So far this young season, I have seen six exhibition games (all Big Ten on BTN) and two of those were Illinois games. The Illini were ranked 52 in the Coaches Preseason Poll, but I can tell you definitively that there are not 51 better teams in the country. In fact, I predict the Illini will surprise this season and end the year ranked in the Top 25. And don't be surprised if they win the Maui Classic later this month.
First of all, let's get last year out of the memory banks. Over the past 5 years, the Illini are one of Top 3 winningest programs in college basketball which is a testament to Bruce Weber and his staff. Last year was an aberration in which they only won 23 games (most teams would kill for that kind of failure). They were plagued with injuries, inexperienced guard play and very poor free throw shooting.
Flash forward to this year, Weber and staff have 7 newcomers on the roster and 3-4 of them have the potential to be big time contributors this year. But given the unknowns of so many newcomers and with only 2 Seniors on the roster, the media has overlooked the Illini.
What I have been most impressed with from the Illini is their athleticism and deep depth. These guys are fast and they can jump. It appears that the coaching staff is going to use that depth to play an uptempo game to wear down opponents.
The two seniors and four juniors will be key to the Illini's success. Shaun Pruitt looked very good in two exhibition games and has been successful passing out of double teams which has been a knock in the past. He starts the year as a first team all Big Ten selection at Center.
Brian Randle is one of the most athletic forwards in the nation but he has been plagued by injuries his first 4 years (including a redshirt year) at Illinois. He can play the 3 or the 4 position and creates huge matchup problems at either position because of his athleticism and ball handling abilities.
Chester Frazier is the starting point guard and arguably the best defensive point guard in the Big Ten. He is very quick and plays all out for the entire 40 minutes of games. He was asked to play too many minutes last year because of injuries, but his minutes should come down this year with freshman Demetri McCamey joining the team.
With the absence of Jamar Smith for the year due to disciplinary action from his DUI car accident, three Juniors, Calvin Brock and two walk-on transfers, Trent Meachum and Steve Holdren, are expected to pick up the slack at the 2 spot. Brock is very athletic with a good mid-range jumper, while Meachum and Holdren are shooting specialists that will improve Illini's outside shooting. Meachum played about 17 minutes a games last year and shot .400 from 3 point range while Holdren sat last year as a transfer from South Dakota St.
While the recruiting class was not considered a Top 25 class, Weber and staff have proven an uncanny ability to judge talent and get the most out of players that others passed up. This class will be no different.
Rodney Alexander is a JUCO transfer that came in as one of the top 10 rated JUCO transfers. He appears to be the newcomer that is most prepared to play at the Big Ten level. He can play the 3 or 4 position and is a shooter without conscience. He rarely missed a shot in the 2 games I have seen him play. The Illini desperately need a fearless gunslinger on this team which experienced uncomfortable scoring droughts throughout last year, including in the first round loss to Virginia Tech in the NCAA tournament.
Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale are the two most likely immediate impact players from the freshman class. McCamey was a 4 star PG that is very fast and with good court vision. He will share PG duties and may also play some 2 guard in certain sets with Frazier at point. Both Frazier and McCamey have looked very good executing in the fast break and they both have looked to drive an uptempo game.
Tisdale is 7'1" Center/Forward with a very good all around game. Based on what I have seen, I would say he is going to be special. He can put the ball on the floor, play with his back to or facing the basket, he can knock down 3 pointers and has a very good mid-range jumper. He was clearly under-rated as a 3 star center coming out of high school and should be fun to watch develop.
Bill Cole (6'9") and Mike Davis (6'9") are athletic freshman forwards that likely will play more at the 4 spot than the 3. While originally Weber indicate either or both of them might redshirt, more recently Weber has indicated that both of them have exceeded expectations and should play this year.
The Illini also have two returning underclassmen, Brian Carlwell and Richard Semrau (redshirt freshman). They both sustained traumatic injuries last year and have spent the summer recovering. They will both likely continue to recover in the first part of the season and contribute more minutes later in the year.
Lastly, during the summer the Illini added Jeff Jordan, Micheal's oldest son, to the roster as a preferred status walkon. Jeff is a 6'1" guard that can play either the 1 or 2 position. Jordan is extremely athletic with the team's highest vertical leap. While he will not likely see a lot of minutes his freshman year, he should be a solid contributor for 3 years thereafter.
One of the most intriguing aspects to this team will be the some of lineups they can field that will produce huge matchup problems for opponents. One of those would include 6'10" 245 pound Pruitt playing alongside 7'1" Tisdale (or 6'11" Carlwell) in the front court, with Randle or Alexander at the 3, Frazier at the point and a combination of McCamey, Meachum and Holdren at the 2 spot.
There are few teams in the country that would be able to cover that front court. Then you would likely have a guard covering the 3 which is a brutal matchup against the taller leapers in Randle and Alexander. With Alexander at 3 and either Meachum/Holdren at the 2, teams would have to provide perimeter defense because of their 3 point shooting abilities.
The Shooting Guard is clearly the weakest position on the team. Weber's best shooters, Meachum and Holdren, are not going to be as athletic as the top 2 guards in the conference. And his most athletic guards, Brock and McCamey, are not as good at outside shooting.
If Weber can solve the 2 guard riddle, this Illini team can make waves in the Big Ten and the NCAA tournament.
Check out this Bruce Weber DVD on Mastering the 5 Man Motion Offense.