After missing the NCAA Tournament in his second season, coach John Groce felt he had enough material to work with in 14-15 to get the Illini back to that level this past season, combining a nice core of young talent with veterans like Rayvonte Rice and Nnanna Egwu and a couple of supposedly high impact transfers in Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby. Things were rocky almost from the start, beginning with the loss to injury of point guard Tracy Abrams. The pieces didn’t fit particularly well together and then Cosby and Rice were suspended in Big Ten play.
However, it was at that stage, with a depleted roster, that the Illini seemed to put some things together. Led by sophs Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn the Illini won 4 straight games at one stage to go from 3-5 in the league to 7-5 and give themselves a chance at an NCAA bid. The return of Rice along with the dismissal of Cosby seemed to shake things up again, and not in a positive way. Rice’s numbers were unquestionably good but the chemistry never seemed to work with him in the lineup and Illinois ended up 9-9 in the league. Combined with an indifferent non conference performance, that wasn’t going to be enough to earn the team a spot in the Tournament and thus Groce missed the boat for the second year running.
This is a big year coming up for the Illini head coach. He was brought in because it was perceived that Bruce Weber’s program had stagnated and Groce was seen as a guy who would reinvigorate Illinois basketball via enthusiasm, effective recruiting and an entertaining style. Thus far, he’s struggled to deliver on much of that. He’s run a lot of transfers in and out of his program, which only works with a fanbase long term if you’re winning, and he hasn’t done enough of that to date. Groce needs a successful season, otherwise I think you may start to see talk about his time in C/U ending.
Malcolm Hill is a multi-talented 6’7″ junior forward who’s game exploded after a limited freshman season, as Hill ended up averaging 14.4ppg and 4.8 rpg. He’s developed into a good shooter from range (39% from three) but he only takes about 1/3 of his shots from deep, so he’s still primarily a midrange-and-in sort of player. He has a great combination of size, athletic ability, shot making skill, handle and strength. I think he became one of the toughest individual covers in the entire conference. He’ll contend for a first team All Big Ten slot this season, IMO. Few guys can match the multi-dimensional game he has at his disposal.
Kendrick Nunn is a 6’4″ junior wing who also developed in his second year in the program. He more than anyone else seemed to thrive in Rice’s absence and retreat a bit once the senior guard came back. As it stands, Nunn still averaged 11.1 ppg but that number jumped to 16.1 ppg when Rice was out. I think the fit was never there between the two players and I believe Nunn will get a boost from the changed nature of the Illini roster and playing group. He’s a good shooter (36% from three) so he has to be respected from deep but I think his best asset is his ability to use his size and strength at the rim…he is the definition of a power guard.
Leron Black is a 6’7″ sophomore power forward who showed flashes of potential in his freshman year. 5 points and 4.3 rpg in just 15 mpg is pretty good production and suggests there’s more to come from him as his role expands. He walks a bit of a line though, or at least he has so far in his Illini career. He brings some physical toughness to the table but he also had a tendency to get a bit out of control with that kind of play. If his act can be harnessed and channeled a bit better, Illinois could have something in Black.
Jaylon Tate is a 6’3″ junior point guard who seems to have settled into what he’s going to be, which isn’t all bad. He’s a pure point guard type, an outstanding passer who sees the floor, is effective in transition and can get an offense rolling. What he’s not is a guy who can do much on his own offensively, especially from deep where he’s been a complete non factor over his first two seasons. There’s always a chance that any player improves his shot, so I don’t rule that out at all ,but if that doesn’t happen, he’s likely to remain a back up/change of pace guy over his final two seasons in C/U. The fact that Illinois is going hard after Villanova grad transfer Dylan Ennis suggests that perhaps the coaches aren’t sold on Tate being a major part of a winning team either.
Maverick Morgan is a 6’10” 250lbs junior center who looks to have at least a somewhat expanded role in his third season. To this point, he’s been a big body and not a lot else…he doesn’t shoot much and when he does, he’s only been OK as a finisher (46% from the floor last year, which isn’t spectacular for a big kid who plays exclusively around the rim). I think there’s always a role for a big body who understands how to play within a system and Morgan brings that, but how much better he can be is open to debate. He doesn’t really have much of a post game and he’s not a great athlete or a guy with face up skills either. So, that kind of package usually adds up to 12-15 mpg max as a reserve.
Tracy Abrams is a 6’2″ senior point guard coming back from missing an entire season due to a torn ACL. Speed and athleticism was a major part of his game previously, so it’s fair to wonder if he’ll have all of that back in time for next season but the thinking is that he’ll be able to start and help this team significantly (though I suspect the recruitment of Ennis suggests that they want to hedge their bets). Abrams has never been a good shooter from range…sub 30% from three in all three seasons he’s played in C/U to date. However, he’s a good passer, has some leadership skills and can be a dynamic creator for himself and others when he’s right. His physical condition is crucial to the kind of season the Illini can have. They need him back somewhere within shouting distance of his previous form.
Alex Austin is a 6’4″ junior guard who transferred in from Eastern Illinois and has two years left after sitting out last season. He was a good shooter and decent scorer (8.2 ppg as a soph) at EIU and should be able to help provide some wing depth for a team which appears to be well stocked on that front. I would expect Austin to be in the rotation, but probably more in the 15 mpg range than something larger than that. He doesn’t seem to have the complete package of skill and athleticism some of his teammates possess.
Michael Finke is a 6’10” 220lbs redshirt freshman forward who sat out last year in order to gain strength and adjust to the collegiate level of play. He’s something of a wild card…he wasn’t an elite recruit by any means but word out of C/U is that he’s got some real skill as a shooter and that they think if he can continue to add strength he may end up as a very impactful player. I think due to his size alone, he’s got a chance to earn at least a limited role next season. We’ll see how everything translates to the floor but he’s definitely a name to watch for them next season.