Illini look for leadership

Online Poster

By Courtney Linehan

Bruce Weber sits in a gray aluminum folding chair, leaning over and clenching a towel against his abdomen. A few feet away, assistant coaches Jay Price and Wayne McClain shout instructions to players who practice drills, out of sync and sloppy.

Illinois looked like a high school team that November afternoon, struggling to nail the drills. They dropped the ball. They stumbled. They missed shots.

Weber insisted on attending practice that day, even though the Illini head coach had an emergency appendectomy 24 hours earlier. As his team prepared for the start of its regular season, Weber worried there was no one else to lead.

While their coach was confined to the sidelines – and especially after an assistant drove him home – the Illini spent more time joking around than preparing for a game three days away. A year ago, Weber would have turned to senior captain Jerrance Howard to direct the team in his absence, but Howard is gone. The assistant coaches had control of the practice, but it wasn’t quite the same.

“When the boss isn’t here, it is normal not to play hard and they didn’t,” Price said after practice.

On Nov. 16, the Illini needed a leader. They needed someone to step up and take charge of practice, to provide the direction Weber normally supplies.

In his second season as Illinois’ head coach, Weber has had a far easier time leading his team than in his first. But the responsibility for that leadership has fallen much more heavily on the coach, who finds himself in an ironic position – with a lineup full of seniors but lacking senior leadership.

Howard, last year’s consistent leader, graduated and now coaches at Texas A&M.; And while the loss doesn’t seem to be hurting the No. 1 Illini, Weber worries that a defeat is inevitably coming – and that when it does, the team will need someone to step forward and motivate the squad the way Howard did.

“Deron (Williams) and some of the guys have tried, but can they do it when they’re struggling?” Weber said. “Jerrance could do it every day.”

When Weber arrived on campus in 2003, he inherited a team jam-packed with talent.

The team included four promising freshmen, three sophomores who had earned starting spots as freshmen, and a solid contingent of juniors who added depth in starting roles and off the bench.

Illinois went 26-7 overall and 13-3 in the Big Ten last year. And while the new coach with his new motion offense and drastically different style struggled to keep the team together, Howard – the lone senior – provided the leadership the Illini needed in the locker room, on the sidelines and on the hardwood.

“(Jerrance) kept the kids together. He could see the coaches’ side, he could see the players’ side, and he was like a mediator between the two, and made them understand,” Weber said.

The 2004 Illini look mostly the same. Eleven players are back, including all five starters. And five of the players are seniors.

But none have stepped up the way Howard did.

“Jerrance had an unusual personality,” Weber said. “He was outgoing, he accepted who he was, he had no issues, he wasn’t worried about playing time.”

The fifth-year senior – who had redshirted his first year on campus and participated in Senior Day activities with the 2003 graduates – only saw action in 18 of 33 games during the 2003-04 season. But what Howard did on the practice court at the Ubben Basketball Practice Facility made the difference across Fourth Street, at Assembly Hall.

“My role was just to make sure everybody came out with the right attitude in practice,” Howard said. “The teams I’ve been on that have been successful – the Big Ten championship teams, the Elite Eight team – those things were won in practice.”

Early this season, Weber worried how the team would reach its lofty expectations as a number of stars began to shine, but no team leader stepped up. The coach feared highly touted players like Williams and Brown might be swept up in talk of an outstanding backcourt with NBA prospects. He did not want them to forget about the rest of the squad.

But, so far, Weber’s fears have not come true, with Illinois averaging 22.3 assists per game.

“I think the message that you’ve got to send is that you’ve got to stay grounded,” McClain said. “You can’t get way too high, you can’t ever get too low or you lose. You’ve got to respect every one of your opponents.”

For a team that defeated then-No. 1 Wake Forest by more points than it used to trounce Delaware State, keeping the players grounded is no easy task.

But whatever struggles the second-year coach has dealt with this season are minimal compared to what he went through last year.

Now, nearly two months into the season, Weber still refuses to name captains. He insists that leaders step forward and prove they deserve the title. He has candidates, but said no one is guaranteed.

“We always tell them if you have that good attitude, if you have that positive attitude, if you’ve lost yourself to the team, things will end up being good for you,” Weber said. “That’s what I want to see, and that’s why I haven’t named captains. I haven’t seen it in practice. When they’ve had bad days, they haven’t taken that step of really being positive leaders, even on a bad day.”

Still, there are candidates.

Early in the season, Williams received nods as someone who was stepping up. And, in practice, it looked like he did – encouraging teammates, cheering even when visibly winded and supporting the freshmen while other players harassed them.

As one of last year’s captains when only a sophomore, it makes sense that Williams should return as a leader off the court, while still putting up top numbers on it. And teammates agree that he has somewhat picked up the slack and done just that.

“He brings it every day,” Brown said. “You can watch it the way he plays, the way he runs the team.”

Brown is another player Weber has seen take control at times. Brown, who averages 14.9 points a game, wants to get things done when the spotlight is on and the pressure to perform is riding on his shoulders.

“A leader has to be vocal, he has to lead by example, and Dee does both of those,” Howard said. “It’s the overall package; he has the ability to communicate and work with others.”

But Brown is a perfect example of a player unproven in adversity. He excels as a leader when he’s on his game; as soon as he hits a rough patch, however, his leadership qualities fade.

“Dee’s improving; when you play bad, it’s easy to not have energy,” Weber said. “He is a gamer, though; he loves the lights.”

Weber insists that just because Brown and Williams were captains last season, that doesn’t mean either has the job this time around.

“I want to see what they do when we have a bad game or they have a bad game,” Weber said. “The key to a leader is he’s got to be there whether he’s having a good day or not, because that’s when you gain other people’s trust.”

Weber’s last candidate has risen quietly in the background. Jack Ingram is a backup forward, a transfer from Tulsa whom Weber originally thought was too quiet to be a leader. As the season has progressed, the 6-foot-10 senior has stepped up, encouraging younger players and showing the kind of team attitude Weber wants to see.

“Jack has done a nice job of being patient, talking, helping, grabbing the coaches to say, ‘You’ve got to help him with this,’ so I think he’s made some strides of really helping us as far as that kind of a guy,” Weber said.

With a flawless 7-0 record behind him and shining accolades coming from each coach his team encounters, Weber has begun to worry less about pinpointing that perfect team leader. He would still like one to step forward, but says the team will not really need one until it faces adversity.

He smiles and brushes off questions about naming captains, saying he might choose them in time for Christmas -or might not.

And the players are certain that when they get on a roll, the lack of leadership will not get in their way.

“I think, on this team, once we get going, everybody gets going,” Brown said. “Once another player makes a shot, that’s what gets us riled up.”

But eventually, the Illini might start missing more shots than they make. And when that happens, Weber hopes somebody – anybody – will be there to help the team rebound.

“Even (walk-on) Fred (Nkemdi), I told Fred he can say something,” Weber said. “Sometimes, if you don’t say a whole bunch, and then all of a sudden you say something, you can have a big impact.”