This Illinois team lost its two main stars to graduation, its leading scorer/rebounder Shaun Pruitt and its athletic forward and defensive standout Brian Randle. Both are now playing pro ball overseas. They had not meshed well with the six newcomers on the squad, so their graduation may have improved team chemistry.
Shooting guard Jamar Smith was expected to be the star of the team. After sitting out a year with an aggravated DUI, Smith was the best player in spring and summer practices. He was by far the best three point shooter, and he was becoming adept at cutting off screens for midrange jumpers. But he broke his probation and was kicked out of school.
Alex Legion, a Parade All-American shooting phenom who transferred from Kentucky, became eligible at the end of the first semester, but he has not yet found a niche on the current team. Junior college transfer Dominique Keller was brought in to shore up post defense and rebounding, but he has been inconsistent at best. And lone freshman Stan Simpson, a raw postman from Chicago, is benefitting from a redshirt season.
So for Illinois to go from a losing season to a 23-8 regular season record and a guaranteed NCAA Tournament spot is a special story. On paper, another losing season was predictable, especially without a breakout performance by Legion and Keller. And yet coach Bruce Weber and seniors Chester Frazier, Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock pulled the team together, overcoming numerous obstacles to achieve success.
|Sophomore Mike Davis has made an instant impact, leading the team in rebounding. (Getty Images)|
Weber began the transformation last April by removing names from the jerseys to remind his athletes they play for their school and not themselves. Then he assigned each player a specific role for the upcoming season. He knew there were no superstars on the team, and the players tended to float aimlessly without specific training goals. Giving them specific roles allowed them to focus their offseason training.
The seniors became outstanding leaders during the off season. They had a bitter taste in their mouths after last season, and they were determined not to repeat the failure. After all, Illinois played for the National Championship in 2005, and it has a fabled history as an outstanding basketball program. These players wanted to get the school back into national prominence.
Chester Frazier had long been an emotional leader on the team as his fiery, all-out hustle was an inspiration to everyone. But he underwent a personal transformation that changed his goals from being a scorer to a playmaker and defender. He shaved his hair, became a basketball junkie and began to function as a coach on the floor.
Chester was always an offensive liability. Never a great shooter, each miss magnified his insecurity and guaranteed more misses. Teams would stop guarding him, which hurt the rest of the team and made him more insecure. The vicious cycle was reversed when he finally realized his best assets to the team were leadership, assists, rebounds, steals and overall defense. Once he accepted that, he became a happy and productive player. And his shooting improved as well.
Also essential for Frazier was to have a healthy, uneventful season. He has had numerous injuries in his career that have reduced his athleticism. Despite the problems, he played almost every game his entire career, something few others could have accomplished. But playing hurt prevents healing, so he was constantly in pain. Last year, he played every game but rarely practiced to nurse his bumps and bruises. He has had his healthiest season this year until he broke his hand while preparing for the Big 10 Tournament.
Trent Meacham was also slowed by injuries in the past. He underwent surgery to remove bone spurs from his ankle after last season, and he has had much more quickness and maneuverability this year. A dangerous three point specialist, Meacham improved his defense a great deal. And he showed occasional ability to penetrate and either dish off to a teammate or finish at the rim. His all-around experience and savvy prevented teams from focusing solely on his outside threat.
Calvin Brock started only rarely in his 5 years at Illinois. The last remaining member of the 2005 team, Calvin accepted his role as a 6th man, providing energy and athleticism off the bench. He loves to play, and his enthusiasm uplifts his teammates at times. A free spirit who didn't always take life seriously, Brock was not a certainty to be on the team this year. But he dedicated himself to a maturation process that benefitted him and his team.
Another reason for improvement was the growth of last year's freshman class. In particular, Mike Davis, Demetri McCamey, and Mike Tisdale all made major strides in the offseason. They needed time to learn the complexities of Weber's motion offense and man defense, and spring workouts helped them learn what they had not understood during their freshman campaigns.
Mike Davis, a slender 6-foot-9 power forward, is perhaps the biggest success story so far. A late signee out of Alexandria, Virginia, Davis has long arms, good leaping ability and can run the floor. What he lacks in strength, he makes up for it with intelligence and explosiveness. He has a high-extension shot that is practically impossible to block, and he has a feathery touch from 18 feet in. He leads the team in rebounding and is a close second to McCamey in scoring.
Demetri McCamey is still a work in progress. The team's point guard can both score and pass with efficency when he is on his game. But he also has games where he struggles with his emotions and conditioning. When he is on, the team prospers. But he still could lose a few pounds to improve his quickness and ability to work hard late in games.
Center Mike Tisdale has improved a great deal in a year. Still a slender 7'-1", 240, Mike has trouble banging inside against stronger players. His rebounding is especially suspect as he lacks the leg strength both to block out and pursue caroms. But he is now strong enough to post up for effective righty and lefty hooks. And he is an outstanding midrange shooter, popping into open areas in the defense.
The Illini have three main weaknesses. One, they are not good rebounders. Mike Davis leads the Big 10 in defensive rebounds but is not as effective on the offensive glass. He gets his boards through long arms and leaping ability rather than strength. Frazier is the second leading rebounder from his guard spot as his hustle for loose balls makes up for Illinois' lack of bulk inside. Teams that pound the boards cause Illinois trouble.
Two, they have problems defensively with quick guards. Illinois plays outstanding team defense, and it hustles as well as anyone. But teams have learned to penetrate between defenders for shots, dishes or fouls as the Illini try to use team concepts to protect their weaknesses out front. Losses to Clemson, Michigan State and Penn State can be contributed directly to penetrating guards.
And three, Illinois goes to the line less frequently than any team in modern UI history. They are outstanding midrange shooters. They cut into open areas in the defense for pull-up jumpers. But their lack of penetration skills allows defenses to defend them without fouling. They are good free throw shooters, but they don't get many chances to prove it.
Illinois' biggest asset is its team chemistry. Everyone is working for team rather than individual goals, so their willingness to make the extra pass and find the open man can be a work of art at times. They lead the nation in assists per made baskets. With individuals who have trouble creating their own shots, teamwork is essential. The Illini have made up for this deficiency with great togetherness.
And they play outstanding team defense. They lead the Big 10 in scoring defense, giving up only 56.5 points a game. They are 2nd in the conference in field goal percentage defense and 1st in 3-point field goal percentage defense. Bruce Weber and staff are excellent at scouting and preparing their players for the nuances of upcoming opponents.
Overall, the Illini are a team of overachievers with an intense motivation to prove last year a fluke and return the school to basketball prominence. They will be a tough out for any opponent in the NCAA Tournament, whether Chester Frazier plays or not.