Wayne McClain does all the dirty work in practices. The Illinois assistant basketball coach is the enforcer, pushing players past their limits while reassuring their good effort. He has seen their fall progress up close and personal during fall workouts, and he shared his thoughts on the team on WDWS radio Saturday.
McClain responded quickly when asked what he likes most about fall workouts this year.
"The thing that stands out to me is that it's so competitive. We've got a good nucleus of experienced players with (Mike) Tisdale, Mike Davis, and Demetri (McCamey). I'd consider them our leaders. And then we've got a corps of young talent that are very athletic and very gifted. They're pushing these guys every day."
He also complimented good team chemistry. New NCAA rules permit college teams to enjoy instruction prior to the official start of practice.
"We're allowed to bring guys together a little more," McClain exclaims. "So we actually get to coach our guys. We can bring more than four at a time and go down the floor, do some drills with our guys. That's really beneficial for us.
"The guys get to see what motion offense is right. They get to understand terminology, how we want to guard, how we approach situations. It's a chance to teach a little bit."
This extra work can only help a team that has extremely high goals for the season. One reason for the competition is the quality of freshmen Jereme Richmond, Crandall Head and Meyers Leonard. They have much to learn but are benefitting from the early practices.
"Obviously they're gonna have growing pains at times. They have things to pick up. But they're all quick learners, especially Jereme Richmond. I think his curve is a lot further along than some of the other guys because he's so talented.
"I'm really impressed with some of the other guys in terms of raw talent. Head is very athletic. He doesn't try to do a lot of things. But he can guard, he can run. He's gonna surprise as well."
McClain was emphatic that Head's defense has been better than expected.
"I'd put a 'yes' with an exclamation on that. Coach told him early the way he's gonna get on the floor is he's gonna have to guard. I think that's set in his mind. He gets after it, he'll push you from one end of the floor to the other.
"And that goes for everybody. I think Crandall and Jereme Richmond guard (Demetri) better than anyone. Jereme gets after it on defense."
Illinois head coach Bruce Weber has used an 8 man rotation frequently in the past, but all 11 Illini scholarship players have the ability to see minutes this year. McClain said a determination on a playing rotation is a long way from being resolved.
"I don't think there's any way you can predict it. Our goal is to play more people. That's something Coach has talked about the last couple years to get more people on the floor. You just never know until the lights come on how guys are gonna react to game situations.
"If practice is any indication, I think our goal would be to get more people on the floor. That will help our guys be more rested. Demetri logged a lot of minutes last year, Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis also. If everything goes well and some of these guys continue to play well, play with confidence, I'm hoping to rotate more players this year. It's gonna be determined by them."
The Illini 2010-11 schedule is one of the toughest in history. That was by design as the Illini have a Houston Final Four as their ultimate goal.
"You look at that schedule, Coach felt this was going to be the year to have that. It's not easy. Most of the games are really challenging; you're not gonna have too many nights off.
"On the flip side, I think it's gonna mentally help our kids prepare for the biggest challenge, which is to make some noise in March. There might be 3 or 4 (Big 10) teams ahead of us in the national polls. I think there's gonna be a lot of great teams out there. Playing this competition I think makes you better.
"There's a different mental approach when you play against teams that you fear or you know can beat you. I think this is gonna help us in the long run."
The Illini are looking forward to have Midnight Madness, the official beginning of fall practices, in the friendly confines of Huff Hall. Fewer fans will be able to attend, but the noise could blow the roof off the place.
"I think our guys like Huff Hall. I think the atmosphere with a crowd right on top of you is good for our guys. I think they'll look forward to that."