This years Fighting Illini men's basketball team currently stands with a record of 8-7 and is on a three-game losing streak at home after Sunday's loss to Penn State. Weber will insert freshman guard Demetri McCamey into the starting lineup after scoring a career-high 18 points against the Nittany Lions. Weber announced that McCamey would replace shooting guard Trent Meacham, who has struggled with his shot recently, going 2 of 16 in his last two games.
For some small and strange reasons, fans and alumni appear to be frustrated a little more than usual. I can certainly understand some frustration because, let's face it, Illinois fans are not used to losing, and losing at home really puts it into perspective how far things have fallen. But having said that, there are tangible reasons why the Illini are struggling and some of the average fans seem to forget.
First, let's take a close look at what has been costing this team games. It's certainly not their defense as they only give up 61.4 ppg which ranks sixth in the Big Ten. Where they are struggling is on the offensive end of the floor, as Illinois is only averaging 66.2 ppg. That's less than five points more per game than they're giving up which explains some of the losses. Now what about the charity stripe, Illinois is dead last in the Big Ten shooting free throws and the only team in the conference to shoots under 60%, Illinois checks in at 59.3% this season. With two senior starters, Shaun Pruitt and Brain Randle, both shooting under 54%, and you throw in your starting point guard junior Chester Frazier at 59.1%, it's easy to see why the Illini are losing games. The last category that shows a glaring weakness is the lack of quality three-point shooting as this year's group is last in the league at 28%.
What's happened in the past four games is that teams are playing more zones and daring the Illini to shoot the ball from the outside. As the results have shown, you can't blame other teams for presenting this challenge.
Some think it is the politically correct thing to do to blame Coach Weber or to boo him, and not take it out on the players themselves, but let's face facts here. When we talk about the lack of shooting or leadership on this team, we all tend to forget that one of the premier shooters in the country is sitting on the sidelines, in junior-to-be Jamar Smith. Can we honestly blame Weber for not knowing that Smith would make the mistake he made? Should we criticize Weber for punishing Smith for his act by making him sit out the year? What about sophomore center Brian Carlwell, who appears to still struggle with his health and ability due to the same incident that Smith was involved in? Those are two key players that can't contribute this year.
Sure, you might say, it all starts with recruiting top talent to fill any holes that may develop from year to year. I know that's on the minds of a lot of you. Don't think for a second that this coaching staff just all of a sudden started to work a little harder at recruiting now that they have been getting some high-profile success. They have always worked hard and did it the right way, but unfortunately some kids decided to go play elsewhere. So, the current staff decided to look at players younger and sooner than before, leading to more recent success. I guess the world we live in today is about what have you done for me today and not what you did yesterday because that doesn't mean a thing. Weber was the national coach of the year in 2004; I don't think he forgot how to coach in just such a short amount time.
Of course, it's a two-way street, everyone has to be held accountable. But it's not all on Weber. Brian Randle has to be one of the toughest players to ever figure out that's ever put on an Illini uniform. From displaying NBA-like skills to spending too much time on the bench due to silly fouls to being plagued by injuries at inopportune times. How is Weber to blame here? Unfortunately, it seems that Shaun Pruitt hasn't done much terms of showing leadership on the court, so is that the coaches fault too?
Can Weber recruit? Hell yes! I don't have to tell you to look here at Scout.com and see the major-high quality players he's bringing in the next few years. He has also been able to recruit Alex Legion, a well-sought-after transfer from Kentucky, who will team with Jamar Smith in next year's backcourt. And watch out if McCamey continues the improvements he has started to show.
Senior leadership is very important and I'm the most optimistic guy around, but I really don't see this team, at this point, fighting for an NCAA bid, especially if they continue to slide, maybe at some point start looking toward a youth movement. There are some pretty good, young talented players on this year's team, but that's just it, they're young.
Hopefully, with McCamey cracking the starting lineup, he can continue to progress and keep his new starting position. He's a bright part of the future, but for now, patience is the key. Try to be patient Illini fans and cheer on your team, the future is bright.