The Illinois College Basketball Rankings will be a weekly feature this season on The Catch and Shoot where six writers who cover college basketball in the state of Illinois will rank the 13 Division I teams in the state. Here is the preseason edition:Voters: Jesse Kramer (thecatchandshoot.com), Beau Spencer (Mysummitleague.com), Tom Fornelli (thechampaignroom.com), Mark Primiano (thechampaignroom.com), Loretta8 (sippinonpurple.com), and Joseph Nardone (bigeastcoastbias.com).
1. Illinois, 77 points
Illinois comes in as the poll’s best team in the state. The Fighting Illini were a No. 7 seed in last year’s NCAA tournament, and they return senior Joseph Bertrand (7.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and juniors Tracy Abrams (10.6 ppg, 3.4 apg) and Nnanna Egwu (6.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.4 bpg). They also add Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice, who averaged 16.8 points for the Bulldogs in 2011-12.
2. Northwestern, 68 points
Under first-year head coach Chris Collins, Northwestern returns star point guard Dave Sobolewski (9.8 ppg, 4.0 apg) and fifth-year senior Drew Crawford. Crawford, who played only 10 games due to an injury last season, averaged 16.1 points , 4.7 rebounds, and 2.1 assists two years ago. He also nailed 61-of-148 (41.2%) three-pointers.
3. DePaul, 62 points
DePaul could break out of the Big East cellar this season with stars Brandon Young and Cleveland Melvin returning. Young averaged 16.7 points and 4.6 assists last season while Melvin averaged 16.6 points and 6.8 rebounds.
The Blue Demons also add top-100 recruit Billy Garrett Jr.
4. Illinois State, 59 points
Illinois State is in rebuilding mode with only two players returning, but the Redbirds could still compete in the Missouri Valley with some talented junior college players on the roster. Bobby Hunter averaged 25.2 points and 3.5 assists at Santa Fe College and Daishon Knight averaged 19.4 points at Odessa College.
5. Bradley, 53 points
Bradley has not finished above .500 in the Missouri Valley since 2008-09, but this could be the year the Braves return to the top half of the conference. All-conference guard Walt Lemon Jr. (15.6 ppg, 3.8 apg, 2.1 spg) is returning along with Tyshon Pickett (11.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Jordan Prosser (5.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg).
Lemon dominated during Bradley’s CIT run with 17.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game.
6. Loyola (Chicago), 45 points
Loyola is in its first season as a member of the Missouri Valley, and it returns a good core with Christian Thomas, Devon Turk, Jeff White, and Joe Crisman.
Thomas is coming off a breakout sophomore season with 12.1 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting 56.2% from the field. Crisman averaged only 4.9 points last season, but he was the top performer in the Ramblers’ exhibition against Lewis with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
7. Southern Illinois, 40 points
Southern Illinois returns its starting backcourt of Desmar Jackson (15.1 ppg) and Anthony Beane (9.1 ppg). Jackson had seven games with more than 20 points, and he could lead the Missouri Valley in scoring this season.
8. UIC, 34 points
UIC returns two key players in Hayden Humes and Marc Brown. Humes, the Flames’ top returning scorer, averaged 10.3 points and 5.2 rebounds while shooting 40% from beyond the arc. Brown, a lockdown defender, averaged 5.7 points and three rebounds, but he is prepared for a bigger offensive role this season.
Purdue transfer Kelsey Barlow will make an immediate impact in UIC’s backcourt.
9. Western Illinois, 33 points
Western Illinois shared the Summit League title last season with South Dakota State, but the Leathernecks are in rebuilding mode after losing three starters.
Adam Link (9.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Remy Roberts-Burnett (6.5 ppg, 2.0 apg) will lead the way for the Leathernecks as their top two returning players.
10. Eastern Illinois, 29 points
Eastern Illinois will have one of the better frontcourt’s in the Ohio Valley with Sherman Blanford and Josh Piper returning. Blanford averaged 10.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.2 steals last season. Piper, a stretch-four, averaged 10.2 points and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 38.8% from deep.
11. Chicago State, 23 points
Chicago State is one of Division I’s most experienced teams with nine seniors on the roster. The Cougars will have one of the WAC’s best frontcourts with Matt Ross and Quinton Pippen. Ross averaged 10.1 points and 6.3 rebounds last season, and he drained 50 three-pointers. Pippen led the team in scoring with 10.4 points per game.
12. Northern Illinois, 13 points
Northern Illinois was already one of the worst teams in college basketball last season, and they lost two starters plus some of their bench. Their top returner is Aksel Bolin, who averaged only 7.4 points on 41.9% shooting.
13. SIU-Edwardsville, 10 points
The Cougars do not have much on their roster aside from junior guard Kris Davis, who averaged 11.7 points and 3.6 assists last season. Davis shot 59.8% (58 of 97) on three-pointers as a freshman, but last year he shot only 33.1% (39 of 118).