"Addition by subtraction" might be the ideal phrase to apply to the Illinois Fighting Illini this season. With four inconsistent seniors graduating and Jereme Richmond's idiotic decision to enter the NBA Draft, Bruce Weber loses five of his top seven players from last season. However, the Illini may actually be better off without them.
For Illinois to reach their potential, junior guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul will have to have step out from behind the shadows and embrace the spotlight. Richardson had a somewhat disappointing sophomore campaign after being named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He relies more on his jump shot while Paul has deceptive athleticism and will probably see some time handling the point. The duo must provide leadership and become the top scoring options.
Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco figures to step into the starting lineup to give the Illini a three-guard look. His addition was a blessing as he can bring stability and experience to the point guard position; something Illinois was lacking prior to his arrival.
Another vital aspect to the Illini's success will be the development of seven-footer Meyers Leonard. He had an extremely underwhelming freshman season, often looking lost on the floor and failing to match up physically with his opponents. If there is a ray of light for Leonard, it is that he had a solid summer for the U.S. U-19 team in Latvia. Upside, upside, upside has been the talk surrounding him. With Tisdale and Davis gone, now is time for Leonard to tap into that upside and start becoming a true force in the middle.
The fifth starting spot will likely go to Tyler Griffey at the beginning of the season, but one of the talented freshmen frontcourt players could end up taking that spot. Griffey played sparingly a year ago but does bring some physicality to the post and also has three-point range.
There is a lot of talent but even more inexperience on the bench with two sophomores and six freshmen. Crandall Head and Joseph Bertrand are the sophomores and will provide depth at guard along with freshman Tracy Abrams, who figures to be the point guard of the future. Myke Henry and Devin Langford are both athletic wings capable of playing multiple positions. Mike Shaw, Nnanna Egwu, and Ibby Djimde will compete for minutes down low. Shaw is an inside/outside threat while Egwu relies on his length and athleticism and Djimde his strength.
I'm not sold on Illinois and think this is a fairly high ranking for a team with such tremendous inexperience. And let's be honest; Bruce Weber has not exactly proven his ability to coach up a team, considering the Illini have a 44-44 conference record and only one NCAA Tournament victory in the past five seasons (when Weber was coaching his own guys and not in charge of Bill Self's leftovers.)
With that being said, there is a ton of talent on the team and the Big Ten is not as top heavy as it has been the past couple seasons. If Illinois is able to figure it out, unlike the Illini squads of recent years, there is a fairly high ceiling to what they can accomplish.
Player to Watch: Sam Maniscalco, PG
Maniscalco only appeared in four games at Bradley last season before missing the rest of the year with an ankle injury. Since he graduated, it allowed him the opportunity to transfer to another school without having to sit out any games. As the only senior on the team, it will be integral for Maniscalco to balance being the new guy and the elder statesman.
Key Non-Conference Games:
11/22 vs. Richmond (Cancun Challenge)
11/23 vs. Rutgers/Illinois State (Cancun Challenge)