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Weber responds to Oklahoma reports

March 31, 2011 1 comment

Illinois coach Bruce Weber responded to reports that Oklahoma had reached out to him to fill the Sooners’ vacated position by releasing a statement reaffirming that he is “commitmed” to the Illini program.

“I received a few interest calls regarding other positions, but nothing beyond that,” Weber said in the statement. “I remain committed to the University of Illinois. We held our first spring workouts yesterday. I enjoyed being in the gym with our returning players and look forward to welcoming a talented recruiting class to the mix. I am fortunate to have one of the elite jobs in all of college basketball and am excited about the opportunities that lie ahead for our program. We will work tirelessly to ensure that Illinois is competing at a championship level both in the Big Ten and nationally.”

Categories: Illinois basketball

Spring practice Day 2: Illini green, thin at linebacker

A bowl win hasn’t cured all of the Illini football team’s ails this spring.

“My head’s pounding about the same as always,” Illinois defensive coordinator VIC KOENNING said Thursday.

The linebacker position might give Koenning the most headaches as he and the Illini coaches search for capable replacements for 2010 starters MARTEZ WILSON, anAll-Big Ten first team selection, and NATE BUSSEY, who was at his collegiate team’s practice Thursday as he continues to work out in Champaign in preparation for the NFL Draft.

Senior IAN THOMAS moves back to the inside after playing on the weakside last year and seems entrenched as a starter, but the Illini have little experience elsewhere.

Sophomore Jonathan Brown had promising moments as a freshman and has the inside track to the weakside starting spot, while junior ASHANTE WILLIAMS has a head start on filling Bussey’s spot on the strongside.

“Ashante got a whole lot of reps last year,” Koenning said. “I think he’s got a lot of potential. Athletically he’s probably a guy that can do more things than Bussey. He’s a different type of player.”

Sophomore Brandon Denmark moved to the inside, and redshirt freshman Houston Bates will provide depth. But Koenning said the young players will have to walk before they run.

“Obviously, we have a long way to go,” defensive coordinator VIC KOENNING said. “We got to get better. There’s a lot of fundamental things we have to improve upon.

“At the linebacker position you can hurt yourself so badly by using poor footwork. We have major concentration on just stance and start, just doing our footwork right. Especially when you’re in shorts and shells, you can’t really practice too much shedding and all that stuff but you sure can practice stance and starts and not get yourself out of position on the first step so it makes it harder to get to the ball.”

Keonning said the Illini will have to rely on true freshmen next year to add depth.

 

Day 2 Notes

The Illini practiced outdoors on the East Practice Fields on Thursday after spending Tuesday inside Irwin Indoor Practice Facility. The temperature hovered around 32 degrees when practice started at 8 a.m., but most of the players wore shorts and long-sleeve T-shirts under their shoulder pads. Even offensive coordinator PAUL PETRINO wore shorts in the freezing weather, though the sun peaked out to heat up the field at the conclusion of practice at about 10 a.m. The Illini’s next practice will be Saturday from 2-4:30 p.m.

Overall, Illinois coach RON ZOOK was pleased with his team’s second session. “We competed,” Zook said. “It’s like night and day compared to last year because we’re building on a system.”

Expect the Illini practice – which like all of spring practices is open to the public – to be in the elements, either on the East Practice Fields or inside Memorial Stadium, as the forecast calls for an afternoon high of 52 degrees.

 

*****

Wide receiver ANTHONY WILLIAMS, a 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman, practice on Thursday after sitting out Thursday for academic issues. Williams bolsters the Illini’s thin spring receiving core, as senior A.J. JENKINS (wrist) and sophomore Darius Millines (foot) are sidelined due to injury.

 

*****

A few players got into a very short tussle during Tuesday’s practice, but no such incidents happened today. Most of the players seemed to bring energy. But Petrino was the loudest during Thursday’s positional drills and new defensive backs coach MIKE GILLHAMER also ran around the field during 7-on-7 drills.

 

Categories: Uncategorized

Zook: Stability will help Illini football maintain momentum

CHAMPAIGN – A bowl victory hasn’t slowed down Illinois coach Ron Zook’s word-a-millisecond delivery, but the coach certainly had a calm about him following the Illini’s first spring practice.

“I was worried about taking a snap the first day last year,” Zook said. “Those are things you don’t have to worry about (now).”

For the first time since 2000, Illinois started spring practice coming off a bowl victory, a 38-14 rout of Baylor in the Texas Bowl. And for the first time since an unlikely appearance in the 2008 Rose Bowl, Zook doesn’t appear on the hot seat.

There’s only one new face on Zook’s staff – secondary coach Mike Gillhamer fills the position vacated by former linebackers coach Dan Disch – following an almost complete staff overhaul a year ago.

Zook used the word stability several times to describe his team – which would have received sarcastic chuckles the last few years – during Tuesday’s press conference, adding that less turnover should help the Illini maintain momentum off the Texas Bowl win.

“The coaches know the players, the players know the coaches,” Zook said. “When you’re in a situation like that, you know the things the players can do well, do best.

“I think because of the stability, it allows you to expand on the things you’ve done well and either fix or get away from the things that maybe didn’t go quite as well.”

With coordinators Paul Petrino – who received a $50,000 raise to up his salary to $525,000 this year after leading a record-setting offense last season – and Vic Koenning helping the playcalling, Zook finally might have the right mix.

But after following a 9-4 season in 2007 with a 5-7, bowl-less 2008 season, Zook needs to see more progress to believe it.

“Our team understands that it’s going to be very important that we build on where we finished,” Zook said. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t improve in all three phases: offensively, defensively and special teams.”

 

Day 1 Notes:

–         The Illini switched to morning practices – Tuesday’s session started at 7 a.m. and Thursday’s will start at 8 a.m. – this spring, a trend that may continue into the fall. Zook said more coaches across the nation are switching to morning practice, adding that some coaches believe it helps academics. Most college students might not like the early wake-up call, but Zook said some players like having their afternoons free of football. “We’re not starting that early, Zook said,

–         CRAIG WILSON, an offensive lineman last season as a junior, moved across the line of scrimmage and will play defensive tackle in his final year of eligibility. Zook said he wanted to move the 6-foot-5, 320-pound Harvey native to defense last year but was “talked out of it by the offensive guys.” Zook likes Wilson’s NFL size and said the senior will play a significant role in the defensive line rotation in the fall.

–         Zook said the main focus of the offense this spring is to improve the passing game. Sophomore quarterback NATHAN SCHEELHAASE improved as the season progressed during his first year as a starter, completing 59 percent of his passes for 1,044 yards, 13 touchdowns and just one interception over the last seven games. Zook wants to see his receivers turn short completions into long after-the-catch gains, a la the New England Patriots.

–         Scheelhaase will be without leading receiver A.J. JENKINS (cracked wrist) and high-ceiling sophomore DARIUS MILLINES (stress fracture in foot) for the spring, allowing sophomores SPENCER HARRIS and RYAN LANKFORD to play even bigger roles in the offense. Senior FRED SYKES and redshirt freshmen FRITZ ROCK and ANTHONY WILLIAMS (who missed Tuesday’s practice due to academic issues, Zook said) also will compete for playing time in the rotation.

–         A few more Illini were on the sidelines on Tuesday. Safety SUPO SANNI, recovering from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon last season, went through individual workouts but sat during team drills. Fullback ZACH BECKER, recovering from a foot injury, worked on a bike, while safety STEVE HULL spent his morning on the StairMaster. Hull sprained an ankle playing a pickup basketball game during spring break, “which he was told not to do,” Zook said.

 

Categories: Illinois football

Richmond back at Illinois, but still has work to do

CHAMPAIGN – Bruce Weber calmed Illinois basketball fans’ nerves with just three words.

“Jereme is back,” Weber said.

At least for the short term.

Freshman Jereme Richmond returned to the University of Illinois campus, along with most students following  a week off for spring break. Richmond, who was benched for the Illini’s two NCAA Tournament games for what Weber called a violation of athletic department rules, went through workouts with the team on Monday and – like all of his returning teammates – met with the Illini coaches.

Weber avoided giving a definitive answer on Richmond’s long-term status at Illinois, however.

“I mean, he’s here right now,” Weber said. “He’s part of the program. If he makes the progress he’s supposed to, then he’ll be there (next year).”

Richmond had the typical ups and downs of his freshmen season, but most of his setbacks came off the court.

Just as he seemed to get over the freshman hump, the Waukegan product was suspended for Jan. 15 road game at Wisconsin after missing practice for personal reasons. Richmond returned with a flurry, averaging 14 points and nine rebounds over the next four games. He earned Big Ten All-Freshman Team honors after averaging 7.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists.

But then came the NCAA Tournament benching, following a reported altercation with teammates in the locker room after a Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal loss to Michigan.

“He’s kind of like our team,” Weber said. “He had some shining moments and really showed well and showed like the kid can be special. But he also has to mature, grow up, be more consistent in all areas of his life.”

With four seniors graduating – including the top three leading scorers – Illinois was counting on Richmond to play a key, and possibly starring, role during the 2011-12 season.

The McDonald’s All-American displayed a natural leadership ability at times during his freshman season. But the fiery Richmond may have some kissing up to do after letting his teammates down when they needed him most.

“The one thing we need is leadership, where someone is demanding,” Weber said. “But if you’re going to be demanding then you got to be demanding of yourself.

“As long as he takes care of business, he should be fine.”

Tip-ins: Weber said the entire freshmen class should be on campus by June. The Illini currently have a four-man signing class – Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Mychael Henry and Mike Shaw – but also have a verbal commitment from Huntsville (Ala.) Lee wing Devin Langford, who can sign when the spring signing period begins on April 13 … Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco, a redshirt senior, can sign a scholarship letter when he enrolls at Illinois in June … The Illini likely will play on a tour in Italy in August, Weber said. All freshmen would be eligible to play on the trip, thanks to a change to NCAA rules.

Weber addressed several other players that will play key roles next season:

D.J. Richardson: “We need someone to be the pied piper, to be the leader, to get guys in the gym, to take their games to another level. (Richardson) is a guy that I think everyone likes him. He’s got that personality. He’s fun-loving. He’d be the guy that can really do those type of things in the offseason.”

Crandall Head: “I’m not sure what position he is yet, but he can just be a great energy guy, a passion guy. …The kids like him. They like how hard he plays. You guys (media) have talked about it, he’s got to get his shot better. He’s got to take care of the ball better, but I loved his quickness, his energy and how he pushed the ball. And athletically, he can do some things.”

Brandon Paul: “Brandon’s just got to push his game to a whole ’nother (level). He’s got to do what he does in 10-12 minutes for 30 minutes. You look at the Vegas game (the NCAA Tournament win over UNLV) what he did in the first half is a great example of how good  he could be but also how he doesn’t take it over to the second half. …He can be that explosive and talented, but he just has trouble pushing it and doing it again.”

Meyers Leonard: “I hope he wants it. I hope he pushes himself. Strength is a factor. Intensity. Just figuring out how to be a big man, I think, is probably his biggest thing.”

Joseph Bertrand: “He showed some glimmers, like he was making some progress. He is a (redshirt) freshman. He has the athleticism. I think he’s got to find a niche in our system, and maybe we’ve got to help him find a niche. What can he be? Can he be the athlete and get out? … That’s one thing he can do is get out in transition and make a basket, but in the halfcourt offense he’s got to find a niche.”

Categories: Illinois basketball

Four questions heading into Illini football spring practice

Illinois coaches Ron Zook and Bruce Weber both will hold press conferences on Tuesday. For maybe the first time in his six-year tenure at Illinois, the football coach may field less pointed queries than his basketball counterpart.

But after losing three All-Big Ten players that are expected to be taken in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft – defensive tackle Corey Liuget, running back Mikel Leshoure and linebacker Martez Wilson – Zook’s Illini still have plenty of questions to be answered during spring practice, which starts Tuesday at 7 a.m.

1. Will the Illini maintain momentum of the Texas Bowl win?

For the first time since 2000, the Illini head into the spring fresh off a bowl win, a 38-14 victory over Baylor in the Texas Bowl. Optimism abounds for a program seemingly surrounded with perennial cyniscm. But that was the story after the 2001 Big Ten championship season and subsequent Sugar Bowl bid (a 47-34 loss to LSU) as well as a surprise appearance in the 2008 Rose Bowl (a 49-17 loss to USC). Can the Illini finally break the streak and post back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1989-90? The odds seem in the Illini’s favor given the schedule (eight home games) and a seemingly more open Big Ten race given Ohio State’s suspensions. But we had similar thoughts in 2002 and 2008.

2. Will the offense take the next step in Year 2 of Paul Petrino?

It’s no wonder why Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino received a $50,000 raise – he will make $525,000 next year – following his first season in Champaign. His accomplishments were extraordinary:

–         The Illini set the school record for most points in a season (423) and tied a school record by averaging 32.5 points per game

–         Running back Mikel Leshoure rushed for a school record 1,697 yards

–         Redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase set a school record for rushing yards in a season by a quarterback with 815

Leshoure will not be easy to replace, though Jason Ford is plenty capable and proven and Scheelhaase should ease the rushing burden on the backs. But the Illini offense seems posed for another big year. Three starters return to the offensive line – which looks like the strength of the entire Illini team – in addition to former starting tackle Corey Lewis, who sat out 2010 with a knee injury. Scheelhaase appears to play the part of quarterback/leader but led a passing attack that ranked 10th in the Big Ten. He must avoid the freshman-like, bad games (three interceptions in losses to Missouri and Michigan State). He never will have the strongest arm, but he has the benefit of returning leading receiver A.J. Jenkins to mix with developing, high-ceiling weapons, like sophomores Evan Wilson, Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford.

 

3. Who steps up in the front seven?

The Illini return just three starters in the front seven: bandit Michael Buchanan, defensive tackle Akeem Spence and linebacker Martez Wilson. Jonathan Brown is the only returning linebacker with significant experience, while backup defensive linemen Glenn Foster, Wisdom Onyegbule, Tim Kynard and Darryle Ballew (the foursome combined for 14 tackles last year) must take on bigger roles to fill the holes. Wilson will be missed, but Liuget – possibly a top-20 pick in the NFL Draft – is the tougher spot to fill. Spence, a freshman All-American, could follow in Liuget’s footsteps in a few years, and the Illini might need that for the defense to look more like its early-season self (allowed 124 points over the first eight games) than the late-season collapse (155 points over the last four regular season games).

4. Can the Illini secondary be the strength of the defense?

The front seven may have questions, but the back four starters could be set. Three starters return – safeties Trulon Henry and Tavon Wilson (he could return to cornerback) and cornerback Justin Green – and possibly the team’s best athlete (junior Terry Hawthorne) likely will fill the other spot after having time to return from nagging injuries. The group improved from the 100th-ranked passing defense in 2009 to the 61st last season and helped the team go from an NCAA-worst five interceptions in 2009 to 11 interceptions last season. With four players capable of playing at the next level, the group has the talent to make the jump from average to special.

 

Jeremy Werner is co-host of the “Tay and J Show,” which airs on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM and on www.myconnectfm.com. Post your comments below or e-mail Jeremy at jeremy@myconnectfm.com.

 

Categories: Illinois football

Self’s Jayhawks overpower Weber’s Illini: Now what?

This time, Illini fans, you can’t question heart. This time, you can’t question toughness.

But you can question talent and execution.

An Illinois team known for whimpering away from fights gave its all during a 73-59 third round NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas on Sunday, but that wasn’t enough to beat the top-seeded Jayhawks.

Former UI coach Bill Self has constructed a juggernaut in Lawrence, advancing to his fourth Sweet 16 in five seasons. Illinois’ Bruce Weber departs the tournament with his first NCAA win (73-62 over UNLV on Friday) with a roster full of players he recruited, but a double-digit loss to his predecessor won’t silence the fans still yearning for the Self-built program.

Mike Davis (17 points, seven rebounds) and Mike Tisdale (13 points, 11 rebounds) were solid for ninth-seeded Illinois, but the Twins Morris (Markieff and Marcus) rammed through and leapt over Illini’s skinny posts for a combined 41 points and 24 rebounds.

Illinois (20-14) needed its one special player to be special to pull off the upset, and Kansas (34-2) knew it. The Jayhawks’ aggressive defense on Demetri McCamey frustrated and gassed the Illini point guard, who was held in single digits (six points on 2-for-9 shooting) for the first time since Purdue held him to four points on Feb. 13.

The Illini trailed for the final 38:34 but made it interesting, whittling the KU lead to four with 11:33 remaining and to five at the 6:44 mark.

Dreams ensued of the Illini getting through to the Sweet Sixteen as the highest seed remaining in the Southwest Regional – No. 12 Richmond, No. 11 VCU and No. 10 Virginia Tech advanced – but quickly faded during the last six-and-a-half minutes as the long jumpers from the Illini (38 percent shooting) continued to clank and the Jayhawks (52 percent) slammed the ball through the cylinder with three straight dunks during a 10-0 run.

The faster, stronger, more self-assured team won.

The Illini seniors – Bill Cole, Davis, McCamey and Tisdale – depart with a tournament win and pride knowing they gave it all in Tulsa, not always a given for the recruiting class of 2007.

But the questioning has just begun for Weber. Without the graduating foursome, his program enters the great unknown – a picture made murkier with the Tournament suspension of Big Ten All-Freshmen honoree Jereme Richmond for violation of team rules.

Entering his ninth season at Illinois, Weber might face his toughest task. He must replace four starters who account for 59 percent of his scoring including his top three scorers, find a leader with no returning seniors on the roster (Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco will join the team this summer) and count on significant contributions from seldom-used underclassmen and four incoming freshmen.

Does he have the talent – three straight top-25 recruiting classes suggests he does – and can he mold that talent to execute his gameplan? All good questions to ponder until October.

Categories: Illinois basketball

Sense of urgency leads Illini to first NCAA Tournament win post-Dee

Call them late bloomers.

But the Illini finally seemed to learn from a year of missed opportunities and late collapses, showing an unforeseen sense of urgency at the most urgent hour of the season.

“I remember (senior center Mike) Tisdale in the huddle every TV timeout he said, ‘Keep your foot on the pedal. Keep your foot on the pedal,’” Mike Davis said after the ninth-seeded Illini’s 73-62 second round NCAA Tournament win over eighth-seeded UNLV at the BOK Center in Tulsa. “So, that’s what we did.”

Bruce Weber’s already salt-and-pepper mane may have more salt after the 2010-11 escapades, but he couldn’t have asked for a better Friday night in Tulsa.

“We played like we expected to all season,” Weber said.

The final score doesn’t do justice of the ninth-seeded Illini’s dominance of UNLV (24-9) in the second round of the Southwest Regional.

The Illini (20-13) defense set the tone, packing the lane and daring the Rebels to shoot. UNLV obliged, missing eight straight from beyond the arc as the Illini’s run-and-gun tempo built a 22-point halftime lead. The Illini finished with 18 fastbreak points.

The four seniors avoided the reputation as the class to leave Illinois with no tournament wins, combining for 47 points. Demetri McCamey looked like the December, possible All-America version. He looked like the NBA player on a college court, shredding the Rebels defense for 17 points and seven assists. The once-inconsistent Mike Davis continued his two-month A-game with 22 points, nine rebounds and five assists.

“We were fighting for our lives. We knew if we lost this game it was the last one for the seniors and the last one in an Illini uniform for the seniors,” McCamey said. “We didn’t want that to happen.”

The sophomore guards handled the Rebels’ pressure defense. One (Brandon Paul) was active everywhere with eight points, four assists and a career-high eight rebounds, while the other (D.J. Richardson) had his best performance in a month, shooting a perfect 4-for-4 including two threes to maintain Illini’s lead late.

Even freshmen Crandall Head and Meyers Leonard contributed four points. The only cog missing was Big Ten All-Freshmen Team honoree Jereme Richmond, who was benched for a “violation of athletic department, team rules,” according to Weber. The Illini coach said the team will “talk about” Richmond’s status for Sunday’s third-round game with No. 1 seed Kansas.

But what would have been a major storyline with a loss became notebook material following the Illini’s first NCAA Tournament post-Dee Brown.

“I think the fans bring it up, talk about it then you guys talk about it,” Weber said of Illinois winning its first NCAA game in 1,828 days. “It meant something to our kids, our seniors. Now, I hope they want more.”

Categories: Illinois basketball