(AP) — Illinois doesn’t expect depth to be a concern with all five starters and seven of its top eight scorers back from last season. That experience could be important as the team deals with very high expectations.
The Illini open the season against UC Irvine at Assembly Hall on Monday night as part of the 2K Sports Classic. Illinois had hopes of reaching the NCAA tournament last season after an 8-2 start, but it finished 21-15 following a loss to Dayton in the NIT quarterfinals.
An NCAA tournament berth might not be enough to satisfy the Illini. Their preseason ranking is the highest since being No. 6 for the 2004-05 season, which ended with a loss to North Carolina in the tournament final.
Senior Demetri McCamey has aspirations of getting Illinois back to the title game. After averaging a team-high 15.1 points and 7.1 assists — second-best in the nation — last season, he’s expected to once again lead the veteran-heavy squad. Mike Tisdale (11.9 points, 6.0 rebounds per game), Mike Davis (10.7 ppg, 9.2 rpg), D.J. Richardson (10.5 ppg) and Bill Cole (4.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg) again round out the starting five.
“My freshman year we didn’t make the [NCAA] Tournament. Sophomore year ended with a disappointing loss in the first round to Western Kentucky. And last year, NIT,” McCamey said. “So there’s a big question mark with my senior year. I’ve got a chance to put a stamp on it now and win a championship, and that way make up for my last three years.”
Along with its veteran presence, Illinois is also expected to give minutes to freshmen Jerome Richmond, last year’s Mr. Basketball in Illinois, Meyers Leonard and Crandall Head. Crandall’s brother Luther was a key contributor to the 2005 team.
Illinois plays its first three games at Assembly Hall, where it went 7-0 in non-conference, regular-season games last season, winning by an average of 22.7 points.
After playing Toledo on Wednesday, the Illini will go to Madison Square Garden in New York to play Texas and either Pittsburgh or Maryland for the second part of the tournament.
“If we can compete with those teams and be successful, we’re going to live up to some of the expectations of being a top 20 team,” coach Bruce Weber said.
UC Irvine went 14-18 last season — its second straight losing season — and the school chose not to renew coach Pat Douglass’s contract after 13 years. Russ Turner takes over after spending the previous six seasons as an NBA assistant with the Golden State Warriors.
“I have a lot to learn and my staff has a lot to learn, so there’s going to be an adjustment period that the players, coaches, everyone has to go through together,” Turner said. “I’m hoping that our guys understand that our goal is real clear, and that’s to be playing our best basketball in March.”
Turner will have plenty of experienced players to work with. Eric Wise, who had team highs of 16.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game last season is back, as are Darren Moore (11.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Patrick Rembert (5.4 ppg, 2.5 apg).
The Anteaters lost their only game against a top 25 opponent last season, 89-42 to Texas. Their last win over a ranked team was a 79-63 victory at Stanford in 2005.