Jamall Walker followed new head coach John Groce from Ohio University to the University of Illinois. A graduate of St. Louis University, Walker has background at both the junior college and major college levels. He is considered both an excellent coach and recruiter.
Walker has responsibility for Illini guard play, so much of his emphasis this past month has been helping develop Illini guards in small group workouts.
"It's been very exciting. I'm really getting to know and spend time with our guys, which is the most important part. Getting to know those guys as people as well as players and students.
"The kids have been receptive, and the guys have really worked hard for us. (Thursday) is the last day for us to work them out. It's been good."
Is Walker happy with the effort of current Illini players?
"Very happy. Obviously, guys can get better in some areas, but I'm really pleased. Coach (John Groce) is really happy with the attitudes. That's an important thing as well, the attitude that they bring to the workout. Are they really excited, do they want to get better? If you do that, the things that you want will happen for you."
Walker feels he has some quality talent with which to work and is pleased with their progress learning new offensive and defensive schemes.
"I think our guards are getting better. I think we've got a lot of depth there, and we've got to use that. Obviously with the style of play we run, guards are important. So we'll try to utilize their speed and space the court. I think it will be to some of those guys' advantage that we're going to play the way we play."
A point guard as a player, Walker has responsibility for developing current freshman Tracy Abrams into a force from the point guard spot.
"When you work a guy out, it's a little different than playing five on five. But he's really worked hard and tried to do the things we've asked him to do.
"From a personal standpoint, I really like Tracy as a person. He's got a high character, he does what he's supposed to do on and off the court. I have no problem with Tracy whatsoever, I just think he's got to continue to grow in his individual game."
Spring workouts are now over, but for the first time, the NCAA allows coaches to work with players if they are enrolled for summer classes. Six hours a week will be devoted to strength and conditioning, while the coaches can work directly with them two hours a week.
"We will take full advantage of that," Walker states. "We'll always connect with them whether they're at home, on campus, doing some classes or just relaxing in their apartments. We will spend time with them and continue to get to know them. That's probably the most important thing.
"You get two hours a week. We're big on skill development here. Coach wants them to be better in all facets of their lives, so we will try to take full advantage of that two hours."
Each Illini guard has both strengths and weaknesses. Walker and the rest of the Illini staff want them to maximize their potential by working on their weaknesses.
"We've got to make them better in those areas. We can't wave a magic wand and expect them to get better. We've got to work. If we can maybe get them from a four to a six, that's good. We'll try to continue to grow them from there. More importantly, the confidence they have is about simply working and getting better.
Walker realizes it takes time to develop new skills and expand old ones.
"I just want to see them get better. We talked about getting better 1% daily. Our biggest emphasis is that a guy can't stay the same; he's got to continue to grow.
"We always try to put an emphasis on expanding your game, and then as a student continue to get better with your study habits, how you pay attention, how you take notes. All that stuff comes together even though the kids might not know it. It all correlates to basketball on the court.
"That's what you're here for, to be a better basketball player but also a better student and a better person in the community."
Walker has also jumped quickly into his recruiting responsibilities. Schools are now in their spring signing period, and the Illini have a couple open scholarships available immediately. Illini coaches have been working frantically to find a senior big man or point guard, if one is still available, while also searching for a fifth year transfer or junior college player who can help.
In addition, they are working diligently to develop relationships with top players in the 2013 class since they can sign with a college in November. They are behind in this effort, but they are working hard to overcome restrictions. For instance, Walker spent last weekend in Merrillville, Indiana, evaluating high school players.
"I'm really getting involved with recruiting. (The reception has been) really warm and accepting. Obviously, when you have the name 'Illinois' across your shirt, and you're recruiting the state of Illinois, you're going to get a lot of attention and a lot of publicity."
One might think Groce and Walker would have problems recruiting high major prospects after settling for mid-major players at Ohio U. But time constraints are the main drawback right now.
"I think it's more difficult simply because we're a new staff. Some people have been recruiting kids for 2 to 3 years, so you're going to have to make up some ground some kind of way. We're fortunate enough that the Illinois brand carries a lot of weight across the country. We're trying to use that to our advantage.
"I think we also offer a unique style of play, a little up-tempo, and I think kids enjoy that. We've got some things to sell, and that's our job to sell that."
UI admissions has been more restrictive than many Big 10 programs in the past regarding allowing borderline student-athletes into school. Walker and his fellow coaches are aware of the situation and are willing to cooperate by recruiting qualified players.
"Yeah, we're learning. It's just like everything else, you've got to go through sometimes and experience what you can and can't do.
"Every place has drawbacks. Facilities, academics, everybody's got something that makes them not a perfect place. It's a drawback, but everybody's got something they've got to overcome."
The new Illini staff is recruiting athletes they consider "Illinois players," regardless of their physical location. Walker explains what is meant by the phrase.
"One, the guy that wants to try to get better as a person and as a player. Number two, a guy who thinks and understands it is not just about him. It's about Illinois, it's about the team. This program was going on long before his four years, and it keeps going after him. And in the third thing is a guy that wants to win championships."