After the non-conferenc season ends, I see Illinois heading into Big Ten play with a respectable 10-4 record. That means it should take around seven Big Ten wins to at least be eligible to play in the NIT and 10 or 11 to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
As a lifelong Illinois fan, I no longer am optimistic heading into any season despite the hoopla around the program. Obviously the team is in a rebuilding stage at this point, but having seniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson around one more year should help the younger players develop.
Sam McLaurin should be a welcome addition to the team, possibly starting alongside Nnanna Egwu in the frontcourt. Tracy Abrams should once again handle the rock, while Joseph Bertrand could see minutes at numerous positions on the court.
Tyler Griffey is due for a big senior season, while Myke Henry showed signs of a natural scoring ability as a freshman. If everyone buys into Groce's system, this team could finish as high as seventh in the Big Ten and be a bubble team on Selection Sunday.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, this is the same team that collapsed last year under Bruce Weber. If that same level of play continues, they could finish only higher than Nebraska in the league. Realistically, I see them finishing 10th, only ahead of Nebraska and Penn State, and not participating in the postseason yet again.
Hopefully I am being too pessimistic here. At the very least, Groce should have a nice foundation laid by year's end and get a better idea of how to recruit throughout the state, Chicago in particular.