Illinois starting over with young roster

Demetri McCamey is in Turkey, and Mike Davis is playing ball in

the Ukraine. Illinois is figuring out how to replace the two key

players from last year’s team.

The Illini, coming off a 20-14 season, start practice Friday

with a young team, made up mostly of freshmen and guys who were

role players a season ago. With the Nov. 11 opener against Loyola a

month away, coach Bruce Weber said Tuesday he’s looking for someone

to step up.

”If we’re going to be really successful,” he said, ”we have

to have somebody come out of nowhere and become a star, become a

name that everybody recognizes.”

The most established player is point guard Sam Maniscalco, a

graduate student transfer from Bradley with a year of eligibility

left. Illinois’ best center, 7-foot-1 Meyers Leonard, is 245 pounds

of impressive raw material who, as the coach said Tuesday, swings

wildly between too much confidence and little at all.

Juniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson might be the team’s

best shooters. But they’re known for long dry spells.

The best thing Weber can say about his team right now? They play

hard.

”They get after it, they know of no other way,” he said.

”Even in the practices I kind of fear for them because there’s

three, four guys diving for every loose ball. If this was the NFL

there’d be penalty flags all over because they lead with their

head.”

This also could be a pivotal year for Weber.

After a 20-win season that included an NCAA Tournament win over

UNLV, then-athletic director Ron Guenther felt the need to speak up

at the end of season to say that Weber’s job was safe. With a team

that included Davis, McCamey and fellow senior Mike Tisdale along

with a McDonald’s All-American in Jereme Richmond, fan expectations

were higher.

Guenther retired over the summer, and new AD Mike Thomas, on the

job since August, hasn’t said anything yet about Weber’s

future.

Richmond’s short, tumultuous stay ended when he declared for the

NBA draft – he wasn’t drafted – after a freshman season of mostly

playing off the bench. He’s since pleaded not guilty to battery

charges and is awaiting trial.

But Weber, in his play-hard assessment, said Tuesday he likes

some of what he sees in his young team.

Maniscalco may not look the part of Big Ten basketball player

and he missed most of last season with an injury. But Weber seems

confident the 6-0 Chicago native can run his team.

”He’s not very tall, he’s not very quick – I know he can’t

dunk,” Weber said. ”But he has that ability to understand the

game, understand angles. I hope he’s going to give us that

experience, that maturity.”

Leonard, Weber said, was at a real low by the end of last

season, but rebuilt his confidence – maybe a little too much –

while part of U.S. national team at the under-19 world

championships last summer.

”He went from all the talk and the hype to as low as you can

be, as low as a snake belly. He didn’t even want to go to USA

basketball,” Weber said.

Illinois spent two weeks in Italy over the summer, playing

Italian teams, the New Zealand national team and even West Virginia

during a trip designed to get the young Illini some experience.

On that trip, Weber said, he found out that his gritty team, for

all it lacks, might be able to press, something he aims to try this

season to make up for some of his team’s shortcomings.

And, even with a roster that includes six freshmen, Weber said

he might be able to go nine, 10 or, who knows, 11 deep.

That means some of those players that aren’t household names –

like freshman center Nnanna Egwu and freshman guard Tracy Abrams –

might get their shot to make names for themselves before the Big

Ten season starts.

Weber looks back to the game against New Zealand back in

mid-August, an 85-84 overtime loss to the team he said gave

Illinois its toughest competition, for encouragement.

Down late in regulation, Maniscalco helped fuel one comeback.

Then Paul hit a bank shot that gave Illinois a lead late in OT

before the Illini finally fell.

”Our older guys get us back in the game,” Weber said. ”(But)

here comes Tracy, gets two steals in a row, and Nnanna makes a

play. That made me feel a little bit better.”