Welcome to the comprehensive preview for the 2014-15 basketball season for the Illinois Fighting Illini. Below you'll find an inordinate amount of information on the players, coaches, statistics, and schemes that will help determine whether or not this team will be successful throughout the season and dancing in March.
Recap of Last Season
The 2013-14 campaign was certainly a significant drop-off from Groce's first year at the helm of the program, being that it was more of a mixed bag. After beating Missouri and UIC to cap off a successful non-conference schedule, the Illini started the Big Ten season with two home wins and they were looking like a dangerous team at 13-2. They cracked the AP Top 25; they even overcame two double-digit deficits to win road games. They had seemingly been vastly underrated.
But then Illinois dropped eight straight games featuring a string of ugly offensive outputs and fell to 13-10 after the month of January. The defense, which is quite possibly the staple of Groce's system, was up-and-down. This was a team that gave up 52 points to Michigan in the first half, but then went on the road and held Michigan State to 46 points the entire game (they also recorded a season-high fourteen steals in East Lansing). Go figure.
The tide then turned once again, however, when Groce inserted Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, two freshmen, into the starting lineup. Illinois went 6-3 down the stretch and came within one point of knocking off top-seeded Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament. They received an invite to the NIT and made it to the second round where they (again) lost by one point, this time to the Clemson Tigers. Illinois finished with the 67th best RPI in the country. It was certainly not the season anyone had hoped for, but (at the risk of sounding like Tim Beckman) if you ignore the month of January this team was an NCAA Tournament team. That "January dip" is concerning, though, and it seems to be an annual occurrence. Let's take a look at John Groce's month-by-month record as a head coach:
- 29-5 record in November
- 30-15 record in December
- 18-30 record in January
- 29-18 record in February
- 23-16 record in March
The trend early-on in the John Groce era appears to be struggling at the beginning of conference play, which just happens to be in January. Rayvonte Rice played superbly in the non-conference portion of 2013. An Illinois player scored 20+ points fourteen times last year; Rice had eleven of those. His production dropped later in the year when teams were able to better scout and adjust to him in Big Ten play, but he had hardly any help. Rice played 42 minutes against Indiana, 39 minutes against UNLV, and 37 minutes versus Nebraska, Georgia Tech, and Oregon last year. Those are five games where Rayvonte was asked to be on the court for over 92% of the time. That's way too much to ask from one player. At times he accounted for most-to-all of Illinois' scoring. In fact, let's take a look at the team's scoring outputs from last year:
- Scoring Rankings in the B1G: 11th in points per game (60 ppg); 9th in scoring margin (-4.3 ppg); 11th in field goal percentage (38% shooting)
- Shooting Against Top 25 Opponents: 47% from the field, 41% from three
- Shooting Against Non-Top 25 Opponents: 37% shooting, 30% from three
Those numbers are obviously nothing to write home about, but it's interesting to see the large gap between shooting against top-25 caliber teams and shooting against more inferior opponents. Ultimately one of the key questions that arose after last season: why do the Illini become a better team later on in the season and when they're playing top-25 opponents? Can some of this be attributed to "getting up for a big game?" Maybe. The majority of Illinois' games against Top-25 opponents came on the road. Perhaps they're just a better shooting team when they're away from home? Could be. Or is the real answer to this conundrum John Groce, the man who wins nearly 65% of games he coaches when the pressure is on in late February and March? Only time will tell. Fortunately, it's fairly unlikely that the dreaded "January dip" will reoccur in 2014 when you look at the way this year's roster is constructed.
Looking Ahead To This Season: The Players
The Point Guards: Thanks to the depth and talent on this year's team, Rayvonte Rice will hopefully not be leaned on as heavily to score points. And expect those offensive rankings in conference play to rise tremendously; this year's team is light-years ahead of last year's offensively speaking, and you can thank transfers Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks for that. They both had to sit out last season due to NCAA regulations, but were praised for their work ethic and vocal leadership throughout their time off. They bring a whole new dynamic to the team this year -- the ability to shoot the three.
Ahmad Starks is smaller than your prototypical point guard but has been credited for using his speed to blow by the defense. He owns the Oregon State record for most three-point field goals made in a career with 185 -- and he was only there for several years. And then there's Aaron Cosby, who shot 42% from field-goal range and 40% from three during his final year with Seton Hall. Both of these guys are very skilled offensive threats. That's something the Illini could really use this season considering the loss of one of their senior leaders, Tracy Abrams, to a torn ACL.
Abrams had a shooting percentage of 37% in 2013, but he will certainly be missed nonetheless. This year he will sit back and take on a different role from the sidelines, as a sort of a "player-coach." The backup point guard will now be sophomore Jaylon Tate, who has been praised for his ability to find open guys and space the floor out with excellent ball movement. Expect a rise in his assist numbers from last year, which were already very good. Between Starks and Tate at the PG position, Tracy's loss won't be as devastating as it otherwise might have been. Cosby and Rice will help add depth to the wings and there will be times when four players on the court at the same time can drain threes, something you could've never said about last year's Fighting Illini.
The Big Men: The senior leadership mantle will now fall solely into Nnanna Egwu's (large) hands, who is the only current Illini player that has spent more than three years in Champaign. Groce has praised Egwu's defensive abilities, and he certainly has the ability to affect the game on that side of the ball. Jay Bilas, one of the best college basketball minds out there, thinks Egwu is one of the top five defenders in the entire nation:
The Bilastrator's All-Defensive 1st Team: K. Sykes, GB; R. Hollis-Jefferson, UA; T. Cotton, WSU; B. Weber, VCU; N. Egwu, Illinois.— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) October 26, 2014
Illinois recorded a season-high eleven blocked shots against Jacksonville State last year, but also went three entire games without netting a single shot-block. What was consistent in all three of those games? Egwu spent a lot of time on the bench, whether it was due to foul trouble or simply needing to get a breather. He will ultimately have a huge impact on the way this season goes, but he'll also need to be able to get more frequent rests on the bench; he can't play forty minutes a game.
So who will substitute in for him? The bodies are there, but who might be talented enough to serviceably back up Egwu? The task could fall to local product and incoming freshman Michael Finke. Some thought that he might redshirt this year (which speaks even further to the depth on this roster), but that theory was debunked this week:
#illini Groce said staff likely won't redshirt a player who can help 8-10 minutes per game every game. Finke said he is not redshirting.— Jeremy Werner (@WernerESPNCU) November 6, 2014
Finke holds potential as a pick-and-pop power forward or center, and has also shown an ability to take and make threes, but he'll be competing with Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert for the backup center position. These two sophomores have more experience than Finke, but that won't stop him from trying to get minutes every game. Groce made it clear that they're not redshirting him because they believe he can give them minutes this season. All three of these big men played pretty well in the exhibition game against Quincy, so look for lots of different lineups and combinations at center during the non-conference season as Groce tries to better define the roles of the frontcourt.
The Other Guys: Speaking of sophomores, the Illini might have two of the best second-year wings in the Big Ten in Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill. Nunn had offseason leg surgery and has been taking it slow in his recovery process; it is unknown whether or not he'll be in the starting lineup for the first game of the season against Georgia Southern. Kudos to Groce on being extremely cautious with Nunn, as we've all seen how rushing someone back from a leg injury can go awry.
Malcolm Hill, on the other hand, is improved and ready to go. He gained 20 pounds during the offseason and is significantly stronger. That will now be an important part to his game, as many see him as the starter at the four. He could potentially be the best pure scorer on the team. He has both an outside and inside game, which he displayed brilliantly against Quincy; he made two three-pointers but also went 6-for-10 from inside the arc. Don't say we didn't warn you, Malcolm Hill could be the breakout player on this team (if he hasn't broken out already).
Coming in behind Hill at power forward will be another breakout candidate, freshman Leron Black. He went 7-for-9 from the field against the Quincy Hawks in exhibition play and is most definitely a five-star talent. Black may end up being the sixth or seventh man on the roster for Illinois, but the skill is there and what the future holds for Black is unlimited.
To get an even more in-depth look at every player and position on the roster, please check out TCR's class-by-class previews for the freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. They'll give you an even better idea of the pros and cons for each player on the team. And while you're at it, you can read our schedule preview too.
Looking Ahead To This Season: The Coaches
The Main Man: I think by now we're all aware of who's the leader of this program; head coach John Groce. He's in his third year here at Illinois, and has brought back-to-back 20-win seasons to Champaign to jump-start his career. He's certainly a fan favorite and has shown his ability to be an excellent recruiter, even though it doesn't always translate to commitments. You can't ever fault Groce for not swinging for the fences. He's primarily a defensive-minded guy, and that's the end of the floor he more seriously evaluates and grades his players on. He'll bring energy and enthusiasm to any situation, no doubt about that. But can he finally break through and really take his team on a deep tournament run in 2014? With the help of his assistant coaches, who were all selected by Groce when he came to Champaign three years ago, he certainly hopes so.
The Assistants: Dustin Ford actually came with Groce from Ohio University, where he served on that staff from 2009 to 2012. Ford specializes in working with the frontcourt (power-forwards and centers). He was also the recruiting coordinator for the Ohio Bobcats and for his stint before that with the Western Carolina Catamounts. It is fair to say that out of the three assistant coaches, Ford has the biggest role and impact on the out-of-state recruiting trail.
Paris Parham has roots in the Chicago-land area and certainly knows the state of Illinois well. He coached at Morgan Park and Phillips Academy and was the "Chicago Public League's Red-Central Coach of the Year" in 2005. He was then hired as an assistant at Illinois State before joining Groce and company at Illinois. He certainly benefits from the connections he has in the Chicago area recruiting-wise; he is one of the more well-liked and respected guys throughout that city. But he also focuses on the backcourt and shooting guards as his area of expertise. Parham was the one who took charge of helping Starks and Cosby develop their games while they sat out last year.
Last but certainly not least is Jamall Walker. He boasts the impressive previous role of being Director of Basketball Operations for Sean Miller at Arizona in 2010 when the Wildcats made it to the Elite Eight. He then joined Groce and Ford in Ohio starting in 2011. His specialty is working with the point guards and backcourt players, and he mentored one of the best in the nation when he was with the Bobcats in D.J. Cooper, a two-time All-MAC selection. It's fair to say that he has a larger focus on player development than recruiting, though he does hold some Ohio connections.
Projected Starting Lineup
So what might the starting lineup look like on November 14th when the start of the season is finally upon us? In my best estimation this should be the starting five:
PG - Ahmad Starks
SG - Aaron Cosby
SF - Rayvonte Rice
PF - Malcom Hill
C - Nnanna Egwu
It should be noted that if Kendrick Nunn were completely healthy (recovering from offseason leg surgery), he would most likely take Cosby's place in the starting lineup.
This is a team that has very high expectations going into the season. It's fair to say that not making the NCAA tournament would be a huge disappointment. Many media outlets are sleeping on Illinois and that's a mistake. This roster has the ability to make a deep run in the field of 68, the real question is can they take the next step and produce consistently on offense as well as minimizing the injuries? If both of those things can happen, the Illini will be playing in late March.
After taking a sip of Orange Kool-Aid and analyzing the schedule I'll officially go with a 23-8 record, but anywhere between 20 and 25 wins (with double-digit non-conference wins too) seems to be a fair projection. And while every game matters, there are some that might define the season more so than others. Key games before Big Ten play begins include a matchup on December 9th against Villanova and a holiday battle on December 20th against Missouri. Then there are home-and-home's with Michigan, Nebraska, Michigan State throughout conference play, three of the best teams in the Big Ten. This will be a tough and grueling schedule to get through, but Illinois has the weapons to do so.
Here's what some of the rest of the staff had to say about the Illini's expectations for this year:
Jim Vainisi --- I think this team has the potential to be a 22-25 win squad. I expect them to be in the top six of the Big Ten and I fully believe they can reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Mark Primiano --- This will be our first glimpse at a true John Groce-built Illini squad and I'm pretty excited about it. I expect an NCAA tournament berth and at least one win, setting up the team nicely for year four.
Aaron Rench --- I don't have a prediction. My personal experience with basketball isn't extensive enough to make those types of decisions. But I do have things I want to see. I want to watch Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill reach the next level. I want to watch them avenge those terrible losses to Michigan, have at least one legitimate upset, and beat Northwestern. And I want them to go deep in both postseason tournaments, the Big Ten and the NCAA.
Colin Whitchurch --- I think it's clear that even with a relatively young squad, this is a tourney team. Whether they're ready to make the leap up to being in the 4-5-6 seed range or they're clinging to a bid at the end of the season will be determined by the players' development. I have a lot of optimism that Kendrick Nunn will make the leap to being an All-Big Ten player and that Nnanna Egwu will be a force defensively. Returning players taking a step forward, the freshmen finding their footing, and the consistency of the point guard position will all be key factors in determining the success or failure of this squad.
Brad Repplinger --- A young Illinois team looks to make waves in the best conference in college basketball. Was waiting to see where Sports Illustrated projected the team to be and sure enough they have the Illini making the tournament and losing in the first round. I think we're good enough and coached well enough to win close games, and I predict us winning 23-to-25 games this season along with a postseason victory.
Bryce Smith --- You can read a more in-depth explanation of my predictions in the schedule preview post from this summer, but I'll go with a 25-6 record for Illinois this season. As a side note, Bryce has obtained credentials for himself for the first game of the season against Georgia Southern, so if there's any questions you'd like him to ask or you'd like to ask of him, drop by in the comments section below and let him know!
I'll leave you with a John Groce quote, who recognizes that consistency will be the key:
"We want to be better than we were yesterday but not as good as we're going to be tomorrow. We're going to give it everything we've got this year, no doubt about it."