Bruce Weber started talking Final Four almost from the moment he met his Illinois basketball team.
And the players were furious.
That's because in April 2003, when Weber was hired to replace Bill Self as the Illini's head coach, he was talking about St. Louis and the 2005 Final Four.
"They were so mad at me, and so we kind of adjusted and talked about making it to San Antonio last year," Weber said. "But I think for me, there was always a sense that this was the year we were building toward."
The future is now for Weber's second Illini team, which returns every significant contributor from a 26-7 squad that won the Big Ten title and lost to Duke in the Sweet 16.
"The day after we lost to Duke, I was telling our guys to take care of business in the classroom, to make sure to do the right things off the court," Weber said. "This team has a chance to be really good, and we can't let anything mess that up."
FRONTCOURTForward Roger Powell caught Weber off-guard when he threw his name into the NBA Draft hat. Powell was seeking publicity and some feedback from the NBA. He got both, but neither was what he'd hoped for. After being told he likely wouldn't be drafted, Powell quickly pulled his name out of the draft pool.
After making 20-of-49 3-pointers as a sophomore, Powell was just 4-of-12 last season. NBA scouts would like to see small-forward skills out of the 6-foot-6 Powell, but Weber plans to utilize him in the post, where he is most effective.
"I don't worry at all about him trying to showcase himself individually this year," Weber said. "He'll do it within our team concept, or I'll just sit him down."
Powell is joined up front by James Augustine, a 6-10 junior who Weber said hasn't yet tapped his full potential. Last year, Augustine's scoring and rebounding numbers were up, but by season's end he still hadn't developed the go-to post move Weber said he needs. Augustine visited Clifford Ray's big-man camp over the summer in an effort to find it.
Weber will play small-ball most of the time, pairing Powell and Augustine with three guards. When the coach wants to go big, he'll insert 7-2 senior Nick Smith, who has been plagued by inconsistency in performance and attitude. Last season he clashed openly with Weber, but he also made critical plays down the stretch.
Senior Jack Ingram, sophomores Warren Carter and Brian Randle and freshman Shaun Pruitt will fight for backup minutes, giving Weber a versatile front line that's deep but unproven.
BACKCOURTIf Illinois makes the short trip from Champaign to St. Louis, guards Dee Brown and Deron Williams will be leading the way. Last season, Illinois' two-headed point guard averaged a combined 27.3 points, 10.7 assists and 6.9 rebounds per game. Williams enjoyed a breakout year, leading Illinois in scoring and assists and twice posting 31-point games.
"I think what separates them, if you stack them up against the other top guard tandems in the country, is their unselfishness," Weber said. "And then, when you add Luther [Head] into the mix, I don't think there are many teams, if any, who can say they have a better trio than we do."
Head was up-and-down on the court as he fought through two separate suspensions last season. He picked up steam in the second half of the season, scoring in double digits in 10 of Illinois' final 19 games.
Off the bench, Richard McBride figures to see significant playing time. As a freshman, he torched Memphis with six 3-pointers.
FINAL ANALYSISWeber's first season at Illinois was filled with questions. This year, Weber has a roster stocked with answers. Illinois is expected to make a run at a second consecutive Big Ten title, and in Champaign, anything less than a trip to the Elite Eight will be viewed as a disappointment.
"I think people have a right to have high expectations," Weber said. "We had a good year, and we have everybody back."
As deep as the Illini are, they can't afford an injury to Brown or Williams if they're to live up to those expectations. But if the guards stay healthy and their up-and-down teammates find a measure of consistency, it's reasonable to think Weber might be coaching in that Final Four he's long had circled on his calendar.