Bruce Weber Talks Summer Illini Progress

With the fall semester scheduled to begin in late August, excitement is building on campus for the 2009-2010 edition of the Fighting Illini basketball team. After concluding a strenuous July which saw him travel all over the country watching prospective recruits, Bruce Weber met with the media to discuss the new freshmen, the team's summer progress, schedules and more.

Everyone wants to know how Illinois freshmen basketball players D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand and Tyler Griffey are acclimating to campus life and the rigors of offseason workouts. Weber is not allowed to watch them practice by NCAA edict, but he talks with them frequently.

"The whole month of June, they were around us with camps and all that," Weber explains. "Now, I've been gone 20 some days in July, so you kind of have to reintroduce yourself. The coaches try to call every week, and whoever is on campus tries to be around them."

Weber is grateful the NCAA permits the recruits to be on campus during the summer.

"I think one of the best rules the NCAA did was to get them on campus, get them acclimated. They have their ups and downs. They go through homesickness, dealing with weights, getting up in the morning, all those things that are not easy.

"Most of them will be out of here by Wednesday, and then they get two and a half weeks to go home again and then come back and get after it. We need them to be successful. A couple of them have to play I think. I hope they earn that right."

Reports from informal workouts are encouraging, but Weber reminds there is still a number of hurdles to overcome for the freshmen.

"We're excited about them. You talk to our players and guys that have been around playing with them, I think they're living up to the hype at this point. When we start practice and I start yelling at them, they go to class and all that stuff, we'll have to wait and see."

Many expect Richardson to start this year. Besides his talent, he matured a great deal during his prep school year.

"I think he has even shown that now. The other guys have gone through a little homesickness. D.J. is close, right over at Peoria, but he's just happy to be back in the state of Illinois and closer to his family. He's gone through some of that stuff being away. I think he appreciates being here a little more than the others. They haven't gone through that. So it definitely will help him.

"D.J. played basically a college schedule. I think they (Findlay Prep) played 39-40 games against good competition. He played on a National Championship team. There's so many things he went through such as living in a house, fending for yourself, having a roommate, all those things that college students have to go through when they get here. He's been through all that so he appreciates it more. So that helps him be prepared also."

Weber is sensitive to the buzz of the local populous. As he goes about his daily business, he gets considerable feedback from fans.

"When I was here before July, people in town were talking about this group and the next group, our returning guys. There's a lot of excitement; the hype is out there. People are looking forward to it."

The freshmen are not the only ones creating a buzz. The upperclassmen have been improving also. Weber answered questions about Mike Tisdale and Alex Legion in particular.

"Everybody's been on campus. I think it's been a pretty productive summer. The pickup games, they've been in the weight room.

"Mike Tisdale had a great opportunity to be in the USA trials. It was a great experience for him, and he got a taste of it. He actually played well enough that he was one of the last guys that didn't get on the team. But I think it gave him a little bit of a spark that he can compete with these guys.

"Those big guys at that trial will all be draft choices next year, I would say. Mike created some excitement. I talked to some NBA guys over the summer that felt that, as he keeps getting stronger and bigger, he has a chance to play because he's very versatile.

"Alex works out all the time, he's one of our best workout guys. His thing is being more competitive and productive once we start practice with the whole team. He can do it on his own, but now we've got to see what he can do in a game situation and practice situation. I hope he can make some progress, we need him. We need that whole junior class to be successful if we're gonna be really good."

There is still uncertainty whether Chester Frazier will be a student assistant this year or playing basketball overseas. He has been a big help to the freshmen this summer.

"Right now, Chester is still gonna come back and coach. He does have an inkling to maybe play. As he has gotten healthier in his hand, working out all summer with the players, he still has an urge to play. He still loves to play basketball.

"Now, is it worth it for him? I think he knows his future is in coaching. This is one window of opportunity the NCAA allows to be a student assistant when you have a year left in your five years of eligibility to be here. If he turns that down, now he's gonna be like all the other guys that go play in Europe and come back in five years and want to coach.

"Now, you don't have anything on your resume. It's just tough to start. He's a smart kid. If he can find a situation that makes sense to him, he'll go play. If not, he'll stay here and help us.

"He's been great this summer helping with the camps, being around the guys, giving them the leadership, kind of being a bridge between last year's group and this year's group. Trent (Meacham) has been around quite a bit this summer, Brian Randle's been around because he's getting married here in town. When you have guys here like Chester, Trent and Brian, it helps our other guys and promotes the program."

Weber also appreciates the support his program receives from recent graduates. Dee Brown and Luther Head have been on campus playing pickup games with the team, showing the freshmen how hard they need to play every possession. And Deron Williams will do the same in late August.

"We'll have Deron's Illini Foundation event coming in the 28th to 29th of August, dinner on Friday night and golf on Saturday. I want to promote that a little bit. He'll put an award in Jerry Colangelo's name and honor a couple former Illini. He hopes to do this on a continuous basis.

"We really appreciate Deron staying involved with the program. A lot of former guys will be back the first week of school, so we'll have those guys on campus playing with our players. So a lot of positive things with that."

This year's schedule is almost complete. Weber and staff try to create a schedule that will be difficult but allow the Illini a chance to accumulate wins and create a positive resume for post season play. This year's schedule will probably fall somewhere between the extremes of easy and hard to reflect the current perception of the team's quality.

"I think we're in between a little bit. We could be a top 25 or top 20 team to begin the season. Some of the things I've seen we are. So there's some excitement with that part of it.

"But at the same time, we're gonna have to have some different roles. The leadership, toughness, defense, the things I worry about that maybe a fan wouldn't worry about. And then can the freshmen do it consistently? There's no doubt they're talented. That kind of puts you in between with the schedule.

"The easiest one was 04-05. We had everyone back, so we wanted to play a tough schedule. That helped prepare us to get to the Final Four. That opportunity presented itself. The next two years, we did a mix because we had to replace somebody, change roles, things like that. Two years from now (2010-11) if all goes right, we'll have everybody back possibly except Dominique (Keller) and Bubba (Chisholm), so that might make the scheduling easier."

Fans clamor for games against top teams in the Assembly Hall, to no avail.

"I would love to have home games against major teams, but it's never gonna happen. Adding two Big 10 games on a year ago, now you cut out two of your nonconference games. You have the Missouri game, you have the United Center game, you have the return from the United Center game, you have the ACC-Big 10 Challenge, you have an exempt event. So now you're limited in what you have left.

"And then with revenue needs and the economy, we have to have as many home games as possible. It really puts us in a bind. If we could play major teams all the time, I would like to do it.

"But one, you want to get enough wins for the NCAA Tournament. Two, Mr. (Ron, Athletic Director) Guenther is worried about how many home games we have and the revenues coming in. It's not only us, it's every school around the country. It becomes a dilemma for the mid majors and low majors because they never get home games."

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