Illinois feels it has a solid team returning for the 2009-10 season. The problem is that so do many other teams in the Big Ten.
The No. 23 Illini start a season-opening four-game homestand against lesser competition when they meet Southern Illinois-Edwardsville on Friday night.
Illinois returned to the NCAA tournament last season after a one-year absence, going 24-10 and finishing tied with Purdue for second place in the conference. The Illini return the nucleus of that team and have added some talented newcomers.
However, that seems to be the situation for most teams in the Big Ten, which has six schools in the Top 25 for the first time.
“It seems like not only do we have a lot of people back, but everybody else does,” coach Bruce Weber said. “And I think for the first time in a while our league is getting some great national publicity, as maybe possibly the strongest league in the country.”
Leading returning scorer DeMetri McCamey (11.5 points per game) is one of three key juniors who are back, with center Mike Tisdale and forward Mike Davis being the top post players.
Kentucky transfer Alex Legion had a shaky first season with the Illini in 2008-09, and is in a battle with freshman Brandon Paul for one of the starting guard slots.
Paul was Mr. Basketball in the state of Illinois, and isn’t even considered the best freshman on the Illini. That honor goes to D.J. Richardson, a Peoria native who helped Findlay Prep of Las Vegas win a national title last season.
“D.J. is the one that’s maybe gotten the most publicity,” Weber said. “Nationally he was from Peoria, went to Findlay Prep. That experience of being out at a prep school out in Vegas, being away from home, I think his maturity, the travel, the playing on national TV, they win the national, so-called national ESPN championship, prep school championship, I think it’s all helped him.”
Illinois was 12-1 last season before beginning its Big Ten schedule. Sustaining strong play in November and December through the rigors of conference play is a goal this season.
“We had a great start last year. We were very competitive down to the last couple of weeks; our finish was just not what it should be,” Weber said. “We could have easily been competing for a Big Ten championship with a basket here or a stop there.”
The Illini, winner of 10 straight openers, faced Southern Illinois-Edwardsville once before and won 104-68 on Jan. 3, 1981.
Southern Illinois-Edwardsville will be playing its first full season in Division I after going 10-20 in 2008-09 - its first season at this level. This game will be a major step up in class after a 78-76 overtime loss to Division II Illinois College in an exhibition game Saturday.
“We’ve got to be a better team from start to finish,” Cougars coach Lennox Forrester said.