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posted: 10/20/2011 5:45 AM

Illinois' hoop teams must answer key questions

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  • DePaul's Cleveland Melvin might be the best college basketball player in the state this season.

    DePaul's Cleveland Melvin might be the best college basketball player in the state this season.
    Associated Press


Midnight Madness certainly doesn't qualify as a holiday in this state.

Some college-hoops hotbeds turn the first day of practice into a celebration. Around here, the start of the season serves only as a reminder that Chicago-area college basketball has seen better days.

DePaul tried to fire up the students for basketball season Friday night but lost freshman Montray Clemons when he slipped on the floor during warm-ups and ruptured the patellar tendon in his left knee.

To help get everyone up to speed, here's a look at some of the prevailing questions heading into the 2011-12 season:

Q: What is the biggest question in Chicago-area college basketball?

A: It's a question that's in play every season: Will this finally be the year Northwestern makes it to the NCAA Tournament?

The Wildcats finished 20-14 last season, made their third straight trip to the NIT, and have plenty of production returning -- 74 percent of the scoring and 84 percent of the rebounding from last year's squad.

NU lost just one starter, but point guard Michael Thompson (16.3 points per game) will be tough to replace.

The Cats might have enough to claw their way into school history. Is a nucleus of John Shurna, Drew Crawford, Luka Mirkovic and JerShon Cobb good enough to finish at least .500 in the Big Ten and get the long-awaited bid? Let's call it a definite maybe.

Q: Will Illinois rebuild or reload?

A: The signs point to rebuild. The Illini said goodbye to Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale, Jereme Richmond and Bill Cole, who combined to average 50 points last season.

The top returning scorers are junior guards Brandon Paul (9.0 ppg) and D.J. Richardson (8.4).

The Illini did land the No. 11 recruiting class in the nation, according to ESPN. The group features four lower-end top 100 players, all from Chicago: 6-foot-11 Nnanna Egwu from St. Ignatius, 6-1 Tracy Abrams from Mt. Carmel, 6-8 Mike Shaw from DeLaSalle and 6-6 Myke Henry from Orr.

When Illinois visited Italy in August for a four-game tour, 6-8 junior Tyler Griffey was the second-leading scorer at 12.6 ppg. Point guard Sam Maniscalco also could contribute. He's a grad student who transferred from Bradley.

Q: Who is the best player in the state?

A: There isn't an obvious answer, but it could be DePaul's Cleveland Melvin. The 6-8 sophomore from Baltimore was named Big East rookie of the year after averaging 17.4 points in conference play.

Northwestern's Shurna (16.6 points) is another strong contender. Honorable mention could go to Eastern Illinois guard Jeremy Granger, from Elgin High School, who ranked seventh in the Ohio Valley with 14.5 ppg.

Q: Who will step in at point guard for Northwestern?

A: Junior Alex Marcotullio (6.2 ppg) figures to get the first chance, since he has experience. But coach Bill Carmody will take a good look at a couple of freshmen.

One is Benet Academy grad Dave Sobolewski. Another is Tre Demps from San Antonio, whose father, Dell, played briefly in the NBA and is now general manager of the New Orleans Hornets.

Q: Who are the new coaches in the region?

A: Loyola brought in a familiar name, Porter Moser. He's a Naperville native and Benet Academy grad who was head coach at Illinois State from 2003-07. Since then, he has been an assistant for Rick Majerus at Saint Louis.

Northern Illinois' new coach is Mark Montgomery, a 10-year assistant at Michigan State. He also was a four-year starter for the Spartans from 1988-92 and still ranks among the school's career assist leaders.

Bradley brought in Geno Ford, who just won consecutive MAC regular-season titles at Kent State.

DePaul's Oliver Purnell, UIC's Howard Moore and Chicago State's Tracy Dildy are entering their second seasons.

Q: Which team faces the biggest rebuilding job?

A: There are several contenders, but UIC wins. The Flames lost their top five scorers from a team that went 2-16 in the Horizon League. The top returning scorer is 6-9 senior Darrin Williams (4.9 ppg).

Loyola and Northern Illinois aren't far behind, but both of those teams return a significant player. Loyola's 6-8 junior Ben Avercamp (12.0 ppg) was the highest-scoring sophomore in the Horizon League. NIU has 6-7 senior Tim Toler, the team's top rebounder and second-leading scorer (9.9 ppg).

Q: Any newcomers worth watching?

A: Illinois has the four top-100 recruits, but Northern Illinois may have scored a coup by landing 6-7 guard Abdel Nader, who carried Niles North to its first supersectional berth last season. Nader was born in Egypt and moved to the U.S. at age 3.

Q: Which team is having the worst luck so far?

A: DePaul lost third-leading scorer Tony Freeland for the season with a shoulder injury. Freshman guard Macari Brooks from Rich South didn't qualify academically, and Clemons went down in the first practice.

If Freeland were healthy, the Blue Demons would have returned their top five scorers.

Runner-up is Loyola, which lost two-year starting point guard Courtney Stanley with a torn ACL in September.

Q: Anything interesting going on downstate?

A: Not really. Illinois State, Southern Illinois, Bradley, Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois all finished with losing records last season.

Q: Any big games coming up?

A: Both Illinois and Northwestern hit the road for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Illini host Gonzaga on Dec. 3, then face UNLV at the United Center on Dec. 17. Ex-coach Lon Kruger won't be there, though, since he left UNLV for Oklahoma.

DePaul opens the league schedule with Big East defectors Syracuse and Pittsburgh at the Allstate Arena on Jan. 1 and 5, respectively. Northwestern hosts Baylor, which figures to be ranked, on Dec. 4.

Q: Who are the teams to beat this year?

A: Look for North Carolina and Kentucky to start the season No. 1 and No. 2, in whatever order. Ohio State is the Big Ten favorite behind sophomore Jared Sullinger.

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