The Illinois basketball team loses four seniors to graduation, and there are no returnees who will be seniors next year. sam maniscalco, who announced he is transferring from Bradley and will be eligible immediately, would be the only senior. Illini basketball coach Bruce Weber is not allowed to speak about him at this time.
However, he did share his views on returning Illini plus those freshmen who have signed national scholarship tenders and will enroll this summer. If they all work hard in the off season, he is optimistic the team can do well next year.
The upcoming juniors on the team are D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Tyler Griffey. Richardson suffered through a deep slump during the Big 10 season. Fortunately, he broke out of it the last couple games of the year.
"You talk about sophomore jinxes, it's not something that happens to everyone, but it happened to him," Weber remembered. "Maybe you have a great freshman year, you feel good about yourself and don't put all the time in you need to put in. He hit a real low point mid February. That's where as a coach you've got to help him.
"Like I told him, the only way I know you can solve it is to come early, stay late and come again. He was doing that. It's amazing, guess what happened? He started making shots.
"For him, it's great. He feels good about himself going into the off season. Especially, we need somebody to be the pied piper, to be a leader, to get guys in the gym, to take their games to another level. I think everybody likes him, he's got personality, he's fun-loving. He's a kind of guy who could really do those kinds of things in the off season."
Paul played extremely well, part of the time. He must develop consistency while continuing to expand his skills.
"Brandon, you look at the Vegas game. What he did in the first half was a great example of how good he can be. But also that he doesn't take it over to the second half.
"Seven rebounds, four assists, four steals, eight points, I don't know the exact numbers. He can be that explosive and talented, but he just has trouble pushing it and doing it again, whether it's the second half or not. He made big strides from last year, and I'm hoping he can make big strides next year."
Tyler Griffey had a couple big games as a freshman, but the power forward had some injuries and illnesses, lost his confidence and never got into the mix as a sophomore. To become a factor, he must regain his confidence and work hard on his weaknesses. When he is on, he is perhaps the best natural shooter on the team.
Upcoming sophomores include Jereme Richmond, Crandall Head, Meyers Leonard and Joseph Bertrand. Richmond will be discussed in a separate article. Each of the others has potential as yet unreached. Head, who missed his senior year of high school with knee surgery, came on late in the year.
"Crandall really started to settle down in practice and take care of the basketball. I'm not sure what position he is yet, but he can be a great energy guy, passion guy.
"He's a guy that, when you talk about getting in the gym, one of the reasons we recruited him, when he was young and with Luther (Head, his older brother) he was always shooting. When we started recruiting him from freshman year and sophomore year, he would stay in the gym at Ubben until 11 o'clock at night and then drive home.
"He loved to shoot, come to play. The injury really set him back, and now he's starting to do that. That's the kind of thing we need.
"The kids like him. They like how hard he plays. He's got to get his shot better, he's got to take care of the ball better. But I loved his quickness, his energy. He pushes the ball, and athletically he can do some things.
"His shot, it doesn't have to be threes. It could be pull-ups and drives to the basket, fundamentals, jump-stops, things like that. He's just got to push his game to a whole other level and do what he does for 10-12 minutes up to 30 minutes."
It is extremely rare to find someone who combines the height, strength, and athleticism of Leonard. He has a high ceiling, but much work is required to approach that lofty potential.
His small town background has put him behind the curve, and he is still quite young and needs to mature. Weber will try to get him involved in extra training opportunities over the summer.
"That was one thing I talked to all of them about. Any opportunity we can get. Anything we can get we'll try to get for those guys. They need it. I hope he wants it. I hope he pushes himself. Strength is a factor, intensity. Learning how to be a big man is his biggest thing."
Bertrand lacks confidence and an outside shot. But he does some things that give one hope he can help the Illini down the road.
"He showed some glimmers like he was making some progress, and he is a freshman. He has the athleticism. I think he's got to find a niche in our system, and maybe we've got to help him find a niche.
"He can be an athlete and get out, help to have more ball handlers, get it to somebody and go make a play. One thing he can do is get out in transition and get to the basket.
"But in a half court offense, he's got to find a niche. A guy who sets screens, maybe a curling type, getting in the lane and jumping up and shooting the ball. Billy (Bill Cole) found a niche, and it worked out. I think Joe has to find that niche or role, find some place to fit in. He's very good on the ball defensively, but not quite as good away from the ball. We hope he makes some progress there."
Entering freshmen Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Mycheal Henry and Mike Shaw are all highly rated. As is Devin Langford, expected to sign with the Illini April 13th. Weber is optimistic they will provide some intangibles the team has lacked the last couple years.
"I feel very good about the group. They all had good years. I like their toughness, I like their energy. When you talk about leaders, I think Tracy could end up being a guy who can be a leader down the road, if not right away."
Weber expects the new mix of players will allow him to make some changes in Illini playing style. If they can be perfected, the changes could allow for some quality victories against next year's schedule.
"There's no doubt. With D.J., Crandall, Brandon, Jereme, even a Meyers and all the young guys, I think we can be much more aggressive defensively. We'll have more ball handlers so we can do more things.
"When you watch teams in the NCAA, so many teams have guys that can handle the basketball. And VCU has 5-6 guys that have shot more than 50 threes. It's different basketball, but they're making shots at the right time. I think we can do a lot more things. I'm hoping at least."
Another factor that may help the Illini next year is an exhibition tour of a European country prior to the start of fall classes. It could be just what a young team needs to bond into a cohesive unit prior to the season.
"It looks like we're gonna have a chance to go to Italy unless something crazy happens. So we'll get 10 days of practice in the summer and then 5 or 6 games. I'm meeting with the organizer at the Final Four to talk about the trip."