It’s easy to blame this year’s Illinois team for the state of the program. The current players are the ones wearing the uniforms and representing the school each time they step foot onto the floor.
But all of the frustration with Illinois coach Bruce Weber and the program shouldn’t rest on this group. That’s not fair.
What this squad has or hasn’t accomplished shouldn’t be surprising. The question marks surrounding this team exceeded the answers leading up to the season.
A whole lot had to go right for this team to succeed. Some of it did; some of it didn’t. When you add it all up, this team certainly hasn’t surpassed expectations, but it also hasn’t failed to meet them.
What Illinois is -- a middle-of-the-road Big Ten team and a bubble NCAA tournament team – probably is what it should be.
Here’s a look at expectations leading up to the season and how they’ve actually panned out:
• The expectations placed on Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco were unrealistic. He was expected to arrive to Illinois and become its starting point guard and senior team leader. It was a lot to ask of someone coming off two ankle surgeries in two years, was moving up a level basketball from the Missouri Valley and didn’t have a prior bond with his new teammates. Despite all that, Maniscalco looked as if he might be up for the challenge early in the season while keying a couple wins. But as the season has gone on, Maniscalco’s ankle hasn’t held up, which has led to decreased minutes, less leadership and most recently a lack of confidence.
• Meyers Leonard was expected to go from averaging 2.1 points as a freshman to becoming a superstar as a sophomore. His shoulders are broad, but those expectations were even too much for him carry early in his career. There’s no doubt Leonard has progressed. In spurts, he’s been one of the most dominating big men in the Big Ten. He’s learned to finish around the rim, assert himself in the paint and be a difference-maker on defense. Yet, Leonard remains inconsistent. His effort varies depending on his frustration level and still gets often into foul trouble.
• Hype surrounded Illinois’ incoming freshman class. The six-player class was ranked No. 11 in the country by ESPN. Weber hoped he could turn to a handful of them and be able to go 4-5 players deep into his bench. But while there were four top-100 players arriving, none of them were higher than No. 70. These were players who could be stars down the line, but not the type who could be instant ones. The class has been up and down as one would expect. Tracy Abrams has been the one consistent bright spot. Since Maniscalco’s injury, Abrams took over the starting point guard role and has gradually improved his play. As of late, he’s even become the team’s most vocal player, which may not be great news right now, but should be down the line.
• Weber hoped to get more out of sophomore Joseph Bertrand and junior Tyler Griffey this season. Bertrand answered the call probably more than anyone could have hoped. He showed flashes while in Italy this past summer and was the team’s most consistent player at times this season. Griffey was needed for his shooting because the Illini are not a team of great marksmen. Griffey never found his groove throughout the season and only last week broke out and scored a career-high 18 points on Michigan.
• Expectations for Brandon Paul were to take the next step. And although his shot selection and turnovers can still be frustrating, Paul has developed into one of the Big Ten’s elite players. He’s averaged 19.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.1 blocks during the Big Ten season. He hasn’t been the reason for Illinois losing.
• D.J. Richardson was expected to be steady, and he’s been that for the most part. His scoring numbers have been down a bit during the Big Ten, but he’s been pretty consistent throughout his career. He’s going to knock down a few 3-pointers, score near double digits and play tough defense for you.