On Tuesday evening, the Illinois men's basketball team celebrated Senior Night by honoring its two seniors: Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey. As a fan, I will always appreciate the blood, sweat, and tears both players have poured into the program.
Joe's career was filled with ups and downs as you can read about in this earlier article. I'll always have a special place in my heart for Joe. Seeing a player come out of the old NCIC Conference (the same conference I once played my high school hoops) and adorn the Illini jersey created an extra burst of excitement for me. For those of you unfamiliar, not many players from that conference extended their basketball playing careers to the Big Ten.
As for Jon, he's played admirably in his one season in Champaign after transferring from ISU in Bloomington. He's done the best he can in the roll he's been given, and we should all be proud of and thankful for his efforts. I don't think they keep track of this stat, but I believe Jon leads the NCAA in unsuccessful put back dunks this season. That's an accomplishment he should forever be proud of.
What's interesting about this Senior Night with these two seniors, though, is that neither player was a part of the recruiting class that was originally supposed to be celebrated tonight. That long lost senior class was ranked in the top 15 nationally and included the last McDonald's All-American to play for Illinois along with the last NBA lottery pick drafted from the University of Illinois.
The collection of Jereme Richmond, Meyers Leonard, and Crandall Head carried lofty expectations to be the group that, coupled with the previous class of Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Joe Bertrand, and Tyler Griffey, would get Illinois consistently back atop the Big Ten and into the Sweet Sixteen.
As fate would have it, these expectations were missed entirely. Their time on campus was rather tumultuous, and the paths they took were often bumpy. By the time they had all parted ways with the University, a head coach and his staff had been fired and a prideful program and fan base had been engulfed with mediocrity.
Jereme Richmond was a head case before he ever made it to campus. Fighting with teammates in high school turned into fighting with teammates in college. After a subpar freshman season, Jereme declared for the NBA, went undrafted, played a partial season in the Premiere Basketball League, and has since got himself in a series of legal trouble that now presents him with a possible seven year jail sentence.
Meyers Leonard arrived in Champaign with the most potential of the bunch. The 7 footer was raw but flashed athleticism that's not often found in someone of his stature. Unused as a freshman and vastly underutilized as a sophomore (he still managed a great stat line), Meyers declared for the NBA Draft and was selected 11th by the Portland Trailblazers.
Crandall Head is the younger brother of Illini legend Luther Head. He started his high school career highly ranked, but injured his knee and never fully returned to his old form. Not being able to shoot in a motion offense built around jump shooting didn't help his cause while on the team. Crandall played a season and a half at Illinois before transferring to SMU. He's averaging six minutes a game for the Mustangs this season.
The failures of this recruiting class as a group are evident. But what if things were different? What if all three players were on the current roster? Since I love playing the "what if" game, let's take a look.
Here's the prologue to our story: The 2011-2012 season was a disaster. Jereme caused problems throughout the year, the team didn't gel, and the losses added up. Bruce Weber gets fired. (Anyone noticing that's not all entirely fiction?) John Groce becomes the head coach for the 2012-2013 season. He immediately transforms Jereme into the All-American he was destined to become. The new offense better suits Meyers by creating more isolation for him as well as Crandall by allowing him to penetrate off the pick and roll. With Brandon, D.J., and Tyler hitting from outside, the team places second in the Big Ten and eventually falls to Louisville in the Final Four.
In recruiting, everything stays the same with the 2013 class. Groce and staff sign the same five guys and accept a transfer from Jon Ekey. Jabari still decides to play for Puke. Oops, I meant Duke. As for 2014, John Groce becomes an instant celebrity when he offers Cliff Alexander a scholarship then takes it back just before Cliff commits and, instead, signs Jahlil Okafor. Quentin Snider, Leron Black, and Michael Finke round out a top 5 rated recruiting class.
Woah. Sorry. I'm getting carried away with my Illinois basketball fairy tale. Back on point to the mocked up reality of this season's team.
Because we have have the three new/old seniors, there is no need for the three transfers currently sitting out this year. My apologies to Ahmad, Aaron, and Darius.
The 2013-2014 roster would look like this:
Tracy Abrams JR, Crandall Head SR, Jaylon Tate FR
Rayvonte Rice JR, Kendrick Nunn FR, Mike LaTulip SO
Joe Bertrand SR, Malcolm Hill FR
Jereme Richmond SR, Jon Ekey SR, Austin Colbert FR
Meyers Leonard SR, Nnanna Egwu JR, Maverick Morgan FR
That is a formidable lineup. Star power? Check. Depth? Check. Senior leadership? Check. If there is one weakness, it's point guard. Neither Tracy or Crandall are true point guards. They're both combo guards forced to play the point. Regardless, the expectations for the season would be a top seed in the NCAA tournament, not just an invite.
How great would it have been to watch Jereme Richmond pull a Nik Stauskas on Nik Stauskas Tuesday night instead of watching one of the most impressive displays of shooting by a visiting team ever at The State Farm Center?
Oh how things might have gone differently...
Thank you again to Joe and Jon for being high quality young men and ending their college careers as Illini the right way no matter how the season ends. I wish you both the best wherever your paths lead you.
And here's to the Illini holding on to postseason hopes and ruining the Hawkeye's seed tonight!
Shout out to the entire University of Illinois Men's Varsity Glee Club along with The Other Guys who will be performing in New York City tonight for the first time in over 50 years. Break a leg, fellas.
G - O Illini GO!