Since leading Illinois to the Final 4 in 2004-2005, head coach Bruce Weber seemed to face a constant storm of fans questioning his ability to maintain a high level of quality for the basketball program. Weber has faced constant questions about his ability to recruit, as local stars like Eric Gordon and Derrick Rose have elected to go out of state to pursue their college careers. While there have been questions about his ability to lure top recruits to campus, there can really be no questions about how solid of a coach Weber has been. Perhaps the greatest coaching job of his career came last season, when Weber led the Fighting Illini to a 24-10 record and a tie for second in the Big 10.
Expectations will certainly be high for his upcoming season, as Illinois will return the bulk of their scoring and also incorporate some exciting freshman. The hardest individual to replace will likely be Chester Frazier. Frazier was the heart and soul of the 2008-2009 team, as he was a lockdown defender and the type of guy that was willing to sacrifice his body for the team. Frazier showed incredible versatility in averaging 5.7 points,4.8 rebound, and 5.3 assists. Illinois will also need to find a replacement for Trent Meachem. The 6'2 guard was an excellent shooter from behind the arc, and was tremendously effective in stretching the opposing defense. Even with these two gone, this team has the talent and depth to improve on last season and to contend for a Big 10 championship.
Last Season: One of the most important pieces to making the NCAA Tournament is to beat the teams that you can and should beat. Last season, Illinois used this concept to put together a surprisingly successful season that saw the team earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Bruce Weber had this group ready to roll at the start of the season, and they jumped out to a 12-1 record, which included quality wins over Clemson and Missouri. Once Big 10 play started, the Fighting Illini took care of business against the lower half of the conference, while they struggled against the top of the conference. Despite being swept by Michigan St. and Penn St. during the regular season, they were able to gain a lot of confidence with the tournament selection committee by sweeping Purdue during Big 10 play. After being eliminated in the second round of the Big 10 tournament, Illinois was awarded a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately for Bruce Weber and his team, their season would come to an end against Western Kentucky in a 76-72 loss in the 1st round.
New Faces: When discussing the new faces for this team, the first name that needs to be discussed is D.J. Richardson. The 6'3 guard has is an absolutely explosive scorer who thrives when the tempo is high and he is able to run in transition. Even more important for the style of play that Illinois is known for, Richardson is an in your face defender who has the quickness and instincts to jump passing lanes with great success. If the early reports are any indication, except to see Richardson in the starting lineup throughout his freshman season. Another freshman guard that will likely be in the rotation is Brandon Paul. Paul is a gifted athlete on the perimeter, but he doesn't quite possess the confidence or attacking instinct that Richardson does at this point. Paul does a lot of things on the court very well, but he doesn't yet possess a unique or excellent ability at any one thing on the court. Paul will be able to provide valuable depth for this team while he continues to develop and improve his game. Tyler Griffey and Joseph Bertrand round out the incoming freshman for Bruce Weber. Griffey is a developing big that does a good job of shooting the ball. However, he will need to improve his strength and physicality before he can play at the Big 10 level. Bertrand is a very physical guard that should be a nice fit for this program. He is a strong shooter from the perimeter, and even more importantly he is a willing and physical defender.
Players to Watch: In Demetri McCamey, the Fighting Illini return one of the most explosive guards in the Big 10. Last season, McCamey led the team in scoring at 11.5 points per game, and was also second on the team with 4.6 assists. McCamey has done a great job developing and improving his game since arriving in Champaign, but this year he will need to mold himself into a leader both on and off the court. Illinois also returns arguably the top front court player in the Big 10. Mike Davis is a rapidly improving power forward, who averaged 11.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Davis has a tendency to float around the court and does not always assert himself in games. However, when he is involved and playing well, Davis can be nearly unstoppable with his length. Much was expected of Alex Legion when he transferred to Illinois after his time at Kentucky. Legion was unable to make a huge impact in 22 games last season, but the hope is that he can provide the shooting that he was known for as a recruit. If Legion can play up to the expectations he had as an elite high school recruit, this team could have one of the more exciting back courts in the country.
Concerns: At times, we have seen Gonzaga teams that have flat out struggled when facing physical defense. Along with Michigan St., this Illinois group will be the most physical and tough group that Gonzaga will face all season. Guys like Meech Goodson, Elias Harris, and Steven Gray must prove that they can handle the tough and in your face style of basketball that they will see. This will be a great learning experience for the freshman, and the hope is that they will be prepared for this type of game by January.
What we are watching for: I think this will be the type of game where Gonzaga will look use the depth and athleticism that this team has. If the Zags can get out in transition and force this to not be a halfcourt game, then I absolutely love their chances. Guys like Mangisto Arop, Elias Harris, and Rob Sacre will have to look run the court when given the opportunity, as there could definitely be some easy baskets available. If this game turns into a halfcourt game, then Illinois will be able to take long possessions and dictate the tempo and style of the game, which could be a huge problem for this team.