Season in review: The 2008-09 basketball season

Illinois head basketball coach Bruce Weber used the phrase “positive season” to get things rolling at Tuesday’s season-ending press conference.

His team goals of 24 wins and an NCAA Tournament appearance accomplished, the national coach of the year finalist reflected on a 24-10 record after finishing 16-19 one season before.

“I think you ask kids to make improvement,” Weber said. “And we did that.”

Not many people saw an NCAA Tournament-caliber team in Illinois at the beginning of the season, and not until it defeated Purdue 71-67 on the road in overtime did many start believing. This year’s success, due in large part to senior leadership from Trent Meacham, Chester Frazier and Calvin Brock, was a far cry from dysfunction that ran amok at the Ubben Basketball Complex in 2007-’08. Weber used a recipe for success built around solid defense and enthusiastic team play to turn things around.

A first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament is never a good thing, but here are a few highlights from the season and thoughts from the head coach as the Illini face seven months before they play another meaningful game.

Most Improved

Weber had a hard time naming a most-improved player, saying the candidates for that award go “five, six players deep.” Although Weber didn’t zero in on anyone, one could make a great argument for Mike Davis and his 11.3 points and eight rebounds per game. One stat stands out: nine double-doubles after having none last season.

Biggest Difference-Maker

Weber had no hesitations in labeling Frazier the biggest reason for the team’s turnaround. The defensive stopper’s importance was obvious when he was sidelined for the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament contest against Western Kentucky. Weber said Frazier should be able to return as a student assistant coach next season.

“I think Chester has the respect of the guys,” Weber said. “Still, he can’t be on the court. When you start playing pickup games and all that, that’s where it’s going to take somebody to take over that leadership role.”

Best Game

It would be an easy call to go with the win at Purdue in late December, but the team’s come-from-behind 60-59 victory at Northwestern in February, which should have been an easy win, was fun to watch. Illinois trailed by 14 with a little more than 11 minutes left to play, and guard Demetri McCamey led the comeback with 21 points, including the game-winning bank shot with 2.9 seconds left.

Best off-the-court moment

A bizarre press conference after a 68-58 win over Hawaii was the first glimpse of Dominique Keller really getting comfortable.

The fiery forward, who would many more times run a marathon with his mouth, sat at a table with Frazier and McCamey while animating his displeasure of how Frazier was perceived publicly as not having an offensive game.

“I don’t think it’s funny when people try to come at (Chester) and give him a hard time for missing shots,” he said. “If it wasn’t for Chester, we wouldn’t have won half the games we’ve played already.”

Watching it all unfold was more confusing than anything else. While Frazier and McCamey held back laughs the whole time, Keller sounded like he was almost in tears, and at one point McCamey asked for a TV timeout. It was weird but hilarious.

Hypothetical

Who will have the bigger impact next season – Alex Legion, Bill Cole, or Stan Simpson? A little background info for you: Simpson redshirted this year, Legion never really got on track after transferring from Kentucky and Cole found playing time late in the season. The floor is open for discussion.

Outlook for Next Year

The incoming freshmen are talented enough to replace the on-court production Illinois loses from its departing seniors, even if they’ll lack the leadership. If Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale improve anywhere near as much as they did last summer, the Illini will have an inside presence that’s tough to match up against. In all, Illinois should have enough role players to get the little things done while developing talent for the next several years. It should be interesting to watch.