If the calendar says October, in my world, it’s time to start talking Illinois Fighting Illini hoops.
Coach Bruce Weber and his Illini are coming off a somewhat disappointing 2010-2011 campaign that saw them finish with a record of 20-14 and 9-9 in the Big Ten. I say that it was somewhat disappointing because, while they did reach the second round of the NCAA tournament, a lot more was expected from a group that returned first-team All-Big Ten guard Demetri McCamey, honorable mention All-Big Ten forward Mike Davis and center Mike Tisdale.
In addition to that, they were adding one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, highlighted by the enigmatic Jereme Richmond, who was near the top of almost everyone’s recruiting list.
The Illini started the season ranked in the Top-15 and everything seemed in place for them to make a run at the Big Ten title and a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
However, they didn’t quite live up to the hype.
After starting the season 10-1 and looking like the team everyone thought they would be, the Illini inexplicably lost to their sister school, Illinois-Chicago, in their annual game at the United Center.
That game seemed to be the turning point of the season, as the Illini would go 10-12 the rest of the way, including just 9-9 in the Big Ten. They reached the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years before losing to Kansas, but don’t mention that to the Illini Nation—they expected a lot more.
Coming into this season, it seems that expectations have been lowered a bit—not necessarily by Illinois fans, but by the college basketball world.
Illinois lost four seniors, all of whom started at some point last season, and will only have one senior on this year’s roster. In addition, Jereme Richmond decided to leave the program in order to play professionally, which hasn’t turned out well for him to this point. Either way, he's gone and it is easy to see why some may question how much fight the Illini will have in them this year.
Just maybe this is exactly what the Illini need—no expectations.
Predicted to finish somewhere in the middle of the Big Ten by most experts, this version of the Fighting Illini may just fly under the radar and surprise some people.
Here’s a look at how the Illini roster breaks down this year as well as some keys to a successful season.
Probable Starter—Sam Maniscalco (Sr.)
Off The Bench—Tracy Abrams (Fr.)
The lone senior on the roster this season wasn’t even a member of the team last year, but he may turn out to be the most important part of this year’s team.
Sam Maniscalco transferred to Illinois from Bradley last spring and brings a lot of experience and toughness at the point guard position, something the Illini sorely need.
Maniscalco was injured early in his senior season last year and was granted a medical redshirt that left him with one year of eligibility. He decided to transfer to Illinois as a graduate student because they offer a program that was not offered at Bradley. Two years ago, as a junior, he averaged 13 points and 3.4 assists per game for the Braves, and Bruce Weber is hoping that he can fill the void left at point guard with the departure of Demetri McCamey.
Freshman Tracy Abrams will likely play behind Maniscalco and, hopefully, learn a thing or two about playing the point at the college level. Abrams has been tagged as more of a combo guard, but Weber loves his toughness and he may see significant playing time at the point as a freshman.
Richardson is hoping to regain his shooting touch this season.
Probable Starter—D.J. Richardson (Jr.)
Off the Bench—Crandall Head (So.), Joseph Bertrand (So.)
D.J. Richardson, who was Freshman of the Year in the Big Ten two years ago, took a step back as a sophomore and is hoping to rebound this season. He is the second leading returning scorer behind Brandon Paul at 8.4 points per game, but struggled with his shot last year and seemed to lose confidence. He has always been a solid defender but, for the Illini to be successful this year, Richardson needs to regain his shooting touch from the three-point arc.
It’s not a stretch to say that the guys coming off the bench behind Richardson may actually be better athletes. Sophomores Joseph Bertrand and Crandall Head are exceptional athletes who should both see plenty of time off the bench. They are quick, long and like to get up and down the floor. Should Richardson struggle with his shot again this year, one or both of these guys will get an opportunity to show what they can do.
Brandon Paul may be the "go to guy" this year in Champaign.
Probable Starter—Brandon Paul (Jr.)
Off the Bench—Mycheal Henry (Fr.), Devin Langford (Fr.)
The Illini are loaded with talent on the wing, and it starts with junior Brandon Paul. Paul is the leading returning scorer from last year’s team at nine points per game and has all the tools to be an All-Big Ten performer. However, in his first two seasons in Champaign, Paul has been plagued by inconsistency. The Illini coaching staff are hoping that this is the season it all comes together for him.
Coming off the bench behind Paul are several options. It's possible that either Head or Bertrand could slide over into this position from time to time, but the Illini have two freshmen wing players that have a chance to be solid contributors as well.
Mycheal Henry is a highly touted player from Orr High School in the Chicago Public League who could see significant playing time as a freshman depending on how he develops. Devin Langford is the other freshman and, although he is not as highly regarded as Henry, he has a chance to develop into a nice player for the Illini as well.
Griffey needs to play big down low for the Illini this year.
Probable Starter—Tyler Griffey (Jr.)
Off the Bench—Mike Shaw (Fr.), Ibby Djimde (Fr.)
Griffey is coming off of a disappointing sophomore year, where he was eventually relegated to minimal time off the bench. He is a great outside shooter for his size (6’8”), but he needs to get stronger and play tougher down low because that’s where the Illini will need him most.
The 6’8” Shaw is another highly sought-after recruit that the Illini staff had been targeting since his freshman year at De La Salle High School in Chicago. He has the ability to eventually be a difference maker in the Big Ten, but for now the Illini just hope that he can contribute as a freshman.
Djimde was a late signee for the Illini staff, but at 6’8” and 250 pounds he is exactly the kind of banger they need. He is an effort guy who is going to play physical and hard all the time, according to scouts. That is definitely something that this team needs more of and, hopefully, it will rub off on the rest of the team.
The development of Leonard may be the key to the season for the Illini.
Probable Starter—Meyers Leonard (So.)
Off the Bench—Nnanna Egwu (Fr.)
The success of this Illini team may depend on the development of sophomore big man Meyers Leonard. As a highly touted freshman, the seven foot Leonard struggled to stay on the floor consistently because of foul trouble, while showing that he needed to develop his offensive game as well.
Weber is hoping that the summer trip overseas with the USA National Team helped Leonard mature and develop his game, as he went up against several talented big men. Leonard definitely has the size and talent to be a force in the Big Ten for several years. The Illini are hoping that starts this season.
Egwu is a 6’10” big man who many feel can be the sleeper of this group. He obviously has the size, but he can also get up and down the floor like a guard. He is a late bloomer who has only been playing organized basketball for two years but, according to scouts, the sky is the limit for him.
Weber is under pressure to produce this season.
This Illini team has a ton of talent, but they are still young and expectations have been tempered a bit. However, if you ask Bruce Weber and his staff you may get a different answer—they expect a lot from this group.
Yes, the Illini lost four senior starters, but that group never seemed to gel the way most thought they would and fell short of expectations.
The loss of Jereme Richmond seemed to be a big blow at the time, but it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for this current Illini team. As talented as he was, Richmond's off the court issues overshadowed everything else and were clearly a distraction to the team.
The hope is that their lone senior, Maniscalco, along with juniors Paul and Richardson, will be able to provide the leadership and drive that this team needs to be successful.
The Illini coaching staff has put together back-to-back solid recruiting classes and are hoping to get Illinois basketball back on the map—while Weber is just trying to keep his job.
Over the past five seasons, the Illini have managed a combined conference record of 44-44, with only one NCAA tournament victory, and have failed to be ranked in the final AP Top-25 poll each of those seasons. This definitely puts Weber on the proverbial "hot seat."
This team needs to play well this year in order to help Weber feel more secure about his job, and they certainly have the pieces in place to be able to do just that.
As I stated earler, I think this team has a chance to surprise some people and remain in the upper echelon of the Big Ten, if not contend for the title.
I would look for them to surpass last year's win total of 20 games and finish above .500 in the conference. If they can do that, they should get a decent seed in the NCAA tournament and from there, well, it'll be madness, as they say.