Illinois coach Bruce Weber is looking forward to the upcoming basketball season despite the loss of five athletes who played major roles for an NCAA Tournament qualifier last year. While there is a likelihood of growing pains, especially among the 7 newcomers, Weber will have a hard-working, blue collar team that more closely reflects his personality.
"It's right around the corner. The start of our practices is Friday. I think every year you're excited to get going, if you love coaching. That's why I got into the business. I enjoy coaching and working with the players, developing teams, watching guys improve.
"I think what makes it even more exciting for me this year is the unknown. We have so many new guys. We have lost a lot in terms of numbers and what those guys did. From Mike Davis being the second leading rebounder, (Mike) Tisdale's shot blocking, what Demetri (McCamey) did, the stability and all the little things Billy Cole brought.
"But you're excited about what you have coming in. We've worked very hard at the recruiting process since I got here. But it finally seemed to pay dividends the last three years. Now you're starting to get some talent and athleticism that you feel you can get to a style that I've always appreciated."
The summer trip to Italy was a blessing. The extra practices and games gave Weber a chance to learn about his team and begin the teaching and nurturing process essential in creating a winning team. He has the athletes to cause problems for opponents.
"We started this summer in Italy with full court pressure and pushing the basketball, and using a lot of guys. We got some questions answered over the summer. But at the same time, there's a lot to be proven. That to me is the fun part of it.
"I'm really looking forward to the things you'll find with this team. One, they play hard. They get after it, they know no other way. In practices, I kind of fear for them sometimes when three or four guys are fighting for loose balls. If it was the NFL, there would be penalty flags all over because they lead with their head. I think that's a good thing."
There is only one senior on the team, Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco. Juniors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey, plus redshirt sophomore Joe Bertrand, are the only other upperclassmen. The potential weaknesses are obvious.
"The unknowns, big would be experience and maturity. Both of them, the only way you can solve it is get them in games and see what happens.
"It was one of the reasons we took Sammie on because he brings experience, he's had a lot of games and different situations, and he brings maturity. He's older and has been through the wars, has some toughness to him.
"I don't want him to be the only one, but I hope he can help us through some of the tough times. If we can get that experience, some things go our way, I think we can be very competitive."
Maniscalco is a natural leader, but Weber hopes the two juniors with the most experience can share leadership on a team badly needing it.
"D.J. has done a good job of trying to do those little things. Everybody loves D.J. D.J. loves the University. Brandon too. If you go on campus, they're at the football game in the student section, they're getting on the fan cam, they go to volleyball games. They love it, they love college life. I think the same way with the team. Guys enjoy them. They need to bring that to the court.
"Sam has the maturity and toughness that, even when it's not going perfect, he can say the right thing, do the right thing. If we can get more than him to do that, that's when we're gonna be successful."
There are no stars on the team. Weber is hoping talent will rise up and fill that niche.
"Brandon was our fourth leading scorer and played quite a few minutes, so he gives us some things. D.J. was Freshman Of The Year. We need our older guys to play well, there's no doubt about it. Brandon has played a lot of minutes, so has D.J. In the case of someone like Meyers (Leonard), without a lot of experience. Tyler Griffey is the same type of thing.
"To ease the pressure on the freshmen, because they're gonna be inconsistent, we have to have those older guys give us consistency, those intangibles that make a difference. I think a big thing is maturity of our guys, especially the older guys."
McCamey held down the point guard spot the past three years. He was the one-and-only, so two or more replacements must be found. Weber feels he has potential there.
"There's no doubt it's a little bit of a question. Sammie doesn't look the part. He's not very tall, he's not very quick. I know he can't dunk. He just has that ability to play. He understands the game, understands angles, he's got that toughness that you need from a point guard. I hope he's gonna give us the stability, experience and maturity that we need.
"And then he can be the bridge to helping Tracy (Abrams), helping Crandall (Head). Those are the two guys right now you feel can give us good minutes. This summer, Tracy played better in the games than he did in practice. Certain guys are gamers. I hate as a coach to say that.
"I was worried when we went to Italy because he did not play very well in those practices in the summer. He got there and didn't back down, he didn't hesitate. He went after older, professional guys. No matter who we played, he didn't back down.
"He'll give us a little bit of physical play at guard, Sammie will give us the smartness. If that doesn't work out, I think Brandon could be solid enough to get us through some tough times. And even Devin (Langford).
"Devin can pass the ball as well as anybody on our team. Now, whether he can get us into an offense, push the basketball, do all those things, we'll have to see. But I think he can help us with some of the passing that you need to be successful as a team."
In part two, Weber talks about pressing and his plan to play larger numbers of players, finding go-to players and defensive stoppers, teaching freshmen the complexities of the motion offense and his view of the upcoming Big 10 season.