Bruce Weber Provides Detail On New Team

There are more questions than answers for the upcoming Fighting Illini basketball team at this point. Some will be answered as the team prepares for its Italy trip. But others may not be resolved until well into the season. There is talent, and seven newcomers offer new hope. But they have a lot to learn, and they must be blended into a cohesive unit.

Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber had only two weeks of practice to train last year's team prior to the exhibition games. And rapid-fire early season games prevented the sustained work the team needed, both offensively and defensively.

With all the newcomers, practice time is precious. Fortunately, there will be more preseason opportunities this year, for two reasons according to Weber.

"That's why Italy will be a great jumpstart. We'll have a couple early practices to give them an idea what we want. Then when we're out recruiting in July, they know what they need to work on. And then we'll do a few more practices late July, and then come back and do 4 or 5 right before we leave.

"Last year, because we were in New York, it was the earliest tournament. This year we start a week later, so you've got an extra week there. You've got ten more days for Italy. Hopefully, it's a good formula to have success early."

The Illini's motion offense gives players numerous choices, which is good. However, learning all the options and running them efficiently takes tons of practice time. The seven newcomers have much to learn and little time to learn it.

"There's no doubt. We'll just have to see how good a learners they are. Like I said, the most important thing is our older guys. The veterans have to do it. They have to have some pride, and they have to push and make the strides so we are competitive, and they're among the better players in the League."

Illini fans are excited about the new players, hoping they will take over the team and give it national potential. However, it takes time for freshmen to make the necessary adjustments to college.

"I tell all recruits, when they make the transition to college, some of it is maturity, dealing with freedom, time management. Now (summer) they don't have to deal with distractions. And then it's strength and understanding how hard you have to work in basketball."

Freshmen Mike Shaw, Tracy Abrams, Mycheal Henry and Devin Langford all arrive with glowing credentials. Ibrahima Djimde was a late signee with little formal training, but he fills a need for a rebounder and screener. Of all the freshmen, center Nnanna Egwu has surprised everyone with his rapid development.

"Just looking at it, Nnanna has some very good discipline in his life. He works his butt off. So a kid like that, you hope his transition's easier. He can push Meyers (Leonard), and Meyers can push him. They can learn together.

"Nnanna always runs. At every drill, it's high intensity. His coaches taught him good habits, and he's continued to have those habits. He's very hungry.

"And he talks more than we thought he would. He didn't show much pizzazz or personality when we recruited him, but he's gotten a little competitive. And he's got some humor to him too."

Leonard is the expected starter at center, and he has vast potential as an athletic 7-footer. He earned a spot on the USA 19 and Under basketball team that competed in Latvia this summer, and his best days are ahead of him. Egwu is not expected to start ahead of him. But Weber needs rebounders and will play whomever is doing the job.

"We need rebounding. I think that's one of my biggest fears. The one thing Meyers in the Trials didn't do, he did a lot of good things, but he didn't rebound. That was one of the questions. Is he gonna rebound? Whether it's him, Mike Shaw, Nnanna, somebody's got to rebound. We hope that will happen."

Power forward is also a concern. Junior Tyler Griffey showed promise as a shooter as a freshman but struggled with injuries and confidence last season. He is competing with Shaw and Djimde for playing time.

"At power forward, I think Tyler's been a very pleasant surprise. He kind of got lost in the shuffle last year with Mike Davis playing so well. Tyler has played stronger. If he makes shots for us, he's gonna get some minutes."

Shaw has the size and ability to contribute, but he has to discover and accept his role.

"Mike Shaw has the physical ability. If he'll just be happy with rebounding, playing his butt off, being physical, taking charges, doing the things he does well.

"That's another thing with all of them. Do the things you do well, and then you're gonna get your opportunity. And then over the course of the next 2-3 years, improve all the other stuff."

Djimde is raw and will need time to learn the system and adjust to his teammates. He is still learning the English language and sometimes needs clarification on what the coaches want. Whether he helps this year or not, he is aggressive and strong and will be an asset down the road. In the meantime, Weber is considering a couple tall wings if necessary at the four.

"You never know. I teach Mike Henry and even Devin. We might play small ball and play a smaller forward. So we'll just have to see how it goes."

Probably the biggest concern is at point guard. Demetri McCamey, the only true point guard on the team last year, has graduated. Abrams was recruited to play point, and Sam Maniscalco transferred from Bradley as a fifth year senior. Weber hopes the two will take over the spot, with a couple other squadmen in the mix.

"I hope Sam is healthy and gives us good maturity, but Tracy gives us some toughness, some dog, and gets after people. Tracy is what we've been hoping for, but we'll see if he can handle it. Crandall Head has the athleticism, the quickness and all that. It's just taking care of the ball, making sure he knows which way we're going."

Maniscalco sat out last season with ankle surgery, and he has just recently been cleared to practice with the team. He needs time to regain his confidence and learn a new system.

"It's taken maybe a little longer with Sam than we thought, but he has practiced. A little bit of it is mental; he had been gone for 9 months. Every time he lands on it wrong, he kind of pulls himself out.

"I thought last Sunday he finally showed us the things we thought he was gonna do. He's very crafty, he's got some toughness, he understands the game. I hope he ends up being a very good player for us. This is a chance for Sam to get back in game shape and get some confidence and learn a new system."

The two wing positions have depth. Juniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson have talent and maturity. They should be team leaders on and off the court. Head and Joseph Bertrand are sophomores, and Henry and Langford have much potential there. Weber is eager to see how the freshmen perform.

"Mike Henry is a scorer. Devin, it will be interesting with his versatility."

There are 13 scholarship players, all of whom have supporters for playing time. Weber never plays that many, especially during the highly contested Big 10 season. With so many needing game experience, will Weber expand on his usual habit of playing 8 players?

"I really think it's hard to play more than nine. But if they all play well and give you that confidence, maybe you can give that 10th guy 8 to 10 minutes here and there and not hurt you."

The Illini were basically injury-free last year, but that is a rarity. Weber needs depth in case the injury bug bites.

"In '04 and '05, we had one game missed the whole time. Rich McBride had the flu. Other than that, no one ever missed. Then we come back and Brian Randle and Chester (Frazier), I don't know how many. You can go back, and it was astronomical the number of games missed. It kind of runs in cycles. Last year we were fortunate, and hopefully that will continue this year."

The upcoming Illini team has potential for an excellent season. And with Maniscalco being the only senior, the same group could be even better the following year. At least, that's the way Weber hopes it will play out.

"We're excited about the season. Over the next two years, we have the potential to be very good."

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