Deron's season was cut in half thanks to a hard pick during Illinois' game against Maryland Eastern Shore that forced Williams to the sidelines with a broken jaw. Deron came back from his injury rather quickly, and played his first few games with his jaw still wired shut. Deron's first game back was when Illinois took on Illinois State in Assembly Hall. Without his 20 points, the Illini most likely would have been an upset victim against their in state rival.
Despite winning the Big Ten regular season Championship outright for the first time since 1952, Deron Williams was the only Illinois player honored with an All-Big Ten First Team selection. Deron's play was key in Illinois' run to the Big Ten Championship. In the game that was probably the defining moment of the Illini's season; Illinois' win atIndiana, Deron was the Illini's main offense in the final minutes and his defense was key in shutting down Indiana's Bracey Wright as the Fighting Illini clawed back to defeat the Hoosiers. That victory gave the then struggling Fighting Illini a confidence and swagger that carried through the rest of the Big Ten season, and brought the Big Ten Championship to Champaign for the third time in the last four years.
By the end of the season, Deron had matured into a scoring point guard, and I stress the point guard. Even with Dee Brown keying the Illini in the open court and the rare secondary break, Deron was the calming factor in the half court. He was one of the first players to take a solid fundamental grasp on the nuances of Bruce Weber's offensive system. Because of this he became a teacher on the court, the lead by example player the Illini needed.
To read more on Deron Williams, including his strengths & weaknesses and Brumby's expectations for him next season click here.
The seed started to mature and grow roots within Dee as he started off the season struggling to score, and his team struggled to live up to lofty pre-season expectations. With his shots not falling, Dee began to press, and because of this, Dee struggled even more. The games against North Carolina in Greensboro and Providence in New York were the pinnacle of Dee's on court struggles. Dee was pushing to be the best player he could be; instead of just playing based on instincts, Dee was thinking about every move he wanted to take. As the year progressed, Dee started to learn more and more what was wanted of him by the new coaching staff, and his game progressed into a game of reactions versus thought.
By the end of the season, Dee had matured into a complete basketball player instead of the speed player he previously was. Instead of just relying on his speed to beat defenders down the court to score, Dee was using a complete repertoire of basketball skills at the end of the season and became a true triple threat with the basketball.
To read more on Dee Brown, including his strengths & weaknesses and Brumby's expectations for him next season click here.
Roger started to see more time during his sophomore season, and last year Roger was a starter from the beginning of the season, and was Illinois' most consistent interior scorer. Despite being undersized for the position he was playing (power forward), Roger is a beast on the offensive glass. He uses his speed and quickness advantage over larger players to get to the basketball off the glass, and score on the quick put backs. In the flow of the offense, Roger was able to score via either the post or the mid-range face up. On defense, Roger was often times matched up against a player larger than him in both size and height, but Roger used his strength and quickness to keep the offensive player in front of him.
In what was a big shock to Illinois fans and even the coaching staff according to interviews Bruce Weber gave to the Champaign News-Gazette and ESPN.com, Roger declared for the 2004 NBA Draft earlier this spring. Roger's declaration may have been the most shocking thing I have witnessed while watching Illinois basketball in the last five years. Despite assuming that Roger was the third player, along with Dee and Deron, that Bruce Weber requested a draft status report on from the NBA scouts, I never would have guessed that Roger would actually have put his name in the draft. After not getting an invite to attend the Chicago Pre-Draft Camp, Roger made the announcement every one expected he would make: he was pulling his name from the draft and returning to the University of Illinois for his senior year.
The talk as to why Roger put his name in the draft centered on him wanting to get his name out there as a player NBA scouts should watch in the upcoming season. In theory, every junior in college basketball that can get from their campus to Chicago without incurring too much cost should declare for the draft because they have nothing to lose outside of the money spent. The NCAA allows a player to declare for the draft once during their college career and return to college by removing their name from the draft list. If a junior has not yet declared and can afford the travel costs to and from Chicago, they don't lose a thing by entering their name in the draft pool.
To read more on Roger Powell, including his strengths & weaknesses and Brumby's expectations for him next season click here.
In his three years at Illinois, Luther has improved many aspects of his game, most notably his outside shooting. During his freshman season Luther was not a solid shooter (.291 from three-point), but he became one of Illinois' deadliest weapons from the outside. Not only did Luther improve offensively, last season he was finally able to corral his athleticism on the defensive end of the court for the Illini.
There are two distinct points last season that exemplify the development of Luther Head: his defense at Indiana and the final seconds at Purdue. When Illinois headed into Bloomington, they were looking up at the rest of the Big Ten and needed a win on the road to prove to themselves they belonged in the top tier of the conference. For most of the evening Luther drew the defensive assignment of Indiana's third guard, but when Deron Williams came down with foul trouble it became Luther's job to shut down Indiana's Bracey Wright. Luther took the challenge face on and put an exclamation point on his defensive improvement by shutting down Wright. Without the swarming defense he played on Wright in those minutes, Illinois probably would have lost the game and it most likely would have been a different season for the Illini.
Luther's defense in Bloomington was not the only season changing play he made. As every Illini fan remembers, it was Luther's heroics in the final seconds of the Purdue game that carried Illinois to a victory in West Lafayette. Those final seconds have been the defining moment of the last three years of Luther's career at Illinois. They signified the completion of Luther's maturation from a raw athlete into a basketball player. In those seconds Luther quickly drove the ball up the court, and found a streaking Roger Powell. Roger missed the lay up, and unlike the rest of his teammates Luther did not give up on the play. He ran up the court and put back the missed shot giving Illinois the 81-79 victory over the Boilermakers. That play will be the one Illinois fans remember when they think of the 2003-2004 basketball season, and it would not have happened without the maturation of Luther Head.
To read more on Luther Head, including his strengths & weaknesses and Brumby's expectations for him next season click here.
When Bruce Weber came to Champaign, James was the player I worried about most adjusting to the new offense. Not because I did not think he would be open to it, but because of the vast changes Weber would require of Augustine's role on the team. In the Hi-Low, James had two main offensive roles: the high post passer / screener or the low-post sealer. The number of roles he would potentially play heading into the season dramatically improved with the new offense. James would no longer be locked into one of two positions on the court, but getting the post position necessary to score would not be as easy as it was either.
This year James was asked to do many different things on offense, and still be Illinois' largest post presence. Among the new things James was asked to do include: the pick and roll from the top and wing, getting post position with a target, and take the open mid-range corner jump shot. The combination of being the focal point of opponent's interior defenses and learning a new system turned James into a timid player. Sure there were always the signs that James was gaining confidence, the slam dunks in traffic, running the floor, the jump hook without hesitation, but none of these signs were ever together for an extended period of time.
James' biggest improvement between his freshman and sophomore seasons was on defense. Sure, he would still end up in foul trouble every once in a while, but as the season wore on, the sign of James on the bench due to fouls became less and less. The new defensive philosophy installed by Weber utilized James' athleticism to double team ball handlers on the perimeter, reeked havoc on opponents creating turnover and trap opportunities for Illinois. Even with the aggressive defense, James' fouls went down, but not as much as they could have. Sure, James was not on the bench in nearly every first half with two fouls this year, but was still saddled with foul trouble in key games.
To read more on James Augustine, including his strengths & weaknesses and Brumby's expectations for him next season click here.
Since Nick is a senior, I think it is safe to say we already know what to expect from him. It is very rare that a player makes a drastic jump between his junior and senior seasons, and I do not expect a jump like that from Smith. Nick will be expected to continue to do everything he does well on the court (pass and shoot), while improving his defense and attitude. When looking down the bench, Bruce Weber will probably see Nick Smith as his first option off the bench when he needs to give either Augustine or Powell a rest.
To read more on Nick Smith, including his strengths & weaknesses and Brumby's expectations for him next season click here.
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.
To read more on Rich McBride, including his strengths & weaknesses and Brumby's expectations for him next season click here.
With his combination of height and athleticism, Bruce Weber could use Brian at two different positions in his rotation, and that is what he did. While Brian is more suited to playing the wing forward, he was also tried at power forward at times during last season. It was nearly impossible for Brian to break into the Illini's perimeter rotation because Dee, Deron, and Luther were rotation staples and Rich McBride played for the brief periods of time when one of the three starters was not on the court. The interior was a different animal, but by the end of the season Brian was not even seeing time on the interior.
During and even after last season many people wondered why Brian Randle had fallen out of the Illini's regular rotation and been replaced by Jack Ingram. The reason was simple, outside of his superior athleticism and quickness for his position, Brian was not ready to be a fulltime contributor to the Illini on either the perimeter or on the inside.
To read more on Brian Randle, including his strengths & weaknesses and Brumby's expectations for him next season click here.
The beginning of last season was a time of flux for the Illini as Weber was learning the different abilities of every player on the Illini. This was noticeable on the inside where Weber was looking to replace Brian Cook with a combination of two freshmen and a transfer in his first season. As the season wore on, Jack gained more and more time in the rotation before finally becoming a staple during the stretch run. He supplanted freshman Brian Randle becoming the second big man off the bench, providing a solid five to ten minutes in the paint. When Ingram was on the court he added interior toughness and a willingness to set hard screens.
Offensively Jack seemed to prefer to face up, instead of staying on the block. The weird thing this preference was it was counter to the style many fans and media members had reported he played in practice and pick up games the year before. But to those who watched Ingram at Tulsa, it made sense because that was the style he seemed to prefer then.
To read more on Jack Ingram, including his strengths & weaknesses and Brumby's expectations for him next season click here.
All that being said, I like what I have seen from Warren, especially his raw athleticism. In watching various pick up games, scrimmages, and even Warren playing in the final minutes of games well decided, the one thing I know Warren brings to the court is an athletic ability unseen in an Illini uniform in a long time for a man his size. When you combine raw athleticism with little playing time, you can pretty much only use one word in describing that player, potential. Warren Carter just oozes potential.
To read more on Warren Carter, including his strengths & weaknesses and Brumby's expectations for him next season click here.