It is with bated breath that Illinois fans await the unveiling of the 2011-12 edition of the Fighting Illini basketball team. The opposition tonight is Wayne State College, not to be confused with Wayne State University or Wayne McClain or Fountains of Wayne. Wayne State College is located in Wayne, Nebraska. It is a member of the NSIC conference in Division II, which is a pretty good basketball league. The history of Wayne State College is not terribly eventful; a look at the historical timeline presented on the school’s website finds most of the events were the appointment of a new president-not terribly exciting. WSC’s most famous alumni is John Neihardt, author of Black Elk Speaks and a poet emeritus of the great state of Nebraska. (Incidentially, Carl Jung retitled his German translation of Black Elk Speaks as I Call My People, unintentionally presaging a popular phrase of our mobile world by approximately 80 years). For those of us not necessarily subscribing to the Great Man theory of history, WSC offers 90 majors to its students and boasts the first highrise in Northeastern Nebraska, the nine-story Bowen Hall.
WSC has little in the way of recent basketball tradition. Wayne State College is perhaps most famous as one of the first coaching jobs held by Greg McDermott, the current coach at Creighton. Last year the team finished 11th in its conference. The Wildcats have a whole new look this year. While the Fighting Illini lost a lot of production from last year’s team and added six players this year. Wayne State has that number beat by a mile: Coach Paul Combs brings in 10 new players this year: four transfers and six freshmen. The Wildcats boast two D-I transfers among their numbers-Clayfell Harris from Wagner and Jon Rice from Belmont. Rice should be familiar to close followers of the Illinois high school basketball scene. During his senior year at Waubonsie Valley, Rice averaged 18 points per game. He played for an Illinois Wolves AAU program which has sent a number of standouts to the Illini: Pruitt, McCamey and now Egwu. Rice suffered an injury plagued career at Belmont, only playing in 20 games in 09-10 before sitting out the 10-11 season with a foot injury. The other D-1 transfer, Clayfell Harris provides much needed bulk to the Wildcat’s lineup at 6-8, 245. I managed to have a conversation with the SID at Wayne State, Mike Grosz (no relation to George). Despite being heavily burdened as a one-man wrecking crew at the Wildcat’s athletic department, he generously shared some insights as to how this game came about and what to expect from WSC:
What Illini fans should watch for in the Wayne State game:
Amry Shelby is a standout guard for the Wildcats. He’s been compelled to play point guard for his first two years in Wayne, but should be able to slide over to shooting guard with the outstanding new personnel Coach Combs has brought in. He’s a very efficient player, and drew some interest from Northern Iowa before committing to WSC.
How did you find your D-1 transfers?
Jon Rice was recruited by Coach Combs at Wisconsin-Platteville. Coach Combs stayed in touch with his high school coach, so when Jon was looking to make a move, WSC was a strong possibility. He’s been hampered by a sore back which will just lock up out of the blue, which diminished his possibilities at Belmont [Rice has played just 20 games over the last two years] Clayfell Harris was a protege of Assistant Coach Pablisi’s at Wagner, and wasn’t getting the opportunities he wanted there, so he came out for a visit, and committed to us. He’s already graduated with a business degree and will be in the Master’s program this year.
How did this game come about?
Coach Combs’s grandfather was a team doctor at Purdue when Coach Weber was there, so when Coach Combs came out to Wayne State, the family connections kind of led to this game. We also have a strong relationship with Coach Ryan at Wisconsin, because he coached at Wisconsin-Platteville before Coach Combs did.
What style of play should Illini fans expect from WSC?
Well, we play tough defense. The last two years, we’ve ranked in the top three or four teams in the NSIC in field goal percentage defense. We’re also very efficient on offense, breaking some school records that were set by some very good Greg McDermott-led teams. In the preseason, we’re trying to integrate all the new faces on our team, trying to figure out who plays well with who. We’re happy that we’ve added some bulk and height to our roster; our tallest player last year was 6-6. In our conference, we play games on Friday and Saturday [!], so depth can be a real problem. We’ll have 16 or 17 players on the roster this year, so we should be more competitive than in the past. We’ve led some of the better teams in our conference late in the second half, only to run out of gas at the end. The new faces should help that.
The Illini come into this game a little banged up-Langford is out for 4-6 weeks with a broken finger, and neither Bertrand nor Maniscalco is expected to play tonight. Bertrand has a hip pointer and Weber has decided to rest Sam Man to save his ankles for later this season. The injuries are something of a blessing in disguise for Fighting Illini fans, as they will get to see some players we probably won’t hear from as regularly once the season begins in earnest. Tracy Abrams will make his debut at point guard, and we’ll doubtless see Brandon Paul get some time there as well. We’ll also see more Myke Henry than expected, considering that the three players we’re without are all backcourt personnel.
Expected Starting Lineup:
Nnanna Egwu/Meyers Leonard
Weber’s been making some noise about starting Nnanna over Meyers based on their record in scrimmages. I chose Crandall over Tracy or Myke assuming that Weber still places the premium on experience that he’s displayed thus far in his career at Illinois. Boy, it sure is weird not penciling in Demitri or Mike or Mike in those spots! I gotta say I’m a little excited about that. New faces are always fun-a basketball world filled with possibility.
Expected score: Illinois 75, Wayne State 54.
Yeah, I know lots of people are expecting the Illini to put up big numbers, but Wayne State plays a very deliberate half-court offense and prides itself on its defense. Add to that the loss of some possible firepower in the backcourt, and the Fighting Illini will score a little less than most people are figuring.
Remember, there will be a live chat starting at 7:15 right here. Join us, and don’t be afraid to comment. The more the merrier!
Topics: Assembly Hall, Brandon Paul, Bruce Weber, Crandall Head, D.J. Richardson, Illini, Illini Basketball, Illinois Basketball, Illinois Fighting Illini Basketball, Joseph Bertrand, Meyers Leonard, Myke Henry, Nnanna Egwu, Preseason Games, Sam Maniscalco, U-of-I Basketball