The college basketball season tips off on Friday, and here are my 10 predictions for the hoops year in Illinois:
1. This is finally the year for Northwestern to reach the NCAA tournament: The Wildcats don’t exactly have the star power of John Shurna, but they’re deeper than they have ever been. Depth has been one of the main reasons Northwestern has fallen just short of the tournament in the last few years. Senior swingman Drew Crawford will take over Shurna’s role and was among the Big Ten’s top scorers last season. Even without shooting guard JerShon Cobb, who is ineligible this season, Northwestern has a deep backcourt in sophomore point guard Dave Sobolewski, redshirt freshman point guard Tre Demps, senior shooting guard Alex Marcotullio and senior shooting guard Reggie Hearn. Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire, a 6-8 forward, gives Northwestern size and skill in the frontcourt. TCU transfer Nikola Cerina, a 6-9 forward, will help on the boards, another weakness in recent years. Plus, 7-foot, 275-pound center Alex Olah could be a legitimate difference-maker this season. Northwestern coach Bill Carmody could also turn to a few others off the bench.
2. Illinois will be on the bubble come tournament time: The Illini aren’t going to be as bad as people think. Bruce Weber’s final recruiting class was among the nation’s best. It wasn’t an immediate impact group like Kentucky's Class of 2011, but I still believe it’s a group that will ultimately be successful. Look for sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams and sophomore center Nnanna Egwu to especially take large steps forward this season, and I expect Myke Henry, Mike Shaw and Devin Langford won’t be too far behind. And if seniors D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul can find some consistency, Illinois should be respectable in coach John Groce’s first year.
3. DePaul junior forward Cleveland Melvin will be among the nation’s top scorers: I’m not fully convinced just yet the Blue Demons are going to make a huge jump in the Big East, but I do believe in Melvin’s game. He averaged 14.3 points as a freshman and 17.5 points as a sophomore. As a junior, with him adding some more perimeter skill, look for Melvin to be around 20 points or more. Some people are still sleeping on him, but that certainly won’t be the case after another impressive Big East campaign.
4. Illinois guard Brandon Paul and Northwestern guard Drew Crawford will compete for the Big Ten scoring title: Coincidentally, the two players work out together in the Chicago area during the summer. Both have showed glimpses of what they can do offensively. Now as seniors, both worked in the offseason to be more consistent and should push for the Big Ten scoring title.
5. Illinois could have as few as zero or as many as three teams in the NCAA tournament: Illinois, Illinois State and Northwestern are the state’s best shots at the NCAA tournament. None of them are guarantees, though. Illinois State took a hit with Nic Moore's transfer, but should still compete at the top of the Missouri Valley. The Big Ten should be among the nation’s top conferences again this season, and that could be good or bad for Illinois and Northwestern.
6. Loyola and Illinois-Chicago will improve this season: UIC coach Howard Moore, who in his third season, and Loyola coach Porter Moser, who is in his second year, should see improvements from their teams this year. Loyola’s Cully Payne and Ben Averkamp will be one of the Horizon League’s best 1-2 combos, and Moore finally has a number of his own players in the program. It could be soon the Loyola-UIC rivalry means something again.
7. The all-Illinois first team: Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul, Northwestern senior forward Drew Crawford, DePaul junior forward Cleveland Melvin, DePaul junior guard Brandon Young, Illinois State senior forward Jackie Carmichael.
8. The all-Illinois second team: Illinois senior guard D.J. Richardson, Loyola senior forward Ben Averkamp, Southern Illinois junior guard Desmar Jackson, Northwestern senior forward Jared Swopshire, Illinois sophomore guard Tracy Abrams.
9. The all-Illinois third team: Loyola junior guard Cully Payne, Northwestern sophomore guard Dave Sobolewski, Northern Illinois sophomore forward Abdel Nader, Illinois sophomore center Nnanna Egwu, Bradley junior guard Walt Lemon Jr.
10. The all-Illinois fourth team: DePaul sophomore forward Jamee Crockett, UIC senior guard Daniel Barnes, Illinois State senior guard Tyler Brown, Northwestern freshman center Alex Olah, Western Illinois senior guard Ceola Clark III.