On the eve of the 2009 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament for the University of Illinois, the mood is cautiously optimistic, teetering on a miniscule bit of giddiness. While the Illini have struggled all season with consistency and leadership, they have forged a very solid 24-9 record, with big wins over Purdue (twice), Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin, all ranked teams this season.
Illini Coach Bruce Weber was named a finalist for the 2009 Jim Phelan National Coach if the Year Award, as well as witnessing the emergence of sophmores G Demetri McCamey, F Mike Davis and C Mike Tisdale. The Illini secured a 5th seed in the South Region and was promptly dismissed by CBS basket ball analyst Clark Kellogg as the 5th seed most likely to be upset.
Defensively, the Illini have sparkled as a team, playing outstanding team oriented, in your face defense. Of all the key statistics, defense is what propelled the Illini to a 8 game improvement in the win column from last season. The Illni are 3rd in the nation in scoring defense, allowing an average of 56.5 points per game, 7 pts./game less than last season.
Offensively, the team is roughly the same as last season, averaging 65 points per game, an abysmal 231st in the nation. Their 60.2 pts./game in Big 10 play would put Illinois at 300th in the nation in scoring.
“These are the times that try men’s souls” is the phrase that seems to permeate from every ounce of Bruce Weber’s arm-waving, gyrating displays of encouragement, exclusively saved for McCamey and Davis. It may be a lot to ask of men of such youth and greenness, but with the loss of senior G Chester Frazier due to a hand injury, McCamey, Davis and Tisdale must mature in a hurry. They must mature in the most challenging of environments, the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
The future starts on Thursday, March 19th at 9:55pm EST in Portland, Oregon where the new Fighting Illini tip off in their first round matchup against Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers. With strong recruiting classes in 2009 and 2010, the big success of the Illini men’s basketball resides in the future, but on Thursday night, three sophmores begin laying the foundation of better things to come.