Friday, October 29, 2010

No. 7 Illinois Fighting Illini

To browse through the rest of our Top 50 Countdown, click here.

Last Season: 21-15, 10-8 (5th Big Ten), lost to Dayton in the NIT Quarterfinals

Head Coach: Bruce Weber

Key Losses: Dominique Keller, Jeff Jordan, Alex Legion

Newcomers: Meyers Leonard, Crandall Head, Jereme Richmond

Projected Lineup:

  • G: Demetri McCamey, Sr.
  • G: DJ Richardson, So.
  • F: Jereme Richmond, Fr.
  • F: Mike Davis, Sr.
  • C: Mike Tisdale, Sr.
  • Bench: Bill Cole, Sr.; Brandon Paul, So.; Crandall Head, Fr.; Meyers Leonard, Fr.

Outlook: Illinois was a bit of a conundrum last season. They had the talent on their roster, but they never were quite able to get all the pieces to fit together. Their two stars -- Mike Davis and Demetri McCamey -- both were benched during Big Ten play. They lost to teams they absolutely should not have lost to. And as a result, the Illini ended up being one of the first teams left out of the Big Dance. But this year's squad has as much talent on it as any team Bruce Weber has fielded since the 2005 group that made the national title game.

When you talk about Illinois, the first guy you need to mention is Demetri McCamey. When he wants to be, McCamey is the kind of point guard that can control a game. He changed positions as a junior, moving from playing off the ball to being the floor general, and it resulted in a breakout season where he averaged 15.1 ppg and led the nation by averaging over seven assists per contest. His build will remind some of former Illini point guard Deron Williams, but they have different games. McCamey is no where near as quick as Williams is. Instead, he's a guy that really has a feel for how to get his defender off balance by changing speeds. His game is still centered around his jump shot, but he picks his spots well when attacking the basket. One marked improvement in his game was that he really cut down on the number of ill-advised, quick jump shots he took, although he still has a tendency to take some bad shots. He's also very good in the pick and roll and has great vision, able to find cutters and shooters spotting up off the dribble. His ability to orchestrate the offense and get his teammates quality shots is of the utmost importance for this team to succeed.

While McCamey is the star, there is plenty of perimeter talent surrounding him. DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul both had promising freshmen seasons. Richardson is probably the better of the two right now. He started all but one game last year, and proved to be an excellent spot-up shooter (39% on 177 threes), which is an excellent sign as he was known more for his ability to slash and score in the mid-range coming out of high school. Brandon Paul was a part-time starter, and while he didn't have as good of a year as Richardson, he still showed some promise, like the back-to-back 20 point games he had to start the season. He's a gifted scorer that needs to take advantage of those skills by being more aggressive.

Three freshmen will also see time on the perimeter. Crandall Head, Luther head's brother, was a top 100 recruit coming out of high school. He's athletic and long and should be able to provide a contribution on the defensive end immediately. Joseph Betrand is a talented redshirt freshman that sat out last season after undergoing knee surgery in September. Perhaps the most intriguing player on Illinois' roster this year is Jereme Richmond. Richmond is a super-athletic 6'8" wing. He's a slasher, but he's an excellent passer that can also finish above the rim. Some have even said that Richmond may be the best player on the Illinois roster. While that may be a bit of an overstatement, the fact of the matter is that this is a supremely talented and versatile young man. He's the kind of player that can average 10 ppg, 6 rpg, and 4 apg.

There is a lot to like in the front court as well. The Mike's, Davis and Tisdale, both return for their senior seasons. Davis was the Big Ten's leading rebounder as a junior, but he regressed a bit on the offensive end. He's not as strong as one would like him to be, and while he does have a very nice touch and some quality post moves, it seemed as if he had trouble establishing position inside. As a face-up four he still impressed, showing an ability to knock down 17 footers and above average perimeter skills for a player his size. Tisdale is a legit seven footer with range out to the three point line, which forces centers to guard him, opening up the paint. Hopefully, those two put on some strength in the offseason. Freshman Meyers Leonard and senior Bill Cole will also see time up front. Both Leonard and Cole are forwards with advanced perimeter skills.

I really like the makeup of this Illinois roster. They have a lot of length and athleticism at every position. Last season, the Illini were not as good defensively as you expect out of a Bruce Weber coached team, something I expect Weber to change this year. I also think this team will try and push the ball more. McCamey is an excellent passer, and with guys like Richardson and Richmond running on the wings, the Illini fast break could be exciting to watch.

There are two question marks I have with this team. The first is on the interior. They don't really have a bruiser. I like Davis and Tisdale, but I worry about them going up against a big, physical front line like that of Ohio State or Michigan State. I also think that in order for this team to live up to its potential, Davis is going to have to become more consistent scoring in the low post. The second question mark simply revolves around this group being a team. Its not a good sign when your two best players have to get benched during conference play to prove a point. There is enough talent on this team for Illinois to make a Final Four, but will they be able to turn that talent into W's. Keep in mind, while the Illini return all five starters, those five starters only mustered an NIT appearance last season.

No comments: