Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber is happy that fall practice is about to begin. He has a promising squad of experienced returnees invigorated by four athletic and talented freshmen.
"It's that time of year again," Weber announced. "Leaves are changing, it's getting a little bit chilly, so basketball is right around the corner. We kick it off on Friday night with Illini Madness.
"I think we're excited about our group. We have a nice group of veterans, led by a couple seniors in Dominique Keller and Bubba Chisholm, our local walkon who's been a nice spiritual leader for us. A solid base of juniors. No sophomore class per se, but an exciting group of freshmen.
"So we're really looking forward to it. To me, this is always a fun time of year."
Before proceeding further, Weber made the announcement that assistant coach Wayne McClain has been promoted to Associate Head Coach.
"I have named Coach McClain Associate Head Coach. He's the veteran of our group. He was on staff before we got here. When I took the job, Mr. (Ron) Guenther asked me to consider keeping Wayne. I had known him from the recruiting days when I was an assistant at Purdue. The great success he had in Peoria. It's been a great match.
"When I'm gone on days recruiting, things like that, he's been a head coach and has been through a lot. The ups and downs, dealing with the parents. So we look to him anyway. This is a chance to put the title on it. If something should happen to me, I'm sick or whatever happens, he's the one people would look to for guidance. He's got the personality and background to take over when I'm not around.
"He's very deserving of the title. One, he is very loyal to the University. His son was a player here. I think a great name for our state. I've always said he is the wisdom of our program.
"He's got a knack of getting after the players. Sometimes very strongly, but I think they still come back and enjoy being with him and laugh with him and look to him for some fatherly advice. He's deserving."
With other members of his staff gaining their own notoriety, Weber felt it necessary to reward a man whose contributions often go unnoticed outside the program.
"I just felt it was important for Coach McClain to get some recognition. I hate to put any hierarchy to our coaches. Jerrance (Howard) has gotten a lot of attention, and he's done a great job for us. At the same time, Jay Price has been very important to us. Jay does a lot of things the other guys don't want to do.
"If you have a successful team, everybody is playing their roles. Each guy has strengths and weaknesses, and we have a nice group that compliments each other.
"Coach (Gary) Nottingham has been with us since we got here, and I've known him a long time. And we added Coach (Sean) Harrington to the staff last year. We have a mixture of youth and some older coaches. We're excited about that announcement."
Weber also delayed discussion of his current team to address the current status of former squad member Jeff Jordan, who has inquired about possibly returning to the team after quitting last spring. Nothing has been decided as yet.
"I thought I should address the Jeffrey Jordan situation. It's gotten some national acclaim. I have had a conversation with him, the coaches have had a conversation with him. He has a very good relationship with our players. Since he's come back in the fall, he's hung out with those guys. I don't think that has changed at all.
"Before we move forward, we've got to continue having some discussions. The key words we're looking for is 'total commitment.' We must make sure, if Jeff is to come back, that he is totally committed to move forward and become part of the team. It's tough to be Jeffrey Jordan. He's a great kid, we enjoyed having him with our team. If it works out, I think we'll be happy.
"Right now, I don't know when, where, whatever. I did talk to him yesterday, and we're just gonna wait and see how it all evolves. But I'd say by Friday night we should have a better feel of his situation."
The formalities at an end, Weber discussed the themes for this season, "Rising Up," "Blue Collar Orange Pride," and "Finishing."
"We've really talked with our players since the beginning about the theme of 'Rising Up.' We've used that on the poster. I kept saying to the players, 'We've got to take the game to another level.' They made huge strides last year. That group of juniors, from Richard Semrau, who eligibility-wise is a junior, to Demetri (McCamey), to Mike (Davis) and Mike (Tisdale), Billy Cole, Alex Legion, has to continue along with Dominique and Bubba to rise up and take a big step.
"The league is very challenging. I think we have a chance to be one of the top couple leagues if not the top. A lot of teams in the preseason Top 25. If we're gonna compete for a Big 10 title, fight that upper part of the league, we must continue to make some strides not only so we can get into the NCAA Tournament, but to move forward in the tournament. Those guys are gonna have to take big steps.
"We hope they're listening to that. At the same time, we had great success last year and surprised some people, pushing the MATTO and how important the little things are. What Chester (Frasier) did for us, and Trent Meacham with the leadership, playing hard, defending and Calvin's (Brock) energy, we're gonna miss that.
"I think we have more talent, and we've used the theme 'Blue Collar Orange Pride.' I hope we're gonna be able to score easier. But at the same time, if you're gonna really win games, you're gonna have to have toughness and blue collar (attitude). And then a pride in being part of this program.
"The last thing I've emphasized is going back to last season. Finishing. We had a great start last year. We were very competitive down to the last couple weeks. Our finish was not where it needed to be. You can make excuses, obviously Chester getting hurt was a big factor. You try to change your whole scheme at the end of the season. But to finish is important.
"I hope it comes from maturity. I hope it comes from rising up. We had the taste of getting into the NCAA tournament. Obviously, we weren't ready for it. That's a whole nother level. We're hoping the experience of doing that, being part of that, will be important.
"We had a lot of close games down the stretch. We could have easily been competing for a Big Ten Championship with a basket here, a stop there. The same thing in the NCAA Tournament. Be a little more ready and know how to deal with it, and who knows. But that's how close it is. I hope that experience we went through will help all our guys.
"You're only as good as your upperclassmen. We're hoping to expect a lot out of those guys. I've been very pleased with our guys through the spring, summer and fall. They work very hard, they have good team chemistry, they enjoy each other. Now we've got to see if we can get some layups, maybe stop some guys, get a defensive stopper and make some progress as a unit."