All about the Big Ten: Illini rising

The crowning moment of Bruce Weber’s career to date came in the spring of 2005, when the Illinois coach led his team to the national title game in just his second year at the school.

Weber, though, wasn’t able to capitalize on the accomplishment.

In the five seasons that followed, Illinois won just one NCAA tournament game and was left out of the field twice.

Now Weber doesn’t have any excuses.

Jereme Richmond leads a freshman class making an immediate impact.
(Robert K. O'Daniell/AP Photo)

For the first time since that magical run a half-decade ago, Weber has all the pieces necessary to contend for a Big Ten title before embarking on a deep run in the tournament.

Four senior starters return from a squad that finished 21-15 last season. And after repeatedly getting out-recruited for local talent, Weber’s 2010 recruiting class includes three Illinois natives who could have an immediate impact on the program.

The class – which is ranked 13th in the country by Rivals.com – is led by Jereme Richmond, a versatile, 6-foot-8 McDonald’s All-American who was named Illinois’ Mr. Basketball.

“He really pushes our other guys,” Weber said.

Illinois is 3-0 and ranked No. 13, but its first real test of the season won’t come until Thursday, when the Illini face Texas in the 2K Sports Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden. A victory in that contest would catapult Weber’s squad into Friday’s title game, likely against fifth-ranked Pittsburgh.

“The competition [in New York],” Weber said, “will be as good as any tournament in the country.”

Illinois needs to prove it belongs.

The Illini are more experienced than Texas and boast comparable talent. Losing to Pittsburgh would certainly be understandable considering this may be the best Panthers team Jamie Dixon has ever coached. But there’s no reason Illinois can’t keep things close and put itself in a position to win at the end.

Weber is a good coach. Known for being an exceptional tactician, no one has ever questioned his knowledge of X’s and O’s. The problem is that, unlike his predecessor Bill Self, he hasn’t been able to lure top-flight talent to Champaign. Or at least not enough of it.

That appears to have changed.

Senior Demetri McCamey is regarded as one of the top point guards in the country, and Richmond, the freshman, is skilled enough to play any position except center.

With players such as 7-foot-1 senior Mike Tisdale and 7-foot freshman Meyers Leonard, Illinois is as long as any team in the nation down low – especially when 6-9 senior Mike Davis comes in from the weakside.

“Our guards have some size, too,” Weber said. “It’s a difference for us. We block shots. We’ve gotten a lot of deflections. If we can have the intensity that we need on defense it can be a difference-maker for us.

“Our practices have been much more competitive. The games are almost easier than the practices.”

That will change Thursday when the Illini finally face some stiff competition. We’ll know a lot more about Illinois by the end of the week.

LEAGUE RANKINGS

1. Ohio State (1-0) – Jared Sullinger is a standout, but don’t forget about freshman teammate Deshaun Thomas, who had 24 points in his debut last week.

2. Michigan State (1-0) – The Spartans play one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country.

3. Purdue (1-0) – Even without Robbie Hummel, the Boilermakers are good enough to contend for the league title.

4. Illinois (3-0) – Will Bruce Weber capitalize on his best team since 2004-05?

5. Wisconsin (1-0) – The Badgers have never finished lower than fourth in the standings under Bo Ryan.

6. Minnesota (2-0) – The Gophers are used to dealing with adversity.

7. Northwestern (1-0) – Bill Carmody’s squad is seeking its first NCAA tournament berth in school history.

8. Indiana (1-0) – Momentum is building in Bloomington.

9. Penn State (1-0) – Two years after winning the NIT, is Ed DeChellis on the hot seat?

10. Michigan (1-0) – Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims are gone. Uh-oh.

11. Iowa (0-1) – First-year coach Fran McCaffery may be feeling a little buyer’s remorse.

Northwestern's John Shurna got hot in the second half against Northern Illinois.
(Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire)

WHO’S HOT?

John Shurna from beyond the arc – Shurna, Northwestern’s junior guard, made seven 3-pointers after intermission in the Wildcats’ 97-78 victory over Northern Illinois. Shurna’s 31 points tied a career-high and earned him Big Ten Player of the Week honors.

Purdue’s selflessness – The Boilermakers were credited with assists on 21 of their 25 field goals in Sunday’s 76-40 win over Howard. Not a bad opener for a team that will play the season without injured star Robbie Hummel.

Josh Gasser, Wisconsin – The Badgers’ freshman guard had 21 points, nine rebounds and three assists in his college debut against Prairie View A&M. The 6-foot-4 Gasser will be relied on heavily by a Wisconsin team that lost a pair of standout perimeter players in Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon. Gasser’s 21 points rank as the second-best freshman debut in Wisconsin history.

Ohio State vs. Florida – College basketball fans couldn’t ask for a better matchup this early in the season than Tuesday’s showdown between the fourth-ranked Buckeyes and the No. 9 Gators.

Christian Watford, Indiana – The Hoosiers forward is averaging 20.5 points and 7.5 rebounds after two games and is shooting 66.3 percent (14 of 22) from the field. Watford is also averaging four assists.

WHO’S NOT?

Devoe Joseph, Minnesota – The Gophers’ most versatile player was suspended indefinitely by coach Tubby Smith for a violation of team rules. Smith told reporters that Joseph’s suspension could be a “long-term thing,” adding he was hopeful that Joseph would do the things necessary to get back in the coach’s good graces. A 6-foot-3 junior, Joseph averaged 9.4 points last season.

Michigan – It could be a long year for the Wolverines, who started three freshmen (Tim Hardaway Jr., Evan Smotrycz and Jordan Morgan) in their season-opening win against South Carolina Upstate. Hardaway Jr. scored a game-high 19 points in the 66-35 victory.

JaJuan Johnson’s shooting stroke – In two exhibition games and the season-opener against Howard, Johnson shot a combined 9-of-23 (39.1 percent) from the field. Johnson, though, has been effective in other areas. He had 12 rebounds in the win over Howard.

Iowa – The Hawkeyes committed 18 turnovers in a 79-69 season-opening loss to South Dakota State. The setback against the Jackrabbits, who finished 14-16 last season, spoiled the debut of new Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, who faces a tough task in turning around the Big Ten’s worst program.

Indiana may have dodged a bullet as Matt Roth's knee injury does not appear to be serious.
(Bob Donnan/US Presswire)

NOTEWORTHY

Florida and Ohio State will start a combined six seniors when the two teams take the court Tuesday in Gainesville … Taylor Battle scored 21 points in Penn State’s season-opening win against Lehigh, which was an NCAA tournament team last season … Ralph Sampson III grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds in Minnesota’s victory over Wofford … The Howard team that Purdue throttled 76-40 on Sunday went just 7-25 last season. But before playing the Boilermakers, the Bison defeated a somewhat-decent Bowling Green squad 54-52 … Purdue’s D.J. Byrd and John Hart combined to go 8-of-10 from 3-point range in that contest … League favorite Michigan State plays its second game of the season at home Tuesday against South Carolina. Tipoff is at 10 p.m. ET. The Spartans have won 48 straight games against non-conference opponents in East Lansing and are 39-0 at home in November under coach Tom Izzo … Indiana coach Tom Crean said the right knee injury that Matt Roth suffered in the Hoosiers’ exhibition victory over Ferris State isn’t serious and that Roth should return to the court soon. Roth – the Hoosiers’ top outside shooter – missed last season with a foot injury … Iowa drew a crowd of 11,700 for Fran McCaffery’s first game. Unfortunately the Hawkeyes lost 79-69 to South Dakota State … John Shurna’s performance in Northwestern’s opener overshadowed a nice effort by forward Drew Crawford, who scored 20 points on 9-of-13 shooting … Northwestern’s 97 points were the most in the 11-year tenure of coach Bill Carmody and the most since a 97-93 overtime victory against Michigan in 1994 … Wisconsin’s Jon Leuer opened the Badgers’ game against Prairie View A&M by hitting three straight 3-pointers for a 9-0 lead … Dallas Lauderdale’s double-double in Ohio State’s victory over UNC-Wilmington last week was the first of his 102-game career. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe posted a double-double in his first college game.

THREE TO WATCH

Ohio State at Florida, Tuesday – A pair of Top 10 teams square off in one of the marquee non-conference matchups of the season. Florida forwards Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin will provide a good early test for Buckeyes freshman phenom Jared Sullinger.

Minnesota vs. Western Kentucky, Friday – Wofford, Siena and now Western Kentucky for the Gophers. Western Kentucky thumped St. Joseph’s 98-70 in its season opener.

Wisconsin at UNLV, Saturday – Kudos to Bo Ryan for scheduling a tough road game this early in the season. UNLV will be bolstered by the return of top player Tre’Von Willis, who was suspended for the first game because of an off-court incident during the offseason.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Nov 15, 2010