08-09 Overall Record: 24-10
08-09 Conference Record: 11-7 (T-2nd)
09-09 Conference Efficiency Margin: +0.07 (4th)
Percent of Returning Minutes: 59.8
Percent of Returning Freshman Minutes: 5.1
While not a wholesale overhaul, the Illini lose significant contributions from last year's team, especially in the backcourt in the form of Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham. For all his offensive struggles, Frazier saw more minutes than any other Illini since Dee Brown. No doubt Frazier's smothering defense kept him on the court during his time in Champaign. Without him, there's a good chance the defense takes a step back. That said, Weber has always put together strong defensive teams, and until he does otherwise, it's probably best to assume that will continue. But it might not be _quite _as good.
Trent Meacham's loss could be more problematic than at first glance. Sure, Meacham was an efficient player, but he was not the offensive catalyst that Illinois came to rely on. However, he was the team's best three point shooter:
If you look at what is returning to the backcourt in Champaign, you'll notice that it's not a lot of three pointers (and check out Frazier's percentage. For a guy who struggled with his shot so much during his career, it's pretty amazing how well he shot the ball last year). Yesterday we discussed how Illinois played like a POT but without the "P" last season. Well, unless something changes, that trend might get even worse.
The way I see it, two things could change that. Illinois could start playing better in the paint, or they could start making three point shots. But it's not just up to the returning players to do that, as Bruce Weber welcomes perhaps his best crop of freshmen to date at Illinois. Of the four newcomers, just one is a post player -- Tyler Griffey (unranked by the RSCI). While he may get some playing time, it's more likely that he does not see a lot of action. After all, Illinois does not lose a single player off last year's team taller than 6-5. Also, redshirt freshman Stan Simpson will get his first chance to play, but again, he might be destined to ride the pine as well.
That means Illinois' big men will have to start grabbing more offensive rebounds and getting to the line more than once in a blue moon. Can that happen? Sure. Will it? Probably not enough to make Illinois strong in those areas, but maybe enough to make them "not so bad." Still, if you're going to build an offense around something, ideally you're doing better that "not so bad."
I think the more likely scenario is that Illinois will make more three pointers this season. Whether that comes from its highly touted freshmen backcourt, or the returning guards, remains to be seen. Top 50 recruits Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson certainly have the potential to shoot well, but given their rankings, it's not a sure thing. The other possibility is that juniors Demetri McCamey and Alex Legion improve on their 08-09 performances. McCamey's 76% free throw percentage indicates there is some room for improvement here, but he's also taken over 320 shots from deep in his career, so there wouldn't seem to be the opportunity for big gains.
Legion, on the other hand, could be a breakout candidate. Although not technically a freshman last season, he might as well have been. He played in all of 6 games while at Kentucky, and only 6 minutes against a BCS opponent. For all practical purposes, last year was his freshman season, and I counted it as such in the numbers above. The idea that he was still struggling to adapt to the speed of the college game is a convenient one for Illini fans, because Legion was beyond bad last year. He shot 29% on his field goals (all of them...not just threes), and he also took a ton of shots (29% Shot Percentage). It's enough to make one wonder if Legion needs vision correction. But the fact that he shot such a high number of shots while on the floor might be a good thing. After all, it's likely Legion was just as much a chucker in practice. Nonetheless, he was getting playing time (at least early on). Chances are, he was shooting a lot better in practice. It's certainly possible that Legion will enjoy a turnaround much like DeShawn Sims experienced last year.
And frankly, that might be Illinois' prediction in two words: Alex Legion. If he turns it around in a big way, the Illini should improve on last season's win total. If not, this team will probably struggle to make three pointers, and they'll probably be mediocre on the offensive glass and at getting to the line. Again. That, coupled with the loss of two of their best defenders, could force Illinois to take a step or two back this season.