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Illinois Basketball Sophomore Preview

In our second installment of the series, we take a look at a group that played well last season and looks to improve this year.

Joe Robbins

Today we look at a group of sophomores that had an interesting season last year. Some looked good early, then faded as Big Ten play came around. Others struggled early, but eventually came on to start.

John Groce's first recruiting class was not as flashy as the ones he's bringing in now, but they were effective and helped the team.  The Illini are still feeling the effect of Bruce Weber's tenure because there's some pretty drastic class imbalance in the sophomore and senior classes.  Coach appears to be straightening that out with all the transfers he has brought in.

The set up of this post will be similar to the freshmen post, but I will be able to have a little more analysis, because we've actually seen these players play in an Illinois uniform.

The Starters

Malcolm Hill

Bio: 6-6 / 230 | Small Forward | Fairview Heights, IL | #21


Recruiting Background:

Malcolm Hill was originally a Bruce Weber commit. Hill was a consensus top 75 recruit (Rivals 62, ESPN 66, Scout 72) and four star. He averaged 25 points, 2 blocks, 2 steals, and 6 rebounds as a senior at Belleville East. He is the leading scorer there, having scored 2,067 points in his career. He was named first team all-state, and finished third in the Illinois Mr. Basketball rankings, Jabari Parker being the winner.

Summary of Last Year:

From our very own Season in Review at the end of last season:

So let's take a look at Malcolm's season. Malcolm appeared in all 35 games starting the final 12. He averaged 4.4 points per game shooting just above 38 percent from the field. He was reliable from the charity stripe making 77 percent of his 61 free throw attempts. He pulled down 2.43 rebounds per game, and totaled 4 blocks and 10 steals on the season.
Malcolm also hit 34 percent of his threes, but what's most encouraging is that he made 9 out of his last 15 from three point land. If Malcolm can be consistent from the outside, he becomes that much more difficult to guard.
Malcolm brought the intangibles to the team that Jon Ekey just happened to lack. Malcolm proved he could create his own shot on offense. He could draw a foul and get to the line. He was able to handle the ball a bit which essentially allowed him to play at the three and the four. He always had a knack for the ball and put himself in great position for an offensive rebound (he had 21 on the season).

This Year's Expectation/Prediction:

Malcolm Hill will once again start this year for the Illini. He put on plenty of muscle this offseason and his body is now ready to take on more of a small/power forward role.  Look for him to start at the 4 in our guard heavy lineup.

The thing I love about Malcolm Hill is he can play in the post, and his jumper is solid. He plays more like a guard and isn't a bulldozer, but he gets the job done down low. The fact that he is such a good rebounder also helps him hold his own at the four position.  Expect Malcolm to have a big sophomore year; according to reports, he's made the "jump" from his freshman year.

Kendrick Nunn

Bio: 6-3 / 190 | Shooting Guard | Chicago, IL | #25


Recruiting Background:

Kendrick Nunn and John Groce did something very special a few years ago--they re-established the Simeon pipeline. This has led to two other players (Jaylon Tate and D.J. Williams) to join the Illini from the high school powerhouse.  Going back to Nunn, he selected Illinois over Marquette, Ohio State, and Memphis.

Summary of Last Year:

In February, Kendrick's first month as a starter, he shot over 55 percent from the three-point line on nearly four attempts per game. That's a scorching month of shooting and certainly not indicative of his shooting ability. That's not a slight on Nunn; it's just a simple truth that nobody shoots that well from three over a larger sample size.
In his other two months of significant playing time, Nunn was 11-of-35 (30.5 percent) on shots from beyond the arc. That's not great, but still better than most of last year's guards. In truth, Nunn's real shooting average probably lies somewhere in the middle, but not quite as high as 39 percent. With more offensive responsibility next year, I would probably wager that Nunn ends up a 34-to-36 percent three-point shooter. That's good, but not good enough for Nunn to take on a pure, spot-up shooting role.
Luckily for this young shooting guard, there's plenty of time to develop other parts of his game. He showed flashes of playmaking ability this year, almost indicative of some potential to play point guard. His ability to probe and sneak into the lane with ease is useful for collapsing the defense and opening up other options.

This Year's Expectation/Prediction:

Nunn missed some time this offseason due to knee injury, but all reports say that he's fully recovered from surgery.  There's a good chance that Aaron Cosby starts at the 2 over Kendrick, but it won't really matter since the two will each be playing 20-25 minutes per game.  I expect him to have random spurts of 25 points, and then go back to being a solid contributor.  Nunn will have more shooters around him this year and his shooting percentage should see a bump because of this.  Nunn's defense was solid during his freshman campaign, but he'll need to improve a bit to fill the defensive hole left by Tracy Abrams. Malcolm Hill is the more consistent player, but Nunn has potential to be better at times.

The Bench Mob:

Maverick Morgan

Bio: 6-10 / 250 | Center | Springboro, Ohio | #22


Recruiting Background: Maverick Morgan chose Illinois over Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, West Virginia and others. In high school he was named first team all-Ohio.

Summary of Last YearMav appeared in all 35 games which is impressive for a freshman center. He averaged 7.1 minutes per game. He scored 52 total points on the season while shooting a clip above 58 percent from the field. He also averaged 1.2 rebounds per game and blocked a total of 8 shots.
The offensive end of the court was not really a struggle for Mav. His ability to consistently catch a pass and make a shot on the block was a pleasant surprise. He actually showed the resemblance of a post game which came in handy when Nnanna forgot how to even hit the rim with a basketball during a stretch of the season.
Defensively, however, was a different story for our dear freshman center. As much as Mav filled Nnanna's shoes when the Illini had an offensive possession, he was a major liability on defense. He just wasn't strong enough nor did he have the proper spacing to be a presence on the inside on defense. Big Ten teams definitely took advantage of the dribble drive and Mav's lacking ability to effectively close on shooters around the lane.

This Year's Expectation/Prediction:

Maverick Morgan will play a similar this year as he did last season--backup to Nnanna Egwu.  Mav didn't play well at the start of the season (it's always tough for big guys to adjust in college).  However, he stayed consistent throughout the course of the entire year and was player off the bench.  He's been working on his defense and rebounding this offseason so expect him to be a very reliable backup.

Jaylon Tate

Bio: 6-3 / 170 | Point Guard | Chicago, IL | #1


Recruiting Background: Jaylon Tate was only a two star coming out of Simeon, but he showed excellent vision and the leadership required to play Point Guard.  Groce picked him up with his extra scholarship to help the Simeon-Illinois connection once again.

Summary of Last Year:  Tate's been delegated as the unspoken player in the same rhetorical question. What are we going to do if we don't get a point guard in the Class of 2015? Who will be our point guard of the future? From the inside, the discussions probably look at Tate differently. He might be an answer.
He was the answer, briefly, at first. In the beginning of the season, Illinois needed a hug and a hand to hold after Quentin Snider dumped us, so we held onto Jaylon Tate. Here's the title of a November #AskTCR:

Expectations/Prediction for this Year:

With Tracy Abrams' injury, Jaylon Tate will be seeing some backup minutes at PG.  Tate's jump shot was obviously his biggest weakness throughout 2013-14 season; the team was basically playing 4v5 on offense with him on the floor. If Tate shows some improvement in that area he could be an extremely effective player with his special court vision and passing ability.

Austin Colbert

Bio: 6-9 / 210 | Power Forward | Chesapeake, VA | #31

Recruiting Background: Colbert actually has a more interesting background than most. He was a four star recruit coming out of Virginia, and chose Illinois over Miami, Seton Hall, and Florida. He was ranked in the top 100; 97 by Rivals and 98 by Scout.

Summary of Last Year:

During the season, Austin Colbert was a regular ol' freshman getting regular ol' scant freshman minutes

This was basically it for Colbert as a freshman. We needed him to play in a few of our games and just kind of be there. He was not very physically at the 4 and was more of a crafty big man as apposed to Mav.

This Year's Prediction/Expectation:

It will be interesting to see what direction Colbert goes this season. He might get passed up by freshman Leron Black, who is a great talent. Hopefully Colbert was able to add some weight and post moves over the summer to keep up.  Colbert will either have a similar season to last, or see a big increase in minutes if he got better.