CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) -- When Illinois coach Bruce Weber talks basketball, he's a little like a performer in a one-man show, asking and answering his own questions, and laying out sometimes elaborate strings of causes and effects.
Weber says this year's Illini are better shooters than the bunch that barely hit 60 percent from the free-throw line last year.
"Now the whole thing is getting to the free throw line; who's gonna get to the free throw line?" Weber asks a group a reporters in his trademark rasp.
And his team, he says, might run more than last season's low-scoring, low-speed Illini, the ones that finished a dull 16-19 and 5-13 in the Big Ten. But a lot has to happen before Illinois can run.
"One, you gotta stop people, two you gotta get rebounds, three, then you've got to run," Weber preaches to the guys with pens and notepads.
How much better these Illini will be than last year's -- who finished ninth in the 11-team Big Ten -- is anybody's guess. They open their season Nov. 14 against Eastern Washington.
A lot will depend on how much a trio of sophomores grew during a tough and often disappointing freshman year.
Point guard Demetri McCamey, forward Mike Davis and center Mike Tisdale all are expected to play a lot this season.
After an inconsistent first two months, McCamey found a groove late in the season that fit his confident-to-the-point of cocky style.
What did McCamey find that had been missing?
"Just swagger," he said. "I didn't get it until kind of late last year, and now I know the things I have to do."
Davis, at 6-9 and 210 pounds, is expected to provide rebounding muscle that the team lacks with the exit of senior center Sean Pruitt.
"We've got to find somebody to come in and be a dog on the boards, be a glass cleaner," senior guard Chester Frazier said. "I think Mike Davis can do that."
Tisdale, at 7-1, will be expected to pull down a few rebounds himself, but he isn't a bruiser in the typical center mold.
Illinois will look for its center to play with his face to the basket, putting what, for a big guy, is a surprisingly soft touch to use.
He scored 26 points in Illinois' annual Orange and Blue Scrimmage.
"For a guy 7-1, with his skill set, you'll be surprised at what he can do on the floor," Frazier said.
Illinois also added junior college transfer Dominique Keller, a 6-7 forward who averaged 25.5 points a game last year at Lee College in Texas.
His shooting style, while hardy what a coach would teach, is effective, Davis said.
"It's just kind of line drive, but it goes in, surprisingly," Davis said.
For all the talk about scoring, the most important player on the floor for Illinois this season might be the one least likely to light up a scoreboard, and the most likely to fire up an ill-considered three-pointer that clanks off the rim.
Frazier averaged just 4.9 points a game last year while playing more minutes -- 33.4 a game -- than anyone else in the Big Ten.
But he plays tough defense and adds grit to a team that last year made a habit of winning the first half and wilting in the second.
"He's played in games when no one else would play," Weber said. "People have no idea."
"Now," Weber adds, "does he go too crazy and go too hard and take too bad a shot? Yeah, he does that. But would you rather that, or someone who won't even play?"
Weber says Frazier, maybe more than any other Illinois player, suffered with last year's disappointments.
Frazier was Jamar Smith's roommate, and watched as the now-former Illini first landed in trouble for a drunk-driving accident that seriously injured a teammate, then lost his place on the team for violating his probation.
The loss of Smith, now a student at Indiana State, contributed to what Weber says was poor chemistry on last year's team, exacerbated by the divide between a handful of seniors and the freshmen like Davis, Tisdale and McCamey.
Answering his own questions again, Weber says a team dinner at his house -- something he often holds -- gave him a clue that this year's team has a bond forged through those tough times.
"When they come to the house, do they stay? I can't make them stay -- there's some groups that just eat and go," Weber said. "They were there, I'm gonna' say, three and half hours."
He isn't promising a long dinner means a winning season, but, in a year when expectations for the Illini are low, he isn't ruling it out, either.
"I want to be successful now, and I think we have the potential."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)