When trying to figure out what to expect from Bruce Weber and his Fighting Illini this season, we have three different frames of references to look at: his seventeen years at Purdue, his five years at Southern Illinois, and his previous two seasons at Illinois. Now, as an Illini fan, I know more of his last two seasons at Illinois than I do his time at either of his previous coaching stops, but I do recollect enough from each to hopefully help me in predicting what slight modifications we might see in the Illini's offense this coming season.
The one thing I remember about Purdue during the Gene Keady era more than anything else besides Gene's hair and his wife's makeup is the nameless big men that used to always wreak havoc on the Illini. Sure the players are not truly nameless, but it seemed to be that no matter if it was Brad Miller, Brian Cardinal, Ivan Kartelo, or Chris Landry the Purdue big man would always have the advantage over the Illini player. Sure, Purdue had talented guards, but they never seemed to be the players that would cause Illinois problems, it was always the "tall stiff" who should not be doing what he was making the Illini call home to mommy after he beat them down.
When you combine the ever effective cadre of big men that came into Purdue as skinny, awkward freshmen and left Purdue with what always seemed like eight wins over Illinois in four years (and for Brian Cardinal it was actually more), with the work Bruce Weber did with Justin Dearman and Rolan Roberts at Southern Illinois, it is not hard to predict that the Illini offense will have a little more focus on the inside game this than they did in the past two years. The sign of a good basketball coach is one that can adjust his coaching style to the talent on the floor, and Weber has proven to be a good coach as he adjusts his game plan to the talent on the court, and I expect this year to be no different.
The strength of the Illinois team lies in two distinctly different places: point guard Dee Brown and center James Augustine. Having the strength of a team being two players at opposite positions is nothing new to Weber, his Southern Illinois team that went to the Sweet 16 with upsets over Georgia and Texas Tech relied on a center (Rolan Roberts) and a guard (Kent Williams). Weber worked to get both players shots and scoring opportunities within his offense, and I expect him to do the same to get Brown and Augustine shots within the flow of the offense.
The most interesting I will be watching for in terms of offensive changes is how often, and for what period of time is James Augustine attempting to get into scoring position on the low block. Last year, neither Roger Powell, nor Augustine would set up in the low block to get position because Weber preferred to have the lane open for the Illini guards to use their superior skill to create opportunities with the dribble drive. This year, only Dee Brown has proven to have the ability to create his own shot (as long as it is not a left-handed lay up), so I don't expect Weber to leave the lane open as often as the Illini did last year.
Hopefully with the increased time in the low blocks, James Augustine will be able to set up shop and gain some confidence early in the season. Since Augustine is the only proven low post scorer on the Illinois roster, we will probably see Warren Carter use slip screens to get Augustine open on the inside while creating opportunities for himself on the baseline. It is moves like this that were more prevalent in Weber's game plans when he was at Southern Illinois than have been seen while he has been roaming the sidelines in his orange blazer.
The other way I expect to see Augustine get open on the block is through his own hard work. Last year, James would often times get pushed off the blocks by the defender, and then just go find the next person to screen. This year, James needs to attempt to re-set in the block, and create a passing lane for the guard to get him the ball via a lob over the defenders head, or the traditional post feed. I fully expect Weber to give James more time in the low block to make the appropriate read as to whether or not he can create position for himself, and thus offense for the Illini.
The most drastic changes I expect to see when it comes to the Illini this season is on the perimeter, but that is expected when you lose two guards that were first round draft picks. Unlike last season when the Illini offense could revolve around three different perimeter players and work effectively, Weber truly only has one player he can be fully confident in, Dee Brown. Dee will have a lot of pressure on him, it will be his job to both set up the offense, and score. It will be interesting to see how Dee takes to being a team's primary point guard for the first time since his junior year of high school, but it is a challenge I know he is up to, and relishes in proving he can do it.
When thinking about what types of adjustments Weber will undoubtedly make to his offense on the perimeter, I run my thoughts back to some things we saw early on in the 2003-2004 season, but have not seen much since. Early on in the 2003-2004 when the Illini were struggling, Weber designed many different plays out of his motion offense that's main goal was getting a player an open shot. I remember distinctly back to the Illinois - North Carolina match-up in the Big Ten / ACC Challenge in Greensboro, NC as a game where a lot of these mini-one-off sets were run out of the motion. For example, with Dee Brown struggling with his offense, Weber called for him to run the baseline, and then off of three different screens for a three-point shot from the wing. While this specific play will probably not be called often, similar plays will be used to generate instant offense, and if they don't work the Illini will go back to running through the motion offense once again.
I know Bruce Weber is not going to get away from what made him successful as an offensive coach, the motion offense, but he is sure to make slight adjustments to maximize the talent on the court. I doubt this season we will see a thirty second possession against Northwestern without the ball touching the ground and then a wide open shot, but the Illini will still have a very efficient offense under Weber's watchful eye.
A COUPLE OF PLAYS FROM THE OLD PLAY BOOK THAT I WOULD LIKE TO SEE
- Two-Man Game with Dee Brown and James Augustine: Some of the most beautiful offensive possessions Illinois ran two years ago was the two-man game between Nick Smith and Deron Williams. Sure, we did not see any of that last year, because we barely saw any Nick Smith, but what we saw during that 2003-2004 season, and more specifically the 2004 Big Ten season was some great offense. Now, I don't think either Dee Brown or James Augustine have quite the instincts for determining whether or not it should be a pick-and-roll, or a pick-and-pop, but getting both of them involved in the same play is a definite benefit for the Illini.
- The High-Low: There, I said it, deal with it. I would love once, to see James lock out his defender on the low block, and show the high post his left hand. Whoever is one the high post, be it a guard or a forward, passes the ball to James' target hand via the lob, and James converts the play into a nice and easy slam dunk. I know the read is in Weber's offense because he used it at Southern, and in his first season at Illinois, so hopefully it can be used at times for an easy offensive basket.
- The Backdoor Alley-Oop: Be it Calvin Brock, or Brian Randle, someone on the Illinois wing needs to make a sharp cut to the top of the key to make like they are getting the ball from the player on the wing. Then, with a sharp ball fake, and a backdoor cut (made easier by a pick from the high post) they alley-oop should open up to a standing ovation in Assembly Hall.