The Fighting Illini have had a rough couple of years. Known as one of the "power" programs of the Big Ten, Illinois hasn't truly been successful since 2005 when they fell in the National Title game.
After many long seasons of failure and defeat, this storied basketball program finally dropped long-time coach Bruce Weber, quickly replacing him with former Ohio head coach John Groce. Change is in the air for the first time in a while at Illinois University, and things might finally start to look up.
As the 2012-13 season begins to slowly creep towards us, we give you five bold predictions for the Fighting Illini in their first season under a new head coach.
Finishing the year just over .500 with a 17-15 (6-12) record, the Fighting Illini are fed up with not making a deeper impact in what could be considered the toughest conference in the country. The Big Ten, like the SEC in football, is a meat grinder on the hardwood, making it difficult for any one squad to retain dominance for longer than a few games.
With a multitude of programs that are storied in the sport, many of the games seem to come down to the wire. For a team to be successful, winning all, or at least a majority of, these matchups is a key to staying in the conversation for the conference title.
Last year, Illinois went 5-7 in games that were decided by five points or less. Many of these losses included a four-point downing by Missouri, a two-point loss by Penn State, falling by five in OT to Minnesota, and losing by three to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament.
If the Illini can get a majority of these games to go their way next year, they'll easily break 20 wins and be in the conversation for top of the conference.
The former head coach of Ohio, John Groce was able to take his squad all the way to the Sweet Sixteen after eliminating No. 4 Michigan and No. 12 USF. Falling to No. 1 UNC by eight points in OT, Groce was able to prove to the college basketball community that he deserved to be at a better program than Ohio.
After firing Bruce Weber, Illinois quickly picked up Groce. Many questioned his abilities due to the fact that Groce had only truly proven himself once in the tournament. Some top-notch coaching over the past couple of years has me convinced that he's the right man for the Illini.
Placing third overall in the Mid-American Conference last year, Groce showed how clutch he and his team were by taking home the league tournament title and heading off to the Big Dance as a No. 13 seed.
After a performance like the one he had last postseason, Groce might just be a diamond in the rough. An assistant coach at NC State, Ohio State and Xavier, he has the experience and presence of mind to take this Illinois program to new levels.
Leading his team in both points and assists per game last season with 15 and three, respectively, Brandon Paul is back for his senior year. A true talent, this young guard is easily one of the best in the Big Ten.
Headed by former Ohio coach John Groce, I believe that he will let Paul loose on the league. After setting himself up for success last year, Paul is poised to explode and become the top upperclassman in all of the land.
With Paul at the helm, the Fighting Illini will more than be able to threaten the big programs in the conference next season.
In college basketball, the Big Ten Championship is one of the most illustrious achievements in the country. A team who is able to take it home, or at least compete for it, is almost guaranteed a top-two seed in the Big Dance.
Illinois certainly has enough talent and poise to confront the goliaths of the conference and come out victorious, making them more than a danger to possibly take home the title. The Fighting Illini are a formidable team with Groce now in charge.
If Brandon Paul and company can take home this high honor back to Illinois, it would be a huge upset in the Big Ten, causing ripples around the nation.
Whether the Illini end up the Big Ten Champs or not, they still have more than a shot at snaring at top-five seed in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan and Indiana, both of whom weren't finalist for the conference title, each came in a top-notch four seeds due to their prowess in the league.
Grabbing a high seed in the Dance would allow Illinois to immediately get back into the mix of things on the hardwood. This may seem slightly unrealistic considering Groce's inexperience in the "big leagues" as well as the Illini's past record the last couple of years, but never count out a program such as Illinois.
If Groce and company could pull this off, it would be a giant story in the college basketball world. Rising from the ashes of Bruce Weber's fallen star would be the newly born Fighting Illini, making a statement that they're a power on a national scale.