Illini hoops will learn its personnel, strengths and weaknesses during first few weeks of practice

Illini Inquirer basketball analyst Sean Harrington breaks down how the Illini staff should approach the start of practice and the Illini's biggest questions entering the preseason

Sean Harrington will provide expert basketball analysis all season for IlliniInquirer.com. Sign up for a premium membership here. But here is a free taste.

Today -- the first day of college basketball practice -- is a very exciting time to be a college basketball player.  

Today will be the day that the most players will show up EARLY to get in extra work before practice.

Today will be the day that the most players will stay AFTER practice to get extra shots up.  

Today every player feels like they have a chance to be an impact player for the team.  

"Today" is the key word here. The college basketball teams that keep these thoughts going the longest during the year will be the teams that continue to improve throughout the season.  

How does this happen on a team? A team is a lot like a family. Players don’t want to hear the coaches harping on them to get into the gym and work on your game -- just like a child doesn’t want to be told what to do all the time by the parents.

It works best when the players do it themselves. Someone on the team has to set the tone and be the one that is always in the gym. Other players will follow their lead.  

Who will set the tone for the season for Illinois?  The answer to this question might be the most important for this group.

Keep it simple, coaches

With the entire season ahead and the first game just six weeks away, coaches meet to talk about what to do the first day of practice and map out the first few weeks.

I have sat in several coaches meetings over the years and everyone on the staff has an opinion on what to work on to start the year.  There are a lot of opinions because there are a lot of things to cover: offensive continuity, sets, out-of-bounds plays, special situations, end-of-game plays, man defense, zone defense, ball-screen defense, blocking out, rebounding, transition game.  

Those are just a few -- and we haven’t even talked about passing, dribbling and shooting.  

The best way to approach the first few weeks is to keep it simple.  

Find your identity and be really good at a few things. The rest will fall into place.

Rick Majerus was one of the best teachers I have ever been around. He did not care if we went through a three-hour practice and only did three things. We were going to do it right.  

I recall one practice we did a shooting/footwork drill for 45 minutes.  He stopped EVERY player EVERY time they did not do it correctly. In those 45 minutes, each player maybe got up seven to 10 shots each. But at the end of the drill, EVERY player was doing it right and, from that point on, EVERY shooting/footwork drill was done correctly the rest of the season.  

If you followed Rick Majerus’ teams you know that they were very good at the details and fundamentals and they rarely beat themselves. For Illinois, they will have to figure out what do they hang their hat on this year. Offense, defense, taking care of the ball, competing, toughness?  

Answer some questions

The Illini will have to answer some questions during the first few weeks of practice.

Who will emerge as the leader of this team? Tracy Abrams was the obvious choice. But with the senior point guard again out for the season (torn Achilles), all eyes turn to Malcolm Hill. Can Malcolm be vocal enough to get the players to follow his lead?  

Where will the scoring come from?  The Illini lost four of their top-six scorers from last season. Who will get Illinois some easy baskets and be consistent? Hill and Nunn will have to be consistent double-figure scorers. Who else will join them?  Can Leron Black or Mike Thorne be a consistent threat inside? Will talented freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands -- who was sidelined the last four months with a stress fracture in his lower left leg -- heal and adjust to the system quick enough to make a big impact?

Who will step up and be a defensive stopper on the perimeter and inside? Nunn has the ability to be that guy on the perimeter. Can a job-by-committee make up for the huge loss of Nnanna Egwu on the inside?

Which freshman -- Coleman-Lands, guard Aaron Jordan, wing D.J. Williams and redshirt freshman forward/center Michael Finke -- is going to adjust to the system, terminology and pace of the college game the quickest?

Lastly, what will the point guard play look like? The PG is the most important position on the floor in college basketball. Is Jaylon Tate ready to take that over or will it be a group effort with fifth-year transfer Khalid Lewis and others?

These first few weeks will help the staff learn what it must focus on.

Sean Harrington is the basketball analyst for IlliniInquirer.com and also serves as a color analyst for ESPN. played for four NCAA Tournament teams at Illinois, from 1999-2002. He also served on coaching staffs for Rick Majerus, Bill Self, Rob Judson and Bruce Weber. Follow him on Twitter @smharrington24.


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