Next up in the quest to preview every team in the Big Ten, Illinois. The Illini tied for 2nd in the conference last year but their season came to a disappointing end after Chester Frazier went down to injury. Joe from Hail to the Orange graciously agreed to answer some questions about this year’s Illinois team.
What are the expectations in Champaign this year? Last year had to be considered a success but I assume that the first round loss to Western Kentucky and losing four of the final five games made the season a bit bitter sweet?
Shaking off the cobwebs of basketball here, so forgive me if my memory fails me. Yes the WKU game is a game I think everyone would rather have back. Specifically if we could have had Chester Frazier in the game, the player who really ended up making a huge difference in how smoothly the offense was run, and holding the best player on the opposing team to a minimal amount of offense. Sure losing 4 of the last 5 sucked, but most people take heart in the fact that the 4 teams the Illini lost to were national runner up Michigan St, NIT champion Penn St, and sweet 16 team Purdue, along with the aforementioned Hilltoppers. Not exactly the easiest close to a season. Bittersweet perhaps for some fans, but that is mostly because of the raised expectations with the strong season and the #5 seed. If you take a look at the season in the larger view though, its hard to call it anything but a success. Bruce Weber pulled the team out of its worst season in over a decade from the year before and returned to the NCAA, as well as making several ‘ok’ talent players into very productive ones. The problem is though, once expectations are raised its tough to bring them back down.
Similar to MSU and Travis Walton, you lose your lock-down perimeter in Chester Frazier… Is there anyone ready to fill this role next year? Last year’s team was certainly a defense-first team, can this year’s Illinois team bring the same intensity on the defensive side of the ball?
Ah the good old guard question, along with Chester, the Illini also lose starting shooting guard Trent Meacham to graduation, leaving a pretty big hole to be filled by Alex Legion and your freshman phenom dujour. If you had asked me or any other Illini fan back in April for that matter, who would be stepping into Chester’s Nikes it would have been a unanimous answer of Jeffrey Jordon (aka the richest U of I undergrad evar) but then he surprised every one by leaving the team, leaving most of us to scramble for an answer. More than likely it is going to be a freshman who will fill in for the minutes being vacated by Chester *chest bump* Frazier but I don’t see anyone on the team now that will provide his level of defense, but that is of course subject to change.
Incoming freshmen DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul
The incoming freshman class has drawn rave reviews. Who do you expect to be an instant contributor? Are there any wildcards?
The four freshman for the 2009 season will no doubt get a lot of publicity this year, and already have this off season. You can’t be surprised, Bruce “coaches ‘em up” but has never been known as a recruiter, and his best pure talent recruiting class is bound to raise some eyebrows. I will say right up front though, that the potential wild card is already probably going to go medical redshirt, after having knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Every one else kind of figures that Tyler Griffey is going to struggle to overtake Mike Davis and Dominique Keller at the 4, so that leaves the other two guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson as the two fan favorites to break into the starting lineup right out of the gate. If you had to ask me, I would say Paul is going to be the guy who adapts first and best to the college game and so far what I have heard is that he is defending really well in pick up games, which means on a Bruce Weber team MINUTES. I also am partial to the fact that he is an Illinois Mr. Basketball, and the Illini have always been successful with an IMB on the court like say Dee Brown.
My prediction would be: a shifting one. With 2 very good freshmen guards waiting to play and no clear established guard aside from Demetri McCamey there is going to be alot of shifting among the freshmen and Legion, and probably even a line up that features Davis, Tisdale and Keller all playing at the same time. The most important thing is though, that if Legion does not find his shot this year, we may see Dmac and both of the freshman starting later in the year.
What are the highlights of Illinois’ non-conference schedule?
The usual scrimmages and glorified scrimmages early on. The big two games will probably be the ACC/Big Ten challenge game at Clemson (a game that would have given the trophy to the Big Ten, had the Illini closed strong last year) and the big game against Gonzaga in Chicago at the UC on January 2nd. It is going to be one really cool game to watch, and had, the Illini beaten WKU last year, would be a rematch from the tourney last year.
Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale celebrate
Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale give Illinois one of the most dynamic front courts in the conference yet Illiois ranked dead-last in the country in terms of FTA/FGA. Will this year’s team be able to get to the line with more regularity?
Well the problem is they don’t play a game that gets either of them to the line all that often. They are the turn and shoot type of big guys not the inside bangers, and most shooters don’t get fouled for obvious reasons. Unless either has changed their game radically from last year, I doubt we will see a shift in this stat. Besides, we had Shaun Pruitt go to the line plenty of times two seasons ago, and that sure didn’t win us many games.
Who will be the most improved player — anyone who is poised to burst onto the scene this year?
I like Dominique Keller to make another splash in his second year in the program. He is easily one of the most vocal players and I imagine he will get a lot of opportunities to back the talk up. Also if Mike Davis makes as big a jump from sophomore to junior as he did from freshman to sophomore, watch out for him to leave early.
Demetri McCamey has all kinds of talent but he hasn’t seemed to put in a consistent effort night in and night out. Is he ready to take the next step and carry this team?
That’s really up to him. The fans have put the responsibilities of the team leader on his shoulders, and expect him to be Frank Williams and Deron Williams combined. Some people don’t relish the spotlight though, and I think the less the team is absolutely dependent on him to save the day, the better he will play. I say let him make his own name for himself without having to be compared to every other Illini PG that has been great at Illinois.
Most feared player in the Big Ten?
Nobody scares me more as an individual player than Manny Harris. I think he is the best player in the Big Ten, and will probably prove that this year.
Predicted record (overall and conference)?
Oh jeez I don’t know, I think the Illini have gotten better but good God, so has this conference. Looking top to bottom I could see 9 teams coming out of the Big Ten this year, and even then Indiana is improving at an accelerated pace. I am going to cop out and say 10-7 again for the conference and another 2 losses OOC. Basically the same as last year, but at the very least another 20+ wins with a trip back to the NCAA, hopefully to the sweet sixteen.
Any last words?
If anyone has ever questioned the coaching ability of Bruce Weber I would point to last year, where he took what many considered the product of several years of poor recruiting and took the team 25 wins and nearly a conference title. The man can squeeze blood from a turnip and points from Chester Frazier. The one reason most Illini fans are so excited about this and next season is that it finally looks like Bruce will be coaching players that can take him back to the Final Four, and hopefully beyond.