The Summer Series: Part I

The temperatures are increasing across the country, and the Cubs are already for all intents and purposes eliminated from the playoff race, so what better time that to look forward to Illinois basketball? In the inaugural edition of the 2006 Summer Series, looks the changes that will occur in the Fighting Illini starting lineup.

Summer started this month, and thought it would do what it does best and stay behind Mother Nature by introducing its Summer Series for 2006 about seven days after summer actually started. The Summer Series will last throughout the summer, and highlight key items related to the University of Illinois Men's Basketball Programs from detailed current player analysis to looks at the incoming freshmen (and transfers) to looks across the Big Ten Conference and the country.

In the first edition of the Summer Series, will look at how the new and returning players will fit together to form Bruce Weber's starting lineup in the 2006-2007 season.

This fall, many Illinois basketball fans will see something on the court that they are not accustomed to, and Illinois team taking the floor without Dee Brown and James Augustine in the starting lineup. Augustine and Brown were four year pillars in the Illini's starting lineup. They are now graduated (and hopefully drafted in tonight's NBA Draft), and Illinois basketball will be without its most recognizable faces when practice opens up in October. But with the departure of the known, comes the excitement of the unknown.

Bruce Weber and his coaching staff will welcome in two true freshmen to the Fighting Illini this year: Brian Carlwell and Richard Semrau. Joining Carlwell and Semrau as newcomers on the Illini roster will be transfer Trent Meacham and redshirt CJ Jackson. With four new players, three returning starters and three key contributors from last season's team at his disposal, it will be up to Illinois Head Coach Bruce Weber to mix and match players to create lineups that allow the Fighting Illini to maximize their potential. For the first time in his tenure as Illinois' Head Coach, Weber will not have the safety net of a proven star (be it Dee Brown, Luther Head, or Deron Williams).

The departures of Dee Brown and James Augustine leave Bruce Weber with two gaping holes in his starting lineup. Luckily for Weber, he has options: Will he go three guards? Or will he \go long and athletic up front?

Given his two options, I will assume that there are three almost guaranteed starters, returnees Rich McBride, Brian Randle, and Shaun Pruitt. That leaves two spots for Weber to mix and match during the fall determining who will be the opening day starting lineup. After opening day, Weber will have the entire non-conference schedule to determine which lineup he wants to head into the Big Ten with. By that point (much like in his first season as Illinois' coach), Weber will have a much better feeling on his team's strengths and weaknesses as well as how each player compliments the other, and probably settle on a lineup and rotation for the majority of conference play.

Point Guard
For the first time since 1999, when the Fighting Illini went 3-13 in the Big Ten playing a rotation of point guards that included Cory Bradford (out of position), Nate Mast, and Sergio McClain (more out of position than Bradford) at point guard, the Illini head into a season not knowing who will be their starting point guard, and for the first time since 2000 without a McDonald's All American in the backcourt.

The battle to be Illinois' starting point guard will be between sophomores Trent Meacham and Chester Frazier.

Meacham comes to Illinois as a transfer from Dayton. Meacham sat out last season under NCAA transfer regulations, but he was able to practice against the team. Meacham should have a solid understanding of the Illini offense heading into this fall's practice sessions thanks to his being with the team all last season. Meacham comes to Illinois being known as a very good shooter, both from behind the three point line and at the free throw line.

Last season, Frazier was Dee Brown's backup point guard. Frazier played point guard during the rare time Dee was on the bench, and he also saw time while Brown was on the floor playing a combination of the two guard and point guard position. While Frazier's offensive deficiencies are well known from last season, he brings a lot to the court that Bruce Weber likes, especially leadership, intensity, and a defensive presence against the point guard. Prediction: To start the season, Chester Frazier will be the Illini's starting point guard, but by the time the Big Ten season rolls around, expect Trent Meacham to have taken the starting spot.

Third Guard or Power Forward
The next decision Weber will have to make with his starting lineup is how he is going to replace James Augustine in the starting lineup. It looks like Weber will have three options: (1) play three guards by moving Jamar Smith into the starting lineup alongside Rich McBride and whoever is Illinois' point guard, (2) start freshman Richard Semrau who comes to Illinois known as a player that can step outside from the power forward position and hit jump shots, or (3) go with returning senior Warren Carter.

It will not be shocking to see Illinois end many games with a three guard lineup, but with only five guards on the roster (four of which have seen key playing time against Division IA opponents), I don't see Bruce Weber starting the game out with that lineup. Jamar Smith showed last season that he is Illinois' best outside shooter, but once defenses started to key in on him as conference play started, his offensive production slowed. Smith is a great outside shooter, but he struggled defensively last season, especially off the ball. While the Illini's most talented, and probably best lineup does include Smith on the court that will probably be a lineup that Illinois fans see to close out the game, and not to start it.

The next two options to replace James Augustine in the starting lineup are power forwards Richard Semrau and Warren Carter.

Semrau is an unknown to most Illinois fans, including this author. But what is known about Semrau is that he was a player Bruce Weber and his coaching staff targeted early in recruiting last Spring, and fills a key role in Bruce Weber's offense that has not been filled since he has been Illinois' Head Coach: the power forward who can step out and consistently make jump shots from eighteen feet to the three point line. (Yes, Jack Ingram was able to fill that role in the latter half of the 2004-2005 season, including famously against the Wisconsin Badgers in Madison).

The other option at the power forward position is Warren Carter. In his three years at Illinois, Warren has made some brilliant plays (the game winning shot against Wichita State in South Padre), but they have not been the norm for the athletically gifted power forward. His inconsistencies, especially last season, have been frustrating for the Illinois coaching staff, and fans alike. The Illini coaching staff has often gotten frustrated with Warren in the past for his poor play on the defensive end of the court, and his penchant to take shots as quickly as he touches the ball offensively. Prediction: Due to the lack of guard depth on the Illinois roster, expect Illinois to start most games playing your traditional two-guard set with Jamar Smith being the first man off the bench. In the traditional two guard set, the good early bet would be on Weber deciding to go with the known commodity (Warren Carter) over the unknown commodity (Richard Semrau), but do not be shocked to see Semrau quickly take hold of that starting power forward spot if he can show the modicum of defensive awareness that Carter seems to lack.

The Returning Starters
Bruce Weber knows what he has in returning juniors Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle, and returning senior Rich McBride. But for the first time in their Illini careers, McBride, Randle, and Pruitt will be looked at to carry the load for the Fighting Illini. Weber will be looking for a minimum of two of these players, and preferably all three, to step up and become the Illini's go to guy on the offensive side of the ball. Coming off last season where the Illini offense struggled at many different times, the ability of these three players to create their own shots, and shots for their teammates through dribble drives or off of double teams in the post, will define how good this Illini basketball team can be.

So, to start the season, Illinois will most likely be starting:

PG: Chester Frazier
SG: Rich McBride
SF: Brian Randle
PF: Warren Carter
C: Shaun Pruitt

But, as Big Ten play rolls around, I think the two new starters on the team will be:

PG: Trent Meacham
SG: Rich McBride
SF: Brian Randle
PF: Richard Semrau
C: Shaun Pruitt

While Jamar Smith is not mentioned in either of these starting lineups, expect the sharpshooter from Peoria to enter the game around the time of the first television timeout (the sixteen minute mark) and see plenty of playing time (between twenty-five and thirty minutes per game) no matter who the starting guards are.

As the summer continues, the Summer Series will take a detailed look at the members of the Fighting Illini basketball team. In these looks, will discuss each player's strengths and weaknesses and how they look to impact the Fighting Illini Men's Basketball Team on the court next season. Not only will the Summer Series look at the current roster, but it will look ahead to the future after the 2006-2007 season highlighting on the Illini coaching staff's recruiting. In addition to looking at the Illini, the Summer Series will also look across the landscape of the Big Ten and the country to see where the Illini fit on a conference level, and the national scale.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories