If people saved predictions made on the message boards and decided to bring them out to use against me, I think one of the best ill-fated predictions I made was during the 2002-2003 season. I stated Rich McBride was a better basketball than either Dee Brown or Deron Williams at that time. In my mind that statement said nothing about the respective talent levels of either Dee or Deron, but more about how good of a basketball player Rich was. The Rich McBride hype began right as he stepped foot onto a basketball court during his freshman year of high school, and it did not die down until he stepped on the court as a college freshman. Rich was going to be the next great Illinois player, but something changed between his freshman year of high school and college.
What was that change? Well, it had nothing to do with Rich's skill level, and everything to do with the skill level and size of the other players. Rich could no longer rely on his superior size and skill to dominate his opponents. This adjustment caused him to lose confidence in what he normally did on the court offensively. It was a rare occurrence this past season to see Rich McBride pump fake a shot and take the ball to the basket, something that Rich was known to do during high school. We all know Rich can shoot the ball from anywhere on the court, but he was even reluctant to take open shots within the flow of the offense last season.
Deron Williams' early season injury gave Rich the time on the court I hoped would help him develop the confidence needed on the college level. Outside of a few glimpses, Rich's confidence was never high enough to carry through the struggles he encountered. During the Memphis game in Champaign, Rich made a play on defense that I think showed how good of a player he can be. When Rich arrived in Champaign, many people believed the only thing he knew about defense was that he scored on it, but one play showed how much he had progressed as a player. Rich was guarding the Memphis point guard, pressuring the ball at about the time line. The Memphis player was not able to break Rich's pressure, nor find an open teammate, and Rich drew a five-second call and loud cheers from the Champaign faithful.
When Rich McBride arrived in Champaign, the one role he needed to fill was that of a designated shooter. Illinois lost Sean Harrington to graduation, and the Illini needed a zone-buster. Rich McBride was that guy. He is Illinois' best long range shooter, and his range extends to pretty much the other baseline. Next season Rich will be looked at to expand his offensive game. If and when he does, that will make him an even deadlier weapon.
I went back and watched some of the tapes of games from last year, and after looking a little deeper into some of Rich's play, especially shooting, when he set up his shot and was able to square his feet he was normally dead red. If Rich rushed his shot, he would miss it. Combine the lack of confidence and rushing his jump shot, and you can see what Rich struggled for most of the season.
- Most freshmen entering the Big Ten need at least a year of weight training before they are strong enough to withstand the rigors of play, but Rich McBride was physically ready for the Big Ten well before he even played in a game. Rich already has the body to not only to be a presence on defense, but to also take a hit and still get a shot up. While most of his contemporaries will spend time this summer in the weight room to get stronger, Rich will be able to work on the other parts of his game that need improvement.
The only thing that can hold back a natural scorer like Rich is confidence. Unfortunately for Illini fans, Rich did not display confidence all season long. There were flashes, but nothing sustained. I remember thinking after the first half in Iowa City, "this is the turning point for Rich and his confidence," but he still played without confidence afterwards. When Rich played without confidence, he became one-dimensional.
If Rich comes into next season with confidence, Illinois will be a much better team. A confident Rich will bring points both from the paint and from deep behind the arc, keeping defenses honest while he is in the game replacing Dee, Deron, or Luther.
EXPECTATIONS FOR NEXT SEASON
Next season Rich will be the first guard off the bench, and maybe the only guard off the bench depending on whether or not Calvin Brock takes a redshirt. He will be looked to play the scoring guard and three guard positions when he is on the court. Bruce Weber will be looking for Rich to provide scoring and emotional sparks off the bench.
Last year teams would shut down the Illinois offense by playing zone defense. When this happened, the Illinois guards would stagnate their movements, and reside to just passing the ball around the perimeter. Weber will look to McBride, Illinois' best shooter, to try to shoot the opposition out of the zone.