With basketball practice underway around the nation, it's time to start previewing the rest of the Big Ten. First up (as dictated by alphabetical order): the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Bruce Weber's team was a tough one to figure out in 2009-10. They looked like an NIT team during the first part of the season (entering Big Ten play at just 8-5), but took advantage of a back-loaded conference schedule (aka a reverse Northwestern) by sweeping Penn State, Indiana and Iowa (once again, a reverse Northwestern) in the first half of Big Ten play. Then they beat Michigan State at home, and followed that up with a shocking upset of Wisconsin at the Kohl Center (where the Badgers lose to unranked teams about once every 5 years). That win left them 9-3 in the Big Ten and in great shape to make the NCAAs, but they lost five of their last six regular season games to finish conference play 10-8 and squarely on the bubble. In the Big Ten tournament, they beat Wisconsin in the quarterfinals, but lost a double OT heart-breaker to eventual champion Ohio State. The consensus from the bracketologists was that the Illini would be dancing, but the NCAA selection committee had other ideas, and Illinois was forced to settle for the NIT, where they eventually fell in the quarterfinals to Dayton, finishing 21-15 overall.
It was certainly a disappointing season for Illinois, as they were a 5 seed in the 2009 NCAA tournament and were expected to be about the same in 2010. What really killed them was the poor non-conference showing, as they suffered 3 ugly losses to Bradley, Utah and Georgia. Win even one of those three, and they're almost certainly dancing, but instead they missed the NCAA's for the second team in 3 years.
Players not returning
No one important. Illinois returns its top 6 players in terms of minutes per game, losing only backup big man Dominique Keller and backup guard Jeff Jordan. Keller averaged 4 points and 2 rebounds in 11 minutes a game, and was pretty much a non-factor in Big Ten play, reaching double figures in points just once (10 in a loss to Northwestern). He did have one outstanding game out of nowhere, with 22 points and 9 rebounds against Gonzaga, but he won't be missed. Jordan was a defensive specialist who brought basically nothing to the table on offense (never once reaching double figure scoring despite playing 14 minutes a game), and saw his minutes decline at the end of the season.
Illinois has excellent guards, led by senior point guard Demetri McCamey, who was named first team All-Big Ten last year. For my money, McCamey is the best point guard in the conference and one of the best in the nation. He's certainly the best passer in the Big Ten (his 7.1 assists per game led the league by a wide margin, and he led the nation in Ken Pomeroy's assist rate, assisting on an absurd 40% of the Illini's made field goals while he was in the game), and he can score the ball as well (15 points a game on 45% shooting). Not only that, he has a knack for hitting big shots late in games; Northwestern fans certainly remember his last-second bank shot to complete the Illini's incredible comeback vs. the 'Cats two seasons ago.
The knocks on McCamey are twofold: his defense is sometimes suspect, and he's occasionally lacking in maturity, like last year vs. Wisconsin when he committed a dumb intentional foul then got into it with Bruce Weber. The maturity issues are certainly the bigger concern there, especially coming from a senior leader, but I don't expect it to be much of a problem. McCamey has substantially improved his game every off-season (his scoring, assists and field goal % have increased every year), and I expect him to improve once again this year and make all the big plays in crunch time.
McCamey will be joined in the back court by sophomore D.J. Richardson, who split Big Ten freshman of the year honors with Drew Crawford last season. Richardson was very highly touted as a slashing scoring 2-guard out of high school, and while he proved to be a reliable 3-point shooter (39% for the season), his driving ability was most reminiscent of former Illini Jamar Smith, as Richardson shot just 41% on 2-pointers and took the majority of his field goals from behind the arc. I'd expect him to show a more complete offensive game this season and increase his scoring from 10 points a night to closer to 15.
Another key contributor is sophomore Brandon Paul, who was Illinois' Mr. Basketball as a high school senior but struggled in his first collegiate season, shooting a downright ugly 33% from the field. It's hard to know what to expect from Paul this season, he's an excellent athlete and certainly has the potential to be a big-time scorer, but he needs to stop being such a chucker and play more within himself.
Rounding out the guard rotation will be freshman Crandall Head, younger brother of former Illini great Luther Head. He hasn't been getting a lot of hype, but he was ranked the #84 prospect in the country by Rivals and should be able to make an impact off the bench. He is recovering from a torn ACL suffered last year and will be eased into the lineup slowly at the beginning of the year.
Illinois has a solid front line, led by two seniors, Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis. Northwestern fans are certainly familiar with Tisdale, who dominated the 'Cats in Champaign last year with 31 points and 11 rebounds. He may be gangly and awkward-looking, but he is an outstanding shooter for a 7-footer (58% from the field, 84% from the line, and he even hit 5 of 6 3-pointers) and is very effective at hitting mid-range jumpers, particularly off screen and rolls with McCamey. Davis is an interesting player; he's one of the conference's best rebounders (9 a game), and a decent scorer (11 points per game), but he's frustrating to watch on offense, as he has a tendency to take fade-away jumpers rather than using his excellent athleticism to attack the basket (364 field goal attempts last season against just 61 free throw attempts).
The final starter figures to be 6'7" freshman sensation Jereme Richmond (yes it's Jereme, not Jerome), who was Mr. Basketball in Illinois last year and a McDonald's All-American. Bruce Weber certainly seems to be high on him in this article:
'I'm worried about what position,'' Weber said. ''Can he learn everything? That's a lot of pressure on a young man. Can you have him try to play the 1, 2, 3 and the 4? Or do we focus on a couple of things, and as he evolves, let him do some other things?''
That sound like one of them good problems. An athletic 6'7 guy who can play anything from point guard to power forward? Yikes. This kid sounds like the next Evan Turner.
Off the bench, Illinois will have a solid defense/energy guy in 6'9" senior Bill Cole, and a promising freshman in 7-foot center Meyers Leonard, who is a fantastic athlete as shown by this video. A big weakness for Illinois last year was that they didn't really have a big man to step in for the foul-trouble prone Tisdale, and Leonard will certainly solve that problem. I don't care if he has no post moves at all, a 7 footer with the athleticism shown in that video will be able to contribute right away. Look for Leonard to take the minutes of sophomore Tyler Griffey, who was mostly ineffective as a backup big last season.
3 years after a terrible 16-19 season that led to many Illini fans calling for Bruce Weber's head, Illinois is back to being a national contender. In his early days at Illinois, Weber had some struggles in recruiting, but those problems are behind him and he's now landing the top talent in Illinois, with two straight excellent recruiting classes consisting of almost entirely in-state players (in fact Davis and Griffey are the only two out-of-state players on the entire roster). This is probably Weber's best team since the 2005 squad that dominated the Big Ten and made it all the way to the national title game, as there's an excellent mix of senior leadership and promising underclassmen, and it would be a colossal disappointment if the Illini don't make it back to the NCAAs this season. Some are even picking them to win the Big Ten, which is certainly optimistic in such a strong conference, but it's not completely ridiculous, especially now that Purdue no longer looks like a conference title contender. If McCamey can maintain his All-Big Ten level, Richardson and Paul make a big leap in their sophomore seasons, and the freshmen can live up the hype, Illinois could certainly win the Big Ten. However, that probably isn't going to happen, as they are a bit too dependent on jump shooting (6th worst in the nation at getting to the free throw line last year) and are probably the worst defensive team of the conference title contenders (they are decent defensively but you'd have to think Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State and Wisconsin are all a bit better). There also could be a problem with the younger players not meshing with the veterans (think Texas last year), but that seems like a long shot.
3rd in the Big Ten, #3 to #6 seed in the NCAAs.