Somebody saw this coming.
Otherwise, the Illinois basketball coaching staff wouldn't have chosen the theme “Rise Up.”
After posting a 24 wins and reaching the NCAA tournament in somewhat of a surprise in 2008-09, expectations grew for a program trying to rebuild from a losing season two years ago. Three starters returned in the fall, a prominent recruiting class was added, and there appeared to be enough depth and athletic ability to duplicate the success from the previous season.
But after a 77-71 loss to Dayton in the NIT quarterfinals Wednesday left the Illini with a season-ending 21-15 record, a proud program with a loyal fan base that stuck through postseason disappointment realized there's still work to be done.
A decisive loss to the Flyers might motivate the Illini in the offseason, where players improve individual skills and reshape their bodies.
"It's got to last through the spring, summer and fall, when you don't want to come in the gym,'' Illinois coach Bruce Weber said.
Despite the expected growth of this year's promising freshman class and three talented and cocky incoming recruits, Illini juniors Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Bill Cole still form the nucleus.
"They have a taste of it,'' Weber said. "Now they have to put in the time to get there.''
Rise Up? After a loss to an athletic mid-major team in the NCAAs the previous season (anybody remember Western Kentucky?), there wasn't enough growth from Illinois. Among the returning starters from a year ago, only McCamey made a big move. He carried the Illini on offense and becoming a first-team all-Big Ten pick. Without his creating and scoring, Illinois wouldn't have won more than it lost. Not even close.
McCamey led the team in scoring at 15.1 points per game, and his 7.1 assists per game set a single-season school record and ranked second nationally. But McCamey wouldn't give himself a passing grade, perhaps another sign of more maturity.
"You judge a point guard not off stats but off the number of wins,'' McCamey said. "For me, it's unsuccessful. I didn't get my team to the NCAA tournament and we didn't win ballgames down the stretch. The numbers were good, but wins are what matters most.''
McCamey made himself into a better playing by passing, not scoring, Weber said, and there are times when McCamey could take fewer shots and make more passes. The Illini are better when McCamey gets 16 assists at Purdue rather than taking 19 shots against Dayton, but there are times when McCamey feels like he must do it all.
"He's been great,'' Weber said. "If we don't have him, we're not in games.''
While Cole overcame athletic limitations and gave the Illini another defender and heady leader on the court, Davis and Tisdale didn't take enough of a step forward.
Page 2 of 3 - Davis failed to add the perimeter shooting and ball-handling skills talked about a year ago, in part because of a summer injury. He's a talented rebounder. Tisdale is a talented jump shooter, but the Illini have little inside presence. Tisdale had some good games, just not enough of them.
Reserve forward Dominique Keller, the team's only senior, attempted to reconfigure himself into a scoring small forward instead of what Illinois needed: a strong defender inside who could help with rebounding and by adding toughness and energy. He played his way to the bench.
Can freshman guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul be expected to create more opportunities off the dribble next season? Richardson, the Big Ten's co-freshman of the year, was steady, and Paul faces the challenge of harnessing his freakish athletic ability.
Freshman forward Tyler Griffey flashed signs of talent on offense but has to learn defensive principles. Joe Bertrand, who redshirted after the slow recovery from knee surgery, could become the backup point guard.
Waukegan forward Jereme Richmond headlines the recruiting class. Richmond and Robinson center Meyers Leonard bring size, athleticism and attitude. Guard Crandall Head is another superior athlete.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.
Illinois report card
Front court -- C-
There's no inside presence. The slender Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale are capable jump shooters. Davis' game would blossom with some ball-handling skills. Tisdale can score inside with that old-school hook shot. Yet they both need bulk and more toughness. Bill Cole provided heady play, defense and leadership, and he logged more minutes than expected.
Back court -- A-
Demetri McCamey made the program's biggest jump. Do that again, and he's a NBA first-rounder. With insiders calling him a second-rounder at best this spring, he's expected to be back next season. D.J. Richardson was co-freshman of the year in the Big Ten, and his steady play made him look more like a sophomore. He'll be one of the league's top five defenders next winter.
Bench -- D
There wasn't as much depth as anticipated. Dominique Keller regressed, losing his playing time late in the season. Brandon Paul's transition to the college game wasn't as easy as his early scoring exploits made it seem, and he had the red light down the stretch. The inability of Alex Legion to make an impact also hurt. With Paul plus freshmen Tyler Griffey and Joe Bertrand, there's likely more depth next season, considering the addition of another top recruiting class.
Overall -- C-
It could be argued the bottom line is a pass/fail. Earn an NCAA bid, the season is a success. Without one, it's a failure. Even with this season's string of disappointments, there are big building blocks to a winner.
Page 3 of 3 - For the second straight season, Illinois will add a talented recruiting class, so there's reason to believe the program is headed back up the ladder. For a team with a proud tradition, it's been a long dry spell. Illinois hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since 2006. But better times seem around the corner.