Interim head coach Jamall Walker stresses continuity, motivation ahead of NIT
Following the firing of former head coach John Groce, the Illinois men’s basketball team is preparing for its opening round matchup in the NIT.
The first test of the post-Groce era comes in the form of Valparaiso, a mid-major school out of the Horizon League that finished 24-8 on the season.
Interim head coach Jamall Walker said the reaction around the team has been mixed after Groce’s dismissal.
“Obviously some of them are shocked, and some of the guys are disappointed,” Walker said. “I’ve got some older guys; I’ve got some great experienced guys in Tracy (Abrams) and Malcolm (Hill) who have been around a lot of things, who’ve done a lot of things, who’ve seen a lot of things. So, I’m leaning on those guys as well to get guys ready to play.”
In past years, the Illini have flopped in the tournament, losing in the second round in 2014 and getting blown out in the opening round in 2015 at Alabama.
Despite speculation about the team’s mental strength, Hill said Illinois will be ready to go Tuesday.
“It sucks, but it is what it is at this point,” Hill said. “We can’t dwell on it because we have a game tomorrow. I can dwell on it when this is all said and done, but it is my job as a senior to make sure I’m prepared, as well as the team, to play Valpo tomorrow.”
Valparaiso will be missing senior forward Alec Peters on Tuesday. He is out for the remainder of the season with a stress fracture in his leg. Peters was averaging 23 points and 10 rebounds for the Crusaders and is the all-time leading scorer at Valparaiso. The 6-foot-9 forward, who can step out and knock down perimeter shots, may have given the Illini defense some trouble.
Without Peters, the defensive focus could shift to the supporting cast led by senior Shane Hammink, who is averaging over 15 points per game.
While there has been a change at the helm, Walker said not to expect to many changes in the Illinois strategy heading into the NIT.
“I’ve only had about 48 hours. My job is basically to get them to the court and get them mentally ready to go,” Walker said. “It’s who’s prepared and ready to play, who is excited to play, who wants to play more than anything else.”