Friday, November 11, 2011

Fresh Season with Fresh Faces for Illini

Weber & the seniors in a nutshell
With the loss to Kansas in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament this year, Illinois basketball marked the end of an era. Gone was the inconsistent tenures of seniors Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale, and Bill Cole. The Illini rose and fell with these four, and each night you never knew which one of them would turn up. Many would feel that they underachieved in their tenure, but one thing is for sure - it was always interesting, regardless of the amount of times they gave Coach Bruce Weber headaches. Then later came the news that star freshman Jereme Richmond was leaving for the NBA, which later turned into him not getting drafted and subsequently getting arrested. So to say that this season would bring a new look to the Illini basketball team is an understatement. This season presents the biggest challenge that Weber & Co. have faced in their time at Illinois, and with such a different look to the team, what better way to preview this season than to go through the order of the team? I'll start with the 5 players I project to start, followed by the bench players is a somewhat random order.


Sam Maniscalco, PG, Senior

Maniscalco could be the missing ingredient that Weber has been waiting for since Dee Brown left. A senior transfer from Bradley, Maniscalco will likely start from day one at point guard for Weber as a replacement for McCamey. While he certainly does not bring the same amount of athleticism and natural ability that McCamey did, Maniscalco brings the one main thing that Demetri struggled with at times - leadership. It would have been nice to have it last year, when the rollercoaster season beckoned for on-court leadership but did not have it. But it will be even more important this year, as the rest of the Illini are one of the youngest bunches to take the court in Assembly Hall in years. He does bring some skill as well, but his selfless play will be huge for the other players on the court. If he stays healthy, he could be the key to the team this year.

D.J. Richardson, G, Junior

Look for D.J. to rebound this year
Many feel that D.J. regressed last year after being named Big Ten Freshman of the year in 2008-09. Throughout most of the season he suffered through a vicious shooting slump that affected nearly every other area of his play, including the defense that he had made a name for himself with. At times, he was benched by Weber, which seemed to only further diminish his confidence. Yet, as the sole remaining starter from most of last season, look for D.J. to assume more of a confident leadership role this season. After experiencing both the highs and lows of Big Ten play, D.J. is experienced enough to help out the younger players on the team. At the same time, I hope he uses that same experience to help expand his game. He needs to learn to utilize his attacking and slashing ability more often, if only to get to the basket and create open looks for others. His potential in Weber's motion offense reminds me of Dee Brown, who drove to the basket constantly only to dish it out to Deron Williams or Luther Head for an open look. D.J. is a decent shooter himself, so adding penetration to his game will only give him more looks from longer range. From all accounts, D.J. is ready and knows this, so I anticipate a strong season from him as a rebound from last year.

Brandon Paul, G, Junior

Paul is the key to the season
Although Sam Maniscalco literally assumes the point guard duties left by Demetri McCamey, Brandon Paul takes over nearly every other role McCamey left. Paul will be the go to player for the Illini. Paul definitely fills the role of a lead by example type, and has the talent and potential to be a very good player this season. As a junior, Paul is able to bring experience to the table this year, but has the right personality to mesh with the younger guys on the team and get them to buy into Weber's system. Paul reminds me of a bigger and more athletic Luther Head, but the comparisons to that elite Weber team don't stop there. For me, the problem with the seniors last year was their inability to consistently buy into Weber's system, while at the same time creating a divide with the younger players on the team. Paul, as the leader of the younger crowd, should have an advantage in this situation that plays well with Weber by being able to consistently represent what Weber wants on the court at all times. Thus, although the talent level and experience that depart with the senior class is hard to replace, the talent, experience, and "coachability" that someone like Brandon Paul (and thus, by extension, the rest of the team) has could help make for a more consistent, teamlike effort night in and night out, something that has been sorely missing in Champaign. All of that notwithstanding, Paul is an good player with excellent talent. We just need to see him do it every night first. But make no mistake - the Illinois season rises and falls with Paul.

Tyler Griffey, F, Junior

Look for Griffey to maintain the power forward spot this season, if you want to call it that. I don't know what to make of Griffey, as he lost playing time last season and ended up spending much of the season on the bench. Griffey has plenty of talent, enough to make him a high-level recruit, but Griffey still seems to be figuring out what type of player he will/can be. Most of what we have seen from him is playing deeper off the block, settling for jump shots and even threes, something that you wouldn't expect out of a 6'8 forward with the look of a player who should develop some back to the basket moves. Only time will tell if he develops some sort of post game, but if he doesn't, that has to worry Weber. We saw what happens in Big Ten play with undersized big men. Although Griffey, if he sticks to an outside game, could present mismatch opportunities on offense, much like Mike Tisdale did, I can't imagine this leading to much success on defense (especially against the likes of Jared Sullinger) or in rebounding. For an Illinois team sorely lacking in defensive rebounding a year ago, Griffey might lose playing time as the year progresses if he fails to show he improved in that area. I, for one, like Griffey, and hope it puts it together.

Meyers Leonard, C, Sophomore

Can he put it together?
Yet another part of the Illini equation this year that is nearly impossible to detect how it will go. Leonard, an athletic freak for a guy his size, was a major level recruit for Weber, leading to high expectations. Leonard played relatively major minutes last year and at times showed what a dominating force he could potentially become on offensive. A load to handle at 7'1, 245 pounds, Leonard will only continue to grow into his body. The problems though, were evident. The game was fast to him, especially on defense. He seemed to consistently be in foul trouble or out of position on defense, leading to easy baskets for the opposing team. On offense, it seemed that everytime he snagged a key rebound or got a pass in the post, he would rush the ball, not trusting his size or ability, and brick it off the backboard or turn the ball over. Now, we could probably chalk those things up to inexperience and move on, but at the same time, look at Weber's track record. He has yet to successfully develop a big man at Illinois, maybe besides James Augustine. This season will be the true marker of whether Weber can take a young big man with all the talent in the world and turn him into a great Big Ten center. Leonard certainly has the skill set and mentality (desire, passion, motivation, and competitiveness are NOT weaknesses) to make it happen - let's just hope his hard work pays off. If it does, this Illini team could be special. I can't think of a single player in the Big Ten that would be able to defend a productive and disciplined Meyers Leonard.


Tracy Abrams, PG, Freshman

Abrams, one of the highly touted freshman arriving on campus, will be looked to have a big role in his freshman year. The lack of depth at the point guard position vacated by McCamey (with only Abrams coming in to replace him) was the primary reason Weber sought Maniscalco. But don't let Weber's desire for a leader at that position mislead you into thinking that Abrams doesn't have the talent:

Look for Abrams to get major playing time, especially early in the season as Maniscalco recovers from a foot injury. To be sure, Weber will have D.J. or Paul handle much of the point guard duties in the beginning to allow Abrams to get used to the flow of the motion offense in an actual game. But in time, Abrams has too much talent not to keep him involved in the flow of the offense. He also comes with a bulldog mentality, something that was missing from McCamey at point guard for his 4 years here. While Abrams might not have as much pure offensive talent as McCamey, I think at this point Illinois fans will trade some of that talent for a player who plays within the system and executes it well over someone who we have to rely on to do everything for us. Yet again, a new face to the team that will make it interesting to watch.

Joseph Bertrand, G, Redshirt Sophomore

Bertrand is yet another unknown. He came to Illinois as part of the heralded class that included Paul and Richardson, but had to sit out his first year due to injury. It seemed that he never quite cracked the pecking order to get into Weber's infamously short rotations. Yet, reports always came out that he was one of their best practice players, and those who follow the program closely knew that he had too much talent not to play. At 6'5, 195, he has good size and great athleticism, and will be given every opportunity this year to make headway into the lineup. If he does, I think he could be a darkhorse contributor and represent the seemingly endless line of talented guards that Weber can run out on the court on a nightly basis.

Myke Henry, G/F, Freshman

Henry's outside shooting could be key
Another highly touted freshman, Henry has arguably the most talent out of the entire freshman class. Henry has good size and good athleticism, but what sets him apart is his shooting ability. One of the main facets of the motion offense that Weber runs is open outside shooters, something that we saw done extraordinarily well by Deron Williams and Dee Brown. However, there was a serious lack of outside shooting last year, mostly because the best outside shooter on the team (McCamey) usually ended up having to penetrate most of the time to create offense, leaving the Illini without an outside shooter who could consistently hit shots (especially with Richardson struggling so badly). For this reason, I think Henry could be huge this year. If he can show Weber that he can frequently hit outside shots, he will become a permanent mainstay in the rotation and become a big contributor in his freshman year. Moreover, should defenses begin to catch on to his shooting, Henry has the athleticism to keep defenses honest. His development should be one of the more exciting developments of the season.

Crandall Head, G/F, Sophomore

The younger brother of former Illini Luther Head, Crandall was the third member of the recruiting class that came in last year, along with Meyers Leonard and Jereme Richmond. Although highly ranked as a recruit, Head came into the season recovering from knee surgery that he underwent during his final season in high school. As a result, he wasn't able to get on the court much at all until a surprise start against Ohio State to replace a benched McCamey. Head, known for being uber-athletic, showed a far-from-polished offensive game, to be expected. But he was able to use that athleticism to turn into a very good defensive player for the Illini down the home stretch of last season. He can be a key contributor this year, as Weber will surely be looking for good defensive players as he always does. What Head does need to do, however, is keep developing the vast potential of his offensive game, stay healthy, and most importantly, stay out of trouble. This team faced enough drama with the entire Jereme Richmond saga, so I have a feeling that Weber will be far less tolerant of it this season. If Head can keep it together, and work on his game, he will be an enormous asset to the team.

Nnanna Egwu, C, Freshman

Yet another talented big man
Yet another member of the great incoming class, Egwu will most likely start as Leonard's backup this season. At 6'11, 250 pounds, Egwu already looks like he will be able to add bulk to his frame. Combine that with his natural talent and good footwork, and Egwu has all the makings of a very productive Big Ten center in the future. With his size, he should be able to make it on the court as a productive rebounder from the start, giving him valuable experience that will only help in the future. If Weber can develop two big men at the same time, Leonard and Egwu, they could prove to be an elite centerpiece to the very talented wing players around them. As this has been a glaring weakness with Illinois for years, one can only imagine the success that Weber's offense would have if defenses have to focus on a productive player in the paint in addition to worrying about the players on the wings. I can only think that this is what Weber envisioned with Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale in the middle working with McCamey, which failed miserably. Yet this time, Weber has two talented bigs in the middle who are only going to get better, and the talent on the wings around them could make them even better.

Mike Shaw, PF, Freshman

Shaw will look to be a contributor in what figures to be an expanded rotation this year for Weber. Another highly touted freshman, Shaw has a very good all around game. He can box out and grab rebounds, using his size to his advantage. On offense he can face the basket and make plays that give a mismatch to power forwards trying to defend him. Although his post-game is a work in progress, he has the necessary skill set to make it work. Because of the uncertainty facing Tyler Griffey and how he will rebound and defend, if Shaw does both of those things well when he gets into games this season, he could look to see serious playing time on a team that should improve on their terrible rebounding from a year ago. Illinois has not had a player like Shaw in as long as I can remember - a true power forward. Mike Davis was a small forward with the height of a power forward. Shaw has both small forward and power forward skills in a true power forward body. The sky is the limit with him, especially considering the fact that he has bought into Weber's system (as seen by him leading the hustle charts in the two exhibition games). Shaw represents yet another story line to follow with this new-look Illini team.

Devin Langford, F, Freshman

The oddest member of the incoming recruiting class, Langford comes to Champaign all the way from Huntsville, Alabama. It's hard to get a read on Langford because he's been hurt and sidelined for nearly the entire time he has been at Illinois thus far. When you combine his injuries and already-difficult freshman transition from the south to Illinois, there of course will be questions about a redshirt. Of course, you want to get the kid out there, if only to help ease his transition by distracting him with basketball. Or to utilize his crazy 6'7, 200 pound skillset (just imagine him in passing lanes). I would guess that Weber won't redshirt him just to keep the kid busy, but if he does end up playing, we could get a real read on what he can bring to the table. I'm excited to see what kind of player we have on our hands.

Ibby Djimde, F, Freshman

Djimde, an African native who is still learning the language, fills an immediate need for Illinois. Ibby is a prototypical banger, a player who uses his size deep in the post to make the lives of opposing big men miserable and grab rebounds in bunches - something that was sorely lacking last year. His knowledge and understanding of the game is still very raw, but it's hard to imagine he won't see some time on the court this season when rebounding and interior defense is so clearly a need for Illinois. Like many of the other players on Illinois' roster, the sky is the limit with him. Don't count on anything on offense right now, but in time, I feel he could become a productive player on that end. For now, though, think of him more as the Illini's version of Joakim Noah - a player that can get in deep and come out with the basketball. We'll see just how much time he gets on the court, but I think he can be very productive this year.

Final Thoughts

With my thoughts on these players considered, I think that Illinois can turn out to be a very good this year. If you think back to last year's team, we made the NCAA Tournament and won a game despite what most fans who follow the team closely will tell you was a maddening season to follow. All too often, the game turned into a "watch Demetri penetrate for a layup and not get back on defense" show, proven by Kansas giving us a beat down in the tournament. So, with McCamey and other key contributors out of the equation, the onus is on players like Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, and Meyers Leonard to step up and live up to their recruiting status. This year, every player has bought into Weber, and with Weber not having to force his players to listen this year, he will have more time to do what he is underrated at - instruction. I think that besides the bumps in the road that come from inexperience, we will see a smooth and athletic Illinois team do quite well this year in a weakened Big Ten. Besides Ohio State, no dominant team stands out, leaving an open opportunity for a good Illinois team to rack up quality conference wins. I still have questions, namely, what happens when a team comes and (figuratively) punches the Illini in the mouth, or who takes the last shot in a game, or what the final rotation will bet, etc. But, with a united team and renewed leadership, the Illini are already off to a good start. With the first regular season game tonight against Loyola, the true tests start now. Let's hope they have what it takes.