After watching the Illinois football team turn the ball over in 4 straight possesions in their own territory to lead to 4 consecutive Purdue touchdowns on Saturday, the opening of the Illini basketball season couldn’t get here soon enough. As Illinois seeks to avenge the 1987 NCAA Tournament loss to Austin Peay (Dick Vitale famously said prior to that game that he’d stand on his head if Illinois lost, which I believe is one of the sources of his present Dookie bias) tonight at the Assembly Hall, let’s preview the college basketball season.
(1) Illinois – This past offseason hasn’t exactly been a positive one for Illinois basketball fans. Satan’s Spawn, er, Kelvin Sampson stole away Eric Gordon, the nation’s top shooting guard from this year’s high school graduating class. (On another note, Ron Zook just got a commitment from the nation’s top high school wide receiver, so I’m pretty sure Sampson won’t go after him seeing that football is a different sport than basketball, but you never know.) Senior leader Rich McBride was named an honorary member of the Cincinnati Bengals by having some run-ins with the law and will be suspended for the first 4 games of the year. There aren’t any obvious fixes to the gaping holes left by the simultaneous departures of Dee Brown and James Augustine.
Nonetheless, I believe that Illinois is going to have a solid season where the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament is a reasonable goal. There are three main reasons for my confidence. First of all, Bruce Weber, for all of the questioning of his recruiting skills, is still pound-for-pound one of the top in-game coaches in the country. He’s proven time and time again that he can maximize the talent that he has to work with and then some. The second reason is that Brian Randle is going to turn into a more valuable weapon than ever. The power forward has ridiculous athleticism and the success of The Illini will depend upon him stepping up on offense to fill in the gaps left by the absences of Brown and Augustine. Finally, Jamar Smith was already arguably the best shooter in the Big Ten last year as a true freshman. He’s going to get even more opportunities to light it up from behind the arc this season.
Of course, the thought of either Chester Frazier or transfer Trent Meacham taking over the point guard position isn’t exactly comforting at this time while the Illini might need to develop freshman Brian Carlwell quickly as a presence in the post if Shaun Pruitt can’t handle an increased workload. These unknowns make Illinois an extremely difficult team to pin down this season – this club could reasonably range from winning the Big Ten conference to not even making the NCAA Tournament. So, let’s take a look at how Illinois stacks up with the rest of the Big Ten…
(2) Big Ten – Ohio State’s monster incoming freshmen recruiting class led by the guaranteed #1 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft in Greg Oden is the talk of the entire basketball world and is the favorite to top the Big Ten on a lot of boards. However, I’m putting my money on Wisconsin winning the conference this year with the combination of the senior leadership of Alando Tucker and the ability of Bo Ryan to implement a system that seems to be successful every year no matter who is there. The Buckeyes are certainly on the same tier as the Badgers just because of the sheer influx of talent in Columbus, while the Illini and Indiana Hoosiers are on the next tier. Michigan State is in a similar situation as Illinois with some large losses, such as Dee’s old high school teammate Shannon Brown, due to departures for graduation and/or turning pro, but Tom Izzo is as good of a coach as there is in the business. His cross-state rival in Ann Arbor, on the other hand, is due for another year of unmet expectations as a result of the general ineptitude of Tommy Amaker, so be sure to sell Michigan short. Everyone else in the Big Ten ought to be ecstatic for an NIT bid this year.
Big Ten Conference Final Standings Prediction: (1) Wisconsin, (2) Ohio State, (3) Illinois, (4) Indiana, (5) Michigan State, (6) Michigan, (7) Iowa, (8) Minnesota, (9) Penn State, (10) Purdue, (11) Northwestern
(3) DePaul and the Big East – Wilson Chandler. If you didn’t know that name already, you’ll know it for sure if you pay attention to college basketball at all this season. Chandler was one of those young players that jumped out at me last year with his beyond-his-years presence in the post and is going to give the Blue Demons a chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament once again (or at least the Big East Tournament). The real obstacle for DePaul is the rough schedule with a non-conference tilt that includes Kansas, Wake Forest and an appearance in the Maui Classic against Kentucky for sure, not to mention the tough Big East Conference slate and the fact that they just got clobbered by Bradley on Saturday. There’s no doubt that Jerry Wainwright is challenging his relatively young team from the get-go.
On another note, the new DePaul uniforms are an improvement over the old ones, but I’ll repeat my call for the Blue Demons to go back to their late ’70s/early ’80s-style threads. That would be a perfect way to honor the late Ray Meyer. Anyway, here’s my prediction for the entire Big East, which is still strong but not the top-to-bottom monster that it was last year…
Big East Conference Final Standings Prediction: (1) Pittsburgh, (2) Georgetown, (3) Marquette, (4) UConn, (5) Villanova, (6) DePaul, (7) Syracuse, (8) Louisville, (9) West Virginia, (10) Rutgers, (11) Cincinnati, (12) Notre Dame, (13) Seton Hall, (14) St. John’s, (15) Providence, (16) South Florida
(4) The Rest of the Nation – The conventional wisdom is that Florida, which is returning the entire core of its national championship team from last season, is the favorite to do it all again. However, there is so much stacked against a college team repeating that I’m going to have to go in a different direction. North Carolina has as much talent as anyone, yet I’m just not getting the championship vibe from the Tar Heels and the reinvigorated ACC is going to exhaust that still young team. Kansas is another favorite with my Homewood-Flossmoor brother superstar Julian Wright, but until Bill Self can get out of the first round with James Naismith’s old school, I’m not betting on them.
So, I’m coming out of leftfield and going with Arizona to win it all. They have a high talent level with Marcus Williams and Mustafa Shakur and a coach in Lute Olsen that has won it all before.
As for a Cinderella story, I stand by my statement from last spring that we won’t see another midmajor such as George Mason reach the Final Four for an extremely long time. With the new NBA age minimum now being 19, the power schools are going to be more loaded than they ever. There will surely be some obscure team from nowhere that makes the Sweet Sixteen, but George Mason was the culmination of a trend of parity as opposed to the start of it.
Other BCS Conference Champion Predictions: SEC – Florida, ACC – North Carolina, Big 12 – Kansas, Pac 10 – Arizona
(5) Final Four Predictions – Arizona, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pittsburgh
(6) National Championship Game Prediction – Arizona over North Carolina
(Images from FightingIllini.com, DePaulBlueDemons.com)
(UPDATE: As soon as I stated that Brian Randle and Jamar Smith were the keys to the Illini season, they both went down with injuries that could keep them out for 6 weeks. I apologize to Illinois fans everywhere for this awful hex.)