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.

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