One of the cliches of basketball: players are made in the summer, teams are built in the fall. But this summer Bruce Weber and the Illini hoops team hope to do both. With the departure of four seniors who dominated the stats sheet and playing time the last two years, the team will have a different look next October. So the Orange and Blue faithful are hoping the returnees and the seven (7!) new players have a productive summer.
Certain players are bound to step up in improve their games, while others won’t. Happens every year. Fortunately the Illini have a trip to Italy scheduled in August, which will give the coaching staff some extra practice and additional work. All the new guys are on campus and enrolled, and everyone is (relatively) healthy. So who needs to get it done this summer for the Illini to be decent next season? Let’s start with the backcourt…
Sam Maniscalco, Bradley transfer and 5th year player who figures to step in as both captain and point guard. He’s from the South Side, he’s tough, he’s physically strong, he’s a clutch guy. All adjectives the Illini have lacked recently. Sam’s coming off a tough injury that wrecked his senior year and opened the transfer possibility. He’s said it before and he’ll no doubt say it again: he came to win. He’s not going to blow by anyone, he doesn’t have an NBA-physique, but hopefully he can translate his attitude and court smarts to some of the younger guys. Maybe, just maybe he can help the Illini close out close games (where they were abysmal the last two years). His leadership abilities figure to be tested by so many new players. Key question: how long before he is 100% healthy and how long before other returning Illini accept him as the leader?
Brandon Paul does have NBA athleticism and potential, but he’s been pretty inconsistent his first two years. Last year he played a lot of back-up point guard, which seemed to detract from other aspects of his game. He finished the season strong, though, rebounding well playing defense, and turning it over less. For BP3 to make the next level he needs to excel in all areas – to handle the rock like a one and rebound like a three. We’re hoping he learns not to press on offense if his shot’s not falling and forget all those other areas of his game. According to the venerable one, he’s assuming a leadership role and taking the coaches’ advice, working on his mid-range game. How many times the first two years did you wince as BP3 went charging down the lane after faking the jumper. With him it’s often seemed like a three or a lay-up, and nothing in the middle. If Paul can develop a pull-up shot and learn when to dish off the drive, he could be very effective. He’ll need to be, because Illinois will lean on him heavily in its three-guard rotation.
One player who hit the sophomore slump hard is DJ Richardson. He seemed to lose confidence in his shot, which in turn affected his all-around game. Fortunately he finished the year strong, playing and shooting well in the NCAA tournament. DJ’s major flaw has always been lack of ball-handling (specifically, dribbling ability), which seems strange for a Peoria guy. Can a guard really improve in that area deep into college? We’d better hope so, because Coach Weber was loathe to yank DJ, even when his play merited a spot on the bench. He has shown good leadership and by all accounts, works hard at it. His athleticism and defensive skills will probably keep him on the court even when the baseline three isn’t on; it would be nice to see him move with the ball and make a few plays for his teammates.
Crandall Head did look like a playmaker towards the end of the year. He earned a few phantom starts and showed flashes of the old #4 after barely playing half the year. He is a great athlete who didn’t seem rattled or afraid – a good sign. Unfortunately his jump-shot just looked plain bad. You would have though Luther could have worked with him on that, but then, little brothers don’t always listen. Crandall ought to be in the gym, taking 500 jumpers a day. If he can make an outside shot, he’s going to challenge for a starting role.
Everyone kept wondering if Joe Bertrand was going to transfer. He seems like the forgotten man in the wing rotation. My brother, who attended a lot of scrimmages and open practices last year claimed Joe could make phenomenal plays and look like the best guy on the court at times, yet all he saw was garbage time. For whatever reason – either lack of consistent intensity or ball-handling skills – the coaches didn’t trust him. I hope he improves and gets a chance this year in an expanded guard rotation.
By most accounts, Tracy Abrams is the freshman guard who will see significant PT. He didn’t play that well in a recent state all-star game, but he won games for his team single-handedly last season and has that intense bulldog mentality Coach Weber wants. He can drive and finish, but we don’t know how well he’ll shoot from the perimeter. The key for any freshman guard is how quickly they adjust to the speed of the game mentally, thus avoiding dumb turnovers and blown defensive assignments. Mycheal Henry, at about 6’5″, 225, was one of the state’s leading scorers as a senior. He likes to shoot, and he supposedly has the strength and athleticism to maybe play the four at times. Can he play enough defense to see the floor next year? We sure could use another scorer. Devin Langford, an Alabama recruit, goes about 6’6″-6’7″, and played every position for his high school team. He stuffed the stat-sheet, has length and athleticism, and that’s about all we know about him. He might be a redshirt candidate, but who knows? For guards and wing players, so much of it comes down to their mental approach and ability to see the game at a faster tempo.
Some familiar names, but a lot of turnover, and perhaps the key quesiton is how the coaching staff handles them. Do they limit minutes to three or four guys or expand the rotation to five or six? Do they change up the offense to play to these players’ strengths (slashing and driving for the most part) or is it the same old predictable jump shooting motion? This group figures to be better on-the-ball defenders, and could even press. Does Weber trust his players enough to try something different there, or even (gasp) run a fast-break? We shouldn’t hold our breath on that one. The Illini will likely avoid running to limit potential open-court turnovers, and despite Wayne McClain’s best advice, the press will be reserved for desperate come-back attempts. And if December rolls around and Coach is talking about guys still learning the offense and not know where to go on the court, it’s not a good sign.
But maybe, just maybe Sam and BP3 can instill some toughness and confidence in their backcourt partners, and more importantly in the coaching staff. The upcoming trip to Italy should provide some indicators.
Next up, bigs and coaching strategy…