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November 21, 2008

Illinois searching for redemption this season

NASHVILLE, Tenn. College basketball may have its own version of the "Redeem Team," the popular nickname for Team USA during its run to the gold medal in the Beijing Olympics this past summer.

"That's us in a way," Illinois sophomore guard Demetri McCamey said. "Illinois hasn't had a season like last season in a long time. We are determined not to let that happen again. We are a team looking for redemption."

McCamey and the Fighting Illini (3-0) found some on the road Thursday night, pulling out a 69-63 win at Vanderbilt (1-1). McCamey was the best player on the court, scoring a game-high 23 points and dishing out six assists while committing just one turnover.

The Commodores are a young team trying to replace three starters, but it was an impressive performance by the Illini nonetheless. Vanderbilt was 19-0 at home last season and hadn't lost at Memorial Gymnasium since an 82-67 defeat to Arkansas on March 3, 2007.

The chances of the Illini winning at any SEC venue last season were slim at best. They went 3-8 on the road while stumbling to a 16-19 mark, only their third losing season in the last 30 years and their first in nine seasons (the Illini had a 14-18 campaign in 1998-99). That represented a new low for a program that has been stumbling since its magical 2004-05 season that included a 29-0 start, a school-record 37 wins (and only two losses) and a run all the way to the national title game.

The Illini won 26 games and suffered a second-round NCAA tournament exit the following year, a respectable encore for a national runner-up.

But the 2006-07 campaign began to reveal real signs of trouble. The Illini got off to a 3-5 start in Big Ten play. While they managed to win six of their last eight regular-season games and snatch one of the last at-large NCAA bids, they were ultimately knocked out in the first round.

With the loss of two of their top three leading scorers (Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle) heading into this season, the Illini were picked by most media outlets to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten and end up in the NIT.

Off-the-court issues are partially to blame. Two former players were charged and later pled guilty to driving under the influence during the 2006-07 season, including an ugly incident involving former guard Jamar Smith. Smith was also charged with leaving the scene of an accident that had caused a teammate to suffer a concussion.

But losing too many recruiting battles was the main factor in the recent collapse. The 37-win team was built around high-profile prospects that previous coach and recruiting guru Bill Self, who took the Kansas job prior to the 2003-04 season, had landed. The group included guards Deron Williams, Luther Head and Dee Brown. All three are now in the NBA, and Williams was a member of the "Redeem Team."

Bruce Weber, who was hired away from Southern Illinois to replace Self, and his staff struggled to attract that kind of talent to Champaign - even with the momentum of the national title run. Out of the 14 recruits signed in their last five recruiting classes, only three were ranked among the top 100 prospects in their class. McCamey is one and the other two (Pruitt and Brian Carlwell, the player injured in the accident with Smith) are gone.

Weber was called a great coach but a poor recruiter, a label he appeared to shake when Indianapolis product Eric Gordon - the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2008 class - committed to the Illini. But in a highly publicized blow, Gordon de-committed and signed with Big Ten rival Indiana. Gordon went on to lead the league in scoring last season at 20.9 points a game. After leaving school early he was taken with the seventh pick in the NBA draft.

But Weber's luck on the recruiting trail finally appears to have turned for the better. Four prospects who are ranked among the top 150 signed with the Illini earlier this month. The group is ranked No. 10 nationally by Rivals.com and includes four-star shooting guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, ranked No. 44 and No. 57 overall. Paul and Richardson committed more than a year ago.

"We have worked very hard at recruiting since we got here and sometimes things haven't gone our way," Weber said. "I think the key was Richardson committing to us first. Everything snowballed from there. We had a great relationship with him and once we had him we were able to call the other kids and say, 'Hey, we only have this many scholarships left.' "

The next class is shaping up to be even better. A pair of five-star prospects shooting guard Crandall Head (Luther's brother) and small forward Jereme Richmond and a four-star prospect center Meyers Leonard have already committed to the Illini from the 2010 class.

"Weber's recruiting efforts have been much maligned since he took over after Bill Self at Illinois," Rivals.com recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer said. "Weber just was not able to match the recruiting prowess of his predecessor. But Weber suddenly struck gold with his 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes. His 2010 class will likely be a top five class in the country.

"Crandle has electric athleticism and a strong pedigree. He is expected to have the same sort of impact at Illinois that his older brother had. Jereme Richmond is a smooth wing player who handles the ball well and can score in different ways. He has a versatile game and a lot of potential."

Weber had quite a bit of help when it came to putting together that stellar 2010 class. The four players who recently signed have long been trying to lure others to join them in Champaign.

"Those guys who committed early last year helped us by getting involved with recruiting and texting one another," Weber said. "They all got to know each other and they are constantly calling and encouraging one another."

McCamey is part of that support group as well.

"I think I talk to our recruits about every other day," McCamey said. "I'm always trying to make sure they are working on something. We have some really good recruits coming and those guys are going to give us a chance to be really good."

For now, though, McCamey and the Illini will focus on their "Redeem Team," which won't have to wait until next season to add a former high-profile recruit. That's because Kentucky transfer Alex Legion, who was ranked the No. 44 prospect in the 2007 class, becomes eligible in mid-December - after the fall semester. A 6-foot-5 wing, Legion has the physical tools to be a go-to scorer and will help the offense immediately.

"It can be tough to work a guy into the rotation in the middle of the year, but Alex is very talented," said senior guard Trent Meacham, who hit four 3-pointers against Vandy. "It's not like he's a free agent or we traded for him either. He's been with us for about a year and I think he'll give us a big boost."

With Legion having three years of eligibility remaining after this season and an extraordinary amount of talent on its way to Champaign, the Illini appear headed back toward the national title hunt - perhaps as soon as 2010-11.

Meacham has played with many of the incoming recruits and knows just how great the future of Illinois basketball looks. But he doesn't want his final season to be viewed as some sort of steppingstone either.

"The recruits we have coming in are very talented and are going to give this program a big boost," Meacham said. "I know the program is going to be really exciting after I'm gone, but I believe we can be a good team this year. We are starting to believe we can win and we're staying together. We need to remain tough and keep that mind-set of building on what we are doing every day."

Sounds like a player bound for redemption.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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