- Scott Powers, Reporter
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It's 1 a.m. on a cold evening in January and Illinois freshman forward Tyler Griffey enters the Illini's practice facility. The gym is empty. He grabs a basketball, sets up a few chairs on the court and aligns the shooting machine.
The first few months of his college basketball career have been trying. For most of December and the early weeks of January, he's seen little time off the bench. Illinois coach Bruce Weber and the assistants tell him to keep working and his time will come. His friends, family and teammates stay positive as well.
Griffey is glad to have people around him who care, but this is his time. At the moment, there's no around telling him what drills to do. There isn't anyone standing at his side encouraging him. He has come to the gym at this hour because he finds it's sometimes best to work alone.
As he puts up 1,000 shots at a variety of spots around the floor while setting them up with a variety of moves, little is going through Griffey's mind. His thoughts are simple, but it's all he needs.
"I was keeping positive and staying motivated, working on my game and preparing for an opportunity," Griffey said. "I didn't know when I was going to get one."
On Jan. 16 at Michigan State, that opportunity arrived.
"I wasn't nervous," Griffey said. "I've played thousands of basketball games. I treat every game the same."
That confidence showed. Coming off the bench, he sank his first shot, a jumper with 10:04 left in the first half. He tipped in his second attempt for a basket a few minutes later. After a miss, he drained a 3-pointer at 6:24. When it was over, he had played 15 minutes (he totaled 24 minutes in his previous six games) made five of eight shots, hit two 3-pointers, scored a career-high 12 points and grabbed seven rebounds.
Griffey was pleased with himself. More importantly, Weber was pleased with him, too. Two games later, Griffey started his first collegiate game. He has since started three more and played 10 minutes or more in his past six games.
ILLINOIS (17-9) vs. PURDUE (22-3)
When 3 p.m.
Where at Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Ind.
What you need to know: Illinois' brutal stretch of the Big Ten continues. After defeating Michigan State and Wisconsin and now coming off a home loss to Ohio State, the Illini get to face Purdue, another top-tier team. The Boilermakers are riding an eight-game winning streak and are a half-game back of the Spartans for first place in the conference. The Illini need to get off to a better start than they did against Ohio State. The Buckeyes jumped on them early, and Illinois struggled the rest of the way. Illinois will also be looking for someone other than Demetri McCamey to create some scoring chances.
Scott Powers' prediction: Purdue 72, Illinois 67
With each minute Griffey has gained, teammate Demetri McCamey has witnessed a change.
"He's just playing with more confidence," McCamey said. "After more games, the better you get. That's what happens with freshmen."
Weber wasn't surprised at Griffey's production. He recruited Griffey for a reason.
"He's always shot well, but we never got him enough minutes," Weber said. "When you don't get minutes, you're not in a flow. He still has a way to go, but he's made some big strides. The one thing on offense is he's smart, he's got good hands and he's always been able to make good shots."
Weber would especially like to see Griffey to be more physical. At 6-foot-9 and 225 pounds, Griffey has the body to be a difference-maker inside. He showed early in the season against Presbyterian what sort of rebounder he could be when he grabbed nine boards in 15 minutes, and he recently had five rebounds, including two offensive, against Wisconsin.
"I'm not sure he loves it, but he's starting to understand it," Weber said.
Griffey has come off the bench in the past two games, and he's not sure if he'll be in for the opening tip against Purdue on Saturday. But he plans on approaching Saturday as he would any other game.
Whether he plays 20 minutes or none at all, Griffey plans on being in the gym -- sometimes at 1 a.m., often alone -- working to improve.
"I'm going to work hard, no matter what," he said. "I'm just trying to get this team better, and get me better too."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
Illini freshman Tyler Griffey is continuing to earn more minutes.