CHAMPAIGN – He’s been on campus for less than two weeks, but he can already rattle off teammates’ names like they’re old friends from the neighborhood.
When he won one of Adam Fletcher’s merciless wind sprints this week – and he won a bunch of them – he grabbed a breathless teammate who was trying to suck air into lungs that burned like lava.
At that moment, offering an encouraging hand screams of good team-building.
Mark Alstork is trying to quickly make a mark on the Illini basketball team now in hopes that he makes an even bigger mark once coach Brad Underwood’s first season begins in November.
While Illinois Mr. Basketball winner Mark Smith of Edwardsville created the biggest stir of Underwood’s six roster additions since he was hired, Alstork, a 6-foot-5 guard, is the player who will be counted on to make the biggest and most immediate impact.
He’s a fifth-year graduate transfer who averaged 19 points a game last season at Wright State, a Horizon League member in Alstork’s hometown of Dayton, Ohio.
Like many fifth-year graduate transfers, he’s looking for more and hopes that his personal agenda and his desire to help a team win big can co-exist. And he’s driven in part by the input he received when he placed his name in consideration for last year’s NBA Draft.
“I got great feedback,” he said. “They evaluated my game and on some boards I was a second-round pick and on some undrafted. So for me, the best chance of getting drafted was to play my fifth year.
“I wanted to come play at a higher level, come play with better coaches and players, great facilities and a great fan base. It was just getting the educational part and furthering my basketball career.
“The feedback said I needed to cut my turnovers and become more engaged defensively. They said I’m an elite shooter, I’m a play-maker and I should be able to play in the NBA one day.”
Alstork said he liked the frank feedback from the NBA. And he picked Illinois in part because he knows Underwood will be just as honest.
“I need that,” he said. “I’ve been through a lot of the stuff that these freshmen and younger guys are going through. It’s easy for me to lose focus and stray off and do my own thing, so I’m counting on a coaching staff that will keep me on a straight line. I need that as a player and as a person.”
Alstork earned his undergraduate degree from Wright State in August, which was a big deal for his proud family. “To be where I’m from in inner-city Dayton, a kid like me, where a lot of statistics say you won’t graduate, it’s remarkable and the glory goes to God.”
At this week’s workout session, Fletcher, the beloved yet no-nonsense strength and conditioning coach, is carrying out Underwood’s directive to get this team ready for “Bradball.”
That means sprinting as soon as there’s a rebound or a turnover or any chance to run. It means pushing opponents to an uncomfortable level of fatigue, especially big men who may not be prepared to keep pace with Illini players like Michael Finke, Leron Black and a pair of 6-9 freshmen, Greg Eboigbodin and Matic Vesel.
Fletcher demands much, but likes what he has seen now less than three weeks before the official start of team practices.
“Mark showed up in great condition,” Fletcher said. “He has a lot of experience so he knows what kind of shape you need to be in to be successful at this level. He can really run.
“The thing I’m most impressed with is that he’s come in and gotten right into where our culture is. He hasn’t been outstanding in a bad way. He’s done a great job and he fits right in.
“Our freshmen bigs can both really run. Leron has always been able to run. Michael Finke has made great improvements in running. It’s one of the things we’re pushing now, is having our bigs be able to run and run and run, to fit coach’s style of play.
“In that area, Michael has made the biggest increases in his ability to run and sustain his running. And he’s done it by just working at it.
“We do a lot of short distance lactic acid work to get them used to that threshold. They’ve all made their times. We haven’t had a bad day yet.”
Alstork is one of those players who naturally seems able to run all day.
“My workout schedule is not normal,” Alstork said. “I try to work out two, three, four times a day. I get multiple shots, 500 to 1,000 shots a day. That was my summer routine (and) swim and work on my footwork. I played soccer and even did some boxing.
“If you want to be a pro one day, you have to live like a pro. I try to never get out of shape.”
Ironically, as Alstork discovered he had a natural ability to score the ball, he may have let his defense slip. That, he said, presents a personal challenge.
“I know I can play defense,” he said. “What’s what I was at one point in time until I found out I could put the ball in the rim. So I just have to get that part of my game more focused and coach Underwood is going to help me with that.”
When searching for a new basketball home, many transfers look at opportunity as a key factor. But not Alstork.
“(Underwood) talked to me about opportunity but that wasn’t really a focal point for me,” he said. “Basketball will take care of itself. If you’re one of the better players you’re going to play.”
Confidence and experience is what Underwood saw in aggressively pursuing Alstork, who will be this team’s only senior.