It's hard not to be optimistic about Illinois basketball right now. Sure, the end against Miami was a tad less than desirable, but in the big picture this team exceeded our expectations for the season. It not only made the tournament but won a game and was a couple shots, a ridiculous Shane Larkin three and a blind ref away from possibly being in the Sweet 16.
If you aren't happy with that, well, I'm sure there are some message boards you can go air your complaints at.
And as is usually the case when a season comes to an end, it's hard to not immediately start looking forward to the next one. Specifically our expectations for what's to come.
For the most part Illini fans aren't terribly excited about football in the fall and would skip right past it to basketball if they could. It's understandable considering the football season we're coming off of, but the truth is that next year's basketball season may not be all that much better.
I'm not saying the Illini will win two basketball games, but I wouldn't be shocked if they missed the tournament next season.
I'm expecting things to take a small step back.
It's not that I'm not optimistic about the growth of Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu, who along with Joseph Bertrand will be looked to as the leaders of this team. It's just that this team loses a lot in Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey.
For example, the Illini scored 2,465 points this season and those three were responsible for 1,299 of them. Or 53% of them if you want to be specific. They were also responsible for 73% of the threes the Illini made.
That is a lot of offensive production to replace, and frankly, I'm not sure Abrams, Bertrand and Egwu can replace it. Yes, Rayvonte Rice will be eligible to shed his sweaters for a jersey next season and he'll provide a boost, but I'm just not sure how much depth this team will have.
Let's just assume that guys like Ibby Djimde, Mike Shaw and Devin Langford all transfer. Here's our roster for next season.
- Tracy Abrams, G
- Joseph Bertrand, G
- Rayvonte Rice, G
- Nnanna Egwu, F
- Myke Henry, G-F
- Mike LaTulip, G
- Kendrick Nunn, G*
- Jaylon Tate, G*
- Malcolm Hill, G*
- Austin Colbert, F*
- Maverick Morgan*
So it's those guys and a few possible transfers. Of that group only Bertrand is a senior and everyone with an asterisk is an incoming freshman. Now, I like our 2013 class as much as you do, but the fact is we're going to have to rely on a lot of those freshmen next season.
Now, is there anything about the Big Ten that makes you say "I want to attack that with a whole bunch of freshmen?" No, of course not. And while Michigan had a ton of freshmen this season, they also had Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. and they still finished fifth in the conference. The Big Ten is not a place to be baptized by fire and hope to emerge unscathed.
Another worrisome aspect of this roster is there really isn't a great three-point shooter in the bunch. The best three-point shooter on this team next season, barring tremendous improvement from Abrams, Bertrand and Rice, will likely be Mike LaTulip. While that's awesome in the WOO, LATULIP CULT kind of way, I'm not sure that's actually awesome from an actual basketball standpoint.
So I think it's important that we prepare ourselves for a step back next season, because odds are that we're going to be fighting and clawing for a tournament berth, and there's no guarantee we'll get it.
Now, that's not to say that the future of this program isn't bright, because it is. There's nothing we saw this season from John Groce to believe any different, but we still need to remain patient.
We're on our way, but one tournament win doesn't mean we're there just yet.