Bruce Weber did a wonderful job leading Illinois to the National Championship game in 2005. Illini fans assumed he would be equally adept at recruiting, but he encountered setbacks that slowed that aspect of his job.
Historically, Illini coaches have fared best recruiting players from the Midwest and primarily the home state. Illinois has an abundance of top talent most years, but getting them to the University is not as easy as some assume.
"To me a lot of it is regional, for the most part," Weber relates. "We are very fortunate to have a good region with good basketball.
"Now, can we get get a player? We've made mistakes, we're not perfect. I wish I could snap my finger and make sure we got every one of the best players."
As with most coaches in a new job, they arrive late in the recruiting season and may not be able to make an immediate impact.
"We were always playing catch-up. You get here late, you only have one scholarship the first year. We were always playing catch-up, it seemed like."
And then there was early misfortune. Weber thought he had secured a commitment from superstar guard Eric Gordon out of Indianapolis. Gordon not only changed his mind, he continued the charade of claiming he would attend Illinois until the last minute. This prevented Weber from recruiting someone of quality to replace him.
Weber needed an outside shooter, so he signed Jamar Smith instead of a slasher like Jerel McNeal, who later starred at Marquette. Unfortunately, Smith had an alcohol problem and a well-documented automobile accident that led to his transfer. Weber's luck was anything but good in those days, but he also had some difficult lessons to learn.
"I think we no doubt had a setback when we got here, learning who we could recruit, knowing how to recruit them, getting people accustomed to you. The Gordon thing hurt us. Jamar, that hurt us. The whole thing is, have we survived those setbacks?"
Given the tremendous classes signed for 2009 and 2010, and with a great start to 2011, Weber appears to have learned a great deal. And he is buoyed by the solace that he is not alone in the coaching profession.
"Everyone has setbacks in their coaching, whether it's Roy Williams this year, you can go back with Coach (Bobby) Knight, Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) had his year and setbacks. Coach (Jim) Boeheim didn't get to the NCAA two or three times in a row. Any of the top coaches except Coach (Johnny) Wooden, it seems like they all have setbacks. And these are Hall of Famers."
Some years, the state of Illinois has one or two great players and then a big quality gap before the next level of talent. In card games, that is known as "aces and spaces."
One year it was Jon Scheyer, who went to Duke and led them to a National Championship this past season. Another year it was Derrick Rose, who led Memphis to second in the nation as a freshman before becoming the #1 draft choice of the Chicago Bulls. Weber was in a Catch-22 situation trying to recruit them.
"I knew a long time before we probably weren't gonna get Scheyer. He was going to Duke. The people up there told me. But if we didn't recruit him people would ask, 'What are you doing?' Whether it's Derrick Rose or whoever, you had to recruit those guys.
"Now with hindsight, maybe we didn't put enough time in to search out someone else from some other place. Stars and spaces, there were definitely question marks.
Illinois desperately needed a point guard the year Rose was a senior. Not only was there a big drop-off in talent in Illinois that year, but most of the best guards were shooting guards and not points. One who later starred at a school out West admitted his transcript was too poor to be accepted by Illinois.
The Illini finally found Chester Frazier in Baltimore, and he paid off big-time his senior season. But his first three seasons were traumatic at best.
And then there are the late developers who may or may not attract the attention of college scouts. Even when you are looking for them, you may not find or identify them in time to sign them.
"There's always some guys everyone wishes they recruited. Look at Gordon Hayward. No matter what school you're at, you could probably say, 'Oh I wish I had recruited that kid.' That's why college basketball is so competitive."
Many think you need to recruit a team of superstars. Sometimes that backfires. The 2004-05 team had one superstar plus a team full of above-average players who preferred a team game to individual glory. They were all fundamentally sound, good shooters and were highly coachable. Recruiting a championship team is no easy matter.
"There's one thing I've tried to emphasize with even a young coach like Jerrance (Howard). He asked me one time, 'Can you get too much talent?' Yeah, I think you can. And he says, 'How can you, coach?'
"You need pieces. We went back to the 04-05 group. There were stars there, but also there was the workman attitude. There was the team attitude of the guys."
More often than not, you have to take the best you can get. Sometimes the chemistry isn't perfect. Sometimes the players as a group lack leadership or fundamental soundness. In the case of the upcoming senior class at Illinois, sometimes the best players on your recruiting list are naturally slender and have trouble putting on muscle mass.
"I know our fans have questioned how come they're not stronger and bigger. We're not doing anything different weight-wise. If you go back and study it, the guys that went to the NBA pre-draft camp have been some of the best ever. They actually keep stats on that.
"Brian Randle was off the chart. It got Deron (Williams) a chance to get drafted where he was. Instead of being maybe the third point guard he was the first because of that stuff that they felt good about. Chester (Frazier) was strong.
"One, we've got guys that are skinny, they have that body type. Do we have too many of them? Yeah. But tell me some big guy that's come around.
"Dominique (Keller), the one guy we took a chance on as a juco, he's got the body. He didn't want to use it. It wasn't that I wouldn't let him shoot. I don't care, but I need you to go be physical, rebound and use your body. That's how he could have taken minutes from others."
In an ideal world, Coach Weber would have his pick of all the best players in the country and choose for the best combination that would ensure a quality team. But with all the variables and competition for the same players, that isn't possible. You focus on the ideal in recruiting and sign the best combinations you can entice to your school.
"All those things are things you've got to look at in recruiting. You wish you could have the perfect thing."
In part 7 of this 8 part series, Weber talks about his modified recruiting approach and how it is beginning to pay dividends.