Last season after finishing fifth in the Big 10, the Illinois Fighting Illini (28-15, 10-8 Big Ten) went to the NIT. In round one they beat Stony Brook 76-66 and in round two they defeated Kent State 75-58. Then they met Dayton and lost 77-71. The Illini have been an uneven club over the past five years, going to the NIT once, the Big Dance three times and missing out on the tournament season entirely once. During that time, the deepest they went in the NCAA Tournament was round two. They did that just once. What type of team will Illinois put on the court this season? Will they sit out tournament time, go to the NIT or make it into March Madness. With a solid group of vets on hand and some fine new talent, it’s fairly safe to say that this version of the Fighting Illini will get to the Big Dance.
Mike Tisdale (7-1, 252 lbs., SR, #54, 11.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 0.8 apg, 27.9 mpg, .585 FG, .839 3PT, .833 FT) has size and has now added bulk. He had a monster season last year and now after playing with the USA Basketball Select Team against NBA stars, he’s ready to post more impressive numbers for the Illini. Tisdale has the best-combined shooting accuracy of any player in the nation. His ability to sink shots from anywhere on the court makes him a maximum threat. Last season, his true scoring percentage was 64.0 (26th) and his effective field goal percentage stood at 59.4% (53rd). If he can be more aggressive, the guy will shoot the lights out of the scoreboard.
Mike Davis (6-9, 230 lbs., SR, #24, 10.7 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 0.9 apg, 32.2 mpg, .473 FG, .000 3PT, .631 FT), like Tisdale, is back for his third-year as starter. The power forward, who is the Big Ten’s top returning rebound man, was ranked 61st in the nation in defensive rebound percentage (23.5%). At times last season, Davis was inconsistent, turning the ball over too much. But when he and Tisdale were in sync, they were a dynamic frontcourt duo.
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The small forward spot will be manned by freshman Jereme Richmond. Richmond, who is 6-8 and 195 pounds, is a MacDonald’s All-American with fine passing skills and great court vision. But he can be immature emotionally, something he’ll have to keep in check. Richmond is considered to have All-Big Ten potential.
In the backcourt, senior point guard Demetri McCamey (6-3, 195 lbs., SR, #32, 15.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 7.1 apg, 34.7 mpg, .341 FG, .000 3PT, .707 FT) looks ready to play. During the offseason, the All-Big Ten Player lost some weight, toned up and also sought advice from various sources before dropping out of the NBA Draft. All of that is good news for the team, as McCamey returns with a desire to be productive and help this team win. He’s a fine assist man who can put in a wealth of minutes. McCamey needs to improve on his shooting and find a way to keep focused and in check.
Last season as a frosh, D.J. Richardson (6-3, 195 lbs., SR, #32, 15.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 7.1 apg, 34.7 mpg, .341 FG, .000 3PT, .707 FT) led the team in three-point percentage while capturing Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. Although he will still take his share of threes, Richardson will also have to revert back to his roots and slash through players to make a basket. As a freshman, he showed good judgment by passing or going for two when his three wasn’t effective. He’s a smart player who also has All-Big Ten potential.
Freshman center Meyers Leonard, who stands 7-0 and weighs 215 pounds, is a potential NBA pro. He will see some minutes in his first college season. Senior forward Bill Cole (6-9, 215 lbs., SR, #30, 4.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.0 apg, 21.3 mpg, .460 FG, .377 3PT, .609 FT) may not be a premium player, but he is a very hard worker and a tenacious competitor. This battler will put in important minutes in the frontcourt.
Redshirted freshman Joseph Bertrand will be asked to come off the bench and play point, while shooting guard Crandall Head, a true freshman, will be used at the shooting spot. Head missed his senior season in high school due to surgery for a torn ACL. Finally, Brandon Paul (6-4, 195 lbs., SR, #3, 7.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.3 apg, 18.9 mpg, .333 FG, .279 3PT, .644 FT) will see some action of he can improve on his freshman stats. Overall, Paul is a very fine athlete and effective offensive rebounder.
The Illini’s offensive efficiency came in at 108.9 (65th), with an effective field goal percentage of 50.1% (103rd). On free throws, from which the team got just 16.3% of their points, Illinois was ranked 97th as they hit 71.3%. The put in 49.8% (91st) of their twos and 34.0% (181st) of their threes. Although all of these numbers need to improve, the three-point stat is especially weak. One great statistic on offense concerns opponent’s percentage of blocked shots as the Illini had just 4.1% of their shots swiped away. That made them first in the country in that category.
Overall, the club’s defense was solid as they earned an efficiency mark of 92.7, which was 49th nationally. They managed to block 11.4% (60th) of opponent’s shots. Their ability to steal was ranked 279th as they swiped just 8.3% of possessions from other teams. Opposing teams liked to toss threes against this club. They got 33.3% of their points from downtown. However, those shooters weren’t very effective as they hit just 32.1% of their threes. The team’s scoring defense allowed 66.8 PPG, which was last in the Big Ten. Still, the Illini outscored their opponents by 4 points per game. It would be good if that margin could be wider.
Head coach Bruce Weber (276-126 in 12 years, 173-72 in seven years at Illinois) has managed to bring in some fine recruits, including the highly touted Richmond. A lot depends on how good the new guys play. The good news is that Illinois saw little turnover from last season and along with some very good rookies, there are three excellent starting seniors on the roster. The coach has people’s hopes high as the team has a stated desire to go deep into the NCAA Tournament. But you have to wonder how practical that is?
There’s no doubt that this team is better than last year’s and it seems likely that the guys who are returning learned some important and humbling lessons from their loss to Dayton in the NIT. Illinois is on an upswing but how far up the Big Ten ladder can they go with teams like Ohio State and Michigan State in their way? Prior to Purdue’s Plummer reinjuring his ACL, the Fighting Illini looked like a fourth place team. But with Plummer out for the season, Illinois has a solid shot at third in the Big Ten. There is something about this mix of players that should allow them to be much more competitive as long as they can improve their shooting percentages and their new players come through. Prior to the start of the 2010-2011 season, Illinois has a national ranking of 13th.