Basketball ready for new beginning

Illinois center Shaun Pruitt dunks during the Midnight Madness scrimmage on Friday in Assembly Hall. Erica Magda

Adam Babcock

Illinois center Shaun Pruitt dunks during the Midnight Madness scrimmage on Friday in Assembly Hall. Erica Magda

By Jeff LaBelle

By Jeff LaBelle

Staff Writer

Shaun Pruitt knows what’s up.

At first glance, the Illinois roster is slim compared to the 2004-05 team manned by now-NBA star Deron Williams and Illinois legend Dee Brown. It’s easy for Illini nation to get spoiled with such athletes.

Shaun Pruitt knows what’s up.

    Subscribe to our sports newsletter!

    At first glance, the Illinois roster is slim compared to the 2004-05 team manned by now-NBA star Deron Williams and Illinois legend Dee Brown. It’s easy for Illini nation to get spoiled with such athletes. And with the graduation of Warren Carter, Marcus Arnold and Rich McBride, expectations could easily take a dip.

    But there’s talent in place right now that could develop in much the same way Williams and Brown did.

    And Pruitt is ready to put the doubters at ease.

    “We didn’t have a bad year last year but I think some people looked down on us,” the senior center said. “I think this is a season that’s going to be important in terms of establishing ourselves again and showing that we’re still one of the marquee programs in the country. It’s a year to show we’re still here.”

    graphic

    The newcomers

    Click to view an interactive audio presentation of the team

    Call him an optimist, but Pruitt isn’t alone.

    “I’m just excited,” guard Trent Meacham said. “I’m more confident than ever. I feel really good about our team. I’m just ready to get started.”

    Pruitt’s consistency on the court could be the key to the “turnaround” from a 23-12 record and an NCAA tournament berth. Even from last season, head coach Bruce Weber said he’s seen remarkable improvement from the 6-foot-10, 245 pound center. His coordination and his conditioning have improved immensely following his participation in NBA pre-draft camps and the summer camp hosted by LeBron James.

    “I think Shaun Pruitt has to be one of the best big men in the league and possibly in the country if he plays up to the level we anticipate,” Weber said.

    Freshman center Mike Tisdale faces off against Pruitt in practice every day and has seen the progress Pruitt has made over the last few seasons – even if it wasn’t as a teammate.

    “His attitude on the court is it’s his ball; he’s not going to get rid of it,” Tisdale said. “He’s going to score, he’s going to do everything he can to get to the basket and play defense.

    “I watched him two years ago, I came to almost every game. And from two years ago to last year is immense. And this year he’s improved even more I think. He’s improved his jump shot, turnaround jumpers, his right hand. Everything has just improved so much. And his coordination has come around immensely.”

    Alongside Pruitt will be senior forward Brian Randle, who, after recovering from four surgeries, is back and ready to compete. At Illini Madness last Friday, although against little or no defense, Randle displayed that athletic ability that could make him a key contributor for the Illini on the boards and on defense. Randle was a Big Ten All-Defensive team selection as a sophomore. He played in 23 games last year and his five rebounds per game were third on the team.

    “You have to appreciate what he’s gone through – four surgeries (two on a sports hernia, one on his shoulder, one on his hand) and numerous other injuries. It never seems like life has treated him fair, and it’s probably easier for him to frown than smile,” Weber said. “I wish he could just play and have some success and start feeling good about himself.”

    Randle is approaching this season like any other, even though it’s going to be his final year with the Illini. He said he’s ready to take on a more vocal role and be a leader for his teammates, six of whom are freshmen.

    “I approach every preseason pretty much the same. We need to go out and work hard,” Randle said. “It’s going into practice every day, and nine out of 10 need to be great. One day might be a little off, but we got to be on par.

    “I feel probably as good as I did when I was a freshman in terms of health and everything. So, really, I feel fresh. I feel good. I came in with a clean slate. I know what’s to be expected of myself physically to be a part of this team.”

    After Pruitt and Randle, it’s anybody’s guess who will step up. But the talent’s there. At guard, the Illini house Chester Frazier, Meacham, Steve Holdren, Demetri McCamey, Calvin Brock and Jeff Jordan in their arsenal.

    The coaching staff is considering a playing-time-by-committee approach if nobody steps up to start opposite Frazier in the coming practices. But they may find themselves with considerable depth if McCamey and Holdren look good in practice. Meacham, not to be forgotten, could develop into one of the team’s top shooters, along with Holdren.

    “(Holdren’s) got a little bit of bounce now that he didn’t have a year ago. He could be a surprise for us,” Weber said. “His big thing is just making the other end, the defensive end, a little bit of a priority. Realizing he has to get back and guard somebody would help us a little bit. I think he has the ability and the smarts to be a decent defender. It just has to be something he wants to do and I hope that will come in time.”

    In preseason play in Canada, McCamey played alongside Frazier, handling the ball and giving Frazier an opportunity to get open for shots. That could be a scenario to watch if McCamey picks up the offense well over the next three weeks.

    Depth at center could be a concern if freshman Mike Tisdale and Brian Carlwell, listed as the only true centers after Pruitt, don’t mature as envisioned. Weber said there’s always a learning curve with big guys that’s impossible to predict.

    “I think any time you have a young big guy, a lot of times the average fan, they see him and they’re tripping and can’t catch the ball and they get knocked over,” Weber said. “You just think, ‘Oh, there’s no chance.’ But if you’ve been in it a while, the big guys, if they put time in, all of a sudden it clicks.”

    Chris Hicks, the team’s emotional leader, is going to push the Illini to succeed this year. He says they won’t be waiting until he graduates to turn it on.

    “We got a lot of great guys here and we want the same thing and we’re working toward it,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. I just need to enjoy every run, every practice and every suicide. I don’t know how you enjoy suicides but you got to because it’s not going to be there.”

    Hicks says he doesn’t remember ever waking up in the morning without a smile on his face.

    Hopefully he can say the same thing at the end of the season.