Through the Trifocals

Coach Bruce Weber has signed three new basketball recruits. Their long-term future is as yet unknown, but this hasn't stopped fans from speculating on their future and that of their coach. Illinisports discusses the different opinions in this column.

Bruce Weber has finished up the fall portion of this year's baskeball recruiting by signing three recruits. While none of the three are presently ranked among the top 100 national prospects by most recruiting experts, all three offer potential for success at Illinois. How much success is unknown, but that doesn't stop the speculation.

Coach Weber is an open, honest person who recently commented on his recruits and the recruiting process in some press releases and a press conference. But his remarks are receiving mixed reviews and are interpreted in different ways depending on the bias of the interpreter. Let's examine his comments with an eye toward determining their true meaning.

From reading different columns and Internet posts on the subject, it appears there are at least three different sets of opinions. One group has been disappointed ever since Weber's hiring and looks for signs that he cannot measure up to his predecessor. A few of these people are former coach Bill Self apologists who can't let go of the past. Another group is the Weber apologists who want to believe he is the ideal coach for Illinois and can do little wrong. A few of these people are desperate to believe our new coach is superior to our previous coach to nullify the pain Self caused them by leaving. And a third group tries to accept the present situation without judgment and waits for future results on the court and in recruiting before deciding whether Weber is to be a long-term success or a short-term failure. It appears all three of these groups believe Coach Weber's recent remarks reinforce their belief systems.

Answering questions about the realities of the college recruiting process, Coach Weber said frankly, "...Recruiting sucks. That's a fact of life. Recruiting is always difficult. If it was easy, if there was a science to it or it was logical, you (reporters) might even be doing it. It is all the nights, the letters, the calls, being on the road for three weeks, that is just part of it."

Obviously, this statement is a partial explanation for a recruiting class that includes no super prospects. Weber and assistants tried to lure Julian Wright from Homewood-Flossmore, but he was infatuated with Bill Self when he coached Illinois and committed to him without visiting Kansas' campus. They tried hard to sign big man Luke Zeller out of Indiana, but top Indiana players rarely ever leave that state, and a Catholic has trouble turning down Notre Dame. And point guard Justin Dentmon, once considered leaning to Illinois, announced for Washington after Illinois stopped recruiting him. These three would have satisfied some of the skeptics, but it was not to be.

Coach Weber continued with this comment: "There are cycles of recruiting. One year there are ten great prospects in Illinois. You can't take them all, but you get the ones you can get. Now, if there are two or three great ones in one year, it is a different story. There aren't really a lot of big guys in our state this year, maybe one true center.

"I wish there were ten great players in the state every year and we could pick and choose who we want, but that isn't the reality. So we have to deal with it. It is easy to second guess, easy to say, why didn't you get this guy? Maybe there are four two-guards in the state. You can't take all four, you can only take one. Maybe one doesn't have grades, maybe one doesn't have this or that so you have to go from there."

While we must read between the lines here, these remarks can reveal much to the discerning mind. Illinois high schools are not blessed with tons of talent in the 2004-2005 recruiting class, and the University of Illinois has its best recruiting when it can sign Illinois athletes because some have a natural affinity to us.

Like Weber hinted, much of the talent this year is localized among guards, more than we could possibly take. Others simply don't mesh with our immediate needs. One great scorer is too short to be a power forward and too wide to be a wing player. One player has weight and grade problems. One is a great guard prospect who has everything but the outside shooting touch we needed. A couple of fine guards are a little slow to play point. A couple more need prep school or junior college to improve their grade average. Some years, the talent in Illinois fits snugly into the Illini's needs, but this year it doesn't. It may sound like a rationalization to some, but to others it is a statement of fact.

Illinois needs more shooters, and it especially needs someone to come off picks and score with a midrange game and a three-point shot. Jamar Smith was recruited to fulfill this role while also continuing our Peoria connection, but this caused us to back off some of the best talent in the state. Weber's comments about Jamar support this contention:

"I would say Jamar's main strength is shooting. He is a pure, natural shooter, he is very smooth, he does a great job of using screens. He does a great job of coming off a screen and being ready to shoot the basketball. I think he still needs to work on his ball-handling, and one of his goals I think is to become more of a combo guard than pure shooter...He is athletic, with good bounce. Like most players coming out of high school, putting on weight and adding strength will be important to Jamar. He is a quality kid and a good student."

So Jamar Smith fills a unique role despite having some weaknesses that lower his national ranking. Whether he is a good recruit for Illinois depends on whether the evaluator accepts Coach Weber's statements as a positive or a negative. Since Jamar is also known as a hard worker, perhaps he will be a four-year player who continues to blossom as he matures. For Weber apologists, he is ideal for the system Weber uses. For the skeptics, he is not ranked high enough to help Illinois win.

Bruce Weber was looking for a point guard to replace Deron Williams, assuming he will place his name in the 2005 NBA draft after this season. But other than Dentmon, several top point guards in Illinois have either limited potential, limited grades, limited interest in Illinois or want instant playing time. He finally found and recruited Chester Frazier for this purpose, and some believe he might evolve into a good point guard. Others insist, without seeing him play, he just isn't good enough to lead keep us to the National spotlight. Weber comments about Chester:

"Chester Frazier is a true point guard. He has a good feel for the game and knows how to create for himself and others. Chester has shown toughness; he is quick on his feet and has good, quick hands. His year of prep school should give him a great advantage since he's playing against good players every day in practice and is playing what is practically a collegiate schedule. He has the reputation as a point guard, but Chester has also shown signs of becoming a really good shooter. We've now stretched our recruiting to the east coast, which may give us some added exposure there."

Frazier sounds like a hard-nosed player who works hard to improve and has some true point-guard skills that will be needed when Deron Williams and Dee Brown leave Illinois. And like Williams before him, he may be undervalued because his unselfishness in feeding his teammates is less exciting to the gurus than a scoring mentality. Weber and his coaches believe Chester is a better fit for our program than the point guards in Illinois, which may or may not be saying something about this year's Illinois high school senior class.

Obviously, Weber hints that Frazier is not known for his shooting, and that concerns some people. If that aspect of his game is improving, then he might rise up and be ranked higher among his peers before this season is completed. Until then, the skeptics will continue to have doubts about him. After all, he is not considered a superstar.

Coach Weber shared some comments about his third recruit, power forward Charles Jackson out of Georgia on the day of his appendectomy (Get well soon, coach!): "Charles Jackson has a big body with a terrific rebounding mentality. Now that he has decided to concentrate on basketball, his upside is unbelievable. CJ gives us another physical, low-post presence. He's a physical specimen for a high school player. CJ is a tremendous student and a tremendous kid. He's had good success at his high school under John McFather, which is one of the best teams in their class in the state of Georgia. His AAU coach, Seth Berl, is an Illinois alum as well."

Clearly, Jackson is not yet rated among the best in the country in basketball, in part because he did not attend most of the summer camps that provide exposure. Still, he fulfills our need for a strong bruiser who can rebound, defend and screen in the post. He may not be offensively gifted at this point, but he is said to be a hard worker who will continue to improve.

Jackson gives us another four-year performer who can play a specific role. He is athletic enough to be a football All-American, and his coaches feel he will show marked improvement once he focuses solely on basketball. He is clearly a better prospect for us than any other similarly sized prospect within Illinois. So, is our glass half full or half empty?

Tall and highly athletic forward Julian Wright was head and shoulders above every other Illinois prospect this year, and there were truly no other "bigs" with either the ability, grades or interest to consider Illinois. Is this a failing for Illinois, or an unlucky break? It depends on your point of view.

Certainly, it would be nice to have a coaching staff that was so charismatic and talented that it could go into any part of the country and attract players to replace the loss of Wright or fill our post needs. But that is an extremely difficult task for any coach. Should we expect Weber to be a successful national recruiter? It depends upon with whom you speak. It also depends on whether the Illini can stay in the national spotlight this year so athletes around the country can learn more about him.

Weber comments about the nature of national recruiting: "There's basically one group of elite players, then all the rest. And it's a matter of finding players who fit your style, who want to come and who you believe can develop into pretty good players."

Most national recruiting experts have agreed the 2005 graduating class lacks the quality at the top and the quantity depth that characterized its predecessor. There will be, at most, 3-5 players trying to jump straight from high school to the NBA this year. And there is a big dropoff in talent after the top 25 or so players. If you cannot attract any of that top group, and Illinois made contact with several, then a true evaluation of the remainder will depend on how they fit with your needs, just like Weber said.

Coach Weber made several additional references that help describe the barriers he and his staff have been facing since coming to Illinois. For example, "The fact people never understand is that grades are a factor. Kids will come out and say, I want to get there but they might not graduate high school. I can't tell you that because I can't talk about players we don't sign. So there are so many factors in recruiting that I can't discuss or know...everyone always talks about the kids we lost but some of them, you don't know the circumstances and we can't get into it because I can't talk about it."

Some of the circumstances Weber cannot talk about include the demands of some recruits and their off-the-court behavior. Athletes are accustomed to being pampered, and some receive offers of extra benefits from colleges desiring their services. The more elite they are, the more likely they are to face such temptations or make those demands. Few if any coaches go public with such accusations, but they do exist. And no coach, out of respect for athletes' privacy, will talk about legal problems, behavior problems, drinking or other drug problems, etc.

Weber identified another factor: "One of the problems right now is you have had four coaches in 8 years (at Illinois). There is no stability and it is going to take awhile to get it, you have to work kids when they are young. You have to get kids on-campus, we have to get it to a point where the kids want to stay here. We are pretty good, why wouldn't you want to come here? You know? That doesn't make sense to me.

"And the high school coaches should want their kids to come here. If they don't bring them down, I can't go get them, that is against the rules. They need to get down here, slowly but surely they get to know me, the program continues to flourish, we need to get them down here, get the kids here."

Weber is describing problems that have been consistent for at least the last 50 years in Illinois, if not longer. The state of Illinois is so diverse that Chicago and the Southern part of Illinois don't even acknowledge each other's existence. The University of Illinois, despite being the state school, experiences tremendous competition for attention and interest, from inside and outside the state. It has always suffered from detractors who have agendas to damage the Illini's reputation so their favored schools will seem better by comparison. And some have sought vengence because they were not accepted for enrollment or some other slight they endured, whether real or imagined. But in his favor, Coach Weber wishes to face the problem head-on and work over the next few years to make improvements.

Weber's concerns are replications of the laments of previous coaches Bill Self, Lon Kruger, Lou Henson, Gene Bartow, Harv Schmidt, Harry Combes and those who came before. He contrasted the lack of state loyalty with Kentucky, stating, "I know in Kentucky, the (high school) coach might not have a job if their kids didn't go to Kentucky. That is how it is." He will never have the Kentucky situation at Illinois, but is he wrong to wish out loud or strive for improvement?

Weber also commented on the lack of a State Championship at the Assembly Hall and the lack of contact many high school athletes have with Champaign-Urbana prior to their recruitment. "I would love to get the state tournament back here, love to get the kids back on-campus. Obviously, most of the time, the great players get their teams to state.

"If the state tournament isn't at Assembly Hall, we are missing an opportunity to get them on-campus. Nothing against Peoria, but I am trying to be selfish here. We are the state university, I am hoping down the road that is something we can work on. We have to promote our program and hopefully coming here will be the in-thing to do. But it may be a little bit of time before that happens."

Weber skeptics believe his comments reflect a whining attempt at making excuses for poor work. Of course, Coach Weber's high-pitched, scratchy voice can be interpreted in a number of ways, and it sounds like a "whine" to those predisposed to dislike him. His remarks are excuses if he is the kind of person who refuses to accept blame for his role in any "failure" in recruiting. However, Weber would also be blamed if he offered no explanations because many questions would remain unanswered and subject to wild and often inaccurate speculation.

Bruce Weber's comments were answers to specific questions about the lack of superstars in his recruiting class. In response to a question about his possible frustration, Weber said he wasn't frustrated about his recruiting to this point, reminding the class might look much better if a fine player can be identified and corralled for the spring signing period, like he did last year with Calvin Brock. He probably was somewhat frustrated that he couldn't bring in his top picks. But he was also clearly frustrated by continual references to his lack of recruiting ability and questions about what went wrong.

Weber wears his emotions on his sleeve, and it is likely some of his frustrations surfaced during his press conference. Those who give Weber the benefit of the doubt believe he was just being honest in response to specific questions. Skeptics believe he was giving excuses for his inherent inability to attract superstars. Neither side will be swayed to accept the other's point of view, unfortunately.

Personally, this writer tends to fall into the third category of fans. Coach Weber is not the best coach who ever lived, but he also isn't chopped liver. He has already proven his ability to coach by molding a team of Bill Self's players and winning an undisputed Big 10 Championship. He doesn't have Self's media savvy, but who does? Weber has a tough act to follow in this regard. But he is refreshingly honest and open with the media, allowing everyone to know where he is coming from and providing inside information for fans starved for news about their beloved players and team.

Some say Weber should weigh his words and share intimate details only cautiously. You know, don't say anything that anyone can use against you. Hide your true feelings so some won't feel fearful for the future of the team. Don't directly lie, but don't share the whole truth either. Provide simplistic answers that are repeated endlessly over the years. That way, everyone will love you, just like everyone loves a politician, right? Oh, wait, maybe that just makes people distrust you. Which is it? Perhaps it depends on whether you are winning or losing.

The one beautiful thing about Coach Weber's natural honesty is that everyone knows exactly where he is coming from. And he doesn't have to remember all the different webs of illusion he has weaved to disguise his real feelings or motives. This allows him two luxuries. One, his mind is free to think quickly in response to team and player needs both overall and during game situations. He is not burdened with all the complexities of deceit. And two, he will attract his like kind. He will attract honest coaches and honest players. People who admire and appreciate Coach Weber's approach to life will respect him and wish to be around him. He may not get all the recruits we want him to recruit, but he will recruit quality people who will make their university proud.

Some fans and media will misunderstand or twist Weber's comments and use them against him. That is always a possibility, regardless of a coach's degree of honesty. Frankly, a few media people, especially in the Chicago area, won't give the Illini good publicity no matter what Weber does or says. Perhaps some could be turned in his favor by promising inside scoops or other bribes, but some have agendas that would not be altered by that con game. Those who respect Coach Weber and enjoy watching the Illini play will not be shaken from their views by the eloquent but barbed prose of reporters with an agenda.

In evaluating this year's recruiting class, perhaps it is helpful to make comparisons with some Lon Kruger and Bill Self recruiting classes. Lucas Johnson, Damir Krupalija, Robert Archibald and Cory Bradford helped give us tremendous success, but were fans excited about them when Kruger recruited them? Heavens, no! None were rated any higher than our present recruits.

Self recruited Roger Powell and Luther Head in his first class. Powell was hurt and unable to show his ability his senior year, and Luther Head remained in the shadow of more publicized Chicago guards like Sean Dockery and Will Bynum. Neither Powell nor Head were rated higher than Shaun Pruitt and Calvin Brock, Weber's first recruits. There appear to be many similarities between the two sets of recruits in terms of ratings and potential for improvement.

Self made a recruiting coup his second year by recruiting Dee Brown and Deron Williams. Brown did make the national elite lists, but Williams was overshadowed by teammate Bracey Wright and was usually ranked around the 60-80 player range in high school. Deron has blossomed since then, but some Illini fans were wondering why we would want him when we already had Brown. Obviously, high school rankings don't always reflect future performance.

Dee Brown was the one elite player still missing from this year's recruiting class, although we must wait for spring signings to make a full comparison. But the other three Self recruits his second year were all borderline top 100 players. James Augustine was a much better athlete than the "gurus" knew, but he had been injured his junior year. Kyle Wilson and Aaron Spears are decent players (although no longer at Illinois), but neither was an elite player in high school.

Even in Self's third year, recruiting gurus had mixed feelings about our recruiting class. Rich McBride was listed as one of the top five players as a high school freshman, in part because his body matured at a younger age than most. While he had an excellent high school career, his national rankings diminished from his freshman year. He didn't attend the camps, and he relied primarily on an outside shot and didn't develop other parts of his game.

Brian Randle is a superb athlete, but he also lost ground in the national rankings as he aged. He was still ranked around 45-50, if memory serves, but a junior injury and a limited offensive repertoir hurt his ranking. And Warren Carter was considered a "diamond in the rough" who's young body still needs time to develop.

But we are now ranked in the top five in the country by most ranking services with only one player who was ranked in the top 25 of his high school graduating class. The rest of our players are either role-playing journeymen, late bloomers, or undervalued by the experts. Mix them together, let them play and mature through three and four years on campus, and they become a formidable threat for a National Championship.

The big difference when comparing recruiting so far is the one superstar athlete to be the "go-to" guy that can succeed under pressure against top competition. So far, there is no Frank Williams or other McDonald's All-American. But recruiting is not over for this year, and Illinois is heavily involved with a number of top athletes who might help make Coach Weber's 2006 recruiting class special. After all, to continue our national prominence, we need players representing 4-5 years of recruiting who become a great team when combined. If Weber can find a great player once in awhile to complement the others, success is likely.

In this writer's opinion, it is far too early to pass any judgments. Most of us have never seen any of Illinois' new recruits play, and we have not yet seen how much improvement players like Brian Randle, Warren Carter, Shaun Pruitt, Calvin Brock, and Rich McBride might continue to make over the next few years.

It is also too early to judge Bruce Weber as a recruiter. Sure, he is more blue collar than his predecessor. But there are several styles that are successful in recruiting and winning basketball games, and Weber has the potential to be a good one, just like his recruits. If we can just tolerate his crackly voice and his media frankness, perhaps the rest will fall into place.

If nothing else, it will be 3-4 more years before we will have any chance of estimating Illinois' long-term basketball future. Until then, we might as well relax and try to enjoy the ride. After all, Coach Weber is best off being himself and not changing to fit our image of the ideal coach. Maybe, just maybe, he has a better idea how to conform to an ideal than we. Let's hope so.

The skeptics will remain unconvinced. The apologists will deny the imperfections. If we can expect Coach Weber to mesh different talents and personalities into a unified team that is greater than the sum of his parts, maybe we fans can seek common ground in our opinions and evaluations. That way, we are all working for our common goal, success for the Fighting Illini.

Go Illini!!!

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