Illini still have work to do after surprising season

John Supinie

The Illinois basketball team gets next week off for spring break, then it's back to work.

Illinois took a step forward, bouncing back from a school record 19 losses a year ago to post a 24-10 record overall and a tie for second place in the Big Ten at 11-7. Now comes the hard labor behind the scenes, where those practices sessions at the Ubben Basketball Complex become more important than any SportsCenter highlight.

Losing four of the last five games – capped by a 76-72 loss to Western Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday that was a decisive result covered up by a late rally – has a way of reminding everyone that there's still plenty of work ahead.

Illinois returned to the tournament after missing it last year for the first time in nine seasons, but Illinois hasn't won a tournament game since 2006, the last days of the Dee Brown Era. That's the measuring stick for a program whose appearance in the 2005 NCAA title game seems like ancient history.

"We learned something after last year,'' Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "Now we have to learn something after this year. I set a goal of getting into the NCAAs and winning 24 games. We did that. Next year, we have to shoot a little higher, but you have to work a little harder to get there.

"It's not going to happen because you say it's going to happen. You have to earn it and do something about it.''

Behind forward Mike Davis, guard Demetri McCamey and center Mike Tisdale, this year’s sophomore class carries the weight of the program into the future. Improved recruiting will add athleticism beginning next season, yet the sophomore trio must develop leadership and drive with the loss of three seniors who became more valuable than expected.

"We have to get better,'' said Davis, slumped in his chair in a Rose Garden locker room with his head partially covered with an Illini warmup. "We have to up the wins next year. Everybody has to get back into the gym and work hard. We're only going to get better. Guys have to work on their games, get stronger and get better. We can only go up from here.''

An athletic forward who jumped from 2.6 points and just 10.4 minutes per game last season, Davis earned second-team all-Big Ten honors while averaging 11.3 points and a Big Ten-leading 8.1 rebounds. By adding range on his shooting and better ball handling, Davis could become one of the Big Ten's best. While defense remains a concern, he has set a goal for next year of earning player of the year in the Big Ten.

Tisdale relied on his skyhook to improve from 3.6 points last season to 10.2 this year. He finished the season with no points and one rebound against Western Kentucky, which will add motivation in the off-season. McCamey led the Illini in scoring at 11.5. He teased with big games, but his inability to sustain effort and a high level of performance irritated the coaching staff.

"I'll look at what I did well and focus more this summer on where I need to be better,'' McCamey said. "Defense and penetrating. We have to get to the free-throw line. That's something we didn't do at all this year. We have to take it like we did last summer, push it and get better.''

Weber’s biggest concerns center on leadership and strength. The sophomores need more of both. They should expect to hear from strength coach Jimmy Price. Weber would like put 10 to 15 more pounds on both Davis and Tisdale. He would like McCamey to drop 10 pounds.

"Jimmy has to be their best friend,'' Weber said. "If he's not, they're not going to make much progress. Demetri has to take a giant step. Quickness bothered him. He's got to lose some weight, get explosive and keep extending his game.''

Without senior Chester Frazier, whose hand injury hurt the Illini in postseason, the Illini don't have a true leader. They also lacked guts.

"We have to find a leader for next year,'' said Frazier, who may stay with the program next season as a student assistant. "A lot of them don't have the vocal personality.''

Incoming freshman guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul are the two most likely to make immediate impact from a four-man recruiting class ranked No. 8 by Rivals, No. 13 by Scout and No. 23 by ESPN.

"The biggest thing right now, hopefully we can get some toughness around the room,'' Frazier said. "When the young guys get here, hopefully we'll be able to piece something together and improve.''

After this season, Weber and the Illini have reason to believe that will be the case.

John Supinie can be reached

Illinois report card

Front court B+

The development of sophomore forward Mike Davis turned into the biggest news this season. After making a late decision to join Illinois two weeks before his freshman year, Davis has blossomed into a potential star. Sophomore center Mike Tisdale surprised even himself. Now they need to add more muscle. Each player needs to gain no less than 10 to 15 pounds.

Back court B

When senior Chester Frazier missed the last three games because of a hand injury, his value became apparent. Without him, the Illini lacked leadership and guts. Senior Trent Meacham, a former walk-on, played the best basketball of his career. Guard Demetri McCamey frustrated the coaching staff with his lack of drive. The coaching staff wants him to lose weight and gain explosiveness.

Bench C-

As Illinois headed deeper into the season, the bench got shorter. Weber gained confidence in senior guard Calvin Brock, who flourished as a starter in the final three games after Frazier's injury. Junior forward Dominique Keller could make a big jump next season after making the transition from junior college this season. Guard Jeff Jordan worked into the rotation. Sophomore Alex Legion never made a big contribution. Bill Cole showed he can shoot in the season's last two games.

Overall B

Illinois headed into the season without two of its top three scorers and the top two rebounders from a team that set a school record with 19 losses the previous season. The Illini had plenty of unknowns, but the development of the sophomore big men and play from the seniors lifted Illinois to a surprising finish in the Big Ten. Losing four of the last five games put a sour taste on the season. Now Illinois must continue to develop and begin reaping the benefits from improved recruiting.