Illinois coach Bruce Weber spoke recently about what must happen between now and next fall if the Illini basketball team is to improve over this year's mixed results. He hopes the pain of failure will be a strong motivator.
"You always look for some kind of silver lining. Maybe being humbled that Sunday afternoon not getting into the NCAA Tournament will be the biggest motivator. I know both Mikes have been in the weight room already. Mike Davis didn't even go home (for spring break). Right when Tis (Mike Tisdale) got back, he was in the weight room."
The upcoming seniors had successful sophomore years for the most part, but the additional responsibilities of an upperclassmen were difficut for them. Things didn't come as easily for them. That might be a blessing. If they want to have a future in the sport, this is their last chance to show what they can do.
"I think they understand it. That foundation, your seniors Demetri (McCamey), Mike, Mike and Billy (Bill Cole) have shown they are good, quality players. But at the same time, they can make some big strides. Being in the weight room I think will be the most important."
Weber defined what they need to improve before fall.
"With the goals, right now we're talking about immediate things. We're talking toughness, we're talking weight room, we're talking about competitive practices, pushing each other, improving fundamentals. With some of the younger guys, now we know them better. Now they know what they need to do. Are they gonna make strides?
"Mike Davis, getting better putting the ball on the floor. Demetri quickness, explosion, defense. You can go down the line with guys, how they can improve. Those are immediate goals.
"If those things improve, if they're better as individuals they will be better as a team. Then you can talk about things we can do next season. In the top 3-4 in the Big 10, you have a chance to be one of the top 25 teams in the country. That happened this year. That's gotta be one of our goals. It's what they do over the next six months."
The Illini will welcome three talented freshmen to the mix this summer. Each can earn playing time with consistent performances in practice.
"When the new guys come in, one they'll bring competition. Two, how do they intermingle?
"Obviously, Jereme Richmond gives us some athleticism, somebody who can create and make some plays. I think passing is one of his best attributes. He's a winner, he's been to the state tournament back-to-back years. He kind of took that Waukegan program on his back and guided them back to Peoria.
"Meyers Leonard has proven he's a winner, and he's shown some athleticism. I think a lot of people who saw Crandall as a sophomore know what he potentially has. I'm not relying on those guys because we saw what happened this year. It's not easy if you have to rely on freshmen because they have a lot to learn."
Head is a wild card on the team. He missed his senior season with knee surgery and may not be in top form. He can benefit from having all the resources at Illinois at his disposal.
"One, he's gotta get here first. He is starting to work out and play a little bit. He still has a long way to go, not only the surgery but the length of time it took him to have the surgery set him back a little more.
"With Crandall, he's got to get the strength back. I think the quicker he can get here the better because we have the support staff, doctors, trainer, weight staff, people who can help him. We'll know a lot more by the end of summer where he sits."
Those three players are highly talented. Richmond and Leonard will try out for the USA Under 18 National Team in June. Richmond is a 6'-7" point forward with multiple skills, and Leonard was recently named to the USA Nike Hoops Summit team as an agile 7'-0" center. When healthy, Head is a dynamic leaper and slasher much like his older brother, former Illini Luther Head.
Redshirt freshman Joseph Bertrand will also join the competition after sitting out with knee surgery. At 6'-5", he has the passing and ball handling skills to help out at point guard while also playing the wing. He got a lot stronger over the winter as he used the strength and conditioning people as his personal trainers.
"You look at D.J.'s freshman year (All-Big 10 Freshman Team). Brandon's probably one of the top 6 or 7 freshmen in the league and has potential to be even better than that. And then Tyler showed some nice signs. But at the same time, if you've got to depend on them on a daily basis, it catches up with you."
Weber hopes to see a big leap forward for his current freshmen.
"D.J. definitely becoming more versatile, ball handling, getting to the basket, midrange jumpers, passing. Just adding to his game. Gaining back strength. He said over the course of the season he probably lost 8-12 pounds of weight, the bench press, all that stuff. He logged a lot of minutes. He had to guard the best guy and do so many things. Get back in the weight room.
"I think D.J. and even Joseph, whether it's midrange jumper or midrange kick, that's got to become more of a habit for them.
"Brandon Paul, I think his shooting fundamentals will be a big thing. A sense of urgency, going hard all the time. Now he has a feel of it, can you take your game to another level? Potentially it's lights out for him.
"I think he got frustrated a little bit. It didn't come as easily as he had hoped. I thought he kept a good attitude. He realized that he could give us stuff. Boards, he went to the basket.
"He needs to learn to go to the basket and get fouled or learn to finish a little better. I thought he maybe went back to high school habits where you just use your body. Now it's different. Guys jump higher, they're taller and longer.
"He has to put some time in with just the form shooting. And I think too a pull-up jumper. That's the one thing that happens so much with guards coming out of high school. They shoot the three and get to the basket because they're so athletic. Now you've got to get an in-between game.
"Tyler (needs to improve) strength, footwork including lateral quickness. He's a good shooter obviously. He and Tisdale are probably the two best shooters on our team. But become a little more versatile.
"We need some points in the paint. He's got the frame to go inside. He gets a little strength on him, he can add to it. You want minutes, you want to put pressure on somebody else, do something that somebody else can't do."
Weber wants improvement from everyone, and he wants heavy doses of competition and hunger to win.
"Our older guys have to be our consistent foundation. Hopefully big strides for the freshmen and add in a mix of guys in there with the newcomers to have a better product."
At the least, an NCAA Tournament bid is a goal. But if everyone returns healthy and improved, and if the newcomers provide extra depth when needed, much more is possible.