It's November and for a lot of us that signals the start of the best time of the year, college basketball season. Well, we continue our look around the Big Ten with Illinois, one of the youngest teams in a conference that sees a good mix of old and new as a whole. They are looking to replace 4 starters from last year, so a lot is up in the air around the Illini program as they enter a very unknown year ahead. Can the young, but highly touted players fill the void right away? Or will someone already on the roster last year be the go to guy?
Conference Record/Finish: 9-9 (tie - 4th)
Postseason: NCAA Tournament 3rd Round (Lost 59-73 to Kansas)
Head Coach: Bruce Weber - 9th year (193-86); 296-140 in 13 overall seasons
Returning Starters: 1
- D.J. Richardson (Junior, Guard); 8.4ppg, 1.8rpg, 1.9apg
Newcomers: Sam Maniscalco, 6'0" 180lbs. (Graduate, Guard); Tracy Abrams, 6'1", 185lbs. (Fr., Guard); Mike Shaw, 6'8" 230lbs. (Fr., Forward); Myke Henry, 6'6" 230lbs. (Fr., Guard/Forward); Devin Lankford, 6'7", 200lbs. (Fr., Guard/Forward); Ibby Djimde, 6'8" 250lbs. (Fr. Forward/Center); Nnanna Egwu, 6'11", 245lbs. (Fr., Forward/Center)
The Illini have built a solid Top 25 and more type program in Bruce Weber's first eight seasons, but losing 4 starters off a team that won 20 games and made it to the NCAA tournament last season has put some doubt into repeating that type of performance in 2011-12. Adding to that issue is there is a lack of experienced depth on this team. Not a single returning player averaged in double figures last year in scoring. The highest returning scorer, guard Brandon Paul (9ppg), wasn't a starter last year and will be in a position to prove he can handle that responsibility on what is sure to be a very young team. Adding to that is beyond Paul not a single one of the other six returning letter winners averaged more than 3 points a game and you see that this is a team that will need to rely on what is one of the better recruiting classes Weber has had at Illinois.
That class includes 4 members of the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association all-State team from a year ago (Abrams, Shaw, Henry, and Egwu) and boasts a ton of Top 100 level guys. Abrams (#69 on recruiting consensus index), Egwu (#78 on RCI), Shaw (#65 on RCI), and Henry (#66 on RCI) all have come in highly regarded, but we've seen classes like this go either way for many programs in the past and there are never any guarantees. Overall the Illini's recruiting efforts had them ranked as the #11 class in the country according to ESPN.com, so this could be an NCAA team should the youngsters figure things out fast.
One of the best pick ups in my opinion wasn't one of the 4 guys mentioned above, but PG Sam Maniscalco. He's a graduate student that transfered in from Bradley. He played only 6 games as a Senior, allowing him to redshirt and qualify to transfer immediately. He'll add a ton of stability at the PG spot and a lot of leadership as well. In his Junior season with the Braves he averaged a respectable 13.1ppg and 3.4apg and could be a really big key to helping along the young guns in the backcourt.
Clearly this team will need to be challenged before the start of the conference schedule and that's obviously on Weber's mind with the schedule he's put together. So who dots the non-conference slate for the Illini?
Non-conference Schedule Highlights: 11/22 vs. Richmond (Cancun Challenge), 11/23 vs. Rutgers/Illinois State (Cancun Challenge), 11/29 @ Maryland (B1G/ACC Challenge), 12/03 vs. Gonzaga, 12/17 vs. UNLV (United Center in Chicago), 12/22 vs. Missouri (St. Louis' Scott Trade Center)
One thing that will really help this very young team is the fact that they were able to spend some extra practice and organized time together this summer as Illinois made a trip over to Italy for a series of games. It was a very smart move by Weber and Co. to help them figure out just what they have on their hands. The early part of the schedule sees this team make a trip to the Cancun Challenge, another great bonding experience both on and off the court for this team. The November slate of games isn't terribly difficult outside of the Cancun games and the B1G/ACC Challenge, which are unavoidable games, giving this team time to figure out a good rotation and balance before hitting a very difficult December schedule. Gonzaga is always tough and that's no different this year. UNLV is a senior laden team that will also play really tough opponents like Wisconsin, so they won't be an easy out. Lastly you have the annual battle with Missouri to round out the non-conference portion of the schedule and it will be interesting to see how the young guys do with a bit of seasoning in this very rough and tumble rivalry against a Missouri team that is under a new coach and new system.
Conference Schedule: Illinois caught a bit of a break with the way their schedule in the conference lays out. Obviously you'll have hard games throughout a schedule in a conference like the B1G, however it's a pretty evenly laid out slate in January. It's the final seven games of the schedule that will really make or break this team as they play @ Michigan (2/12), vs. Purdue (2/15), @ Nebraska (2/18), @ Ohio State (2/21), vs. Iowa (2/26), vs. Michigan (3/1), @ Wisconsin (3/4). If this team wants to contend for any type of post season birth they have to find a way to come out of that rough end of the season 4-3 in my book.
It's obvious that Illinois is one of the premier programs in the Big Ten under Bruce Weber's guidance and that they can simply reload instead of having to rebuild, but with the top of this conference being a lot more experienced they'll have to prove to me they can play to that level before I'm a believer that they will enter the 20 win category and gain another NCAA tournament birth. One thing I know, this will be a much more athletic and attacking Illini team than in the past few seasons and should be very fun to watch. You'll just have to wait for a full breakdown of how I see this team doing until the very end of the series, so keep reading and enjoying!