Illinois could be ready for a championship run during the 2010-2011 basketball season. Seniors Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis and Bill Cole lead a talented group of sophomores and freshmen into the season, and all are hungry for success. Illini head coach Bruce Weber reminds the season is soon upon us.
"It's right around the corner. I know we're in the middle of 80 degree weather and people excited about football. But once we start practice Friday, I think we have 11 days before an exhibition game, another exhibition game a couple days later, and only 17 before the first game in Coaches vs. Cancer."
That is precious little time for any college coach to teach all the fundamentals necessary to face a challenging schedule. Fortunately, Illini players have been pointing to this week since they heard they were omitted from last season's NCAA Tournament.
"I thought we had a great spring, very good summer, and it carried into the fall," Weber relates. "I can't say enough about our guys, their commitment, their dedication.
"I think the sour note, the bad taste that was left from last season carried on, and I think it's continued to motivate them throughout the off season. If you've heard any coach speak about when you get better, it's in the off season."
If there's a barometer on how ready this team is for the season, it is the yearly mile run that tests conditioning. Weber was amazed at the result.
"In the mile run, I've been doing it thirty-some years, and it was the first time every guy on our team got the mile time on the first try. You just see from that they've worked at it, they're much better physically.
"I think the older guys, you see where Tis (Tisdale) has come, Mike Davis, Demetri, how they've changed their bodies in different ways. Tis ran a 5:38 mile. He had trouble making 7:00 three years ago. And, with 60-some more pounds. They physically have done a great job, and you've got to give credit to Jimmy Price (Strength and Conditioning Coach)."
"The freshmen, usually they struggle with those types of runs. They're just so much better athletes than we've had the last couple years or over a long period of time. They were all able to make it, so we've made big strides that way."
Sophomores D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, and Tyler Griffey, plus redshirt freshman Joseph Bertrand, have all developed nicely since last season. And the three freshman have great credentials. But Weber has no doubt who must be the top players if Illinois is to reach lofty goals.
"We're gonna be as good as our seniors. If our seniors have great years defensively, we're gonna have a chance to be very good. Now, they can bring the other guys along and not have a lot of pressure on the younger guys. Those guys are gonna be good, and a lot of focus has been given to them, a lot of excitement."
Competition on the team has been intense throughout informal fall workouts. The three freshmen aren't backing down to the upperclassmen, and all desire playing time. The quality is so consistent throughout the lineup, choosing the best player can be a challenge.
"If you ask the coaches every day who's the best player on the team, it could change. That's the nice thing about our team, the competition, the depth, the variety of players. I think one of our challenges as a coach is to deal with that so we can get the most out of them.
"I think the big thing is we have competition. That'll start in practice. Last year, I'm not sure some guys really felt threatened on a daily basis in practice. Now a little bit of motivation will be positive."
Weber would like to play more players than in the past. Much will depend on how the younger players come along. But if the Illini play a more aggressive style of defense and get out on the fast break as is being emphasized in workouts, depth will be beneficial to keep everyone fresh.
"As for how far we'll go, if they play well they'll play. We're gonna play the best players. If that means 8, 9 10 guys give us something, we're gonna try to get them all in there. We're just gonna have to see how that unfolds the first couple weeks."
The Illini schedule is demanding. Their two games in New York feature opponents Texas and either Pittsburgh or Maryland. North Carolina is the Big 10/ACC Challenge opponent. The Illini play Gonzaga in Seattle and Missouri in St. Louis. And the Big 10 is loaded with outstanding teams.
The idea is to prepare this team to play well in pressurized games, with the NCAA Tournament in mind. But first things first.
"As far as goals go, I think right now the main goal is to be ready to compete a month from now in the Coaches vs. Cancer event against top teams in the country. That's got to be our first goal.
"Obviously, I'd like to win that thing. It would get some excitement going and be a good start to our season. But at the same time, I think the biggest thing is that we go out there and compete with some of the top teams in the country."
Weber isn't ready to make predictions. But this could be the team Illini Nation has waited for in the six years since Illinois played for the National Championship. He is willing to let things unfold in due course.
"We have a talented group of upperclassmen. This is it for them. And we have a group of young guys. It's a funny mix of players, but we hope it becomes a pretty good formula for success. I think we're all excited and looking forward to Friday night."