Transfer guard Legion ready to play ball

Alex Legion goes for a layup during the Orange & Blue Scrimmage at Assembly Hall on Oct. 26. Legion will be eligible to play for the Illini beginning on Dec. 20. Erica Magda

By Jeremy Werner

Alex Legion sat in a chair along the Illinois sideline clothed in a white long-sleeve T-shirt, watching his teammates clad in orange and blue warm-ups run through pregame drills. With iPod earbuds nestled firmly into each ear, Legion leisurely lobbed practice shots in the air as if he were an uninterested visitor.

But the 6-foot-5 sophomore has been through almost everything the rest of the Illinois men’s basketball team has in the past year: the summer open gym sessions, individual workouts, weightlifting and team practices. He even traveled to Poland for a summer basketball tour with Athletes in Action.

Unlike the rest of the roster, however, Legion has sat on the sidelines during home games and has been unable to travel with the team due to NCAA transfer rules. The waiting hasn’t been easy for Legion, but the Kentucky transfer will finally become eligible to play on Dec. 20 against Detroit at the Assembly Hall.

“We talked about when games started and after the Orange and Blue (Scrimmage) I think he got a little, I don’t want to say depressed, just sad,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “I think he kind of felt like he wasn’t part of it anymore. Then when we get into all these games and practices, a lot of game preparation, and scout squad, we continued to emphasize, ‘You got to stay focused. When you get your chance. you got to be ready.'”

Legion is unavailable to the media until next week. But in a June 10 interview, Legion talked about the prospect of being able to play this season.

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    “I haven’t played in a while as far as a regulated game, so it’ll be nice to see some referees and the uniforms and not just practice,” Legion said. “I can’t wait to get out there.”

    Expectations for Legion have been high since he transferred to Illinois last December after playing in six games at Kentucky during his freshman season. Ranked as the 39th-best player in the Class of 2007 by, Legion is known as a prolific scorer with a premium mid-range jumper. But how Legion blends into a team that has already posted a 9-1 record remains to be seen.

    “I think he might come off to a slow start a little bit,” forward Mike Davis said. “He hasn’t played in a year in a real game. But I think once he gets going he’ll be a great addition for us.”

    Weber has cautioned that Legion will have to “work his way into it” and be patient if he doesn’t achieve immediate success on the floor. But Weber said Legion, whom the coach calls a “major part” of the program, will be able to gradually blend in without having to be the team’s “savior,” due to the team’s smooth start.

    Sophomore guard Demetri McCamey, Legion’s roommate, has tried to aid Legion’s transition into the rotation by watching game film at their apartment after practice.

    “We go back, watch the games, point out some things and show him some things he’d fit good in,” McCamey said. “Like if I’m penetrating or spot up and stuff, so he knows what he should be doing just to get that chemistry going before he gets on the court.”

    With the addition of Legion, Weber will have to rework his rotation. Legion will likely take minutes away from Trent Meacham, Chester Frazier, Demetri McCamey and Calvin Brock, something Weber said may help keep the guards’ legs fresh. But with the offensive-minded Legion in the lineup, Weber wants to see his guards improve on defense.

    “Alex brings the scoring but who’s going to guard and who’s going to pressure? I challenged those guys about two months ago – when Alex comes back I want to lessen Chester’s minutes,” Weber said. “But unless somebody decides they’re going to guard, it’s going to be tough to keep Chester off the court.”

    Weber said Legion will be a “major part” of the Illinois program during the next two-and-a-half years and has earned the reputation as a gym rat from coaches and teammates.