A lot with this group. First, the losses:
1. Darius Paul was supposed to be back, something I don’t think I addressed in the spring. As it turns out, it’s a moot point, because he was dismissed from the team *again* after an incident involving an arrest while on the team’s tour of France. That’s a blow of sorts on the court, because the kid is a talented player with some size this team could use in particular, but he’s been a loose cannon, so probably addition by subtraction in the end.
2. On a sadder note, point guard Tracy Abrams suffered a season ending injury for the second year in a row, this time with a torn Achilles. You have to feel for anyone who goes through a year long rehab process, only to get hurt again, and with a different injury.
3. Likely starting power forward Leron Black is out for 4-6 weeks with a torn meniscus. While that likely isn’t a season altering situation, it does mean he’ll almost certainly miss the start of the season and perhaps won’t be back at full strength until well into December in terms of conditioning.
4. Freshman guard Jalen Coleman Lands is in the latter stages of recovery from a stress fracture suffered this summer. He’s supposed to be fully cleared for all basketball activity on November 1. Again, though, I would imagine his conditioning has taken a hit and it may be a few weeks until he’s truly at 100%.
On the positive side, the Illini did manage to land grad transfer point guard Khalid Lewis, formerly of LaSalle. Lewis started 18 games last year for the Explorers, averaging 6 ppg and 2 assists per contest. He’ll likely serve as the backup to Jaylon Tate but the Illini needed someone capable of at least playing a reserve role in the absence of Abrams.
So, what does all of the above translate into? Honestly, I’m not inclined to change my prediction. I had them 7th in the spring and that’s where I have them now, with a 10-8 record in the league. Their schedule is a little bit more favorable than some other teams with roughly similar talent profiles (like OSU and Iowa), so they get an edge IMO.
I think the addition of Mike Thorne is major. Without him, they’d be looking at Maverick Morgan playing 30 mpg most likely and that would be a problem. Thorne isn’t likely to be a superstar but he’s shown enough to suggest he’ll give them a credible post threat and some rebounding and physical presence inside.
Assuming Black comes back relatively quickly and smoothly from his injury, I like Illinois’ talent at the 2, 3 and 4 with he, Hill and Nunn. Those are guys you can win with. Freshmen like Colemand-Lands (again, once healthy) and DJ Williams give Groce multiple position versatility off the bench and a potentially deeper look than he’s had recently. Alex Austin, an EIU transfer, also should help lengthen the rotation a bit with some perimeter shooting ability.
The big negative is at the point. I sort of didn’t expect Abrams to be 100% the same guy he was pre-injury anyway but he would have been a step up from what they had last year. Now it’s the combination of Tate and Lewis, which isn’t a disaster but it’s a bit less inspiring. Groce is either going to have to win with minimal offensive contribution from that spot other than running the offense or he’s going to need to hope that JCL can prove ready to handle the lead guard as a freshman, and I sort of doubt that happens this year.
Hill is a legit top 15 player in this conference and Nunn isn’t too far behind that. Add those two to a legit big man in Thorne, a solid (if punkish) forward in Black and you have a nice four man core, plus some young depth. Add it up and I continue to think this is probably an NCAA Tournament team.