at adding another point guard, possibly, and then some people think he’s “the one.” Do you have any idea how that was sold?


I think the vision is kind of similar to what I said. I think they see him as a guard more than anything, too. Regardless, in your offense,primarily ball-screen offense, you’re still having to make plays. You’re playing a lot of point guard even if you’re on the wing. You’re having to read and react to defenses.

 And I think the hope is that, ideally, he can transition there  full-time at some point in his career. When that is is kind of predicated on him working at it, and studying the game, picking it up that way.


Can you tell me about the recruiting process and how much time you spent around the Illini coaching staff?


I got to know those guys pretty well, throughout the process. It’s a boarding school. He’s here pretty much year-round, with the exception of a couple of months in the summer.

 They were frequent visitors up here, and they are one of the hardest if not the hardest working staff in the country — and we get to see quite a few staffs, with our roster.

So, they put a lot of time and effort into him, and respected the process, and how he wanted the process to go. I think that’s what paid off for them.

Was it mostly Jamall (Walker)? Did Dustin (Ford) and Paris Parham ever some by?


Yeah, it was mainly Jamall. Dustin came up here one time. It was mainly Jamall and Coach Groce.

Illini basketball

#SFC renovation update, The Movie

This afternoon, media covering Illini basketball were invited to view renovation progress inside the former Assembly Hall, in Champaign.

Senior Associate Director of Athletics Warren Hood is the DIA’s project overseer, now that Tom Michael is gone. Hood oversaw the rebuild across the street, at Memorial Stadium.

The tour was led by Dennis Kelly, from Turner/Clayco Construction. He’s the Director of Field Operations. Construction Engineering enthusiasts will enjoy his talk, which is rich with details.


Here’s the movie.

Illini basketball

The Coleman & #ILLijah weekend

If your head was stuck under a rock for the last few days, you’ll want to know that Jalen Coleman and Elijah Thomas Officially Visited the University of Illinois this weekend.  Jalen came with his family. Elijah was accompanied by his mother, Delores Bennett, and  AAU coach Darius Coleman (no relation).

Official Visitors are off-limits to the media, so I didn’t have a chance to ask Elijah or Jalen about their visits, or even say hello to their families. (The NCAA is a very, very silly organization.)

As usual, the only major public appearance was a football game. In this case, a lousy first quarter of a football game, in a slightly sweltering late summer sun.

By kickoff, the Elijah Thomas Official Visit was more than halfway over. The Jalen Coleman Official Visit was just beginning. Another NCAA rule confines these visits to 48 hours, and Thomas’s visit was Friday-Saturday, while Coleman’s was Saturday-Sunday.

Thus, the Illini coaching staff was forced by circumstance to vary from standard operating procedure. Jamall Walker took over with the Thomas family, while John Groce greeted the Colemans.

They all came together in the grandstands, and Groce sat between the two families. But by that point, the focus was mostly on the Colemans.  Except for Darius Coleman, who was not with the Colemans. Weird.

The families and coaches barely had time to get acquainted before an Act of God drove them apart.

The Lord, it seems, has taken notice of John Groce and his recruiting efforts. This makes sense, because John Groce talks to The Lord every day, and often shares The Lord’s message with recruits.

The Lord works in mysterious ways, and men have failed to correctly interpret His message for about 6,000 years. Some people might interpret yesterday’s two hour lightning delay as an accident of meteorology. But as the skies opened up Saturday, I realized what He was trying to say, I think.

It is this: “Get thee behind me, Edotcash.”

I’m not absolutely sure that this was the message, because The Lord speaks in thunder. It might have simply been “Illinois is a basketball school.”

Either way, the power of The Lord is mighty to behold. On Saturday, The Lord chased an entire football stadium’s spectators indoors. Coleman and Thomas were among them.


Thomas and Coleman were in the student section when The Lord spoke. The visit to the student section has become something of a ritual. On this particular Saturday, it came early.

Toward the end of the first quarter, U of I police officer A.J. Martin informed the staff that a major storm was on the way, and that the stadium would probably be emptied soon. At that point, Mike LaTulip, Aaron Cosby and Aaron Jordan led the Official Visitors out of the grandstand, out of the stadium, and over to the student section — a separate building at the north end of Memorial Stadium.


Jalen Coleman seemed distinctly amused by the visit to the Block-I.

The visit was brief, perhaps even a little rushed. But it allowed the visitors to get a taste of local hero worship. As they climbed into the Block-I, semi-intoxicated engineers and finance majors chanted  “We want Elijah!”

“And Jalen too!”

“Oh yeah, and definitely Jalen too!”

(You may think this chant lacks a certain panache, or euphony. Organized chanting is not the forte of the Block-I, which had a lot more members back when Illini football was relevant.)

Malcolm Hill, Michael Finke and Ahmad Starks were also watching the game from the student section. They too took cover in the Irwin Center. And that reminds me, if you say “Michael Finke is the Bees’ Knees” while ordering your fro-yo, you’ll get a dollar off at TCBY. Dig it.

The adults were separated from their phenom offspring at the moment of The Lord’s intervention. Jamall Walker took charge, coordinating the emergency/contingency planning: The recruits went out for a late lunch.  You might call it “supper.”  If they were British, “tea.”  Whatever.  High school athletes can eat more than you think.

Later, they went to look at dorm rooms, to see how they’d actually be living (large) were they to choose the University of Illinois.

Thomas spent much of the day looking at his pink smartphone. I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that he was bored by his Official Visit. Rather, I would say that he’s a high school senior and it’s 2014.  @edotcash is fully entrenched with social media #ILLijah


And to the extent that he seemed disengaged from the Illini staff as their attention shifted to the Jalen Coleman family, it’s important to note that Elijah has already declared a lifelong fealty toward John Groce, for a national audience.

Then you’ve got Illinois; Coach Groce is the most interesting of them all.

That’s my guy! If I didn’t pick Illinois I would still keep in touch with him. They were the second school to ever offer me a scholarship and we’ve built a relationship over the past few years that’s strong. Coach Groce has a plan for me that he shows me word-for-word; I like that. The Big Ten is a great conference and they’ve got D.J. Williams coming in, and I know that we could make noise. Then you’ve got the fan base; it’s hands down the best fan base I’ve ever seen and I was recruited by Kentucky and Duke, but those Illinois fans are the best I’ve seen.


Jalen Coleman did not stare at his phone all day. He listened intently to the pitch John Groce and staff  (and Allison Groce) laid out.


By Sunday morning, the #ILLijah contingent (@msDDdee, @dcoleman05 and @edotcash himself) was en route back to Texas. But Delores left the Illini nation feeling good about the weekend.





Illini basketball

How Tracy Abrams’s injury helps Illini basketball

Tracy Abrams and Rayvonte Rice play the same position. They were the twin Achilles of Illinois basketball,  2014.

Achilles was the fiercest hero of his age . But these days, he’s better known for the ankle his mother held while dipping him in Styx, a river of invulnerability juice (and namesake of the cloying , medicare-eligible soft-rock band) which flows into hell.

Tracy Abrams and Rayvonte Rice performed the role of Achilles, individually, throughout the season.  Each is a warrior. Each is tough as nails. Each drives fearlessly toward the hoop, and trios of defenders. Each shoots under 30% from three-point range.  Neither displayed a knack for the kick-out pass.  That’s the Achilles Heel they share: When Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams drive to the hoop, they become predictable, one dimensional.

That’s not the same as vincible. Even if you know what Ray is going to do, you’ll have a hard time stopping him. Tracy is easier to defend in this situation. But either would be far more effective if he featured one more weapon in his arsenal: the unexpected pass.

Ray played point guard some of the time. Tracy has played both guard positions during his Illini tenure.  In 2014, Tracy averaged 3.2 assists per game, Ray 1.5.

John Groce will be hard pressed to equal the defensive presence of 2014. Ray + Tracy works well on the defensive end.  Of the remaining Illini who play point (Jaylon Tate, Ahmad Starks, Mike LaTulip), none is as good defensively.

Tracy Abrams likely won’t play in 2014-15. After tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, the only scenario that has Abrams playing this year is a Brian Randle-esque take-one-for-the-team offer to forego a year of eligibility because Illinois needs him to seal a championship.

But every cloud has a silver lining. And when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade.



So what’s the bright side of losing Tracy Abrams for the year?  I asked Paris Parham and Jamall Walker.


I don’t know if there’s a bright side right now. We just gotta see how things shake out. Obviously we’ve got a lot of options, more than we had in the past, but  … I don’t know.

It’s so new, so fresh. It could work out to be something special and it could be worse. You just don’t know, you know?


I don’t think there’s a benefit. It’s just that he’s going to come back next year, and he’ll definitely be the team leader again next year.


We haven’t really done a lot since he’s been hurt, so I can’t tell you. But I do know what’s positive about it is that other guys are going to have opportunities to make a case for themselves to play more minutes, and impact the team more.

In the case of Ahmad Starks or (Aaron) Cosby, that’s opportunity for them. Obviously other guys are going to have to step into bigger roles in the leadership area. It’s going to make guys step up more in that area too.


He’ll be the lead from the bench this year, and then definitely come back and be that team leader next year for a team that was probably going to be searching for a leader, you know?

That’s the only benefit there might be: that he is our true leader on the court, and in the locker room. It’s a blessing to have him around for two more years, to be That Guy.


He’s impactual, as far as a leader. For all the things he does sometimes that probably drive the staff crazy — or fans — there’s a lot of things that go unnoticed that he does, that are not on the court.

Will Aaron Cosby play point guard at all?

Parham gave an emphatic “no.” Walker was more circumspect.


I don’t think so. I mean, again this is so fresh and new …

Our first year we experimented with a couple of people at the point before going with BP (Brandon Paul) officially, and he wound up making it. So you never know. I don’t see that  (Cosby at PG) happening, but I think some people are going to have some options. Ray’s an option, for sure. He played it last year.

Ray and Tracy play the same position, and their primary weakness has been passing from the interior. Can that be overcome?


Yeah, it’ll be a little bit different now because we have so many shooters around. We got some guys that can finish at the rim now with Leron (Black).

It’ll be easier for Ray to get to the basket now.

Is it a selling point, for recruits who play the PG position, that they’ll be going against a top defender (Abrams) in practice?


You could say that. But I don’t know if that’s going to affect a kid or not.  It doesn’t seem like it has. But you never know how kids … if I knew how recruits thought, I’d be a genius.


I don’t think you use that as a selling point. Just the fact that you’ve got a veteran guy that you can learn from — or a guy that you could play with. Because Tracy really would have played more off the ball this year with Ahmad.

You mean Tracy would have been playing  at the two (shooting guard)?


Yeah, he would have been playing a lot more two, which he’ll do next year as well because we’ll lose Ray and we’ll lose Starks.

So if we get one of these really good point guards, we’re bringing him in to start. I mean, they’re going to have to earn their keep, but (the selling point is) they’re going to be playing with a guy, alongside a guy who’s got a ton of experience in the Big Ten and in big time basketball.

Illini basketball

The Women’s Clinic

Bardo’s pass to Anderson. Williams to tie it with a three! Julie Pioletti’s Chalk Talk.

These are the top three highlights of my 33 year career of attentive Illini basketball observation.







This was better.



Yes, Tuesday night’s Coaches versus Cancer event even surpassed Matt Heldman’s half-court alley-oop to Awvee Storey. It was more exciting than Derek Harper’s three-pointer (Big Ten rules) to beat Randy Breuer and the Golden Gophers.

I sat in C Section for the ’98 win over Mateen Cleaves, and Frank’s 2000  heroics versus Michael Redd and Scoonie Penn. I watched from the baseline as Tyler Griffey beat #1 Indiana.

This was better.

Why? Because it provided a rare view inside Illini basketball.

John Groce keeps a tight lid on the inner workings of his program. Thus, we never get to see the coaches coaching, or the players playing (except when they’re playing basketball). Tuesday night’s event allowed a glimpse of the players at ease, having a good time. We got to see Jamall Walker teaching, which is a wonderful thing to behold. We saw Paris Parham’s comedy routine, and realized only afterward that we’d learned some important things about technique even as we roared with laughter.

We learned, essentially, that this staff is really good at teaching basketball.

This insight arrived sandwiched between Official Visits from from five-star recruits. Jalen Brunson came last weekend. Jawun Evans arrives on Friday. Illinois basketball is recruiting at an unprecedented level. “Illinois” appears on  “final five” and “top ten” lists of nationally conspicuous high school phenoms. “Duke” and “North Carolina” sometimes make the tens. They are conspicuously absent from the fives.

The times they are a-changin’.  There’s a tectonic shift undermining the college basketball landscape. On Tuesday night, about a hundred mostly middle-aged women got a front row view of The New Firm in action.

The Chalk Talk began with wine & beer, plus appetizers donated by Orange & Brew. Once fed & mildly sedated, the hundred or so participants watched Groce present an overview of the program.  Groce then divided the women into seven groups. Each group headed off to a work station, for closer study and immersion.

  1. Mike Basgier’s strength & conditioning lesson, in the weight room
  2. Paul Schmidt’s sports medicine talk, in the training room
  3. Paris Parham’s rebounding clinic, in the women’s gym
  4. Chelsea Burkart’s guide to nutrition management, in the team lounge
  5. Ryan Pedon’s gameday scouting report, in the video room
  6. Jamall Walker’s pack line defense lesson, in the men’s gym
  7. Dustin Ford’s Introduction to The Gun, also in the men’s gym

The women, about fifteen per group, spent roughly ten to fifteen minutes at each station. They got a short workout with Basgier. They got an ankle taped with Schmidt. They played woman-to-man defense with Walker.  At the remaining four workstations, they merely observed.

Participants were mostly members of the Rebounders’ Club. University President’s wife Cheryl Easter, a longtime season-ticket holder and student of the game, was one.  Three Illini moms took part: Rhonda Rice, Kathi LaTulip and Laura Finke. Jeni Thomas participated, while her husband Mike Thomas watched. Gymnastics coach Justin Spring’s wife Tori took part. There were young, fit women in yoga pants. There were women of a certain age, fit, in yoga pants.  Seniors of varied  fitness-levels took part, to the extent they were able.


After each group had finished all seven workstations, they reunited for a Q & A with coach Groce, the entire team, and the coaches’ wives. (Ahmad Starks and Jaylon Tate arrived at this point. Academic duties prevented them from participating in the workstations.)

One woman asked Groce about shoes. She’d noticed that while gameday uniforms always match, the shoes don’t. Groce explained that he wants the team to feel, literally, “comfortable in their shoes.”  Thus, each player is allowed to choose the pair best-suited to his needs. “Obviously they have to be Nike,” he added, “and they can be one of four colors: orange, blue, white or gray.”

Another haberdashery question:  “Who chooses the gameday uniforms?” Groce’s answer: “Rod Cardinal.”  The players learn what they’re wearing when they open their lockers, and find a clean/pressed uniform hanging inside.

If the stereotype is true, that women are more generally interested in all things sartorial, then that’s an unintended benefit of hosting a clinic for women. Otherwise, we’d never have known the answers to these questions.

Another woman asked about the average day in the life of a student-athlete. Nnanna Egwu provided an exhaustive & exhausting answer. It was tiring just to listen to him tally his daily responsibilities. “Class at ten. Class at eleven. Class at noon. Class at one. Try to get something to eat. Then get to the weight room.”  That was just the beginning. There’s also practice, training table (dinner), study hall. He made a vague reference to a bed, opining that he’d like to get better acquainted with that bed.

Mike Basgier answered a question about the staff’s expectations re: body mass. What targets do they have for newcomers? How much should a freshman weigh when he arrives on campus?  Threshold numbers for weightlifting, etc.

Basgier said the first assessment comes during the sophomore summer, i.e. only when a student-athlete has been in the program for a full year. It takes that much time to assess an individual, see how he responds to conditioning & weights, and whether he’s stopped growing.


Another fitness assessment-oriented question concerned “running the mile.” The players run a timed mile. John Groce asked each player to name his time. Egwu answered first: “Five-twenty.”

The audience was impressed.

The rest of the players gave answers in the 5:20s to 5:30s range. When Ahmad Starks and Tracy Abrams declared “5:17,” a startled intake of breath peppered the audience. When Mike LaTulip said “4:57,” the entire group gasped audibly.


After the Q&A, the women got autographs and photos with the players and coaches. It was after nine, and many participants looked ready for bed. The student-athletes were probably tired too. But they had another four hours of work to do before seeing that bed.


There wasn’t a lot of publicity for the Chalk Talk. As Derrick Burson remarked “it’s a charity event. There’s just no budget for it.” But word of mouth will, unless I’m very much mistaken, unleash a viral interest in future events of this kind. John Groce used the word “inaugural” to describe the Chalk Talk. Next time around, you’ll want to reserve your spot early.  Square-footage is finite. I expect they’ll be turning people away.