Weber Discusses His Precocious Freshmen

The Fighting Illini basketball team has four experienced seniors leading it into battle this year. And three sophomores played extensively last season and are all improved. But if you ask the fans what excites them most about the 2010-11 team, it is the freshmen. The athleticism and overall skill level of the newcomers provides excellent depth and competition.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber speaks in glowing terms about his newcomers. Freshmen Meyers Leonard, Jereme Richmond and Crandall Head may all see significant playing time this year. Counting Joseph Bertrand, who redshirted last year after knee surgery, the Illini have four young athletes bubbling over with talent.

Each player has overcome injuries to enter fall drills in top condition. For Leonard, it was a stress fracture in his foot in the spring and a nasty gash on a finger in a weight lifting accident during the summer.

"That definitely set Meyers behind, there's no doubt," Weber relates. "So much is new for big guys. You can't just stand in the lane on defense. You've got to learn how to play, go out and hedge a ball screen, how do you show on a down screen, so many things. He has all this to learn, plus the physical part.

"He still made his mile time, so it shows you what kind of athlete he is. Between him and Tyler (Griffey), they're our two strongest players on the team. So he's got a lot of positive things. It did set him back a little bit. I think it will take to Christmas before he really gets going."

Richmond suffered back spasms during fall conditioning, but he appears close to full strength again. As one of the highest rated Illini plebes in many years, Richmond has skills Weber wishes to exploit.

"He has a great feel of the game. It's amazing, he picks up things very easily. At this point he's been very coachable, he wants to learn. If you get feedback from USA Basketball or some of the major camps he attended, that's the first thing they'll tell you. He wants to learn. That's very positive.

"His versatility is probably his biggest strength to allow him to play. He's 6'-8", he can really pass the basketball, he can really post up. So you can have him as a point guard, and you can have him inside also. So it gives you a nice versatile guy that also can pass and be a defensive stopper."

The defensive prowess was a pleasant recent addition for Weber.

"One of the things he learned this summer with USA Basketball, if you ask Coach (Jeff) Capel, he said, 'He became one of our stoppers. He can guard a variety of people.' That really helps him."

Versatility can be a two-edged sword. Richmond can help the Illini in a variety of ways, but will he need to learn too much too fast?

"The thing he's got to work on is, can he learn everything? That's a lot of pressure on a young man. I keep asking the coaches, 'Where should we start him? Can you let him try to play 1, 2, 3, 4? Or do we just focus on a couple things and then as he evolves let him do other things.' We'll just have to get a feel of it as we go along."

Most presume Richmond will be a starter from his first game. But Illinois has all five starters returning. He can be a big help whether he starts or comes off the bench. But can he adjust to being a reserve after so much success? Weber believes that question was answered this summer.

"I think another positive thing for Jereme this summer was not starting with USA Basketball. It was a hard pill for him to swallow. They had some conversations with him, but he found out he could still be a valuable member of the team coming off the bench. If you do a lof of things, you can wind up playing more minutes."

Weber is not ready to decide on a starting lineup.

It's too far out in the future to make a decision; is he gonna start, is he not? We'll just have to see how the early practices, early exhibitions go."

Head missed his entire senior season with ACL surgery in his knee. He is able to practice and appears close to his original level of athleticism. But Weber reminds there may still be complications.

"Crandall's knee, he still struggles. After 5-6 days it starts wearing on him. We're gonna have to watch him, and Al (Martindale) is gonna have to do a good job of making him sit a half day or something. It's the long course with him."

Despite the uncertainty, Head has wowed onlookers with his quickness and overall athleticism. He has become a tenacious defender, and he's lethal in the open court. His outside shot needs work, but he can definitely help this season. What comes to mind for Weber when describing Head as a player?

"Energy, athleticism, length. He can get to the basket. He's way further along than I thought he might be. With an ACL it's not easy. You can just see how gifted he is physically, to be able to do some of the things he does. It's not normal, to be honest, to come back like that. It's amazing what he can do."

Head is former Illini star Luther Head's younger brother. He wears the same number "4" on his uniform, and the similarities don't end there.

"I hate to bring Luther up a lot with him, but he's very similar. Very similar as a freshman. A little bit jerky, they can do a lot of things but driving to the basket they get stuck sometimes. With him we've got to kind of hope he can hold the brakes on a little bit, make sure he doesn't get going too fast. On the defensive end I want him all over the place. Rebounding, tip dunks, anything he can do."

Bertrand appears fully recovered from his surgery. Unfortunately, he missed last season while recuperating and had to redshirt. Weber says he can play multiple positions but still has much to learn.

"He's got great athleticism. He's long, and we can use him in some different ways. Him and Crandall are very similar. They get out on the break, they can put some pressure on defense, be active, get steals."

Some wonder if Bertrand might have to ride the bench again this year while he develops. But Weber has told him how he can gain playing time.

"You want to gain minutes? Here's the way to do it. You have that athleticism, get deflections, get steals, get runouts. When Joe gets out on the break, he's a really good player. He can get out and create things.

"With him, even though he's a sophomore he missed a lot of last year, especially the early part when we did a lot of the teaching. He was back at the end, that was positive for him. But he's still really learning. In a lot of ways, he's really a freshman."

Weber has often played 7-8 players in rotation through entire seasons. This year, he might find it hard to keep any of his 11 scholarship athletes on the bench. They are all hungry and are competing for playing time. None of the rookies expects to sit.

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