Bruce Weber Talks About Latest Illini Team

On the surface, the Fighting Illini basketball team appears capable of improving on its 24 wins from last year. There is a strong group of experienced upperclassmen complimented by four exciting freshmen. But there are still a number of question marks. Rebounding, defending, outside shooting and leadership are all potential problems that require resolution.

Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber reminded assembled media at his opening press conference about both the assets and liabilities of his current team. First and foremost, the loss of seniors Chester Frazier, Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock produced a drain on leadership and experience. Upperclassmen will need to rise up to replace them.

"We're gonna need Dominique (Keller) to take another step up. We don't have any other seniors, so a lot of the pressure and expectation goes to that junior class.

"That's the basis of our program, that's the majority of our guys, and we're gonna need those guys to do some of those things that Chester and Trent did, the leadership, keeping an even keel and keeping us solid.

"And Calvin always came in and competed every day in practice. He wasn't always perfect in everything, but he always played his butt off and made everybody go hard. You need leadership, you need an energy guy, you need a defensive stopper. It will be interesting how that all develops.

"I still need some other guys to do that. And one of the things is, who will guard the best players? We're (Big 10) gonna have a great group of juniors, a lot of guys who maybe could have went into the NBA and didn't. The league took a little bit of flak, 'You only have one guy go in the first round?'

"(B.J.) Mullens ends up going, and no one thought he should have, that's the ironic thing. But Evan Turner, (Kalin) Lucas and Talor Battle, who had success with USA basketball, there's guys who could have went. Who's gonna stop Robbie Hummel? That's the challenge we're gonna have to look at."

Illini frontline starters Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis are slender and have trouble banging in the post for rebounds. Imrpoving that phase is a must if the Illini want to have a great season.

"I've made rebounding a theme with the big guys since last year. We have some very skilled big guys, and they're good shooters. That's great. We can spread defenses and make it tough on people.

"But at the same time, part of rising up is adding to your game. Getting to the glass, getting a putback. Mike Davis has a great shot, but I keep telling him, steal a couple layups a game with a putback, a runout, maybe a post-up to do your little hook. Same thing with Tis.

"And Dominique, with his body and his athleticism, he should be an animal in there and dominate. He wants minutes, and he's a senior. He wants success. I keep telling him, if he wants minutes go get some dang rebounds, get a bunch of dunks and I'll be happy. I'll play you a whole bunch.

"It's up to them. Rebounding, getting putbacks, getting to the free throw line. Those are the things that are so important if we're gonna make progress."

There is a definite leadership void with Frasier gone.

"I haven't named captains. I think they're trying. Mike Tisdale speaks out. To be a leader, you've got to be a leader when things are going good and when they're not going good. I think that's the question with all those guys.

"Can those juniors be leaders when the game isn't totally going their way? They just swallow their pride and get it to somebody or guard somebody and say the right things, all that stuff. It's a work in progress. We'll see how much progress they make.

"And we've challenged the freshmen. If they're not gonna lead them, don't wait for them. Go by them. I think that's the neat thing about the group. The individual workouts, the running, whatever it is, if those guys are not doing what they're supposed to, the freshmen, even if they don't know any difference and are afraid of us, they're not backing down."

On the positive side, there is talent, depth and versatility.

"I think we have a little more talent. Talent doesn't mean wins. I said last year I've got to do a good job of using more guys, hopefully creating more confidence. Maybe we'll have a solid 8, 9, 10 guys playing. Keep them involved and stay after people.

"We may not have a set rotation. It may take us a little longer. It's one thing how they practice, but we might find out some different things as we get into games and go along.

"We have some versatility as a team. We can score a lot of different ways. We'll need to do that against a lot of good defenses. It's not just scoring against the bottom half of teams, it's scoring against the best teams. That's what you've got to prepare for."

An offensive key will be how much junior Demetri McCamey has improved running the team from the point and pushing the ball into transition situations.

"I think he's way more explosive. I would say he's 20 pounds less than he was at his all-time high. That's probably 10-12 pounds less than last year. Ironically, he said to someone this year, 'Man, I've got no choice. I've got to run hard all the time because D.J. (Richardson) and Brandon (Paul) are flying by me.'

"So it's been a good challenge to make him push himself. In sprints, it's tough for him to beat D.J., Brandon and Alex (Legion). And now, if Joseph (Bertrand) gets his knee back, he's pretty athletic. I think it's a good thing. It's helping him, it's pushing him.

"Chester pushed him, but overall last year he didn't have enough people pushing him. And he's matured, he's grown up from school to life. And now hopefully he can make a big step up basketball-wise.

"We're really trying to push the basketball. He's got strength, he's got the body. Now, use your athleticism with the basketball and become more of a point guard. I think he's trying to do that. Can he do it consistently for 30 some games?"

With more athleticism and depth, Weber is entertaining the possibility of pressing on defense.

"I'm not sure we have enough defensive stoppers, and we might have to mirror or try some things, change tempo of the opponent. So we as a staff have looked at some other programs, how they press different ways. Pressing is not easy, and it takes a commitment. So we may ease into it and continue it into next year."

If Weber decides to use a bigger player at the 3 spot, he may also consider using a zone defense once in awhile.

"The same thing with zone. Billy Cole showed some signs last year of definitely making some shots. One of his tough things is, who does he guard, a three or four? If Billy can make shots for us, other than Trent we really didn't shoot the ball well from three, and we need somebody, maybe a zone. Again, our staff has looked at some zone stuff. Those are things that will definitely be talked about.

"I tease about the dreaded 'Z' word 'zone.' I have nothing against it. But if you play it, you've got to play hard. I think if you do have a common thing where teams are successful zone-wise, it's usually when they're long.

"I think we have pretty good length. From Tisdale to Mike Davis. Alex is long and athletic. The freshmen are long. So we have some guys who maybe can get to the shooters, disrupt some things. I don't think we'll be a 40-minute zone team, but at the same time it's something we may use to give us some opportunities to play some other guys."

Illinois had a good team last year, good enough to make the NCAA Tournament. What will it take to progress from a good team to a great one?

"That junior class going another step up, rising up, becoming our leaders, our go-to guys," Weber answers. "Somebody emerges as a defensive stopper. I think that's the big key. We have a tough nonconference schedule, the league could be as good as it's been in a long time.

"Last year, I think we surprised people with the number of teams (in the NCAA Tournament), and we could even go beyond that, to be honest. It's not gonna be easy, but I think we have the capability on paper as a league to get almost everybody in one of the tournaments."

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