Top 68 Team Previews: #35 Illinois Fighting Illini
Brandon Paul will have to step up as a leader for the Illini this season. (Icon SMI)
By Kevin Mallory
Monday, September 12, 2011
Illinois Fighting Illini
Last Season: 19-13 (9-9)
Key Losses: Mike Davis, Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale, Jereme Richmond, Bill Cole
Head Coach: Bruce Weber
Projected Starting Lineup
PG: D.J. Richardson 6-3 Jr.
SG: Brandon Paul 6-4 Jr.
SF: Myke Henry 6-6 Fr.
PF: Mike Shaw 6-8 Fr.
C: Meyers Leonard 7-1 So.
Key Reserves: Joseph Bertrand 6-5 So. G, Sam Maniscalco 6-0 Sr. PG, Crandall Head 6-4 So. SG, Tyler Griffey 6-8 Jr. PF, Tracy Abrams 6-1 Fr. PG, Nnanna Egwu 6-11 Fr. C
Following a few years of big-time expectations and drama, Illinois will seemingly carry itself with a sort of anonymity. This could be a wonderful thing for the Fighting Illini.
While there are no names on the roster that qualify as superstars or household names, Bruce Weber has molded a team that will be young, deep and talented. The Illini will be one of those teams that eventually wear down the opposition late in the game.
Although this team is talented and deep, fans must remember that this team is very young. Illinois will feature six true freshmen and two true sophomores. So Illini Nation should brace themselves for inevitable growing pains along the way.
This is where the experienced players will need to pick up the slack, and it will start with junior guard Brandon Paul, who will have to step up on and off the court to replace four starters that graduated. Also, former Big Ten Freshman of the Year D.J. Richardson will need to continue to improve to help offset the youth of the frontcourt.
Meyers Leonard and Tyler Griffey are the only two frontcourt players on the roster with college basketball experience. Leonard is a talented 7-footer with NBA first round potential. This is expected to be his breakout year after sitting the bench behind Mike Tisdale last year. Griffey was a minor contributor last season, averaging just 1.6 points and 1.2 rebounds per game. Leonard didn't contribute much more, tallying 2.1 points and 1.2 boards per game.
One of the knocks on Bruce Weber is that he has been unable to keep the big, local recruits at home (Jon Scheyer, Derrick Rose, Sherron Collins, Julian Wright). Weber's 2011 recruiting class was ranked in the top 15 by Rivals.com with the signing of four four-star recruits, wing Myke Henry (6-6), guard Tracy Abrams (6-1), center Nnanna Egwu (6-11), and swingman Mike Shaw (6-8). Egwu is a very raw player that has great upside. He will provide an intimidating interior defensive presence. Henry is looked at as an athletic wing that is a terrific finisher and will match up well defensively with his nearly seven-foot wingspan. Abrams is currently looked at as a combo guard that can fill it up in the half-court and transition while being able to man the point. Shaw is another long, athletic finisher that can run the floor in an up-tempo style.
With so much youth on this roster, one or two freshmen will likely be forced to start. The most likely candidates to play alongside Leonard in the frontcourt are Henry and Shaw. Although he is raw, Egwu could see some starts as well because of his size and length.
The Illini suffered a loss with the early departure of the talented and trouble Jereme Richmond when he declared for the NBA draft after his freshman season. His departure coupled with the loss of seniors Mike Davis, Demetri McCamey, Bill Cole and Mike Tisdale leaves some holes that the young Illini players need to fill quickly. But Illinois will be infused with more talent and will provide depth and toughness to a team that was too inconsistent at times. Even though it is unlikely that Illinois will challenge Ohio State for the Big Ten title, the Illini will be one of the top teams in the conference and should make a return to the NCAA tournament.