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Illini Basketball Preview

By Benjy Lipsman in News on Nov 17, 2005 9:36PM

A sign that Thanksgiving is approaching and winter's not far behind, this week marks the opening of the college basketball season. We'll focus today on the University of Illinois Fighting Illini. Their season kicks off in Champaign tomorrow night when they host South Dakota State. Tomorrow, we'll look at the other Division I schools in the area, including DePaul, Northwestern, UIC and Loyola.

2005_11_sports_illini_preview.jpgLast year's Illini team spent most of the season ranked #1 in the nation and made it all the way to the NCAA Finals before losing to North Carolina by 5 points. They finished the season with a 37-2 record -- not a bad season overall, even without the title.

As often happens following a run like that, and the national exposure it brings, players leave early for the big payday in the NBA. In addition to losing Luther Head to graduation, they also lost Deron Williams to the NBA. At least Dee Brown returns -- he entered the draft but pulled out after breaking his foot during a predraft camp. The Illini are much better off than UNC -- they lost their top seven scorers from last year championship team. That helps explain why UNC wasn't even ranked in the Top 25 in either of the major pre-season polls while the Illini began the season ranked 17 in both polls.

So who do the Illini have playing this year? Coach Bruce Weber explains, ""We have Dee [Brown]; we have James [Augustine]; we have a lot of question marks." After losing 2/3 of his 3-guard lineup, Weber is hoping to develop more inside scoring with this year's team. He'll look to 6-10 sophomore Shaun Pruitt, 6-8 freshman Charles Jackson and 6-8 junior Marcus Arnold down low. Sophomore Rich McBride should be able to step up on the outide, Freshman Jamar Smith has looked good from the perimeter in practice and exhibitions. Freshman Chester Frazier could share ball handling duties with Brown. At small forward, expect to see a larger role for Warren Carter and the return of 6-7 sophomore Brian Randle -- who was an injury redshirt last year.

There are a lot of new faces and player who will assume bigger roles. There is a lot of potential with this team, but just who else will become the go-to guys isn't yet known. This team might struggle at the outset of the season as they try to form a cohesive team, but they could be a force in the Big Ten by the time conference play begins in early January.

Illinois looks to be perhaps the third best team in the Big Ten this season, behind Michigan St. and Iowa. the Spartans, currently ranked in the top 5 in both polls, look like a title contender. Iowa returns all 5 starters from a team that went 21-12 last year in spite of the Pierre Pierce distractions. Now's the time for Weber to prove his coaching was as responsible for where the Illini got last year as the players he inherited from Bill Self. Can he bring his team back to the Finals? Probabaly not. But Chicagoist does see another Sweet 16 appearance.