Recruiting For Toughness, Leadership

Much has been made about the current Illini basketball team lacking toughness and leadership. How do you obtain these intangibles for a team? Can you develop these traits, or must you recruit for them? Will the combination of younger squadmen and newcomers add toughness and leadership to next year's team? Illini coaches express their thoughts on this subject.

Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber shares a lament common with many college coaches.

"For us to be a really special team, if we just had a little more toughness, a little more leadership mixed in the mixing bowl plus the talent we have, I think we'd come out with a pretty good product."

Toughness and leadership are hard to find. And the most talented prospects may not possess these traits in abundance. Weber says you must strive to recruit players with these traits, but limits on recruiting make this problematic at times.

"You've got to find talent, there's no doubt, guys who make plays. But you need some toughness, you need some leadership. That's a hard thing to recruit sometimes because you don't see the kids as much. You've got to make early decisions."

Illini assistant coach Jay Price agrees while expressing the belief these traits are born not made.

"It's difficult. You only get to watch them seven times. You get an idea. I think a lot of times toughness and leadership is something that you're sort of born with. It's harder to make guys tougher and make them into leaders."

Price says the Illini coaches try to fill their needs while also looking for special qualities. It can be a difficult balancing act at times, especially if available talent is limited.

"I think you've got to recruit what you need. You've got to look at what you have coming in and what you have coming up. You take what you think will best fit your team.

"You don't want to ignore talent. You just look for what you think is best for what you need. Who do you have around you? What places do you need to fill? Do you need a skilled guy, do you need a banger? I think you've got to look at that, and then you make your decision from that point.

"You want to go for the best players. And then you've got to pick the next guys on who will fit your system best. You just never know where it's gonna lay."

Weber would love to recruit skilled athletes who are also tough and good leaders. Finding them is the problem; oftentimes you have to make either/or decisions.

"When you're looking for the future, if you can you've got to find, maybe he doesn't have quite as much talent, but he's got that toughness and leadership that makes the difference.

"If you find a special guy who's talented and has the toughness and leadership, whether it's Deron (Williams) or Dee (Brown), or the (Jared) Sullingers and the (David) Lightys of the world, obviously that's when you really have the special teams."

Weber believes some of his younger players have toughness and leadership, including Jereme Richmond, Meyers Leonard and Crandall Head.

"I think with our guys now, Jereme has a great competitive spirit. I think Meyers does, he's just got to control his emotions a little more. I think Crandall really does. I feel good about all those guys and the incoming group also.

"You feel like they're gonna develop. You watch these guys coming up, and they were players in high school. You've got to feel good they're gonna make plays as it goes on and they make the improvement they need. You feel like they'll have that opportunity. It's not like they've never made any plays in their careers."

The younger players are showing improvement in practice, giving hope they can form the nucleus of quality teams next year and down the line.

"Joe Bertrand has played pretty good the last month or so in practice," Weber explains. "Slowly but surely, Meyers is starting to figure it out. How hard he's got to play, how he's got to be prepared each possession. He can't take possessions off.

"Crandall is starting to slow down a little bit, which is positive. He gives us that quick zipper. Now that he gets there, he's got to learn what to do."

Weber says one who has potential but has endured a year-long funk is Tyler Griffey.

"He's struggled, I'm just being honest. (The other day) we did some scrimmages and got after it. Show me some things that prove you deserve to play. If you think you deserve to play, Tyler, Crandall, Joe, do it right here.

"(Griffey) got buggered up a little bit and didn't really get to show well. I just feel bad for Tyler. He's a great kid. He started the season with a knee injury and had some other little things. He never got going and has probably lost his confidence.

"Sometimes it's tough to get back. You almost wish you could just start the season over for his sake. Maybe he could come in and give us some minutes."

The four athletes who have signed with Illinois for next year are capable of adding toughness and leadership in addition to talent according to Price.

"The four guys we have signed, we think they're really good. Good toughness, good skill level. We're really happy with them. Hopefully, they're gonna bring things we're gonna lose from the four seniors. Hopefully they'll bring in some things we don't have too."

Weber singled out Tracy Abrams and Mike Shaw as players with the toughness the Illini need.

"Tracy, that's what he's about. He's got a little bit of an edge, he's got the toughness. He plays his butt off, loves to play. Mike Shaw has an edge to him, a toughness.

"Tracy took three charges in a game the other day. Mike Shaw had a game where he took three charges. Three charges is more than we've taken as a team the last three games. You wish we had a little bit of that right now."

Illini fans won't argue that last point. Weber and his staff have tried to instill more toughness in their current seniors, but they have been only partially successful. Next year will be a new dynamic, a new chemistry. The Illini hope the new mix of players will fight harder for wins.

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