B1G Basketball Preview: Illinois

Story posted November 12, 2015 in Sports, CommRadio by Jack Milewski

After getting off to a promising start, the John Groce era has taken a few steps back in Champaign, Illinois. The now fourth year head coach, after leading Illinois to the third round of the NCAA tournament in his first year, has since led them to two straight NIT’s. This marks the first time since 1993 that Illinois has missed the tournament in back to back seasons. After finishing with a regular season mark of 19-13 last year- 19-14 with the first round NIT exit- Illinois needs a better result this year as greatness on the court is usually the standard for the Fighting Illini

Key Returning Players

The Illini lost seven total players from last year’s squad. The good news, despite the heavy losses, is that Groce still has a few key pieces to work with, as well as a strong recruiting class that is coming up through the ranks. Many thought that Rayvonte Rice would be the Fighting Illini’s best player last year, however that distinction should probably belong to Malcolm Hill, who will be returning this year.

Hill is a guard with size who likes to get to the bucket. The six foot six junior was the team leader in points last season, with just under 15 per game. He also dished out 1.8 assist per contest and had 4.8 rebounds as well. Hill’s experience at the guard position will help Illinois run their offense this year.

Kendrick Nunn will also help compliment Hill at the guard position. Along with Rice, Nunn and Hill were the only Illinois players to average double figures per contest last year. Returning the experience and production of these two will definitely give Illinois a place to build on, but the supporting cast is going to have to step up as they were unable to do last year outside of these two.

Though not returners, Illinois has three new recruits, all rated at four-stars, and two transfers who will help shape the starters for the men in Champaign. Jalen Coleman-Lands is the most promising of these recruits, garnering the highest ranking. Outside of that, his strengths match up with the qualities lost by the departure of Rayvonte Rice.

Key Losses

During the offseason, the Illini lost a total of seven players for various reasons. These players were Austin Colbert, Aaron Cosby, Nnanna Egwu, Darius Paul, Rayvonte Rice, Ryan Schmidt and Ahmad Starks. Four of these players graduated, two transferred and one was dismissed from the team. Of the seven, Egwu, Rice and Starks will be the most severely missed on the team.

Rice was the team’s leading scorer and really the only player on the team who could take over the game by himself. He went down with an injury for some time last year and the Illini did not pass the test in terms of play without him. They have no choice this year but Rice’s scoring ability will be missed.

Egwu was a force down low and the Illini may actually miss him the most. Despite the loss of Rice, they are bringing in some players who have the ability to score the ball. You can’t teach size and that is exactly what Egwu brought to the table as the team’s leading rebounder.

Starks is the final piece that will really hurt the Illini this season. Though he wasn’t the most skilled player, he ate up starter minutes and rarely made mistakes while also playing solid defense. Of the three he is the least likely to be missed, but losing a starter is always hard for any team.

Offensive/Defensive Notes

Rebounding will once again be considered a strength for the Illini. However, last year, the discrepancy between offensive boards and defensive boards was hard to overlook. Illinois was ranked 44th in the nation on the defensive end, but ranked 195th in offensive rebounds. Leron Black and Malcom Hill should be able to make up for the loss of Egwu on the defensive end, though Illinois will have to start getting closer to the basket if they want to get the offensive boards.

The area that should continue to be the strongest point for Illinois, as it was last year, is their ball handling ability. In fact, the Fighting Illini were ranked eighth in the nation in offensive turnover rate last year. Again, Hill and Nunn helped in this area last year and could help again.

Free throws are also a big strength area for this team. They led the nation in percentage, but did not get to the line a lot. Once again Rice was a huge contributor in this area and it remains to be seen how much his loss will impact these factors. On defense, the loss of Rice will certainly impact the frontcourt and last year this was deemed a major problem when he went out with injury.

Non-Conference Schedule

The Illini’s out of conference schedule actually sets up very well for the projected outlook of this team this year. They should be a middle of the pack team and their non-conference schedule is middle of the pack in terms of difficulty. There are winnable games, but there are also challenging games that should help to boost Illinois stock if they win them

The significant games include a road matchup against a very strong Providence Friars team who looked fantastic at times last year. They have a neutral site matchup against either Iowa State or Virginia Tech, either of which should prove to be a challenging opponent.  Missouri is also on the non-conference slate as a road opponent. The Tigers are another team who have fallen from the ranks like Illinois, yet still pose a threat.

The tougher home games for this team are Yale and Notre Dame. Notre Dame comes into the season ranked at No. 19 and if Illinois does not play Iowa State, they will prove to be the toughest threat most likely. However, if Illinois does play Iowa State that is easily the toughest matchup for this team.

Conference Schedule

It’s the Big Ten, so that means it won’t be easy. Up year, down year, in between year, the conference always plays tough no matter who you are. A realistic record for the Illini would be .500 this year in the conference. They have double plays against both Wisconsin and Ohio State. Though this would have been deadly in years past, these teams are not quite at the caliber the nation is used to, so Illinois could steal one of two games here.

Road games against Rutgers, Minnesota, Penn State, and Northwestern are all more than winnable games for the Fighting Illini. Most of these teams are slightly improved, but Illinois has the caliber of team to hang with them and win as well.

Overall the Big Ten slate is challenging yet manageable at the same time. There are certainly games to be won, and the conference isn’t where it was last year in terms of toughness. However, one little mistake can cost you in some of these physical games, so as always battles are to be expected for Illinois.

Coach's Hot Seat

Groce is getting a four on my hot seat rating for reasons mentioned above. This is a program that is used to winning games and making the tournament. They have not the past couple years and the fan base is certainly waiting for their chance to get back. Groce hasn’t been dealt the best hand this year, but it could be worse and either way he is expected to win.

Taking a few steps back in the last two years haven’t helped his cause, and the Illini faithful will be hungry for a taste of March Madness. The NIT will not do this year, especially in a down year for the Big Ten, so Groce will have to step up his game.

Predictions

They are good, they aren’t great, but they could win a few surprises here and there. Last year’s record of 19-13 is about where I expect this team to be again. A few series splits in the Big Ten and some unexpected losses will hurt the Illini. A solid out of conference record will help this team make it to the brink of the tournament, but I see them being left out once again.

Jack Milewski is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email jbm250@psu.edu.