This was the first item on a Google Image Search for Bruce Weber
Perhaps no team in the Big 10 was hollowed out in the off-season to the degree of the Fighting Illini. Between long-time starters Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, and Mike Tisdale, senior role player Bill Cole, and one-and-done Jereme Richmond (who, painfully, went undrafted), lose four starters, five of their top seven minute-getters, and 70% of their scoring.
There’s an argument, one that has some merit, that this isn’t so much of a bad thing. McCamey and Tisdale were constantly in Bruce Weber’s doghouse, and constantly in and out of the rotation as they battled with their head coach. This was, after all, the conference’s most talented club last year – poor leadership from the senior class and the bench ground them to 9-9 in the conference.
What’s left? The two most notable pieces are near identical junior combo-guards Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson. Both are versatile scorers with credible outside shots, neither that well-suited to running the point. That’s unfortunate, because one of them, most likely Richardson, is going to have to, after a season of spelling McCamey in the role. The talent is there with both – they’ve been effective in their two years as role players, and both possessed a bevy of recruiting hype, ending in the top 50 of Rivals, Scout, and ESPN. The question, of course, is how they handle the load of leadership.
There is also some relatively untapped talent remaining on the bench from last year. Sophomore Meyers Leonard cracked the regular rotation at Center, but tended to only play a few minutes a game. Leonard is the rare legitimate seven-footer, but a tad on the willowy side (as was Mike Tisdale). His skill-set is also reminiscent of Tisdale, with a credible jump-shot. Comparing Leonard to Tisdale isn’t intended to be damning with faint praise – Tisdale’s problem was never his skill-set. With a year of development, look for Leonard to take the next step – with no other player capable of manning the pivot, he’ll have the opportunity.
The Illini return two scout-approved recruits who have failed to earn regular playing time in their careers. Crandall Head, the younger brother of former Illini guard Luther, was a shooting guard only pressed into action by foul trouble as a true freshman. A streaky shooter, Head will be in the running for the small-forward role, failing that, he should merit time backing up both shooting guard and small forward. Tyler Griffey, coming into his junior season, is the only returning player outside of Leonard with the height to play in the post. Failing to merit minutes through his first two seasons, it’s hard to see Griffey as a difference maker, but Weber will have little option other than to play him.
What the Illini do possess, however, is a deep, quality, recruiting class, tallying six players, four of whom rank as unanimous 4-star recruits. The most likely to earn playing time is the 6’8” Mike Shaw, generally regarded as one of the best rebounders in the class. With both Leonard and Griffey liabilities on the glass, Shaw is going to be relied upon to play the Mike Davis role – immediately. The other is small forward Michael Henry, an elite athlete from the wing, with a scouting report nearly identical to Jereme Richmond – an elite finisher and rebounder from the wing. Classmate Tracy Abrams is likely in line to take up the slack as a back-up point-guard and Nnanna Egwu will likely snag some minutes backing up the front-court. Fifth year senior Sam Maniscalco, mediocre shooting guard from Bradley, adds another experienced option in e back-court.
So how does this team look? Depending on at least three true freshmen to play extensive minutes, with three untested returning players all poised to play big minutes is always risky. Further, this roster doesn’t figure to be able to play offense like Weber’s last few outfits. Richardson and Paul are the only credible outside shooters – a skill that, with those two, McCamey, Cole, and Tisdale, Weber had in spades the past two years. The Illini were the 20th best three-point shooting outfit in the nation, and completely averse to the free-throw line (only 3 teams scored a smaller percentage of their points from the line). Offensively, Weber is going to have to play a different sort of game with this club. My position on his coaching chops is set in stone – I doubt he can do it. Defensively, the club is still extremely long – shots and open passing lanes will still be hard to come by.
The talent level on this club remains high, while the experience turned from “tons” to “none”. However, that’s a trend throughout the conference this year, with stars seemingly departing from every team. This Illini team is still among the most talented in the league, and has excised some of their clubhouse cancers in the off-season – it’s just the one on the bench that remains. This will be a dangerous club, but it’s hard to see a team this inexperienced, with such a cipher as a coach, scratching out enough wins on the road to make the tournament.