The Illinois football team was poised for big things this season. But after starting 6-0, the Illini have tanked, losing their last three games thanks to inept performances on the offensive side of the ball. As interest wanes and fans lose hope, they can turn their attention to the basketball team, which officially kicks off the 2011-12 season Friday night against Loyola-Chicago.
The Illini hoops team will have a drastically different look and feel this season. Gone is the talented yet underachieving class of Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis and Bill Cole. Gone is troubled forward Jereme Richmond, who has had several run-ins with the law since his departure from the university.
Coming in is a large freshman class loaded with potential. All six guys – Tracy Abrams, Myke Henry, Mike Shaw, Nnanna Egwu, Devin Langford and Ibby Djimde - will have a chance to crack the rotation, although Langford will start the season on the pine due to finger surgery.
Also joining the fray is Sam Maniscalco, a senior point guard transfer from Bradley. Maniscalco is having some injury problems of his own, as he just got out of a walking boot for an injured ankle. However, he will be ready to go for the season opener and will likely get the starting nod over the freshman Abrams.
While Abrams is the more talented player, Maniscalco’s experience, toughness and leadership make him the logical choice to start the year at point guard. He can help groom Abrams as he learns the position and matures throughout the year.
Although there’s a lot of incoming talent, it will still be tough to replace the outgoing production. As frustrating as the 2010 class was (plus Richmond), they accounted for 69 percent of the team’s scoring last season. A pretty tall order to say the least.
A lot of the burden will be placed on the trio of Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Meyers Leonard. All three guys have shown flashes of the talent they possess, but all three have also lacked the consistency needed to be elite college players.
Paul and Leonard will be especially intriguing to watch, as they are players who have a legitimate chance to play at the next level. They possess NBA-level athleticism and skill, but they must hone their games in order to truly have a shot in the league.
Rounding out the crew (besides the walk-ons) are Tyler Griffey, Joseph Bertrand and Crandall Head. Griffey has been a bit underwhelming during his two-year Illini career, but he will get the opportunity to prove himself this season as the starting power forward. Bertrand showed some promise during the team’s trip to Italy over the summer, and it will be interesting to see if that translates in real action. Head is a raw talent and has to sit out the first two regular season games due to suspension.
As for head coach Bruce Weber, he faces a pretty challenging task. With so much inexperience, he will have to work to find combinations and strategies that prove effective. Will he go with a deeper bench? Will he push the tempo? Will he use the full court press or zone defense? Weber has been pretty stubborn in the past, so being flexible with this current group could be a key to success.
Some may view Weber as on the hot seat this season, but I think he will get a pass unless the team really tanks. The team is just too young to expect a big season. If they next year with essentially everybody coming back, then that’s a problem. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s play this season first.
I fully expect this team to struggle out of the gate as they get used to playing with each other. I think they will come along as the year goes on, but I don’t think they are ready to challenge for a Big Ten title (unless Paul and Leonard absolutely blow up). I see a middle of the pack finish in the conference, and a team that ends up with a mid-to-low NCAA Tournament seed.
No matter what happens, it will be fun to see how some of the guys grow as players. I’m sure there will be plenty of frustration per usual, but I’m used to that by now. I’m just excited to see what a new crop of players and leaders will do.
About the Author
Written by Jason Patt
My name is Jason Patt and I recently graduated from the University of Illinois. I received a degree in Sports Management and also minored in Communication and Business. I am an avid follower of Illinois sports and also most major Chicago sports teams. Along with blogging about Illini basketball here, I'm an editor at Bulls 101.