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Illinois AD search leaves Weber ‘in a state of limbo’

All remains quiet on the Illinois athletic director search. And Illini fans aren’t the only ones still wondering when they’ll find out who will sit in the decision-making chair at Bielfeldt Athletic Administration Building when the fall semester begins.

“You just kind of wonder,” Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber said Tuesday. “You’re left in a state of limbo.

“You hope something’s in place when school comes around because you have to have good leadership from the top.”

Ron Guenther’s final day (June 30) passed with little fanfare, and athletic department mainstay Terry Cole took the temporary torch as interim AD – at least until Aug. 15, when he is scheduled to retire.

The athletic director search committee has whittled through candidates since May and hired an independent search firm to aid in the process. But the vacant chancellor position has taken priority at the university and the process has dragged into the dog days of summer, though Loren Tate of The News-Gazette reports that the university is interviewing the final chancellor candidates.

The prolonged AD search process has left Weber with more time to worry about his job status, though most of his time and attention has been occupied by the July recruiting period and this week’s continuation of practices prior to the Illini’s trip to Italy next month.

But the pressure is on Weber after another mediocre Big Ten finish last season. Though the level of pressure could raise or drop when Illinois finally announces a hire.

“Depends who it is. Depends if I know him or not,” Weber said. “We’re excited about our season. I think over the next two years, we have the potential to be very good. You got to win. That’s part of basketball. I understand that. If you got a new person in, you got to prove yourself every season. You got to make a good impression on the new boss.”

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Team USA experience inflates Meyers Leonard’s confidence, ‘maturity’

More than a month before he was scheduled to step on the jet for Latvia, Meyers Leonard was second-guessing himself. The world was about to become even bigger for the 7-footer from the 7,000-person town of Robinson, Ill., and whether it was the thought of not talking to his widowed mother for two weeks or the thought of playing against the world’s best, Leonard told Illinois coach Bruce Weber he wasn’t quite ready for the U19 FIBA World Championships.

“That’s when I realized, it kind of clicked to me that I have to be good in order for us to be good next year,” Leonard said.

Leonard, an Illini sophomore, didn’t set the Worlds on fire, averaging 6.9 points and 5.2 rebounds. Neither did the Americans, taking fifth place after losing consecutive games to Croatia and Russia. But individually Leonard made the small leap many were hoping for during the final three games when he averaged 11.7 points and 6.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks.

“It was a big confidence boost, I have to be very honest,” said Leonard, who averaged 2.1 points as a freshman. “That was nice. To know that I’m up there, I just got to be relaxed but also be aggressive and just try to use my talents to the fullest.”

Leonard was put to the test against some of Europe’s best big men.

“Overseas, everyone has this misconception that they’re really soft,” Leonard said. “That’s not true at all. It’s almost like the Big Ten. It’s a battle every game.”

Jonas Valanciunas, the fifth overall selection in June’s NBA Draft and the tournament MVP, provided the biggest test.

“I would say we’re pretty even as far as strength goes,” Leonard said. “It was nice to play against him, see his talents and recognize that hopefully I have the same ability, do what he’s doing, get drafted. But most importantly, bring that physicality back here and make a name on this university.”

Leonard, a consensus top-30 recruit, came to Champaign with plenty of fanfare but played a limited role last season, partly a product of slower-than-predicted progress as he sat behind senior Mike Tisdale. Leonard had more fouls (50) than rebounds (41) in his 272 minutes on the floor. But with four starters, including Tisdale, to replace, Illinois needs Leonard – predicted by some experts as a potential first-round draft pick next year – to take a leap as high as his freakish vertical.

Part of that is physical: improving his offensive skillset around the basket and limiting his fouls. The other part is mental. Leonard calls it “maturity,” though he had a difficult time explaining it.

“On the court, off the court, everything,” said Leonard, who said he increased his strength and conditioning workouts during the summer. “Sleep, eating, not staying up late, extra workouts and just being focused when I’m in the gym. Stuff on the court now, it’s all about business. Last year sometimes, I’d be frustrated or I’d be tired or I wouldn’t know what my position on the team was. Now, I feel like I have a lot more confidence. Hopefully it’ll really show this year.”

When he met the media Wednesday, two days after arriving stateside, Leonard threw on his serious face – random seen from the fun-loving, small-town kid who has been on a wild ride since committing to Illinois in July 2008 During his media session, he passed up an opportunity to talk about European women and didn’t blame Team USA’s loss on the absence of some of the top sophomores in the country, including Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes.

Besides some talk of the less-than-pleasing Latvian cuisine, it was all about basketball for Leonard. Unlike his trip to eastern Europe, the 7-footer said he’s prepared to take the spotlight as a sophomore.

But he knows that’s just talk for now.

“Obviously, people here (in Champaign-Urbana) are very into basketball. There’s no doubt about it,” Leonard said. “They want to see it. They haven’t been able to yet. Maybe if someone would’ve watched me those last three games, they would realize that they think I’ve come a long way.”

Kiwane Garris: Not having jersey in Assembly Hall rafters ‘like a smack in the face’

Despite a lasting love and appreciation for his alma mater, Kiwane Garris has a small beef with Illinois.

The No. 2 all-time leading scorer in Illini basketball history still can’t believe his jersey is not among the 30 hanging from the Assembly Hall rafters.

“They felt that those were the best ones,” Garris said Tuesday on The Tay and J Show on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM. “I’m going to be truthful, I don’t agree because some of the things I’d done there. Sometimes you feel like when them jerseys are lifted and those names are called, and when you hear, ‘Kiwane Garris is like one of the best players in Illinois history’ and you don’t have his jersey up, it’s almost like a smack in the face. My wife, I think she wanted to kill whoever was on the committee. I told her, ‘Sometimes this happens.’”

Listen to the full interview here.

The 30 players who received banners met one of at least six criteria: national player of the year, member of the National Basketball Hall of Fame, U.S. Olympian, Big Ten Player of the Year, first- or second-team All-American or Illinois All-Century Team member.

Kind of a mixed bag of criteria, no?

Well, call the National Basketball Hall of Fame credential the Jerry Colangelo rule and the U.S. Olympian benchmark as the Deron Williams clause. The All-Century team status allowed Illini greats like Deon Thomas, Kenny Battle, Eddie Johnson and Nick Weatherspoon to raise banners.

But Garris met none of the criterion, despite scoring 1,948 points at Illinois and ranking fifth in the UI record books for assists (502). As a senior, he also received honorable mention All-America and first-team All-Big Ten honors. Playing in an unremarkable era of Illinois basketball – the Illini won just one NCAA Tournament game during Garris’ tenure from 1993 to 1997 – probably didn’t help his case.

Some basketball programs aren’t as inclusive as Illinois when hanging jerseys in the rafters. But each time Garris – who still travels to Champaign for a few games each year and may play in the Aug. 6 alumni game at the Assembly Hall – looks through the rafters, he doesn’t quite understand why his name and jersey are not waving among the other Illini greats.

“I’m still waiting,” said Garris, who has played in Italy for nine years. “I’ll be around until they decide on putting that jersey up, putting that 22 up there with my name on it.”

Garris also hit on other topics during his interview:

On the hardest part of playing in Europe…

“Being alone. You’re over there by yourself most of the time. They give you four free plane tickets for family and friends but most of the time that isn’t enough because you usually want at least two or three people to visit for at least two to three weeks. I think the most part is trying to adjust to the coach or trying to adjust to the language and just being there by yourself. But if you love basketball, then most of that stuff with the love of the game, it overcomes all that difficulty going over there.”

On Lou Henson’s retirement and playing for Lon Kruger …

“I think the transition, it was hard because Coach (Henson) was there for my first three years. Just being under a legendary coach like that, it was an honor. The transition was kind of crazy because the team, we weren’t really expecting that to be his final year. When we found out who the coach was (Kruger), we really didn’t know what to expect. But Coach Kruger came in and did a great job with the team. For coaches, it’s hard coming in and coaching someone else’s team. He came in with a good approach. All of us guys bought into it and played it good.

“It was tough one because it was a whole thing about Coach (Jimmy) Collins not getting the job and everybody was kind of disappointed about that because he’d been around so long and he’d done a great recruiting job. He’s the one that brought me in, so that was kind of painful too at the same time that transition going.”

On the current state of the Illini program…

“Trying to get guys in there to fit the Fighting Illini name. It’s hard recruiting these days because there’s so much stuff going on. You feel like you have a good group of guys and it’s always probably one bad apple out of the bench that probably messes the chemistry up. …Looking at them, I know they can win. It’s all about going in there and playing 100 percent with these guys.”

Thoughts on Jereme Richmond: his uncle, his decisions and Jerrance Howard

Every family has the talker. The one that thinks his words rise to the top. The one that doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.

In Jereme Richmond’s living bloodline, that seems to be his uncle Crawford Richmond.

Crawford chose to be the mouthpiece of the Richmond clan when all others, including Jereme and his parents mounted a brick-wall defense with the media after the Illinois freshman went unselected in Thursday’s NBA Draft.

Speaking with Chicago Tribune reporter Chris Hine following the draft, Crawford Richmond – who played college basketball at Long Beach State – raised many eyebrows when he said his nephew is “way better” than No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving.

But that’s just a juicy nugget you’d expect to hear from a talented player’s family member.

Most of the hullabaloo surrounds Crawford Richmond’s accusation that Illinois assistant coach Jerrance Howard was one of the negative voices in his nephew’s ears. Crawford Richmond said Howard consistently told Jereme that he was a “one-and-done” prospect in order to keep him committed as a high-school prospect.

Crawford said similar comments from media, friends and agents made Jereme Richmond believe he was a sure-fire first-round pick, despite pleas from his family to return to school.

“I would never want to talk to Jerrance Howard again in my life,” Crawford Richmond said.

The Illinois staff obviously was not very happy about the stories. But Hine told me Monday evening that he gave both Howard and head coach Bruce Weber multiple phone calls to ask them for comment on what the uncle said. He also told them when the story would be published.

Howard did not return calls and Weber responded with a simple text message: “Very tough situation! Hope Jereme can still reach his goal and will help him anyway we can!”

Since joining the Illinois staff in 2007, Howard has been a recruiting wunderkind. He’s almost single-handedly reinvigorated Illinois’ recruiting efforts, helping Weber tap into Chicago and nab three straight top-25 recruiting classes.

Howard has received praise from local and national media alike, received interest from other programs and subsequently twice given raises from Illinois.

This is one of the first times Howard has received negative press for allegedly telling Richmond following the departure of Tracy Webster – Richmond’s lead recruiter as a high school underclassmen – from the Illini staff that he was a “one-and-done” prospect to keep the phenom from looking for greener pastures. Neither Howard nor Weber refuted Crawford Richmond’s claims.

If true, Howard did what he had to do to keep Illinois’ first McDonald’s All-American since Dee Brown, like most assistants across the country would. Is it right? That’s debatable, because it was entirely plausible for Richmond to play just one year at Illinois based on his talents. But for maybe the first time, Howard didn’t flash that trademark smile from something published in the media about him.

****

I didn’t put much thought into anything else Crawford Richmond said. But Bill Richmond, Jereme Richmond’s father, had some enlightening comments when he finally chose to speak to the Tribune following publication of his brother’s comments.

Bill Richmond confirmed that Jereme chose not to attend workouts but refused to say why. He also said that he advised his son to return to Illinois for his sophomore season.

He even went as far as saying his son “might have some sense of entitlement, based on being put in this position for so many years.”

And people say Bruce Weber is sometimes too truthful and throws his players under the bus. Bill Richmond’s comments may have been misguided if he was trying to help his son, but they sure seem truthful

Message boards, fans and even some media put out the vibe that Richmond– who committed toIllinoisafter his first high school games as a freshman – would be the savior of Illinois basketball and return the program to the Big Ten elite for the first time since a NCAA runner-up finish in 2005.

He was a top-30 national recruit, a McDonald’s All-American and Illinois Mr. Basketball as a senior. The 6-foot-7, highly skilled, athletic Waukegan product was the man, he was told. And he believed it.

Ignoring the rationale that a bench player (Richmond averaged 7.5 points and 5.0 rebounds) on a mediocre Big Ten team with character concerns (he was suspended for one regular season game and the Illini’s two NCAA Tournament games for undisclosed reasons) isn’t the most attractive commodity to the NBA, Richmond foolishly entered the NBA Draft.

Sadly, that cost him a promising collegiate career. Now, it may cost him the once seemingly foregone conclusion that he would play in the NBA. With the league headed toward a likely lockout, even the NBA Developmental League is questionable for next season, and Europe doesn’t seem like the best place for a 19-year-old with maturity concerns. Ask Jeremy Tyler.

****

Jereme Richmond remains quiet. He never was very charming in front of the cameras, microphones and voice recorders, but he seemed to embrace the limelight when the publicity was positive. But as he did during his separate suspensions at Illinois, Richmondhas again run from the media when things aren’t going so well.

Another mistake for Jereme: his silence opened the door for his uncle’s controversial comments.

“He’s been humbled by this process, believe me,” his father, Bill Richmond, said.

For Jereme’s sake, let’s hope so.

Alumni game good for fans, Weber and recruiting

An August basketball in the non-air-conditioned Assembly Hall doesn’t sound like a great idea. But add Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head, Kendall Gill, Brian Cook and a slew of other Illini greats to the billing, you have a crowd-magnet.

Illinois announced yesterday that it will host an alumni basketball game Aug. 6 at 6 p.m. at the Assembly Hall. Fans also will have the opportunity to watch the current Illini, including the six newcomers that already have joined the roster this summer, during an intrasquad scrimmage to precede the alumni game.

But like “A Night of Legends,” the key to scheduling this year’s game was landing NBA superstar Deron Williams. Now a member of the New Jersey Nets following a midseason trade from the Utah Jazz, Williams will hold two events on Aug. 6 – a golf outing in the morning at Stone Creek and a post-game reception on campus at the Activities andRecreationCenter– to fund-raise for his Point of Hope Foundation.

“Deron kind of spearheaded the thing,” Weber said. “Having the starpower that he brings to get him back, we just appreciate him staying involved. The opportunity to have the players back on campus, I know they appreciate it. The fans appreciate it.”

The game is not only fun for the fans, participants, coaches and media.  But the fact that Williams, a gold medalist withU.S.Olympic team, remains involved with the UI program – the Nets’ point guard remains close with former teammate Jerrance Howard – is a boon for Weber’s credibility and recruiting prowess.

Remember, most recruits were in grade school when Williams, Brown and Head led the Illini to the 2005 NCAA Championship game and were too young to remember when Frank Williams and Brian Cook raised Bill Self’s teams to the Big Ten elite.

If recruits didn’t know Williams as an Illini, they know him as a two-time All-Star and one of the top point guards in the world. And you can bet that a few of the top Illini recruiting targets will be in attendance for the alumni game to watch Brown, the face of the 2004-05 team; and longtime NBA players Cook, Gill and Head.

“To keep those guys in touch and part of the basketball family I think is so, so important,” Weber said.

Details:

Tickets for the game ($25 each for A section and $15 each for B and C sections) will be made available to IFUND members and season ticket holders before being made available to the public on July 11.

At halftime of the alumni game,Illinoiswill honor the teams from the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons that won back-to-back Big Ten championships.

Planned participants in the Aug. 6 alumni game include:

Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head, Kendall Gill, Brian Cook, Kiwane Garris, Frank Williams, Demetri McCamey, Cory Bradford, Kevin Turner, Jerry Hester, Robert Archibald, Sergio McClain, Brian Randle, Damir Krupalija, Trent Meacham, Mike Davis, Jarrod Gee, Lucas Johnson, Mike Tisdale, Chris Gandy, Jack Ingram, Marcus Griffin, Calvin Brock and Arias Davis, as well as current UI basketball staff members and former players Jerrance Howard, Sean Harrington and Chester Frazier.

Djimde admission ‘still a work in progress’

Six Illinois basketball newcomers were listed on the university directory on Monday, the first day of summer classes at Illinois: freshmen Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Mycheal Henry, Devin Langford, Mike Shaw and senior transfer Sam Maniscalco.

That leaves one missing from Illini coach Bruce Weber’s  Class of 2011 recruiting haul.

Spring signee Ibrahima Djimde still has not received clearance from the NCAA or the university to enroll for summer courses. It’s not an academic issue that’s keeping Djimde, a 6-foot-8 power forward from Africa, away. Rather the NCAA and UI must verify his foreign transcripts, a complicated procedure.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Weber said. “I said since probably after we signed him that it was probably going to be a bit more complicated than I anticipated. He’s probably close to getting all the stuff to the NCAA where you can have some kind of the decision by them and then also we’re kind of getting everything together at the University to see if he can get admission here.”

Weber said “there’s no doubt” Djimde will enroll in the fall, but the Illinois coach hopes the process can come to a close quickly so Djimde can enroll in shortened summer courses or online classes. If he does not complete three hours of courses this summer, he will not be eligible to participate or play in the Illini’s tour of Italy in August and likely would fall behind teammates in the competition for playing time.

 “If we can work it out in the next week or 10 days, it would be great to have him,” Weber said. “We’re hoping.”

Stephen Bardo: Illinois run “like the University of East Central Illinois”

Former Illinois basketball player Stephen Bardo said during a radio interview Wednesday that the university should hire an athletic director that prioritizes widening the influence of Illini athletics across the state.

Bardo, a member of the Flyin’ Illini 1989 Final Four team and a college basketball analyst for ESPN, said outgoing athletic director Ron Guenther “had a tremendous run” over his 19 years as athletic director but that the athletic department had a narrow scope during his tenure.

“This is no slight to Ron Guenther, but lately the program’s been run like the University of East Central Illinois,” Bardo said on the ‘Tay and J Show’ on 93.5/95.3 ConnectFM. “It’s the University of Illinois. It represents people in Cairo, Illinois; Freeport to Quincy on the west and Champaign and Danville on the east and everything in between. The brand got a little stale. I don’t think it was run quite like the flagship school of the state.

“I think Ron had his strengths, but I think one of the weaknesses is that our brand has gotten stale. I think we need to be more inclusive with who we get in the program and we need to have Chicago be prominent once again with Illinois. We’ve lost a little bit of luster in Chicago with our brand and the athletic department. Now, we need to re-focus on getting Chicago excited again about Illinois athletics.”

Big Ten and in-state foe Northwestern has prioritized Chicago in its marketing efforts with the Evanston school proclaiming itself “Chicago’s Big Ten school” despite sporting a significantly smaller alumni base in the Chicago metropolitan area than Illinois.

“(Northwestern athletic director) Jim Phillips, you can’t knock him,” said Bardo, who played at Illinois when Phillips was a team manager for then-coach Lou Henson. “That’s a coup for Jim Phillips to be able to pull that marketing off because he jumped at it first. Competition is good, and Illinois needs to step it up.”

Guenther will retire after his current contract expires on June 30. The university initially planned to hire a replacement by July 1, but university president Michael Hogan told The News-Gazette that the hiring could be pushed back a month to allow a newly-hired chancellor to have input on the decision.

Bardo said Phillips would be “an excellent choice” for Illinois because he “bleeds orange and blue.”

Asked half-jokingly if he’d entertain becoming the next Illinois athletic director, Bardo gave a seemingly serious response.

“If they offered the job, I’d definitely listen,” Bardo said. “Anyone that loves the university and has as much passion for it as I do, they would listen to it. I would definitely listen, and I have my own ideas about what needs to be done.”

Listen to the entire interview with Bardo here.

Follow Jeremy Werner on Twitter @WernerConnectFM.