Illinois Fighting Illini
Good Wins: N-Missouri, @Purdue, Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Purdue, @Ohio State, Minnesota
Bad Losses: None, though 33 points at home against Penn State and 36 on the road at Minnesota are concerns.
1. Defense. A staple of Bruce Weber’s tenure in Champaign, the Fighting Illini can guard most of the top teams in the country, regardless of their style of play. They blew out the Missouri Tigers in Saint Louis and lost a close game to Clemson at home despite being dramatically outmatched in the post, as well as out-grinding the more patient Purdue Boilermakers and Ohio State Buckeyes twice. Opponents struggle to shoot 40% against Illinois, and guards in particular have a hard time on the perimeter. Starting PG Chester Frazier and subs Calvin Brock and Jeff Jordan are amazing on-ball defenders.
2. Sharing the Ball. The Illini have been near the top of the national statistics in assists-per-field goal all year, with somewhere around 85% of all made baskets coming from a teammate. Despite a grind-it-out style of play, they’re fifth in the country at 17.9 per game. Weber’s motion offense can yield plenty of open looks from the perimeter from teams not used to defending it, and the Illini are not shy about making the extra pass.
1. Shooting. The Illini often settle too much for contested outside shots, or launch them too early in the shot clock. F Mike Davis and C Mike Tisdale have tremendous touch around the basket, and it’s sometimes mind-boggling as to why perimeter players Demetri McCamey and Trent Meacham are unable or unwilling to feed them the ball. If the outside shots are not falling, it can be downright repulsive to watch Illinois (see 33 and 36 point outputs in two Big Ten games this season). Though the Illini shoot a decent percentage from the line, it dips noticeably in the clutch.
2. Inconsistency. Illinois has played its best games of the year against its best competition, sweeping Purdue, blowing out Missouri, and keeping things close with Michigan State right until the final minute. But they’ve lost, or nearly lost, games against inferior competition (Minnesota, Penn State, and nearly Northwestern). McCamey and Davis in particular have a tendency to “check out” of games mentally if they’re not playing well or if a particular defender gets in their heads. This can’t happen in the NCAA Tournament if the Illini want to make a deep run.
Bench: The Illini have a nice rotation. Brock, Jordan, Kentucky transfer Alex Legion, and JuCo transfer Dominique Keller all get significant minutes without much drop-off from the starters they’re replacing. Illinois is a little thin inside, both in terms of depth and physical heft, but other than that it’s a solid lineup 1-10.
The Departing: Expectations will be high for this team in the next couple of years, with some stellar recruiting classes coming in, but for seniors Chester Frazier, Trent Meacham, and Calvin Brock–the lone holdover from Illinois’ 2005 run to the National Title–2009 represents this nucleus’ best chance for a deep NCAA run.
Illinois is essentially a less-talented version of Pittsburgh, with two major differences: they don’t have a Sam Young who can get his own shot, and they don’t have a DeJuan Blair to bang away in the post. Defensively, they’re just as capable, and just as intense, though. With the right bracket, Illinois could go all the way to the Elite Eight, but I think a short trip to the second round is more likely, due to their puzzling reliance on the outside shot.