Illini’s Griffey carving niche on and off the court : Stltoday

CHAMPAIGN, Ill.?•?As of 9 a.m. on Wednesday morning, Tyler Griffey had completed the most significant mission of his four years at Illinois.

He still has basketball games to play and classes to attend. There are more books to consume, as there are always more books to consume. His graduation won’t take place until the spring.

But Griffey’s No. 1 reason for attending college had reached a conclusion, and there was a hint of sadness as he revealed that he had just left the final class – “Bioenergetics of human movement” — for his major in kinesiology.

Basketball might take the Illini forward somewhere to make a few bucks, and he plans to explore the possibilities. But since his first visit with a personal trainer as a freshman at Lafayette High, the science of human movement has consumed Griffey with an intensity rivaling his favorite sport.

“I would go work out every day and could always see myself doing something like that,” he said. “When it came to choosing a major, that’s what I wanted to do. I do a lot of talking with our strength coaches and ask why we’re doing something. When I went to my trainer, he’d always have to tell me why because he knew I’d ask.”

Like all seniors, Griffey is beginning to experience the finality of various elements of college life. The classroom is the gateway to his career, so he is not hell bent on making basketball pay the bills.

Talent on the court already has provided Griffey with world travels and the ability to boast of making baskets in 36 states, 11 countries and three continents. He has become a starter and major contributor for the country’s No. 10-ranked Illini.

But while he will entertain the possibilities of playing basketball overseas, there will be limits to his pursuit of that livelihood. His studies will play a larger role.

“I’m getting a degree for that,” he said. “It’s in my best interest to pursue (basketball), but I’m not going to force anything. If it’s not there I’d be OK with it.”

With that in mind, Griffey can go about enjoying his final months of college basketball. He finally is carving a niche at Illinois after three seasons that saw his playing time often fluctuate wildly — 25 minutes one game, five the next.

Under first-year coach John Groce, the 6-foot-9 forward is playing 24 minutes per game after averaging barely 10 in his first 88 games at the school. Averaging 9.3 points and 3.4 rebounds, Griffey is now a focal point to the extent that he was called upon to take the win-or-lose 3-pointer in the closing seconds against Gardner-Webb two weeks ago, sinking the shot for a one-point win.

A career 31-percent shooter beyond the 3-point arc, Griffey has hit 44 percent through 11 games (17 for 39) even after a mini-slump in the last week. His barrage of 3s against Butler helped boost Illinois to the championship of the Maui Classic.

Griffey confesses to having greater confidence this year, a commodity that Groce has cultivated through relationship building.

“He and I like to small talk a lot,” Groce said. “He’s a bright kid. He’s smart and has a good sense of humor. He and I have a really good relationship. I’ve got a pretty good feel for him and he’s getting more of a feel for me. I think that comfort level has helped him with familiarity and confidence while he’s on the court. My old high school coach said you earn the right to be confident, and Tyler’s earned that right.”

Mass amounts of encouragement have helped as well.

During a stretch of preseason practice when Griffey wasn’t playing well, assistant coach Dustin Ford repeatedly insisted that he needed to try to make plays. Griffey responded by attacking the basket more frequently and has made that a weapon this season.

When he started the Butler game by missing his first 3-pointer, Griffey was pulled and told not to hesitate on his shots when he re-entered. Or else.

“Coach Ford took me and said, ‘You’re going right back in and if you hesitate, you’re going to sit next to me the rest of the half,’ ” Griffey said. “I was four for four and we won the game.”

Those moments are part of the payoff for a childhood dedicated to basketball.

Griffey developed his game with a huge assist from his father. Chris Griffey would drive his son around St. Louis on weekends as early as fourth grade to play in as many games as possible.

By that point, Griffey had decided basketball was the only sport that mattered, so baseball and soccer were left behind. He joined as many teams as possible. Father and son hit the road with Tyler’s various uniforms at the ready.

“My dad would take me all around the city,” he said. “There would be times I’d have five games on Saturday and then three the following day. We’d go everywhere and I’d be asking teams to let me play. I always wanted to be in the gym. I owe a lot to my dad.”

The family moved from North County to Wildwood and Griffey went on to become Lafayette’s all-time leading scorer. And it was during this time that he became a regular at Fitzmaurice Performance, working under the guidance of Brian Fitzmaurice.

Griffey spent eight hours or more each week training at the center and probing Fitzmaurice for information. When Griffey informed his personal trainer that he was interested in studying kinesiology, he was advised to check out Illinois.

And he was informed of the challenge.

“People don’t realize how much math is involved,” Fitzmaurice said. “They think you’re a meathead, but you have to have some intellect with sciences, chemistry, math, and a lot of kids have trouble getting through it. If you’re a dumb jock, you’re not going to be studying this.”

Groce calls Griffey a Renaissance man. Former coach Bruce Weber used to say he had a “’70s kind of mindset.” Griffey is an avid reader and is now immersed in the works of Malcolm Gladwell. He has dabbled in writing.

When reading, Griffey records interesting quotes on his phone and has compiled a list from about 40 books. Groce borrowed a couple and plans to use them eventually as part of the daily quotes he provides the Illini.

With his kinesiology studies complete, Griffey is focusing on basketball and will complete a minor in leadership during the spring semester.

Fitzmaurice said he has talked to Griffey about a future business venture. Griffey is keeping all options open but figures he’ll leave college equipped.

“I have no idea what I’ll do. I have to figure that out,” he said. “But I’m not scared or nervous. The possibilities excite me a little, not knowing what I’ll be doing or where I’ll be.”

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