For the first time during his tenure at Illinois, John Groce has a roster loaded with familiar faces. Of the 13 players making up this year’s Illini, 11 have been a part of Groce’s system for at least one year, a stark contrast to Year 1, when everyone was getting to know the new coach and his staff, and last year, when nine newcomers made up the majority of the roster.
Illinois’ third-year coach recognized a clear difference in the flow of practice after the team’s first workout of the eight-week summer schedule.
“We were able to cover more things in the hour I had them on the first day than at any time last summer because guys just knew stuff right away,” Groce says. “They’ve heard this stuff, in some cases for two years. That was really encouraging.”
The hope in Champaign is that the familiarity breeds victories. After a second-round exit in the NIT, the expectation is to return to the NCAA Tournament, where Illinois reached the Round of 32 in Groce’s first season.
Top scorer Rayvonte Rice returns to anchor the backcourt, and he’ll be aided by transfers Ahmad Starks (Oregon State) and Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall) to add some offensive balance for a team that finished 11th in the Big Ten in scoring (64.2 ppg).
“Obviously, we’ve got to improve our offensive efficiency,” Groce says. “Our defense was plenty good enough last year to win against anybody.”
The Illinois edition is one of dozens available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere now.
In Nnanna Egwu, Illinois has a defensive stopper and rim protector who finished second in the Big Ten last year with 2.1 blocked shots per game. The key for the senior will be to stay out of foul trouble and remain on the court, because frontcourt depth took a hit when Western Michigan transfer Darius Paul was suspended for the season after violating team rules.
Freshman Leron Black, Mr. Basketball in Tennessee, figures to earn regular minutes in the playing rotation. The hard-nosed 6-7 forward brings a level of toughness that Illinois has lacked. “Guys really hate going against him in practice,” Groce says.
Sophomore Malcolm Hill, who came along in the second half of last season, adds versatility. The 6-6 Hill started the final 12 games of his freshman season as the power forward and connected on nine of his last 15 3-pointers.
Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert were seldom used as freshmen last season, and one or both will have to emerge to provide added depth. Freshman Michael Finke is a prolific outside shooter, and at just a shade under 6-10, he could see time as the stretch-4.
Illinois Fighting Illini Facts & Figures
Last season: 20-15, 7-11 Big Ten
Last NCAA Tournament: 2013
Coach: John Groce (43-28 at Illinois, 15-21 Big Ten)
Big Ten Projection: Seventh
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 64
In his first season at Illinois after transferring from Drake, Rice proved he could score in the Big Ten. His 15.9-point average was eighth in the league. The 6-4 slasher did that while dealing with double teams as driving lanes closed because of Illinois’ lack of outside shooting.
Starks, the all-time leader in 3-pointers made at Oregon State, and Cosby, a 38.8 percent 3-point shooter at Seton Hall, will help free up Rice.
Kendrick Nunn, a member of the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team, enters the season carrying momentum from a strong finish. The 6-3 guard started the last 12 games of his rookie season and averaged 10.3 points during that stretch. Jaylon Tate, who had a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio as a freshman, will add depth at the point guard position.
Good thing the Illinois backcourt has depth. The Illini lost Tracy Abrams for the season with a torn ACL. Abrams was expected to contribute at the point after averaging 10.7 points per game last season.
The Big Ten, which was as strong the last two years as it’s been in some time, will ease up a bit this season, and that provides a chance for Illinois to make a move. With a good mix of drivers and shooters, the offense is expected to rebound from its anemic output. If the defense, which ranked in the top 25 in the country last season allowing 62.2 points, can maintain its punch, the Illini can climb the conference standings. For the first time in Groce’s tenure, the expectations are elevated, and how this group of players handles that pressure will go a long way in determining whether they meet the challenge.
Leron Black is a consensus top-50 recruit whose non-stop motor and knack for rebounding should earn him playing time. Michael Finke is a local kid who has grown two inches since committing to Illinois early during his junior season in high school. A versatile offensive player, Finke will need for his defense to catch up.