Last time out we discussed the Illinois backcourt and hopes for summer improvement there. Now we shift to the post, where the team has lost nearly everyone who saw significant PT the last two years.
Meyers Leonard figures to step in by default, and everyone hopes the 7 footer leaps forward in a big way. He has all the size and athletic ability you need; we’re hoping he develops the mental fortitude to play tough, play smarter, and keep up with the speed of play (the lack of which led to so many dumb fouls last year). He also needs to improve his skill set – fundamentals like footwork and positioning, passing, and most importantly, post-moves. Give Myers two decent post moves from 10 feet and he could score a lot. Too bad there wasn’t any turn-over in the coaching staff, because this would be a perfect opportunity to bring in all-time leading Illini scorer and post-master Deon Thomas with all his knowledge. On the plus side Leonard made the USA Under-19 team that was recently knocked out of the youth championships in Latvia. His stat-lines show inconsistency: he fouled out with limited production in some games, but towards the end he score in double figures and had 7-8 rebounds. We’ll need more of the latter.
Four other big men figure to battle for minutes and another starting position as Coach Weber will almost certainly go with three guards most of the time. Junior-to-be Tyler Griffey has all the skill and bball IQ you could ask for; he just needs to step up his aggressiveness. He’s not explosive, but he’s strong and can shoot and seems to see the game well. With Jereme Richmond’s ill-advised departure, Griffey has a golden chance to contribute.
If not, Nnanna Egwu and Mike Shaw will see a lot of time as freshmen. We like the early reports on Egwu: grew up in Nigeria so never developed some of the bad habits of pick-up bball (where it’s not cool to try hard or appear to exert effort). He’s raw but improving as a shooter, and most importantly, he goes hard all the time, can really get up and down the floor, and has good hands. Whether or not he ends up starting some games, he’ll probably play a lot of minutes, and at 6’10”, 230 with some hops, you could do worse. Shaw is about 6’8″, 240, and comes to campus with a reputation as a physical dude who can rebound and battle. The guards on his high school team rarely threw him the ball, so he should fit right in at Illinois. Ibrahima Djimde, who grew up in Mali and was the last of the newcomers to arrive, also looks like a hard-working bruiser at 6’7″, 245. He might be a redshirt-candidate, but you never know.
This front-line is a big change from the slender, jump shooting power forwards of the recent past, and if these guys can catch on to the college game, make a few shots, and avoid silly fouls, they will contribute. They will spend some time getting yelled at for learning how to set screens and play the hedge on pick-and-rolls. We can all hope this won’t take all year (or more).
This Illini team represents a big challenge for Coach Weber and staff. Expectations are perhaps lower than last year, but patience is also wearing thin. Whether or not you believed last year’s team should have been better, as most of us did, losing so many games in the final two minutes was the most frustrating thing. Some of that goes on the players, but it has to go on the coaches also.
We’ve espoused our views many times on the Weber motion offense and how stagnant it becomes at the end of the season (and the end of games). While we’re not advocating he completely scrap the motion and do something else, we would like to see the incorporation of a dozen or so solid plays (that everyone, especially newcomers can learn) to be called at certain times, taking advantage of player strengths and matchups. We would like to see the motion modified to somehow stress passing into the post and have the guards screening for the bigs sometimes (instead of always having your biggest players screening 25 feet from the basket).
With the athleticism and possible depth of this team (especially big guys who can move), it’s time to seriously consider playing up-tempo and some kind of press. Yes, this will lead to more turnovers, but it will also lead to some easy baskets, and more importantly, give the team the means to get fired up and aggressive at key moments of games. How many times the last few years have we seen the other team making a run by changing things up, and the Illini had no response? We will only mention the possibility of a zone defense to say a) it might help guys like Leonard and Egwu stay on the floor and swat some shots, and b) we realize it won’t happen.
We fully expect that Coach Weber and company will not be making big changes in tactics or approach to the game. Coach has proven to be a stubborn, stick-to-his-guns guy over the years. But he absolutely needs to tweak some aspects of his philosophy and adapt to the abilities of his players. Doing the same thing over and over again, expecting the different results, definition of insanity, etc. The Illini coaches did change their recruiting methods to good results a few years back; why not do the same on the court?
Next month’s trip to Italy, and the extra practices this summer, give them the perfect opportunity to install something different. By most accounts, Coach likes the teachability and effort levels of most of the new guys. So let’s all hope it’s not the same old song come December and January. We expect this team will lose more games than last year and have to fight hard to make the tournament, but we also expect they will improve, compete, and ultimately make the tournament. If not, maybe the new athletic director will insist on some changes with the staff – something fans have been calling for with increasing volume.