- Jeff Shelman
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A year ago, Bruce Weber didn't have to deal with the anxiety that nearly every college basketball coach endures this time of the year.
Weber didn't know his Illinois team would win 29 games in a row to start the season and finish the year 37-2, but there was little doubt the Illini were going to be good. With Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Luther Head, Roger Powell and James Augustine, Weber had that wonderful and elusive combination: talent and experience.
This season, Weber is back to living the unknowns of late October and early November. He -- like almost every coach in America -- has a lot of questions that can't yet be answered. Can last year's bit players become productive regulars? Can the returning starters take on an expanded role? Can the new faces figure things out quickly enough to be contributors?
The good news for Weber is that the Illini -- last season's national runners-up -- weren't decimated to the same level as the North Carolina team that won the national title. Weber does have Brown back (albeit only after his point guard broke a bone in his foot at the NBA predraft camp) as well as Augustine.
The bad news is that in losing Williams, Head, Powell and reserve big men Jack Ingram and Nick Smith, Illinois lost 48.2 points per game from a year ago -- and Weber knows that his two returning seniors won't be the difference of whether or not the Illini are winners this season.
That's not to infer that Brown and Augustine won't be significant parts. Brown is one of the best two or three players in the Big Ten and it's unlikely the Illini get to the Final Four last season without Augustine's play in the tournament. But how this season turns out for the Illini -- can they challenge preseason favorite Michigan State for the league title or will they end up in what likely will be a mess in the middle? -- will largely depend on the play of Rich McBride, Brian Randle and Shaun Pruitt.
If you haven't heard of them, don't be alarmed. Although all are talented, none of the three have exactly been overexposed. Randle, a freakishly athletic wing, sat out last season after breaking his hand at practice. McBride, a guard, and Pruitt, a forward, were bit players last season.
"They've been spot players and they're going to have to produce," Weber said.
"It's a lot like two years ago, that team lost Brian Cook. We had good players back, but who was going to make the big shots?"
If the early weeks of this basketball season are any indication, McBride, Randle and Pruitt aren't going to remain semi-anonymous for much longer.
McBride arrived in Champaign as a highly-touted instate recruit. He averaged about 14 minutes as a freshman and very little more as a sophomore. With Brown, Williams and Head, there simply weren't many minutes left for McBride. He played all of two minutes in the national championship game and didn't take a single shot.
"He knew he wasn't beating those guys out," Weber said.
And the farther Illinois advanced in the NCAA tournament, the more out of shape McBride got. Between shorter practices and good meals on the road, McBride was gaining about two pounds a week. That weight, however, has since come off, an example of how serious McBride is taking this opportunity. He's dropped about 25 pounds from the end of last season and he's played well in practice.
"He has a swagger now," Brown said. "He thinks he's the best player in the gym. It's unbelievable."
Brown, who will be Illinois' primary ball-handler this season after Williams played the point last season, thinks there isn't any reason why McBride -- who has averaged 1.3 points per game for his career -- can't have something of a breakout season.
"He played every day in practice against Deron, Luther and me," Brown said. "Now it's his time to come out and show what he's got. He's going to get minutes and show what he's got."
Although McBride has changed his body and his attitude since last season, he hasn't been Illinois' best player in practice. That would be Randle.
Randle has, as Weber describes it, "learned how to play a little bit." In other words, he's more than just a guy who can run the floor and throw down nasty dunks. Extremely long and a great defender, the 6-foot-8 Randle will be a difficult player for teams to match up with. Put a big guy on him and Randle can take him on the perimeter and bounce it past him. Put a smaller guy on him to match Randle's quickness and the latest in Illinois' line of Peoria players will go inside.
"Randle's been probably our best player in practice," Brown said. "He's so athletic, it's crazy."
Pruitt, a 6-10, 240-pound forward who didn't see the floor in the national championship game, is the player who Weber said has been a big surprise in practice. Pruitt serves as a good complement to Augustine as he's a bit more of a banger and provides an interesting look, as he's left-handed.
Pruitt, who will fight junior Warren Carter and Illinois State transfer Marcus Arnold for playing time inside, is part of the reason Weber thinks the Illini will look a little different on the offensive end of the floor. Illinois should get more points from their bigs while making fewer 3-pointers.
With Randle, McBride and redshirt freshman Calvin Brock, Illinois has more perimeter players who can penetrate and get to the basket. With Brown and freshman point guard Chester Frazier, Illinois might even push the ball on the break a bit more than a year ago. Jamar Smith, another Illini freshman, can shoot the lights out.
"That sucker can shoot, no question," Weber said. "He's the best shooter on the team and that's a mouthful with Dee shooting almost 50 percent [last season] on 3s."
What does all of this mean? We're not completely sure. Neither is Brown. And neither is Weber.
"I think we can easily be good again," said Brown, who will graduate in December with a degree in sports management. "Can we win our first 29 games again? Probably not, but we'll have to see."
Like Brown, Weber realizes it's almost inevitable that the Illini will have at least some sort of a drop-off. But he doesn't know how far.
"Last year we had 37 wins and that's only happened three times ever," Weber said. "This year, we might not play 37 games. Can we be competitive? Can we compete for a Big Ten title? It's a possibility. It's within reason, but things have to happen. People have to step up."
If that happens, everybody will know Randle, Pruitt and McBride.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
Illinois has two starters back from last year's finalists, but the new blood will be the difference.