Basketball seniors: Did they make the grade?

By Jeremy Werner

Something was missing from the Assembly Hall crowd prior to the start of the Minnesota game. Maybe it was the noon start or the insignificance of the season finale, since the Illini entered the game locked into the No. 10 seed for the conference tournament. But the Illinois faithful came alive in the second half, as the Illini cruised to their fifth Big Ten victory on a day that recognized the class of 2008.

The Illinois season has been a failure to most, but how do the careers of the three departing Illini grade out? Let’s take a look.

Chris Hicks played just 12 minutes this season, but they were some of the more closely watched minutes of the season. The third-year walk-on followed in the footsteps of current assistant Jerrance Howard, a letterman at Illinois from 2001 to 2004, as a fan-favorite. The Orange Krush chanted Hicks’ name more than any other player’s during his three years on the Illinois roster – though Warren Carter may be a close second.

Although he never had the ability to make a large impact on the court, his hard work and commitment to making his teammates better in practice earned him the right to be called an Illini. For that, Hicks gets an A-plus for effort. His buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of regulation against Minnesota on Saturday was a picturesque end to an enjoyable career.

Shaun Pruitt is the only player on the current roster to see playing time on the 2004-05 Final Four team. Although he was on the floor for only 44 minutes that season as a freshman, Pruitt started all 33 games as a sophomore. Pruitt became a legitimate go-to player as a junior, averaging 11.4 points and 7.5 rebounds a game.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
Thank you for subscribing!

Following his impressive junior season, Pruitt tested his feet in the NBA Draft waters but returned for his senior season. He was named to the preseason All-Big Ten First Team and was expected to carry the Illini to a possible NCAA Tournament bid.

The problem was that Pruitt never made the next step, averaging 12.1 points and 6.1 rebounds this season. Illinois needed more out of Pruitt to win games since the team has no other legitimate offensive threats. The senior center also never exhibited the veteran leadership the Illini greatly needed. Pruitt has always shown passion but has not been able to keep it in check. His emotion boiled over in a locker room rant following Illinois’ Jan. 19 loss to Purdue, resulting in a two-game benching.

The senior’s woes at the free-throw line have been well-documented, but Pruitt was the most consistent player for the Illini all season. The Illini offense would be downright miserable without him, as Pruitt has scored nine or more points in 25 of 31 games this season.

Although he never became the surefire NBA prospect he showed signs of becoming, Pruitt’s above-average consistency earns him a C-plus.

Brian Randle arrived at Illinois in 2002 with untapped potential and athleticism. As he leaves the program, the senior forward’s career will likely be remembered for what could have been.

If Randle’s career were to be graded, he would get an incomplete. At times he turned in A-plus performances; other times Randle couldn’t pass the test simply because injuries kept him from showing up.

The athletic forward was first hindered in 2004-05. Although most have incredible memories of the Illini’s run to the championship game, Brian Randle was left to sit on the sidelines after punching a wall and suffering a broken hand during a November practice. Randle bounced back and was named to the Wooden Award watch list as a junior, but again missed significant time with groin surgery and plantar fasciitis.

The injuries also took a toll on Randle’s confidence and kept the senior from fully becoming the player so many thought he could be. But the senior is and always has been a model student-athlete and ambassador of the program. Although his career on the court has been somewhat dissatisfying, Randle still has the potential to find a spot in the NBA as an athletic defensive stopper.

The class of 2008 leaves following the Illini’s worst season in a decade. In many ways, the disappointment of the 2007-08 season mirrors the seniors’ inability to live up to their vast potential.

Jeremy Werner is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected].