To anyone who’s paid even a modicum of attention to Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball this offseason, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to know that questions swirl around the point guard position.
Brad Underwood has expressed his full confidence in Ty Rodgers’ ability to hold down the position, but this will be Rodgers’ first year as the primary facilitator of a collegiate offense.
Is it realistic to expect that Rodgers can seamlessly slide into the lead guard role?
It’s certainly possible, but experience makes a huge difference when it comes to point guards. A fraction of a second’s hesitation could mean the difference between an assist and an easy two points, or a bad pass and a turnover. Experience is usually the only way that players are able to learn the difference quickly enough.
A few recent Illini teams have also had to deal with newer point guards, and although there’s no perfect analogy, there are lessons to be learned from them.
This was John Groce’s third year at the helm of the Illini program, and veteran senior Tracy Abrams was expected to be the main facilitator for Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill and Ray Rice. But that all fell apart in September as the news broke that Abrams had suffered a torn ACL and was out for the entire season before it even began.
That development thrust sophomore Jaylon Tate into the lead guard role alongside Ahmad Starks. Tate was no stranger to playing point guard, since he had played some minutes behind Abrams there during the prior season and had led the Simeon Wolverines to two straight state championships prior to joining the Illini. But he simply couldn’t maintain consistency as the team’s lead guard, and would often trail his teammates in assists while contributing relatively little offensively.
Granted, that team had bigger issues than simply an inexperienced point guard. Ray Rice would go down with an injury shortly after conference play started, and Aaron Cosby would leave the program a few weeks later.
Still, the 2014-15 team boasted NBA-level talent in Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, as well as experienced veterans like Nnanna Egwu and Ray Rice. But not having a point guard who could get them the ball reliably in the half court — and who wasn’t typically respected as a scoring threat himself — held that team back.
Turning the clock back even further, this painful season also featured inconsistent and inexperienced point guard play, which contributed to hampering the team as a whole. Lead guard duties were originally intended to be split between true freshman Tracy Abrams and graduate transfer Sam Maniscalco.
Maniscalco shined against lower-level competition in non-conference play, but quickly began to fade against Big Ten opponents, only leading the team in assists in one game during the conference slate. That forced freshman Tracy Abrams into the spot before he was ready, and he too only led the team in assists on occasion throughout conference play.
That left Bruce Weber with little choice but to simply let his best players at the time (Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson) take the ball down the court and just try to make something happen.
Predictably, this was not a recipe for success.
Weber had few options, and looked on helplessly as a litany of other problems arose around him, but I do wonder how this team would’ve faired with a point guard that had more talent than Maniscalco and experience than Abrams. After all, this team claimed wins over then-No. 5 Ohio State, No. 10 Michigan State, and No. 19 Gonzaga before ultimately collapsing in the latter half of the conference schedule.
What does this mean for the current Illini season?
Honestly, I’m not completely sure.
Both of the precedents above were deeply flawed teams in general, and a lack of consistent point guard play was only a contributing factor their lack of success.
But the past can’t be ignored either. I have no doubt Ty Rodgers will have a successful college basketball career by the time he graduates, but as for this year, I hope Brad has thought through his backup plans in case he isn’t quite ready yet. We simply cannot afford to waste the extra year that Terrence Shannon Jr. and Coleman Hawkins have decided to spend in Champaign rather than playing professionally.