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Find the love, Illini fans

Today’s Wisch List column from the Kankakee Daily Journal

Find the love, Illini fans

The WISCH LIST

Feb. 13, 2010

I spent this past week in North Carolina, where tobacco fields, merciless traffic laws and college basketball are king.

Now, I don’t smoke. And while in the Tar Heel State, I kept my driving to a bare minimum. But I did make like the locals and take part in their proud tradition of college hoops hysteria.

Even if it was during an NBA game.

On Tuesday night, while seated about 20 rows off the floor at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, I watched former University of North Carolina star Raymond Felton drain a pull-up jumper with 1.9 seconds left to lift the hometown Bobcats to a 94-92 victory over the Washington Wizards.

It was pretty exciting.

But my big cheer – one that turned a few nearby heads and just might have sparked that earthquake back in Chicagoland – had come about 15 minutes earlier.

That was when I learned via text message that the University of Illinois had pulled off a stunning upset at Wisconsin, propelling the Illini (17-8, 9-3) into a first-place tie with Michigan State atop the Big Ten.

Three weeks ago, when Illinois sat at 12-8 overall and 4-3 in conference, few things – save, perhaps, a Midwestern temblor – could have seemed less likely.

But, as they say, good things come to those who wait.

And I think there’s plenty of good on the horizon for Illini hoops.

I’ve held off on writing about Illinois basketball so far this season, mainly because I just haven’t known what to make of this vexing team. But I also haven’t wanted to jump to any conclusions about it, something that too many Illini fans often seem very apt – and eager – to do.

Granted, the 2009-10 Illini have been more up and down than flights at Midway. They’ve lacked the toughness and defensive intensity of Bruce Weber’s past squads. And you’ll find more bulk on display at a Sam’s Club.

All of that coupled with bad early-season losses to Bradley and Utah, along with disappointing ones to Georgia, Missouri and Gonzaga, provided more than enough reason to question the future of this team and Bruce Weber’s program, in general.
But there was no good reason to condemn it.

While a lot of fans might not like to hear it, college basketball is often about patience. Personally, that’s one of the things I love most about the sport – the opportunity to watch players develop over four years.

And Bruce Weber has proved that he’s one of the best at developing players, particularly guards. From big talents Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head to lesser ones in Richard McBride, Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham, each of them improved under Weber’s tutelage and maxed out their ability by the end of their careers.

Demetri McCamey now appears to be on that same path.

Certainly, in college hoops, there are superstars who bolt to the NBA after just one or two seasons, and they’re great to have. But most programs are built around players who stick around long enough to become veterans.

And, quite simply, this year’s Illini squad lacked enough vets to excel at the outset of this season.

Illinois boasts just one senior in Dominique Keller, and he’s a junior college product who’s been in the program for less than two years. The Illini also began the season with two freshmen guards (D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul) in the starting lineup. And, while the team’s core of juniors may have had considerable game experience, they did not yet have leadership experience. Last season, the team relied on seniors Frazier and Meacham to fill that crucial role.

With one-time records of 8-4 and 12-8, Illinois might have disappointed to begin this season, but it didn’t underachieve. Rather, the expectations were simply too high too early for this bunch.

Many people discounted the impact of losing to graduation Frazier, Meacham and Calvin Brock, the team’s best three defenders.

And no matter how talented the current players might be, they still needed to learn how to lead and play as a team.
And the Illini still are learning, no doubt.

It would be nice if their fans could learn a bit, as well.

Illinois hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament yet, but it also hasn’t yet lost out on a Big Ten championship, either. Whatever does happen from here on out, I’d just caution Illini fans in the future to not so quickly count out a Bruce Weber-coached team.

Or program.

Let things play out. See where a full season takes you. And allow young athletes time to fully mature and develop as players and leaders.

Weber isn’t perfect (no coach is). And neither are his players (ditto). But their future – both for this season and beyond – does appear to be bright.

It doesn’t hurt to show a little patience.

And on this, the day before Valentine’s Day, it doesn’t hurt to show a little love, too.