"Our staff is very excited," Weber exclaimed. "This is a special time of year for any basketball coach. The juices got going Saturday with our fun event at the football game. And now, they're ready and geared up for practice."
The Illini struggled last year under the weight of high expectations. Accustomed to competing for Big Ten Championships and making a run in the NCAA tournament, the season was tough both for team and fans. But there is renewed optimism for a brighter future.
The team is loaded with youth, but most of the seven sophomores have experience. Demetri McCamey is the likely point guard, and 7'-1" Mike Tisdale has first crack at the center spot once he recovers fully from minor leg surgery.
Forwards Mike Davis, Bill Cole, Rich Semrau, and guard Jeff Jordan all look to expand their roles on the team. Kentucky transfer Alex Legion will hopefully become eligible in late December, adding depth and scoring to the back court. Weber would prefer more experience, but he knows there is potential for success nonetheless.
"It's a challenge with a very young team. I think that's exciting for our staff...how we're gonna blend these guys together. When you look at our roster, you're talking about a majority of underclassmen, seven sophomores and Stan (Simpson, a freshman). And really, you don't have a whole lot of experience with the veterans."
The players who must lead this team are its seniors. Chester Frazier, Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock have been through the wars. They must set a quality example both on and off the court for this team to succeed. So far, Frazier has demonstrated a great deal of leadership in the offseason according to Weber.
"The players kind of joke about 'Coach Frazier.' I've challenged Chester. He wants to maybe get into the coaching profession, here's your dress rehearsal. Take the team, be a leader, work with the young guys, help them. Along with improving your own game, it's gonna help everybody involved. So this summer was good, and we continued that into the fall."
The possible wildcard on this roster is Legion. The former McDonald's All-American is a natural scorer who can add an important missing ingredient to this team. How quickly he can learn the finer points of ball handling, passing and defense will determine how much he can help once eligible. Keeping him focused and working while he sits out the first few games is another Weber priority.
"Alex Legion, who we expect alot out of, will not be able to join us until around Christmas time. So keeping him involved will be a challenge. It's gonna be tough for him. If we're doing well, he's gonna have to blend in. If we're struggling, people are gonna expect him to save us. So either way, it's gonna be difficult for him. But at the same time we're gonna have to help him, keep him excited until we can get going."
Another possible wildcard is junior college transfer Dominique Keller. The 6'-7" Keller is a high flyer who is strong enough to defend the post but mobile enough to get out on the break. He is willing to play the role of rebounder and defender, something the team needs desperately as it seeks to improve its rebounding and post defense.
The Illini stepped up their game in last spring's Big Ten Tournament, and Coach Weber wanted to build on that while the memory was fresh.
"Last spring, I talked about how intense our workouts were. We didn't really give them much time off after the Big Ten Tournament, which was a positive to build on. We tried to jump on it. One week off for the spring break, then we got back at it.
"Very intense and competitive. More competitive oriented than skill development. We wanted some toughness, some leadership. Taking what happened in the Big Ten Tournament and kind of riding it through the spring."
It was also important for the team to accept responsibility for individual growth through the summer months when the coaches couldn't guide them. Weber says more was accomplished this summer than usual.
"They had a very good summer. There was some leadership there. They did some skill development on their own, which we haven't had here since I've been here."
Optimism is high at this time, but there are still some unanswered questions.
1.Where will the scoring come from? Legion will help when eligible, but inside and outside scoring must both improve.
2. Will potential star point guard McCamey develop the dependability to find a happy medium between the extremes he showed last year? He must find consistency to be the point guard the team can rely upon every game, and not just a few special games.
3. Can big Mike Tisdale provide more than 20-25 minutes a game? As the only true center on the team, he must have the strength to bang on the inside against strong foes without tiring. His weight is up to 240, but more strength is needed.
4. Who will play the four spot? Davis, Cole, Semrau and Keller could all see time at the power forward spot. And one or more can perhaps switch off and help Tisdale inside. Someone needs to break through the log jam.
5. Can Semrau finally play some quality minutes at a position of need? The young man has been through a dark time with injuries and illness. And yet Coach Weber says he is as physically gifted as anyone on the team. Richard has bettered gazelle James Augustine's agility drill scores. Can he translate that into on-court effectiveness?
6. Who will be the screeners? Who will work to provide openings for teammates? Screening is essential in a motion offense, and it has been a point of emphasis this offseason.
7. Who will fight for rebounds? Illinois' top returning rebounder is guard Frazier. Can some of the big men bang inside with determination and consistency?
8. Will the chemistry be improved this year? Early indications are positive since most of the players have been together a year or more. But any lack of cohesiveness can be a major detriment to a team, as was seen clearly last season.
Coach Weber is ready to tackle these issues, beginning Friday with the first formal workouts.
"It should be fun, exciting for our guys. We have a good group to work with. There are some question marks there. I think fans have question marks. We have some question marks. But it makes it even more exciting for our staff to kind of figure it out and our kids can kind of blend in and meet the challenges that are ahead of us."