At last week’s Illini Basketball Postseason Banquet, Chester Frazier took home most of the awards, including team MVP. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it one last time: Bruce Weber deserves a lot of credit for milking 24 wins and a second-place Big 10 finish out of this team. The Illini had some glaring holes and were built around Frazier and jump-shooting. Not bagging on Chester here; I love the way he ran the team this year, but he’s essentially a role-player. And as far as the jump-shooting, if the last two weekends of the tournament reemphasized anything it’s that you must have driving threats to compliment your jump shooters if you want to reach the highest levels.
Sounds like Chester will be around next year as a graduate assistant. This is good news as everyone could use a little of what he has. Will some of it rub off? Illinois fans will recall what happens when your hardest working toughest player is also one of your best athletes. See Battle, Kenny and Powell, Roger… Yeah, there was a lot of talent on both those teams as well, but also some truly tough-minded guys, led by Flight #33 and the Rev.
The most important off-season development has already ocurred: Jerrance Howard is staying put. After overtures from both Kentucky and Memphis, Jerrance will meet with AD Ronnie the G about a raise. Open up the checkbook Guenther; J-Ho is on the rise.
And now, your Illini Hoops Off-Season Pentagram…
- Where’s your personal trainer? Much will depend on who shows up for practice next year with more strength, mass, and endurance, and in at least one case – less girth. Everyone knows Mike Tisdale eats with appetite of two men, and Mike Davis (as has been said before) is only about 12-15 pounds away from stardom. A lot of times big men really improve both their strength and understanding on how to position themselves by their junior years. Robert Archibald and Brian Cook both spring to mind. And Bill Cole and Stan Simpson might also make a push for more PT with added girth. On the other side of it, McCamey and perhaps Semrau both need to come in leaner and quicker.
- What about the frosh? The four new recruits should help change the dynamic of this team. They will bring athleticism and fresh skillsets. DJ Richardson is a quick hard-nosed Peoria kid who spent last year in Las Vegas running the #1 high school team in the country. Brandon Paul was Mr. Basketball in the state of Illinois, a great athlete with scoring ability, who will immediately push for PT. Tyler Griffey is a shooting power forward with polish and good strength for his age. Joseph Bertrand is an explosive wing-guard who led his team from the time he stepped on the floor; he’s also the state’s dunk champion. Of course we all know that freshmen are inconsistent and often have trouble transitioning to the defensive mindset required at Illinois. But these four are the type of players we should have been getting ever since the Final Four run. Also, the three new guards are dribble-drive threats – something that’s been sorely lacking in recent years.
- Can Coach make the adjustments? This one’s so important it gets sub-categories… 1) Bruce Weber’s motion offense needs an upgrade. This not merely opinion, but steel-reinforced fact. We’ve done you the service of documenting the problems here, and here, and here. Whether it’s running more (please, please, let us run more), throwing in some set plays, or placing less emphasis on constant ball screens and allowing the bigs to screen for each other, the offense needs new ideas and new tactics. With last year’s personnel, you couldn’t blame the staff too much for wanting to control possession and limit shots. Next year should be a different story. And it’s also a philosophical adjustment that can live with more turnovers and quicker shots in exchange for a better tempo, more points, and few opportunities for a good scouting report to shut us down. Bottom-line, find a way to average 65-70 points rather than 50+ or forget tourney advancement… 2) Add defensive wrinkles. Weber is a man-to-man coach. Fine. We expect this. But don’t let that deter you from trying other things. Primarily, how about the judicious application of a full-court press? Illinois looked good coming back against Northwestern and nearly doing it against Western Kentucky thanks to a Peoria Manual style press. Use it to force tempo and increase the team’s intensity. Use it to wear down other teams. Use it to keep them off-balance. We’re not advocating whole-hog 40 minutes of press like Mizzou, but it would be nice to have the other team gassing at the end of the game on occasion. Also, the ability to use a zone once in awhile, especially to protect your big men or break a team’s rhythm would be good. 3) Employ a deeper rotation. This adjustment feeds directly off a willingness to a) run, and b) press. This should also better utilize a projected area of strength next year: depth and athleticism. Coach usually settles into a 7-man rotation, but next year a 9 or even 10-man rotation would be better. Look at the names on the roster: Davis, Tisdale, McCamey, Legion, Keller, Paul, Cole, Richardson, Jordan, Simpson, Griffey, Betrand, Semrau… They can’t all play, obviously, but more of them should. All the above adjustments would require Coach Weber to reevaluate some of his core approaches to the game. We know that Coach is stubborn resolute man, but he has adjusted his recruiting philosophy, and that’s paid dividends. Why not make some tactical/gametime adjustments as well? College basketball is not a static; you have to adapt and evolve to give your team the best chance to win. And isn’t that what a Coach is supposed to do?
- Off-the-Court Storylines. Let’s hope they are few and minor. Recent years have included courtroom drama, too much alcohol, and recruiting nightmares. Already one player has been arrested for driving with a suspended license – what is it about college athletes not being able to do basic things like take care of their driving privileges?* Hopefully this is the extent of it. And initial reports are that no one is expected to transfer out. On the recruiting front, Illinois already has a dominant class lined up for 2011. With perhaps one scholarship to give (here’s a Beemsville vote for Rayvonte Rice of Champaign), focus will shift to the sophomores and juniors who come up big on the summer circuit.
- And what do we project for next year? How about another 20+ win season, upper half Big 10 finish and 5-7 seed in the tourney. Maybe not as many wins as this past year, but a team poised to be more dangerous in March due to its depth and athleticism. How about a rockier pre-Big 10 season with plenty of Weber quotes about “guys accepting their roles”. What about Mike Davis averaging a double-double. Mike Tisdale blowing up for 30 or more. Demetri McCamey emerging as a leader instead of playing himself to the bench. What about a freshman in the starting lineup by January. Billy Cole emerging as a supersub. Dominique Keller playing at small forward. Illinois scoring 90 or more points on multiple occasions. Alex Legion regaining his confidence. These are mostly positive projections, of course, because what use is rampant negativity. And if some guys make big off-season improvements, if a few of the freshmen turn out to be better than expected, well… Let’s not get carried away. In any event, it should be an interesting year.
*Oh yeah, now I remember: culture of entitlement.