Part three of the Big Ten Preview takes a look at the Fighting Illini, a team with tons of potential but little identity heading into the season. Joe of Hail to the Orange has helped attempt to make sense of a very confusing season for Illinois.
FTB: Who are the real Illini, and how did they manage to lose to Bradley and beat Clemson in consecutive games?
HTTO: Inconsistency is the only way to explain the games you just mentioned, and more than likely the same reason the Illini’s loss to Georgia just this weekend. The biggest reason for inconsistentcy is the important role that the two freshmen DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul play in the offense. On nights when they are hitting their shots the team looks unstoppable, other nights its like playing 3 on 5. Thats just the nature of starting 2 true freshmen though I suppose.
FTB: Speaking of the Clemson game, it featured one of the wildest comebacks by any team in recent memory. What led to that comeback, and have the Illini played a half that well since then?
HTTO: Brandon Paul was the key scorer in the second half, but the return of Demetri McCamey with 3 fouls was the real key to the win. The offense really runs through DMAC, and his passes and scoring were the biggest reason for the Illini’s unlikely comeback. Also they really locked their defense down in the second half, went into a zone for half of the possessions and were able to break the press and cut down on turnovers. The best game they have played since then is probably Vanderbilt, in which they outscored and out defended the ‘dores so that it was never really close in the second half.
FTB: Illinois has one of the strongest freshman classes in the conference. Tell us about them.
HTTO: The aforementioned Paul and Richardson are really strong at the guard
position, and are huge scoring threats. Oddly enough, their worst games have been in Vegas and Georgia, and not available on TV, so technically I have never seen them have a bad game. Their biggest asset seems to be their ability to shoot the 3, but neither are afraid to drive down the lane. The other active freshman is Tyler Griffey who is a solid scorer from down low but apparently needs to work on defense. A third guard, Joe Bertrand, is taking a medical red shirt.
FTB: How much does the team miss Chester Frasier. Who has stepped up to fill the leadership vacuum.
HTTO: The player who has stepped into the leadership role, as best I can tell, is McCamey, but the team has yet to find a player with the toughness and intense defense on par with Chester. He played himself into and through a lot of injuries at Illinois and routinely successfully defended players twice his size. He will only be missed more once the Illini start conference play.
FTB: Is Alex Legion ever going to live up to expectations?
HTTO: It certainly doesn’t look good at this point. He has been passed over by
the two freshmen, and Bill Cole for minutes because of his inability to create his own shot, the fact that he is a liability on defense and is somewhat turnover prone. He is still getting minutes and points, but not many with the game still in doubt.
FTB: Your predictions for the Illini’s conference record, their seed in the NCAA tournament (if applicable), Big Ten regular season champion, and Big Ten tournament champion.
HTTO: Its difficult to predict at this point, because the Illini have been so good at home, but so bad outside of the Assembly hall. I am guessing 7 conference losses again, and more likely than not this team will be a bubble team come tournament time. I could not tell you the BTT seed, because the conference is too up in the air at this point.