Illinois coach Bruce Weber has worked hard to recruit the best players possible. Unfortunately, there are some who are unattainable for schools who play by the rules.
"It's frustrating. All you can do is do your best."
Weber and his staff have improved their recruiting prowess in recent years, to the point where one wonders if there are enough balls to go around. Illini coaches realize too many stars is just as much a problem as too few. They must also recruit roll players.
"If you've got 3-4 guys that are very talented but are all the same, it doesn't help you. You can only play one or two of them. Even when you watch the NBA, the Mavericks were great for basketball. They had one superstar (Dirk Nowitzki), and obviously he's very good. And (Jason) Terry is good, and Jason (Kidd) is good. But the rest fit in, a good mix.
"Dell Harris did our clinic last year. He brought it up to me, and I've used this. He said, 'Tell your players that 85% of the guys in the NBA are roll players.' It kind of hit me at first: he's an old crazy guy.
"But he said to look at the Lakers. Kobe (Bryant) isn't a role player, (Pau) Gasol's not a role player, and Lamar (Odom) is probably not, although in a way he is. But the rest of them are. If you get 13-15 guys, 85% are role players."
Weber feels the magical NCAA run of teams like Butler and Virginia Commonwealth have been good for college basketball and remind of the special mixture of players needed to win big.
"We've got to make sure, what Butler has done, VCU and some people, that we get guys who will buy into your system and do what you're supposed to. Now, you have to have a few good players in the mix who can make some shots. That's how you win close games."
Weber hasn't always enjoyed the luxury of recruiting players best suited for his system since he needed to upgrade ability level at times when available talent in the state of Illinois was limited. But that is his goal.
"You've got to be smart. One thing about recruiting I learned at Purdue because not everyone wanted to play for Coach (Gene) Keady, you had to make sure you found guys that fit our system, that wanted to be there. It's not just recruiting guys, it's recruiting guys you can get. I think that's a big key.
"We've had some top players here. I've got to recruit them in the state. But I've also got to make sure that we recruit guys that we can get and are happy to be here, and still be good players."
Illini Nation sees itself as among the elite in college basketball. Weber must recruit standout players or risk losing his job.
"Here at Illinois, I think sometimes people get more wrapped up in winning the summer and fall than they do about the season. That adds a lot of extra pressure on us. There's so much more notoriety to it, so much more coverage to it."
In other words, Weber must not only win championships, his recruiting classes must be ranked near the top in the nation to appease the fans and UI administration. All the while, his kids must be academically sound.
"You have to get them in school. Can they make it here? There's a lot of factors."
They must be ranked high nationally. They must be qualified at Illinois, which prides itself on being tougher academically than most schools. Of course, you then run the risk of having chemistry issues. The available pool of players dwindles if they have to meet not only Weber's needs but the perceptions of his fan base.
Compare Weber's situation with Bo Ryan at Wisconsin. That state is not known as a hotbed of basketball talent. Fans realize Ryan would have trouble competing with regional and national powers for top out-of-state players.
Instead, Ryan recruits players who fit his system, and the fans tolerate his approach. He looks for fundamentally sound athletes who make few turnovers and shoot a high percentage. He wants tough defenders and smart team players who sacrifice personal glory for wins.
Many of Ryan's players are unknown nationally, but he wins year after year. Weber would probably love to recruit the same way, but circumstances at Illinois are different.
"There's a different mentality. The fans have a different mentality. He'll even say it to us, 'Why do you guys mess with all the third party guys and all that? Just get the guys you can get and coach them.'
"He's obviously had great success at it, and he gets the top kids in Wisconsin. Now are they superstars? No. Here or there, Devin Harris was for them. But in the long run, he just gets guys that fit the system."
Weber was asked if he would be out of a job of he recruited like Ryan.
So Weber will continue to seek the best possible players he can get who also fit his system. He has won more games at the Kohl Center than any other visiting team in Ryan's tenure, and he's confident that can continue.
"You've got to find guys who not only are talented, but they will want to play for our system. We've been able to beat Wisconsin as well as anybody because you hope our system, when it's executed right, can compete with his. We'll see."
Weber talks about the zone defense in part 8 of this 9 part series.