Unlike last season, the expectations for this year's team are not Final Four or bust, but expectations are still high in central Illinois. Bruce Weber's Illini return two starters from last season, James Augustine and Dee Brown, and the rest of the team looks to step up and fill the large voids left by the departures of NBA First Round Draft picks Deron Williams (#3 to the Utah Jazz) and Luther Head (#24 to the Houston Rockets), Roger Powell, Jack Ingram, and Nick Smith.
While it is impossible to fill the void left by these players, Bruce Weber will be looking down his bench for support in the backcourt from freshmen Chester Frazier and Jamar Smith, redshirt freshman Calvin Brock, and junior Rich McBride. McBride is expected to start alongside Dee Brown in the new look Illini backcourt. Instead of going with the three-guard look Bruce Weber's team turned into an art form last year, Weber will probably rely on sophomore Brian Randle. Randle is now fully recovered from the broken hand he suffered during practices before last season due to an unfortunate incident with a stationary wall jumping out and hitting his hand to man the wing forward position. Joining Brian and James in the front court will be junior Warren Carter, giving the Illini one of the more athletic front courts in the conference.
While many Illini fans, players, and coaches alike will look back on last year's season with fond memories, Friday night is when the book will be officially closed on the March to the Arch as the Final Four banner is raised to the Assembly Hall rafters and the first chapter is started on the next book. While all Illini fans hope that the book on the 2005-2006 season is written as eloquently by the players and choreographed as beautifully by Bruce Weber, realistically no Illini fans is expecting similar results with this year's team.
Despite Illini fans dreams being somewhat subdued as compared to last season, there are still high expectations for the Illini basketball team. The Illini are still expected to compete with fellow entrant in the 2005 Final Four, Michigan State, Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio State for the Big Ten Championship.
THE ILLINI BACKCOURT
For the first time in the last three years, Illinois is not starting three guards. With Deron Williams and Luther Head in the NBA, the Illini backcourt is going through a state of flux, but thanks to the broken foot Dee Brown suffered in the Chicago Pre-Draft Camp, Dee Brown will be back to man the point full-time for the first time since his junior year in high school (Charles Richardson played point guard for Proviso East during Dee's senior year of high school). The only other experienced player joining Dee in the Illini backcourt is junior shooting guard Rich McBride. The other three Illini guards have never played a second of college basketball: Calvin Brock, Jamar Smith, and Chester Frazier. Weber will look down on the bench during games hoping that at least one of his freshmen will be able to provide an immediate impact in the backcourt when Brown or McBride are on the bench.
Dee Brown has been the face of the Fighting Illini program for his entire career in Champaign, but for the first time in his career he can definitely say that the Illini are his team. No longer will he be playing second fiddle to Brian Cook or Deron Williams. He will be the man in Champaign. Bruce Weber will look at him to be a spark, a calming influence on the court, the point guard, and the team's best scorer. So, really, not much is going to be placed on Dee's shoulders. Dee is the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, and he is being picked by many different media outlets across the country to repeat this feat. This is the fifth straight season an Illinois player has been tapped as the Pre-Season Player of the Year (2001 - Frank Williams, 2002 - Brian Cook, 2003 - Dee Brown, 2004 - Deron Williams) assuming the Big Ten media follows suit with the national media.
Based on comments made by Bruce Weber in the Champaign News-Gazette, right now I am assuming that Rich McBride will be the Illini's starting shooting guard. Rich came into college as a highly touted recruit (#28 RSCI) from Springfield Lanphier, but he has failed to live up to his billing for various reasons including injury, some off court troubles during his freshman season, and playing behind three great guards. This year Bruce Weber will be putting more weight on McBride's shoulders. The Illini need him to be the sharpshooter he was expected to be coming out of high school. Last year was a struggle for Rich, even to the point that when he hit a big shot in the Big Ten Tournament, Bruce Weber jokingly made a comment during the post game interview on CBS with Billy Packer and Jim Nantz that probably hit a little too close to home about Rich hitting his first shot in over a month.
This season, Rich will need to show that he can be the player he was expected to be out of high school. He needs to score, not only from behind the three point arc, but by driving to the lane. The talk out of Champaign has been that Rich has lost some weight, and is in the best shape of his playing career. This is good news for Illini fans, as a healthy Rich McBride would do a lot to alleviate the pressure that is bound to be placed on Dee Brown's shoulders.
After Dee Brown and Rich McBride, there are no known quantities in the Illini backcourt. The other three players in the Illini's backcourt have never played a second of college basketball, though Calvin Brock did practice last year against the Illini backcourt every day as he completed his redshirt season. This summer Bruce Weber was able to take Calvin with him on the Big Ten's yearly European trip. One the trip, Weber was able to experiment with Brock at the point guard position as every other Big Ten coach decided to send forwards and centers with Weber on the European expedition. I know it is really hard to gleam any information from a trip you never witnessed and only read box scores and brief recaps, it is not really known how exactly Calvin played on the trip. From reading the reports and box scores, it does not sound like he took to the point guard position. In high school, Brock played a lot of zone defense, so it will be interesting to see how his defense translates to the college level, but he has all the athletic ability to be a very good defender on the college level.
The final two pieces of the Illini backcourt are two true freshmen, Peoria Richwoods' Jamar Smith and Chester Frazier from Lake Clifton-Eastern High School (Baltimore, MD). There has been a lot of talk about the Illini freshmen from the media in Central Illinois, but outside of high school action and the occasional pick up games, not much is known about them. Jamar Smith comes to Illinois with a reputation of being a sharp shooter (he shot 46% from behind the three point line as a senior in high school) and a scorer (he led the Mid-State 6 in scoring in his junior and senior years). Joining Jamar as a freshman on the Illini roster is Chester Frazier. Frazier comes to Champaign with more questions than answers, mainly because very few Illinois fans have seen him play because he spent his high school and prep school career on the east coast. The first reviews that Illini fans have received on Chester Frazier have been good, especially those that came from the Champaign News Gazette's Loren Tate and Brett Dawson. In fact, Dawson went as writing this entry in his blog on September 23.
He plays hard-nosed defense (about as common in September as a cool day in Champaign) and attacks the rim with reckless abandon. Rumor has it he went the whole summer without calling a foul in a pickup game.While this glowing review from Dawson is great news for Illini fans, I can't help but caution myself from being too optimistic on the talent level of the freshman from Baltimore. This was in pick up games, and who knows what can happen once real practices start and the intensity level is increased another notch for practices. Then another notch for the start of the regular season. Then even another notch for the start of the conference play. This is something new for a freshman, even a nineteen year old freshman like Frazier, so it will be interesting to see how he responds, though the initial indications are that he will.
When I saw Frazier at the start of the spring, I had my doubts. He looked uncertain around his new teammates. I thought he shot a little too often in pickup games. I thought he might be in a little over his head.
But the strides Frazier has made since are staggering.
I'll now no longer be surprised if he's in Illinois' starting lineup, even on opening night, and that's saying a lot. You wouldn't think it such a bold thing to say, though, if you'd seen the kid play. He is a tailor-made Bruce Weber type, all effort and hustle. Frazier can't get from end to end as fast as Brown can, but his energy reserve is similarly bottomless. He never stops.
With just one established star in the backcourt, the Illini guard corps is heading into 2005-2006 with a new look. No one will confuse the Illini backcourt for Lethal Weapon Three or even the backcourts that have been in Champaign since 1999, but this will be one interesting backcourt to watch grow and mature under the tutelage of Bruce Weber and his senior leader, Dee Brown.
The NBA has had questions about Dee Brown's ability to run the point, and he will have the entire season to prove to the scouts that he can run a team. Make no mistake about it, this year the Illini will go as Dee Brown goes. It will be his job to score, create shots for his teammates, penetrate the defense, beat the defenders down the court on run outs, and slow down the opposing point guard on defense. The weight of the Illini program is being placed on the shoulders of the 6'0" point guard, and he will be ready to deliver.
The Illini frontcourt will be covered in a future installment of the IlliniBoard.com Preview of the 2005-2006 Fighting Illini Basketball team.