Basketball team mixes up killer recipe for success

There’s one overriding observation I took from Illini Media Day on Tuesday at the Ubben practice facility: this men’s basketball team shows signs of successfully mixing oil and water.

*A team of ‘goofballs’*

The first component, camaraderie, appears to be at an all-time high. The vibe on the team is both playful and electric — and that is clearly a top-down phenomenon on a team in which no one attitude brings down the rest. Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson have established themselves as the most vocal members off the court, and Tuesday they were at their silliest, doing push-ups (Paul impressed with the one-handed variety) in front of the rows of teammates behind them about to take the yearly team photo.

“We got a team full of goofballs,” Richardson said. “We all just hang out together and that all comes from that, you know, we do more team events (than in previous years).”

Among Richardson’s top goofball list: freshman Devin Langford, Crandall Head and Joe Bertrand, who Richardson said might be the funniest on the team despite his stoic demeanor in public.

*Gritty, hard-nosed effort*

The other component, a hard-nosed mentality on the court, was also among the most discussed topics among head coach Bruce Weber and players alike.

“We have three, four guys diving for loose balls,” Weber said. “If it was the NFL, there would be penalty flags all over because they lead with their head. That’s a good thing.”

The team’s rededication (or dedication, given the mass influx of new faces) to defense has Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco talking about the offensive possibilities in the up-tempo offensive scheme Weber implemented this summer.

“If our defense can create some of our offense for us, that’s what we really want to do,” Maniscalco said.

Despite his 6-foot frame, Maniscalco is a powerful 180 pounds and will help immensely in the team’s help defense. Whether rotating over on the wing or even in the post against players a foot greater in size, the St. Patrick High School (Chicago) alumnus will make his presence known in a way the guard position hasn’t seen in years.

*Alabama roots*

Devin Langford spoke candidly about his Alabama roots. The Huntsville native took a trip home July 4 and couldn’t wait to get back to campus — all after Weber feared he would want to remain in his native territory. In addition to being one of only two members of the six-man incoming freshman class to hail from outside of Illinois, Langford was forced to report to campus two weeks late after he wasn’t cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse.

Nevertheless, Langford felt a connection to his new Champaign niche and has already showed signs of wowing teammates with his most stand-out skill: passing.

Though Weber is unsure if he fits in at the two, three, or four, Langford will surely be worked into the rotation thanks to his uncanny knack for the pass as a 6-foot-7 threat.

Abrams said of Langford: “I think Devin is a terrific passer, one of the best passers I’ve seen in a long time.”

Langford said he developed the skill while growing up as a point guard pre-growth spurt. Once he started shooting up in height as a seventh and eighth grader, the Auburn and Georgia recruit continued to develop under the tutelage of his dad, James Langford.

On his recruiting process, Langford added that it was coach Jerrance Howard who had the largest impact on his commitment.

“I built a relationship with him, kind of got to know him a little bit,” Langford said.

From the left field department, Langford — who hails 156 miles from arguably the current capital of college football, Tuscaloosa, Ala. — was asked if he had been following the streaking Alabama Crimson Tide football team. Langford said he had been to games growing up but that he did not consider himself a fan.

*“I’m a point guard”*

Message boards may say differently, but Tracy Abrams believes he is a point guard and not the two-guard some have been steering him toward, albeit from afar.

“(I) can’t really consider myself nothing else … than a point guard,” the energy specialist said.

Abrams said he worked on ball-handling more this summer than previous years in preparation for the pressure he will face in addition to watching film and becoming more of a polished floor general.

In football news, 2012 Illinois football commit Vontrell Williams and Abrams shared a class at Chicago’s Mount Carmel High School.

“He’s a pretty cool kid. I’m pretty cool with him,” Abrams said with a smile.

Williams is a fast-rising defensive tackle who has put on 20-plus pounds since his junior year of high school. Williams, at 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, is rated as a three-star prospect by both and He was in attendance at Memorial Stadium for the prime-time win over Arizona State on Sept. 17, along with nationally desired offensive lineman Jordan Diamond from Chicago’s Simeon High School.

*Egwu’s workout plan*

Already as a freshman, 6-foot-11 Nnanna Egwu is one of the most physical players on the Illinois roster. At 245 pounds, he doesn’t pack the brute force of a Jared Sullinger, but he continues to reach his goal of getting stronger for the physical Big Ten brand of play. In August’s pre-Alumni Game scrimmage, Egwu was oftentimes the most productive player on the floor on both ends and was not afraid to use his chest in the post.

Egwu played around 225 pounds in high school and had a goal of his current 245 mark set by the staff and him — which has helped as he continues to battle with Meyers Leonard in practice. Egwu credited Leonard for helping sharpen his game.

Weber said in his press conference Tuesday that Egwu is perhaps the most analytical member of the team and has been frustrated at times by the inexact science that is the Illinois system of read and react.

_Gordon is a senior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GordonVoit._