Most Illinois fans assumed the 2008-09 season would be one of transition from the losses of recent years to a return to national prominence. Preseason talk centered on the four fall signees D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand and Tyler Griffey and the effect they would have next year.
But few people outside the players and coaches themselves believed in this Illinois team. It lost its top two players from last year in the graduation departures of Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle. Upcoming seniors Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham had been slowed by injuries and hadn't reached their maximum potential. And senior Calvin Brock was almost a no show.
In addition, the freshmen last year struggled most of the year and gave only glimpses of their ability. Mike Tisdale was a tall but skinny center who was dominated by aggressive, strong post players.
Mike Davis was equally slender and tended to float aimlessly on the court, in part due to not understanding the complexities of the offense and defense. And guard Demetri McCamey played great in a couple games but disappeared most of the others.
There was a glimmer of hope, but it was a speculative one. It was possible team chemistry would improve with the graduation of last year's seniors. It was assumed the freshmen would play better as sophomores, but how much remained a mystery. It was hoped Meacham would improve after ankle surgery.
But most people had given up on Chester Frazier ever helping. They waited eagerly for Alex Legion to gain his eligibility and relegate Frazier to the bench. Few if any thought Chester would improve so much as a player and leader that he would become the heart and soul of the team.
Fortunately for Illinois, all these things came to fruition. Davis improved to 11 points and nearly 8 rebounds a game. Tisdale flashed his excellent shooting touch and occasionally banged in the post for turnarounds and hook shots. McCamey was much more consistent despite occasional lapses. Meacham was much more athletic, and Frazier may end up being the team MVP.
So a summary of the season is in order. Despite losing four of the last five games, the latter two the direct result of Frazier's season-ending injury, the season turned out much better than expected. The Illini ended up with a 24-10 record and second place in the Big 10. It was a remarkable turnaround manufactured by master coach Bruce Weber.
After acceptable wins in two exhibition tilts and their first two games of the season against weak foes, the Illini traveled to Vanderbilt for their first big road test. The 18-11 Commodores were a young team this year, but the 69-63 overtime Illinois victory was a major surprise nonetheless. The win gave the young Illini some much needed confidence.
Illinois then competed in the South Padre Island Invitational, defeating decent Kent State and Tulsa teams for the championship. They did not play outstanding ball in the semifinal and final, but they were able to get and maintain leads, something they struggled doing last year. That championship also helped strengthen confidence levels.
The Illini came within an eyelash of defeating an outstanding Clemson team in the Assembly Hall on their return from Texas. If they had reversed the two-point loss, they would have helped the Big 10 win its first ever Big 10/ACC Challenge. The Tigers were too athletic and quick for the Illini as their big men had a field day inside and their guards penetrated at will to counter an Illinois advantage late in the game.
This team remained resilient. Four wins preceded a blowout 75-59 victory over the Missouri Tigers in St. Louis. The Missouri win later proved to be one of Illinois' best of the season as the Tigers continued to climb the polls afterward.
One more nonconference win gave the Illini a 12-1 mark going into the Big 10 season. Mighty Purdue was expected to dominate at home, but the Illini fought through adversity to pull out a 71-67 overtime victory. Unfortunately, the Illini appeared to leave their game at Purdue as they were flat at Michigan five days later.
Illinois stayed within 6 points at Michigan State, a moral victory at the time. And they had good wins at home over quality Ohio State and Wisconsin quintets. But for some inexplicable reason, the wheels came off at Minnesota. The Illini couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. After awhile, teamwork broke down as individuals panicked and tried to win the game on their own. The 59-36 loss was a total embarrassment.
Two wins and a road loss to Wisconsin preceded a trip to Northwestern. The Wildcats took a big lead and kept it until late in the game when the Illini rallied. For the first time all year, Illinois found an ability to overcome a deficit, winning the game in the last seconds. The 60-59 result was their only lead of the game and gave them another boost of self-respect.
After two more wins, the Illini experienced their second aberration of the season. Penn State and Illinois both shot poorly at the Assembly Hall, their defenses dominating. The pathetically low scoring 38-33 loss became a national laughing stock and did damage to the Big 10's reputation.
Illinois played great in the rematch at Happy Valley, but Talor Battle's last second heroics gave PSU a surprising 64-63 victory. The game was lost, but the Illini could still hold their heads high as they played a great game in a hostile environment. It prepared them well for the upcoming tournaments.
Illinois played the year with a secret formula designed to motivate them. They wore practice t-shirts saying, "24 + 41 = 65." Coach Bruce Weber gave them goals of 24 victories and an average of 41 on their Matto Play Hard Chart.
The Play Hard Chart is named posthumously for former Illini guard Matt Heldman, the classic overachiever. Points are accumulated for hustle plays such as steals, deflections, taking charges, etc. Weber felt if the Illini could reach these two goals, they would make the 65 man NCAA field.
The Illini reached that victory goal. They didn't always average 41 on the Matto Chart, but they had a high of 48 one game and numerous games around 40. Hustle and teamwork can make up for a lack of athleticism, and Illinois proved it by making the NCAA Tournament as a fifth seed.
Illinois was playing its best ball in practices leading to the Big 10 Tournament until Frazier broke his hand. That took an emotional toll on the players. They dedicated their game against Michigan to Chester, and they pulled out a big win. But they fell flat the next day to an inspired Purdue unit eager to reverse their two previous losses to the Illini.
As much as they wanted to extend their season and reach the Sweet Sixteen, the Illini lost their first NCAA game to Western Kentucky. They desperately needed a healthy Frazier to play solid defense and be a calming influence in the face of adversity. Without him, Illinois was no match for the athletic Hilltoppers.
Illinois had weaknesses, but great team chemistry made up for the shortcomings. The Illini made the extra pass as they led the country in assist/made basket ratio. Illini players demonstrated their outstanding midrange games when the offense was run properly. Of course, they had no one who could create points on their own, so they needed a team effort to make up for the lack of individual expertise.
When faced with great talent, the Illini had to have everything going its way. If they shot well, they could play with most anyone. But if they were not shooting well, they would lose confidence and struggle the rest of the way.
Weber deserves a great deal of credit for doing so much with so little. Illinois regained some lost prestige and gave hope for the future. It was a better year than anyone had a right to expect.