Editor's Note: This article was written before the Jackson State game, but it is just now getting posted.
After several months of pursuing prima donna high school recruiting prospects, Bruce Weber finally gets to do what he does best...coach. For awhile anyway, the frustrations of decommitments, handlers, AAU coaches with their hands out, shoe company intrigues, and all manner of suspicious and possibly sinister behaviors can be forgotten as the competitions on the basketball court take precedence.
This promises to be a most interesting season because it is the first time in Bruce Weber's tenure at Illinois there are no superstars upon which to rely. We will now get to see how much a team's success depends on quality coaching. If Coach Weber can instill teamwork and comeraderie, this team has the potential to equal or exceed expectations for it.
Weber's pressure man-to-man defense and motion offense are ideally suited for a team of role players as they require group effort more than individual excellence. Without superstars, everyone on the team must learn to help each other get the wins all crave. If Coach can bring this group together and eliminate selfishness, the Illini will be difficult to beat.
Through the two exhibition games and first two regular season games, the Illini have shown both strengths and weaknesses. They do seem to have a team of hard workers who are buying into the defensive pressure needed. They have a mixture of upperclassmen and youngsters needed to survive a long, grueling season; having three seniors plus a fourth year junior gives Illinois much experience and hopefully leadership. They seem to have a wealth of depth in the front court. And at least some of the players are quite athletic.
On the negative side, there are concerns about shooting as some of the likely contributors are not naturally adept at shooting a high percentage. This concern carries over to free throws as well. Despite the overall size of the team, some of the big men lack jumping ability and are not powerful rebounders. Few if any Illini can create his own shot consistently against strong defensive pressure at the end of the game or shot clock. And the injury bug is rearing its ugly head, forcing the Illini to play without a couple of their top players.
Individually, every player on the team offers something of value, but perhaps no one is a complete player at this point. Each has a role to play, and each is important to the success of the team. But they will all need to play within themselves and not try to do too much. If they can accept their roles, the Illini can maximize their potential.
Warren Carter is one of the keys as he has the athleticism and shooting ability needed at the power forward spot. It appears at this time that Warren has dedicated himself to play his best in his final season. He is still slender and can be pushed away from the basket by strong defenders, but he runs the floor well and is an intelligent player. If he can focus defensively and remain aggressive, he can be a big asset to the team. He was the leading scorer in the SIU-Edwardsville game, and Coach Weber was insistent that Warren can do even better.
Rich McBride must overcome a suspension to reach his potential, but he is the most experienced Illini. His shooting skill is especially needed to keep defenses honest. While he is not highly athletic, he plays tough defense and is learning to put the ball on the floor and not just settle for three-pointers. If Rich can integrate himself back into the lineup once his suspension ends, he can be a big asset to the team. He needs to demonstrate senior leadership for the Illini to succeed.
Senior Marcus Arnold had a great experience with the Big Ten traveling team last summer, but he still seems to doubt himself in the Assembly Hall. He is a little short for a center and is not a great leaper, but he is strong and can be an effective defender and inside scorer. Marcus needs to gain confidence and be a leader also. While Marcus may be a reserve, post defense alone makes him a valuable asset to the team.
Redshirt junior Brian Randle is the most athletic Illini, and he has abilities that are unique. He is a great leaper, runs the floor with ease and often guards the opponent's best player. Brian's best trait is to slash to the basket, either to make a layup or pass to an open teammate. There are few players who can stick with him when he drives. His teammates look to him for leadership and perhaps scoring, but he can be inconsistent because he thinks too much sometimes and doesn't trust his natural ability. His shot is improving, but we feel it would be a mistake to ask Brian to make the 15-20 foot shot consistently.
Brian is bothered by a groin strain at this time, and the biggest concern is that he rushes his return and doesn't let the injury heal fully. It was obvious in the Austin Peay game that he is necessary for Illini success. Even with the injury, he showed both defensive and offensive excellence. He is needed badly, so we hope he recovers quickly.
Junior Shaun Pruitt is a returning starter at center. Shaun continues to show improvement in both technique and conditioning. It is hoped he can play longer minutes this year without fatigue. Shaun has some good post moves, although he is still learning to maneuver from both sides of the basket and with both hands, and he sometimes struggles against taller defenders. If Shaun can shoot over both shoulders and pass to the open man from the double team, his game will fluorish this year. He has been working on his shooting form, and he will need to knock down his free throws as he will likely get fouled frequently.
Sophomores Jamar Smith, Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham are all guards who must take up the slack from the absence of McBride early in the season. Jamar is especially dynamic and has one of the quickest, most accurate shots in the country. But being a slender sophomore, he is probably not ready to be the star of the team. As shown in the exhibitions, Jamar is inconsistent with his shot when he forces things. He will someday be a great player, but for now he is most effective when he allows his offense to flow as part of a team game. If he thinks he has to win the game by himself, his shot will suffer.
Jamar's 19 quick points against Austin Peay demonstrated his firepower, but his high ankle sprain from that game will force Illinois to do without one of its two best outside shooters. If it takes him 4-6 weeks to recover, the Illini will soon find out whether the Illini can defeat teams who pack in their defenses. Without Jamar's offensive threat, the Illini may struggle from outside until McBride returns. And a tightly packed defense may prevent Illini bigs from getting touches. We hope Jamar recovers quickly.
Chester Frazier has improved immensely since last year. He still has a way to go in terms of consistency and staying in balance, but the team benefits from his intensity, quickness and fiery personality. At least right now, Frazier is playing relaxed and confident, which allows him to find his teammates better and recognize how to exploit defenses. His shot is also improved, although he will still struggle at times. If he can be selective and not force things, Chester can be a key to the team's success. We felt he was the Illini's best player against SIU-Edwardsville.
Chester is a real pest defensively, and he can penetrate and score. He sometimes goes too fast and gets himself in trouble, but he shows a capacity for improvement that should see him become one of Illinois' most important players over the next three years. We now understand why Coach Weber chose to recruit Chester over several combo guards within the state of Illinois. The Illini needed a point guard, and Frazier fits the bill.
Trent Meacham is seeing his first action for the Illini after transferring from Dayton. We see him as a glue guy who is intelligent and can organize the other players. Trent is an excellent shooter and ball handler, and he is highly coachable. He is not flashy and may sometimes struggle containing quick guards on defense, but his value to the team will be measured more in his intangible qualities. And he is a good enough point guard to give Frazier decent competition, something that helps both players. Trent will play major minutes, especially until the Illini get both McBride and Smith back into the swing of things.
Redshirt sophomore Calvin Brock may finally see significant playing time this year, especially while McBride and Smith are out. Calvin is an outstanding leaper, and his form has improved on his shot. If he can avoid turnovers, he is smart enough and a good enough passer to be an asset in the motion offense. Like Carter, Brock needs to dedicate himself to consistency on defense. If he can play good defense, Calvin has the athleticism needed to help this team. He could be the surprise of the team.
Redshirt freshman C. J. Jackson is competing for his first playing time. C. J. is the team's strongest player, and he is a good rebounder by using strength to overcome a lack of height and leaping ability. At this time, Jackson is still a work in progress as his redshirt year was interrupted by a chronic ankle problem. His playing time will be limited until he can develop a midrange shot and find more consistency in his offensive game.
We really like the potential of freshmen Richard Semrau and Brian Carlwell, and we expect both to earn major minutes before the season is over. Both players would have benefitted from a redshirt year, but they both have assets that will likely be needed this year.
Semrau has definite offensive skills, although he has shown only glimpses up to now due mostly to nervousness. At 6'-9", he is an ideal power forward who has the size to defend near the basket and the footwork and shooting skill to knock down the outside shot. Since the Illini need more shooters this year, Semrau may be asked to spell Carter and present an outside threat that can compliment the motion offense. Defensively, he is still a work in progress, but he appears willing to both hustle and bang.
Carlwell is not yet fully aware of his enormous potential. He looks like a man at 6'-11", 265 pounds, but he is just a youngster who has much to learn. He runs the floor as well as anyone in the Illini front line, he has quick feet and can defend some power forwards away from the basket, he can make the high-low entry pass, and he has the long arms and timing to be an outstanding shot blocker. Brian is just beginning to learn post moves, so his offensive game is limited.
When we watch Carlwell on the floor, we can't help but look a couple years into the future. By then, he will be a confident team leader who has the potential to dominate a game. He got a late start learning basketball, but he has grown by leaps and bounds since arriving on campus. The NBA is always looking for power post players, so Brian may become attractive to them if he continues to work hard and develop his game. We have a hunch he could be needed this year, especially defensively, but his minutes will be limited until he is able to beat out one of the upperclassmen ahead of him.
We feel the keys to the Illini season are balance on offense, defensive intensity carried through for 40 minutes every game, and unselfish teamwork. The Illini have some good shooters, but they will have games where they struggle to score. Allowing the motion offense to work its magic can produce layups and other high percentage shots if everyone looks to make the extra pass.
The seniors are not go-to players who can get the pressurized basket, and the youngsters are still too green behind the ears to take over a game and produce positive results consistently. A balanced offense is best because opponents won't know who will take the shot when the clock is near zero.
This team needs something consistent to mark their games, and that is defense. Even if the Illini aren't shooting well, defense can help win games. They need to commit to all-out hustle, giving up their bodies to help the team. Quality defense can create turnovers and force opponents to shoot off-balance shots. And this defensive intensity must be within the framework of unselfishness where all players look to help each other.
This will need to be a blue collar team to win. Hustle and teamwork are essential to overcome any deficiencies in athleticism or raw talent. If each player concentrates on each defensive opportunity, scratches and claws for every loose ball and rebound, and makes the extra pass to aid an open teammate, Coach Weber's vision can come to fruition. But nothing less than a total team effort will suffice.
More than anything, this team needs to accept the reality that individualism is counterproductive to winning. Most of the players have pro aspirations, and there is a temptation to seek individual glory. But they should also realize by now that the great Fighting Illini team of 2004-2005 was known for its unselfish teamwork and still sent all five starters to the NBA. That team would not have made the NCAA championship game with a bunch of selfish individuals looking to impress the pro scouts.
Dee Brown and James Augustine will be missed. Dee's charisma, electricity and foot speed cannot be replaced. And Augie's combination of size, speed, and jumping ability are not present in any current team members. The Illini will be less able to get easy fast break baskets, and they will need two players to equal Augustine's rebounding prowess.
But the absence of these Illini greats also gives new opportunities for younger players to rise up and take on expanded roles on the team. While there are no Browns or Augustines on the team, there are decent players who might just fluorish now that there are openings for them to do so.
And it gives Coach Weber and his hard-working staff the chance to prove once and for all that coaching is at least as important as recruiting in producing winning teams. Illini coaches have been blasted by opposing recruiters and a few paranoid fans who claim his inability to recruit superstars spells a fall to mediocrity. A 20+ win season and progress within the NCAA tournament can help dispel these negative thoughts and pave the way to better recruiting success in the future.
This Illini team will likely have some good early wins, struggle during part of the Big Ten season as it is always highly competitive and opponents will have intelligent game plans to stifle Illini tendencies, and then gain strength for the stretch run as the team perfects the complexities of the motion offense and man-to-man defense. If the fans can bear with them during the down times and not withhold their love and vocal support, everyone could end up happy by the end of the year.
Of course, the Illini will need to play around the injuries. Others will need to step up during Brian's, Jamar's and Rich's absences. If they can't do this, there may be some early upsets. But in the long run, this might be a blessing in disguise. With more players receiving playing time, more depth will be available for the stretch run.
Bruce Weber's birthday is within three days of St. Louis Cardinal baseball skipper Tony LaRussa, and LaRussa overcame significant injury loss and occasional mediocrity during his 2006 season to win the World Series. We are not predicting a Final Four for this year's Illini, but this might just be the year everyone finally accepts that Coach Weber's coaching can overcome injuries and a lack of superstars.
Blue collar teams aren't always pretty, but they can be difficult to beat. Our bet is that Bruce Weber will prove once again he is an outstanding coach and the Illini will have an excellent season.
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