Kiwane Garris. Frank Williams. Cory Bradford. Luther Head. Deron Williams. Dee Brown. These are the names that have been members of the Fighting Illini backcourt since the mid-1990s. This year, the named star of the Illini backcourt falls on the shoulders of Rich McBride.
McBride came to Illinois from Springfield Lanphier with a load of expectations on his shoulders, but as he sat behind the three guard attack of Brown, Head, and Williams, he struggled to find his jump shot, and his overall game. Last year, with a more defined role as the team’s third scorer (behind Brown and James Augustine), he put up the best numbers of his career. This season, even more is going to be laid at the feet of the Illini shooting guard.
With an increased role in the Illini offense last season, Rich McBride saw his scoring numbers increase across the board. He shot better from the floor. He shot better from the three point line. He scored more points per minute in the game. He turned the ball over less. He had the highest points per shot attempt of his career. While his overall scoring numbers increased, his offensive rebounding numbers went from about one every forty minutes to just one offensive rebound every five games.
For the better part of the first three years of his career at Illinois, Rich has been nagged by chronic foot problems that has slowed him down at times. Luckily for Illinois and Rich, last season he seemed to be least affected by his foot problems. When his feet were bothering him, Rich would look like he was just in pain running up and down the court. This pain slowed Rich down on both sides of the court, but it was especially noticeable on defense. He was not effected as much on offense because in his freshman and sophomore seasons combined he only took thirty-seven shots that were not from behind the three point line (compared with seventy-one last season).
On defense, the Rich’s play was almost night and day between his first two seasons and last year. In his first two seasons, Rich was not needed to be a defensive stopper, and he definitely wasn’t. The combination of his chronic foot problem, and what was a probable adjustment period to both the speed and the size of the game made Rich a defensive liability for the majority of his first two seasons in Champaign. Last year, Rich was no where near a defensive liability, and he was probably Illinois’ best defender from the guard position (an argument can be made that it was Chester Frazier, too).
When Rich McBride and Brian Randle came to Illinois, the apparent plan was that they would be the players to continue to build on the foundation that was laid before them by Kiwane Garris, Frank Williams, Cory Bradford, Luther Head, Deron Williams, and Dee Brown. Neither player were able to make an immediate impact on the team like they would have hoped, but especially Rich. Last season, Rich showed what impact he could have on both sides of the court, but he still deferred to Dee Brown. This year will be Rich’s final year in the orange and blue, and there will be no Dee Brown, so it is time for Rich McBride to assert himself and show why he was a player Illinois fans were talking about when he was still in Junior High.
For the first time since 1999, Illinois is coming into a basketball season without knowing who the starting point guard will be. While McBride is definitely not one would consider a point guard he does provide enough point guard skills that he can be used in a backup situation if the other point guards (Trent Meacham and Chester Frazier) are struggling or are in foul trouble. It would not be an ideal situation to have Rich at the point with Jamar Smith at the shooting guard, but Rich can be a serviceable point guard for small stretches. When he has the ball, he controls it extremely well, limiting turnovers, but he is not adept at setting up his teammates for baskets.
How will Rich McBride Handle the New Pressure of Being the Illini’s go to Backcourt Scorer?
Any one that followed high school basketball in Illinois had already heard of Rich McBride, and they probably remember the three point barrage he went on in the 2002 IHSA State Championship game in Springfield Lanphier’s loss to Westinghouse. When Rich got to Champaign, it was different for him, though, and he had to accept a role as Illinois’ outside sharpshooter, and it actually was not very successful. Last season, Rich was given more offensive freedom. He drove the ball more (though not enough), he pump faked more, and he had his best offensive season as an Illini. This season, Bruce Weber is going to need even more from his senior shooting guard, but can Rich deliver?
Unlike in high school, Rich is no longer quicker and stronger than almost every player he is lining up against, and that has hurt his offense throughout his college career. Last year, Illinois fans saw Rich doing more than spotting up from behind the three point arc, but his offense was still severely limited to jump shots. While Illinois’ offense was perimeter oriented by design, Rich took it to an extreme. Rich went to the free throw line less than once a game (only twenty-five times all year), and this was for a team that had the lead at the end of the game more often than not. That number is astoundingly low, and it is something that needs to increase significantly if Rich is going to be able to carry a large portion of the offensive load for the Fighting Illini this season.
The good news for Illini fans is that in his college career, as he has been used more, Rich has been more successful on the court. In his freshman season, Rich had the great game against Memphis in Assembly Hall when Deron Williams was on the sidelines after breaking his jaw, reminding every one what he was capable of. Once Williams came back in the lineup, Rich’s time shrunk and shrunk until he was barely visible at the end of the season. Rich’s sophomore year saw him playing the third guard role, and not really getting many touches. His offensive game struggled as well, to the point where after Illinois’ Big Ten Tournament victory, Bruce Weber quipped that he was happy Rich finally hit a shot in the Illini’s post-game celebration / interview with CBS.
Last year, Rich was much more of a vital cog in the Illini offensive machine, and his overall offensive game improved dramatically. This year, he will be even more important to the Fighting Illini offense, so hopefully his offensive game continues to improve as he gets more and more touches, as it did throughout last season.
The key question is how is Rich going to handle getting the opposing team’s best perimeter defender night in and night out. Last year, opponents normally would put their best perimeter defensive player on Dee Brown, and guard Rich with the next best defender. Playing against this defender is definitely much easier, especially in Big Ten Conference play. This will take a slight adjustment period for McBride, but that adjustment period should occur when Illinois is playing its non-conference schedule, specifically in the games against teams like Xavier, Missouri, and Arizona.
The key question about Rich’s offensive game that remains is, “How will he get his shots?” In the previous three seasons he had Dee Brown and Deron Williams as point guards setting him up for outside shots (which he took quite a bit of). But this year, Illinois’ point guard is going to be no where near the quality of Brown and Williams, and Rich will be looked at to create his own shots more often than in the past. Can Rich McBride take Big Ten defenders into the middle and create his own shot? If the answer to that question is yes, Illinois might have found a very big answer to the question, “Who the heck is going to score for this team?” If the answer to that question is “No”, and Rich is still primarily a jump shooter, Illinois’ offense will suffer.
The 2006-2007 season provides Rich an opportunity to remind Illinois fans why they knew of him before he even enrolled at Springfield Lanphier. Rich is not one to step down from a challenge, and this year he will be out to prove to fans that his name can come off their lips as easy as Kiwane Garris, Frank Williams, Cory Bradford, Deron Williams, Luther Head, and Dee Brown.
PER MINUTE STATISTICS
||Offense off the dribble
||Athleticism / First Step
||Confidence in himself
* %3PS is the percent of shots from the floor that were from behind the three-point line.