Illinois seemed to have everything it needed for a championship run in the 2010-2011 season, at least on paper. Four experienced seniors returned, including two who tested NBA waters as juniors and one who achieved success with USA basketball over the summer. And three exceptional freshmen prospects provided extra depth and athleticism not present the past 3-4 years.
So why didn't they win more than 20 games? The answer may never be known in entirety. Some are quick to simplify the situation and blame the coaching staff and/or the players. There is plenty of blame to go around. But strength of schedule and excess expectations must also be included in any summary.
Demetri McCamey was a four year starter and the Illini's best player. He was their leading scorer and assist man. Until the final loss to Kansas, the Illini were an impressive 15-0 when McCamey accumulated 7 or more assists in a game. He came into the season in top shape and renewed purpose after getting pointers from NBA scouts he met while considering entering last year's NBA draft.
However, his emotions and success rate both blew hot and cold. When he was feeling good about himself, making shots and pushing the basketball, he was like a pied piper for the Illini. The rest of the team happily relaxed and played their roles to compliment their star. The Illini were never invincible, but at times they looked like one of the top teams in the country.
However, when McCamey was in a down cycle, the opposite occurred. When he missed his first few shots, or when he was lacking energy and couldn't play at maximum level, the rest of the team stood around watching him dribble out front. It was as if their own engines had been idled when McCamey's was in low gear.
This is not to fault McCamey or anyone else. If McCamey could have overcome the forces of Nature and played at a peak level every game, the team might have also. But the team's dependency on him for their energy and optimism limited their consistency and put extra pressure on their star. It became a vicious downward cycle at times.
The other players looked to him for leadership, but that was poor judgment on their part. For all McCamey's good qualities, he is not a natural leader. He sometimes worried more about his own failings than team needs. He was thus unable to inspire with his play or demand improvement from teammates if he couldn't practice what he preached.
The Illini needed strong leadership most when they were playing poorly. But seniors Bill Cole, Mike Davis, and Mike Tisdale weren't natural leaders either. This was a problem last year, and it continued this season. They are great people with bright futures, but leadership was not among their skills. At times it didn't matter; in the big games, it made a huge difference.
To his credit, Mike Davis matured a great deal senior year and began to play consistently and become more of a leader the last couple months. It is a shame the light didn't go on for him sooner because he became the Illini's most consistent player. He put out great effort on both ends of the floor, scored consistently and got his teammates involved. But a pattern of road failure had already been established.
Mike Tisdale made tremendous improvement in his four years. He gained 60 pounds and significant amounts of strength. He improved his rebounding considerably each year. And he always had a pretty shot which extended to the three point line.
But he was never able to bang with the musclemen he faced far too often. His long legs and slender hips couldn't counter the inside bullying of players like Jared Sullinger of Ohio State or the Morris twins at Kansas. His patented jump hook post move became a nonfactor as opponents pushed him away from the basket.
In addition, he let foul calls and other things that went against him interfere with his responsibilities too often. Granted, some calls were strange at best. But one must keep playing rather than turning to the refs for explanation or pouting about the results. Tisdale improved this problem through the years, but he couldn't overcome it completely.
Cole did a remarkable job transforming himself into a wing player. The skinny 6'-9" Peorian lacked lateral quickness, but tons of repetition and study accompanied by great hustle and determination made him a glue guy on the team. He could get hot at times from three, but he had no offense when teams denied the outside shot.
Many in Illini Nation assumed the seniors would lead them to the promised land. But despite improvement by each of them, none had the natural dominance and strength of purpose to stay confident when things went wrong. Some athletes have that, but most don't. Perhaps if that had been understood from the beginning, a few Illini failures might have been accepted and forgiven.
There were no juniors on the team. Sophomores Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey were expected to show improvement after quality freshman campaigns. Paul definitely improved, even proving to be an adequate point guard replacement at times.
He was still inconsistent, both from one game to another and within games. He was at his best when he became a stat sheet stuffer with hustle, defense, rebounding and hitting open shots. He began to drive and look for midrange shots instead of settling for threes. With continued improvement, he could still become a top player for the Illini.
Richardson got off to a hot start, but he still has deficiencies as a ball handler and passer. More than anything, he lacks confidence in these aspects of his play. He was a slasher in high school, but he's still hesitant to penetrate against pressure in college.
When Richardson began an extended shooting slump, it adversely affected his entire game. As a shooter, at first he began forcing up wild shots in the hope he would hit one and get on track. When reminded to stay within the flow of the offense, he became fearful of shooting.
Normally, Richardson is known as an excellent on-ball defender. At times his freshman year, he defended top point guards like Talor Battle at Penn State as well as anyone could. But he became so concerned about his shooting slump, he let it affect his entire game. With his defense absent, he sat more minutes. Fortunately, hot shooting his last two games gives him renewed hope for next year.
Griffey never got untracked. A great shooter as a freshman, he lost confidence early in fall workouts when he had a couple minor injuries and illnesses and started missing shots in practice. He said his form was off, and it took until midseason before he worked out the kinks. But he never regained his confidence. He could have helped the team, but it was not to be.
Freshman Jereme Richmond was a McDonald's All-American, and everyone including he thought he would come in and star early. However, weaknesses in his game that were overlooked in high school became limitations in college.
For one thing, he had always played zone defense and didn't understand the need to follow his man, fight through screens and otherwise utilize sound individual and team defensive principles. If you don't play defense, you don't play at Illinois.
In addition, he lacked a full understanding of how to play a wing in a motion offense. He was used to posting up or standing on the perimeter waiting for teammates to throw him the ball. He did a good job fighting for boards and scoring on the interior, but he is nowhere near ready to play on a wing.
Richmond also needs work on his shot. He shoots from in front of his face, making it easier to block. He isn't accustomed to creating his own shot off the dribble, and he will need to work on his ball handling to be effective. Even his passing, considered special in high school, was inconsistent as he occasionally forced passes against strong defenses.
He has the skills to become a quality college player, but he must dedicate himself to hard work and consistency both off and on the court. He must become dedicated both in the classroom and on the practice floor. He wants to be a leader, but he first must learn how to follow orders and understand the needs of his teammates before that can happen.
Richmond had several technical fouls called on him this year. A couple were relatively minor and can be corrected. But some were the result of what he considered being competitive but what officials considered mean. He will need to remain competitive while correcting his emotional imbalances.
He also left the team for two days midseason. It is not known exactly why, but his teammates were not happy with him. He missed a game as punishment on his return, an important loss at Wisconsin, but he seemed to play better after that. But then he was suspended for both games of the NCAA Tournament for violating school disciplinary rules. His future remains cloudy at this time.
Meyers Leonard is a 7-footer with tremendous potential. However, he is nowhere near ready to show it. Coming from a small school that allowed him to roam freely, he needed the whole year to learn the basics of team offense and defense. Plus, he is still a young kid who needs to take the game more seriously.
He flashed his potential at times on the court, but he appeared lost at others. He lets his emotions wear him out or overreact and foul too often. He promises to work every day between now and fall to become an everyday post player for the Illini. They need him to do that.
Crandall Head hadn't played basketball in two years, and he had minimal coaching prior to that. He has extremely quick feet and excellent leaping ability. But he developed bad shooting habits while recovering from knee surgery this past year. He will need long hours of practice on his own to improve his shot.
Coach Bruce Weber wanted to convert him to point guard due to a lack of depth there. But he couldn't trust Head in games because he wanted to go a mile a minute, and he was turnover-prone. He would get careless and lose the ball off the dribble, make errant passes and drive into triple teams.
However, he kept his composure while riding the bench. And he kept working in practice. When needed late in the season, he came in and provided good minutes in several games. It gives him and the Illini coaching staff hope for the future.
Despite obvious weaknesses at all spots, the Illini were still expected to be a great team. And they appeared in line to do that early in the season. They lost an overtime game to Texas in Madison Square Garden after four straight wins to open the season. The Longhorns were rated in the top 10 all season. But they came back the next night to beat Maryland.
Big early wins included a home route of an outstanding North Carolina quintet at home, Gonzaga in Seattle and home games over NCAA qualifiers Oakland and Northern Colorado. However, the bottom fell out in the next game. Assuming victory, the Illini reminded fans their tendency to take it easy against weaker foes was still present, losing an embarrassing game to a poor UIC team in Chicago.
That was the first sign of trouble, and the Missouri loss in St. Louis that followed further soured all Illini just prior to Christmas. People began to question the coaching as bitterness replaced optimism.
The Illini regained their form to begin the Big 10 season. Winning easily at Iowa and impressive wins at home over Wisconsin and Northwestern made Illini faithful see sugar plums dance in their heads. But that was the calm before a firestorm of anger and frustration that followed.
A two-point loss in an empty Bryce Center at Penn State reminded of the UIC game even though the Nittany Lions later proved to be an excellent team that qualified for the NCAA Tournament. Losing by 10 at Wisconsin was tolerable as the Badgers were outstanding all year and impossible to beat at home.
The Illini then began a pattern of wins and losses that frustrated everyone. It didn't matter how balanced the Big 10 was or how every team was good enough to win on their home court, the Illini weren't able to fulfill preseason expectations. They beat Michigan State at home and Minnesota on the road, but a three point loss at hated Indiana and one point loss at Northwestern negated any good will.
Ohio State and Purdue were invincible at home and on the road, although the Illini blew leads at home with the Buckeyes and both games with the Boilermakers. Losing to them was bad enough, but watching the Illini slump late in games was disconcerting to all concerned. They never proved capable of winning a close game at the end.
The Illini did reach their goal of making the NCAA Tournament, but a first round loss to Michigan in the Big 10 tourney preceded the announcement. An impressive victory over UNLV gave the Illini their first NCAA win since 2006 and helped them beat former coach Lon Kruger. But the Illini lost to powerful Kansas and former UI coach Bill Self to end their season.
One factor never fully understood was the early start to the season. There was only two weeks available for the Illini to practice before the beginning of the exhibition season due to the four early Coaches vs. Cancer games.
Weber realized returning players had to improve their defense, and the team as a whole had the atheticism to get out in transition in pursuit of easy buckets. So the Illini emphasized defense and transition in those two weeks.
Since the four seniors and three sophomores understood the motion offense, less time was devoted to it. This prevented the freshmen from catching onto the offense as quickly as desired.
Plus, two weeks is minimal time to set practice principles in the mind of any player regardless of previous experience. With games coming fast and furious, there simply was too little time for the kind of early season preparation the team needed.
There has been much talk about Weber's future at Illinois. It appears his immediate future is secure, but patience is growing thin in some circles. Does he deserve the criticism? Certainly, he hasn't returned the Illini to the promised land as many hoped.
But he is respected as an outstanding coach, and his recruiting has improved greatly. There is no way of knowing whether a different coach could have gotten more out of this team and especially its four seniors. He used every psychological ploy available to him to inspire improved play, but it was not meant to be.
Weber has a new opportunity with a brand new mixture of players for 2011-12. How that team performs will help decide his fate as Illini head coach. Perhaps a different chemistry will produce better results.