After a rough 2007–2008 season that saw the Illini finish under .500 for the first time since 1999, it may appear to some disgruntled fans that coach Weber, only three years removed from the national championship runner-up, is taking the program down the wrong road. Some have argued that he is not up to the job of maintaining a Top 25 program and/or that he can’t bring in the talent.
In the midst of the past season, while the losses mounted and hope for any post-season play dwindled, something significant happened off the court that points to a much better future for Illini basketball. Recruits started verbally committing en masse. Within a matter of just days, Weber got commitments from three of the top junior guards in the state, Joe Bertrand from Sterling, DJ Richardson from Peoria and Brandon Paul of Warren.
Within the next few weeks, Weber also got commitments from Stan Simpson, a senior forward from Simeon High, junior Tyler Griffey of suburban St. Louis, and sophomore Crandell Head from Rich Central. The name Head might ring a bell as Crandell is the little brother of former Illini and Houston Rocket Luther Head and is one of the top ranked guards in his class in the country.
These recruits are in addition to the verbal commitment from Jereme Richmond over a year earlier, when Richmond was a highly regarded freshman, yes, a high school freshman. At the time of his commitment, he had only played in a single game as a high schooler, but was billed as one of the top 10 players in his class.
The commitment of young Richmond was an early sign that Weber’s recruiting was taking a turn for the better and that he was evolving his recruiting methods. It was also a sign of things to come as other younger players started to commit earlier.
Just before last season started, another piece of the recruiting puzzle came into place as Weber hired former player Jerrence Howard to replace Tracy Webster as an assistant and lead recruiter. Webster had left to join Bill Gillespie’s staff at Kentucky and Howard, who was already on Gillespie’s staff at Texas A&M and then at UK, came back to his alma mater.
Howard’s hiring was seen as a questionable move by Weber, as Howard, still in his twenties, lacked experience as an assistant and recruiter. It’s quite likely no coincidence that within a couple months of Howard’s hiring the verbal commitments started rolling in, starting off with Richardson, who plays at Howard’s old high school, Peoria Central. Howard was also key in the transfer of Alex Legion from UK, as they knew each other while in Lexington.
So any Illini fans out there hanging their heads over this past season should take note of these future Illini. In the class of ‘09, three of those four commits rank in the top 100 according to Scout, and the lone exception (Bertrand) has a solid chance of joining the other three in the top 100. In the class of ‘10 it gets even better, as Richmond and Head rank 7th and 12th in the nation respectively. Weber has not indicated that he is finished with that class yet either.
That is arguably as good as any two consecutive recruiting classes the Illini have ever had. Of course, it is only based on numbers at this point and the results on the court are what really matter. Nonetheless, the future is looking very bright for Illini basketball. Weber’s first few seasons might have been a wild up and down roller coaster ride, but expect this wild ride to turn into a a very steady one, as Weber is just getting to the point where this program has his brand firmly planted on it. It may not be as soon as everyone wanted, of course, but often times there are the inevitable bumps in the road for a college coach and his program.
One name that comes to mind: Eric Gordon.
If any of the Illini head hangers want to feel a little better just take a look eastwards over towards Bloomington, IN. You might still see the smoke billowing up from what was the Indiana program. You can thank the heavens that the university didn’t bring in a coach like Kelvin Sampson, despite his shady past, just to get a quick fix. Sampson was golden in the eyes of many over in Hoosierland because he had a relationship with Gordon even before he was at IU. Golden enough that they were willing to look past his previous run-ins with the long arm of the NCAA in the hope that he could persuade the wunderkind Gordon to renege on his commitment to the Illini.
In the end, as well know, it proved to be a terrible hire for Indiana and the program is going to pay a hefty price. Scholarship players are fleeing IU right and left. It was last reported that they will have just one returning scholarship player, and only 30 points and 54 rebounds from last year. Those numbers aren’t per game, that’s for the entire season, and the NCAA hasn’t even put the hammer down yet. It could take many years for IU to recover from its quick fix attempt.
In the meantime Weber and the Illini are going to be doing just fine, just fine indeed.