The Illinois Illini had a roller-coaster ride of a season last year that ended with a first-round loss to Western Kentucky in the NCAA tournament.
At times they looked like a talented and dangerous team. They obliterated a strong Missouri team that made it to the Elite Eight early in the year and won two of their three matchups with a tough Purdue squad.
However, they struggled with their consistency in other games, especially on the offensive end. On two occasions they failed to put 40 points on the board, including an embarrassing 38-33 loss to Penn State.
They finished 24-9 on the year, which was still pretty good given the roster uncertainty entering the season.
While their three best players return from that team, they have some holes to replace in the backcourt.
PG: Demetri McCamey, 6'3", 205 pounds, JR
McCamey has considerable talent, but the junior guard is also quite inconsistent.
When he is on top of his game, he can be a dominant player that can penetrate with ease and create quality shots for himself and others.
However, he settled for outside jumpers far too often last year. Over half of his field goal attempts came from behind the arc last year even though he only hit about 31 percent of his threes. It appeared that he didn't put in as much effort as he could have last year.
Even if he coasts through large portions of the season again, he can help the team; if he plays with more aggression on both ends of the floor, though, he could make the All-Conference team.
SG: D.J. Richardson, 6'3", 175 pounds, FR
SG: Brandon Paul, 6'3", 175 pounds, FR
The Illini lost rotation staples Trent Meacham and Chester Frazier from last year, so they will likely go young on the wings. They were Illinois' best outside shooter and ball-handler, respectively, so the team does have some holes to fill.
That said, the two freshman guards represent a sizable talent upgrade from their predecessors. Both Richardson and Paul were elite recruits, scoring as four-star prospects on both scout.com and rivals.com and placing in the overall top 50 on rivals.
I'd rather not speculate on their caliber of play considering that they haven't faced college-level competition yet. However, there is a decent chance that both players could step in and be at least serviceable starters right away. If they do more than that, the Illini will be in great shape.
PF: Mike Davis, 6'9", 210 pounds, JR
Though he was an afterthought by many entering last season, Davis stepped up and became Illinois' best all-around player. The junior forward is a solid athlete that can also stick mid-range jumpers, making him very tough to cover on the offensive end of the floor.
The only thing you can really criticize about Mike is his lack of bulk and strength. Though he can hold his own against most opponents, stronger players can give him trouble on both ends of the floor. He tends to be more of a slasher/shooter in the Chris Bosh mold than a true low-post force.
However, that works well given the skill set of his front court partner, and he still has the potential to make an even bigger impact this year.
C: Mike Tisdale, 7'1" 235 JR
Tisdale is another player that came out of nowhere to have a surprisingly productive season last year.
The big man has a very good touch around the basket and can even step outside with some success. He's also a very good free throw shooter. His size is very difficult for most teams to handle.
However, he is not particularly mobile, and that can be an issue. He's not a particularly good rebounder, mostly just getting the balls that are in his area. He was also very foul prone last year, averaging three per game in only 24.7 minutes. That foul rate is one of the major reasons that he didn't see the floor as much as you would expect, forcing Illinois to go small at times.
Illinois had a fairly short bench last year and that likely won't change.
Dominique Keller and Alex Legion are the only other returning players that averaged at least ten minutes of court time last year. There will likely be occasional appearances from Richard Semrau and Jeff Jordan, but they probably won't be major parts of the rotation.
Keller is a solid energy player off the bench with good athleticism and length, but his skill set is rather limited. Legion is a formerly elite recruit that transferred from Kentucky and struggled with his shot in Champaign.
If any other bench players crack the regular rotation, it will likely be freshmen Joseph Bertrand and/or Tyler Griffey. Both cracked the top 150 on rivals, so they clearly have some talent. However, there probably won't be too many minutes to go around.
The Illini have the potential to build on a decent season in what was expected to be a down year. They have three solid juniors returning as well as some talented newcomers that could crack the lineup.
How well the freshman guards play will ultimately determine what kind of year they will have. They need to contribute rather quickly if Illinois is going to compete for a Big Ten title. The conference will be pretty competitive and they will have to be more consistent in order to reach their potential.
Illinois appears to be on the upswing as a program. After several years of sub-par recruiting, they have brought in some talented recruits this year and have an even stronger class coming in next season. If they can contend in 2009-2010, they will definitely be one of the programs to watch next year.