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Illinois Basketball Senior Preview

TCR's preview of the upcoming basketball season continues and concludes with the senior class.

Kirk Irwin

Confession time: I don't know much about basketball.

I would like to take this moment and apologize to our blog manager, who I duped into believing that I'm qualified to write about orange ball. Actually, maybe this isn't so bad -- maybe people want to watch as I learn about positions and tactics and certain statistics and general stuff about America's third favorite sport.

In all honesty, I've only followed non-tournament basketball since last January's horrendous Illini losing streak. I love underdogs, but not just for the sake of watching them pull off upsets -- I love following the story. From bottom to top, sewer to throne, Tatooine to Death Star (I realize this works twice, although differently, one good, one bad). Knowing the characters, the context, and experiencing the journey of the rise makes the final victory much more enthralling.

So when the Illini lost eight straight games, I had my beginning. Watching the Freshmen, Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, revive the team against Penn State was the catalyst; flash-bulbs of hope blazed in my mind, and I am the ultimate sap for HOPE. I've followed every game sense, even sneaking an online stream of the B1G Tournament at work. I literally jumped out of my chair on the final losing play against Michigan, but played it off as if I had a tremendous urge to use the bathroom. No one was the wiser.

Now the Illini get ready to start a new season, dragging me in their wake. John Groce is the man. #ZigZagsForLife.

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Applying knowledge from my years of stalking college football, I know that seniors are important. They're experience is closer to mastery than any other player on the field court and they have implied rights to team leadership.

All but one of the seniors this year are returning starters. The future of Illinois basketball is bright, but the majority of the light comes from the bench and the eventual successors.

Nnanna Egwu

Coming in at 6-foot-eleven, Nnanna Egwu is the team's tallest player, and consequently, the most likely candidate to start at Center, but generally, Egwu plays both the Center and the Power Forward, the Forward Center.

Of the all the players in the B1G last year, Egwu had the second best block rate, swatting away 2.1 shots a game, and he was 12th best rebounder, scooping up 6 per game.

As good as those numbers are, you need to know about Egwu's bad side -- the rotten apple that spoils the rest of his barrel of talents. He shoots 43.4 percent from 2-point land. In terms of where he plays on the floor, that's not good at all. He's likely taking closer shots than any other player on the team, yet ranks 7th amongst the Illini.

But before you give up on him, realize he's a tremendous force on the defensive side. Egwu shuts down the paint, like it's a no fly zone up in there. Let me remind you that I don't know much about basketball further specifying that defense is a mystery to me, but in my opinion, Egwu is the best player on the defensive side of the ball.

Rayvonte Rice

Of all the players on the team, Rice is the most important to the success of our season. Don't believe me? Let's go to numbers!

The chart below is sorted by the WS column. WS stands for Win Shares, "an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player due to his offense and defense." Sounds vague -- let's use it anyway! Here's the Top 5 players from the 2013-14 B1G, according to Win Shares:

Per Game
Player Pos School WS FG% 2P% 3P% FT% PTS TRB AST STL BLK
Frank Kaminsky C Wisconsin 6.2 .528 .582 .378 .765 13.9 6.3 1.3 0.7 1.7
Nik Stauskas G Michigan 6.2 .470 .500 .442 .824 17.5 2.9 3.3 0.6 0.3
Gary Harris G Michigan State 5.3 .429 .507 .352 .810 16.7 4.0 2.7 1.8 0.1
Ben Brust G Wisconsin 5.1 .418 .465 .393 .899 12.8 4.5 1.3 0.8 0.1
Rayvonte Rice G Illinois 4.9 .430 .502 .295 .731 15.9 6.0 1.5 1.7 0.3

The top three on that list were All-B1G, including Stauskas, the unanimous B1G Player of the Year. But in fifth place, ahead of Ohio State's Aaron Craft and Iowa's Roy Devyn Marble, is one such Rayvonte Rice. (Let it be known that Rice was left off the All-Conference first, second and third teams; he was Honorary Mention.)

Examine those numbers even slightly and you'll notice Rice has one major hole in his game last year: 3-point percentage. He's got great rebound and steal rates for his position, but If he can improve his range, there's no doubt that he can be All-B1G next spring.

And in all honesty, that's somewhat of a surprise. Rice, who went to Centennial High School in Champaign, wasn't given a single scholarship offer from a B1G school (his best offer was either Oregon State or St. Louis) and Rivals.com didn't even feel he was worth a ranking. He committed to Drake, which is (/opens Google, types 'Drake University location'...) in Des Moines, Iowa. He played there for two years before transferring into Groce's Illini.

Remember talking about the underdog? Rice is an isolated case. He started from the bottom, now he's here. He's an underdog leading an underdog team.

Tracy Abrams & Ahmad Starks

Devastating was the news that our senior point guard would be out for all of 2014-15. He's a got a redshirt to burn, so he'll likely be on the 2015 version of this very same preview.

True story: When my wife was in early labor a few weeks ago, the news that Tracy Abrams would be out for the season scrolled across the ESPN ticker. I freaked, got on Twitter to justify my angst, and told my wife the news. She rightly thought that it was not of importance.

After taking a look at the situation, it's not as worrisome as originally thought. Ahmad Starks, the transfer from Oregon State, is the man/angel sent from heaven to fill the hole -- a square hole, and he's the square peg. Just look at the most recent season each of them produced (all these are rate stats):

Name Year School MP FG% 2P% 3P% FT% TRB AST STL BLK TOV PTS
Tracy Abrams 2013-14 The Best 30.1 .333 .364 .270 .772 3.5 3.2 1.2 0.2 1.9 10.7
Ahmad Starks 2012-13 Oregon State 29.3 .392 .388 .395 .837 2.0 2.3 1.0 0.0 1.4 10.4

Starks is clearly a better shooter than Abrams, but maybe not as polished when it comes to passing and creating plays. That's something we'll have to wait another month to see.

Due to transfer rules, Starks sat out all of last year, learning about his new teammates and Groce's system. What I'm hoping for is that next level that seniors sometime reach, seemingly taking a permanent dose of the Secret Stuff and ruling the court from on high. It could happen. However, a safe bet on would be that Starks prevents anyone from truly missing Abrams production, and with the help of Aaron Cosby and a few other underclassmen we might see a much better offense than last year's second worst in the B1G.