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Illini Basketball: Some News And An Early Look Ahead

Posted By Jason Patt On Apr 1 2011 @ 10:11 am In Illinois | No Comments

Even though the season ended two weeks ago, several members of the Illinois basketball program have found their way into the news.  Both of these people are key components of the team going forward, so what better time to gaze into the crystal ball and see what’s on the horizon for Illini hoops?

The major story that set message boards and Twitter ablaze had to do with the man in charge of the Illinois program. That of course would be Bruce Weber.

Two nights ago, several sources reported that Weber had been contacted by the University of Oklahoma about their vacant coaching position.  It was also reported that Weber was willing to listen, and one reporter from Oklahoma City even tweeted that he was close to taking the job (that tweet was later deleted, and for good reason.  Didn’t anybody learn from the Matt Painter fiasco?).

Weber has been under fire for underachieving at Illinois, so it would make some sense that he would possibly look elsewhere.  But despite these rumors, it appears that Weber will be staying at Illinois.  He released a statement yesterday announcing his commitment to the program.  So love him or hate him, he’s not going anywhere…for now.  That could all change if a new AD is brought in when Ron Guenther’s contract is up in June.  But I’ll save my rants on the Weber situation for another time.

The other big news was regarding talented but troubled forward Jereme Richmond.  Richmond was suspended for the NCAA Tournament for violating athletic department rules.  There were rumors that he had gotten into a fight with teammates, but it was never specified if that was the violation that got him suspended. During this whole episode, there were some that speculated that Richmond would not return to the team next season.

Weber appeared to quash these rumors by announcing earlier this week that Richmond was “part of the program.”  He went further by stating “if he makes the progress he’s supposed to, he’ll be there.”  So it appears to be on Jereme to get his act together.  If he keeps his head on straight, he will be back.  I hope for his and the teams sake that he does.  He’ll be counted on for major contributions next season.

As for the rest of the team, there is a large void to fill.  No matter how maligned the senior class was, they took up a majority of the minutes and production.  Some argue that losing Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, and Mike Tisdale will be addition by subtraction.  While I somewhat agree with this, it may take a little time to find out who will step up in their absence.  It’s hard to lose your starting point guard, power forward, and center without going through some growing pains.

Out of the returning players, the majority of the burden will fall on Richmond, Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Crandall Head, and Meyers Leonard.  All of these guys have shown flashes of great play, but like the team as a whole, never put it all together.

The key to next season (besides the Richmond situation) may be the development of Paul.  He oozes potential but is also prone to playing out of control.  He’s likely going to spend a lot of time at point guard, so if he can take the proverbial next step, the Illini may take off.

The Illini are also really hoping for Leonard to blossom.  After struggling in a backup role, he will be thrust into a starting job next season.  He has all the raw talent and athleticism in the world, but he wasn’t always very aware on the court.  He needs to refine his post-up game, watch a ton of film, and also hit the weight room to bulk up.

Entering the fold will be yet another stellar recruiting class for Weber.  After struggling his first few years on the recruiting trail, he has improved immensely (now we need to see improvement on the court).  The class of 2011 features four players (Mycheal Henry, Tracy Abrams, Mike Shaw, Nnanna Egwu) ranked in the top 100 on Rivals.com to go along with Devin Langford, a three star small forward.

All of these players bring a little something different to the table.  Abrams will be groomed as the point guard of the future.  Henry is an explosive scorer.  Shaw is an athletic power forward that will also provide toughness. Egwu has great length that can be used down low to block shots.  Langford offers some size on the wing. Illinois will need several of these guys to make an impact next year if they expect to be successful.

The final newcomer is Sam Maniscalco.  He recently transferred from Bradley and will provide some depth and experience at the point guard position.  He can take some of the pressure off Paul while also aiding in the development of Abrams.

I fully expect this team to struggle a bit at the outset of next season.  They will need to figure out roles and I’m sure Weber will mix and match combinations to find a rotation that works.  Leaders also must step up and I think Paul and Richmond (hopefully) are capable of taking the reins of the team.

When it’s all said and done, I believe Illinois will end up being a tournament team next year.  It’s way too early to tell just how good they will be, but I’m pretty confident they can finish in the top half of the Big 10 and earn a respectable seed in the Big Dance.  Obviously a lot can happen from now until then, but for now, I’ll remain cautiously optimistic.

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