After a two-year showing of complete mediocrity and borderline bad..ocrity in 2006 through 2008, the Fighting Illini of Illinois are back.
After a 24-10 campaign last year, which ended in a first-round loss to Western Kentucky as a five seed in the NCAA tournament, with sophomores Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, and Mike Tisdale breaking out, the Illini have added freshman Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson to the mix.
Richardson was ranked 14th among high school shooting guards in the country, while Paul was 23rd, both being 2009 ESPN Top 100 recruits, and both have shown to fit well in Bruce Weber's system early in the season.
Richardson plays stifling defense which makes up for the loss of Chester Frazier and Calvin Brock, who, although unable to put the ball in the basket, played shut-down defense. Richardson, however, can score as well.
Paul can simply do it all. He can drive, shoot, and the Illini finally have another three-point threat besides McCamey, who worked in the offseason moving from shooting guard to the point.
What people are not seeing with the Illini is the other two freshman, Tyler Griffey and Joseph Bertrand, who are simply not starting because the Illinois starting five is just that good.
Griffey, another 2009 ESPN Top 100 recruit, is a power forward with the ability to work in the post, while having the ability to hit from beyond the arc with regularity. Bertrand, although not a Top 100 recruit, was given a grade of 88/100 from ESPN, is a shooting guard who can also hit the three-point shot and has confidence handling the ball.
This season you are looking at a starting five of juniors McCamey, Davis, and Tisdale along with freshman Paul and Richardson. The Illini also have big-bodied senior Dominique Keller to come off the bench to fill in for Tisdale when he decides to play like a frightened child, junior Alex Legion to come in for an offensive spark, along with Griffey and Bertrand.
Next season, the Illini should only lose Keller and fan-favorite Bubba Chisolm. They will gain, however, the 5th-ranked small forward in Jereme Richmond, who some are calling the "biggest recruit in Illinois history", the 3rd-ranked center in Meyers Leonard, and Crandall Head, brother of Luther and ranked 21st among shooting guards. All three are 2010 ESPN Top 100 recruits.
The Illini are already set for when Tisdale and Davis leave in two seasons with Stan Simpson and Griffey, but these recruiting classes not only secure the Illini even more, but make for difficult competition for playing time along with an impressive bench.
Illinois also has verbal commitments for 2011 from Chicago southland standouts 9th-ranked point guard Tracy Abrams from Mount Carmel High School and 11th-ranked center Nnanna Egwu from St. Ignatius. We all know how verbal commitments can play out, however.
The Illini ran into a bad match-up in the tournament last year, facing a Western Kentucky team that not only defeated Louisville, but had four players from the Sweet Sixteen team the year before. The Illini, as a team, had 74 minutes of tournament experience 56 of which were sitting on the bench with an injury in the form of Frazier. Any intelligent college basketball fan had Illinois losing that game.
This year, however, is a different story. The Illini are young, talented, and more importantly, experienced.
The Big Ten is on the rise and these recruiting classes were a must not just for the Illini to compete, but also for Weber to keep his job.