Well, I’m going to take a few minutes and appraise you all of the team that will win the Big Ten for the second consecutive year. As an Illinois alum, I’m going to try and restrain my vitriol regarding the BS that was the Championship game. However, there’s reason to hope that the Illini can rectify that injustice this year.
First off, thanks to a trick ankle, Dee Brown returns to guide the fastest backcourt in the entire NCAA. I expect to see him playing like his ass was on fire, and Bruce will institute a semi-fast break transition game. This team will simply never get trapped. Dee, a guy who shot at a 50% clip, will start the season as a pure point. The hope is that Rich McBride grows into the role of true point allowing De to slash and get open looks from 3.
McBride got out of shape last year and has returned like a man on a mission. He’s got the experience of practicing against the trio of Brown, Head and Deron last season and there simply isn’t a player on the NCAA who would catch him by surprise. Althetically he’s got the chops to make some serious noise, and the biggest challenge for him will be proving he can play 40 minutes of top notch defense. If he does, and takes some pressure off Dee to handle the ball by the start of the Big Ten schedule, this backcourt will be very good.
The Illini’s best player come March could likely be Brian Randle. A guy who missed last season’s run due to injury, should be coming in with a serious chip on his shoulder. He’s one of those freakishly althetic guys thats a match up nightmare for most 3s or 4s. Watching him will harken back to the heady Flying Illini days. However he’s got more well rounded skills than Kenny Battle, and won’t simply be remembered for making sick dunks and 40 foot blocks.
James Augustine has one job this year. To get pissed off. He was the refs whipping boy in the NCAA tourney, and he’s going to bulk up to command the interior this season. If he adds muscle and can fill the lane prior to the shot instead of always trying to elevate after the fact he will be a force. If he continues to rely on his ups and quickness he could continue to be a foul trouble liablility. In the Big Ten he’ll remain a force, but playing against ticky-tacky Big East/ACC refs will be a danger zone. All things considered, offensively he’ll be on of Dee’s favorite option on the wing and low post. Having a 6-11 guy who runs the floor this well puts you in a class all your own, however to have Final Four aspirations he has to elevate his game.
Off the bench, we’ve got plenty of size, however they don’t have much experience. That could be an issue. We’re very long and very athletic, and should be able to play defense well, but there’s a question about who will provide the scoring off the bench. Jamar Smith is a deadly long range shooter who needs to prove he can do it with a hand in his face. Shaun Pruitt and Walter Carter got minutes last season in important games, but they never looked comfortable on the offensive end. Carter has the skills to be dominant on the boards, but needs to learn how to be in the right place at the right time.
People have lowered expectations after last year, and I think that’s bullshit. Granted I don’t expect us to go undefeated this year, but the Final Four needs to be a goal. Not just a NCAA berth, and not just a Sweet 16. The Big ten title is theirs to lose, not Michigan States. They’ve got the skills, they’ve got the coach, and they’ve got young talent. Is someone steps up watch out.
Cue up Oskie-wow-wow