Tracy Abrams couldn't believe Will Leitch ranked him #1 - USA TODAY Sports
Esteemed friend of the blog Will Leitch debuts the first set of his Fighting Illini Power Rankings.
Sometimes it's good to have friends in high places, especially when they happen to be an alum of the school you currently maintain a website about and live and die with Illinois basketball. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Will Leitch.
It certainly isn't ideal to kick off these power rankings after one of the ugliest, most complete loss of the Groce Era - I sort of love that it's an era already; it does feel definitive, standalone, quite quickly - but ‘tis the rumblings and the luck of the sporting calendar. We'll run through everyone on the roster weekly until the end of the season. Hopefully we'll learn things and have fun and smile and hug.
1. Tracy Abrams. It is worth remembering who everybody on an upperclassman-heavy voted as captain last year. When everyone else on the Illini is frustrated and just throwing junk against the backboard, it's Abrams who keeps pushing and driving, which is what the Illini need to always be doing, whether the threes are falling or not. This is where his not-really-a-point-guard thing helps him; he's used to penetrating to score, not necessarily to dish. That aggression is desperately needed. Sometimes it hurts, like on the two straight turnovers that killed that last little Illini run against Minnesota, but still: When Brandon Paul tries to do too much, it drives me insane; when Abrams does it, it feels like the key to everything. I'm still not sure why Coach Groce left him on the bench so long in the first half, though; he had two fouls, not four.
2. Brandon Paul. We got the full Paul experience against Minnesota, starting off of course with this.
I know that GIF has been on this site a bunch so far, but it really can't be there, or anywhere, enough. (Just make sure it always gets cut off before that terrible charge call.) Unfortunately, the game did not in fact end there, and let's just say that I think we've seen the last of the #BP12 hashtag for a while. Paul never quite got going again after the bloody nose business, and he forced it, like he always does. It wasn't as bad as the Purdue game - in which Paul was fouled a thousand times but reacted like the Boilers were all carrying invisible tasers - but Paul was still out of control too many times. Paul's still the Illini's best player by far - he's definitely the winner of the Demetri McCamey award for Most Important Illini That Fans Disproportionately Blame For Everything - but let's not kid ourselves: That consistency we've all been waiting for for four years? It's not coming.
3. Nnanna Egwu. I'm glad he has confidence in his jumpshot - I like that it's coming around, but I'll admit he has a little more confidence in it than I do - but I love that he's really starting to take this "the Illini are empty in the frontcourt business" personally. It was easy to miss with all the Gopher Dunks (that sounds like a particularly sugary cereal), but Egwu played his arse off last night. You see Egwu get a little better every game, understand things a little better: It's exciting, after three years of watching DJ Richardson become a somehow worse shooter and Paul somehow get less discipline, to watch someone constantly improving. I'll admit: I get the JaJuan Johnson thing.
4. Joseph Bertrand. The Minnesota game wasn't pretty for him, but I still spent almost every second he's on the floor waiting for him to start taking over. As much fun as Illinois basketball has provided us this year, there's still nothing quite like when Bertrand turns into Invincible Mario and destroys everything in his path. Sometimes when I get frustrated with the offense, like last night, I remember that Bertrand's an arrow the Illini still have in their quiver, like a Break Glass In Case Of sort of thing. The problem, of course, is when either because of foul trouble or injury, Bertrand isn't the lightning off the bench, but in fact just another guy trying to create. You don't want to count on Bertrand; you always want to be pleasantly reminded of him.
5. D.J. Richardson. I should probably be upfront about this: I have a D.J. Richardson problem. The freshman I thought was gonna turn into Corey Bradford has turned into the senior who drives me batty. (Every Illini fan has this guy: Richardson's mine.) As Eddie Johnson (hi, Eddie! Good to see ya! You were the first Illini I remember ever watching, when I was, like, six) pointed out last night, Richardson only has 46 shots from two-point range this year, to go against 123 from 3-point range. That would be fine, except he's only hitting 30.9 percent of those threes. He has gotten worse every year from long range: 39.0 percent to 38.5 percent to 34.8 percent now to 30.9 percent. Richardson is basically Benjamin Button. He's Flowers for Algernon. The worst part is that every single time Richardson shoots a three ... I still think it's going in. Richardson has been the most frustrating Illini I can remember. There have been worse players, there have been bigger flameouts ... but no one has regressed in front of our eyes so completely. He drives me crazy. I'm not entirely rational about this.
6. Tyler Griffey. He's in danger of dropping more than anyone on this list. Last night he was passing up open 3-pointers. Considering how much he is eaten alive on the boards and defensively, if he's not being a stretch 4, I'm not sure what use he has. He (like Richardson, actually) has saved the Illini's bacon a couple of times this year ... but he's getting exposed right now. I fear it will not improve.
7. Sam McLaurin. Sam. We have guys who like to shoot. We have too many of those. Please start elbowing people and shoving them across the lane with your posterior. A starting spot potentially could be there for you, but not if you're averaging fewer rebounds a game than Abrams.
8. Myke Henry. Up until last night, I had unrelenting, illogical faith in Henry's 3-point shot. After watching him play billiards with the backboard last night, this is no longer a problem. Still: Nice energy, room to grow. He obviously enjoys this coaching staff light years more than last year's. (He's not alone in this.)
9. Devin Langford. A guy I still haven't figured out. He hasn't put up a shot in the Big Ten yet, but he also hasn't missed a three all-year. Feels like he should be an energy rebounder, doesn't it?
10. Mike LaTulip. A LaTulip first-half sighting! All it took was Brandon Paul being smashed in the face. LaTulip touched the ball a couple of times, so I was happy for him. Also, he has only missed three shots (including free throws) all season. He's taken 13. Not too bad, sir!
11. Mike Shaw. He has now played as many minutes in the Big Ten as LaTulip.
12. Ibby Djimde. So I guess this is what would have happened if Nnanna had never progressed. I still can't believe Weber burned his redshirt year last season, though I suppose it probably won't ever matter.
13. Kevin Berardini. Between you and me, I bet he secretly hates Mike LaTulip.
Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and the founding editor of Deadspin. Follow him on Twitter @williamfleitch.