Jerrance Howard is more than just a recruiter for the Illinois basketball team. He helps coach practices and does scouting reports. He has a good feel for the assets and liabilities of the current team. Since he has both played and coached for Bruce Weber, it is not surprising his discussion begins with the head coach.
"I think we're on track to win a lot of games. It definitely always starts with the top, and my respect for Coach Weber as a player and someone working for him, you couldn't get a better coach. You're talking about a guy that's been in the game for 30 years. So when I say it starts at the top, it starts with Coach Weber."
Weber preaches sound defense, and that is a concern to this point.
"We're worried about defense. If we guard, we have a chance to be really, really good. We've got guys that can really score the ball, push the ball and really get to the basket. In the past few years, we haven't been a team that gets to the free throw line. Overall, we still have a lot of work to do. But right now, we're in pretty good shape."
The Illini are developing better depth, thanks in part to four athletic and talented freshmen. But Howard agrees there is a dropoff of quality depth at point guard behind Demetri McCamey.
"Yes. As good as D.J. (Richardson) is, he's not a natural one. It's really good to have Jeff Jordan back on the team. He's an experienced guy, he knows the system. I think down the line Jeff will have a chance to get some minutes as a backup point guard. He's a natural one."
Sterling freshman Joseph Bertrand prefers point, and he may be an answer there once he returns to full health following arthroscopic knee surgery.
"Most definitely. That's why we recruited him because you're talking about a 6'-4" guy that's athletic, long arms, great ball handling skills and has a great vision on the court. Before he got hurt, he was one of our best players. Hands down, day in and day out.
"But the transition from high school to college, especially with him being hurt, has hurt. He's carried himself so far mentally, overcoming injury and all the things it takes to play at this level. He's grown up and matured tremendously these last couple months. That's gonna be to his advantage.
"Competition brings out the best in you. There's not a possession where you can take off and be casual and cool. He knew coming in he had to get a lot tougher and be more competitive. He's responded. He's not gonna back down to anybody.
"He's probably one of our best on-the-ball defenders. He's gotten steals from Demetri, D.J. and Brandon Paul. I think once he gets back to 100%, that's another guy that we can add to the rotation. I think he has a chance to be really good."
The Illini are also looking for someone to spell Mike Tisdale in the post and do the banging necessary to fight for rebounds, play quality defense and screen for the shooters.
"Down low, we don't have any bangers. That's something that really concerns us both offensively and defensively. I think our style of play, with a motion offense and guys getting to the basket, and with Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale being tremendous shooters, we have to have that part work to our advantage."
There is no shortage of candidates to help in the post.
"I think Richard Semrau, being an older guy, shows signs that he can be really good. But I think Dominique Keller and Tyler Griffey will probably be the first two to come off the bench. Tyler really shoots the ball, and Dominique plays with a lot of energy. We need both of them to rebound more, but it's a good problem to have. We really don't have a guy we can say is the first one off the bench."
Howard played on an Illini team that included greats Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head. He sees similarities between that group and the present freshman class, especially in terms of work ethic.
"When Dee and Deron were freshmen and Luther was here only one year, they were gym rats. You see Brandon come here on Saturdays, D.J. staying extra shooting, Tyler and Joseph also. They like the game of basketball.
"They hear us say all the time how competitive Dee, Deron and Luther were, coming here late at night and working out and just always being in the gym. I've known D.J. since the fifth grade at the park. He comes from Peoria, and that's all we know. So it's natural for those guys to be gym rats.
"You look at D.J.'s story. He's a kid that struggled academically but went out to Vegas and got all A's and B's. He worked his butt off. It was hard sometimes, but it helped him grow up. He's really mature.
"The comparison with those guys and the new guys we've got now is that they love the game and want to get better and be coached."
Howard was working at Kentucky when Alex Legion enrolled there, and he was influential in encouraging Legion to transfer to Illinois once he made the decision to leave. It has been a tough transition for the shooting guard, but he broke out of it with 28 points in the Orange and Blue Scrimmage.
"A lot of people threw him off the bus last year, and it wasn't fair. Sometimes we forget these are just kids. His transition from Kentucky to here was not the smoothest. Starting right at the beginning of the Big 10 season, and people were expecting him to save the day.
"But he deserves it. Last year made him stronger mentally, and he fought through it. Now, I don't want to spoil his party, but let's keep rolling. Don't be content. This was still just an Orange and Blue scrimmage.
"Let's continue to play well in practice, and he's gonna start putting things together. As happy as I was to see him be successful and start being the player we know he can be, we've still got to go from here and add on to it."
Howard was excited to see the big smile on his friend's face after his O & B performance.
"That's what got me. Being a speech communication major, we learned that 90% of our communication is body language. I sit back and watch our players, and that smile really had a place in my heart because I know he's a good kid.
"He hasn't been treated fairly, but he has something to do with that. That comes with it when you don't play well. You're gonna hear it. But I think for us to be successful, he's gonna have to play well for us."
Howard discusses the recruiting game in part two.