End of the Year Report Card
The way Illinois finished the season was the way many felt this team should have played all season long. No one thought this year's team would make the Final Four, but most certainly thought a trip to the dance was likely. That was not to be. Here's how we graded the players and coaches for the year, and our expectations for next year.
Coach Bruce Weber: B+
Coach Weber is one of the best coaches in the game. It is easy to blame the head man when things go bad, and for some of this year's struggles, Weber took the blame. However, putting the players in position to succeed is what he's a master at. When the Illini lost an overtime thriller to Arizona, 78-72, back in early December, their season changed. Weber kept his troops fighting. Michigan State's head Coach Tom Izzo said, "Bruce Weber's team will always play hard, they guard as good as anyone, so you have to be well prepared to coach against him."
I noticed in the Big Ten tournament Weber was masterful, inserting new out-of-bounds plays that were not a part of the Illini's arsenal during the regular season. Junior guard Chester Frazier hit the game winning field goal against Penn State on just such a play. Weber also did a great job the next night, against Purdue, as he noticed Matt Painter's crew guarding the perimeter very aggressively. So, during a timeout in the second half, Weber and the Illini started going back door and he drew up plays they hadn't run before.
Next December, Weber will have the services of Alex Legion, one of the best high school players from 2006-07, who Weber was able to convince to come to Illinois. But what many fans don't know is that Weber didn't just take Legion because he needed the help or wanted to be selfish, but instead made sure Legion would be the type of player that could fit into the system. Weber asked Legion to make that commitment. "We told him, to be sure this was the place for him and it was going to be a good fit, we looked at our needs and told him how we thought he could help us."
Shaun Pruitt: C+
Shaun didn't have the season he hoped to have. His scoring was down and his inability to pass out of the double-teams hurt his game and the team. His game improved, during the tournament, when he figured out that he didn't have to shoot every time he touched it. Instead, he learned that if he kicked it back out he would get it back. He certainly impressed us with his play in the Big Ten tournament where he made the all-tournament team. He got the honor because he played the game the way he should have played it all season. That, and he was good from the charity stripe. Unfortunately, Shaun did not improve as much as he, or we, hoped and did not provide the consistency we are sure he would have liked, and the team needed.
Brian Randle: C
Brian, like Shaun, showed the Illini Nation what could have been during the Big Ten tournament. I've said it since the day he arrived on campus: he was one of the best athletes not only at Illinois but the entire conference. Injures set him back this year just like every other year. But he told us last week, when he takes the court, "there's no need to play scared, play a 100% each time you take the court." Randle could attack the rim as good as anyone, but he did not show that skill as much as the team needed and he did not develop the consistent outside shot that would have taken his game to the next level. He is a great kid and he would be a great coach someday. I see another Jerrance Howard written all over his face.
Chester Frazier: D+
Chester plays with heart and more passion than anyone on the team but was very limited. Frazier will never be a scoring threat, he's known for his defense and the energy he brings to each game. However, when he missed lay-ups and turned the ball over, he hurt the team more than he helped with his tenacious defense. When teams played Illinois often time it looked like four on five on the offensive end because teams almost always sagged off him. Next year as a senior, Frazier may not see much time on the court as Jamar Smith returns and Legion becomes eligible in December.
Calvin Brock: B+
Calvin was a warrior and the most under-appreciated player on the team. Calvin had the heart of a lion and brought it ever game. He proved to be a capable defender, he finished well in traffic, he improved his three-point shooting, and he never backed down from a challenge. Early last October, when I met with Brock, we talked about his playing time and he said, "I hope this year thing will be better for me. I've worked hard in the off-season to become a better player, I just have to go out there and impress the coaches."
There's something that Brock has that you can't teach: his mental toughness. We are not sure which way Weber will go next with his wing rotation, but since transfer Alex Legion will not be eligible right away, Brock should get the starting nod. With Brock, Weber gets a good defender and a player that's capable of scoring 10-15 points a game.
Trent Meacham: D
Meacham was pulled in and out of the line-up all season, and for good reason. He was not consistent enough on both ends of the floor. Don't get me wrong, he was Illinois' best shooter from the perimeter but good defensive teams were able to neutralize his effectiveness. He couldn't guard the way Brock or Frazier could and that's a staple for Weber if you want time on the court. Meacham had a decent year for Illinois but if there's one kid on the team that needs to learn how to create a shot off the dribble, it's Meacham. Next year, Meacham may see the same diminished time that Frazier will encounter, as Smith will fill his role as sharp-shooter to start the season, and Legion will take additional minutes come December. I see Meacham's role as a spot shooter coming off the bench, providing a spark for the team when needed.
Demetri McCamey: B+
Clearly, McCamey has the most upside of the top eight players on the roster. It is not fair to compare college freshmen to former stars, but the fact is people do it all the time, and have done so with Demetri, comparing him to former Illini great, and current NBA star, Deron Williams. If you loved Deron's game, then watch out for McCamey. He did some things as a freshman Williams didn't do until late in his sophomore year. Demetri put the Illini on his back when Indiana came to Champaign and during that great Big Ten run, McCamey didn't look like your typical freshman. He looked like a first-team All-Big Ten performer. The sky's the limit for McCamey, if he works hard. The only reason he wasn't given an A- was due to his effort on defense. Not that this youngster couldn't perform, but because he didn't make it a focal point of his game. Too many times I'd see him reach for a steal and not play help defense or get beat off the dribble. With his speed, that shouldn't happen very often. If, and that's a big if, McCamey becomes more consistent with his jump-shot, I will go out on a limb and tell you he will be first or second team all-conference next year. And that's saying a lot, if you look at the talent returning in the Big Ten at the guard position.
Mike Davis: C-
I like Mike's game. How can anyone not say good things about this young man. First, he joined the school late in the process and did not get a chance to work with his teammates during the summer. He told me himself, back in October, that he thought the coaches wanted to redshirt him, but he was going to prove to them that redshirting him would be a mistake. When I see Mike Davis, I see a lot of Warren Carter, but I see Mike advancing quicker than Warren did, maybe out of necessity due to Mike getting more playing time early in his career than Warren did. Mike did very well his first year of Division-I basketball. When the "gurus" and so-called experts talk about the future of Illinois basketball his name is almost NEVER mentioned, but that is a mistake. Davis will play a key role in what Illinois does for the next three years.
Mike Tisdale: C-
This Mike's upside is tremendous, just like the other Mike's. But, if there's one kid that must learn how to guard, it's Tisdale. Also, I would like to see him develop a go-to move in the post. Next year, he will be counted on to be the main low-post presence, at least until the two 2008 recruits, Stan Simpson and Dominique Keller, can get up to speed.
Rodney Alexander: D+
While Alexander made 15 starts and played in 31 games, he was hampered all season with nagging injuries that seemed to negatively impact his abilities to contribute on a consistent basis. He would find himself getting big minutes for several consecutive games, and then nearly none for the next three or four. Coach Weber said Rodney's ability to contribute next year would be based on Rodney's ability to figure out who he was going to be. Weber praises Alexander's athletic ability, but needs him to be more than just a spot-up outside shooter. Rodney's got a chance to see some major minutes next year, but he'll need to improve his health, his defense, and his willingness to do the things this team needs.
Bill Cole, Rich Semrau, Jeff Jordan: Incomplete
Injuries prevented Cole or Semrau from seeing much time this season. Both will need to step it up in the off-season to get into the big man rotation for 2008-09. There are openings for playing time up front. Jordan saw action in 26 games, but in limited duty for most of those games. He showed an ability to defend on the perimeter, and even hit a couple of big baskets against Purdue in the conference tourney. In a crowded backcourt for next year, Jordan will need to maintain his defensive intensity and hone his jump shot to see playing time.
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