An Early Look at the 2009-10 Illini

After Illinois' loss to Western Kentucky this weekend, we take an extremely premature look at their chances in 2009-10

Illinois' first-round loss wasn't exactly a surprise -- Western Kentucky was a tough, polished team, and their style, doubled with a hot-shooting night, was a bit too much for Illinois. What made it even slightly surprising was the seeding: Illinois earned a No. 5 in the 2008-09 NCAA tournament just a year after a 16-19 season and a 5-13 mark in the Big Ten. That U of I even earned a No. 5 seed was something of a momentus one-year turnaround.

It's an impressive accomplishment, but where do the Illini go from here? Back to the doldrums of Big Ten inferiority? Or will they stay near the top of the conference for good? A quick, entirely too premature glance at the vitals of the program convey one answer: things are looking good.

Sure, there may be some setbacks. The Illini will lose guards Chester Frazier, Trent Meacham, and Calvin Brock, who are all seniors. Frazier was the Illini's best defender. Meacham was its best shooter. Brock was its best mediocre athletic guard. All three -- with 12 years of experience between them -- will likely be missed.

But the rest of the vitals look strong: Illinois returns its best two players, sophomores Demetri McCamey and Mike Davis, both of whom will likely benefit from another year of the Big Ten grind. Alex Legion, a highly touted guard transfer from Kentucky, will get his first crack at the starting lineup.

And then there's the recruits: Bruce Weber landed four solidly ranked players in the class of 2009, including shooting guards Brandon Paul (ranked No. 44 in his class), D.J. Richardson (57) and Joseph Bertrand (116). Paul seems likely to start right away opposite McCamey, while Richardson could fight for a starting spot or be a productive player off the bench. Rivals calls all three "a major upgrade at the guard position," which is exactly what Illinois needed.

In all, it's a pretty good prospectus for the Illini. New recruits are always a toss-up, sure. But if they're anywhere near as good as advertised -- and the current players improve slightly year-over-year -- there's no reason the Illini can't be right back where they were in 2008-09. Maybe, just maybe, they can go even further.

Hey, then maybe Bruce Weber won't get so pouty on the sidelines. We can dream, right?

Eamonn Brennan is a Chicago-based writer, editor and blogger who really hates watching Bruce Weber coach. You can also read him at Yahoo! Sports, FanHouse, Mouthpiece Sports Blog, and Inside The Hall, or at his personal site, Follow him on Twitter.

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