This season, the University of Illinois basketball team will likely take the phrase so often uttered by their woolly neighbors just three hours to the north, “Wait ‘Til Next Year”, to a whole new level.
That’s because many Illini fans may have been saying it before this season even began. In case you hadn’t heard, 2009 is when Bruce Weber’s first crop of prize recruits since becoming the head coach of the Illini five years ago, start strolling into Chambana.
Four players, guards D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, and Joseph Bertrand, along with forward Tyler Griffey are all ranked in the top 100 nationally and currently give the Illini the 8th-ranked recruiting class in the nation according to Rivals.com.
Throw in five-star verbal commitments from small forward Jereme Richmond and shooting guard Crandall Head for 2010 and all of a sudden the Illini, who started to take on the look of a mid-major program Weber supposedly left behind, might again start to resemble the national power we were hoping “Bail” Self was going to build before bolting for the only place where the Earth’s crust is flatter and more boring to look at than Central Illinois – that being Kansas.
Of course, this is all assuming that Kelvin Sampson doesn’t somehow worm his way back into college basketball and give all these guys’ fathers cushy jobs.
In any event, Illini fans still have to make it through this season. So what can be expected from a team that finished 13-18 (5-13 in the Big Ten) and lost two of its supposedly better players in bruiser Shaun Pruitt and the “Human Enigma” Brian Randle?
Well, probably not a whole lot, although Thursday night’s 69-63 win at Vanderbilt, an NCAA tournament team a season ago, offers some hope.
The main problem is, at least according to the hoops experts here at Grubb Hub – some of the finest in the world by the way – is that this year’s team will continue to rely heavily on seniors Trent Meacham and Chester Frazier in the backcourt, and that can’t be a good thing.
Both of these guys are marginal Division I players at best. On a good team, one that might make the NCAA tournament and have a chance to advance a round or two, Frazier would fill a backup point guard role, a guy who can come in for maybe 5-10 minutes a game and spell the starting point guard, play good defense, run the set offense, and pass the ball getting others involved.
Similarly, Meacham would be a three-point specialist on a better team, the kind of role filled by Sean Harrington during three NCAA tournament runs by the Illini.
Plain and simple, the more minutes these guys get, the worse off the Illini will be. Grubb Hub’s most optimistic hope coming into this season was that troubled guard Jamar Smith would come back and play like he did as a freshman, that University of Kentucky transfer Alex Legion, a 6-5 shooting guard, would be anywhere close to as good as advertised, and that freshman standout Demetri McCamey would establish himself as the clear starter at point guard and the go-to guy, leaving backup roles to Frazier and Meacham.
With Jamar Smith out of the picture, this idealistic hope is obviously no longer possible. However, if senior guard Calvin Brock’s level of dedication really has been holding him back – as has been reported in the media – we’d like to see him play while giving 100 percent because he’s shown himself to be a fairly gifted player both offensively and defensively.
All I know at this point is if Weber wants to use the games against scrub teams such as Eastern Washington and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi to make a point to McCamey by leaving him out of the starting five, fine. But when the Illini start playing real competition, McCamey better be in there starting and playing 30-plus minutes.
And Grubb Hub doesn’t give a flying rat turd who’s a senior and who’s a sophomore or whatever. All we care about is who is better. We have given Chester Frazier all the credit in the world for being a hustler and a scrapper, but let’s face it the talent just isn’t there. And Meacham is a good catch-and-shoot guy from the beyond the arc – and that’s pretty much it.
As for the frontcourt, at least the sophomore Mikes – Davis and Tisdale – have shown some real promise as well as the ability to actually make a free throw, which may or may not make them instantly better than the guys they replaced, the aforementioned Randle and Pruitt.
With all the promise of seasons to come contrasted with the present, “Wait ‘Til Next Year” might prove to be pretty tough to do.