Tag Archive | Illini

Just take me back

I breathe in deep and the cold, 65-degree air begins to fill my lungs. On a good day, my nose and cheeks turn a rosy red. On a bad day, they would have either remained peachy or started to look like beets.

Then I exhale and the can hear the wind rushing out of my mouth.

There’s a constant rustle in the background. It is not an inconvenience at all, but rather a welcome sight.

This. This is what I live for.

I am not there, but for a brief moment, I am. Read More…

News: John Groce hired as new Illinois men’s basketball coach

 

John Groce said he was working four different jobs when he graduated from Taylor University in 1994.

On Thursday, he got the one of his dreams.

On a risen platform in the middle of the Assembly Hall, Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas introduced Ohio University’s Groce as the next head basketball coach for the Illini.

“I can’t explain to you what the last few days have been like, the chance to be standing up just before you,” Groce said.

“I’m a fit guy,” Groce said. “It was important for me that our family felt like we could plug into a community, be a vibrant part of the community.”

A contract worth $1.4 million per year over five years was reportedly agreed to late Wednesday night.

The coaching staff is still being arranged, but Groce said that some of his assistants from Ohio will likely join him at Illinois. At the time of his introductory press conference, Groce said he had not spoken to Jerrance Howard, who was serving as the Illini’s interim head coach.

“I know he’s a tremendous recruiter and coach and a really good person,” Groce said after the press conference. “I’ve always had great respect for him and his recruiting.”

He added he will try to assemble his staff as quickly as he can but wants to make sure the “right people are on the bus.”

Groce compared his style of play to that of an aggressive boxer. He said the goal is to “knock someone out in each of the 10 four-minute rounds, then come up for air at the end of the media timeout and swing again.” Offensively, Groce said he likes a fast pace, but having depth is key.

“The great thing about this team is that we’re athletic, we have depth, and we can get out there and attack like (Groce) said,” said junior forward Tyler Griffey, who attended the conference. “It should be fun.”

In his four seasons with Ohio, Groce’s teams went a combined 85-56, with a 34-30 record in the Mid-American. His best season came this past year when the Bobcats went 29-8, including winning the MAC Tournament and advancing to the Sweet 16 after victories over Michigan and South Florida.

Groce led Ohio to one other appearance in the NCAA tournament in the 2009-10 season after winning the conference tournament. His team pulled off another upset when No. 14-seeded Ohio topped No. 3-seeded Georgetown in the first round 97-83.

Though his teams have fared well in the postseason, the regular season has been more of a challenge. His best conference finish is third, which came this past season. He finished fifth in 2010-11 and ninth each of the previous two seasons before that.

Before landing at Ohio, Groce served as an assistant under Thad Matta at Ohio State. He was the lead recruiter and instrumental in bringing in Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook, all of whom played on the same AAU team.

In the one season with the three standout freshmen, the Buckeyes were national runner-up. Oden went on to become the No. 1 overall selection in the 2007 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers, while Conley was selected No. 4 by the Memphis Grizzlies, and Cook was taken No. 21 by the Miami Heat.

Groce also coached Evan Turner — a native of Chicago — for one season with the Buckeyes. Ohio State went on to win the National Invitational Tournament that year. Turner swept National Player of the Year awards two years later and was selected as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers.

Effective recruiting in Chicago will be a key focus for the coaching staff in the future, but Groce said the most important aspect was finding “Illinois guys” — players who fit into the culture he hopes to establish — wherever they may be.

Groce has had success with Chicago recruits before, including Turner and D.J. Cooper, who led the Bobcats in scoring this season.

“We have a lot of previously established relationships there, maybe more than what people think,” Groce said. “But I’m looking forward to getting to know (Chicago-area coaches) better than we do now.”

The Illini’s head coaching position opened when Thomas fired Bruce Weber on March 9 with three years and $3.9 million left on his contract. Weber went 210-101 in his nine seasons at Illinois, with an 89-65 mark in Big Ten play.

Illinois originally pursued Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart, but he declined what was believed to be an eight-year deal at more than $2.5 million annually. The 34-year-old elected to return to the Rams for his fourth season.

Thomas also reportedly sought out Butler’s Brad Stevens to fill the vacancy, but Stevens announced Sunday he would remain at Butler.

During his portion of the press conference, Thomas did not speak about either coach but said “the process played out according to plan, and I feel good about the end result.”

Various media reports expected Thomas to hire Groce on Tuesday. When there was a delay, skeptics believed the Board of Trustees may have been involved, but Thomas clarified Thursday it was not the case.

“To say there was a flaw or hiccup in the process because others thought a decision or a press conference was supposed to happen two days ago, that’s not true,” Thomas said.

Thomas said plans to renovate the Assembly Hall are underway and that he hopes to sell the project around summer.

He added that there are also plans to upgrade the Ubben Basketball Complex sometime in the future.

As for the current team, junior guard D.J. Richardson said he believes it will remain intact as is.

“I think everyone’s staying right now,” Richardson said. “Everyone seems pretty humble and having a good work ethic.”

Richardson added he hopes Howard will remain on the coaching staff.

“I love coach Howard; he’s been there since I’ve been a freshman in high school.”

Groce studied mathematics at Taylor University. He also spent time as an assistant coach at Taylor, North Carolina State, Butler and Xavier. He and his wife, Allison, have two sons, who are all eager for the transition.

“We really felt like this was a great community, not only to grow a basketball program but also a family,” Groce said.

Photo and story via The Daily Illini

Game Recap: Paul has historic night in Illini upset over Buckeyes

Before Tuesday’s matchup with Ohio State, Illinois head coach Bruce Weber sent Brandon Paul a text simply saying it was his night to shine. Paul later proved his coach right.

Paul scored a career-high 43 points, including Illinois’ final 15 points, in a 79-74 upset of No. 5 Ohio State at the Assembly Hall.

The win marked the first time in three years Illinois defeated the Buckeyes at home.

“It was a ‘Tebow’ moment for Brandon, there’s no doubt about that,” Weber said, referring to Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow’s game-winning overtime pass in the NFL playoffs. “It was a special game and just like the overtime touchdown pass, Brandon had the couple big shots down the stretch, which broke their back and gave us a huge chance for a huge win.”

With the score tied at 66 and two minutes remaining, Paul hit a 3-pointer to give the Illini (15-3, 4-1) the lead.

At the other end of the floor, sophomore All-American Jared Sullinger hit a shot and was fouled, but missed the free throw.

Paul then hit pair of free throws, but DeShaun Thomas responded with a layup to bring the Buckeyes within one.

But as was common on the night, Illinois would go back to Paul for a big shot, and he delivered his eighth 3-pointer of the game to give Illinois the 74-70 lead with 43 seconds remaining.

“I was laughing a couple of times,” Paul said. “But, you know, after the first few threes, like four, I was just like, ‘I’m gonna keep shooting.'”

Paul then showed off his defensive abilities as well, getting a late block to help preserve Illinois’ lead.

“He’s been our leader by far in (defense),” Weber said. “He’s dominated there, so he does a lot of good things for us in a lot of ways.”

Sullinger would not be denied, however. With 26 seconds left, he cut Illinois’ lead to two. Ohio State then fouled Paul when he crossed half court. He sank both free throws to all but seal the victory.

With little hope remaining for the Buckeyes, freshman Tracy Abrams forced a turnover and Paul was fouled again.

After Paul hit both free throws, Aaron Craft made a layup for Ohio State, which led to the Buckeyes fouling on the inbounds. Paul, who was 13-for-15 on the night from the charity stripe, then netted his final point of the game.

In the end, Paul was responsible for more than half of his team’s points and had a game-high eight rebounds.

Paul’s 43 points are the most by an Illini in 21 years and third highest in history. Dave Downey scored 53 points against Indiana in 1963 and Andy Kaufman had 46 against Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1990.

Paul is also the first Big Ten player to score more than 40 points in a game since 1994, when Glenn Robinson scored 49 points for Purdue while Weber was an assistant coach for the Boilermakers.

Thomas had a team-high 23 points for the Buckeyes, and Sullinger added 21 on 9-of-16 shooting.

Entering the game, the main matchup seemed likely to be between Sullinger and Illini sophomore Meyers Leonard, who held his own Tuesday, scoring 14 points on 7-of-12 shooting.

“Both of us are some of the better bigs in the country,” Leonard said. “I thought I was right there with him … He had 21, and I’m not downgrading his game whatsoever, but I thought I did a pretty nice job.”

With the win, Illinois moves just a half game back of Big Ten-leading Michigan State. Ohio State (15-3, 3-2), meanwhile, fell to sixth in the conference after being picked to win it at the beginning of the season by the coaches.

Photo and story via The Daily Illini

Feature: Kalmanovich returns to tennis with new mentality

Roy Kalmanovich never thought an injury that would keep him away from tennis for nearly a year would be the healthiest thing for him.

In roughly the last 15 months, the junior on the Illinois men’s tennis team has not only dealt with the physical toll of recovering from a devastating injury, but he also had to re-evaluate why he even loved the sport.

It all started after his sophomore year, which ended in the spring of 2009. Kalmanovich was coming off a very successful campaign in most people’s eyes that included 30 wins. Despite finishing the season ranked No. 45 nationally and getting as high as No. 23 in the rankings, he was unhappy. At that point, Kalmanovich made the decision to walk away from college tennis.

“I felt like I wasn’t helping the team enough and I didn’t really want to be here at the same time,” Kalmanovich said. “It didn’t make sense for me to stay and it was nothing personal against anyone.”

Kalmanovich decided the only option for him was to begin competing on the professional circuit, though he never took money, which would remove his amateur status. Transferring was not an option because he still loved the school and said he was dealing with issues that were interfering with tennis and school. He believed the only options he had were to play tennis or go to school, not do both.

But there was another problem already brewing for Kalmanovich: his knees were starting to give out on him. He knew he was not completely healthy but believed it wasn’t serious, so he kept playing.

During practice, Kalmanovich remembers his knees would just fail, and after tournaments it was hard to even stand. Just walking to his car at times would be a chore after playing.

As he continued to play, the knees continued to get worse as he developed severe patellar tendonitis and chronic swelling. By August of 2009, Kalmanovich had to take months off at a time, and by late winter in 2010, he decided to put tennis on hold because of the injury’s severity.

“I honestly didn’t think I was ever going to play again,” Kalmanovich said. “Doctors were telling me it was not going to go away, it will always be there.”

Several options were considered, the most notable of which is platelet-rich plasma therapy, where blood plasma highly concentrated with platelets is injected at the spot of the injury and heals bone and tissue. The procedure has worked on such professional tennis players as James Blake and Rafael Nadal, the No. 1 player in the world. But Kalmanovich felt that given the condition of his knees, it would be better to simply take time off.

Looking back, Kalmanovich says the injury that made him stop playing the game he had played since age 6 was the best thing that could have happened to him.

“Ironically, it was almost a bit of a relief,” he said. ”At that point in time I was so curious what it would feel like to have a normal life that I was almost a little bit excited to take some time off.”

He started to open up his mind — he began to grow mentally by meditating and reading many philosophical works.

“Everything became a lot easier to accept,” Kalmanovich said. “You start realizing, ‘Why would I be upset, it’s just a game.’ In that moment I started to realize why I probably wasn’t as successful as I could have been because competing your whole life kind of skews your thought process to an egotistical, competitive mode to where you’re so stuck in one paradigm, you can’t get out of it.”

Among other things, Kalmanovich started to read ideas published by Albert Einstein, books by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Quinn and many other pieces. His absence from playing the game allowed him to study such works for the first time.

Though he couldn’t play it, tennis still remained part of him. He said he also began to work by teaching people how to play at his local club. There Kalmanovich started to realize problems within his own game that he had never even realized because he never had the opportunity to “view tennis from that angle.”

“When I was here before, my serve was a major weakness,” Kalmanovich said. “When I stopped, I magically one day understood my serve and now I’m serving pretty well. And it’s the same thing with my backhand. It was very therapeutic to do that.”

At this time, Kalmanovich also learned that he had to make changes to his lifestyle to make his body strong from a physical standpoint. He altered his diet by cutting out red meat and dairy and substituted fruits, vegetables and chicken in their place.

Resting his body also allowed his body to recover from any other problems it could have been dealing with.

“During that time I got so much healthier that now my physical performance is at such a higher level than what it was at before,” Kalmanovich said. “Looking back, I feel a bit stupid for eating the way I did and not paying as much attention to my body.”

The knees got better over time despite the long odds. Being a native of the northeast, Framingham Mass., to be exact, Kalmanovich skied, which actually helped strengthen his patellar tendons through flexing his quadriceps.

Then in January, about a week before the semester started, Illinois head coach Brad Dancer gave him a call.

With the dual season about to begin, the Illinois lineup was shuffled at each spot besides the No. 1 singles position, a spot that has been filled by Dennis Nevolo all season when he’s been healthy. Having kept in touch with Kalmanovich regularly and seeing him grow, Dancer decided to invite him back on the team.

“Roy’s a very good person, he’s got a big heart, a strong empathetic side and everyone’s always recognized that,” Dancer said. “He’s matured in some ways, he had to go through some growth phases, he’s done that … You’ve seen this maturation process occur for him, and it’s been exciting, it has nothing to do with tennis. He’s in that process now, he continues to go through it and that’s a big part of what our program is about, it’s not just about forehands and backhands, it’s about trying to get young guys to make good decisions and keep growing in their lives.”

Kalmanovich had thoughts about getting back in shape to play again professionally, but instead he agreed to play for the program he once felt he couldn’t help.

“I didn’t leave on a note I would have liked to leave on,” Kalmanovich said. “I felt like it was an opportunity for me to improve myself because of something I didn’t do well enough when I was here before … I thought that me coming back to a structured place, I would regain my game quicker, get some school done.”

After he was cleared and named eligible to play, Kalmanovich returned to campus. Every moment of tennis was then spent trying to get back in shape, after having done basically nothing besides light hitting. A couple weeks later, after nearly a year away from the sport, Kalmanovich returned to collegiate tennis in a match against Denver in the ITA Kickoff Weekend.

Playing at the No. 5 singles position, Kalmanovich said ‘he felt he was nowhere near ready to play. Still, he was able to pick up a 6-2, 6-4 win over Fabio Biasion that night to start his comeback. The very next night against Notre Dame, he defeated Samuel Keeton in a come-from-behind 2-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory.

Since then, Kalmanovich has contributed throughout the Illini lineup by playing at the Nos. 2-5 singles positions and has accumulated a 13-7 record. He’s won four of his last five singles matches, all at the No. 2 spot. In doubles, an area he played sparingly his first two years, he’s most recently teamed up with Nevolo to jump out to a 4-3 record.

Today, Kalmanovich feels he is stronger both physically and mentally. He said he may not be hitting the ball as hard as he used to, but because he feels leaner, his movement is much better. Mentally, he feels like it is almost day and night from where he used to be.

“It almost seems like I’m a better tennis player now than I was before because before I was so close-minded about tennis,” Kalmanovich said. “I didn’t really almost want to hear what Brad had to say. I was just so focused on walking on the court and beating whoever I was playing. I feel like I was competing with the wrong energy before.

“I play with a lot more appreciation now and a lot healthier perspective of tennis.”

In the weekend against Penn State and Ohio State in late March, Kalmanovich feels he turned a corner.

Playing against Ohio State’s Blaz Rola, currently ranked No. 6, he said he could start feeling his game again and felt like a different player from the beginning of the season, despite eventually falling in a third-set tiebreaker.

On and off the court, Kalmanovich’s return has also been helpful for his teammates, as he is always looking to help them improve.

“He’s so grounded, he always has good intentions in mind and is always looking to help people, so it’s been a lot of fun having him around,” Nevolo said. “He pushes me a lot more, his style is difficult for me to play against in practice. He’s real tough to play against and it’s made me so much better.”

With two matches remaining before the Big Ten Championships, which is then followed by the NCAA Championships, Kalmanovich is continuing to elevate his game. Once this season is over, he will be left with just one year of eligibility.

Should he continue to play tennis, the threat of an injury, whether severe patellar tendonitis or something else, continues to be a possibility. But Kalmanovich wants to be positive. He feels the negative energy he carried before was an injury in itself.

So he’ll continue to meditate, continue to read and continue to play tennis until he can’t. Right now, he’s just happy to be playing college tennis.

“I’m really thankful to Brad for trusting me again,” Kalmanovich said. “I’m just really happy to be back and part of the program again.”

Story via The Daily Illini

Dennis Nevolo Profile Part 2

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part profile on senior men’s tennis standout Dennis Nevolo. You can find the full article online at DailyIllini.com.

No other sport is quite like tennis. There’s a feeling of isolation because there are only two people on the court. With the distance between the two players, there’s essentially no trash talking. No one else is to blame if a mistake is made. That’s the reason why staying strong mentally is so important.

Anybody who spends time around Illinois men’s tennis senior Dennis Nevolo knows that he can sometimes live in his own world, which to outsiders may seem like he’s not focusing. He knows he lives in it and accepts it, and so do his teammates and coaches. His teammates quickly picked up on it one day while in the weight room during his freshman year. Nevolo picked a weight up off the ground and put his hand up against a mirrored wall for balance. The strength trainer saw the handprint impression it left and handed Nevolo solution to clean it up. As he started wiping, he subconsciously put his other hand against the wall again, prompting an “Are you kidding me?” from the trainer.

Parking his car is a story in and of itself. Teammates used to post pictures to Facebook making fun of how poor his parking jobs can be.

“My parking job has improved tremendously over the years,” Nevolo joked. “After seeing some of the pictures, I made sure I parked the car correctly. It has improved, so don’t worry.”

Living in his own world has also been beneficial. His close friend Riley Hoff-Larocca said he went up to Nevolo after a match saying that his opponent reminded him of another tennis player.

“I told him: ‘Did you see his serve? He looks exactly the same,’” Hoff-Larocca said. Nevolo’s reply: “To be honest, I didn’t pay attention to anything he did in between points at all because he was trying to make it a mental battle. He was trying to rile me up, so I just blocked out everything he did.”

“There’s times where his air-headedness is kinda like, ‘What is going on?’” Hoff-Larocca said. “It also works to his advantage as far as making good decisions.”

***

Mental toughness is starting to come into play in this April 22 match against Purdue’s Mark Kovacs. Fatigue is setting in for both players, and mental mistakes can make the difference in the match. Nevolo has the first serve and wins the first game, but Kovacs responds to make it 1-1. The next game goes to 40-40 quickly, as neither player can convert once he gets the advantage. Nevolo keeps grinding. Kovacs keeps pounding. Nevolo eventually squeaks out a hard-fought win in the game, seemingly giving him the momentum. But Kovacs knows by now this match is far from over and that he can hang in with the higher-ranked player.

Kovacs responds by holding serve before both players do again. It’s another dogfight at 3-3, and Kovacs has nothing to lose. With the match drawing closer to an end, whoever wins the game puts himself in a great position to win the match. He will have all the momentum, as the two go into deuce after deuce after deuce. But the always-persistent Nevolo squeaks by and go up 4-3. He’s got Kovacs down on the scoreboard and overthinking the next game. The wind finally starts to behave as Nevolo breaks Kovacs’ serve. The score is suddenly 5-3. Kovacs know he’s beaten. Nevolo rolls in the final game to pick up the victory.

***

Matches like these have become common. Either Nevolo plays one of the seven players in the nation ranked higher than him or he plays somebody looking to knock him off and pull off a big upset. Nevolo finished second at the ITA National Indoors tournament in November, losing only to Virginia’s Mitchell Frank, who is currently ranked No. 1. He’s always expected to perform, and anything less than a win at times seems implausible for a team that depends on him so much. He’s dealt with the expectations by posting a 14-5 record in the dual season.

“I know he feels a lot of pressure all the time,” Illinois head coach Dancer said. “His teammates certainly expect him to be a win every time and that’s not easy. … He’s having to take everybody’s best shot every time out on the court and his record he’s had this year, is indicative of what a great player he is and what a great leader he’s been for us.”

But he’s used to it by now. He played in the top three singles spots as a freshman, and over the last three seasons he’s played almost exclusively at the No. 1 spot. The hard work has helped him earn 112-52 singles record — good for the sixth-most wins in school history and a .683 winning percentage.

“You never wanna label or put too much pressure on a guy, but he’s been the program,” Dancer said. “He’s been the face of the program for four years in a row. He’s one of the few guys on any national team that’s come in and played No. 1 or 2 all the way throughout. It’s such a difficult transition to do that.”

Though without a national or conference title, Nevolo has no regrets about his time at Illinois and said, “It’s the journey that brings the happiness, not the destination.” He admitted that he wished the program had more stability at times, but he is confident it is heading in the right direction. The next two seasons the team will boast solid recruiting classes largely composed of players from the Midwest, highlighted next season by Jared Hiltzik, who is currently ranked No. 4 by tennisrecruiting.net.

“It’s an unbelievable program, and I’m glad to be a part of it,” Nevolo said. “As the culture keeps building now, it’s gonna be really exciting over these next few years.”

Nevolo will try competing on the professional level next year, though there’s still Big Tens and the NCAA tournament on the horizon. He’s played in multiple Challengers — tournaments used to gain ATP points — in the past and is currently ranked 1,858th in the world. He hasn’t won a match since last October, but he hasn’t played poorly by any means either. In his most recent match, a clay court decision against No. 434 Petru-Alexandru Luncanu, Nevolo had to retire in the third set after splitting the first two.

The potential Nevolo has is as good as any former Illini despite standing a modest 5-foot-10 — small compared to many professionals. What will ultimately determine his success on the next level is his serve. All the top players in the world use it — not only to pick up easy points but to still put themselves in a spot to win a point if they don’t pick up a quick ace.

“His serve — it’s not a liability — it’s just not as much of a weapon as it needs to be for him to win at the next level,” Dancer said. “From a footwork and balance and speed and racket play and everything else, he can do that. He needs more experience, his serve is gonna have to get better, and he’s gonna have to know his game really well.”

If anybody knows what it takes to transition to the professional circuit, it’s Kevin Anderson. The former Illini is ranked No. 32 in the world and used to play practice sets with Nevolo when he first enrolled at the University.

“It would always be really close,” Anderson said. Upon seeing him play during an April 1 visit, Anderson believes Nevolo just needs to learn how he wants to use his serve.

“I hit with him almost once a year for the last few years, and I’ve seen big improvements with (his serve) each time,” Anderson said. “It’s more sort of tweaking here and there, finding better placement, better consistency, finding out how you want to use a serve. … He’s not gonna have a massive serve just because of his height and stuff, but he can definitely have an effective serve, especially if he continues to learn how to use it.”

Placing expectations on a young tennis player is unfair to say the least. They’re like horses competing for the Triple Crown: The favorites usually do well, but sometimes flop; and at other times, one will come out of nowhere and steal the spotlight. Anderson falls in the latter category, while former Illini Amer Delic falls into the other. Delic, who won the 2003 NCAA Singles Championship, dealt with injury setbacks after reaching a ranking as high as No. 60 in the world. It will largely be up to Nevolo to determine his fate, as he must continue to grow both physically and mentally.

“If he stays on that path, we can be watching him in the U.S. Open,” Dancer said. “You have to play so hard every point in professional tennis, so you have to get used to playing that physically hard and then not panicking.”

***

After the match is over, Dancer, who had been watching and coaching Nevolo for most of the match, goes and congratulates and encourages him. By all means this was a hard-fought match, as the Illini end up defeating the Boilermakers 5-2 overall. Nevolo credits Kovacs for his valiant effort afterward, saying they each played well at certain points despite the heavy winds. The difference came down to Nevolo being more aggressive in the tiebreaker and the end.

“I just kinda remembered at All-Americans it was really windy,” Nevolo said. “My focus was just spin the serve as hard as you can. … Once I kinda simplified my game, I got a lot more calm.”

In the end, Nevolo let the home fans see him win for possibly the final time.

“So many memories go through your mind while you’re playing,” Nevolo said. “I was happy I was able to buckle down and keep things simple in the end.”

“I’ll definitely be back,” he added.

But there’s still work to be done, starting with the Big Ten Tournament in a week, followed by the NCAA tournament. It won’t be easy, but Nevolo wouldn’t have it any other way.

Story and media via The Daily Illini

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