2008-09 Illinois Basketball Preview: #66
Illinois Fighting Illini
Overall Rank: #67
Conference Rank: #6 Big Ten
2007-08: 16-19, 5-13, 9th
2007-08 postseason: none
Illinois has been slipping down the Big Ten standings lately. Last year, when the team finished with a 5-13 conference record, might be as low as the team is going to get in the near future. There are some major holes to fill in the frontcourt, but the Illini still have more talent than a five win team. However, they did last year too and look what happened. The good news is that the experience is now on the perimeter and that is where a team needs leadership if they hope to play consistently.
Shaun Pruitt, Brian Randle and Rodney Alexander handled a majority of the minutes in the frontcourt last season. Pruitt led the team with 12.6 points and 7.3 rebounds and Randle was the team’s best overall player and leader. Alexander would not put up big numbers like Pruitt and Randle, but he did start 15 games and played some very important minutes. Brian Carlwell, Chris Hicks and Steve Holdren have also wrapped up their collegiate careers after seeing limited playing time during the 2007-2008 campaign. (Shooting guard Jamar Smith was also dismissed from the program. He didn't play last year.. so isn't technically a loss from last year.)
The recruiting class is nothing special, but power forwards Dominique Keller and Stan Simpson at least fill a need. Keller, a junior college transfer, is a good scorer, rebounder and shotblocker. If he can fit well in the system and find his role on the team, Keller could make a big impact for the Illini. He also has enough versatility to fill in and the four and five spots and that is a big bonus for a team that does not have a lot of big bodies. Simpson is a great rebounder and should at least help in that department as a freshman. C.J. Jackson is also back on the team after spending last year playing football. Yet, it is Alex Legion who has the Illini faithful the most excited. In the few games he played in for Kentucky last year before opting to transfer, he averaged 6.7 points per game and showed off his ability to score from anywhere on the floor. In a group that lacks a consistent scorer, Legion will get an opportunity to become a leader once he is eligible to play in December.
Who to Watch:
But Legion will have trouble cracking the starting lineup in a backcourt that features Demetri McCamey, Chester Frazier, Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock. McCamey and Frazier give Coach Bruce Weber a couple of capable playmakers. McCamey had a strong freshman campaign and averaged 8.2 points and 3.3 assists. Understandably the turnovers were an issue, but that is to be expected from a freshman. With both McCamey and Frazier, there are options even if McCamey cannot get past the turnover issue. Meacham is the outside shooter of the bunch and hit 40 percent his attempts from beyond the arc. Unless the new faces in the paint can develop into consistent scorers, Meacham will not get as many open looks this year. Brock is the underappreciated man on the perimeter. The 6-5 wing can be a decent scorer when the team needs him to be, but it is his defense and athleticism that make him stand out.
The big question is replacing the production in the frontcourt. Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis are the likely new starters. Both only averaged 10.4 minutes per game as freshmen, but their roles will increase dramatically as sophomores. Tisdale, at 7-1, brings some size to the unit, but has he gained enough strength to battle day in and day out against Big Ten opponents? Illinois better hope so or the team could lack the big man they need on both sides of the floor.
Projected Post-season Tournament: NIT
Projected Starting Five:
Demetri McCamey, Sophomore, Guard, 8.2 points per game
Trent Meacham, Senior, Guard, 10.1 points per game
Calvin Brock, Senior, Guard, 7.4 points per game
Mike Davis, Sophomore, Forward, 2.6 points per game
Mike Tisdale, Sophomore, Center, 3.6 points per game