On paper, Illinois should be improved next year. Entering freshmen D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand and Tyler Griffey have higher rankings than the seniors their are replacing. Top performers Mike Davis, Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale should all be improved with continued hard work. And Parade All-American Alex Legion will undoubtedly benefit from being part of the team from the start this fall.
However, a number of things must fall into place for Illinois to improve on its 24-10 record for this past season. In particular, seniors Chester Frazier, Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock must be replaced. At the beginning of the year, everyone thought that would be no problem. But seniors playing at their peak of knowledge, maturity and experience are always more efficient than raw freshmen.
Frazier was a consummate leader. He was the heart and soul of the team, and no one rose up to replace him at the end of the year when he broke his hand and couldn't play. There is no guarantee anyone on the present team has the ability and confidence to take on the essential leadership role that Chester played so tremendously this year.
There will be only one senior, and junior college transfer Dominique Keller didn't start this year. He has always been a leader on previous teams, but he may not have time to gain the trust of his teammates. He played a more individualistic role this year, and he would have to sacrifice personal goals for the needs of the team if he were to emerge as Frazier's replacement.
Junior point guard Jeffrey Jordan has been groomed to replace Frazier defensively. And he has the mentality to be a pass first guard who sets up his teammates and pushes the ball in transition. But he is not a scorer, and other teams will back off him and help out defensively on his teammates, reducing his effectiveness. Jeff has the strong will to lead, but will he be in the starting lineup?
Right now, the only other player who has shown leadership skills is center Mike Tisdale. Mike is always talking to his teammates, helping them with what is going on. He does a good job of encouraging the other players and treating them all with respect. However, it gets down on himself easily if things aren't going well. He will need to get stronger and develop more confidence in order to set aside his personal needs and serve a leadership role.
The most logical players to assume leadership are Mike Davis and Demetri McCamey. They are the offensive leaders and the upperclassmen with the most potential and experience. But they have not yet developed the consistency and work ethic to earn the trust of their teammates. It may take one or both longer than desired to mature and lead the team.
If no one rises to the top this spring and summer, the Illini could founder next fall. A rudderless ship goes in circles, so someone must emerge. It is highly unlikely a freshman can come in and do it. And the reserves are working too hard to improve their own games to accept responsibility for others.
But assuming a leader or leaders emerge, there are still many other questions. Will Davis gain strength and weight so he can battle inside against strong opposition? Will he dedicate himself to work hard every day in practice? Will he decide to attack the offensive glass? Will he become mentally strong enough to take a charge and set a good screen? Will he improve his ball skills so he can create his own shot? He has tremendous talent and potential, but he still has much to learn. Will he hunger to be his best?
Many of the same questions also surround McCamey, who along with Davis are Illinois' best pro prospects at this time. Like Davis, Demetri tends to float at times, taking the easy way out. He does just a little less than asked. Will he ever get in top shape and learn to go the extra mile necessary to reach his potential?
Will McCamey develop true confidence that can be sustained game to game? Right now, he tends to become either cocky or depressed with little in between. If he feels good about himself and makes his first shot, he can be a powerhouse in a game. If he misses his first couple shots, he can get into a funk that is hard to reverse.
Will he condition his body to play hard on both ends of the floor and not take plays off or tire late in games? Will he choose to eat right and take care of himself so he can maximize his ability? He may never be fast enough or explosive enough to be a star in the pros, but he can develop into a winner if he sets higher goals for himself. Which Demetri will show up next fall?
Mike Tisdale has been working diligently to gain weight and strength these last two years. He eats 6000 calories a day and works the weights as prescribed by strength trainer Jimmy Price. He must continue to work, especially on his lower body strength to keep his position on the block. And he must learn to battle better on the boards.
More than anything, big Mike needs to develop a self-confidence that can sustain him during difficult times. He is one of the team's best shooters and can average in double figures the rest of his career. But he needs to take mistakes with a grain of salt and come back the next play and give his best effort. Will the still young Tisdale be ready to play with maturity and focus next fall?
Alex Legion is a true enigma. Known for his deadly shooting, he was expected to flourish on a team that desperately needed a scorer once he gained eligibility at the semester break. But he was also asked to be a team player on offense and learn quality defense, things he didn't have to do in high school.
Alex began to think so much about his added responsibilities, his shot suffered. He is a hungry shooter, and he sometimes rushes shots when he isn't set just to make up for lost times. At other times, it seemed he was telling himself not to shoot so he could prove he was a team player. When he did get a shot, he tightened up and thought too much. The resultant miss hurt his confidence, and it became a vicious circle.
Will Alex Legion be more secure next fall when he can be a part of the lineup from the beginning of the season? Will he learn enough about defense, ball handling and passing to gain Bruce Weber's trust? If so, will he make a decent percentage of shots so he can be given the green light to shoot when open?
Keller was brought in from junior college to rebound and play post defense. He knew Weber wanted that of him and said that was what he wanted also. But when he started practicing with the team, his primary focus was shooting the ball. He has a variety of unorthodox shots, and he makes his fair share of them. But he must rebound and play defense to gain playing time.
Slender Bill Cole is an excellent three point shooter for a 6'-8" player. But right now he has no position. He practiced with the guards on offense, but he must play power forward defensively. He is not quite as quick as guards on the perimeter, and he lacks strength for banging inside. He knows the motion offense well. Will he evolve into the kind of hybrid player who can help out at two positions? Or will his lack of focus on one position continue to delay his development?
One possible wildcard is freshman Stan Simpson. Redshirted this past fall, he has the height and build to be a force near the basket. That is, once he learns the game better. He is a relative novice, having played the game a short while. And his body is still growing and developing. With continued strength work, he could be at 245 next fall and close to 6'-10". He can run the floor and shoot a 15 foot shot.
He shows glimpses of helping, but he lacks consistency. He also had to miss two weeks of practice time while catching up with his studies. If he is eligible and continues to work hard, Stan could be a major surprise. If not this next year, then eventually. But at this time, he is still a project and may see limited playing time behind Tisdale and Keller inside.
Richard Semrau's opportunity may have passed him by. Assigned the role of being a center rather than power forward this year, he began fall drills with a new-found aggressiveness. He even got some early playing time backing up Tisdale. But he has small hands, and he gets down on himself easily. Once he experienced some failure, he no longer challenged for playing time. He has some potential, but he will need major improvement to help.
There is also a question of how the freshmen will fit in. Most feel guards Richardson and Paul will see considerable playing time. D.J. is a lock-down defender who is athletic and mobile. He is a good team player who can both set up teammates and shoot the rock. He could be especially valuable to the Illini defensively as his offense evolves.
Paul is the most athletic of the newcomers. He is an explosive leaper and is improving his outside shooting in addition to his ability to penetrate and finish at the rim. Eventually, he could become a star. But it may take him some time to emerge.
Joseph Bertrand is somewhat an enigma. A multiple slam dunk winner in state high school competitions, the 6'-5" Bertrand may be the best point guard of the newcomers. But he is somewhat like McCamey in that he can turn it on one game and then crawl into a hole the next time around. He is slender and may need some time to develop confidence, strength and consistency. Most feel he will be a backup next year, but he may surprise.
Tyler Griffey is a power forward who is ideal for a motion offense. He is mobile enough to run the floor and a good enough shooter from 3 to pose a threat any game. The 6'-9" Griffey is not a banger inside, but he is willing. As he gains strength and maturity, he may help with rebounding. But right now, he must compete with Mike Davis, Bill Cole, and Keller for playing time.
The biggest problem the freshmen have is they are freshmen. When Davis, McCamey and Tisdale were freshmen, they were lost in the motion offense. It is highly complex, and the nuances are difficult to master. It takes most players at least two years to learn it, so a departing senior like Meacham, Frazier or Brock is much more likely to help the team than any entering freshman despite glowing reputations.
Overall, Illinois will be more athletic next year. Whether that athleticism is enough to make up for the loss of the seniors remains to be seen. If at least some of the questions mentioned above work out in the Illini's favor, they could be as good or better than this year.
There is time before next fall for each of the players to make improvements and a leader to emerge. If so, they could win more games than this season. But if the upperclassmen are more concerned with showcasing their games for the pros, or if the freshmen are slow to learn the system, the Illini could struggle.
The best trait of the 2008-09 team was its team chemistry and unselfish play. The next team will need to rely on that same level of togetherness to be successful. If the new players and returnees mesh well, they could surprise. Of course, they also must be as healthy as this past season. A few key injuries at inopportune times could damage prospects.
At least, with all the new talent on the way and expectations high, the Illini should be fun to watch in 2009-2010.