Asmussen: Former Fisher great, current Illini Griffith acing different kind of test

CHAMPAIGN — Zach Griffith's two-game playing streak ended Wednesday night against Wisconsin. But he was still plenty active for the Illinois basketball team.

He jumped off his seat and participated in huddles. He encouraged his teammates when they struggled. He kept his head in the game.

That's the role for the walk-on from Fisher, who joined the roster this season after spending 2017-18 as a manager.

"There's a lot of ups and downs in games," Griffith said after the Illini lost 72-60 to the Badgers. "You're always going to have runs. The other team's going to have runs. You bring that energy and make sure guys aren't getting too high or too low. Whatever I can do."

He is the Illinois basketball version of "Rudy." Except, Griffith is a better student.

His first three semesters of college have been all As. Same thing at Fisher.

"I'm a competitive person," Griffith said. "I want to get the best grade in the class. I want to get the best grade in my section."

The kinesiology major takes his schoolwork seriously.

"I've worked hard," Griffith said. "I've been more focused. You have to be smart with what you're focusing on. If I'm not at practice, I'm at the library, getting my reading done, getting my homework done as much as possible."

Basketball has been a longtime passion for Griffith, who left the Bunnies with 1,308 career points.

He had interest from Division III basketball programs but decided to go to school in Champaign.

Griffith wanted to stay involved with the game. He was fine with the idea of being a student/manager.

Griffith figured his playing career ended when he enrolled at Illinois.

Not so fast. He kept his game sharp while serving as manager.

When he got the chance to join the team, Griffith was ready.

Griffith has logged 13 combined minutes in four games. His most playing time came in the opener against Evansville (4:40). He got in for 2:26 against Mississippi Valley State.

Griffith sat out 10 consecutive games before going back in against Minnesota for 2:34, his first Big Ten action. He played 3:05 on Sunday at Iowa.

When he plays, the 6-foot-6, 210-pound Griffith doesn't fire up shot after shot. In his four games, he has just three attempts.

No points ... so far.

"I know it's coming," Griffith said. "I'm not trying to force shots or anything."

What does he want for the first basket: A rainbow three? A monster dunk?

"Any basket really," Griffith said. "Our guards are great. They'll find me on a lot of rolls."

Griffith admits he felt some butterflies when he first went on the court during the exhibition game in early November against Illinois Wesleyan. He played one minute, missing his only shot.

"We were up quite a bit," Griffith said. "Running out there was crazier than I expected."

It's a team thing

Griffith isn't worried about personal glory. What he wants more than anything are wins.

"Obviously, this year isn't going as planned with wins and losses," Griffith said of the 5-14 Illini, who are 1-7 in Big Ten play. "But it's been an absolute dream come true for me from the first practice, working out with the guys."

He grew up a huge Illinois fan, going to games during the memorable 2004-05 season. His grandpa, Bill Schlueter, is a season-ticket holder.

"It's still surreal to me when I run out on the court and look out and 10, 15,000 people are here," Griffith said. "I used to be one of those kids dreaming I could be out here. It's a great experience for me. I try to do everything in my power to help us win games."

Players gets four tickets to the games. His mom, Kim, and stepdad, John, have been to every game. His dad, Steve, and brother, Nick, usually are there, too.

"My mom's usually pretty loud cheering and stuff," Griffith said.

For the Wisconsin game, two of his high school teammates and two buddies got the tickets, sitting close to the court.

And he knows others in the stands, too. Most games, he will see 10-15 people he recognizes.

He realizes it is a rare opportunity.

"I understand a ton of people wish they could be in my shoes, especially from central Illinois, playing for the Illinois basketball team," Griffith said. "That makes me not take it for granted even more. It makes me work even harder.

"I'm going to do everything I can to make the most out of it."

Griffith takes the Illinois losses hard. Just like he did as a kid.

"You can ask my mom. If we lost, you didn't want to talk to me the rest of the day," Griffith said. "I was mad, yelling at the TV."

Just one of the guys

Griffith sees improvement in his game. He credits the Illinois coaches, players and staff.

"The education aspect of it has been unbelievable," he said. "And then obviously my body has been changing with the great strength and conditioning coaches that we have. I've added a lot of muscle, and I'm on a program to continue to do that. All the resources we have here are unbelievable."

He is listed as a sophomore, meaning he has plenty of time left on the court.

Walk-on, scholarship player or manager, the coaches treat the guys the same. Griffith has been on both sides.

"The managers work as hard as we do," Griffith said. "Most managers are even there more than we are. We have tremendous respect for them, how much they do for us.

"We realize how much they mean to us."

The players welcomed Griffith to the team "with open arms. They've been great to me. They understand my role is to sometimes frustrate them in practice."

What his teammates might not grasp is what a big deal it is for Griffith to be playing with them.

"Being able to run up and down the court with the guys and maintain with them, whether that was getting stops on defense or making a three-point shot, I never thought I'd belong on the court with a bunch of D-I athletes," Griffith said. "It showed me I can be a valuable person at this level."

Friendly Griffith gets along with everybody. Anyone he is particularly close to? Earlier in the season, he helped newcomer Samba Kane adjust to Illinois. The 7-footer is originally from Senegal.

"I kind of took him under the wing and showed him around," Griffith said. "I gave him rides places. If he needed to go to Wal-Mart, I'd take him to Wal-Mart. A great kid. I'm just trying to show him what life is like here."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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