The commitment of Luke Zeller to Notre Dame now means the Fighting Illini coaching staff will have to fall back to a different player, a plan B recruit if you must, to fill the void in the middle that will be in Champaign in 2005 and beyond. Unfortunately, a void in the middle in Champaign will not just exist at the start of the 2005-2006 season; it is currently residing in Champaign as well. The departure of Aaron Spears on the surface would appear to put a chink in the armor of the Illini's inside presence, in reality I feel it will be a non-issue. Sure, you can say that a comment like the one I just made above is sour grapes, but after his injury last season, I have never seen Aaron as a player that could have been a factor in the Illini big man rotation for a multitude of different reasons.
So the main questions that remain about the Fighting Illini right now are: who will the Illini look at to fill the void on the inside in (1) the short term and in (2) the long term?
ILLINI ON THE INSIDE IN 2004-2005
The answer in the short term question is easier to decipher because the players who will be involved in solving the interior gap next season are already working out in Champaign (or in the case of Shaun Pruitt will be in June after he finishes up high school). The players are already known by the coaches: James Augustine, Roger Powell, Nick Smith, Jack Ingram, Brian Randle, and Warren Carter. The coaches know the strengths and weaknesses of each player, and are right now working during individual instruction to refine each player's respective skill set.
We already know Illinois will rely heavily on James Augustine and Roger Powell in the pivot next season, but the question remains as to who will get the majority of the minutes backing up these two players. Last year Nick Smith and Jack Ingram emerged over the rest of the post players to take the majority of the back up minutes, but I do not think the minutes that were played by both Ingram and Smith are not set in stone for the upcoming season. Warren Carter, Brian Randle, and Shaun Pruitt can easily come in next season and take minutes away from the two seniors if they work hard and improve enough in practice. In fact, I believe for Illinois to be a truly great team next season (i.e. a consistent top five team instead of a top fifteen team) one of these three players will need to step up and displace either Nick or Jack in the big man rotation.
The three players that can come in and take some minutes from Jack and Nick are three different players with distinctive skill sets they bring to the table. In the sections below, I will look at each player and discuss the possibility of them taking away some minutes from Nick or Jack on the block.
The one word that can be used to describe Warren Carter at this point in his career is "upside." (All rights for the word upside are reserved by and great respect is given to the NBA's 2004 Coach of the Year, Hube Brown). Last season Warren did not play too much, in fact he played absolutely no meaningful minutes for the Fighting Illini. Because of this it is tough to get a good grasp on the complete skill set that Warren brings to the table.
There are a few things that are known about Warren through the brief playing time he received last year:
- He is very skinny, and will need to put on weight to deal with the rigors of the interior battles in college basketball.
- He is very athletic. In fact his athleticism is probably his biggest asset at this time in his career.
- He preferred to face up with a mid-range game versus playing with his back to the basket on offense.
Prediction: I still think Warren is a year or two away from being a solid player for the Illini, so I do not see too much time for him in the rotation next year. I think he will play a little more than he did last year, but right now I do not see him getting any significant minutes once Bruce Weber has discovered his every game rotation around the time Big Ten season rolls around.
Shaun was the first recruit signed by Bruce Weber in his tenure as Illinois Head Coach. The West Aurora star selected Illinois over Michigan State in what turned out to be a very highly contested recruiting battle between the two Big Ten rivals. Unfortunately, since his Illinois career has not even started yet, I do not know what to expect from Shaun Pruitt on the court, nor do I know enough about his game to even point to how he could fit in on the inside for the Illini.
The things I do know are that both Tom Izzo and Bruce Weber thought Shaun would be the type of player that could step in and play on the Big Ten level as a freshman. Personally, if Tom Izzo feels a big man can play at the Big Ten level as a freshman, I am not going to question him because he is the coach that has brought big men ranging from Andre Hutson to Aloysious Anagonye to Adam Ballinger to Paul Davis to the Big Ten Conference.
The question remaining in respects to Shaun Pruitt is whether or not he will wear Loren Tate's favorite shirt color next season, red. At this point, given the lack of interior depth at Illinois, and his already Big Ten ready (albeit on the smaller side) size, I doubt Pruitt will end up taking a red shirt season. As with Carter, Pruitt will be given early season practices and games to show his skills to the coaching staff in an effort to break into the every game rotation.
Prediction: Pruitt, as with any high school senior that is not heading straight to the NBA, still has some developing to do before they will be a force on the inside in the college game. Right now, based on really nothing more than a guess on my part, I believe Pruitt will be looked at to play anywhere from five to ten minutes per game on the inside, leaning more towards the five instead of the ten.
Of the players that I am looking at to take the next step in their games and take some minutes as a back up forward, Brian Randle sits right at the top of the list. The sophomore has already shown flashes of brilliance during the playing time he was given last year as a wing forward before Weber cut down his rotation of players to a svelte eight players. Next season Brian can easily break into Weber's eight-man rotation as he is uniquely positioned with the ability to play both inside and outside. Brian's versatility allows Weber to utilize Randle as either a back up to the guards or the forwards.
If Brian plays inside next season, Illinois will be a much more athletic team, but the offshoot of that is the Illini will lose interior muscle. As last season came to an end, Brian had lost his spot in the rotation to fellow freshman Rich McBride on the perimeter and Jack Ingram on the inside because Weber did not think he was ready to contribute at the necessary level on either side of the basketball.
After watching Brian for the majority of last season play the wing forward, there are a few things we know about what Brian brings to the court every time he steps between the lines:
- Unbelievable Jumping Ability: Last season Brian replaced Luther Head as the player whom you should most expect to throw down a vicious dunk over an opponent, or on an alley-oop.
- A poor jump shot. When Brian came into college the biggest knock against his game being his inability to make a jump shot, and he proved that was a valid knock as he shot horribly last season. Hopefully this summer Brian spends a lot of time at Ubben working on his jump shot with the coaching staff.
- A player that plays defense way too much with his hands. Brian entered college with reputation as a solid defender against all comers. But, once Brian got into college he was no longer the most athletic player on the floor, and he started to struggle defensively. As he struggled defensively, Brian started to reach creating foul trouble for himself.
- A wing forward or big man who will create match up problems with opposing defenders because he can either play face up or with his back to the basket. If a team goes three guards, Brian can score over a guard in the post. If a team has three forwards, Brian will be able to take the third forward on the perimeter.
Prediction: I think Brian will split his time between providing a rest for Illinois' guards and big men, allowing him to combine for about ten to fifteen minutes a game next season, leaning more towards the high side of fifteen versus the low side of the ten.
Since this is the summer, and the recruiting season, I would be amiss if I did not at least look into the future and either predict a world that closely resembles Dante's Seventh Level of Hell or a complete utopia. Since it is my duty as a fan, I will look ahead to the 2005-2006 season. Illinois loses three big men to graduation: Roger Powell, Nick Smith, and Jack Ingram and right now it appears the coaching staff is looking to bring in two big men in the Class of 2005 to replace the departing seniors.
Illinois has already received a commitment from David Palmer of Antioch, TN taking up one of the big man scholarships. It was widely believed that Luke Zeller of Washington, IN was the staff's key big man recruit left in the fold, but with his commitment to Notre Dame on Wednesday, the staff will have to find another player to fill that need in the Class of 2005.
The question a lot of Illini fans are asking themselves right now is: Who will be the second big man recruit in the Class of 2005 now that Zeller is out of the picture? I wish I knew the answer, but right now I am completely in the dark. I can think of a few names like DeAndre Thomas of Chicago Westinghouse who was thought to be Plan B recruits that could become key recruits for the staff right now, but if I were to name any more of these supposed dark horse recruiting candidates, I would just be throwing darts at the wall trying to get names. If you follow recruiting closely, you should be able to pick up the hints as to who the staff is following closely on the summer circuit, and that will be the best bet to figure out who could possibly end up as the second big man in the Illinois Class of 2005.
It will be an interesting summer to watch in regards to recruiting. I am sure when the second big man name is discovered and he commits to Illinois some people will be extremely happy, and others will decide that he was not ranked high enough by the gurus.
- Despite not having a dominant big man, I am looking forward to a run to St. Louis next season from the Illini. In fact, I will be disappointed if Illinois does not get to the Final Four next season. Sure, laying expectations of a Final Four on a team is tough to do, but I bet if you asked each player on the roster they would all say they expect the same thing out of themselves. The path there for Illinois to make a run in the NCAA Tournament without having to travel more than three hours from Champaign at all (Indianapolis to Chicago to St. Louis).
- Illinois has to be in the pre-season Top Five for next season. Two weeks ago I thought Illinois, Duke, and Kansas were going to be the best three teams heading into next year, and right now Illinois is the only one on my list that did not lose a key player (Duke – Luol Deng; Kansas – David Padgett). I would have to say right now that I am looking at Illinois, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, and Wisconsin as the best teams heading into next season. Wisconsin and Georgia Tech will stay this high as long as Wisconsin's Devin Harris and Georgia Tech's Jarrett Jack remain in college, and do not make the jump to the NBA.
Completely off the topic of the Fighting Illini, but is anyone else sick of basketball announcers saying Kobe Bryant is doing such a good job handling himself during these times of adversity (his court case)? Personally I am sick of it.
Regardless of whether or not he is guilty, the whole circus surrounding him is because of an action he took, not something someone else did. He placed this upon himself; it is not like it was a random event that was completely out of his control like a close relative or friend passing away. If that were the case, I would definitely see the hoopla surrounding his ability to keep himself composed. But, when the reason he is dealing with adverse conditions is all his doing, I do not see why I should be amazed with the manner in which he has handled himself.
- What was the NBA thinking with current playoff structure? The games are too spread out, and there will only be one game this weekend assuming Minnesota defeats Denver on Friday night. This is the worst scheduling I have ever seen for a playoff format in a long time. Hopefully the NBA will re-look at how they schedule the playoffs for next year.
- I will admit it: I was completely shocked when I heard that Christian Morton was drafted on Sunday. I am very happy for Christian, and I am even happier to see what team he is going to play for, the New England Patriots. I believe the Patriots coaching staff has a keen eye for talent and how to mold it, so hopefully they can reign in Christian's raw athleticism and turn him into a successful NFL player. Initially, I expect to see Christian as a punt and kick returner for the Pats, but he will be among friends, namely former Illini corner back Eugene Wilson.