Normally, Illinois coach Bruce Weber is cautious when discussing his newcomers. They have much to learn, and it usually takes them awhile to relax and show their full ability. But Weber couldn't help but demonstrate excitement about D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand and Tyler Griffey.
"The freshmen are a talented group. A lot of times with freshmen, you just pick on them. They don't understand the drills, you push them one way and steal the ball and all that stuff. But I haven't seen anybody do that.
"Now that might come in practice when we do drill after drill, when the other guys have been through the drills and can take advantage of them. Right now they may get them one time, but they come right back and make it competitive."
Physically, the freshmen are ready to challenge for playing time.
"One of the biggest transitions besides homesickness, getting up early and going to class and all the things normal students go through, is usually conditioning and weight training. Not only have they dealt with it, but they've actually gone to the top.
"D.J.'s been the best runner for the guards, Brandon might be second. Tyler Griffey's been the best runner for the big guys. Him and Mike Davis are probably neck and neck. So that's a good sign. Those guys give us depth."
With the graduation of point guard Chester Frasier, the Illini need a defensive stopper. Weber isn't ruling out a freshman for that role.
"I hope it doesn't have to become a freshman, but D.J. is very good defensively. Since the first time Coach McClain and I went over to Peoria and watched him play, I still remember an open gym. On the first possession, he was picking the guy up all 84 feet on the high school court. And he did it the entire night.
"That's the mentality of Peoria basketball. That's how they've always played. He doesn't mind doing it. He takes pride in it."
Weber may need to limit Richardson to defending one type of opponent, at least at the beginning of the season.
"The neat thing about Chester is that he guarded the point guard, and he guarded Evan Turner and Robbie Hummel. I think he (Richardson) can guard a lot of positions. But as a freshman, I see him guarding the point guard. That's what he's always done. The basic fundamentals of weakside defense, staying on tails and all that stuff, we'll have to see how he evolves once we get into practice."
If there is one position on the team where the starter lacks competition in practice, it is Demetri McCamey at the point. Richardson has all-around tools and can set up teammates with penetration and passing. Weber is testing him to back up McCamey.
"I'm not sure we have someone who can do consistently what Demetri has to give us. Right now, we've experimented with D.J. a little bit. We've given all the freshmen a chance to play that point guard position."
Bertrand might also get a chance there, but he is just beginning to work out again after recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. He scored 8 points in the Madness scrimmage, including a driving dunk, and he handed out several assists with nifty passes.
"Joseph's been back for about a week now, and he's back to only 80-85%. But he makes it tough. He's very long, he's got some nice instincts."
Paul is pushing Alex Legion for playing time on the wing.
"I've said for many weeks that Brandon Paul, there's days he's the best player on the court," Weber relates. "He doesn't do that every day yet, and we're gonna have to watch and see.
"He's just so athletic. He can get to the basket. He's a little bit inconsistent. Shot selection will be one of the questions. And it was last year if you followed his high school team. He'd give in and shoot some threes when he's so athletic he can get to the glass.
"But he can score in a lot of ways. He can get to the basket, pull-up jumpers, threes, tip dunks, just a lot of things. So he's a versatile swing man."
Last but certainly not least, the 6'-8", 230 pound Griffey has impressed and may play more frequently than first thought.
"Maybe the nicest surprise has been Tyler Griffey. We knew he could shoot, and he's a good kid, smart kid. But his athleticm is better, the conditioning has not phased him.
"He's got some toughness. I've given the big guys the challenge of rebounding, getting points in the paint, and getting to the free throw line.
"Tyler likes to shoot the three, and he hit 40 some percent last year. He was a little frustrated at first, but I tried to get him to understand. I'll let you shoot threes, but I want you to get some points in the paint. He's kind of taken that challenge and is battling in there."
Weber still retains the right to change his view later in fall practices. But his tone suggests he is expecting the freshman to be a big help to the 2009-2010 Illini.
"All of those guys have pushed the other guys. But again, when you go to practice with three hours of drills, and the games, we'll have to see if I'm saying the same things two weeks from now and two weeks after that."