Future forecast

 

 

By Erin Foley

Throughout the 2007 basketball season, the Illini’s circumstances were less than ideal. Yet, ask Bruce Weber and Warren Carter if they had the talent to defeat fifth-seeded Virginia Tech in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and they will take the blame for letting a 13-point lead slip away. Weber says they got themselves in that predicament, while Carter says they just couldn’t “crawl out of it.”

“You’re just hoping one thing goes your way,” Weber said. “They made the comeback; we kept saying, ‘We’re fine, we’re fine.’ You’ve got to give them credit.”

While the Illini (23-12) hung with the Hokies for 32 minutes, many of their flaws were exposed in their season-ending loss – one being their lack of offensive firepower. Shooting 42.2 percent from the field (19-of-45), Illinois made just one field goal in the final 4:27 of the game. On the other hand, Virginia Tech, after starting out shooting 29.2 percent, picked it up to shoot 44.4 percent (8-of-18) in the second half. When it counted, the Hokies made their free throws, grabbed for loose balls and forced the Illini into unforced errors.

“Anybody that knows anything about our team knows we have to win turnover margin; that’s how we win games,” said Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg. “And (the press) was a way to get some extra possessions, maybe turn them over, get out in transition and score some easy baskets.”

Nothing, though, came easy for the Illini.

Continuously forced to work with a depleted roster during the season, Illinois saw Brian Randle sit out nine games following groin surgery, along with nearly 60 practices because of the surgery and a case of plantar fasciitis in January.

The junior forward averaged 7.4 points per game, 4.7 rebounds per game and shot nearly 49 percent from the field. Knowing Randle wouldn’t be able to equal the expectations set for him (he was named to the Wooden Award watch list prior to the start of the season), Weber had Randle focus on asserting himself on the defensive end and providing energy to the rest of the Illini.

With the graduation of Dee Brown, Chester Frazier emerged as the heart and soul of the Illini team. The Baltimore native suffered from a strained groin, turf toe, a dislocated finger, and in Columbus, Ohio, Weber revealed that he has a slightly torn MCL. Despite the pain during the season, Frazier found a way to average 7.4 points per game, 4.5 rebounds per game and 4.4 assists per game. His 21 points against Penn State in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament led Illinois to a match-up with Indiana, which secured its Tournament berth. Weber said Frazier would most likely need to sit out four weeks to get healthy.

“Our offense didn’t come around, skill development, all those things, we weren’t very good all year. We were offensively challenged,” Weber said. “I take pride not only in being a good defensive coach, but a good offensive coach; it just didn’t happen.”

Looking ahead to a future without seniors Warren Carter, Rich McBride and Marcus Arnold, Weber said the Illini must improve. They will heavily rely on seniors Randle and ShaunPruitt for that improvement.

“They’ve got to get healthy and they need repetition,” Weber said. “They’ve got to accept what they are and then get better. They’re realistic with what they need to do.”

As far as reality goes, Weber said he knows Frazier, along with sophomore Calvin Brock, will improve their shooting, Randle will become more comfortable on the court and Pruitt will continue to become one of the top post players in the Big Ten.

“The kids listened, they bought into team (attitude), but now we have to get them to buy into individual improvement, all of them,” Weber said. “They had a taste of it, (but if they) stay healthy, (I) hope they can improve in the off-season.”

While Illinois looks to sort out its on-court situations, the off-the-court problems need to be resolved as well.

Weber admitted that playing without freshman Richard Semrau because of an infected chest contusion and sophomore Jamar Smith and freshman Brian Carlwell due to the late-night drunken-driving car crash was “very difficult.”

Smith, who has been working out at the Ubben Practice Facility, will appear in court for his pre-trial in early April and his future with the Illini remains up in the air.

Smith and Carlwell missed the final eight games of the season following the accident.

The goal is for Illinois to still buy into winning, just as it did this season.

The Illini’s ability to find ways to win, he said, was what he was proud of.

With Randle and Pruitt leading the way, a determined Frazier, and a complement of freshmen in Demetri McCamey (6-foot-3 guard, St. Joseph), Bill Cole (6-foot-9 forward, Peoria Richwoods) and Mike Tisdale (7-foot center, Riverton), Randle feels the keys to success are in place.

“We could be top 25, be in contention for a Big Ten Championship, get back to the NCAA,” Randle said. “I feel like we can make those things happen, and we lose three key guys, but we have guys that are willing to play hard and willing to play for our purposes.”