Illinois assistant coach Jay Price offered his assessment of Illini basketball prospects.
"I think I'm excited. I think we have a lot of talent. I think we have some athleticism. I think we have an outstanding mix of older and younger guys, and they're really working hard. It's been a nice thing."
"I hope the fans understand, the freshman are real good basketball players, but they are freshmen. They haven't been through the battles yet. They haven't been playing when the popcorn's been churning. But I think they all are exciting and have a chance to be very, very good basketball players."
If nothing else, the freshmen have brought a spark of energy and competitiveness that helps the upperclassmen improve.
"They've helped increase the intensity of our workouts. But as a team, it's gonna be the older guys. That's how teams are.
"Last year, our seniors played like seniors. Chester, Calvin and Trent played well enough to get us into the NCAA Tournament. You've got to have the older guys lead the young guys. That's how you have a successful year."
Still, the freshmen appear to be the foundation for what could be some outstanding teams down the road. Besides being athletic and talented, they are intelligent, focused, and dedicated to seeing Illinois win.
"I think so too. The four guys we have right now are fun to be around. They're excited, but it's all new right now. As the year rolls along, sometimes it takes a toll on freshmen.
"But you've got Brandon Paul, who was Mr. Basketball. D.J., who won a national championship. Tyler Griffey has been committed to us for 2 and 1/2 years and is a really talented basketball player, a banger who can really shoot the ball. And then Joseph, who may be the most athletic of them all. Of course, he's hurt right now.
"They definitely ratchet up the intensity of our workouts. And it helps the older guys. They're ratcheting it up too. That's what it is gonna take."
When Bertrand had arthroscopic surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his knee, the Illini were suddenly short at the guard positions. He is recovering rapidly, but his injury brought into focus a potential problem. The Illini often play a three guard lineup, and without Bertrand they were down to four players at three positions.
Illinois continues to recruit guards, but competitors try to discredit the Illini by claiming they have too many guards. Price disagrees.
"It's funny, they say out in the recruiting world we have so many guards. But hey, we've lost one and now we're like in trouble at guard. So we don't really have a lot of depth at the guard position.
"If we have to, we'll play a bigger three man. Billy Cole can play a three, and he's probably better off as a three. He can shoot the ball well. Dominique (Keller) can be a three if we need him to do it. Even Tyler can play some three.
"Of course, the point is not the three spot offensively. It's on defense that's always the matchups. We obviously have really good guards, but there's thinness at the guard position. Bertrand has already gotten hurt, and hopefully knock on wood that will be the only injury we do have this year. That's what it takes also. You just never know what the year's gonna entail."
Price works directly with the post players and sees improvement there.
"I think they've made a lot of progress. They're obviously very skilled guys. We have a lot of skilled bigs. Mike (Davis) and Mike (Tisdale) don't miss jump shots, they've got great hooks around the basket. They're good rebounders. They need to get in there and get their nose dirty a little more, but they're outstanding basketball players.
"Richard (Semrau) will get in there and get his nose dirty. He played really well for us at the beginning of last year. Stan (Simpson) is a guy who can block some unbelievable shots, and he's a guy who can bang.
"And maybe surprising because he's a freshman, but Tyler likes to get in there and bang. He doesn't just stand outside and shoot jumpers. He maybe would like that sometimes, but we won't allow that to happen.
"Dominique (Keller) is a very skilled four man for us and puts the ball on the ground. He needs to get inside a little bit too. I think that's the biggest thing with the big guys. We need to establish someone to go inside and bang. But they can all make shots.
"Especially with the guards this year, we can penetrate. And those big guys can step out to 10-12 feet, and they're gonna make it. That's a nice little arsenal to have.
"Dominique had a great year for us last year. It's hard for junior college guys. With the junior college kids I've been around, you see their true production their second year when they get more associated with the system.
"But he's a great teammate first of all. He's fun, he's comical, he's taken good care of the freshmen and put his arm around them. But we need him to be good on the court too. We need him to have a very good year this year for us."
Leadership is a concern. Chester Frazier was the acknowledged leader last season, and he's graduated. A team cannot function at its highest level without strong leadership at the top.
"Someone needs to step up and become a leader. I'm not sure who it's gonna be yet. You'd like for Dominique, being a senior, to do it. But we've got guys who've been around here a long time. Mike, Mike and Demetri (McCamey), Alex (Legion) has been around here awhile, Billy, they've all been around. Hopefully, someone will step up and lead the basketball team.
"It's easy to lead when times are good. But off the court, who's leading them and asking what they're gonna do this weekend? Let's have dinner, or let's watch a game at my house, stuff like that. That I think will show itself. Normally, it doesn't have to be just one person. If the upperclassmen will lead by example, it will make the underclassmen do what they need to do.
"I don't think you pick leaders. I think the leaders pick themselves. You can't tell someone, 'Ok, you're the leader of the team.' They need to want to do it, they need to know how to do it.
"We have an outstanding program on campus that helps with leadership through the Academic Services. If it's a freshman or a senior, that's who it's gonna be. As long as the guys respect a person, that's really what it takes."