No. 13 Illinois’ preseason play raising questions

Deep, talented roster. No. 13 ranking. A healthy shot of hype

and the likelihood of lots of national TV games.

Not so long ago, this looked like the kind of team Illinois

basketball fans have been waiting for since the 2005 run to the

NCAA title game. After a pair of unconvincing exhibition wins over

Division II teams, those high expectations seem a bit lofty.

”Would I say we were popping champagne after the game Tuesday

night? No,” coach Bruce Weber said following a 76-67 win over

Southern Indiana. ”Are we at a panic state? No. But doesn’t that

mean we can’t improve. Yeah, we can improve, but it might take a

little bit of time.”

Since that 2005 run ended with a loss to North Carolina,

Illinois has missed the NCAA tournament twice and been knocked out

in the opening round twice. Those teams sometimes struggled to

score and rebound, searched in vain for leadership and occasionally

lacked a sense of urgency when it counted.

Weber says he trying to plug many of those same gaps again.

Point guard Demetri McCamey is a preseason All Big Ten selection

but lacks energy at key moments, and sometimes doesn’t make the

best shot or pass choices.

Mike Davis is a long-armed, 6-9 forward and the team’s top

rebounder, but he seldom goes inside on offense. And center Mike

Tisdale has always been more comfortable shooting from the outside

than using his 7-1, 250-pound body in the lane.

This year was supposed to be different, the year that those

three seniors and the cast around them challenged for a Big Ten

title. Illinois is just one of four Big Ten teams – along with No.

2 Michigan State, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 14 Purdue – to start the

season in the Top 25.

The Illini bring back all five starters and most of a young

bench from a 21-15 NIT team that Weber and others were stunned

didn’t make the NCAAs.

Add to that group three highly regarded freshman, including

Jereme Richmond, a 6-7 guard-forward from Waukegan, Ill., who

committed to Illinois four years ago. His coach and teammates say

he could play almost every position on the floor, from point to

either forward.

”When you see him you’re gonna say ‘Whoa!”’ McCamey said.

”Crazy athletic dunks.”

But the early games showed Richmond and the Illini the limits of

raw talent and how much he has to learn, Weber said. The same, the

coach added, is true of fellow freshmen Meyers Leonard, a 7-0

center, and Crandall Head, a 6-4 guard whose older brother,

Sacramento King guard Luther Head, was a standout on the 2005

team.

Weber said Southern Indiana borrowed a page from his play book

as Southern Illinois’ head coach, running a play he drew up there

to great effect.

”They ran it three straight times and scored, and Meyers and

Crandall still don’t know what hit them,” Weber said. ”They are

talented, but now they’ve got to learn the game.”

One big thing Weber wants them to learn – and needs his veterans

to dedicate themselves to – is defense. He says he’s emphasized it

in practices, spending up to 70 percent of his team’s time on it.

He thinks that’s part of the reason the Illini have been

offensively limited so far, but he believes it’s essential in the

Big Ten. Even the least of his Illinois teams have played solid

defense, finding ways to keep scores low and give themselves a

chance.

”We have put a lot of time in there,” Weber said. ”You set a

foundation early – and if you don’t emphasize it early, it’s hard

to ever catch up.”

The offensive key for Illinois, like last year and before, will

be McCamey.

He is the team’s only true point guard, averaging almost 35

minutes a game last season, scoring a team-best 15.1 points a game

to go with seven assists. No one else averaged more than two

assists a game.

McCamey’s been told he doesn’t have to do it all this year, that

the talent around him is better than in any of his other three

college seasons. He says he’s comfortable being the set-up man, the

provider, but says he has to be ready to be the guy – taking the

key shot, carrying his team with 20 points – on any given

night.

”It’s all about the momentum of the game,” he said. ”If I

feel like I have to score for my team to win, I’ll do it. I’m

trying to play like a quarterback now, being comfortable with my

teammates.”