This time a year ago, Illinois basketball seemed like it was back. With a future lottery pick center and experienced backcourt, the Illini were finally going to get over the hump. Instead, following an upset win over Ohio State behind Brandon Paul's 43 points, Illinois sputtered and missed any postseason tournament.
The team had trouble winning at home, a place they rarely lost just years before, and were getting blown out on the road, as evidenced by a late season loss at Nebraska, in which Meyers Leonard started crying from the bench.
All in all, it was a cumulative effort between the players giving up and the lack of head coaching competence that led to Bruce Weber's firing following a loss to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament. This year, Illinois needs to avoid that late season meltdown.
After a 13-1 nonconference record for the team picked to finish ninth in the Big Ten in preseason polls, I do not foresee John Groce allowing a collapse to occur, nor do I see this year's group of seniors cashing it in. Though still a long shot, a Big Ten title is not yet totally out of the mix in the nation's deepest and best conference. The following will emphasize the five things that could hold Illinois back from reaching college basketball's elite this season.
On Wednesday night, the Fighting Illini open their B1G season on the road against the Purdue Boilermakers. Needing to avoid losses to bottom tier Big Ten teams, the Illini must get a W in West Lafayette. As I'll be making the road trip to the game tonight, I expect to walk out of Mackey Arena pleased with a win, though it could very well be a close and ugly game at that.
Purdue struggled in nonconference play with only a 6-6 record. Terone Johnson has been Purdue's top player, D.J. Byrd has been a streaky shooter and freshmen A.J. Hammons and Ronnie Johnson have shown potential. Still, Illinois must win as their next three contests come against both Ohio State and Minnesota at home, followed by a road battle at Wisconsin. All those three games should be tougher than this one, so getting off to a 1-0 start is vital.
When Meyers Leonard decided to forgo his remaining two seasons in Champaign, Ill. emotions were mixed. Though it's great for Leonard, especially considering his family issues off the court, the Illini lost a rare breed of center that would not easily be replaced.
Nnanna Egwu doesn't need to be Meyers Leonard, but he needs to continue to improve, which he certainly has done. Egwu is a defensive-minded player who could become a great shot blocker, but also has a decent jump shot and seems to get some garbage points each game.
Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin are the other two front court players in Illinois' rotation, along with Myke Henry, who is really more of a small forward. Griffey is a stretch four who sits behind the arc, while McLaurin is a tremendous rebounder and shot blocker that was a welcome addition from Coastal Carolina. Illinois will need these players to bang around more in the paint during the Big Ten season.
Illinois' strength is its backcourt. Seniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson start on the wing, led by sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams. Off the bench comes the athletic redshirt junior swing man Joseph Bertrand. All four of these players are capable of shooting the long ball, a category in which the Illinois are better than nearly everyone.
They've won by the three, as they did on Tyler Griffey's last second shot over Gardner-Webb, and lost by the three during an 8-for-32 long distance performance versus Missouri. It's unlikely that all the Illini shooters will go cold on the same night, but they'd certainly be in trouble if that were to happen. Brandon Paul seems to finally have gotten over his streakiness, that has defined his career up to this point. We'll soon see if U of I can continue their torrid shooting against tougher Big Ten defenses.
This slide is not to jinx this year's team, but rather to be a reminder that a repeat of last year's performance in February and March is unacceptable to the Illinois basketball community, one that saw a National Runner-Up less than eight years ago.
Illinois will lose games in the Big Ten. They'll probably lose more than people would like, but in this season's Big Ten everyone will have their fair share of struggles. Just last season, the three teams that tied atop the conference standings all finished 13-5 in league play.
What Illinois needs to prevent is a long losing streak. How this team responds to adversity will be huge to their postseason success. Illinois defeated Auburn by two after their line loss to Mizzou, but didn't look overly impressive. Defending home court and playing tough on the road should help limit any multiple-game losing streak.
The thing that will be the biggest obstacle to Illinois' potential of finishing atop the mighty 12-team Big Ten is the strength and depth of the other schools in the league. The Big Ten currently boasts five of the top 11 teams in the nation, an incredible feat.
Michigan ranks second, Indiana fifth, Ohio State eighth and Minnesota ninth, all ahead of the 11th-ranked Illini. Michigan State also ranks in the top 25, Wisconsin can never be counted out and both Iowa and Northwestern's overall programs are improving.
Coming into the season picked ninth in the conference, a Big Ten title was never even a thought. While it's still not expected, it may now be in the back of the mind of Illini players. Behind senior leadership and a breath-of-fresh-air head coach, anything appears to be possible for the 2012-13 squad. Beating out all the teams mentioned above is quite a tall mountain to climb, but 18 games from now we'll see where Illinois really stands.