Saturday, November 1, 2014

Big Ten Basketball Preview: #5 Illinois Fighting Illini

If you collect athletes, as John Groce has been doing since he got the Illinois job, at some point simply through their sheer numbers they'll put it altogether and have a pretty good season.  Groce now has a whole bunch of top flight athletes, a lead dog in Rayvonte Rice who can be the big man on campus, and caught a big break with Tracy Abrams going down for the year with a knee injury because he is terrible.  Rice is a better point guard, as are two transfer combo guards coming in from Oregon State and Seton Hall.  Abrams has been the point guard for four years simply because Groce has continued on with Bruce Weber's tradition of refusing to ever sign a good, true point guard.  With Abrams out the Illinois should end up with a more free flowing, faster offense that fits their athletic roster to a T (tee?).

Here's who is on the Illini's roster and their rank by 247sports when they were incoming freshmen:  senior center Nganna Egwu #81, sophomores Kendrick Nunn #56, Malcolm Hill #103, Austin Colbert #98, Maverick Morgan #180, and Jaylon Tate #130, and freshmen Leron Black #43.  Add in guys who transferred in with Rayvonte Rice, who led Illinois in scoring last season at 15.9 per game and also led in rebounding despite being just 6-4, Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall guy, averaged 13 points and 3 assists), and Ahmad Starks (Oregon State, averaged 10 and 2.3).  I mean really, that's a shitload of talent.  If Weber was here I'd say big whoop he's going to screw it all up anyway, but with Groce they should be ok and get to the NCAA Tournament, assuming they end up figuring out the PG situation.

And they should, because it should be pretty simple.  Rice, Cosby, and Starks can all handle the ball, as can Tate.  Rice is better off the ball, I think, and the transfers give him a chance to do just that the majority of the time.  The Wing spot is in good shape as well, as any of those guys can play the #2 and add in Hill and Nunn and you've got plenty of options on the perimeter.  Illinois does have a history of standing around and launching way too many horrible three-pointers and they could fall into that trap again - no returnee cracked 39% last season.  The good news is Starks and Cosby both hit 40% last season, so there's another need those two transfers help fill.  Pretty much perfect guys to transfer in, really.

Front court is pretty good shape as well, even if Egwu is the only returnee who averaged more than 7.1 minutes per game last season (7pts/6rebs/2blks in 30 mpg).  Maverick Morgan is a monster at 6-10, 250 lbs.  He didn't do much last year and he strikes me as a defense and rebounding type, but that's all this team will need from him.  Another highly rated recruit who hasn't gotten much run is Austin Colbert, and he'll get his shot this year, but the real jewel here (other than Egwu who I seem to be glossing over but who is really quite a good player) is freshman Leron Black, ESPN's #44 recruit in the country.  He's another incredible athlete Illinois can add to their surplus, but he's already got a polished offensive game with a decent mid-range jumper.  He's my pick for freshman of the year if that's an award they give.

John Groce is a good coach, and there was little doubt he'd get the Illini turned around especially with a built in recruiting base of Chicago.  He's been crushing the Chicago market and has built up two great classes in a row with a third on the way, and leveraged that with a lucrative transfer market where he's had a lot of success already.  Illinois, however, has always seemed to have a talented and athletic squad, but it seems it's always been an issue getting them to really meld together and have sustained success, at least since the Deron Williams/Dee Brown team.  Good chance Groce is the guy to do it, which means the Illini might be on the verge of becoming a Big Ten power.  Yay.


1 comment:

rghrbek said...

Should I be shocked that you have the gophers 4th or higher?

I hope your right. They don't play a lick of defense though.