Illinois junior Tyler Griffey experienced one setback after another last season as a sophomore. He dealt with illness, injuries and loss of confidence and was relegated to the bench after showing promise as a freshman. Illini coach Bruce Weber says circumstances also played a major role in Griffey riding the pine.
"He got lost last year; he was hurt early. Mike Davis stepped up as a senior, he was our MVP and had a great year for us, was probably our most consistent guy. He (Griffey) was battling him.
"Then you had Meyers (Leonard) and Jereme (Richmond) come in. Meyers took minutes from Tyler as backup center that he got as a freshman. We thought Jereme would be able to play out on the court, but we found he was better around the basket. So Tyler kind of got lost in the shuffle and lost his confidence."
Weber was concerned Griffey might not be able to bounce back, but that has not been the case.
"It was interesting in the spring, when I met with him after the season, I don't know how the kid's gonna react. But he's been very positive. I think he's excited. He was one of our most consistent guys this summer.
"I challenged him to be the best three-point shooting big guy in the country. He has that chance; he has the ability."
If Griffey can battle on the boards consistently, he will see considerable playing time this year.
"We need him to rebound on both ends of the court. He led us in Italy in offensive rebounds, but he's got to get a few defensive rebounds. Tyler is our strongest guy. We need him to use that strength. We want him to shoot, but we also need him to rebound."
Griffey never considered a transfer as some assumed. Instead, he says he dedicated himself to making up for lost time.
"Yeah. I had a really productive off season. l'm keeping with it, keeping my head in it, working hard, knowing things will work out in the end. I'm excited for this year, and I'm ready to get rolling. Italy was an awesome experience. I really got a chance to play with our guys and get a sense of some roles we can have."
Perhaps the best outside shooter on the team, the 6'-8" St. Louis native lost confidence in his shot last year. But constant work on his mechanics has done the trick.
"Absolutely. I love being in the gym and coming to workouts every day. I'm shooting pretty well, so I'm excited."
The Illini graduated four seniors off last year's team. Suddenly, Griffey and junior teammates Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson realized they were the most experienced Illini, and the younger players looked up to them. That alone was a confidence boost for Griffey.
"I think so. This is my third time around now. I can't believe I've been in college that long. I kind of know how to deal with everything, so it's been helpful."
He enjoys answering all the queries from the Illini's large and promising freshman class.
"They're a good group of guys. They're gonna help us this year."
Griffey isn't known for his speed or defensive prowess, but he's bought into the new pressing, fast breaking style being incorporated by Weber this year.
"It's certainly different. Conditioning this fall has been a lot tougher than it has been in previous falls. It's not really the cardiovascular, it's your legs. Getting into a proper stance, picking up full court all the time in practice. It's tough, but they've worked our tails off to be able to do it."
Griffey is optimistic the Illini can prove prognosticators wrong this year.
"We've had an excellent fall. Everyone's working hard. There's not a day that anyone doesn't want to be here. I think we'll do well. I think we'll surprise some people. I really like these guys, I really like playing with them. It's gonna be a fun year.