Tyler Griffey had a big impact for the Illinois basketball team as a freshman. He started two games and hit big shots in key games. Improvement was expected last season, but the opposite proved true. Saddled with injuries, illness and a loss of confidence, his game and motivation plummeted.
Fortunately, his lost year motivates him to work harder than ever. He has compiled a list of things he wants to improve.
"Definitely defense. I've got to get my confidence back by getting in the gym and shooting, shooting. Also, one thing I'm going to emphasize this summer is conditioning and trying to get stronger. I'm a Kinesiology major, so that's my stuff. That's how I do it. I'm looking forward to the challenge."
With Mike Davis graduating and Jereme Richmond departing after one season, Griffey sees an opportunity for playing time at power forward.
"It will open up minutes, but I've got to earn them. I'm looking forward to it and am ready for the challenge."
The 6'-8", 230 pounder has also subbed at the center spot in the past. While undersized for the position, he is willing to bang in the post and share time with Meyers Leonard if needed there.
"Right now, I just want to see the court. I see myself as a four, but if Coach sees me as a backup 5 to Meyers, that's where I'll be."
Griffey realizes the need for team leadership. Part of a recruiting class of D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and the redshirted Joseph Bertrand, Griffey is now among the few upperclassmen on the team. He is ready to accept that responsibility.
"Right now, we're just trying to come in as a team and get better. It's me, Brandon and D.J. It's our team from now on, with Joe included.
"We knew it was coming. We have Sam (Maniscalco, a senior) coming in, but he'll be new to the program. So it all falls on us. Coach named D.J. captain. I think it's gonna be a team thing. It's us juniors' team.
"We've got to work hard. We're just trying to survive spring workouts, keep getting in the gym and keep getting better. We've got some expectations, and I'm really looking forward to it."
Spring workouts haven't shown a major change in Illinois coach Bruce Weber's overall game plan for the upcoming season, except to do everything better than last year.
"Coach is a motion guy and man-to-man defense. But I think we've got a chance to be much more exciting than years past. They've definitely emphasized pressure defense. Full court man-to-man, just getting into people. We've got some real athletic guys with D.J., Joe and Brandon plus the freshmen. It will be a fun time."
Despite a few Internet rumors, Griffey has remained steadfast in his commitment to Illinois. If there was any doubt, being part of the NCAA Tournament helped remind him of the rewards possible for staying the course.
"It was an unbelievable experience. As much I thought it was, it was more. The environment, the atmosphere, you can't find that anywhere else. It was awesome."
The Illini defeated UNLV and fought hard in losing to Kansas, a #1 seed. Griffey says it gives the team a needed boost of confidence going into the 2011-12 season.
"Absolutely. It was a dream come true for me. Getting into the NCAA Tournament and winning a game. There's nothing better than that. I'd love to do it again. It felt so good to finally get that monkey off our backs. And it motivated us more to come in here this spring to keep working hard and keep getting better."
Five freshmen will join the team this summer. Griffey will have a leg up on playing time, but he won't take anything for granted. Plus, he cares about the team and sees value in adding talented players to the roster.
"You have to earn it. Hopefully, I've got a leg up on the other guys with the spring workouts and stuff. But we're gonna need the freshmen. They're gonna help us out a lot."