2008-09 Preview: Illinois

Illinois (Last season: 16-19, 5-13, #40 Pomeroy ranking): Bruce Weber's 5th season in Champaign was easily his roughest, that much is clear. Figuring the rest of the Illini's season out isn't so easy. The Illini suffered home losses in December to Miami (OH) and Tennessee State...but also pounded Minnesota on the road, Arizona State on a neutral floor, and took down Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament. Which team was the real Illini? The truth is, all of that was Illinois. The Illini were dead last in Division 1 in Ken Pomeroy's Luck Factor. Given the points scored and allowed by Illinois, the Fighting Illini were 4.5 wins below their expected record. In evaluating this team for next season, it's probably better to view them as a 18-21 win team, even if that's not what the W-L column shows. So what's in store for the Illini? This paragraph required a re-write after troubled junior Jamar Smith was kicked off the team for good. Here's hoping that the young man can get his life back in order.

On the court, Illinois figures to at least look a lot different from last season. Gone are frontcourt players Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle, and in comes backcourt player Alex Legion. Legion is a mid-season transfer from Kentucky, that will be eligible to play for Illinois in December. As a high school senior, Legion was a #36 RSCI player. It appears Weber is trying to temper expectations (or is he?), but the numbers suggest that a player ranked in this range can step on campus and contribute immediately as a freshman, and would figure to be even better as a sophomore. If Illinois is going anywhere next season, Legion figures to be a big part of that. Pruitt and Randle were not perfect players. Pruitt's un-godly TO Rate of 25.4 in conference play all but negated his stellar 63.8 eFG. Brian Randle showed an ability to get to the line and create for others, but unfortunately he just couldn't shoot (43.0 eFG). The Illini will miss these two the most, however, because of their rebounding.

Davis and Tisdale figure to be the likely replacements for Pruitt and Randle, and while might indeed end up being fine players, they are nowhere near the rebounders that the departed seniors were. Davis actually shows some promise with his DReb numbers, but Tisdale's just look bad. Some teams are well-balanced, and other teams have a large weakness in one, specific area. Illinois is definitely the latter, and they need rebounding help. Also joining the team this season is junior college transfer Dominique Keller and freshman Stan Simpson. Neither of these guys are expected to make "top 40 recruit" impact, so it's hard to say how much they'll be able to help out. A key to success for Illinois might be forcing TOs. Of the bottom 100 in terms of defensive rebounding last season, only a handful of teams put together solid defenses. Almost all of them forced turnovers at a blistering rate. The bad news? Weber's teams generally don't force TOs. Of course, there were a couple of exceptions (USC and Ohio State). The secret to their defensive success was a very low eFG, powered by shotblocking ability -- something the returning Illini big men appear to have some skill with.

On offense, Illinois could not shoot last season (31.9 3P%, 60.8 FT%). The addition of Legion, in combination with the fact that Illinois doesn't lose a backcourt player off last year's squad, should change that. I say should, not will, because it will also require Weber to do something he doesn't like to do - put Chester Frazier on the bench. There might not be a "tougher" player in the Big 10, but toughness doesn't win games like making baskets does. And Frazier cannot make baskets (41.1 eFG, 11.4 Shot%), nor is he gifted at setting up others (20.8 Assist Rate, 30.4 TO Rate). Simply put, he's a better player without the ball in his hands (to his credit, he recognizes that), but 4-on-5 offense is a difficult thing to do. Michigan State became a better team when Izzo got over his Travis Walton obsession, and the Illini will be better once Weber recovers from his Frazier infatuation. If that happens, offensive rebounding won't need to be as good (because there shouldn't be as many missed shots), and the offense should be fine - the defense will then determine how far the Illini go this next season.

Projected Illinois rotation (statistics are for conference games only):_