Jerry Hester was one of my all time favorite Illini players: smooth, tough and knew the game. Hester's opinion on this year's Illini may be a lot different than most. "I think the season went well. Let's be honest, coming into the season a lot of people didn't think Illinois would have the kind of year they had, second I the Big Ten with a chance to win it. I think one more win and reaching the Sweet 16 would have been nice, but that didn't happen this year," Hester said.
When the Illini lost last year's super-star cast, most just hoped they got in the 2006 NCAA tournament period. According to Hester, knowing Dee Brown the way he does, he knew the Illini would be good. "Dee is a leader on and off the court. He's competitive and doesn't like to lose. That last shot against Washington is something he's done all season for Illinois and that's take the tough shots when others wouldn't."
Thinking with your head or heart, everyone knows Dee didn't have the shooting year he held last season but according to Hester, Dee showed heart and the willingness to be "The Man" when it counted. "Let's face it, no disrespect to Jamar or Rich, but Dee was the focus and only focus on the perimeter for Illinois. That's because Rich and Jamar were not consistent enough and it was a lot easier to just make things tougher for Dee. I bet 20% of Dee's shots were taken when the shot clock was winding down because no one else would shoot it. Last year there were three guys, Dee, Deron Williams and Luther Head to do that," Hester said.
Right now most Illini fans wonder where Brown will go in the draft, if he will get drafted at all. Hester feels the scouts know enough about Brown that he will get drafted. "There's a couple knocks on Dee and they are his size, because he's probably 5'11", and most scouts really want to see the in-between game of his. That part of his game he must show to them; the scouts really like that in guards. I think he will get drafted though because they like winners."
On next year's Illini, Hester said, "Most people talk about Smith and maybe Randle being the go to guys or players that must step up next season. Kedric, I'm a Peoria guy and I like to hear that, but I have to be honest. If Illinois expects to have a great season next year, a lot of that will depend on seniors Warren Carter, Rich McBride and Marcus Arnold. It's their senior year and they have to play like it's their last year."
Who may be the surprise player in the group? Could be point guard Chester Frazier. "Everyone knows about Smith and Randle, but if Chester can work on his shot and become more of a threat he could be that surprise player. I know he will work at it because that's the type of player he is. If you know basketball you could tell when Frazier played the game changed for Illinois and Dee. The other thing I hope to see is Brian become a good three-point shooter. That would do wonders for his game and for Illinois," Hester said.
The off-season will be very important for the Illinois players. If the Illini want to stay with the nation's elite, all players will have to raise their game to another level. I know it's still early but having seen the players work out, my surprise player next year will be the one most have forgotten about - sophomore Trent Meacham from Champaign, Illinois' Centennial High School. Meacham is a player that has that mid-range game that was missing from last year's team and handles the ball well enough to create his own shot. It also helps that he's a transfer from Dayton so he's played at the DI level.