By Joe Henricksen
The gripes and complaints have suddenly come to a halt, at least somewhat or maybe just temporarily. I have given
family, friends, fans and subscribers who have constantly asked my thoughts on coach Bruce Weber and the
Illinois basketball program–specifically in regards to recruiting and future success–the same response for the past
couple of years: I will let you know in the fall of 2007.
Through it all, from the loss of Julian Wright and Sherron Collins to Kansas, Jon Scheyer to Duke, Eric Gordon to
Indiana, Derrick Rose to Memphis, Evan Turner to Ohio State, Scott Suggs to Washington, DeAndre Liggins to
Memphis, Darius Miller to Kentucky, Mike Dunigan to Oregon, Iman Shumpert and on and on, as well as the failed
recruiting efforts to land Patrick Beverley or completely ignoring current Marquette star Jerel McNeal, who would
have loved to have played at Illinois, I continued to give the same response: I will let you know in the fall of 2007. I
thought, after all, if the magical run of that glorious, media-drenched 2004-2005 season didn’t pay off by then, look
After striking out on so many coveted prospects, I figured signing day in November or 2007 would be critical for
Weber and his staff. Might the Illini land a Shumpert, who they were in on so early in the recruiting process? Maybe
Dunigan as well? Maybe a Shumpert, Dunigan, Suggs recruiting class would finally end the drought, so I thought.
What I didn’t expect was that the players we would be talking about in the fall of 2007 would be players in the 2009
and 2010 classes. Nonetheless, the recent trifecta of D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Joseph Bertrand answers
It’s no secret Illinois failed miserably in capturing the moment following the breakthrough season and March run in
2005, at least in terms of recruiting targets. Everyone will tell you Weber is a tremendous coach, which he is, as
proven by his track record and continued winning. But the immediate rewards were not there. Even now, we’re
talking about players/prospects who won’t be on campus for another two or three years. I really felt Illinois was on
the verge of becoming the UConn of the Midwest, a program that took off under Jim Calhoun, elevated itself to
prominence and, more or less, has stayed there among the top 10 or dozen programs in the country over the past
two decades with a pair of national titles and seven Elite Eight berths. The pieces were in place for Illinois. It didn’t
Just two years removed from the 2005 national title game appearance, Illinois was not considered a serious player
come NCAA Tournament time last year. This year figures to be similar. That’s not to say Illinois won’t surprise
people, get into the tournament and win a couple of games. But no one will project Illinois for a deep tournament run
this March. And the 2008-2009 season could be win-starved compared to what Illini fans have come to expect the
last seven or eight years. Yes, there will have been plenty of wins since 2004-2005 and NCAA Tournament berths
(hopefully), but it’s still far removed from being the program so many envisioned it could be following that 2005 Final
The good news is the Weber way could still work. It’s just on a different timetable and in a different fashion.
Though he tried, he wasn’t able to simply restock the cupboard with impact recruits, partly due to ineffective
recruiting and partly due to Weber refusing to lower himself to the seedy side of recruiting. But we are now seeing
the result of the recruiting shortfalls–battling for NCAA Tournament berths instead of targeting a top four seed in
March, shooting for 20 wins instead of 30. But that’s why the trio of commitments late last week was so crucial. It
keeps the ball rolling, keeps things alive and prospering when everything looked so bleak and dreary. There is new
life pumped into the program. No, not this year’s team or next year’s, but the program itself.
Weber currently has in place several good, young pieces to the puzzle. They just aren’t immediate impact type of
players that will provide instant results. And, unfortunately, the Class of 2008, which currently has no commitments
and little on the horizon, will likely provide little or no dividends. But Demetri McCamey is going to be one heck of a
Big Ten guard by his junior and senior years. While it may take time, Mike Tisdale has the potential to be special
down the road. If Weber can work the same magic and get the same improvement out of Brian Carlwell as he has
with Shaun Pruitt in four years of work, there is another piece. Mike Davis, a likely redshirt, has been impressive by
all accounts in his short time on campus.
These are the type of players Weber will rely on in a few years when they are all mature three and four-year
veterans. It’s not so different than what Bill Self had when he first arrived at Illinois. Damir Krupalija, Lucas Johnson
and Robert Archibald weren’t big-time recruits. And even Sergio McClain, while he was an important recruit, wasn’t
an immediate difference-maker. By the time they were juniors and seniors they were men, big and strong,
experienced and the foundation of a top-seed in the NCAA Tournament and an Elite Eight team. They of course had
the help then of a couple of younger, more attractive recruits in Frank Williams and Brian Cook.
When Weber has it rolling again he will be relying on three and four-year veteran types–McCamey, Tisdale, Davis,
Cole, Carlwell, Semrau–with the new blood, the likes of Richardson, Paul, Bertrand and Jereme Richmond,
hopefully pushing them over the top. Weber and the Illini still have more work to do. Jerrance Howard was a solid
hire, but another change in the staff sure wouldn’t hurt from the perception of high school and AAU coaches I talk
to. And it’s difficult to make deep tournament runs without true superstars, but Richmond is destined to be one. And
who’s to say Illinois can’t add one more (Whitney Young’s Anthony Johnson?) now that the negativity has
subsided or that one of the three in the Class of 2009 (Richardson, Paul or Bertrand) can’t develop into one? Also,
these are just verbal commitments from the four young stars. However, as mentioned in a previous blog, these
seem much more secure than others. It helps that the four of them seem to be in this together.
So the answer to all those recruiting questions and about the future of Illinois basketball that I said had to wait until
the fall of 2007? There is hope and optimism again. It’s just going to take more time than originally thought and from
different players than originally thought.
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