LAST SEASON – Lots of similarities between what happened at Minnesota and what went on in C/U for John Groce. A season marked by injuries, suspensions and a lot of losses ended up with the Illini at 5-13 in the league and 15-19 overall. As with Richard Pitino, John Groce’s tenure has been marked by a troubling downward spiral, and some believe he’s only getting the benefit of an additional season at the helm due to chaos in the UI athletic department…they made a change in football and the thought was they didn’t have the stomach to turn over both revenue producing sports in the same year. As with Pitino, this season would seem to represent a massive fork in the road for Groce’s tenure. He has to win.

THIS SEASON

Illinois officially lost its top backcourt talent the other day when Kendrick Nunn was dismissed from the program. Nunn wasn’t perfect but he was among the better two way guards in the conference and his absence means the Illini have to find some answers in a hurry, particularly in terms of who can provide some offensive punch.

Point guard has been a huge problem for the Illini over the past couple of seasons, but they have a chance at finding some credible answers. The best shot at finding some steady play is if senior Tracy Abrams is finally healthy. He’s just started working out again after missing two straight seasons due to serious lower body injuries. Even when fully healthy, Abrams was far from a perfect player but he has put up two double digit scoring seasons. He wasn’t a consistent deep shooter and his decisions were spotty at times, but when healthy he’s at least an average starting Big Ten PG. That’s a step up from where the Illini have been of late.

Jaylon Tate is a 6’3″ senior who avoided the same fate as Nunn and was reinstated to the roster after some legal trouble. Tate has played a large role in Abrams’ absence but he’s just not a guy who strikes you as a Big Ten starter. He came into college basketball with a reputation of a guy who could run an offense but who really struggled to shoot and that hasn’t changed at all. He had a 3:1 A/TO ratio last season, so he’s strong there, but shot just 37/18%, while only attempting 11 3s on the season. He also doesn’t make enough of an impact defensively to override the shooting. He’s a decent backup option, but Illinois really needs better play at that position to take a step forward.

The third option may be incoming freshman Te’Jon Lucas, a 6 foot PG out of Milwaukee. He’s an Illini player, so of course he had a late season injury last year, but expectations are that he’ll be able to play this summer. He’s reportedly got good speed and overall athletic ability and makes good decisions, but could use some development with the jumper. I have a feeling he’s going to see some minutes no matter what happens, but the size of his role probably depends upon Abrams’ health as much as anything.

On the wing, the Illini have a lot of young options. The best of them is 6’3″ sophomore Jalen Coleman-Lands. He started 24 times as a freshman and averaged just over 10ppg. On a team desperate for shooting, he stands as probably their top deep option, having shot 42% from three last season when about 75% of his overall attempts came from long distance. However, he needs to get stronger and tougher to take the next step as a scorer, as his finishing inside the arc wasn’t great and Illinois needs him to expand his ability to score beyond the jumper.

Aaron Jordan and DJ WIlliams are another couple of sophs who figure into the mix off the ball. Jordan shot better (mid 30s overall and from 3) but Williams is a little bigger at 6’7″ and maybe has a bit better overall potential. Both guys would seem to be set to see their roles expand in Nunn’s absence.

Alex Austin is a 6’3″ senior who played a limited role last season and likely will see limited minutes yet again this season. He came in with a rep as a shooter but hit only 21% from deep. If he can’t give the team some perimeter punch, it’s unlikely he’ll see much court time.

Illinois’ talent level is better in the frontcourt. You start with 6’6″ senior Malcolm Hill who averaged 18.1ppg and 6.6rpg and also led the team in assists. They don’t want him to have to do all of those things this year, but Hill is a guy who can put a team on his back. He has the ability to score at all three levels and plays a generally smart offensive game, though his long distance shooting declined last year (just 31% from three).

The biggest break Illinois has received in the off season was the granting of a 6th year of eligibility to 6’10” Mike Thorne Jr. Thorne was effective when healthy early last year, averaging 12.9ppg and 8.5rpg. He’s not much of a shot blocker but he’s massive and takes up space in the lane, which will serve a purpose even without erasing shots. Offensively, he’s a low post option this team simply did not have a year ago.

Leron Black has also returned after a year riddled by injury and suspension. The 6’7″ junior showed promise as a freshman. He’s not a popular player with opponents, as he plays with an edge which often tips over the line, but he has some strength and skill and could be a significant part of this team as a starting power forward, allowing Hill to move more often to the perimeter.

Off the bench the Illini return 6’10” senior center Maverick Morgan and 6’9″ sophomore shooter Michael Finke. Morgan is a limited guy but he has legit size and plays hard. As a starter, he was underwhelming but as a 15 mpg off the bench, he’ll look pretty good. Finke is a streaky shooter (36% from deep) who will give Illinois some needed perimeter punch from a forward spot. WIth Black and Thorne back, I would expect his PT to decline a bit from last season, but he does have a role to play for this team.

The Illini also add 6’6 redshirt freshman Kipper Nichols, who transferred in from Tulane. I wouldn’t expect him to play significant minutes this season.

BOTTOM LINE – Illinois has enough raw talent to finish higher than 12th, but history (both collectively and as individuals) leads me to conclude that it’s safer to bet on a few other teams reaching their potential, avoiding injury and off court troubles, etc. Needless to say, this is a critical season for John Groce. If they finish where I’ve picked them, he will almost certainly be out of a job at this time next season.

Improved play on the perimeter has to happen for this team to take a step forward. I think Coleman-Lands can probably take a bit of a step up, but he has to become more aggressive and learn to score other than via the jumper to become the kind of offensive threat Nunn had evolved into, and that’s what Illinois probably needs him to be. I think Williams and Jordan have potential but I don’t love the odds of either becoming a reliable double digit scorer this season. Obviously, play at the point has to take a step up. Abrams could provide that but he has to be healthy and that can’t be assumed at this point, not with his history. The best long term bet is probably Lucas, but is he ready to assume a major role as a freshman? He wasn’t an elite recruit, so you’re banking on some surprises there for him to be a 25 mpg type of player.

Inside, it looks better provided Thorne is healthy and Black can stay on the straight and narrow. Those two guys plus Hill are a very credible frontline, and Morgan and Finke are at least passable reserves.

Again, there’s enough here that seeing Illinois finish two or three spots higher in the standings than this wouldn’t be a complete shocker, but I have more faith in some other programs right now.