ILLINOIS

LAST SEASON

The John Groce regime never really got on track. They made the Tournament in his first season, driven almost entirely by leftovers from the Bruce Weber era. After that, however, a combination of recruiting struggles, injuries and transfers prevented Illinois from having the breakthrough season it would have taken to truly establish Groce in that job. Last season was par for the course for the Illini. They struggled on offense and were only mediocre defensively, which added up to a 20-15 overall record but just 8-10 in conference play.

Despite a solid recruiting class being in place, it was determined that Groce was done. As I see it, what ultimately did him in was that he was never able to translate what was his supposed strength, recruiting in the Big Ten footprint, into enough talent and coherent rosters to win enough to establish himself firmly. It’s ironic that perhaps his best class was the one he secured just before he was fired.

PLAYERS LEAVING

Malcolm Hill – Hill deserved better than he got in terms of team performance during his Illini career. A very good all around player who was often forced to play out of position duriong his time in C/U, Hill ended with a 17.2 ppg 5.1 rpg season where he also led the Illini in assists and steals. He was a versatile, three level offensive threat who also did pretty much everything else at least decently. He’ll be missed.

Maverick Morgan – Morgan was pretty much the classic example of the project big man who develops into a solid contributor as a senior. He averaged 9.9ppg and 4.5 rpg while leading Illinois in blocks, becoming a consistent offensive threat both in the midrange and in the post (MSU fans will recall his giving the Spartans fits inside). That’s what you hope for with a guy like Morgan…steady improvement and eventually a player who blossoms as an upperclassman into a reliable starter.

Tracy Abrams – It was a success story for Abrams just in terms of playing, never mind at what level, after missing two entire seasons with two different leg injuries. He started the season shooting like a house afire but eventually came back to Earth in Big Ten play, though he still ended up at 40% from deep. He was clearly not the same kind of athlete he’d been previous to getting hurt, but gave his team some perimeter scoring and a lot of experience, both as a player and in terms of overcoming adversity.

Jalen Coleman-Lands – Lands just announced that he’ll be transferring to DePaul, meaning his two year Illini career has come to an end. JCL is mostly a deep shooter and that’s primarily what he did for Illinois last season, averaging 8 ppg while shooting 38% from deep.

Mike Thorne Jr. – Thorne got a 6th year due to injury but clearly was not the same level of player he’d been previously. During his stint two seasons ago with Illinois, he was a double-double threat and gave Illinois a true post presence. Last season, he struggled to earn consistent minutes and ended up averaging only 5.2 ppg and 3.8 rpg as a “senior.”

Jaylon Tate – Tate was a HS teammate of Jabari Parker and came to Illinois with a rep as a pass first point guard. The trouble is that he was never able to develop even a semblance of an offensive game himself and gradually saw his role and minutes decline over his career.

DJ Williams – Williams is another young Illini wing who never cracked through for a consistent rotation spot and announced he’ll be transferring elsewhere. Given that he played a fairly limited role for Illinois, it won’t be a struggle to replace his contributions.

PLAYERS RETURNING

Leron Black – Black is a 6’7” junior PF who is the closest thing Illinois currently has to a “real” interior player. Black averaged 8.1ppg and a team high 6.3 rpg last season and will almost certainly be looked to as more of an offensive factor this year. He’s also going to have to be a defenisve stalwart at that position, given the lack of options Brad Underwood has at his disposal. Black plays with a bit of an edge, something this team can use, but at the same time, they’re going to be so desperate for what he brings to the court that he’s going to have to be careful in walking that line in order to stay on the court consistently.

Michael Finke – Finke is a 6’10” junior who is really a finesse player but will have to become much more of an interior presence (at least on defense) for his team to be competitive. He shot 41% from 3 while taking just over half his overall shots from the floor from outside the arc. Illinois will need him to uptick his 4.2 rpg from last season but the biggest area for improvement will be at the defensive end. He’s the only guy on the roster with the size to effectively check legitimate big men. Look for heavy minutes from him out of necessity.

Kipper Nichols – Nichols is a 6’6” sophomore who finally played after transferring in from Tulane. He’s a solid athlete who gets things done via motor and effort, though he did also show a nice jumper, hitting 44% from three in limited attempts (12-27). Expect his minutes and role to increase as one of the only real options off the bench inside.

Te’Jon Lucas – Lucas is a 6′ sophomore point guard who showed some strong potential once he assumed a larger role in conference play. He only averaged 4.8 ppg but showed some dynamic ability to get to the rim and create for others, and yet hit 37% from deep on his 3s. One area for needed improvement is at the FT line, where he only shot 59%. He’ll be a factor in the Illini rotation in some capacity.

Aaron Jordan – A 6’5” junior guard, Jordan has struggled to earn a consistent role thus far in his Illinois career. Last season he played in 24 games averaging 7 mpg. His role may actually reduce this season with the influx of guards the program has received.

PLAYERS ARRIVING

Mark Alstork – Alstork is a grad transfer from Wright State who is coming off a big season. He averaged 19 ppg on 40/39% shooting. He also shot 85% at the line and got their a lot, averaging 6.5 FTA per game. The downside is that he was a ball dominant player who was a turnover machine for WSU. I expect Underwood will ask him to focus more on scoring. His addition was important for a perimeter group which will otherwise be extremely young.

Mark Smith – Smith is a 6’5” freshman who was the epitome of a late riser. Deciding to forego college baseball due to an injury to his pitching arm, he focused on basketball as a senior and ended up winning the Mr. Basketball award in Illinois. He’s a multi dimensional player who’s offer list went from mid majors in the fall to MSU, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio State and of course Illinois in the spring. They think he can play some point guard and he’ll probably have the ball in his hands a fair amount.

Trent Frazier – Frazier is a top 100 PG from Florida who committed to John Groce and stuck with that pledge through the coaching change. He’s reportedly extremely quick and has a scorer’s mentality. He too will likely have the ball in his hands a fair amount as a freshman for this team.

DaMonte Williams – The 6’3” guard is the son of Illini great Frankie Williams, though he’s not really a PG like his dad was. Williams missed much of last season due to injury but they expect him to be 100% for the upcoming season. He’s got good strength and toughness but will need to work on his jumper as he progresses through his college career.

THIS SEASON

Illinois hired Brad Underwood away from Oklahoma State after he’d been in that job only one year, a year in which he took OSU to the NCAA Tournament with a run and gun, perimeter oriented offense where defense was mostly a rumor. Expectations are that he wants to play the same way offensively at Illinois, with a “7 seconds or less” mandate for getting a shot up in a possession. We’ll see how that flies in a conference which traditionally has forced coaches intent on running and gunning to change their mind as they face the reality of high level coaching, superior scouting and high quality athletes playing high level defense.

I have no doubt they’ll play fast because they have little choice, given the scarcity of options in the paint. With his coaching and a talented if young perimeter group, I think Illinois will score and play at a fast pace. 

However, there are defensive issues everywhere you look, due to youth on the perimeter and lack of size and depth inside. Illinois is reportedly still recruting some grad transfers, notably MiKyle McIntosh, a 4 man with perimeter skills from Illinois State (also likely to consider Wisconsin and possibly others). Yet, even McIntosh wouldn’t really address their issue in terms of being able to match up with real size and any other potential additions are likely to be bit part players at best.

Underwood has a good track record so far as a head coach. He was tremendous at Stephen F. Austin and then did a nice job with Okie State in his one season in Stillwater. I think he’ll get things to a better place in C/U as well, but this season, the interior situation puts a limiter on how good they can be. There’s probably enough firepower here to spring an upset or two, but it’s very tough to imagine this team being NCAA worthy this time around.