The fact that Illinois failed to get to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament after falling to Washington on Saturday was disappointing but not surprising. All this season, the Illini have been inconsistent on a game-to-game basis. It certainly wasn’t shocking to see us have an up-and-down game against a talented Washington team.
The tough thing about the aftermath of this loss is that we’re going to have to seriously dial back our expectations next season. From the moment after we lost to Duke in the Sweet Sixteen 2 years ago, we believed immediately that we would be national championship contenders in 2004-05 (and that proved to be correct). Last year, we at least had the satisfaction of making the Final Four and the national championship game while we could look forward to a solid, if not dominating, season with Dee Brown and James Augustine coming back.
Now, however, with Brown and Augustine having played their last game with the Illini, we don’t really know what to expect (as the Chicago Tribune pointed out a couple of days ago). We know that 2007-08 is going to be a resurgent year for Illinois with a banner recruiting class already in place featuring Eric Gordon, Bill Cole, and Mike Tisdale (and hopefully Illinois state champion Simeon guard Derrick Rose will join them). But that’s two years down the line. What is next year going to look like?
The best case scenario would be a performance similar to this year’s Ohio State team. A lot of Buckeye fans were looking past this season toward the ridiculous recruiting class starting in 2006-07 led by superstar center Greg Oden. However, the 2005-06 Ohio State team gave their fan base a lot to cheer for immediately by winning the Big Ten title outright. Considering how well Brian Randle, Shaun Pruitt, and Jamar Smith developed over the last 2 months of this season and the addition of another top big man in recruit Brian Carwell, the Illini could be pretty good shape to contend for the top of the Big Ten again.
Anyone who follows the Illini, however, can also envision the worst case scenario. The makeup of the Illinois team next season is going to be 180-degree turn from what we had in 2005. We’re going to have great size with Pruitt, Carwell, and Randle, which is positive. However, we’re also going to go from having three NBA-caliber guards that could all bring the ball up the court in 2005 to not knowing if we have anyone that can be counted on to be the primary ballhandler in 2006-07. When success in college basketball and, in particular, the NCAA Tournament is predicated on having strong guards, this is a scary situation for Illinois next season. Jamar Smith is as accurate of a jump-shooter as you’ll ever see, but he seems more suited to being a wing player that can spot up along the arc. The same thing can be said of Rich McBride. Chester Frazier received some playing time as a point guard this season, but he has yet to demonstrate that he can run the motion offense at the high level that we’ve become accustomed to seeing in Champaign. With all of this in mind, merely making the NCAA Tournament won’t be a given with this team next year.
My feeling is that we’re going to be closer to the best case scenario than the worst case scenario because of one overriding factor: Bruce Weber. As a coach, he may not have the smooth recruiting skills of Bill Self or the endorsement potential of Mike Kryzewski, but when it comes to Xs-and-Os, Weber is as good as they come. There were plenty of preseason observers that didn’t think Illinois would make the NCAA Tournament this year after losing Deron Williams, Luther Head, and Roger Powell, but the Illini ended up having a solid season (even if it did end on a sour note). A lot of coaches are fine when they have their own system in place and have the personnel to fit into that system, yet are at a loss when the makeup of the team changes. What Weber proved he could do this season is that he could adjust his system to the players that he had. The motion offense last season relied on perimeter play from Williams, Head, and Brown. By the end of this season, Weber adjusted the system so that the big men Augustine and Pruitt would be the focus of the offense. This will become more important next season as Illinois will need to rely even more on its frontcourt players.
2007-08 is the beacon of light for the Illinois basketball program right now. Before we look too far ahead, however, here’s to hoping that next season gives us some unexpected positive surprises.