Illinois college basketball has seen better days. It doesn’t feel like that long ago the state was receiving multiple NCAA tournament bids. The truth is, Illinois hasn’t had more than one team make it since 2007.
The 2011-2012 season likely won’t be much different. While there is some hope for the future of a number of programs, the present isn’t sunny. Illinois and Northwestern are likely the only two teams with a NCAA tournament shot this season, and neither is a given.
Here’s a look at the state’s preseason power rankings:
1. Northwestern: The Wildcats return the most proven talent in the state, bringing back four starters from last year’s NIT quarterfinal team. Senior forward John Shurna leads that bunch. Shurna’s numbers were as good as anyone in the country before he went down with an ankle injury last season. The expectations in Evanston are for him to return to form. Junior guards Drew Crawford and Alex Marcotullio should give them consistent production. Sophomore JerShon Cobb saw major minutes as a freshman. Big man Luka Mirkovic is a bit of wildcard, but he’s shown improvement in early practices. The one lost starter – four-year point guard Michael Thompson – is a vital one. Northwestern will need to figure out whether freshmen guards Tre Demps and David Sobolewski can be reliable early in their careers or Marcotullio can fit the role. Depth is still an issue, too. Of course, this Northwestern team will be judged solely on whether it reaches the NCAA tournament or not. Another NIT appearance is no longer progress.
2. Illinois: This season’s Illini feel a lot like a jigsaw puzzle you’ve just opened the box to and dropped the scattered pieces on a table. You begin with a lot of uncertainty over how it’s all going to be put together, but you believe all the pieces are there to do it. Right now, Illinois’ players are all over the table. Brandon Paul has the makings a Big Ten star, but he hasn’t done anything to earn that title yet. Sophomore center Meyers Leonard is as athletic as any big man in the country, but he’s yet to consistently utilize his gifts. Senior Sam Maniscalco appears he could be a veteran leader and a reliable point guard, but he is still coming off two ankle surgeries. Expectations are higher for Crandall Head and Tyler Griffey, but it’s still only an assumption they can produce this year. Even D.J. Richardson, the most reliable player of the returnees, went through a horrid stretch last season. Throw in a highly-touted recruiting class of six freshmen, and you could be headed for an immensely fun or aggravating season. If everything works out, Illinois should be able to complete the puzzle and head to the NCAA tournament again.
3. DePaul: The Blue Demons just can’t catch a break. First, it was point guard Shane Larkin, the most talented of their incoming freshmen, leaving the program in the summer for personal reasons. That news was followed by season-ending injuries to forwards Tony Freeland and Montray Clemons. Also throw in that freshman Macari Brooks has now left the program due to eligibility issues. With all those roster shakeups, DePaul lost its probable starting point guard and much-needed depth to its bench. DePaul is certainly more talented than last season’s team, which went 1-17 in the Big East, but this is still likely a rebuilding season for coach Oliver Purnell. The Blue Demons will again heavily rely on the sophomore duo of Brandon Young and Cleveland Melvin. They’ll both be Big East stars, but where DePaul ends up will depend on the production of Krys Faber, Donnavan Kirk, Moses Morgan, Jeremiah Kelly and the newcomers.
4. Illinois State: The Redbirds were as balanced a team as any in the country last season. They placed 10 players between 3.5-10.5 points a game. That’s all good when you’re winning, but Illinois State didn’t win a whole lot last season. It’ll be looking for someone to emerge as a go-to player this year and it’ll likely be junior 6-9 forward Jackie Carmichael. He has the potential to be a double-double player. Around Carmichael, the Redbirds have a mixture of experienced players and newcomers. Anthony Cousin, Jon Ekey and John Wilkins all started a number of games last season. Junior college transfer Tyler Brown and freshman Johnny Hill could make an impact, too.
5. Southern Illinois: Salukis coach Chris Lowery was given another season to prove himself. This is likely the end for him if the Salukis don’t start winning. Lowery isn’t off to a great start either. He promised retention of players after a postseason press conference and soon after lost two more players from last year’s roster. All together, he had four players depart the program after last season. The most significant one was Gene Teague, who left for Seton Hall. There is some talent remaining. Senior guard Justin Bocot and senior forward Mamadou Seck should be among the best at their positions in the Missouri Valley. Lowery’s fate could be determined by all his newcomers, which include five freshmen and three junior college transfers.
6. Bradley: Braves coach Geno Ford lost a key piece when Sam Maniscalco transferred, but the cupboard wasn’t left completely bare. Taylor Brown could be a double-double machine this season. Dyricus Simms-Edwards was lighting up the Missouri Valley late in the season. Walt Lemon continues to emerge as a point guard. The Braves were picked last in the Missouri Valley, but they have the potential to surprise some people.
7. Loyola: Ramblers coach Porter Moser has put his program in place to have a successful season in 2012-2013 by bringing in transfers Cully Payne and Devin Hill and a strong recruiting class, but that doesn’t help the Ramblers this season. Loyola will likely struggle this year without a proven point guard and a whole lot of depth. Junior forward Ben Averkamp could emerge as one of the best players in the Horizon League and may be worth the price of the admission in the newly-renovated Gentile Center. If Jordan Hicks can get healthy, that should help the Ramblers, too.
8. UIC: The Flames could be in for a rockier season than coach Howard Moore’s first year. Moore has committed the program to building from the bottom up, and that means youth this season. Moore welcomes eight newcomers, including seven freshmen, to the roster. UIC also graduated its two stars in Robo Kreps and Paul Carter. Toledo transfer Hayden Humes could emerge in one of their roles. Freshman Marc Brown is another newcomer to watch.
9. Northern Illinois: The Huskies are also undergoing a rebuild under first-coach Mark Montgomery. Northern Illinois has eight freshmen this season and could have had nine if Dre Henley didn’t leave the team. The Huskies possess some talent in that class, especially Abdel Nader, but it’s going to take some time. Tim Toler is the leading returning player.
10. Eastern Illinois: Like Chris Lowery, this could be an important season for Eastern Illinois coach Mike Miller. The Panthers have gone 63-113 in Miller’s six seasons and are coming off a 9-20 season. Jeremy Granger is back for his senior season and that should help. Outside of Granger, Eastern Illinois will look to a number of freshmen and junior college transfers to step up. Former Connecticut guard Darius Smith is expected to join the team later in the season.
11. Western Illinois: Now entering his fourth season, Leatherneck coach Jim Molinari is still trying to turn the program around. Western Illinois has gone 20-60 in his first three seasons and went 7-23 last year. Injuries were costly a season ago. They do return multi-dimensional point guard Ceola Clark, Billy Molinari, Tommie Tyler and David Gebru all from injury.
12. Chicago State: The Cougars have restocked their team in coach Tracy Dildy’s second season running the program on the city's south side. Dildy has nine new players. Jeremy Robinson, a former Illinois State player, is expected to lead the group. Northern Illinois transfer Lee Fisher is another newcomer who can make an immediate impact.
13. Southern Illinois-Edwardsville: The Cougars have to be excited for the return of junior forward Mark Yelovich. He suffered a broken foot in the season opener last season after leading the team in scoring his first two seasons. Corey Wickware, Kevin Stineman and a few of the newcomers, including freshman Charles Joy, should be able to assist Yelovich this season.