How Will Illini B-Ball Use Extra Scholarship?

With the midyear transfer of Crandall Head, the Fighting Illini basketball coaching staff finds itself with an extra scholarship. If fast-rising big man Meyers Leonard chooses to depart for the NBA draft after this season, a second scholarship would become available. What are the options for the Illini? Will they try to sign someone else this year or wait until next year?

Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber is keeping an open mind regarding how best to use the extra scholarship that opened up recently when Crandall Head transferred.

"I think we're just going to watch and wait. We're putting feelers out right now, what's out there, what becomes available."

The 2012 class in Illinois is considered one of the weakest in a long time, and it was fortunate the Illini had only one available scholarship when the November early signing period began. They signed point guard Michael Orris, but there were few other options within the state, the Illini's prime recruiting territory.

Illini assistant coach Jerrance Howard says they are always hoping to find a late-developer, but there are other options.

"If someone gets hot, guys who have definitely been playing well and having success after Christmas, we're looking for them. Anybody in the state, and we're making phone calls to Jucos too.

"It's the fun part. You've got to roll your sleeves up and get after it. See what's available. You can never stop recruiting because there is always kids in our state that get better and pop up."

What type of players fill Illini needs?

"Probably a shooter, and were always looking for big guys. Just players."

Most junior college athletes cannot be admitted to Illinois. The rare exceptions are those who qualified out of high school. And previous JC transfers have not always performed up to expectations. The Illini went the prep school route late in the 2011 recruiting cycle and were happy with the results. Ibby Djimde has a chance to develop into a decent inside player.

"I think we will end up with a steal in Ibby, and we got him late," Weber explains. "Once he figures out ostensibly how to play, he gives us a great defensive presence and strength. He's so appreciative of being here, and he works so hard, I know he's going to be good for us. Sometimes it's better to be lucky in recruiting in the long run."

Prep schools can recruit, so the best ones have players on their bench who have high major potential. The Illini will no doubt be beating the prep school bushes for another Djimde.

Fifth year transfers like Sam Maniscalco, who came from Bradley to play his senior year while pursuing a Master's degree in a curriculum unavailable at the Peoria school, are also possible. Howard reminds the Illini are not able to reach out to potential transfers.

"One it's against the rules. Also, you never know who is happy and who is not. You've got to wait until you get that phone call. But definitely that would be a possibility as well."

Weber feels Maniscalco has been worth the scholarship despite his continued ankle problems. But each situation is different.

"The Wisconsin football player (Russell Wilson) was a really positive move for them. Brandon Wood at Michigan State is having a pretty good year for them.

"I'm not sure I like the rule. If I was a mid-major or low major, I don't think I would like it at all. But it's probably here to stay because some schools don't have grad schools that would allow kids that want to go to grad school a chance to move on. We do know a lot of it is for basketball reasons."

The Illini needed a mature point guard, and Maniscalco knew many of the other players on the team from his AAU experiences. Weber says he was the right person at the right time.

"We had limited experience at the point guard position. That made the decision a little bit easier for us. I think in Sam's case, when his coach was let go, and he was very close to him, he wanted to go someplace. He wanted another shot. He didn't play last year because of the injury, and the coach was gone.

"It's not an easy thing to go to a new team as a fifth-year senior. But he definitely can be a valuable member of our team in terms of maturity and experience."

In many cases, a fifth year senior provides leadership and other intangibles not possible with an entering freshman.

"You hope so. I think it's situational, but in most cases it provides maturity and experience. I think that's the one real positive thing. If you can get a college basketball player at the age of 22 or 23, you can have much more success just because of the experience you have."

Weber won't take anyone requesting a transfer. He has good reason to be picky.

"Other than Sam, we could have everybody back. Whether it's junior college or grad student, do they really fit your need and can play? In the case of Sam, it was easy. You had Tracy (Abrams) coming in as a freshman, and some guys like Brandon (Paul), who had played limited minutes at the point guard."

If they cannot find what they need, Howard says they can always hold the scholarship for the 2013 and 2014 classes, both of which have great talent and depth within the state of Illinois.

"You talk about the 13 and 14 classes, and they're probably some of the best we've seen in the state in some time. So there is a possibility we might save a scholarship for next year."

Recruiting is always at the forefront of conversation within Illini Nation. But Howard reminds recruiting depends in part on how well Illini coaches develop talent already on campus.

"A lot of people talk about recruiting, but the big thing now is to take care of your guys. I learned a long time ago, the best guys you can recruit are your own players. We've got to get our guys better. You bring in six freshman, and you've got to get them better. You've got to develop them or people won't come. You've got to take care of your own."

The Illini will scour the countryside for talent, and maybe they'll get lucky this spring. But if Meyers Leonard goes pro and no one is added, the Illini will face the 2012-13 season with 11 scholarship athletes. If they all develop, perhaps another player will be unnecessary and the extra scholarships can be used for the following years.

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