By Joe Henricksen

Weber's way could work, but it may take time

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By Joe Henricksen

The gripes and complaints have suddenly come to a halt, at least somewhat or maybe just temporarily. I have given

family, friends, fans and subscribers who have constantly asked my thoughts on coach Bruce Weber and the

Illinois basketball program--specifically in regards to recruiting and future success--the same response for the past

couple of years: I will let you know in the fall of 2007.

Through it all, from the loss of Julian Wright and Sherron Collins to Kansas, Jon Scheyer to Duke, Eric Gordon to

Indiana, Derrick Rose to Memphis, Evan Turner to Ohio State, Scott Suggs to Washington, DeAndre Liggins to

Memphis, Darius Miller to Kentucky, Mike Dunigan to Oregon, Iman Shumpert and on and on, as well as the failed

recruiting efforts to land Patrick Beverley or completely ignoring current Marquette star Jerel McNeal, who would

have loved to have played at Illinois, I continued to give the same response: I will let you know in the fall of 2007. I

thought, after all, if the magical run of that glorious, media-drenched 2004-2005 season didn't pay off by then, look

out.


After striking out on so many coveted prospects, I figured signing day in November or 2007 would be critical for

Weber and his staff. Might the Illini land a Shumpert, who they were in on so early in the recruiting process? Maybe

Dunigan as well? Maybe a Shumpert, Dunigan, Suggs recruiting class would finally end the drought, so I thought.

What I didn't expect was that the players we would be talking about in the fall of 2007 would be players in the 2009

and 2010 classes. Nonetheless, the recent trifecta of D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Joseph Bertrand answers

the call.


It's no secret Illinois failed miserably in capturing the moment following the breakthrough season and March run in

2005, at least in terms of recruiting targets. Everyone will tell you Weber is a tremendous coach, which he is, as

proven by his track record and continued winning. But the immediate rewards were not there. Even now, we're

talking about players/prospects who won't be on campus for another two or three years. I really felt Illinois was on

the verge of becoming the UConn of the Midwest, a program that took off under Jim Calhoun, elevated itself to

prominence and, more or less, has stayed there among the top 10 or dozen programs in the country over the past

two decades with a pair of national titles and seven Elite Eight berths. The pieces were in place for Illinois. It didn't

happen.


Just two years removed from the 2005 national title game appearance, Illinois was not considered a serious player

come NCAA Tournament time last year. This year figures to be similar. That's not to say Illinois won't surprise

people, get into the tournament and win a couple of games. But no one will project Illinois for a deep tournament run

this March. And the 2008-2009 season could be win-starved compared to what Illini fans have come to expect the

last seven or eight years. Yes, there will have been plenty of wins since 2004-2005 and NCAA Tournament berths

(hopefully), but it's still far removed from being the program so many envisioned it could be following that 2005 Final

Four trip.


The good news is the Weber way could still work. It's just on a different timetable and in a different fashion.

Though he tried, he wasn't able to simply restock the cupboard with impact recruits, partly due to ineffective

recruiting and partly due to Weber refusing to lower himself to the seedy side of recruiting. But we are now seeing

the result of the recruiting shortfalls--battling for NCAA Tournament berths instead of targeting a top four seed in

March, shooting for 20 wins instead of 30. But that's why the trio of commitments late last week was so crucial. It

keeps the ball rolling, keeps things alive and prospering when everything looked so bleak and dreary. There is new

life pumped into the program. No, not this year's team or next year's, but the program itself.


Weber currently has in place several good, young pieces to the puzzle. They just aren't immediate impact type of

players that will provide instant results. And, unfortunately, the Class of 2008, which currently has no commitments

and little on the horizon, will likely provide little or no dividends. But Demetri McCamey is going to be one heck of a

Big Ten guard by his junior and senior years. While it may take time, Mike Tisdale has the potential to be special

down the road. If Weber can work the same magic and get the same improvement out of Brian Carlwell as he has

with Shaun Pruitt in four years of work, there is another piece. Mike Davis, a likely redshirt, has been impressive by

all accounts in his short time on campus.


These are the type of players Weber will rely on in a few years when they are all mature three and four-year

veterans. It's not so different than what Bill Self had when he first arrived at Illinois. Damir Krupalija, Lucas Johnson

and Robert Archibald weren't big-time recruits. And even Sergio McClain, while he was an important recruit, wasn't

an immediate difference-maker. By the time they were juniors and seniors they were men, big and strong,

experienced and the foundation of a top-seed in the NCAA Tournament and an Elite Eight team. They of course had

the help then of a couple of younger, more attractive recruits in Frank Williams and Brian Cook.


When Weber has it rolling again he will be relying on three and four-year veteran types--McCamey, Tisdale, Davis,

Cole, Carlwell, Semrau--with the new blood, the likes of Richardson, Paul, Bertrand and Jereme Richmond,

hopefully pushing them over the top. Weber and the Illini still have more work to do. Jerrance Howard was a solid

hire, but another change in the staff sure wouldn't hurt from the perception of high school and AAU coaches I talk

to. And it's difficult to make deep tournament runs without true superstars, but Richmond is destined to be one. And

who's to say Illinois can't add one more (Whitney Young's Anthony Johnson?) now that the negativity has

subsided or that one of the three in the Class of 2009 (Richardson, Paul or Bertrand) can't develop into one? Also,

these are just verbal commitments from the four young stars. However, as mentioned in a previous blog, these

seem much more secure than others. It helps that the four of them seem to be in this together.


So the answer to all those recruiting questions and about the future of Illinois basketball that I said had to wait until

the fall of 2007? There is hope and optimism again. It's just going to take more time than originally thought and from

different players than originally thought.


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4 Comments

Well written article except for your comment on McNeal. Illinois actually would have taken him and definitely recruited him, but when they took Calvin Brock the year before in spring to finish out the class, it was impractical to take another player of about the same ranking and the same position and overall game.

Hey,

These were some good observations. I think UI is one of those programs that will make a deep run every 4-5 years and will rely on upper-class developed players rather than the flashes that stay a couple of years and then bolt. While Weber, I think, would certainly like a few of those players, I don't think he necessarily needs them year in and year out.

For three years we have witnessed the Illini basketball recruiting saga, presented variously as crime story, farce or tragedy and with Weber presented as victim, rube or moral stalwart. Three years of message board meltdowns, online journalism blowups and the like.

And now that Illinois' recruiting fortunes are on the upswing the storylines continue: ranging from Weber was right all along to Weber has a new plan that might just work to the patient is showing a will to live.

Lost in the storylines is one important fact: Ilinois' new-found recruiting success strongly resembles the historical pattern of Illinois recruiting over the past ~30 years (since Lou Henson arrived).

D.J. Richardson and Joseph Bertrand (both 2009) are both downstate kids and their recruitment shouldn't be considered such a suprise. Downstate talent has (arguably) been Illinois' bread and butter for thirty years, centered mainly on Peoria but including many other communities as well. Downstate players identify more strongly with U of I than suburban or Chicago players do and Illinois has had much higher recruiting success with them. The downstate talent pool is on the upswing right now (beginning in 2007 and peaking in 2009) and it's no coincidence that Illinois' recruiting is on the upswing as well. Weber landing Cole and Tisdale (2007) and Bertrand and Richardson (2009) isn't any different than the success that Henson, Kruger and Self all had downstate.

Stan Simpson (2008) comes from Chicago Simeon, a school Illinois has a recruiting relationship with dating back to the early eighties. It began under then Simeon coach Bob Hambric and continues today with current Simeon coach Robert Smith. Among others, former Illini standouts Nick Anderson and Deon Thomas and current Illini player Calvin Brock all came from Simeon. At the risk of overstating things, Simeon players seem to identify with Illinois in a way similar to downstate kids. Weber landing Simpson is maintaining a relationship begun under Henson.

Brandon Paul (2009) of Warren(Gurnee) is something of a mystery, having established his reputation in summer club ball rather with his high school team. But one is encouraged to hear him say that he doesn't understand why more kids from Illinois don't want to play at U of I. This is just the sort of player Weber needs to find, someone from the suburbs who identifies with Illinois and wants to play there. Hopefully it's the start of a trend.

Jereme Richmond (2010) may be the one recruit Illinois landed as a result of its 2005 season. Projected to a top 10 player nationally, he potentially represents the marquee recruit Illinois missed on these last several years (Scheyer, Collins, Gordon, Rose, Shumpert,...). Given that he verballed to Illinois before his freshman high school season had even begun, one gets the impression that he chose Illinois rather than waiting for Illinois to recruit him. Once again, a player who identifies with Illinois and wants to play there.

So Weber has landed three players (Bertrand, Richardson and Simpson) from areas historically friendly to Illinois basketball (downstate and Simeon) and two players from the suburbs who identify with U of I and want to play there. Hooray for Weber and hooray for Illinois.

But let's drop the talk of a new improved master plan. Please?

Paul is absolute headcase, and exactly like you said, established a name for himself in the summer (AAU), not with his high school team. So basically against no one playing defense. What a joke

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Joe Henricksen published on October 14, 2007 9:32 AM.

Terrific trio a start for Illini--and just what the doctor ordered was the previous entry in this blog.

Class of 2010 right on track is the next entry in this blog.

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