COLUMN: Dependence on youth nothing new for Illini

By Jeremy Werner

Many are calling this season a rebuilding year for the Illini. The team looks nothing like it did two years ago. James Augustine, Dee Brown, Warren Carter and Rich McBride have all graduated, leaving the Illini with plenty of holes that will need to be filled by Illinois’ 2007 recruiting class.

The Illini will rely on their seniors. Shaun Pruitt is the Big Ten’s premier post scorer and will be the Orange and Blue’s go-to player on offense, but Pruitt can only score so much. With Jamar Smith redshirting and Quinton Watkins’ academic issues, the Illini lack a dangerous outside threat, something Illinois fans are not used to seeing.

Because of this weakness, senior forward Brian Randle is going to have to step up his game. Randle is one of the most athletic and talented players in the Big Ten. Injuries hindered him last season, but Randle must become more aggressive on offense. If he can consistently slash through opposing defenses, he will not only create scoring opportunities for himself but for his teammates.

Even if Randle becomes the star everyone knows he can be, the Illini need immediate production from their new faces. No one more so than Demetri McCamey.

McCamey was the most highly touted prospect Weber brought in and has the ability to become a difference maker in the backcourt right away. McCamey is a big-bodied point guard with a solid all-around game. For the Illini to be successful, they’ll need him to play the role Deron Williams did as a freshman: Run the offense, put pressure on opposing teams’ guards, create scoring opportunities for teammates and hit open shots. If McCamey can accomplish these things and limit turnovers, he could find himself in the starting lineup very quickly.

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    The Illini are also in need of athleticism off the bench. Both junior college transfer Rodney “Flight” Alexander and freshman Mike Davis can jump out of a gym and give the Illini a pair of Randle-esque players. Bruce Weber will need both to provide energy off the bench.

    Weber will also rely on freshmen for depth in the post. Other than Pruitt, the Illini return no significant offensive threats from their returning big guys. As a result, freshmen Bill Cole and Mike Tisdale will likely see plenty of playing time this year.

    Cole is a face-to-the-basket type of player, a la Warren Carter. The Peoria native has a nice midrange shot and can even be dangerous from behind the three-point line. The Illini will look to Cole to provide some scoring around the paint off the bench.

    Tisdale is a long, lanky 7-foot-1 center with a nice touch around the basket. He averaged 28.6 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks a game last season for Riverton High School. The Illini will need Tisdale to use his long arms to create havoc for opposing teams’ offenses.

    Also playing in his first full season for the Orange and Blue is redshirt junior Steve Holdren. The Champaign native transferred to Illinois after tearing his ACL his sophomore year at South Dakota State. Holdren steps in as already one of the Illini’s best outside shooters. Weber will look for Holdren to play a role similar to former Illinois player Sean Harrington. The Orange and Blue will need him to come off the bench and consistently hit a couple of outside shots a game.

    It may seem foolish to rely on first-year players for your team’s success, but the Illini have seen this before. Deron Williams, Dee Brown and James Augustine all started as freshmen during the 2002-03 season and were a key to the Illini’s Big Ten Tournament championship. This year’s newcomers are not as talented as Bill Self’s 2002 recruiting class, but they will still be instrumental in Illinois’ push for a top-four finish in the Big Ten and a possible NCAA Tournament bid.

    Jeremy Werner is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected].