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Friday, November 3, 2006
Plenty remains for Illini to threaten again

By Jeff Shelman
Special to ESPN.com

There is something about college basketball that seemingly makes everyone forget about what just happened.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that a team can lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and the world forgets that same team just compiled a regular-season win total of somewhere just shy of 30. Maybe it has to do with the constantly changing rosters. Maybe it has to do with the fact that seemingly 98 percent of college coaches appear either on the verge of being fired or are about to get hired away by another school.

The point? Well, find a preseason Top 25. Grab the first ESPN/USA Today Poll. Grab a magazine. It doesn't really matter. Just try to figure out which team isn't there, and it will show just how quickly things can change.

Who's not there? Illinois.

You remember the Illini, right? They're the guys in orange, the ones that play in that spaceship-shaped building that seems on the verge of bursting open because of the throngs of screaming fans that pack it. They are also the ones who have gone 89-16 in Bruce Weber's three seasons, have finished first or second in the Big Ten in each of the past six seasons and have gone 167-40 in that span.

But with the 2006-07 season ready to begin, Illinois isn't one of the Big Ten's favorites; the Illini are, at best, third behind Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Coaching is in Bruce Weber's family, but it took a run-in with a basketball legend to convince him to give the profession a try.
Bruce Weber

It isn't as if the Illini were gutted after going 26-7 last season and losing to Washington in the second round of the NCAAs. The Illini return three starters. Rich McBride has played in 100 games at Illinois. Brian Randle and Shaun Pruitt combined to make 65 starts last season. Jamar Smith made 48 percent of his 3-pointers as a freshman.

So why the skepticism? Why the lack of love?

Because even with significant players returning, there are simply too many questions surrounding this Illinois team for it to be any sort of favorite. This is, after all, Year 1, A.D. (After Dee).

Yes, point guard Dee Brown -- along with his headband and mouth guard -- is off to the NBA. Gone, too, is big man James Augustine. Those reasons, more than anything, are why Illinois is no longer the Big Ten's flavor du jour.

While McBride was a bit player on the 2004-05 team that went 37-2 and lost to North Carolina in the national championship game and Randle also was on the roster (redshirting because of a broken hand), the significant links to that dominant era are gone.

Now, the questions are many.

While Randle and McBride have experience, neither has been the focal point of the offense. Can McBride (who scored 10.0 points per game last season) continue to get open 3-point looks without Brown's penetration? Will teams neutralize Randle's freakish athleticism by paying closer attention to him? Can the point guard combination of Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham be effective? And which of the inside players -- Pruitt, Warren Carter and Marcus Arnold -- will truly emerge?

"It's a little different when the spotlight's on them," Weber said. "They want the spotlight, but all of a sudden you're the guy. You're getting shots, but if you miss them, people are asking, 'What's wrong with them?' Before, if you miss a few shots, no one gives a darn because Dee was making them. They're also going to have the dilemma of the better defensive players guarding them."

That doesn't even address the fact that McBride will miss the first four regular-season games because of a suspension stemming from a DUI arrest, or the fact that Randle sat out the Illini's exhibition opener because of a groin injury.

Even with reasons for (at least some) skepticism, Randle is optimistic. After all, the returning players on this Illinois team know nothing other than winning.

"We've been successful and we look to be successful every year," Randle said. "I think with the success us older guys have had, we know what it takes to take that step out there.

"Teams lose guys, and often times they are key guys because they're juniors or seniors. But every year, the younger guys step up because they've had good examples and not only that, they're talented players. The fact we've been able to learn from players who have that ability gives us an edge."

That said, nobody is confusing Illinois with a finished product at this point.

Randle said the Illini are going to be sluggish early in the season in the halfcourt -- "We just want to run up and down the court and wear people out," he said -- while Weber would like to see more consistency from his point guards and Carter.

But can this team succeed? Weber certainly believes so.

"At Purdue [in the mid-'90s] we had a three-year run with Glenn Robinson, Cuonzo Martin and then the other guys," Weber said. "I haven't harped on it, but I've prodded them a little bit to have a little chip on your shoulder. 'You guys are good, you were part of it, you know what it's about.'

"Let's see if we can be the surprise."

If the Illini reclaim the Big Ten crown, it would certainly be that.

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.