Coming off a 16-19 season in 2008, no one really knew what to expect this season from Bruce Weber's young Illini team.
Last season, this team was plagued by two talented, but underachieving seniors, maddening inconsistencies, and bottom ten national ranking in free throw shooting. Add to that the final chapter of the Jamar Smith saga in the offseason, and this team looked like it was headed for another year in the cellar.
However, due to some unexpected overachieving play by some of Weber's young unknowns, the Illini are right in line for an NCAA berth, and are sure to be a tough draw every night in the brutal Big Ten schedule.
The improved play of big men sophomores Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale has really deepened an Illini squad which was already strong in the backcourt. Even with the Jamar Smith debacle, this team has moved on rather nicely.
Experience was not a question mark in the backcourt, but long range shooting was a concern with Smith's departure. Senior guard Trent Meacham has responded nicely by shooting a sizzling 49% from 3-point range for the season, while shooting over 50% so far in Big Ten play. Kentucky transfer Alex Legion, and sophomore Demetri McCamey also are long range threats, and senior leader Chester Frazier currently leads the Big Ten in assists.
This was all supposed to be one year away because of the brilliant recruiting class that Weber awaits next season. The improvement of all these players has the Illini right in the thick of the Big Ten race now, but it won't be easy.
The Big Ten currently has the country's top conference RPI rating, and is unexpectedly deep with so many teams vastly improved from last season. Currently Michigan State holds the conference lead and seems to be a cut above everyone else. After the Spartans it looks to be completely fair game, with the exception of Northwestern and Indiana.
Illinois must take care of the current home stretch; four out of their next five games are home at Assembly Hall. They have Michigan Wednesday night, and then they travel to the Breslin Center for their first shot at the Spartans.
This is Bruce Weber's first season at Illinois where every player on the roster is one that he brought there. I look forward to seeing them continue to make progress.