I am always worried when I get overly optimistic for my beloved Illini. As an Illini fan the last several years of play have been a bitter pill to swallow. Unfortunately, I think much of the teams lack of success falls back to the combination of the Eric Gordon incident and the Jamar Smith drunk driving situation.
While many may think that is water under the bridge, the late Gordon decommitment and Jamar Smith being kicked out of school left us with a void at the SG spot for 3 years. That void has really hurt the offense.
However, the 2009 class will be Juniors this year and I think they will come into their own this year with big upsides in production. Both DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul have shined at times in the past two years but I expect big things from the pair this year.
The late addition of Sam Maniscalco as a transfer from Bradley shores up a huge need for the coming year -- experience at the PG spot. Already he has proven to be an on-court leader with a never say die attitude on the court. While McCamey was an excellent scorer, he did not have that killer instinct and on-court leadership that the team needed last year. Despite losing McCamey's amazing stats from this past year, I think Sam may be a step-up for this young team because leadership is so critical. If he can equal (or exceed) McCamey's assist numbers and get half his points I will be very happy.
Then there is the budding star in Meyers Leonard. While his freshman year was an up and down affair, rumors are that he has made HUGE strides since the end of the season. That must be at least partially true because he remains one of the finalists for the USA U19 team which is a huge honor and an excellent group of talent. I am very excited to see what Meyers will do in the post this coming year now that he is out from under the shadow of the Mike and Mike show.
Lastly, the incoming freshman class is going to bring a lot of competitiveness, bulk and overall intangibles. If the early workouts are any indication, this group is going to fight for rebounds, loose balls and points on this team. It will be fun to watch them grow. We have a couple of legitimate scorers in Mychael Henry and Mike Shaw (the new Myke and Mike show). Abrams is going to provide valuable minutes at the PG spot. Then we have some real wildcard bigs in Nannu and Ibby -- they will provide some bruising minutes during the black and blue Big Ten schedule. While freshman will definitely make mistakes and play erractically, I love the depth and overall talent in the freshman group.
Overall, I am starting to think that this team will actually be better than last years squad despite losing more than 60% of the offense. Points are replaceable but bringing in the intangibles that we did not have last year is likely more valuable. I would be downright shocked if this years team does not dramatically outrebound last year's team. There are a lot more players in the current group that are inclined to lay their body on the floor for a loose ball. I love the feistiness of Paul and Richardson and Sam's leadership sounds like a big plus.
I hate to get too optimistic early but I hope that we are starting a big upswing in the House of Paign.