This season, much more so than last season, Illinois will look to their big men to provide a stable source of offense. Last season, any offense the Illini gained from James Augustine, Roger Powell, Jack Ingram, or Nick Smith was icing on the cake. Sure, there were games last season that Illinois would not have won without the offensive contributions from the front court, most notably Jack Ingram's explosion against Wisconsin in the Kohl Center. But this season the Illini front court will need to step up on the offensive end in every game because the consistent scoring punch from the backcourt is just not there like it was last season.
For the better part of the last three seasons, Illinois has gone with a three-guard lineup, but that will not be the case this season. For the first time since Jerry Hester suited up and wore #23 (he allowed Sergio McClain to wear #40 during his senior season and Sergio's freshman season), Illinois will have a true wing forward at the three spot, redshirt sophomore Brian Randle. The Illini have gone through various different options at the three spot from two undersized power forwards (McClain and Lucas Johnson) to two shooting guards (Sean Harrington and Luther Head), but this season Bruce Weber will have the luxury of playing a true three at the position, a luxury many college teams just do not have.
After sitting out last season with a broken hand, Randle is ready to take over the starting role he held early in his freshman season. Before last season, the reports out of Champaign from the newspapers and those that watched pick up games and practices were that Randle was the most improved Illinois player before his ultimate demise thanks to an encounter with the padded wall in Ubben. This summer, Brian was a member of the Big Ten traveling team coached by Bruce Weber, so he was able to get some in game action to remove some of the rust that built up on him as he was a spectator during last season's run to the Final Four.
The one word that always has surrounded Brian Randle is "potential." When he was recruited out of Peoria Notre Dame High School, the Illinois coaches really liked the potential he had to play three different positions: shooting guard, small forward, and power forward. At this point in his career, Brian has yet to reach his potential as a basketball player, and there are still obvious flaws in his game, especially on the offensive end of the court. Offensively, Brian is not a player that opposing defenders would worry about hitting an outside jump shot. The form on his jump shot is, simply put, ugly. Brian's bread and butter on the offensive end of the court is driving to the basket and attempting to dunk the basketball. If one wants proof of that, all they need to do is put in a tape of the Penn State game in Champaign from 2004 when Brian dunked over three Penn State defenders.
It will be interesting to see how much Brian's offensive game has improved in the half court, as the reports from the European trip were mixed, and the box scores included some very unimpressive shooting percentages. If Randle is able to find the jump shot that has eluded him throughout his career, he could become that third scorer Illinois needs alongside Augustine and Brown, but until that time Brian's offensive contributions will be limited to the open court, and the occasional drive from the wing.
Defensively, Brian might be the best defensive player on the Illinois roster. Many Illinois fans probably remember Arizona's Richard Jefferson using his size to slow down Frank Williams in the 2001 Elite Eight. In that game, Jefferson used his superior size and speed to stifle the Illini's best offensive player, and ensure the Wildcats would make the trip to the Final Four and win the rubber match in their series with the Illini that season. While Randle is no where near the player Richard Jefferson was (and is) offensively, he has already shown the skills on the defensive end of the court indicating he can be used in a similar manner as Jefferson was against Illinois. When you combine the ability to be able to guard smaller and quicker players, and Bruce Weber's trapping defense Randle should be able to frustrate opponents and force turnovers that turn into instant offense for him or a teammate.
On the inside, Bruce Weber will look to his veteran center, James Augustine, to provide defensive and offensive stability for a very inexperienced front court. Augustine has started at center since the first day of his freshman season, and has shown flashes of brilliance. But all too often, those flashes were followed up with games of frustration with Augustine either being invisible in the game, or on the bench counting the number of fouls he committed. Last season, Bruce Weber leaned on Augustine to be the Illini's interior offensive threat, but he too often would defer to the Illini guards. This year, Augustine will be asked to not pass the ball back out when he receives a post feed, but to make a strong post move and take the ball to the basket.
When Augustine has the ball in the post, the question remains of which post move he will use. While James has shown that he has one effective post move through his three years of playing, he has yet to show a counter, let alone an effective one. Without that effective counter, Augustine becomes an easy player to defend, but reports are he has been working on that counter over the summer. Another aspect of James' offensive game that he seems to have left behind since his freshman season is the ability to hit the baseline jump shot. If James can add the fifteen-to-seventeen foot baseline jump shot back into his offensive repertoire, along with that counter post move and improved self-confidence, he could become a deadly offensive threat for the Illini.
It will be interesting to see how Bruce Weber uses James Augustine in the offense this year. Last year, Weber adjusted his offense to take advantage of the obvious strength the Illini had in the backcourt, but Weber is also not shy to take advantage of a strength his team might have in the frontcourt either. For evidence, just look at how Southern Illinois played with Justin Dearman and Rolan Roberts. Without the luxury of a dominant backcourt, I expect Weber to take more advantage of Augustine in the post. For the last two years, the Illini have played a rotating post where the offensive player has not had much time to set themselves up in the block before looking for the feed from the guard, but this season I bet Weber designs some additional looks into his offense that will get James position on the block, much like he did for Dearman and Roberts. It will be up to James to convert those opportunities, but they will be more prevalent than they were last season.
Throughout his career, James has always had problems staying out of foul trouble. While he improved dramatically last season, there were still key points during contests where he was on the bench watching with two fouls (or four depending on the time left in the game). Many Illini fans remember Sean May dominating the Illini frontcourt in the National Championship game in St. Louis, and one of the main reasons for that was Augustine's foul trouble. While Augustine was better last season about moving his feet on defense, and not going after every blocked shot within reach, he still needs to work on both as any steps he takes in improving these two fundamental areas will increase the amount of time he is on the court.
Joining Augustine and Randle in the Illini's starting front court is expected to be junior Warren Carter. Carter saw little time as a freshman, and he probably should have redshirted as Bruce Weber desired, but that is in the past, and it does not matter now. Last season, Carter showed he could be an offensive threat from fifteen to seventeen feet, but he also showed weakness on the defensive side of the ball. When Bruce Weber tightened up his rotation as the Big Ten season, Warren was left on the outside looking in. The main player Carter will be replacing in the Illini starting lineup is Roger Powell, and it remains to be seen whether or not Carter will have the nose for the basketball that Powell did off the offensive glass. If Carter is able to replace half of the offensive rebounding Powell provided the Illini, it will be a pleasant surprise for the Illini.
With Augustine, Carter, and Randle as the apparent starting frontcourt, the Illini will have one of the more athletic front courts in the Big Ten, but they will be lacking traditional bulk, at least from the starters. While all three players are used to defending larger players, and rebounding against them, rebounding and defensive positioning are going to be key issues for all three players to battle through as the season progresses. Luckily for Weber, if he needs to bring in a bigger body to bang down low he will have the luxury of having Marcus Arnold, Shaun Pruitt, and maybe Charles Jackson when he looks down the bench. In a perfect world, freshman Charles Jackson would take this season as a redshirt year to better get in basketball shape, but that might not be a luxury the Illini have, or a decision he wants to make.
Arnold is coming to Champaign after sitting out a full season for the Illini after transferring from Illinois State after his sophomore campaign. Arnold has shown flashes of brilliance; specifically his performance against the Illini in Assembly Hall when Illinois State nearly upset the Illini is still firmly entrenched in the memory of Illinois fans. Despite the flashes of brilliance, Arnold really did not put together a consistent season in either of his first two years at Illinois State. So, while Illinois fans are hoping the player they saw in Assembly Hall on that cold January afternoon is the real Marcus Arnold, the odds are that he is still the same player: one that will put together one brilliant game and then follow it up with two or three games where he is almost non-existent. This will be worrisome as the Illini will be counting on him for defense and rebounding off the bench.
Also in the mix in the front court will be sophomore Shaun Pruitt. If Bruce Weber decides to go with a front line of Augustine, Randle, and Pruitt at any time, the Illini would be in interesting territory as all three forwards would be left-handed. One of basketball's most interesting axioms is that it is harder to defend a left-handed player because defenders are so used to defending right-handed players. Now, I don't know if that is proven out with statistics, but it is an interesting theory none the less.
It is really tough to gleam anything from what Pruitt did during his short stints in blow out wins last season, as teams are not really playing their real offense or defense. The one thing I did learn is that Shaun liked to shoot, but that really does not say much. Before last season, I talked to an old high school coach of mine whose son lost to Pruitt's West Aurora team in the IHSA Class AA Elite Eight. He said that the only player they could not handle on the court was Pruitt, and that he would be a good player for Illinois down the line. Hopefully, "down the line" is sooner rather than later because Pruitt (or Arnold) could feed the needed role of a bruising power forward to play alongside Augustine in the middle.
While there is still talk that freshman Charles Jackson might not redshirt, I hope that is not the case. Jackson came to Illinois looking more like a lineman for Ron Zook's football team (boy, they could really use one of those right now) than he did a basketball player. Over the summer, Charles has worked on getting into basketball shape, but changing your body from that of an offensive lineman to someone less resembling Oliver Miller or Staley Roberts is not something that can be done over one summer, no matter how hard he works. Luckily for Jackson, the Illini have enough depth in the front court to allow him to use a full year to get into basketball shape. If Jackson decides that a redshirt is not for him, he will probably be behind both Arnold and Pruitt in the rotation until he proves other wise.
While last season, the Illini frontcourt was definitely overshadowed by the Illini backcourt and maligned at times for costing Illinois games (see: Carolina, North), that was not the case as often as one would expect when a team's offense was geared almost entirely in the backcourt. The Illini frontcourt more than held there own against some of the better frontcourt players in college basketball last year including Indiana's DJ White, Wisconsin's Mike Wilkinson, Wake Forest's Eric Williams, Nevada's Nick Fazekas (a player CBS SportsLine's preview magazine has as a First Team Pre-Season All American), and Michigan State's Paul Davis.
This year, the Illini frontcourt, and especially James Augustine, will be leaned on to provide as much scoring and offense as the backcourt if the Illini are to be expected to compete for the Big Ten Championship, and make another run in the NCAA Tournament.
In the next and final edition of the IlliniBoard.com's look at the Illini heading into the football season, we will look at how the Illini might look different on the court, both offensively and defensively.