Big Ten Basketball Preview: Illinois
The Illinois Fighting Illini are coming off a 23-13 campaign that featured an exit in the third round in the NCAA Tournament following a loss to Miami (FL). The John Groce era got off to a tremendous start and brought a different attitude to Champaign. The Illini will have a lot of new faces this year, but the goal is still getting back to the NCAA Tournament and making a lot of noise in the Big Ten.
Key Returning Players
The Illini bring back only five players from last years’ roster, led by senior guard Joseph Bertand, junior guard Tracy Abrams and junior center Nnanna Egwu. All three played in at least 35 games last year and will be cornerstones in the starting lineup this season.
Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice will slide into the other guard spot in the starting lineup and has two years of eligibility remaining. Rice, a Champaign native, sat out last year due to NCAA transfer rules and averaged 15.3 points per game in two seasons at Drake.
The other returning member of the Illini is walk on sophomore guard Mike LaTulip, who only appeared in 16 games last year.
Illinois loses two of the most influential members in the history of Illinois basketball in guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. Both were four-year starters for the Illini.
Graduate senior forward Sam McLaurin also contributed minutes last year.
Forward Tyler Griffey was able to stretch the defense as a post player that could step out and knock down outside shots.
A slew of transfers left Illinois after the season including forwards Myke Henry (DePaul), Mike Shaw (Bradley), center Ibby Djimde (Southern Illinois) and guard Devin Langford (Kentucky Wesleyan).
Illinois climbed as high as No. 10 the country last year after starting the season 12-0. It was no secret that Illinois lived or died by the three-point shot. During six of those first 12 games, the Illini shot at least 40% from beyond the arc.
The Illini were 146th in the country in scoring offense averaging 68.5 points last season, which is one of the reasons why they were one of the most inconsistent teams in the country. An RPI of 38 and the 11th toughest schedule in the country can all be contributed to the inconsistency on offense and defense last year.
The Illinois non-conference slate will always be highlighted by the Busch Braggin Rights game in St. Louis against Missouri. Tough west coast trips to UNLV and Oregon will be the first real road tests for a young and untested Illini team up to that point.
The Illini will face Georgia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC challenge in Atlanta as well as a neutral site game with Auburn in Atlanta. Oregon and Missouri will be the two resume-building wins for Illinois if they can pull them both out.
For the sake of recruiting and getting a fan based energized going into conference play, the Missouri game is a must-win. The recent graduating class featuring Paul and Richardson never beat Missouri and was the start of the infamous mid-season slide for the Illini. If Illinois can get over the Missouri hump this season with such a young team, that will only help heading into yet another brutal conference schedule.
There is never an easy game in the deepest conference in college basketball. It shows right from the start when Illinois opens up Big Ten play on New Years Eve with Indiana. Nine conference games are against teams ranked in the preseason coaches Top 25 (Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Indiana).
The stretch I believe that will make or break the Illinois season will be from January 8th at Wisconsin up until February 4th when Wisconsin comes to Champaign. Between that month stretch, Illinois will be on the road against Northwestern, a road game that Illinois has historically struggled to win, Ohio State and Indiana.
The home slate consists of Purdue, Michigan State and Iowa, who is regarded as the sleeper in the Big Ten this year. If Illinois can come away 5-3 or 4-4 in that stretch while avoiding any lopsided defeats, that means they will more than likely have two resume-building wins. This could also be the aforementioned stretch when Illinois hits rock bottom and has to climb back into the NCAA Tournament picture.
Coach's Hot Seat
The only reason John Groce gets a two on my hot seat rating is because I want to see Illinois be competitive every game in such a rugged conference. Groce has seemingly done everything asked of him in such a short time in Champaign.
The recruiting presence in Chicago has already been established and if the Illini can land their top prize in Chicago Curie forward Cliff Alexander, that will certainly speed up the process in reclaiming one of the hottest recruiting areas in high school basketball.
Last years’ recruiting class featured guards Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate from prestigious Chicago Simeon as well as guard Malcolm Hill from Belleville East. If Illinois can avoid the mid-season slump and grab Alexander when he commits later in November, then this rating will be erased because Groce will cement his place in Champaign for a very long time.
Everyone around the college basketball landscape wants to fall in love with Iowa as the sleeper team in the Big Ten, but I’m saying everyone needs to keep an eye on Illinois this year. Anywhere from 22-9 to 17-13 is a legitimate prediction and anywhere from fifth to seventh in the conference is where I find the Illini.
If Illinois can get into the tournament, I don’t see why its three outstanding guards in Abrams, Bertrand and Rice can’t get them to the Sweet 16. If Illinois hits the slump in the mid-season, that will solidify them as a bubble team for sure.
Rayvonte Rice will win Big Ten Newcomer of the Year. At 6’4’’, 235 pounds, this guy has the frame to play linebacker in the SEC, but has the lateral quickness to be a hounding defender and get to the basket at will. The future is now for Illinois and they are heading into the right direction.
Ryan Stevens is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.