Weber shows confidence in leaders for next season

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Jeff LaBelle

Bruce Weber ran off a list of names in one breath Monday at the team’s season-ending press conference, his usual stream-of-consciousness rant, when asked what players he thought could effectively replace Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle next season.

Without hesitation, he said that Demetri McCamey, Chester Frazier and Jamar Smith, in particular, are the chosen ones.

The trio could prove pivotal in returning Illinois to the NCAA Tournament after missing the cut for the first time since 1999.

“Ideally it would be Demetri,” Weber said, pointing to the freshman guard as his leading candidate to take the reins. “If you can get your most talented guy to be your leader and your hardest worker, everybody else is going to jump on board.”

Weber has hinted that a lack of leadership could have contributed to a downward spiral that saw Illinois endure a stretch of 13 losses in 16 games through January and into February.

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Pruitt and Randle, by their own admission, led mostly by example and didn’t fit the prototypical “vocal leader” mold Weber alluded to Monday.

The two did emerge as productive forces later in the year, though. Randle recovered from a separated shoulder to average more than 10 points per game in the Big Ten Tournament and Pruitt’s efforts landed him a spot on the All-Tournament team.

The senior center had at least 10 points and eight rebounds in every game.

Weber said Frazier and Smith, because of their respective personalities, could be more effective in leadership roles next season.

He added Calvin Brock and Trent Meacham into the equation at first, but then qualified those early remarks.

“You still need your older guys to be positive influences and that’s Chester and Jamar and Calvin, the upperclassmen, and Trent,” Weber said.

“(But) you look at the personalities. Trent doesn’t have the personality to be the leader, (but) he can still put the work ethic in and keep saying the little things on the side individually.

“Chester and Jamar have the personalities where they can be the pied piper kind of guys.”

Smith, returning from a redshirt year after pleading guilty to aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol in Feb. 2007, could have a major impact on the team’s offensive setup.

Illinois was exposed for its lack of a true go-to scorer, especially one that can create his own shot.

Next season, the lineup will most likely feature at least three guards at a time, possibly even four, and Smith could play a predominant role.

Alex Legion, a highly touted transfer from Kentucky, Jeffrey Jordan and Steve Holdren complete the guard arsenal along with Frazier, McCamey, Meacham, Brock and Smith.

“I think it’s pretty obvious we had trouble scoring, especially from three-point range and the free-throw line,” Weber said. “If Jamar shoots the ball like he shot at practice he’s going to be a major addition to our program.”

If Frazier, somewhat of a defensive specialist in his 33.4 minutes per game this year, spends extra time in the gym during the offseason, Weber hopes he can overcome his offensive limitations.

“Somehow we have to get him healthy (from knee problems) but he also has to put a lot of time in the gym and make the progress … so he’s a threat for us,” Weber said.

“A lot of people backed off him once the year went on and he got frustrated, and then he would try to do something that he couldn’t do.”

McCamey could complement Legion and Smith as well if he improves his work ethic and practice habits, Weber said.

It remains to be seen if Smith can carry over productive practice sessions into game situations.

“The thing I’ve challenged him with, besides taking care of his life and figuring out those types of things, is improving his ball handling and his passing. Now, it seems like he’s through the toughest part and we’re starting out for next season.

“He’s got the personality where he likes to be in the gym, puts a lot of time in. That could be key for us also, not just the shooting but the energy and the passion for the game.”