After a 12-0 start to the John Groce era, Illinois has found themselves on the outside of the NCAA Tournament bubble following a six-point home loss to Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon, dropping the Fighting Illini's Big Ten record to 2-7.
The next week doesn't get any easier however, as the soon-to-be top-ranked Indiana Hoosiers aim to make their presence known at the original Assembly Hall, in Champaign, Illinois. After that, the Illini travel to Minneapolis, to take on a Golden Gophers team that has already knocked them off this season.
All is not lost yet, as an 8-10 Big Ten record could still get Illinois into March Madness, thanks in large part to a strong nonconference campaign highlighted by a Maui Invitational Championship win over Butler, as well as a road victory at Gonzaga.
The following slideshow will contain a glimpse at each of the eight players in Illinois' rotation, along with a final slide grading the five players who normally don't see the floor. These midseason report cards need improvement if the Illini don't want to fail, which would equate to no NCAA Tournament berth.
Brandon Paul's senior season could not have possibly gotten off to a better start, leading him to make the midseason Wooden Award list that contains the nation's top 25 players. Based on recent play though, don't expect to see Paul with any accolades following the season.
The low light of Paul's season may have occurred Sunday, as he was benched in favor of Joseph Bertrand for the first time this year. Still, Paul is the third leading scorer in the nation's top conference, at 17.6 points per game.
Paul also averages 4.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists, but has made countless turnovers and boneheaded plays during the Illini's recent demise. Paul has the ability to break out, as he scored 35 points at Gonzaga, as well as 43 points during his junior season against Ohio State.
He also is capable of 1-for-11 shooting performances as he did at Wisconsin last month, which usually results when Paul becomes too comfortable taking contested three-pointers rather than attacking the basket where he is more successful.
Midseason Grade: C
Fellow senior guard DJ Richardson is second on the team in scoring, averaging a career-high 11.9 points. Richardson's career-high game came on the road at Nebraska, as the sharpshooter knocked down 6-of-9 three-pointers for 30 points.
Richardson averages 4.5 rebounds and is a solid perimeter defender, but is not nearly assertive enough taking the ball to the hoop. He prefers settling for perimeter looks. He snags 1.6 steals per game and finally looks like the player he was his freshman season after shaky sophomore and junior campaigns.
Richardson is consistent enough to score in double figures every game, but rarely breaks out. The only game he has scored over 16 points in came against Nebraska. Richardson and Paul came to Champaign together and will go out together. How they'll be remembered during the four years here won't be positive, unless things turn around and quick.
Midseason Grade: B-
After winning the starting point guard role midway through his freshman season in favor of Sam Maniscalco, Abrams struggled—as the entire Illini team did—to end the 2011-12 season. However, it was assumed the starting point guard position was his for the taking over the next three seasons.
Abrams has improved as a sophomore, no doubt about it. Unlike Paul and Richardson, who often becoming content on the perimeter, Abrams is not afraid to put his head down and attack the can. However, he is only a 28 percent three-point shooter.
Abrams on-ball defense is top notch, but his point guard abilities can certainly be questioned at times. His 3.3 assist and 2.8 turnover averages are nothing to be proud of, though his 1.6 steal average is.
Abrams is the point guard of the future and will continue to grow as a player, but at this point, he is a bottom-of-the-barrel Big Ten point guard. Once Abrams finds consistency in his game, I'll feel much more confident about the future of Illinois basketball under his watch.
Midseason Grade: C+
The fourth leading scorer for Illinois is the team's fourth guard, reserve Joe Bertrand. Bertrand did start over Brandon Paul (BP3) on Sunday, though who knows how long that will last. Bertrand is a highlight waiting to happen, as evidenced by this video.
Bertrand led Illinois in scoring in the most-recent loss to the Badgers with 17 points, including three-straight baskets late in the second half. But during the following three sequences down the floor, Bertrand did not touch the basketball. Blame Bertrand for not being aggressive enough or blame his teammates for not feeding him the ball, it doesn't matter at this point.
Bertrand plays just over half the game at 22.9 minutes, as he averages 8.4 points and 4.5 rebounds. I'd like to see him on the court more and even play the power forward position against certain teams, as the Illinois frontcourt has struggled mightily. Bertrand's 6'6" lanky frame makes him a potential NBA prospect following the 2013-14 season, as he may be the team's go-to-guy as a redshirt senior.
Midseason Grade: B
Tyler Griffey's senior season started out with a bang, as he scored in double figures in seven of the team's first eight games. After averaging 11.3 points in Maui, Griffey scored 13 points in a win over Gardner-Webb as he buried a game-winning three ball to keep the unbeaten streak alive.
Since then Griffey has only scored in double figures twice, most recently December 22 against Missouri. In the first eight Big Ten games, Griffey has only scored 26 points, good for a 3.3 point average, while missing 20-straight three-point attempts—the supposed strength of his game.
I'd love to see Griffey succeed, I really would. After watching him play for four seasons though, he honestly would have been a better fit at a Missouri Valley school, where he wasn't as outmatched physically and athletically. Like Paul and Richardson, the time is running out on his collegiate career.
Could he end the season the way he started it? I'm pulling for him.
Midseason Grade: C
After Meyers Leonard decided that his time in Champaign was over and that the greener pastures of the NBA were in his near future, Egwu became the Illinois starting center sooner than most anticipated. Overall, it's been and an up-and-down ride for Egwu as a sophomore.
Egwu averages 1.4 blocks—his best skill set—which is near the top in the entire Big Ten. On the offensive end of the court, he is still raw but averages 6.3 points and 4.7 rebounds. Entering Sunday, Egwu had gone six-consecutive games without scoring double figures, after a 16-point and eight rebound performance versus Ohio State.
Egwu did grab 10 rebounds against both Nebraska and Michigan, but has really been plagued by foul trouble in league play. In the last six games, Egwu has fouled out twice and picked up four fouls in the remaining four contests—limiting him to 24.7 minutes of playing time per game. Many of these are ticky-tack fouls are on the perimeter or moving screens, mistakes Egwu won't make a year from now as a more tenured Big Ten player.
Midseason Grade: B-
As a redshirt junior a year ago at Coastal Carolina, Sam McLaurin averaged 10.0 points and 7.5 rebounds. While I did not expect McLaurin to replicate those stats after transferring to a bigger school (much like Sam Mansicalco a year ago), I expected him to be a major contributor from day one.
As Tyler Griffey's struggles continued, McLaurin found himself in the starting five at the power forward position. McLaurin's 4.1 point and 3.6 rebound averages in just over half the game may not look like much on paper, though McLaurin's one of the few players I've been pleased with recently.
McLaurin has scored seven points in each of the past three games on 9-for-12 shooting and hauling in 13 rebounds during that same stretch. McLaurin makes hustle plays and won't back down to the likes of more skilled players like Trevor Mbakwe, Jared Berggren or Jordan Morgan in opposing frontcourts. If Egwu gets into foul trouble, I'd love to see an Abrams-Richardson-Paul-Bertrand-McLaurin lineup out there. To this point though, Groce appears uncomfortable with such a small five-man tandem out on the court together.
Midseason Grade: B
You never know what to expect out of Henry. His minutes have fluctuated big time from one game to another, as has his production. After only seeing 10-combined minutes against Wisconsin and Nebraska, Henry's minutes may be on the rise following an 11-point performance at Michigan State.
Henry plays the power forward position while on the floor, though at 6'6" he appears as more of a natural small forward. Over half of Henry's shot attempts come from behind the arc, though he is a very above average rebounder. Half of Henry's 2.0 rebound average come on the offensive end, good numbers for a guy only averaging 10.8 minutes per game.
Henry's numbers are nearly identical to that of his freshman season. While I knew a breakout season wasn't on the horizon yet for Henry, he hasn't had the chance to grab a big role on this team. Expect that to change next season when both McLaurin and Griffey will be gone, giving Henry the inside track to the starting power forward slot.
Midseason Grade: C+
The remaining five Illini players: Langford, Shaw, Djimde, Latulip and Berardini more than often find themselves on the end of the bench—especially given the fact Illinois hasn't had any blowout wins in awhile. All five players will be on next year's squad, barring anyone transferring from U of I.
Langford has the length to be a Bertrand/Calvin Brock-type player later in his career. Shaw showed signs of life at Wisconsin with his energy and defense, but hasn't seen many minutes since the Northwestern loss. Latulip is a walk-on sharpshooter that may just be too small to be a big time player in the B1G.
Djimde, who hails from Mali, is a work in progress who could be considered a less fluid version of Egwu. Berardini is a third-year walk-on who transferred from Loyola Marymount. Rayvonte Rice is a transfer from Drake sitting out this season, but should become a contributor in 2013-14.
Midseason Grade: N/A