Saturday, December 3, 2011

Young Illini Talent Proving Themselves

More than any season in recent memory, the 2011-2012 season for Bruce Weber's Fighting Illini began with serious questions about who would step up to fill the void left by the outgoing senior class. Then, as the season started and Illinois picked up some very convincing early wins against the likes of Richmond and Maryland, there were still those who likened Illinois' strong start to a weak schedule. Well, with an outstanding team win over Gonzaga today, it's time to stop asking questioning the abilities of this young team and start wondering just how far they can go this season.

I sat down trying to figure out which angle to take this post, whether it be the great play of Sam Maniscalco, the emerging leadership and consistency of D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul, the explosion of Meyers Leonard onto the Big Ten (and national) stage, or the great coaching we've seen from Bruce thus far this season. I couldn't figure out which way to take this article, because each one of those angles, among others, has been just as crucial as the other to explaining the hot start to the Illini season. That's when I realized that it was a good thing; we've become so used to the horrible roller coaster ride of Demetri McCamey & Co. that we can't step back to realize the amazing team effort that we're seeing from the Illini here on a game-by-game basis. We haven't seen consistent play like this from the Illini in years.

Bruce is doing an outstanding job this season
So I figure I'll start at the top and work down. I haven't been this impressed with Bruce Weber since he found a way to get Deron Williams and Dee Brown to forget about Bill Self and buy into his system. When he did, the result was a dominating season ending with a close loss to North Carolina in the 2005 National Championship game, one that Illinois should have won if not for some obviously bad officiating (I really don't care if I sound biased. If you watched the game, you know what I'm talking about). Now, I don't presume that this Illinois team is going to have that kind of success, because it almost certainly will not, but that isn't my point. The point here is that the coaching job he is doing this season is on par with the coaching job he had to flip Deron Williams and Dee Brown into his system. Bruce recognized that he wasn't going to succeed with the players he had for the past four years. McCamey had the talent but didn't have the discipline or heart, Mike Davis had some skill but was easily overmatched physically, Bill Cole had to overachieve merely to be a decent Big Ten player, and Mike Tisdale was, well, Mike Tisdale.

Head's development has Bruce written all over it
So what did Bruce do? He recruited players that, quite frankly, gave a shit. He brought in guys like Meyers Leonard, Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tracy Abrams, and this year, Sam Maniscalco, who immediately bought into Weber's system and recognized that he knows what it takes to have success. Weber was smart enough to not fight too hard for the return of Jereme Richmond, who would have been a cancer to the chemistry of the team this year. And look at the effect he's had on the young guys that don't play all the time in each game. Guys like Myke Henry, Crandall Head, Mike Shaw, Ibby Djimde, and Joe Bertrand don't play much (mostly because of the influx of talent everywhere), but they don't slump on the bench or pout, something you would have seen easily with earlier groups of players under Weber. This was proven today with the play of Crandall Head. Head only played 8 minutes. We all know how highly recruited he was and the exploits that his older brother Luther had as part of that 04-05 Illinois team. But setbacks in the offseason have him lower on the depth chart than he probably should be. Even so, he doesn't complain and doesn't sulk - he comes off the bench and has a huge steal that he takes all the way to the other end for a ridiculous finish, illustrating his insane athleticism and talent. What's the point of all this? Well, Bruce has so much young talent on the team now that it takes great coaching to make everyone happy, even with diminished minutes, it takes great coaching to keep them all bought into the system, and it takes great coaching to have these guys productive right when they step onto the court at such a young age. Just look at these guys on the bench during big plays. They're loving it, and so are we.

One word: Versatility.
That's not to say that the young talent on this team doesn't produce in a big way, and not just in a production sense. Meyers Leonard, at 7'1, 250 pounds, is everything that Mike Tisdale wasn't and then some. His skill set and athleticism have scouts drooling, and us at Illinois better enjoy this year because he's going to get paid to play basketball next year. The sophomore is enjoying an insanely explosive season, seen today in a sequence that first had him take a beautiful pass in the paint and throw it down for a thundering dunk, only to have a play moments later where he threw some Hakeeem Olajuwon-esque moves at Gonzaga star Robert Sacre to finish with a slick fadeaway jumper. This kind of athletic versatility makes him a dangerous weapon that should be huge once games slow down in the half-court style basketball that dominates the Big Ten. His ability to throw down thunderous dunks, wheel around with a variety of dangerous post moves, and step back and hit a feathery short jumper are only the beginning of the things that Leonard has improved upon since last season, indicating yet another outstanding coaching job by Weber that also looks great to future # 1 recruits like Jabari Parker. Of course, we want to have Leonard keep working and refining these areas of his game, but he's also got to learn to harness his immense passion into a constructive outlet. Far too many times does he make comments towards the referees (which in today's game was more than justified. I had forgotten how terrible college basketball refs were. How embarrassing.), glares and/or taunts the other team, etc. Don't get me wrong, I love FINALLY having a guy with some attitude on the team, I just don't want him to get caught up in it and let it affect his play, or worse, have him tossed from the game. If he keeps it in check, his passion and swagger will endear him to Illini Nation in a heartbeat.

Gotta love D.J.'s game right now
The key guys for Illinois right now, however, are the three big upperclassmen and leaders, D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, and Sam Mansicalco. I love what D.J. has done this season. He had a rough year last year but really took it upon himself, along with the other two, to recognize how he has to step up this year, both as a leader and a player. All he did today was put up 19 more points to keep up his hot start. Not only does he look like the D.J. that we thought we had recruited, hitting huge threes and driving to the basket for big buckets, but he's taking charge on defense with pure swagger, something that is so infectious that it leads to the likes of Tracy Abrams, Mike Shaw, and Tyler Griffey diving all over the court for loose balls on top of playing excellent defense. Moreover, this year he does more than just lead by example, he leads off the court too. On nearly every dead-ball or time out, you can see D.J. talking to the younger guys, keeping them focused, and either encouraging them or getting on them, whichever seems to work at that moment. It's such an underrated part of having a successful program - D.J. is the perfect guy to have as a role model for the younger guys, because it will lead to those guys being the same kind of leader when they're upperclassmen. It's something that we're really fortunate to have when you consider that D.J. had no one to look up to in the same way when he was an underclassman.

BP is the key to the season
Brandon Paul represents a slightly different, albeit still vital, part of the team thus far. He's still a leader, yes. He can be vocal leader, such as speaking up last year when Jereme Richmond wouldn't shut up in the locker room after the Big Ten Tournament loss to Michigan, which subsequently led to Richmond trying to fight Paul. Or he can be a lead-by-example type, with games where he puts the team on his back and everyone follows (doing this as early as Illinois' huge comeback win against Clemson when Paul was a freshman). This year, he's doing a little bit of both, but there were concerns that he was pressing too hard to lead by example early this season, leading to some bad outings. Yet, beginning with the big win against Maryland earlier this week, Paul started to let the game come to him again and stopped putting so much pressure on himself. The result? 17 points against Maryland, and 13 points today against Gonzaga with an impact much deeper than that. Paul was making plays happen left and right, opening lanes for other players on the team and taking advantage of his own athleticism to hit some huge baskets. Paul is the player that most will look to to be our leading offensive player every game, and if he plays like this, he will not disappoint. He looks to be settling into his role and one can only hope that he stays consistent this season. He is a key to maintaining success like we've seen thus far.

Sam the man
Which leads us at last to Sam Maniscalco. What else can we say about the guy? He has half the pure talent that a Demetri McCamey has but with 10 times the heart. He makes 3-5 big plays a game that are the result of simple drive and effort. He's one of those unsung college basketball players that just wins games. I love watching him play, and even better, watching his effect on all those around him. Sam is yet another huge role model for all the young guys on the team, and even if he's only able to be here for one year, will have an impact on these guys that lasts a long time. Besides the leadership part though, he's a pretty damn good basketball player in his own right. He is a clutch player that Illinois can look to when they need a big basket, including in today's game where he responded to a Gonzaga rally with a big layup and resulting and one. His impact is seen best in these times; he takes an Illinois team that would have folded under such pressure in games like that the past four years and leads them through the storm to a win. I'm sure he's the guy that Weber loves having on the court because its almost like having a second coach out there. And it sure doesn't hurt that he's one of our best players right now and gives Tracy Abrams a perfect model to follow in his own development. Simply put, Maniscalco is a difference maker and is the type of guy who gets victories in March when it counts most.

With all of this, where do the Illini head next this season? They're sure to have some maddening losses that exemplify the young age of most players on the team. But on the flip side of that, the young players have a few great leaders to help accelerate their development. Moreover, Weber has all the players, young and old, playing the type of stifling defense that is the trademark of Weber-coached teams. The Big Ten, besides Ohio State, looks to be wide open this year, meaning that Illinois could make some serious noise. Let's just hope that the players keep performing at this rate. With their buy-in to Bruce's system, the leadership all over the team, and the great talent and athleticism everywhere, I'm also buying into this season and am ready to see what lies ahead.