One of the biggest reasons the Illini fell well short of preseason expectations last year was their lack of defensive heart and intensity. It isn’t like a Bruce Weber coached team to not defend, and last year Illinois lost way too many games because their inability to get stops down the stetch and in crunch time.
Especially on the road, Illinois would dig deep holes for themselves right off the bat. Later, they would score enough to catch up, but their failures on the other end kept them from closing the gap.
This season Weber wont have to deal with the constant motivational issues with Demetri McCamey and Mike Davis, psychological issues with Mike Tisdale and off-the-court isseus with Jereme Richmond. In a sense there’s addition by subtraction. Illini best defender, D.J. Richardson is back, and he along with Brandon Paul, the other only juniors on a team with no seniors, will be expected be the leaders.
“Not to take anything away from last year’s team, but a lot of the guys on this year’s team are willing to go out and guard full court, we got a glimpse of that when we were in Italy. It was fun to see guys get after it, and put some fight in it,” Paul said about the difference between this year’s team and last year’s team.
Paul, the Illini leading returning scorer, spent a lot of time this year working on his three-point shot, and shooting mechanics among other things. BP has played the 2 most of his life, but he did get some point guard minutes behind McCamey last year.
“At the next level, I’m going to have to play point guard, shooting guard small forward. I think my biggest strengths are my ball handling has increased and my range has gotten better, my mid-range is something that I polished, ” BP said at media day.
He has the natural ability and measurables to “go league,” but he’ll really need to polish and augment his game this year and next to get there.
Whereas last year’s Illini team had a lot of definitive roles, this season’s depth chart is wide open.
“The one thing we didn’t have early last year was competition, and there’s a lot of unknowns right now. Who should start? You could pencil it in, but I don’t know if that’s going to hold true as time comes to pass,” Weber said.
You could call this a “rebuilding year,” much like 2008-09, the last proverbial rebuilding year, which resulted in 25 wins and a NCAA Tournament berth. I asked Weber if he saw the analogy.
“A little bit, there’s no doubt those guys had been through it, Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis hadn’t really done anything but they had been through a year of college basketball and we knew what they could do, it was just a matter of them putting on weight strength etc,” Weber said.
“And with these guys we have weight and strength but they haven’t been through it. I guess you could compare that there are so many unknowns,” he continued.
After the elimination by Kansas in the NCAA Tournament, Richardson said it’s now his and Brandon’s team.
“I think it is, we’ve done a good job pushing the guys through conditioning, and getting the guys in here when coach don’t want us in here, and trying to be player-coaches,” D.J. said.
“Vocal on the court, off-the-court, I’ve been trying to do everything besides just on the court,” Richardson continued.
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