When the team led by seniors Dee Brown and James Augustine fell to Brandon Roy and the Washington Huskies in the second round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament, a dream died with their season. Even though the odds were clearly unfavorable, there was hope for redemption even after Roger Powell, Deron Williams, and Luther Head attempted to make their way in the NBA ranks. The loss from the 2005 title game still stung, and as long as Dee Brown was suiting up in orange, there was hope that anything could happen.
Of course, reality had its own plans, which, you know, whatever. The loss was an end of an era. We'd miss the memories those guys signified, and everything Dee Brown signified about Illini basketball: His energy, his charm, his braids, his fast-break finger rolls, his jersey flashing, his blindingly bright orange mouthguard, his enthusiasm, and his ability to inspire passion in others. Illini fans took for granted that those guys were consistent winners as well, and that's as difficult to replace as anything. Since that game, Illinois has advanced to the second round of the tournament only twice and neither trip ended in a Sweet Sixteen berth.
What we've had instead has been incomplete team after incomplete team, missing piece after missing piece, lost recruit after lost recruit. But each year, Illinois basketball has taken the court at Assembly Hall (and then at State Farm Center), and given it their best shot. There have been some great moments, such as Tyler Griffey's iconic buzzer beater against No. 1 Indiana, or Brandon Paul's 43 points against No. 2 Ohio State, and that time Illinois actually got up to No. 10 in the rankings. The fact is the program has gotten through the last 10 years, and some good basketball players have had to carry it along.
So, to honor the guys who stood out during what hopefully soon becomes a bygone era of NCAA tournament futility and little momentum and hope, I'm assembling a Weber-Groce All-Star team. It's a bit of a misnomer, so if you can think of a better thing to call it, I need you in the comments section. But yeah, the team is five starters with three reserves, to form a full rotation of players.
C | Meyers Leonard (2010-2012)
Best year: 2011-12 — 13.6 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.9 BPG
Perhaps the most interesting question surrounding Meyers Leonard's time at Illinois is whether he made the right decision to leave after his sophomore season. Obviously Illinois could have greatly benefited from having him, and he would have changed the equation in John Groce's first season, which perhaps could have given Illinois the exposure it needed to land a top-flight recruit like Cliff Alexander, who maybe would've panned out better at Illinois and possibly began a snowball effect in recruiting that — whew, I'd better not keep going with that.
Anyway, BUT, for Meyers, he was lucky to have high enough stock that he was selected in the lottery by the Trail Blazers, for whom he's become a solid contributor with a lethal — of all things — three-point stroke. The Blazers have now doubled down on Leonard by inking a four-year, $41 million deal. The rub being that had he stayed at Illinois, it's possible he could have solidified himself as one of the nation's premier inside big men. Only, it may be that coming out when he did allowed him to more easily mold himself into the 40-50-90 threat that he's become in the NBA (yes, he was the league's only 40-50-90 player two years ago). His game is totally different now than what it was while he was at Illinois, but he was still a force and in addition to being the best Illini center from this era, he's also the only one who's made a regular-season NBA roster.
PF | Mike Davis (2007-2011)
Best year: 2010-11 — 12.5 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 1.7 APG
Ever since Roger Powell Jr., it seems the philosophy at Illinois has been to get by with small power forwards. Without four-men who play the post, jump shooters like Mike Davis have been a special fit for the Illini. Davis's only substantial competition for this slot is from Warren Carter, whose career arc at Illinois couldn't have been much more different from Davis's. Carter didn't put it together until his senior year, when his statistical averages jumped by 8.9 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. Davis, conversely, was a staple of the offense his sophomore year, when he averaged 11.3 points a game. Davis wasn't able to experience the growth Carter did, and so his averages hung around the same spots for three years.
Davis wasn't the most exciting player, but he definitely had his moments — going for 22 and 9 in Illinois' first of two NCAA tournament wins in this era was nice — and brought steady production to the offense. He took one 3-point shot in his four-year career (it missed), so he didn't provide the floor spacing that a Tyler Griffey or a Jon Ekey gave you (though his mid-range was at least something), he wasn't as tough as Sam McLaurin or as good at announcing his commitment, but none of those guys could score as consistently as Big Mike. Did people call him that? I don't know. Probably not.
SF | Malcolm Hill (2013-Present)
Best year: 2015-16 — 18.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 3.3 APG
Malcolm Hill has made bounding improvements each of the past two seasons, and if he continues to improve his game he could be joining Leonard in the NBA in 2017. Hill's season last year put him over the top to join this starting lineup, and there's reason to believe he'll be better prepared to lead the team with a year's experience as the go-to guy under his belt. Hill has actually followed the famous adage about college basketball players almost to a tee — freshmen want to play, sophomores want to start, juniors want to score, seniors want to win. Hill has to turn his numbers into victories if he wants to be remembered as one of Illinois basketball's defining players.
One of the major things I'd like to see from Hill this season is a better ability to create his own shot, especially when the offense is stalling. Too many times last season we saw Illinois go completely limp on offense for periods of five minutes or longer. Meaningful ball movement ceased, guys off the ball stood in corners watching action, and before you know it it was time for Illinois to force a bad shot. Hill has to be capable of ending runs and ending droughts at will. If you want to be an NBA player, you've got to be able to ensure your team doesn't go completely blank on offense when it counts most. Hill has shown his ability over the years as a shot-maker, but he needs to become more of a shot-creator to earn the eyes of NBA scouts.
SG | Brandon Paul (2009-2013)
Best year: 2012-13 — 16.6 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 2.7 APG
It's almost hard to believe, upon looking back, that Paul never averaged more than 16.6 points a game in a season at Illinois. Paul always seemed poised to make that leap that would take him into the college game's elite and put him squarely in the crosshairs of NBA scouts, but he never quite made it. It wasn't until Demetri McCamey graduated before Paul's junior season that he was able to get the minutes and usage rate he deserved, but he missed having a passer of McCamey's ability when Tracy Abrams took over. He and D.J. Richardson were a pair of scoring studs that always felt destined for greatness, but their teammates never panned out the way they were supposed to — Jereme Richmond left early, Meyers Leonard left early, Nnanna Egwu didn't fully develop until after they left — and so they never got past the second round.
In his final games in orange and blue, Paul cemented himself as an Illini great, averaging 19.2 points over his final six games and hitting iconic an buzzer-beater to lift Illinois over Minnesota in what had been a frustrating Big Ten Tournament opener. He was the taem's leading scorer in its NCAA tournament win over Colorado and in its heartbreaking (and bogus Kenny Kadje out-of-bounds crap) loss to Miami in round two. For a guy who had seemed to too often get caught up in big moments, Paul thrived in them and left everything on the floor when it counted. He was the kind of player who seems easy to come by while he's there, but when he's gone, you end up wondering when you'll find another one like him.
PG | Demetri McCamey (2007-2011)
Best year: 2009-10 — 15.1 PPG, 7.1 APG, 1.5 SPG
It feels, no offense to everyone else who's tried, like Demetri McCamey is the only starting point guard Illinois has had since Dee Brown left. From Chester Frazier, Tracy Abrams, Khalid Lewis, everyone in-between, all felt like reserve-quality players. Great reserves, mind you, but not quite Big Ten starters. McCamey was different. McCamey was a legitimate scoring threat but also a willing passer, having dished the second-most assists of any player ever to suit up for Illinois. McCamey seemed to plateau and possibly even statistically regress a bit his senior year, which is rare to see in college guys, but he picked up the program at a time when it desperately needed someone to give it an offensive motor.
Maybe John Groce needs a point guard of McCamey's caliber for his offense to work. He's had an unreasonable amount of trouble on the recruiting trail with point guards tantalized by the program but ultimately deciding to go elsewhere. Perhaps Te'Jon Lucas can restore some of that with what's said to be a magnificent passing ability, but players like McCamey (and the dearth besides) make you realize just how important it is to have a capable showrunner to succeed in the college game.
Big Man | Mike Tisdale (2007-2011)
Best year: 2010-11 — 11.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.6 BPG
Mike Tisdale, a country kid with a smooth stroke, takes the title of reserve big man. At 7-foot-1 and 250-pounds, Tisdale's frame in college was thin but serviceable. Unlike Leonard who relied more on athleticism for blocks, Tisdale often let his height do the job. He was decently athletic, and added a 3-point shot in his senior year that gave him another dimension and could have been huge had he developed and implemented it earlier in his college career. Tisdale edges out guys like Shaun Pruitt, who wasn't as much of a shot-blocking threat, and Nnanna Egwu, who wasn't the scorer Tisdale was, but of all these positions, Illinois has perhaps been most well-stocked down low.
Wing | Rayvonte Rice (2013-15)
Best year: 2013-14 — 15.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.7 SPG
Rayvonte Rice wasn't really that fun to watch, at least not for someone who put up the numbers he did. He was a bit of a ball-stopper who was probably relied upon too much to make offense happen. After dealing with weight issues at Drake, though, Rice transferred to his hometown school and got into great shape, and his strength was one of his best features while he played at Illinois. He was a shot-creator on teams that lacked them and was strong enough to bull his way into the paint against most defenders. Rice was a more polished player in his senior season, but he also played the fewest minutes that year of any in his college career because of injury.
Ball-Handler | Tracy Abrams (2011-Present)
Best year: 2013-14 — 10.7 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 3.2 APG
I don't know. Maybe you'd rather have the coach's mentality of Chester Frazier here. Maybe you want to put Sam Maniscalco here because you like his name. Maybe you'd rather have the shooting of Rich McBride. Or Jamar Smith. Or D.J. Richardson. I wanted to give this spot to someone who plays as a point guard, though, not a shooting guard who's point-guard-sized, so Abrams gets the nod. While it may feel like Abrams has been at Illinois since even before Dee Brown and company, he's poised to finally complete his final year of eligibility pending compliance from his stubborn-of-late body. Abrams, as I mentioned earlier, works in a reserve role, and for this year's team he'll surely provide some needed leadership and old-man wisdom. It will be interesting to see what kind of player he is after two years of injury rehabilitation and offseason training. Hopefully we'll see a better, stronger Tracy Abrams. For his part, Abrams has always pushed himself to be better and he's shown persistence just by continuing to work his way back from a Derrick Rosian onslaught of injuries.
So there you have it. The eight-man rotation of the Weber-Groce All-Stars. I still don't like the name, but I don't know what else to call it. That tremendous title chase, which is no longer even relevant to the average college basketball fan's understanding of the national landscape, was followed with lesser years. It's OK. The eight guys above gave us plenty of good memories (FINE: You're right, since we have five more scholarships to hand out, Calvin Brock, Brian Randle, Sam McLaurin, Bill Cole and Ibby Djimde can come, too.), and Illinois is still a top 50 basketball program in the country, even in these comparatively barren times. Here's hoping that Illinois gets back to the NCAA tournament this year and turns the corner on a new era of relevancy and prosperity. After all, Dee's back.
Oh, and another thing. Would this team beat the 2005 Illini? The rotations are as follows:
Roger Powell Jr.
It'd be amazing to see this game for the matchup of Mike Tisdale and Nick Smith alone, but also just to see whether 10 years of players can match up to that one special run. Also just to see the 2005 Illini play together again. Man, what a dream.
Vote in the poll, deliberate in the comments section and — oh yeah — I suppose it's possible I forgot someone, or snubbed someone you think was more worthy of a nod for the squad. Go ahead and write furiously about it.