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2016-17 Illinois Basketball Preview: Can the Fighting Illini return to NCAA Tournament?

Here’s everything you need to know about this year’s squad.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Illinois vs Iowa Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Friday night marks the beginning of the college basketball season, as the Illini will welcome Southeast Missouri State into the State Farm Center. But what are the ins and outs of this Illinois team and can they finally return to the NCAA tournament? We’ve got you covered with a complete season preview below.

Recap of Last Season

Do I have to? Last year was a challenging one to say the least for the Fighting Illini. Finishing with 15-19 record, the team couldn’t find any consistency amongst a roster that was consumed and ravaged by the injury bug. The list of player absences, which ranged anywhere from legal trouble to the flu to torn ACLs to pregnancies, was one of the largest seasons of depletions ever.

That certainly helps explain double-digit losses to the likes of Michigan State, North Florida, Indiana (twice), Nebraska, Iowa, Maryland and Purdue. There were some bright spots that showed what a healthy fourth year under John Groce could’ve looked like; a convincing win against UAB early in the season was complemented with an impressive victory over Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament to finish the year. But the wins were few and far between, to put it simply. Malcolm Hill, who was asked to do way too much, led the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and minutes played. He played every position other than center. The team finished with a very poor overall shooting percentage on offense and essentially gave up on collecting rebounds after the losses of Thorne and Black to injury. Maverick Morgan, Michael Finke and Jalen Coleman-Lands had some breakout performances but overall it wasn’t a season to write home about. The Illini missed out on the Field of 68 for the third straight year and were not invited to any other postseason tournaments.

Looking Ahead To This Season: Additions and Subtractions

Key Exits: Kendrick Nunn (Oakland), Khalid Lewis (graduation)

One thing Illinois fans can look forward to about 2016 is that they return pretty much the entire roster except for Kendrick Nunn and Khalid Lewis. Nunn, who was dismissed from the team following a guilty plea to battery charges, has now found a home with the Oakland Grizzlies. He was a key piece to last year’s squad but was about to be unseated by sharpshooter Jalen Coleman-Lands anyways, so his loss isn’t as notable as it might otherwise have been. Khalid Lewis was a late bloomer that provided the team with a spark in several conference games late in the season, but he ultimately ended up averaging just 3.9 points per game. His leadership will be missed, but the Illini have the pieces to recover from both of these departures.

Key Additions: Te’Jon Lucas (freshman), Kipper Nichols (transfer)

The biggest additions will ironically come from within the program; Tracy Abrams, Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black will all finally be healthy this year. In terms of actual newcomers, freshman point guard Te’Jon Lucas from Milwaukee was the staff’s only member of last year’s recruiting class. He was rated as the third best player in the state of Wisconsin and also cracked the top 30 in point guard rankings nationally. Ironically enough, Lucas suffered a fractured right foot that ended his high school career in a game played in Champaign last year, but the freshman fully recovered in the offseason and has already played in one of the team’s preseason matchups. Look for Lucas to get some time at PG behind Tracy Abrams, but barring another major injury (knock on wood) he probably won’t see significant playing time this year.

Kipper Nichols is a different story. Nichols transferred from Tulane last December but the NCAA ruled that he had to sit out for a full year before being able to participate in game action. That means that because of his unique transfer date (late December), Nichols won’t see the court until December 17th against BYU at the United Center. Fans are very interested to see what the 6-foot-6 forward will look like when he hits the court in Chicago; Malcolm Hill already compared him to another Windy City superstar, Jimmy Butler.

The third addition this offseason came from Nebraska, but not the Cornhuskers. Creighton guard Drew Cayce announced his intent to transfer from the Bluejays this past July and quickly thereafter tweeted out his plan to walk on at Illinois. The 6-foot-1 guard redshirted last season at Creighton, so relatively little is known about him. He will most likely serve in a backup role and will probably see some action in several of the early non-conference games.

Looking Ahead To This Season: The Players

The Guards: Tracy Abrams, Aaron Jordan, D.J. Williams, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Malcolm Hill

This group is unquestionably led by Malcolm Hill, who is cracking nearly every preseason awards and top players in the nation list. Hill will finally be able to settle in at his preferred position, small forward, and should be one of the best players in the Big Ten. Not since 2012 have the Illini had a player selected in the NBA Draft, but that might change following this season thanks to Malcolm Hill. He’ll be complemented nicely by Tracy Abrams and Jalen Coleman-Lands, two other guards who will have a big impact on the team’s successes (or failures) this year. Abrams, who is now nearly 25 years old, will be in his sixth year in Champaign. To contrast, Coleman-Lands enters his sophomore campaign at 20 years old, making him one of the youngest but most important players on the roster. He knocked down a career-high 26 points against Rutgers last year, and led the team in three-point shooting percentage (which was also good for eighth-best in the Big Ten). The loss of Nunn stings a lot less when a younger, perhaps better, sharpshooter like JCL can step right into his role.

Those three will be backed up by guards Jaylon Tate, Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams. All three of these players have shown an ability to contribute; Tate led the team in assist-to-turnover ratio last year, while both Jordan and Williams came on late in the season and in the Big Ten Tournament. D.J. Williams, a consensus national top 100 recruit in 2014, especially blossomed as the Big Ten schedule progressed. He collected a career-high eight points and five rebounds in a late-season win over Rutgers and has the potential to have an increased and solid role on this year’s team. Jordan’s best asset is knocking down three’s, which a team can never have too many of. Tate will most likely be Abrams’ backup at the one spot. At this point fans don’t expect much offensive output from Jaylon, but hopefully now that he is a senior he’ll be able to realize his full potential and continue to lead the team in assists.

The Big Men: Leron Black, Michael Finke, Maverick Morgan, Mike Thorne Jr.

These four guys will have a critical role in the paint for the Illini this season. John Groce’s squad was last in the Big Ten in rebounds per game in 2015, but a lot of that was due to the absences of Thorne and Black. The team needs to improve those numbers if they want to find success in 2016. One player who can help them is Maverick Morgan, who came into his own last year. Even though he didn’t put up gaudy rebounding numbers, the 6-foot-10 senior has a nice array of post moves and has developed into a much better big man than fans ever thought he would. He’ll be an integral part to an Illinois front court that suddenly went from empty to loaded. Another returning forward who broke out last year was sophomore Michael Finke. Finke boasts a very versatile game; he can knock down three’s from both sides of the arc but has also developed a very respectable post-up game. He took over half of his shots from three-point range last year, but now he will be cemented at power forward and will probably see his shots more equally balanced this season.

The two players that Illinois missed the most in 2015, Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black, are finally back and ready to play. Thorne’s knee injury seemed to nag him throughout the year and it never fully healed until this offseason. Black, who faced both legal and injury issues, seems to have completely turned himself around. He will serve a four-game suspension to begin the 2016-17 campaign, but starting with Winthrop on November 21st Black should be a green light. Thorne Jr. has some of the best post moves on this roster and was utilized very well when he was actually on the court last season. He should be able to acquire great rebounding numbers and finally be that anchor center the Illinois offense has been searching for. Black probably boasts the best defense of any big man on the team; he had some great block and defensive rebound numbers in his freshman season in 2014. Now that his past has been put behind him, Leron should be one of the emotional sparkplugs of the team and will provide the energy and tenacity that John Groce loves to see. If these four can provide a consistent threat in the paint that forces opponents to do more than seal off the three-point line, the Illini may finally be able to have a successful offensive gameplan.

The Other Guys: Cameron Liss, Kipper Nichols, Alex Austin, Te’Jon Lucas, Drew Cayce

Kipper Nichols, who we’ve talked about above, is the wild card in this group. Nichols has drawn comparisons from NBA players like Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green, which is pretty high praise for a guy who’s never played in a college basketball game before. His shooting is only mediocre right now, but he has some of the best potential of any of the young players on this roster and 2016 can be an excellent stepping stone for him. Alex Austin saw a lot more playing time last season than even he thought he would due to the injury situation. He probably sees very limited minutes this year along with Cameron Liss and Drew Cayce. Expect to see the most of those three during the non-conference schedule. Te’Jon Lucas has a very bright future at Illinois, but he’s currently being blocked at PG behind Abrams and Tate.

Looking Ahead To This Season: The Coaches

John Groce is heading into his fifth season at the helm of the Illinois program, and this might finally be his make-or-break year. Ever since an impressive inaugural campaign in which he nearly led the Illini to a Sweet 16 appearance, it’s been all downhill for the former Ohio head coach. Year two saw the team get out to a fantastic 13-2 start, but an eight-game conference losing streak resulted in an NIT bid that ended in a close second round loss at Clemson. Year three ended with another NIT appearance, but amidst a myriad of legal issues it was clear that Groce had lost the locker room by the time Illinois was embarrassed in the postseason by Alabama. Last year was undoubtedly his worst as Illinois’ head coach but it was also undoubtedly the team’s most injury-plagued season in a long time. The 2016-17 season will finally be a proper measuring stick to see what coaching chops Groce has got. It feels abnormal to be saying this about a coach in his fifth year at the school, but we truly don’t know how good Illinois can be under Groce. Hopefully this year we’ll see the full potential of what an entirely-Groce-assembled roster looks like. Few other notable coaching additions were made in the offseason; Dee Brown resigned from his position as director of player development but his role with game-to-game preparations was not integral. James Haring was named as the director of basketball operations after serving on the staff for two years as a graduate manager.

Looking Ahead To This Season: The Schedule

Key Non-Conference Games: West Virginia (NIT Tip-Off), NC State (ACC/B1G Challenge), VCU (Miami Invitational), BYU (United Center), Missouri (Braggin Rights)

The Illini once again have a loaded non-conference slate, which is never a bad thing. It’s well known that the NCAA committee values strong out-of-conference victories and John Groce’s squad will have plenty of opportunities to pick some up this season. After five straight home games to start the year, Illinois hits the road to take on West Virginia in the first round of the NIT Tip-Off Challenge in Brooklyn. They’ll then face either Florida State or Temple the following day. Directly following those matchups comes another opponent in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Illini will welcome NC State into the State Farm Center for this year’s challenge before hitting the road once again for a neutral-site showdown with VCU. An odd schedule quirk is that Illinois’ first true road game doesn’t come until the Big Ten season begins on December 27th in Maryland. All their non-conference matchups are either in Champaign or on a neutral court. Speaking of neutral courts, the orange and blue wrap up this portion of the schedule with games against BYU at the United Center and the always-popular Braggin’ Rights rivalry in St. Louis against Missouri. Illinois did an excellent job of sprinkling in tough competition along with some “gimme” home games that should make for an excellent resume come March. All the Illini need to do is win.

Key Conference Games: @Maryland, @Indiana, vs Wisconsin, @Purdue, vs Michigan State

Illinois received a pretty good Big Ten draw; they only have to play Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue once. They’ll also have the luxury of playing Penn State, Iowa, Minnesota and Rutgers twice. The key to a successful conference season will be a strong start, as the team begins Big Ten play on the road at Maryland and Indiana with home games against Ohio State and Michigan in between. That could be a respectable 2-2 start with losses to highly-ranked teams or a disappointing 0-4 start that gets a lot of fans thinking “here we go again” before the meat of the schedule even hits. The back end of the slate is a lot more forgiving, however. Of Illinois’ last eight games only one of them will come against a currently ranked team (Michigan State) and half of those matchups are at home. Finishing the regular season at Rutgers should be a good way to end on a high note and propel the team to a strong Big Ten Tournament seed and an NCAA tournament berth.

Projected Starting Lineup

Even though team (still) won’t be at full strength until four games in, this should be the starting five when the ball is tipped against SEMO:

PG - Tracy Abrams
SG - Jalen Coleman-Lands
SF - Malcolm Hill
PF - Michael Finke
C - Mike Thorne Jr.

Another reminder that Leron Black will be reinstated to the team after the first four regular season games. He will most likely be inserted into that starting five upon his return, but until then Finke will get the nod. The bench rotation should look something like this:

6 - Maverick Morgan
7 - Leron Black (will soon switch to Finke)
8 - Jaylon Tate
9 - D.J. Williams
10 - Aaron Jordan
11 - Kipper Nichols (once eligible)
12 - Te’Jon Lucas

Reserves: Alex Austin, Cameron Liss, Drew Cayce

Season Expectations

Here's what the rest of the TCR staff had to say about their expectations for this season:

Jim Vainisi --- This has been a really strange preseason for me, personally. I’m a senior here at UIUC, and while this is probably the best ‘on-paper’ squad during my time in Champaign, I can’t muster up any excitement. Having said that, I do think this 2016-17 team is good enough to make the NCAA Tournament. A lot depends on the health of Tracy Abrams because we all unfortunately know what the point guard depth looks like behind him. Still, I believe the front court could be a potentially dominant unit during Big Ten play, which should be great news for Malcolm Hill on the perimeter (he’ll finally be playing his true position!). My prediction is 21-9 — there, I said it.

Brad Repplinger --- So here we are...John Groce FINALLY has a healthy roster heading into the first game of the season. This is his chance to prove to fans that he can take this team back to the NCAA tournament after a three year drought. Our front court is going to be one of the strongest in the B1G with depth AND experience. In the backcourt, Hill is going to have the duo of Lucas and Abrams to provide some playmaking abilities offensively. There is no shortage of talent anywhere on this team, we simply need to see if the coaching staff can manage the team’s chemistry and balance. With a schedule that should have 20 wins on it (10 non-con, 10 in B1G), the Illini should be around the 7-8-9 spot in conference and be looking at a potential tournament bid.

Trevor Vallese — This team is an odd contradiction of age and inexperience. There is no doubt that Illinois is one of the oldest teams in the country -- hell, they have two guys who will be turning 26 next year. But the Illini are also one of the most inexperienced teams in the country. How many games has Tracy Abrams played with Jalen Coleman-Lands? With Michael Finke? How many times have Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black been on the court at the same time? The answer to all those questions is zero. It will take this team some time to feel each other out, especially with a key player being inserted into the rotation as late as December (Kipper Nichols). That means some non-conference growing pains wouldn’t surprise me. But a successful stretch in Big Ten play wouldn’t surprise me either, given the senior leadership on this squad. I’ll call for a 20-10 campaign that results in the program’s first NCAA tournament berth in four years.

Austin Jabs --- Will the Illini finally get through a season without a plague of injuries? If Groce can navigate this year, avoid the injury bug and get out of his roster what they might be capable of, the Illini should be dancing for the first time in four years. I see a final regular season win total of anywhere from 23-27, but a sub 20 win total if injuries hit again.

Steve Braun --- Illinois has had more talented teams in history, sure, but this is among the deepest and most experienced ever. If John Groce can’t get this team to the NCAA tournament, then he has no future as the coach of the Fighting Illini. We can’t possibly repeat last year’s injury/arrest record, and Malcolm Hill can carry this team if need be. Over on Off Tackle Empire, I felt so bold as to predict 25 wins, and I’m sticking with that. This team is a national title contender with Jalen Brunson at point guard...but even without an elite point guard, the post defense will be so much improved from last year that we shouldn’t be blown out even once. I am optimistic and I hope not to be punished severely for it.

Steve Bourbon --- It’s been nearly impossible to evaluate John Groce during his tenure at Illinois. Mostly injuries have derailed preseason plans in the past, and he's endured more than one recruiting heartbreak. Fair or not, this feels like a make or break season for him — make the tournament or up there he heat on the game the hot seat. I'm skeptical of this team and how they'll mesh together because not many of these guys have played together. I think the squad gets off to a slow start that will keep them on the wrong side of the bubble come March. I predict a 19-12 record.

What’s your take on the outlook for the 2016-17 Illinois basketball season? Drop by in the comments below to let us know how you feel!