Witness rebirth of Illinois basketball

On Nov. 24, 2006, with help from a man in his 50s, a 14-year-old male gave birth to a new era of Illinois basketball.

A young, well-balanced and talented Illini squad will take the floor for the 2009-2010 season, looking to build on a 24-10 record, a second-place finish in the Big Ten and an NCAA Tournament berth. Regarding basketball in Champaign, there is much to smile about.

But that hasn’t always been the case in recent years.

Head coach Bruce Weber was getting murdered on the recruiting trail in 2006. His assistant coaches, including Jay Price and former assistant Tracy Webster, knew he had to change, yet Weber wasn’t budging. Weber, by his own admission, didn’t want to offer early scholarships. He was too “old-school.”

While Weber remained in his ways, the rest of the country was passing him by. Elite in-state prospects — Derrick Rose, Jon Scheyer, Evan Turner, Julian Wright and Sherron Collins ring any bells? — were giving Illinois nothing more than a passing glance. To make matters worse, the one blue-chip talent Weber did manage to lock up, Eric Gordon, reneged on his verbal commitment the day before Illini Madness in 2006.

For a year after the Gordon debacle, there was doubt in Illini nation about whether Weber was our guy. There was no doubt he was a great motivator and tactician: He led the 2004-2005 team to 37 wins and a national championship appearance and his 112 victories from 2003-2007 also ranked as the most wins ever by a Big Ten coach in his first four seasons.

The guy could coach; there was never any doubt about that.

And as otherworldly as those numbers are, some credit goes to Weber’s predecessor, current Kansas coach Bill Self, for his recruiting of guys like Deron Williams, Luther Head, Dee Brown and James Augustine.

Self could bring talent in; could Weber? Was basketball at Illinois going to become mid-major talent playing to the absolute peak of its abilities? Was Weber going to let the elite in-state talent slip through his fingers? What could stop the recruitment from hemorrhaging?

In late 2006, Weber finally gave in, listened to his coaches and changed his mind. He would begin recruiting early, building relationships with the blue-chippers and offering them scholarships as underclassmen in high school. He would begin keeping up with the Williamses, the Krzyzewskis and even the Selfs.

Fourteen-year-old Jereme Richmond was the first domino to fall for Weber’s new recruiting philosophy. The brash, five-star, ultra-talented and most importantly, in-state recruit verbally committed to the Illini in November 2006, the night of his first high school game.

“I took (the scholarship) and a lot of people didn’t understand why,” Richmond has said. “But I just knew this is where I wanted to play. It’s one of the elite programs, and it’s also in my home state.”

Had Weber remained old-school and waited years to offer Richmond, there’s no telling where he would’ve ended up. There was still doubt in Illini nation, especially with Gordon’s decommitment still fresh in our minds, yet it was a good step.

Weber then made a gutsy call in September 2007 — he chose former Illini guard and Kentucky assistant coach Jerrance Howard to fill a vacant assistant coaching spot. At the time, the fan base was split on the Howard hiring. The detractors said he didn’t have enough coaching experience or any recruiting experience. Most wanted a coach from the Chicago Public League, which would’ve helped to shore up the Illini recruiting woes in the Windy City.

Yet Weber stuck to his guns, and the acquisition of Howard has proved to be one of his best decisions at Illinois. Howard’s natural charisma and passion for the University has turned him from a raw, inexperienced recruiter to a force to be reckoned with and a rising star.

In this time, the on-court Illini hit rock bottom. This included a 16-19 record in 2007-2008, a No. 10 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and nary a whiff of the NCAA Tournament. We were mired in an atmosphere of underachievement and bad chemistry. We were a proud program, one only three years removed from the best team the University had ever seen, yet we were lost.

But because of Weber’s philosophy change, the recruits kept coming.

It would be almost a year after Richmond until Weber and his staff landed another big fish, although the commitment onslaught in late 2007-early 2008 would prove Weber could land not only one big fish, but an entire school.

Current freshmen guards D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Joseph Bertrand verbally committed to the Illini within a day of each other in November 2007. Kentucky transfer and former four-star recruit Alex Legion decided to make the move to Champaign in December. Tyler Griffey made the Illini his official choice a month later.

Weber’s 2010 coup has also become a top-5 class. It includes Richmond, guard Crandall Head and center Meyers Leonard. They’ll join the squad next fall.

With the core of Mikes Tisdale and Davis, budding star Demetri McCamey and the Fab Four, the 2009-2010 version will be the most talented and exciting Illinois team in five years.

Richmond and Weber gave birth to a new era of Illinois basketball in late 2006. And by the looks of it, the soon-to-be 3-year-old is pretty darn healthy.

Rich Mayor is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected]