Illinois coach Bruce Weber has enjoyed three good recruiting years in a row. He has upgraded the talent level considerably. The question now is, can he remold the team into a winner after losing four senior starters?
As with all teams, team chemistry is by far the biggest factor in a successful season. If the players put the needs of the team ahead of themselves and learn the complexities of the motion offense and man-to-man defensive principles, a winning season is likely. But that is always a major challenge.
On the surface, team chemistry appeared especially promising last fall. The four seniors seemed to embrace the youngsters, and everyone appeared competitive yet friendly with each other. But team chemistry was still not ideal. And leadership was lacking at times as some players put their own frustrations or post graduate futures ahead of team needs.
Where will leadership come from this next season? Until point guard sam maniscalco announced he was transferring from Bradley, there were no upcoming seniors listed on the roster. Maniscalco is considered a quality leader who can lead both by example and by verbal instruction.
If he can duplicate these traits for a team that is unfamiliar with him, it is a great starting point. But that remains to be seen. He will have to earn his stripes while competing with junior Brandon Paul and freshman Tracy Abrams for the point guard spot.
Ideally, he and Abrams can split time there, allowing Paul to play his preferred wing position. But as Illini fans discovered the last couple years, inconsistent play at point guard is counterproductive to a winning team. If Maniscalco can handle the ball, think pass first and score when necessary, he could be the missing link to an outstanding product.
Juniors Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey are quality young men with ability. But their play up to now has been inconsistent. Each will need to step up his play while providing credible leadership for the nine freshmen and sophomores expected on the roster.
Paul has the ability to be a college star, but he is still striving to put everything together. He is capable of putting up good numbers in points, rebounds, assists and steals. He was this year's leader on the Matto play-hard chart and one of the team's better defenders.
However, he is still working on his penetration skills and midrange jumper. He still settles for high-arching threes too much, and his 28% efficiency from long range won't cut it. He has improved his ball handling and passing, but he still needs work in those areas. And he needs to find more consistency, doing well in some games and practically nothing in others.
Richardson is said to have good leadership skills, but that was certainly not true this year when he went into a prolonged shooting slump. He let his offensive concerns overwhelm his other attributes. A leader must put aside his own frustrations to help the team in other ways. Richardson has yet to learn that.
Richardson has a quality three point shot most of the time. He needs to penetrate more also, but he lacks confidence in his ball handling. He is an excellent on-ball defender, but he wasn't able to prove that late in the year during his slump. Richardson will need to expand his game over the summer while maturing into someone who can be counted on at all times.
Griffey had a lost season. One of the best shooters on the team, he lost confidence in his shot early and fought that battle the whole year. A series of injuries and illnesses prevented him from earning playing time through an extended series of practices.
He made a couple good defensive plays in his two minutes of playing time against Kansas in the last game of the season, so hopefully he is improving that part of his game. But he has struggled playing post defense against taller, stronger players, and quick power forwards frustrate him also. He measured 40 inches on his vertical jump in preseason, but he admits he knows how to prepare for that test and does not jump that well normally.
Griffey says he has no plans to transfer, and that is good news if he can regain his confidence. The Illini offense with him in the lineup will need to set him up for shots, but he can be a major offensive threat if left open. With Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale graduating, there is playing time to be earned. Hopefully, Griffey will use that as motivation to work hard in the off season.
Upcoming sophomores Jereme Richmond, Meyers Leonard, Crandall Head and Joseph Bertrand all have talent. Whether they can become key players next year remains to be seen. Without their contributions, the Illini will struggle.
Richmond is an enigma, and there's no certainty he will even be on the team next year. His problems have been well documented. For the purposes of this discussion, it is assumed he will be eligible, available and back in the good graces of the Illini coaching staff and the UI administration.
Richmond has a lot of talent, as his McDonald's All-American status demonstrates. But he's not really strong enough to be a power forward, his best position at this time. And he must improve his ball handling, shooting, and defense to play a wing, where he would need to play if he were ever to play professionally.
He has a knack for finding openings near the basket, and he is a quality rebounder. He is also considered a plus passer, but he must learn to make the easy pass before considering the special pass.
He needs to work on his outside shot. He needs better elevation, and he needs to shoot from a higher release point to avoid blocked shots. He also needs to keep his dribble lower so he can penetrate without having a defender strip the ball from him. And his defense on the wing can use improvement.
More than anything, Richmond needs to grow up. He must eliminate all his technical foul problems. He may even need anger management counseling to prevent outbursts toward opponents and teammates alike. He also needs to learn to be a good follower before he can expect to lead. He tells players when they're wrong, but he must earn their respect before they should be expected to comply.
By far, Richmond is the biggest variable for the 2011-12 team. If he works hard academically and in his practice time, if he searches his soul to overcome the barriers to growing up, and if he make amends to any he has wronged, he could be one of the stars of the team. But no one is sure he can be counted on at this time.
Leonard is also someone who needs to mature. He's a happy-go-lucky guy who is yet to realize how serious college ball can be. He will find out quickly this next year as he will be counted on to establish a post presence. The 7-footer has all the athleticism and potential to be a star center. But the small town boy has much to learn between now and then.
One can imagine Leonard playing solid defense, grabbing rebounds, making frequent outlet passes to lead fast breaks, running the floor, dunking with authority and hitting a variety of shots both near the basket and at midrange. That is his potential. Will those dreams manifest this year? He says he will work hard to do that. The Illini need him to do that.
Crandall Head came on at the end of the year. He has tremendous athleticism, but his basketball skills must still be developed. He can be an excellent on-ball defender, and he appears to be coachable.
People see his other brother Luther in him, and that may be an unfair comparison. Luther worked hard to improve his game. If Crandall can do the same, then perhaps the comparisons might be possible. But he has much work to do.
Head needs to develop a consistent shot. No perimeter player can be effective if he can't combine an outside threat with his penetration skills. He needs to overcome his tendency to kick his leg out, a product of when he practiced shooting while his leg recovered from knee surgery.
And he needs to put the ball in front of him, go up balanced with his right hand under the ball and above his head to improve his shooting percentage. He will need long hours of shooting practice to make these changes.
Head began to demonstrate a passing ability late in the year. But he is still learning to slow down and think on the court. He must cut down his turnovers to get consistent playing time. Most of his rookie year, he was a turnover machine.
Bertrand also says he isn't planning to transfer despite getting only mop-up time on the court during his redshirt freshman year. He has probably the best leaping ability on the team, and he likes to slash to the basket more than the others. The Illini need both. He is also a quality passer who looks for open teammates.
His main problems are a lack of confidence and an unreliable jump shot. The two may go together as he seems to aim the ball at times due to a lack of trust in his shot. He also must learn more about the offense and defense. He has potential to be a good defender, but experience is necessary for that to come to fruition.
The Illini have four freshmen signees, and a fifth is expected to sign in April. All have ability, but none are superstars. As a group, they are in the top 10-15 classes in the nation. As individuals, it is possible none may start to begin the season. Illini fans may be expecting miracles from them that may be unfair.
The aforementioned Abrams has point guard potential, but he still needs work at the position as he played off the ball a great deal in high school. He has strength and toughness the team needs and is at his best in pressure situations. He will automatically be one of the team's best ball handlers, and he has a leader-type mentality.
It would be unfair to play him 35 minutes a game as a freshman. The point guard is the quarterback of the team; experience and maturity are vital. Maniscalco's transfer helps Abrams a lot as someone who can help teach him his role and share the load. With time, Abrams will become one of the team's best players. But don't expect it his freshman year.
Mike Shaw is a 6'-8" warrior and team player who sacrifices himself for wins. He has a solid frame that can add muscle, and he is willing to do the dirty work around the basket. He also has versatility and can handle the ball, pass and shoot from the perimeter. He is not a great shooter, but he has a variety of shots and moves in his arsenal. He also likes to run the floor.
He is said to be a great rebounder, and he does indeed work at it. But he struggles going straight up for boards against taller players as his arms are not real long and his hands average in size. He can leap well from a running start but not necessarily from a standing position. He will battle, and that will be appreciated by Illini Nation.
Nnanna Egwu is an intriguing center prospect. He hasn't played basketball a long time, but he smart and extremely eager to learn. He continues to make rapid progress as he gains experience. He will have to provide minutes next year backing Leonard, whether he is ready or not.
To his credit, Egwu is an excellent shot blocker with long arms and outstanding timing. He sometimes prefers blocks to playing position defense, which can get him in trouble at times. But he will learn that with time. He runs like a deer and prides himself on being the first one down the court.
He has also improved his shot. He now has a quick turnaround from 15 feet he hits consistently. His rebounding is still a work in progress, but again he will do what the coaches tell him and improve as he gets more experience. Can he be a factor next season? It is hard to say, but he will eventually be an excellent post player for the Illini.
Mycheal Henry has wonderful shooting touch as a 6'-6" wing player. He can hit threes in bunches while also being effective in the low post. However, he also has to improve some things before he can make a major contribution.
For instance, he was an indifferent defender in high school. Coach Weber says if you don't play defense, you don't play. He has a long way to go in that department. He's also not real secure with the ball at this time.
The main thing he needs is to become highly motivated for all games. He has a laid back personality that needs more fire at times. When he is on, he can put a major hurt on a team. But that may have to wait a year or so to come to fruition.
Another player who is intriguing but a major variable at this time is Devin Langford. The versatile 6'-7" Alabama product has committed to Illinois and is expected to sign April 15th. He can play the 1, 2 or 3 positions, giving the Illini a number of options.
At his best, Langford can handle the ball, find the open man and hit his outside shots. He also rebounded effectively for Lee High School. But like Henry, he seems somewhat passive at times. Much of this evaluation is based on his one game at the Assembly Hall last December when he was sick. If he can put it all together, he can be an outstanding college player. But at this point he is still a diamond in the rough.
Determining a starting lineup is probably wasted energy since there are so many variables. Assuming everyone mentioned above is healthy, available and improved, some guesses are possible.
A starting five might be composed of Maniscalco, Richardson, Paul, Richmond and Leonard, although that would would need to be a fast breaking team to make up for a lack of bulk on the inside. More likely, Griffey or Shaw might start at the four with the threesome of Richardson, Paul and Richmond available for two wing positions.
Abrams would share time with Maniscalco and Egwu with Leonard. Griffey might rotate between the four and five. Head and Bertrand might be next in at the wings, although they would have to battle Henry and Langford for those spots. Head might also be a factor at point. Henry could also help out at the four and Langford at the point in a pinch.
On paper, there is quality and depth everywhere. In fact, one might wonder how Weber can keep everyone happy. But in reality, the freshmen will need time to develop, leaving the others to occupy much of the early playing time.
Will it be good enough to have a winning season? That remains to be seen. Despite the problems this year, the team remained fairly healthy. Will that good fortune continue? Probably not. At least one or two of the rookies will have to come through, especially if injuries deplete the roster.
The Maniscalco transfer was definitely good news. If reports of his playing style and leadership are true, he can provide a major boost in improving leadership and team chemistry. It would allow all the others to play roles. Without the extra pressure of having to do more than they are capable, they can play better and make better contributions.
Yes there is talent, but it is not experienced talent. The schedule will still be difficult, but the Big 10 loses a large number of talented players to graduation. There may be a couple others turning pro early, weakening their teams. Theoretically, the Illini could find the conference slate a little more reasonable than this season.
One way or the other, Weber and his assistants have their work cut out for them without four seniors who accumulated a majority of the points and rebounds. The natives are getting restless, expecting the Illini to be an elite program every year. The feeling in many parts is this team could be extremely formidable two years from now. But next year is still problematic.