New Team, New Reasons For Optimism

It is a new season for Fighting Illini basketball. Gone are four seniors who played major minutes the last four years. Gone with them are the unmet expectations and unexpected losses that marred their college careers. Illini coach Bruce Weber hopes a fresh start for the upperclassmen and influx of 7 new players will refresh the team's outlook for the upcoming season.

Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber is turning over a new page this season, and he likes what he sees so far. There is a lot of personnel turnover, but the same can be said for several other Big 10 teams.

"We're young and new. I think we have talent, we have potential. I think the nice thing, in the League it's kind of new and starting over, just like us. I think the biggest key of how much success we have this year is gonna be the upperclassmen, the veterans who are here."

More than half the squad is newcomers, so the older players will need to carry the load.

"I feel good about the freshmen. But I thought Meyers (Leonard) took a big step; he's got to continue. Brandon Paul has to have the maturity to be a dominant player, and he can be. I think D.J. (Richardson) just needs to play like he did when he was a freshman and periodically this year.

"I challenged Brandon, D.J., Meyers. They have the most experience; they're veterans. They have to step up and be the guys. They watched Demetri (McCamey), Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Bill Cole lead the group for 2-3 years, and now they have to do it."

Weber also needs someone, whether among the three above players or squadmen Tyler Griffey, Crandall Head and Joseph Bertrand, to take a big step forward this year.

"Whether it's Crandall or whoever, I keep telling the guys we need somebody to be the most improved in the League. If we do that, we can be one of the surprises of the League. There's no reward for that, but if we are, we have a chance to be very good. And that'll make it easier for the freshmen. They won't have to carry the load."

Weber sees a similarity between the 2011-2012 season and 2003-2004, his first at Illinois. He told that squad it was part of a two year project. His vision came to fruition as those same players competed in the NCAA championship game the following year.

"If things go right and we get the improvement we anticipate, we can be very competitive this year. And I would hope in two years, we have a chance to be very good. It's a lot like my first year here. We didn't really have any seniors, guys that were major factors."

There were no seniors on this squad until Sam Maniscalco transferred from Bradley. Fortunately, he has leadership skills that should prove beneficial.

"We added Sam for some stability, for maturity, for leadership and toughness to help Tracy (Abrams) and all our guys. And yet I told him, I don't anticipate wanting him to be our savior of our program. But at the same time, if he does what I think he can do, he can be very valuable."

Hopefully, the combination of Maniscalco and the other upperclassmen will provide leadership that has been inconsistent previously.

"Coach (Ron) Zook at the Caravan events talked about player-driven teams. I think that's the big key for our success. That's why a guy like Sam is so important. If he and Brandon and D.J. do give us the leadership we need, push the guys and make them understand how hard they need to work, get them in to work individually, we will make the improvement and will be okay."

All college basketball players dream of playing in the NBA, and Illini players are no exception. It must have been a shock to them to see McCamey and the others passed over in this year's draft. Will this turn of events make current Illini players hungrier to develop their games.

"I hope so. I was disappointed; I think Demetri should have been drafted. I think he's good enough to play. He's better than a lot of guys who were picked.

"But at the same time, you've got to have a complete game. You've got to have everything. They're looking for every reason for you not to make it, especially if you're a guard. It's something I brought up to them: "You have ambitions and dreams. Make your game complete so they don't have a reason not to pick you."

Weber says his current team has the capacity to learn what it is taught.

"I think this whole group is coachable. I think with the other guys, I think it was misconstrued they weren't coachable. They had limitations, and you can only do so much with strength and physicality. They all could have done some things. They were all good kids, and we never had a problem.

"But maybe that extra discipline, that extra toughness and work ethic, maybe they learn from others. I tell our guys all the time, "Learn from others' experiences and their failures so that you can have success."

Why do you think this new Illini team can be successful?

"I think one, we have more athletes. We have guys who have fresh starts mentally. So I think we can get back and pressure, we can be more aggressive. Our big guys are more mobile, and I think a little more physical. I hope that will help change some things.

"The other thing is we have competition. If those guys last year played the way they should, they were gonna play. Now, I think we have more competition for all the spots. I think that's a positive thing, and its made the practices very competitive."

With more depth of talent, will more players see playing time?

"Coaches always say they're gonna play more guys, we're gonna run more. You've got to say something the fans want to hear. But it still comes down to whether the players give you confidence that when you put them in, they're gonna be successful. I think that's a big key."

Weber continues discussing his upcoming team in part five of this nine-part interview.

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