Tyler Griffey was expecting to see playing time in early Illinois games, but he was set back by the flu. And then once the more difficult portion of the schedule began, coach Bruce Weber substituted less freely. It became tough for Griffey to get into the games.
But problems at the center spot have given Griffey a chance to show what he can do. Mike Tisdale has some great games, but he doesn't have a consistent backup. This can be a big problem when Tisdale gets in early foul trouble or is having a bad day. Griffey has emerged as a stop-gap replacement. He came into the Michigan State game and scored 12 points and led the team in rebounds in only 15 minutes of action.
"I came in, my first couple shots went in," Griffey said humbly. "Unfortunately, Tisdale got into foul trouble and I had to provide a little spark off the bench."
Weber explained why he inserted Griffey against the Spartans.
"He's shot the ball so well in practice. It's a little like Billy Cole was last year where he started making some shots. Tyler has some weaknesses, but he had 7 rebounds and was our leading rebounder against Michigan State in a short period of time.
"He gets an offensive putback, some offensive rebounds. We've got to rotate him in there. (Mike) Davis isn't playing great, Dominique (Keller) hit some struggles, so we'll give Tyler a shot."
The Breslin Center can be an intimidating place for an upperclassman, let alone a freshman with precious little experience. But much like quarterback Jacob Charest for the Illinois football team, Griffey played relaxed in his first extended action.
"No, it wasn't that bad. I hit about 15 or 16 threes in a row in shootaround when I was shooting by myself. I said if I got the chance, it would be my night. And it happened like that. It was really cool the way it worked out.
"I wouldn't say there was any more pressure than any other game. I just went out there and did my thing, shot with confidence."
Weber was pleased with Griffey's calm demeanor.
"He seemed to play well and was poised. He hasn't played a lot of minutes. I think it helps when you make your first shot. And for the most part, he stays within himself. That's the big thing. The other two freshmen are off and on, trying to do too much."
Perhaps Griffey is one of those unique athletes who is unflappable in pressure situations.
"The first couple games, especially the exhibition games, I experienced some hyperventilation," Griffey admitted. "But I've calmed down. I know I have to do my role in the couple minutes I have to work with. So I try to make a positive impact on the game with what I can do. Other than that, I just try to push the guys in practice to make the team better."
Some Illini, especially the freshmen Paul and Richardson, threw up off balance shots against MSU, intimidated by their physical presence and shot-blocking potential. Griffey remained calm and showed off his shooting form.
"Coach Weber, Coach Price and all the coaches are doing a good job of keeping my confidence. They know I can shoot it a little bit. They just say to let the game come to me.
"And even though I've got so little time to work with, I can make a positive impact on the game. Move the ball around, put up a shot if it's a good shot. We're doing a lot of talking about shot selection as a team, and we're deciding what's a good shot.
"After the Gonzaga game, we looked at every single shot taken. It took a long time. It's a learning experience, it's got to be within the flow of the game. If you're confident it's a shot you can make, take it."
Griffey takes no chances, working on his own to keep his shooting at a peak level.
"I make a hundred lane shots before practice every day, shoot a hundred midrange and shoot a hundred threes. Then afterward I do a left-handed series. It's repetition, it's staying confident."
Griffey will receive more playing time when his defense and rebounding improve. The 6'-9", 232 pounder is not a center, but he can play there for brief spurts with proper technique. What are his biggest problems with the defensive learning curve?
"The quickness of the game. How fast paced it is, the length of the court. You get tired out there. I've been doing focused workouts where I can get shots up, work on my conditioning and my explosiveness. Getting in the weight room as much as possible, working on explosion and blocking quickness, stuff like that. If I can get comfortable as time goes on and get more experience, then I think I'll be able to improve those areas."
Of course, technique work is essential. One finds some massive physical specimens on the inside, and countering them requires practice. It is extremely tiring to hold position when an opposing center is leaning on you, and it can be scary when one is running toward you.
"I see that in practice with Rich (Semrau). We do blockout drills, and when you see him come at you, you've got to be the aggressor, even if you're on defense. You've got to hit him first. It's kind of hard to absorb the shock of him hitting you and then getting the ball. It's a skill you've got to learn. It's all about experience, getting the different angles, knowing how to use your base strength. That's how you've got to look at it."
Defense at the major college level is much more complicated than what Griffey experienced at Lafayette High School in St. Louis, Missouri.
"Team defense can be taught in high school. It's basically the same principles. But the game's so quick, you've got to read what's going on all the time. You've got to beware of who's gonna be where and what you've got to do.
"It's a science, but I'm learning a lot. I'm asking questions every day. Coach Weber and Coach (Jay) Price are helping me. We sit down and watch film, and they tell me where I need to go, where I need to be and what I need to do in different types of situations."
Griffey also must be in top shape. The Kinesiology major wants to be a physical trainer one day, and he seems to enjoy working hard on conditioning and strength development.
"Yeah, that's why I've been working with Jimmy (Price) in the weight room as much as possible. Working on lateral quickness, explosiveness, base strength. Once I get to the off season, I'll know what I need to work on to be successful in the college game. Then I can put in the time and dedication that is needed."
Some of his conditioning stems from his shooting regimen. Besides the shooting he does before and after practice, Griffey also uses shooting drills as a conditioning mechanism.
"I do five minutes of threes and getting my own rebound. I start out with about 30-35 threes. I keep trying to build on that. It's a great way to get conditioning, using your legs. You still get pretty tired. I'm just trying to stay in the best shape and push myself as hard as I can. And listen to the coaches and learn how I can get better."
Griffey made 46% of his threes his senior year in high school, and his sweet shot usually tickles the twine more than 75% of the time in warmups. But it won't be his offense that gives him more playing time.
"Coach says if I keep working my chance will come, provided that I keep rebounding and defending well. I think they'd like me to get more minutes, but it comes down to me guarding and me defending and not me scoring."