Last year, I talked big about putting together constant Illini Basketball Power Rankings, all season, every week, every day, every hour, every minute. I ended up doing three. That seems a reasonable target for this season, but it wouldn't make sense not to make one of them a preseason version. Considering the season starts tomorrow, it's time.
These power rankings are particularly difficult to put together because, like you and like the coaching staff, no one has any idea how the hell any of this is going to work. There are only four players any of us have seen play before - unless you were really into the Missouri Valley Conference two years ago - and of those four, one is a walk-on, one is coming off offseason surgery, one has transformed his body and game dramatically (again) and one is Tracy Abrams. I have no clue what this team is going to look like Friday night, which is part of the fun and also terrifying.
I know everyone's busy tracking what a bunch of young dorky white dudes are predicting a few words an 18-year-old Chicago kid will say in a week or so, but there are actual basketball games happening, like, now, with players wearing orange and blue uniforms this second, so I, for one, would like to talk about them. Let's take a crazy stab at how this might all turn out.
1. Nnanna Egwu, Junior. Every November, Nnanna seems to show up with some new superpower. Last year it was the jumpshot; this year it's that he's a musclebound monster (who still has the jumpshot). Next year I expect him to report for school as a dragon. Certainly, watching Nnanna in the preseason games was a bit of a shock: He's so huge now that he looked like the Cloverfield creature compared to everyone else. He's just bigger and faster and really all together huge. He's the most important player for the Illini this year because: 1) He's the one guy with superstar potential; 2) If the shot has gotten even better and he has that extra post move we keep hearing about, he could be near unguardable in the suddenly fast-fast Big Ten; 3) The Illini have almost nothing behind him, post-wise. The key to the year for Nnanna will be foul trouble. If he stays out of it, I honestly think he could be an All-Big Ten-caliber player. If he doesn't, well, we're going to see Maverick Morgan slapped around in the lane a lot. The Illini have a ton of questions, but can Nnanna make that next leap? might be the biggest one.
2. Tracy Abrams, Junior. Gonna be fascinating to see what happens with Tracy. On one hand, he's the most experienced real guard - I put Bertrand as "swingperson" - who got actively better throughout the season before fading a bit late. On the other, well, he's a little hurt right now, and he also is maybe a little too green to start being counted on as veteran leadership? You'd like to see the shots fall a bit more this year, and maybe for him to be in a little bit more control on the break, particularly with a team so inexperienced it's gonna have that chicken-with-head-cut-off look for a while. The Illini have lots of backcourt depth, but only Abrams as anyone who has done it before. It makes me nervous to count on Abrams this much, but then I watch this again, and I feel a little better.
3. Rayvonte Rice, junior. And, already, at No. 3, we're into the players I've never seen play an actual non-exhibition college basketball game before. Gonna be that kind of year. It's possible Rice leads these rankings by the end of the year, and while that's a good sign for Rice, it might not be the best sign for the Illini. Everyone raved about Rice when he wasn't playing last year, though it always made me nervous when they'd say things like, "He's a scorer, but he just needs to work on his shot." That screams "inefficient, high-usage, bad-Brandon-Paul" to me. He looked jacked in the exhibition games, and I liked that little 3-point run on he went on briefly, but on a team that hasn't figured out its offense, with inexperienced players still finding their sea legs, I'm a little nervous a lot of early-season possessions are going to come down to "give it to Rayvonte with eight seconds left in the shot clock, clear out and see what happens." We'll see.
4. Joseph Bertrand, senior. Bertrand's listed as a starter for the Alabama State game, and he very well might be starting all season ... but it's telling that no one really thinks of him as a starter, still. Bertrand is a video game character at this point: If he's eaten the flashing star, he's invincible, but if he hasn't, he's sort of maddening to have around. A consistent JoeBert is a JoeBert I do not understand. I'm not even sure if we want a consistent JoeBert. He's a break-glass guy, someone who can come in to take over a game if everything lines up correctly but not someone you can particularly count on. In any given game, Bertrand can go scoreless, or he can rattle off 15 points in a row on his own. Maybe Senior Leader Bertrand is a different character, but right now, he's a mercurial wonder. I love watching him, except when I absolutely cannot. If Bertrand is back in his Vinnie Johnson role, he might not like it, but the Illini will be much better off. If they're counting on him night and night out, there will be trouble.
5. Jon Ekey, senior. Anybody else get kind of nervous that the coaches keep telling us that Jon Ekey is grading out light years better than every other player? I mean, good for Jon, that's some senior leadership we need, and he's apparently a better defensive player than I might have realized. He's Tyler Griffey Plus, and that's fantastic. But implicit in the Ekey praise is a warning: No one else is grading out where we want them to be. Put it this way: When your stretch four is outperforming everyone else, it's going to be bumpy out there. Ekey is an alternative, a complementary player, a bailout shooter. If he's your standout so far: Worry.
6. Kendrick Nunn, freshman. And here comes the Cavalcade Of Freshmen. Here's a back-of-napkin calculation as to how much we should expect from our freshmen this Year: Would you be happy if all the freshmen played at the level that Tracy Abrams did his freshman year? That's sort of a best-case scenario, and, well, Abrams wasn't exactly the most stable guy in his freshman year. They're all going to have their moments, but yeah, it'll be hairy, particularly early. I put Nunn first because he very well might start, and his lefthanded stroke is downright gorgeous. (I love how Brian Barnhart keeps pointing out Nunn's lefthandedness, nearly every time he makes a basket. It's not that weird, Brian: He's just lefthanded.)
Still: Sorta wish he was taller than 6-foot-3. Of course, I wish I were too.
7. Jaylon Tate, freshman. He's probably the least "talented" of the freshman guards, but he's obviously comfortable running the point, which is going to be the biggest issue for this team, I suspect, save for maybe the frontcourt depth. He needs to shoot better, but I'm getting real Chester Frazier vibes so far. That's what this year's team may be like: In desperate need of an 18-year-old to come in and settle everybody down. He better pull it off, because if he doesn't show real potential this year, considering the scholarship crunch and all the guards coming in, I can see some danger in being Myke Henry'd a year or two from now.
8. Malcolm Hill, freshman. Hey, it's a Weber recruit who stuck around! We'll see, though. You see a top-70 prospect who can score off the bench and looked good in the preseason games. I see a guy not known for defense who is going to have even more trouble breaking through when all the guards show up in the next couple of years. At best he's a JoeBert Lite this year. It would behoove him to mature quickly.
9. Austin Colbert, freshman. Yeesh. And here we find what I'm most concerned about with this team. In the last exhibition game, the final chance for these freshman big men to show they can fill in for Egwu in a pinch if he hits foul trouble ... Colbert and Maverick Morgan played a combined 15 minutes. That's only one minute more than Mike LaTulip. What happens when Egwu picks up two fouls in the first five minutes? JFG can go small, I guess, but eventually someone has to bang around underneath a bit. And even if Colbert were progressing, he's still more of a perimeter four than a big fella with elbows.
10. Maverick Morgan, freshman. I'm actually more optimistic about Morgan than I am Colbert, but it's gonna be a while: Morgan looked mostly lost in the preseason, as any freshman big guy would. The problem, of course, is that Illinois needs Morgan, like, now. It feels like his best-case this year is as a Will Perdue-esque foul machine. If only you could fit that on the back of a jersey.
11. Mike LaTulip, sophomore. You know: I'll believe it when I see it.
Will Leitch is a senior writer at Sports On Earth, contributing editor at New York magazine and the founder of Deadspin. He is the author of four books, including "Are We Winning?" and "God Save The Fan." He grew up in Mattoon, Illinois, and now lives in Athens, Georgia. He will be at both the Georgia Tech and the Auburn games, if you're around.