It's been a rough few years for Illinois fans. Since Deron Williams, Luther Head, and Dee Brown led the Illini to the 2005 national championship game, success in the NCAA tournament has proven elusive. In 2007 and 2009, Bruce Weber's team lost first-round games (to Virginia Tech and Western Kentucky, respectively) that came down to the final possession. In fact it's been five long years now since Illinois has won a tournament game.
This is supposed to be the year that streak ends. With all five starters returning from a team that barely missed last season's tournament, Illinois was ranked No. 16 in the preseason ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll. As far as preseason rankings go, that one's turned out to be pretty accurate. Bruce Weber's team is 14-5 and ranked No. 22. And with No. 1-ranked Ohio State coming to the Assembly Hall on Saturday, Illinois has a great opportunity to show that it's a legitimate Big Ten contender and not simply the team that lost to Illinois-Chicago.
So in advance of the Illini squaring off against the Buckeyes, here's everything you need to know about the orange and blue in 2011:
Demetri McCamey is having the nation's quietest outstanding year.
Maybe it's because Illinois is so balanced in their scoring, or the fact that, one 30-point effort against Oakland notwithstanding, McCamey doesn't have many Fredette-like outbursts to his name. Whatever the reason, I'm here to tell you that the senior point guard is achieving a sneaky form of excellence. Compared to last season McCamey has lowered his turnover rate and is drawing more fouls. At the same time he still accounts for the lion's share of the assists in this offense, and he's making 53 percent of his threes. In a normal Big Ten season, one without the force of nature known as Jared Sullinger, you could at least raise the question of whether or not this is your conference POY right here.
Getting talented recruits is good. Getting productive freshmen is better.
After years of battling a perception that his recruiting was substandard, Weber landed McDonald's All-American Jereme Richmond. That's the good news. The bad news? Richmond was already averaging just seven points and less than 16 minutes per game in conference play when he sat out Saturday's 76-66 loss to Wisconsin in Madison. Weber said Richmond had missed practice the previous two days due to "personal" reasons and that players who don't practice don't play. But Richmond's benching fueled talk that all is not well between the star freshman and the coach. When your McDonald's All-American has to issue a statement saying he's an "Illini for life," it's fair to say the freshman's season hasn't gone exactly as planned. Then again maybe the worst is over here. Richmond scored 14 points in 23 minutes in the Illini's 71-62 win over Michigan State in Champaign Tuesday night.
Every minute Mike Tisdale plays helps his team's chances.
He may not be poetry in motion on your flatscreen, but Tisdale makes a difference. At 7-1 he's Illinois' best offensive rebounder, best defensive rebounder, best FT shooter, and best shot-blocker. He makes 52 percent of his twos and even an occasional three. But Tisdale is -- and has always been -- foul-prone, averaging six whistles for every 40 minutes he plays. Next time you see Tisdale in foul trouble in a close game, remember this: he's more important than he looks.
Illinois games can come down to which team gets more shots.
When discussing turnovers in the Big Ten it's almost always Michigan State that gets called on the carpet. But if we borrowed a page from football and talked about turnover margin in basketball, it would be Illinois that would look awful this season. And I do mean "awful." In Big Ten play the Illini have committed a turnover on 22 percent of their possessions, while opponents have given the ball away just 13 percent of the time. That's important, because in a magical turnover-free world the Illini would be serious contenders for the national championship. On each "effective" (turnover-free) possession, Weber's team is averaging an incredible 1.47 points in Big Ten play, while opponents are averaging just 1.21 points per effective trip. You've probably heard that Illinois recorded some amazing shooting early in the conference season, and by the same token in many respects their defense is quite good. Opponents don't shoot very well, they don't get many second chances, and they don't make many trips to the line. What those opponents do get, though, is a ton of chances. As a result Illinois' D isn't what it could be -- as strong as Michigan State's or Purdue's.
Mike Davis deserves more looks.
With the long-awaited emergence of Tisdale on the boards, Davis' rebounding numbers have taken a hit. But he's still making 54 percent of his twos, plus he takes excellent care of the ball. Illinois runs a motion offense where, ideally, the shot is taken by the player that has the best look on that given possession. That being said, Weber and the Illini would do well to ask if that player may not be Davis more often than it has been thus far.
With the Buckeyes coming to Champaign this week, the Illini are about to write an important chapter in their 2010-11 season. A win would go a long way toward improving Illinois' seed come tournament time. And fans of the orange and blue are hoping this March will bring something new: An NCAA tournament win. Maybe even several.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider . John is more erratic than talented on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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