Photo by Thomas J. Russo, USA Today Sports.
Illinois football has been wretched this year, absolutely wretched. It’s so bad that people who don’t care about football have been telling me how awful the team is this year. While their comments have totally made the season go faster, nothing quite makes it better than realizing Illinois basketball is less than 3 weeks away.
Illinois basketball is sunshine after the rain.
Last season the Illini were only a Tracy Abrams’ floater from the Big Ten tournament semifinal and, probably, an NCAA tourney berth. Finishing the year in the NIT and with a 20-15 wasn’t everyone’s definition of a great year, but it’s hard to call year 2 of the John Groce rebuild unsuccessful.
The only players lost from last year’s squad are Joseph Bertrand and fifth-year senior John Ekey. While both served a vital role on the team, Illinois looked better when those two were reduced to bench roles. With SO MANY people returning from last year (which featured 8 new Illini), this year should be a big step up.
John Groce’s mantra for this year is “10 toes in.” It stems from a pool party he had at his house for the team where he asked to put all 10 toes in the water, not a lesser number, so that they knew exactly what was expected of them. This is, without doubt, some “all-in” coaching bullshit, but–and maybe I’m just a fanboy here–when it comes from Groce it kinda feels good, doesn’t it?
Groce has also been using the word “sacrifice” a lot in his preseason press outings. He’s said players like Abrams and Rayvonte Rice had to sacrifice last year because they were among the best (or only) shooters on the team. With a deeper squad of better shooters for 2014-15, sacrifice means going with the rotation and taking less minutes, playing even better as a unit, and continuing to improve daily. [Or, in Abrams’ case (out for the season with a knee injury), it means getting healthy and preparing to be better in 2015-16.]
A better team, all sacrificing for one another could spell good things for the Illini this year. No doubt there will be a lot of bench minutes available this year, but the starting lineup could look something like this in the early season:
Center: Nnanna Egwu
Forward: Malcolm Hill
Guard: Kendrick Nunn
Guard: Rayvonte Rice
Guard: Ahmad Starks
But, as I mentioned, the five on the floor will change early and often, as Groce has several talented players ready to go on the bench. That depth will be key as Illinois progresses through the season, and, even without Abrams, this Illini team could be poised for some real success.
Nnanna Egwu is the man in the paint for Illinois and the man, in general. The senior’s story has been told in better detail elsewhere, but the short version is that he really hasn’t been playing organized ball that long. Because of that, it seems like every year he takes a big step forward. He has gotten better on offense, defense, and as a leader every year, with the returns evident in his stat line. As his minutes have ticked up (313, 913, 1038 per year) his points per game (1.9, 6.5, 6.9), blocks (20, 49, 73), and rebounds per game (1.5, 4.9, 6.0) have all improved.
Egwu being interviewed by the media on Big Ten Media Day.
His intangibles, however, might be even better. Groce says Egwu “embodies what the team culture is all about.” He leads by example, even getting out and running a 5:15 mile, no doubt inspiring his teammates during training. With Abrams sidelined, Nnanna is the leader of this team, and while they won’t live or die by him, this team’s success will be linked to his influence.
Behind Egwu at center is Maverick Morgan, who looked a lot like Egwu did in his freshman year: green. Fouls were plentiful and points were scant for Morgan, but Groce described his improvement as “appreciable.” Hopefully he’s right and Illini fans can appreciate Morgan more this year.
Centennial product Michael Finke is listed in the Illini media guide as a forward, but Groce has said he’s seeing looks at both 4 and 5 so far. Because of the depth at those positions (and the glut of guards), it’s likely that he redshirts this year and puts some more weight on to his 6’10” frame to become a true center next year and beyond.
The Illini media guide also has Malcolm Hill listed as a guard, but this offseason the sophomore added 20 pounds and is most certainly going to be starting at forward for Illinois this year. It’s hard to call Hill a power forward, even with his weight gain, because he’s not the guy you imagine crashing the boards, instead he’s more of a hybrid 3-4 player. But his play is important to the Illini, evident in the way the team turned its season around once he entered the starting lineup last year.
Hill can rebound though, grabbing an average of 2.4 a game last year, and shoot from inside and outside the arc, making him a dangerous player on both sides of the court. Sports Illustrated named him one of their 50 players poised to break out this season, expecting him to double his scoring average from a season ago (4.4).
Immediately behind Hill is top recruit Leron Black. Despite being a true freshman, Black will see a lot of minutes this year for the Illini and by the end of the season could be the first man off the bench. Called “savage” by his teammates for his work ethic, Black is a true power forward and already has the strength for the position.
Black almost certainly leapfrogged sophomore Austin Colbert in the pecking order, as Colbert’s first-year performance was even less exciting than Morgan’s. In my opinion (and many others, if you read Illini fan boards), with the way Groce is recruiting, Colbert might be looking elsewhere for minutes after this season; he just doesn’t seem to have the stuff to compete with many of the guys on this Illinois roster.
Walk-on freshman Cameron Liss is technically in the rotation for Illinois at forward, but if he sees more than 2 minutes of garbage time in any given game I’ll be shocked.
Illinois is likely to start games with three guards. Obviously this works well with Groce’s guard-heavy system, but I don’t think it was what he always wanted from this team, it’s just a reflection of where the talent is on this team. And talent overflows at guard this year.
Kendrick Nunn is the third guard in this system. As a wing, kind of filling in where a 3 would normally be, his tremendous athleticism and ability to score the ball will be clutch this year. Nunn reminds me of Joseph Bertrand with his amazing athleticism, but his shots seem to go in at least twice as often as the man he replaced in the starting lineup. Nunn, like Hill, was a big difference maker for Illinois when he entered the starting lineup and I expect him to keep rolling.
Kendrick Nunn. Photo credit: Thomas J. Russo — USA TODAY Sports
Rayvonte Rice is the 2 guard for Illinois, but he has played the point before and will likely trade off with whoever is in that role this year. Last season Rice started the way we all thought he would after hearing the hype of his off-year training, but then shone less brightly down the stretch. Part of this was due to the pressure put on him to score the ball. In what Groce calls the “worst shooting team” he has ever coached, Rice was often the guy expected to score. That eased up when Hill and Nunn entered the lineup and I expect he’ll do better now with less of that weight on his shoulders. Not that he can’t handle it, he’s gotten stronger (benching 325 this offseason), and as a senior I expect him to take charge often.
With Abrams out, starting point guard duty falls to Ahmad Starks, a transfer from Oregon State. I mentioned scoring was an issue for Illinois last year; well, it just so happens Starks became the all-time leader in 3-point shots while at OSU, so he should really help out offensively this year. There are some questions about his defense, however. At OSU Starks was more accustomed zone rather than man, so Groce has had to work hard to get him up to speed with the Illini defense that was 11th in adjusted defense. Starks is a senior, though, so I don’t forsee any problems with him coming in and having an impact.
Aaron Cosby, another transfer, is likely the first man off the bench immediately for Illinois. A combo guard, he can shoot the ball well, like Starks. In two years at Seton Hall he averaged 10.1 points a game and 3 assists per game, which should be a big help to this Illini team. Like Rice, Cosby is strong, benching north of 300 lbs this offseason. With his talent and the amount of rotation Illinois will be using this year, I would expect Cosby to make a sizeable impact this season.
Because of his struggles scoring the ball, Jaylon Tate is still sitting pretty deep in the Illini rotation, but the point guard showed impressive ball handling and distribution skills last year. Though he averaged less than 2 points per game, he had nearly two assists per game. Especially in the wake of Abrams’ injury, Tate will see a good number of minutes this year for Illinois.
Last and, well, actually least, is walk-on junior Mike LaTulip. A fan-favorite, to be sure, LaTulip is not really going to get much more playing time than the 38 and 44 minutes he’s gotten in his first two seasons. But, considering he seems to be a great guy and a help for Illinois when recruiting, I think he probably deserves to get the open scholarship this year (vacated by Darius Paul).
Where they’ll end up
I like — nay — love the depth of this team. Groce said last year he had the worst passing and shooting team of his career and then completely addressed those issues. To paraphrase Vice President Biden, that’s a big fucking deal.
Photo by Mark Jones, Illinois Athletics
So, where does this Illini team end up? Well, when Groce was asked if Illinois had the NCAA Tournament in its sights he said: “It always is. We’re at Illinois. For us, we don’t shy away certainly from that expectation.”
That is awesome.
As for where other people see Illinois finishing this year, the preseason coaches poll saw Illinois get 4 votes, placing them 44th overall. There are 36 at-large bids for the NCAA Tourney, so they may have to surprise a few people. However, Big Ten writers picked Illinois to finish sixth in the conference (with votes ranging from 5th to 9th). The Big Ten has the most teams in the current poll (6), which means if Illinois were to finish 6th in the conference, an at-large bid would be almost assured.
Personally, I think fifth or sixth is the right landing spot for Illinois this year, along with an at-large bid roughly corresponding to their place in the league. I have high hopes, and i admit that may be a fault and may skew my perception of Illini hoops. My track record bears that out, asI thought Illinois football would win 6 games no problem this year (I wasn’t the only one), so my predictions should be taken with a few grains of salt. Still, I can guarantee Illini basketball will be better to watch than Illini football.