Despite a disappointing defeat to Miami in the NCAA tournament's third round on March 24 to second-seeded Miami, word on the street is that Illinois basketball is back—or at least as long as John Groce is at the helm.
Groce inherited a team that had returning talent, but was without lottery-pick center Meyers Leonard from last year's squad, who endured a late-season meltdown that went from NCAA tournament-lock to not making any postseason tournament at all.
Groce has the opportunity to bring in his own recurits a year from now, while also allowing three members of this past season's Illini squad to walk away from the program and transfer out, as Mike Shaw, Devin Langford and Ibby Djimde have just done.
Overall, this season was a success and has brought an enthusiasm for the program that I have not felt since the 2005 national championship game.
Here are the final rankings of this season's rotation players for the Illini.
While Myke Henry's role was not altered significantly between his freshman and sophomore seasons, expect it to change big time as Henry enters his junior season. Henry averaged 3.2 points in both his first two seasons in Champaign.
But with the losses of fellow power forwards Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin, as well as Mike Shaw, who played behind Henry, the starting power forward is Henry's for the taking as a soon-to-be junior upperclassman.
Four-star recruit Austin Colbert could also compete with Henry for the job, while reports are that Illinois is looking for a fifth-year senior transfer at that position (see Jon Ekey from Illinois State). Henry has proven that he can be an instant offensive player during his limited minutes.
He is able to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting ability, while his other major strong suit is his ability to rebound, particularly on the offensive end of the court. Consistency is a major area of improvement needed for Henry's role to increase a year from now.
Coming into the season, Joseph Bertrand was my favorite player on the Illini squad, as he brought the most energy and athleticism as a redshirt sophomore. To say this past season was a disappointment for this redshirt junior would be unfair, as Bertrand battled late-season injuries.
Despite ranking him seventh on this past season's squad, Bertrand ranked fourth in points and third in rebounds in 2012-13, despite coming off the bench as the Illini's lone reserve guard to earn consistent playing time.
When Bertrand returns in 2013-14, it will be his fifth and most important year wearing the orange and blue. It's safe to assume that he will enter into the starting lineup to replace Brandon Paul at the small forward position, though Rayvonte Rice and Malcolm Hill may have something to say about that.
Bertrand's one-man show against Georgia Tech in last year's Big Ten-ACC Challenge is certainly not forgotten, but his struggle to be effective late in the season when the Illini truly needed him, hurt in this final season ranking. Despite this, I am excited to see Joe back a year from now as the leader of this team.
In this day and age in college basketball, grabbing a fifth-year transfer is almost just as important as snagging a top-notch recruit out of high school. Because of NCAA regulations, a fifth-year senior transfer is eligible to play immediately, as was the case with Sam McLaurin.
The season prior, Illinois landed guard Sam Maniscalco under this same rule. While Maniscalco was an instant impact early on, he faded during Big Ten play, having come from Bradley of the Missouri Valley Conference.
McLaurin made his way to Champaign from Coastal Carolina, where he was a 10-point, seven-rebound per night guy. Though he did not match those numbers as a Fighting Illini, it's safe to say Illinois would not have been NCAA tournament-bound in 2013 had it not been for McLaurin.
As shown by McLaurin's picture on this slide, the veteran made all the hustle plays that Illinois needed. He was not a big-time scorer, and he wasn't trying to be one. Rather, he concentrated on defense and rebounding, providing over 20 minutes of efficient playing time during John Groce's first season.
In an article last year, I dubbed Tyler Griffey one of the top 10 busts for the Fighting Illini program in recent memory. Even had it not been for two heroic efforts to lead Illinois to victory, Griffey's name would be easily removed from the list.
First, the senior Griffey hit a game-winning three-pointer against Gardner Webb in a trap game following the team's Maui Invitational title. In Maui, Griffey scored in double figures in all three contests, resulting in Illinois "W's."
And who can ever forget Griffey's game-winning, buzzer-beating layup to knock off the then top-ranked Indiana Hoosiers at the real Assembly Hall this past February? As soon as I saw Griffey receive and release the game-winner, I made my way to the floor to join that epic court storming.
Griffey certainly endured struggles at Illinois, going through major shooting slumps or playing soft on the inside. When Illinois needed him, though, he stepped up and was a true X-factor. If Illinois grabs Jon Ekey, expect Ekey to attempt to imitate Griffey's game from this past season as a stretch four.
My opinion on Tracy Abrams is definitely a love-hate one. There are times when Abrams makes his way to the basket with ease or penetrates and pitches to one of his deep threats. That makes you understand why John Calipari of Kentucky offered this sophomore a scholarship to UK.
Then there are times when Abrams is leading the Illini in transition on an odd-man advantage and makes an errant pass or silly turnover that leaves you shaking your head and saying he's playing out of a position and should be slotted as a 2-guard.
Overall, a 10.6-point, 3.5-rebound and 3.4-assist average as a sophomore is nothing to hang your head over, as Abrams also brings intensity on the defensive end of the court. While Abrams' outside shot has improved, I still prefer to see him attacking the rim.
Another attribute that Abrams possesses is that of leadership. To think anything other than Abrams being Illinois' starting point guard for the next two seasons would be ridiculous. If Abrams can make a similar jump in improvement this offseason, Big Ten point guards will need to watch out a year from now.
Nnanna Egwu was not Illinois' third-best player during the 2012-13 season, but he very well could have been the third most important player. As a true sophomore, Egwu averaged 6.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per contest.
Egwu is still raw on the offensive end of the court, but his ability to consistently hit the mid-range jumper by year's end is definitely encouraging. Egwu always give 100 percent while on the court, sometimes playing too hard and picking up unnecessary fouls.
You can't fault his effort, though, and despite his raw game, Egwu stands as the best returning NBA prospect on Groce's roster. Egwu wasn't supposed to become an immediate force at U of I, but thanks to Meyers Leonard's early departure to the NBA, Egwu will get the chance to be a three-year starter at center.
As both Sam McLaurin and Tyler Griffey have graduated, Egwu is the only sure thing in Illinois' frontcourt next season. Who will be standing beside him and backing him up are still unseen. For someone who has only been playing organized basketball for several years, you have to like Egwu's upside.
For a majority of this past season, I gave D.J. Richardson the nod over fellow senior Brandon Paul as Illinois' best and most important player. After all, Richardson led Illinois in scoring during the all-important Big Ten season and was the team's best long-range bomber.
Sporting my No. 1 Richardson jersey that I purchased during his sophomore and my junior year at Illinois, it was tough to see both Richardson and Illinois go out the way they did during the loss to the Miami Hurricanes during the tournament.
In that game, Richardson struggled, shooting 1-of-11, including 1-of-10 from three-point land. After a Freshman of the Year season back in 2009-10, Richardson was a disappointment during his middle seasons—sophomore and junior—at Illinois.
He showed little improvement offensively, though he was always tough as nails on defense. Richardson expanded his game to more than just a shooter as a senior, slashing to the hoop more. His senior-season highlight was a career-high 30-point effort at Nebraska.
In Brandon Paul's first two career games wearing a Fighting Illini jersey, the then-freshman from Gurnee scored 22 and 20 points, respectively, instantly earning himself recognition and possibly premature inflated expectations.
The remainder of Paul's freshman season and entire sophomore year didn't always go according to plan, as Paul was later benched in place of role player Bill Cole. Paul always brought a scoring ability and athleticism to the court, but was way too inconsistent to be relied upon.
As a junior, Paul dropped 43 points on Ohio State. As a senior, he led Illinois to the Maui Invitational title as the tournament's MVP. He then led Illinois to a major road win at Gonzaga, by dropping 35 points on the 'Zags.
During Paul's final nine games wearing the Illini jersey, he scored in double figures. This included an 18-point effort in the loss to Miami, where Paul appeared to be the best player on the court, despite playing across from ACC Player of the Year Shane Larkin.
He also hit a buzzer-beating jumper against Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament at the United Center, which all but solidified the Illini's NCAA tournament bid—the second time Paul and his fellow seniors made the field of 68.
Despite becoming extremely frustrated with Paul at times, his career and senior season were a success. Paul is great at drawing fouls, hitting shot clock-ending three-pointers or flushing jaw-dropping dunks. Some team could find a steal in the second round of the 2013 NBA draft in the form of Paul.