Bigs Will Benefit From Assistant Dustin Ford

Fighting Illini basketball players have benefitted from working with experienced coaches this spring. That appears especially true for the big men on the team. New assistant Dustin Ford has worked with the bigs for a number of years and has a passion for it. He is teaching things they need to learn to compete in the post next season.

Dustin Ford is making a smooth transition to life at Illinois. It helps that he has worked with head coach John Groce at Ohio University prior to his new job.

"I think it's been really good. I've been with him for four years. I know how he thinks, he knows how I think. Sometimes he pushes my buttons, sometimes I push his buttons. I think we have a great relationship and a great thing going."

While he is now comfortable within the Ubben basketball complex, he is still a novice at making his way around Champaign-Urbana.

"It's been hard for me, being here for just three weeks. I haven't been out of that office much, to be honest, to see a lot of the area. I did buy a home. My wife hasn't seen it, so maybe that wasn't a good idea. I'm anxious to get my family here and get settled, and I'm anxious to work with our guys."

Ford just helped Groce complete individual workouts with current Illini players. He feels there is a lot to build on within the team.

"That's the one thing about this group of guys we've got. It's a great group of kids. They've been really receptive to what we've been trying to do. We've got to continue building on that so we can reach the goals and dreams that we have."

Groce, Ford and fellow assistant Jamall Walker all toiled at Ohio together, so they know what it takes to build a program. Ford says it begins with two important factors.

"Like we did at Ohio, toughness and togetherness is where it starts, every team and every season. Without those two things, there's going to be trouble. That's something we're trying to drill home with these guys. We've got to be tougher and more together."

It is an interesting irony that the shortest staff member coaches the tallest players.

"I've always coached bigs. It started with Coach (Larry) Hunter at Western Carolina in my first job, and I kind of take to it. I kind of enjoy it. I know I was a point guard; I wasn't a very good player, but I was pretty tough. If you wanted to play inside, you had to have some toughness. I'm going to try to instill that in them first and go from there."

He must also develop a comfortable relationship between himself and his players so they can trust each other.

"I want them to get to know me, how I coach and how I'm going to teach them. In return, I want to get to know them as well. It's a learning process, but the first 2 to 3 weeks have been pretty good."

With the loss of the athletic Meyers Leonard to the NBA draft, younger players will need to take up the slack. Ford talks about his early impressions of 6'-10" rising sophomore Nnanna Egwu.

"The biggest thing I've noticed with him, he's got an unbelievable motor. And he retains what you're trying to coach him. He's very detailed, and that's very important when you're trying to develop it big. You need guys that take pride in the details, and he's done that. He's really receptive and a great kid.

"And looking at him, I don't know if there's one thing in terms of tools that he has missing to be a good player. It's just a matter of us continuing to work with him, coach him up. And then obviously he needs experience. He needs to get out there and figure it out a little bit."

Won't he also need more strength to bang in the post with physically overpowering opponents?

"I think any guy could get bigger and stronger. Some guys need it more than others. We haven't been here long enough to have a great feel for where he is in terms of numbers in the weight room."

Egwu's backup figures to be fellow soph Ibby Djimde, unless power forward Tyler Griffey is drafted out of necessity. Djimde understands English, which is fortunate because Ford can't communicate with him in his preferred language.

"No, I don't speak French. But hopefully he'll be able to understand me somehow. Ibby's working hard. He's a great kid, he's physically strong. There's some things we need to work on, but he's really receptive to what we're doing.

"He's got good feet, good footwork. We'll work with him on his touch, and work with him on his hands. Understanding how to get angles to score in the post, and do some of those things. He is big and strong. We've just got to keep working with him, and you get there."

Griffey is perhaps the team's best outside shooter, but he has the size to help inside with practice. Each of the three players has his own skills and weaknesses.

"The unique thing about our interior right now is, everybody is different. With Nnanna, we're trying to do more things at the basket with him.

"With Griff, we're trying to work him on the perimeter so we can use him more in pick-and-pop situations. We're also going to post him. We're trying to learn more about them as we build with them and kind of fit them into what we want to do with them."

Ford is also considered a quality recruiter. While Ohio U. doesn't always recruit the same level of athlete as at Illinois, he doesn't consider that a drawback.

"No, I don't think so. Obviously it's a challenge no matter where you're at. But recruiting is recruiting. We have a great place to recruit to. It's a place where you can win national championships and Big 10 championships. You can compete at the highest level. When you have that to sell, and you have a passionate fan base as well, that's something that hopefully will get a lot of kids interested."

However, recruiting is relationships. The top 2013 prospects, who will be signing with colleges this November, have gotten to know coaches from competitors over a much longer period of time than the current Illini staff. Won't that hinder recruiting this year?

Yes and no. Every situation is different, every recruit is different. We just have to work and make sure we're finding guys that we're looking for and the University is looking for."

Ford has background recruiting multiple territories.

"In the past I've recruited Ohio, I get into Michigan a little bit. I've been to Canada a little bit, Florida, really all around. That's probably what we'll do here, but obviously we have our breadbasket where we're going to recruit the most. We have good players in our back yard, and we can't let good players go out of state."

Ford was born to be a basketball coach, and so was his brother Geno, now head coach at Bradley.

"My dad was a coach, and I had some uncles that were coaches. We grew up in a basketball home. Everything was competitive, and everything revolved around basketball. I don't know what else I'd be doing if I wasn't coaching. He's the same way."

However, as so often happens with siblings, familiarity occasionally breeds contempt.

"We're both really competitive. It's hard for us to golf together, it's hard for us to do anything together right now without arguing about something."

Their homes are now close enough for their families to visit each other frequently. And they probably won't be recruiting the same prospects.

"It'll be good to talk to him on the phone and not have to worry about him recruiting the same guys we are recruiting like we did when he was at Kent State and I was at Ohio. And then Bradley and Ohio.

"It will be good to be close to them on the holidays. Before, we didn't get to see them much. My wife and his wife are tight, and my kids and his kids are tight. So that will be good and unique for them."

Ford marvels at how their destinies have brought them together again within the state of Illinois.

"It's amazing how stuff goes."

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