Will Illinois make the jump to the next level this year?
Illinois felt the sting of being left out of the 2010 NCAA Tournament, but the Fighting Illini went on to win two games in the NIT before losing to eventual champion, Dayton. Bruce Weber's squad had some successes last season- coming back from a 23-point second-half deficit to beat No. 19 Clemson on the road, going into the Kohl Center and knocking off the Wisconsin Badgers and knocking off Michigan State at home. The Fighting Illini had some inconsistencies- getting upset by Utah and Bradley in the Las Vegas Invitation and losing five of six Big Ten conference games down the stretch, eventually falling out of favor with the NCAA committee.
Illinois returns the most talent in the Big Ten Conference and has been labeled the dark horse candidate for the Big Ten title in 2010-11; a loaded incoming freshman class will help lighten the load for veterans Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis an Mike Tisdale. McCamey's 15.1 points and 7.1 assists run the team as the most dangerous and complete offensive threat. The offense literally runs through the senior guard as he is scoring or assisting on nearly 30% of the team's possessions. Rising-sophomores D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul have another year of Bruce Weber's system under their belts and should play major minutes again this season, especially Paul. The highly-recruited guard from Illinois went off for 22 points in his collegiate debut and followed up that performance with 20 points the next game. However, the freshman fell out of favor with Coach and found himself on the bench more often than not. With his decreased minutes, Paul couldn't find his shot, nor the motivation to work harder and fight to regain his spot. His lack of efforts only dug himself deeper onto Weber's bench.
If Paul's attitude continues into the 2010-11 season, Weber can easily replace Paul with one of the top wings in the freshman class, Jereme Richmond, Mr. Basketball of Illinois in 2010. At 6'8" and extremely athletic, Richmond will likely star for the orange and blue from day 1. He has the ability to play four positions on the court as a point guard, either wing spot or even as a point forward role. Joining Richmond in the incoming class is Meyers Leonard, a 7-foot center, who will spell Davis and Tisdale in the frontcourt. He is a physically strong, tough interior presence, something Davis and Tisdale are not. Also new to the team are Crandall Head, brother of former Illinois guard, Luther Head, but he is still on the mend as he tore his ACL in the fall of 2009.
Illinois returns nearly every contributor from the 2009-10 team that finished 10-8 in the loaded Big Ten and a top-rated incoming freshman class. Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin need to watch out because few are speaking about the Fighting Illini in the conversation for this year's Big Ten conference champs.