Illinois wheelchair basketball in midst of offseason grind

By Thomas Polcyn

Illinois’ men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams are putting in preseason work to prime themselves for another successful campaign.

Monday through Wednesday they’re in the ARC practicing during the early morning hours. After those practice sessions, many of the players stick around to get some scrimmages going without their coaches supervision. The coaches only stay for an hour during preseason practices.

On Wednesday the Illini had a very special guest come see them. United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stopped by and watched some of the scrimmage.

Thursdays provide a little bit of change, as the teams will head to Memorial Stadium for some vigorous training sessions — in past seasons, the team’s Memorial Stadium workouts have included sprints up the ramps of the stadium’s towers.

Once the regular season begins, their schedule changes. Instead of hour-long practices with an additional scrimmage at the end, the team transitions to earlier sessions.

The men’s regular season begins Oct. 22, when the team competes in Southwest Minnesota State’s college tournament. The women’s team begins its season Oct. 29 at the Wheelchair Basketball Academy Tournament in Toronto.

For the majority of the season both teams will play tournaments on the road. There is one big exception, though: over Valentine’s Day weekend, the Illini will host their annual tournament at the ARC.

Head coach Matt Buchi leads the men’s team, and head coach Stephanie Wheeler leads the women’s team. Kate Rougeau serves as the assistant coach to both.

One problem that Buchi and Wheeler don’t have to deal with is a lack of experience.

“There are nine returning players on each team,” Buchi said. “There are no freshmen on the team this year, but there is a large recruiting list for our next season.”

The teams play a fast game; utilizing quick passes to create the open shots for each other. In addition to their speed, they have plenty of respectable shooters — Martinez Johnson, Derek Hoot and Mak Nong — that should create offense for the Illini all season.

[email protected]

@TPolc