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October 13, 2009
Illinois bounced back in a big way in 2008-09, a trend that should continue into this season. That's a sharp turn from where the program appeared to be headed going into last season. The Illini slipped to 16-19 in 2007-08, their lowest win total in a decade. Coach Bruce Weber responded to the pressure by leading his blue-collar team to a 13-1 start and a second-place finish in the Big Ten last season. Illinois returned to its winning ways thanks to physical man-to-man defense. Illinois led the conference in scoring defense (57.2 points per game) and held opponents to less than 40 percent shooting. The future looks bright, too, with the top three scorers returning to the lineup along with the second-ranked recruiting class in the Big Ten. The only negative to the season was the way the Illini finished. Illinois lost four of its last five, including a 76-72 setback to 12th-seeded Western Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Guard Demetri McCamey led Illinois in scoring last season at 11.5 points per game.
Illinois should have one of the better frontcourts in the league behind forward Mike Davis and center Mike Tisdale, unheralded players who emerged last season as sophomores. While Illinois isn't going to muscle many teams with Davis and Tisdale - Davis is 220 pounds, Tisdale 235 - the duo is skilled. They both averaged double figures in scoring. Davis, who suffered a broken left ankle in early June, will be watched closely early. Tisdale needs to become more prominent on the boards after averaging just 4.0 rebounds per game last season. Dominique Keller, the team's only scholarship senior, was a glue guy last season who averaged 5.9 points off the bench.
Illinois will miss Trent Meachem, the Big Ten's assist leader, and Chester Frazier, an excellent defender. Junior Demetri McCamey, who led the team at 11.5 points per game last season, will lead the way. He and Weber sometimes clash, but Illinois needs McCamey to be a go-to player. The backcourt will benefit from the freshman class; shooting guards D.J. Richardson (ranked 38th in the class) and Brandon Paul (42nd) should contribute immediately. Illinois also is looking for more from Kentucky transfer Alex Legion, who averaged a mere 3.5 points and shot 28.9 percent from the field once he became eligible in late December.
Illinois won't sneak up on anyone this season, and McCamey, Davis and Tisdale need to show they can handle the higher expectations. The talent is on hand for another 20-win season and a nice NCAA showing.
Preseason rankings were compiled by basketball writers David Fox, Mike Huguenin, Jason King and Steve Megargee.