Before I preview the Illinois team that Georgia will take on this Saturday night, I thought I would mention that Michael Jordan‘s (remember him?) son, Jeffrey, is a member of the Fighting Illini squad. In fact, young Jeffrey made a statement earlier in the year that he would not be returning to the team for his junior season so that he could focus on his studies…I guess he didn’t have to focus too hard because he is now back on the team and playing the role of backup point guard. He doesn’t fill up the stat column quite like his father did (Jeff is averaging 2.4pts/2.4rbd/2.8ast), but his coach Bruce Weber likes to use him to spell starting point guard and leading scorer, Demetri McCamey. If you never got to see MJ play in person, you can at least see his eldest son JJ play Saturday night at the Gwinnett Arena (if that’s any consolation).
Illinois overachieved last season by making the NCAA’s. This year, expectations are sky-high. The Illini started the season ranked in the Top 25 in both polls. Joe Lunardi of ESPN had them listed as a 3 Seed in his first Bracketology of the season (I think he had them as a 9 Seed in his December 15 update). Illinois is currently 8-2 and receiving votes in both the AP & Coaches poll. They have won 4 games in a row, with two of those wins coming at #19 Clemson and against #24 Vanderbilt. In the Clemson win, the Fighting Illini came back from a 23-point second half deficit to win 76-74.
Illinois brings back 3 starters from last year’s team that pounded Georgia 76-42 in Champaign. Point guard Demetri McCamey scored 19 points (13 in the first 8 minutes) and forward Mike Davis along with 7’1″ center Mike Tisdale each added 14 in a game that was close for only one half (UGA trailed 30-23 after one; lost the second half battle 46-19). These 3 juniors along with two freshman sharp-shooters (DJ Richarson & Brandon Paul) round out the starting five.
All five of the aforementioned players are scoring in double figures on a nightly basis. They have a very deep bench that is spotlighted by versatile senior forward Dominique Keller – a solid defender and great 3pt shooter at 50% on the year. Juniors Jeff Jordan (18.4 min/game), Bill Cole (15 min/game) and Alex Legion (11.2 min/game) all see significant time on the court.
This is very good shooting team: they rank 20th (out of 347 teams) in the country in field goal percentage at 49.5% and 55th from beyond the arc at 39.1%. They like to get McCamey, Richardson and Paul going from beyond the arc, which opens up the paint for Davis and Tisdale (if you missed it earlier, he is 7’1″ tall) to operate. Mike Davis is a smooth scorer around the bucket and a monster on the glass (9.9 rebounds/game). Tisdale actually has a pretty nice touch from about 15-18′, which is certainly unusual for most 7-footers (minus Dirk Nowitzki).
Coach Bruce Weber is known for having teams that play strong defensively, and this one is no different as they are currently holding opposing teams to an ugly 38.9% from the field. The Illini are also doing a good job rebounding defensively and limiting teams to just one shot opportunity per possession.
In their only two losses this season to Utah and Bradley, Illinois shot atrociously from the field at 39% and 39.7%, respectively. They also were limited to 11.1% from three-point land against Utah, and only a managed a slightly better 3pt% against Bradley at 22.2%.
Illinois and Georgia share one common opponent so far this season – those pesky Wofford Terriers (for those of you who might not remember, the Terriers beat the Dawgs in Athens earlier this year 60-57). The Terriers were actually tied with Illinois 50-50 until Bill Cole made a layup with 12:34 left in the second half to put Illinois up by a bucket. The Illini went on to win the game 78-64 in front of a home crowd of nearly 13,000 .
One last side note:
Before taking the coaching job at Illinois in 2003, Bruce Weber was the head coach of the Southern Illinois Salukies from 1998-2003. In the 2002 NCAA Tournament, Weber’s 11th-seeded Salukies upset 3-seeded Georgia in the second round to go on to the Sweet Sixteen before falling to Connecticut.