What an impressive start to the season! Really, if you think about making the jump a couple years ago from a small practice Gym to the Assembly Hall, one word comes to mind: disappointment. We're not talking about 10% or 20% more attendance, or even doubling it -we're talking about quintupling it. All kinds of things can go wrong, and the bigger the audience, the more criticism you set yourself up for. Instead, what I saw was a rock concert atmosphere, a team with a lot of promise, a superstar point guard returning for his last season before the NBA, and a ton of really excited fans. Sure there was a lot of emphasis on the recap of last season, and rightfully so, but there were many new faces. Brian Randle was almost a stranger after being on the sidelines all last season, but the crowd gave this post-punching, redshirt sophomore the kind of huge roar reserved for our top two players. You could see the excitement in his face. He's a man who knows we're counting on him, and he's excited to be a part of it. You also have to mention young Charles Jackson. I don't recall seeing a freshman monster with such a good-looking smile when the lights went on him. It's almost hard to imagine the beating he's going to be dishing out on the defensive glass in a couple seasons. The biggest star of course, was Dee Brown, and I found myself thinking the recruits in attendance, especially the stud guards, might be thinking about what it means to come here and be THE star. I have to believe at least one of those young men were thinking what it would be like if it were them getting the love from this big Illini stadium. They also had to know that you don't get that love unless you work yourself into the star position that Dee has. Props to everyone who made it happen: from those just attending, to the ones that worked behind the scenes to make it a first-rate event.
Now, down to the reality of this season. I hate to admit it, but I have mixed feelings about "the season after". It would be easy for a casual fan to call this a rebuilding season. Certainly North Carolina fans will do that, and after losing 4 of our major contributors in Roger, Jack, Deron, and Luther, you couldn't be faulted for thinking that. But with Dee and Augie returning, and the high hopes we had for Brian before his "encounter" with a certain post, you also couldn't be faulted for thinking we should be at least top-25 level good if not higher. I really think this will be a tale of two seasons. For the fan with low-side expectations, this could be an incredible thrill ride, watching tentative steps turn into progress during the relatively easy non-conference schedule before a much tougher Big Ten slate. For the fan who expects the likely new starters -Rich, Warren, Brian, to have breakout seasons, or one of the freshman being an impact player, my guess is it will be a tough ride.
So there's my impression, vague and early as it is. Here's some more specific observations:
Our team looks physical. I felt last year that everyone had made huge strides in the off-season on conditioning and strength, but I attributed that to the knowledge that 2004-2005 could be a very special year, and the players wanting to make it happen. So when I saw Rich looking cut, Warren looking bigger and badder, and even Dee looking stronger, I was very impressed. Props to the entire team for buying into the mission.
Of the freshman, I'm guessing only one has a realistic chance to play and that's Chester. I think he's got the athleticism to become a decent defender even as a freshman, and someone has to back-up Dee. It's nice to imagine Jamar or CJ being a contributor right away, but with Bruce's emphasis on defense, I find it hard to imagine either of these guys bumping the guys ahead of them. That's good in my opinion though, as they will be well-served to take a redshirt and work on their game and their fitness before integrating into main rotation. I don't think anyone thinks they won't be counted on to be big contributors later, perhaps even next year.
Team chemistry is obviously there. I'm blown away at how Bruce can find the guys who want to be part of a team. It is completely obvious to me that Bruce's philosophy means you land players that are 100% committed to fielding a winning team, and are not concerned about personally impressing scouts. I won't rehash this, or claim to know what went on, but I will say that what I saw at MM screams team ball, and that as we know is a good thing.
Finally, I have to admit I have no premonition about the likelihood of this team's success. There just isn't any good history to base projections on like we could last year. Like most, I had FF and possible N.C. as the goal. This year, I don't even know what should be the goal. I see a lot of improvement, but to say we lost a lot from last year's team is a gross understatement. I think we have a chance to be very ordinary compared to some of the improved teams in the Big Ten, and I think we will have some weaknesses that will become downright glaring in certain games. Still, we had glaring weaknesses last year (post defense, and being able to take the ball to the rack) and we barely talked about it. That says something very special our coach. Even though I see a wide spectrum in what fans think we should shoot for, I think the closest consensus is to challenge for the league, finish no worse than third, and hope we can make sweet-16 with anything other than a terrible draw. One thing you have to keep in mind, though, is that unless you're one of the truly elite teams, how well you do is partly a function of your competition. Last year we found out late in the conference season that we were truly elite. This year, it's hard to imagine us getting to a FF from the pole position.
For this fan, I hope we're healthy all season and make a run for the Big Ten all the way to the end. The schedule should give us time to grow into a league contender, and if we do, there's no reason to think we can't make a good run in the NCAAs.
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