I would like to discuss Illini basketball recruiting. This is a subject that is guaranteed to create some controversy but also hopefully some thoughtful discussion.
Before I begin the subject at hand, I would like to thank John Brumbaugh and Illiniboard for allowing me to write these columns. My first column appeared one year ago this week, and it has been an interesting and fun experience. In this past year, I have written 52 columns/articles and a total of 252 single-spaced typewritten pages of material. I know this because I made printed copies of each column in case someone wanted to collate them into a book called "The Best Of Illinisports". Who says I don't have a sense of humor?
If I could reflect on the results of these columns, I would say I am pleased with the response. Mostly, I have heard nothing from anyone. I take this as a compliment simply because I know how quickly people respond to concepts with which they disagree. A few columns have raised some ire, but discussion of issues can be beneficial. Personal attacks have been few and far between, and the occasional email has been extremely complimentary, so I am encouraged to keep writing until I exhaust my motivation and inspiration.
Some say they refuse to read my columns because of their length, but I am not writing for those with short attention spans or limited hunger for knowledge. There are a large number of news sources for Illini sports, all looking for their own perspective and angle. Most provide short columns for general consumption, touching only superficially on any one topic. They serve their purpose and reach those I don't.
In order to avoid repetition, I have chosen in-depth discussions on subjects too complex for general news releases. Some people do not wish to understand the issues that create or influence the news. And some only want to read what they wish to believe. They have no interest in the deeper issues or alternative perspectives. But those who do may benefit from these columns.
There are at least 10 times more people who read the Illiniboard regularly than there are posters on the different forums. Some of the silent majority have an interest in reading about anything Illini and read my columns regularly. They choose not to react to them, either positively or negatively, but they do read them. So I will continue to toil in the hope I can expand their understanding and ultimately appreciation for Illini sports.
In that regard, I would like to share my thoughts on the Illini's immediate basketball recruiting needs. I have read numerous opinions on this subject, and some discussions become quite heated. Should we seek another big man with our one remaining scholarship for this year? Should we try to recruit more guards out of fear Deron Williams and/or Dee Brown might depart early for the pros? Should we use the scholarship this year or hold out for a better prospect next year?
Besides these general questions, some posters on the forums have definite biases toward or against individual recruiting targets. It seems some fans make decisions on who we should recruit without having seen any of the potential prospects play. And they will defend their choices against all comers. I will not mention specific names of recruits because I have seen none of them play and cannot visualize who may develop the skill to help us most in the future.
But I think we can draw some inferences if not conclusions based on comments Coach Weber and his assistants have made regarding their recruiting tendencies. We can also create an informed opinion based on their preferred style of offense and defense. We can recognize the beauty of team chemistry by watching the Illini Love Machine perform this season and thus can value players who will enhance future chemistry. And we can certainly rule in or rule out certain possible recruits based on the academic requirements of the University of Illinois.
Obviously, we need to continue recruiting guards, especially point guards, in case Deron's and/or Dee's scholarships become available. But in addition to that, we must consider some basic logic. Right now, our four graduating seniors are comprised of three "bigs" and one guard. Roger Powell plays a power forward position, so he, Jack Ingram and Nick Smith must all be replaced to give us the same number of bigs next year as this.
We have already signed guards Jamar Smith and Chester Frazier plus power forward Charles Jackson for next year, and we have post player Marcus Arnold redshirting and waiting in the wings. Warren Carter is accustomed to the power forward position, but he is mighty slender to bang with the big fellows inside. Once he develops defensive intensity, Carter's natural fluidity will make him a likely small forward. Thus, we still need one big to replace fully our departing seniors.
If we look at our bigs for the future, none are exceedingly tall. Once 6'-10" James Augustine graduates next year, our tallest remaining player will be Shaun Pruitt at 6'-8". Optimists will exaggerate everyone's actual height, but Marcus Arnold and Charles Jackson are both likely in the 6'-7" range. These guys are strong and will bang inside, but none are great leapers or have excessively long arms. They will constantly be at a disadvantage when playing against athletic big men from other schools.
Talented big men are hard to find. If they are really talented, they know they are likely first round NBA draft choices because of their rarity. Some schools will still try to recruit them in hope they will forego the NBA for a year or two, but there are too few to go around. Other schools are left looking for late bloomers with potential for improvement, players who may not be ranked among the elite players in their graduating class. It is this latter group that will attend college and be given the chance to become dominant at that level.
I remember watching Brian Cook play in high school. It was hard to imagine, watching someone so skinny, small shouldered and frail, that he would become a 250 pound brute at the NBA level. But that is what Cook did. He is 6'-10" tall and highly talented, but the one knock on him out of high school was whether he could develop the strength and toughness to compete in the Big 10, let alone the NBA. Fortunately for Cook and the Illini, his physical growth matched his mental maturation, so he became a star.
Tall players are by far the hardest to project into the future. They are often awkward in high school because their bodies continue to grow long after their shorter peers. They cannot begin to trust their natural athletic skills and develop consistency on the court until they are finished growing. Some will become stars, and some will become basketball duds. Only a visionary can look far enough into the future to know such a player's real long-term value to a basketball team.
But this is Coach Weber's task. Fortunately, I believe he has the ability to project a player's potential into the future. All three of his recruits in the 2005 high school graduating class have improved their national rankings this year, showing the trust Weber had in them when recruiting them. He is trying to do the same thing now to find a big.
It must be remembered that Coach Weber's style requires a post player to take an active part in the offense and defense. He must be strong enough to screen while active enough to cut quickly to the basketball for the quick pass and dunk. He must be able to utilize scoring post moves so his inside threat can balance the offense and take pressure off the guards. He must be able to see the floor and pass off to the open man. And he must be able to rebound and outlet pass to start the fast break while also running out on the break when the situation demands.
On defense, he must be the last line of defense near the basket. He must be strong enough to hold ground against the massive bullies who toil for opposing teams. He must be able to switch back and forth quickly to provide double teams or backside help when necessary. He must be able to get the opening tip more often than not. And he must be a scary threat against any penetration, blocking shots or at least altering shots without fouling. Ideally, he must be a James Augustine clone, but that combination of size and athleticism is extremely rare.
All college coaches are limited as to how often they can watch a recruit play during his high school season. They are also limited in the total number of days they can recruit off campus. Coach Weber is one who likes to evaluate all prospects himself, a wise decision I believe, so he must get away one or two times a week to scout prospects. And he must see many prospects before deciding who to offer scholarships.
It is no wonder he has not yet offered many scholarships. It takes him awhile to see everyone once, let alone more than that. And it takes even longer to make comparisons and decide who is best suited for our program. This is especially true for the post players who may be significantly improved in February from their play in January and previously. And all the while, Weber and his staff must continue to write and call all prospects on a frequent basis.
To whom will he offer the one known scholarship remaining for 2005? I have no idea. But I believe it will be to someone who stands between 6'-8 and 7'-2" and has the potential to be a post player in our offense.
Perhaps he can't recruit someone who is good enough to start this next year. Most of the top prospects already accepted scholarships last fall. And perhaps the player will not be ranked among the top 100 players in his class. After all, the remaining possibilities may still need much physical development and would benefit from a redshirt year. If such a player is brought in this year, it is because Weber believes that player will eventually meet our needs sooner and more efficiently than a post player still a junior in high school.
The biggest problem facing Illinois in recruiting bigs is that the state of Illinois has not been producing them in quantity lately. It is easiest to recruit your own state, but Illinois must travel far and wide to find post players. There isn't an abundance of them in next year's crop either, and there are mixed opinions as to whether the ones we have are talented enough for the Big 10. It is highly risky, in my opinion, to hold the scholarship until next year when there is no certainty we can successfully recruit a top post player next year from out of state. But that is what we must do if we cannot recruit one this year.
I believe Coach Weber wants bigs larger than 6'-8" and will continue to recruit them for his offense. This will require the Illini Nation to learn patience while watching the sometimes torturous process necessary for big people to develop their full potential. It is the uncertainty that accompanies such players that frustrates some fans. They either want the largest men to dominate their opponents and become Illini heroes, or they want little to do with them.
Several past Illini centers have suffered from the frustrations of fans as they failed to live up to the expectations placed upon them. I was truly happy to see Bryan Leonard return for the 100th Anniversary celebration because he was treated quite poorly during portions of his Illini career. He showed excellent maturity to rise above that pettiness and share the joy of being an Illini. But his family was so upset at the time with Bryan's treatment by fans that it steered his 7'-1 younger brother away from the Illini.
And those more concerned about the rankings of our recruits than the opinions of our coaches will likely regret our recruiting a poorly ranked center in lieu of a higher ranked guard or forward. But if it happens, I truly hope we will embrace him the same as all other new Illini. And I hope we encourage and support him in his quest to mold his body into an efficient basketball machine.
If Coach Weber can recruit such players and then develop them, as he has done several times prior to his time at Illinois, then we will be eternally grateful for his foresight. Let's hope he finds someone who fits the profile this year. And if he does, let's hold off complaining about Weber's recruiting ability until we see how that post player performs 3-5 years from now. That is how far Weber is looking into the future, so that is how far we must look as well. Hopefully, it will be worth the wait.
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