Though the Fighting Illini may have lost their two best players, as well as both their power forwards, the addition of a five-man freshman class and at least two incoming transfers makes the 2013-14 season a promising one in my mind.
John Groce is hot on the trail for transfers, both players who would have to sit out a season as well as those who could make an immediate impact next year. Four-year players like Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson will not be easy to replace.
But with some new talent coming to Champaign, I believe next year's squad can use their depth to break down opponents even without a true superstar. Another middle-of-the-pack finish in the Big Ten and an NCAA tournament bid is not too much to ask in my opinion.
Fifth-year senior and Coastal Carolina transfer Sam McLaurin made the hustle plays that the Illini lacked the previous season. McLaurin shared time with fellow senior Tyler Griffey (pictured) at the power forward position.
McLaurin was a bruiser on the inside and did more than his statistics indicated. Griffey certainly had his ups and downs over the course of his career, and his season year was no different. Griffey, a stretch 4 sharpshooter, hit a layup to beat Indiana at the buzzer that will be forever remembered by Illini faithful.
D.J. Richardson was a four-year starter for Illinois and was always a threat to beat opponents from long range. He was a lockdown defender who won the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2010 and was a Third Team All-Big Ten selection as a senior. Richardson ends a long line of Illini hailing from Peoria.
Brandon Paul, the team's MVP in 2013, started and ended his Illini career with a flourish. The senior from Gurnee, Illinois, will get serious looks from NBA teams after averaging a team-high 16.6 points in 2012-13.
Paul's legacy at Illinois will live on as younger brother Darius recently decided to transfer in from Western Michigan.
Devin Langford, who actually was a redshirt freshman, has the makeup to be a successful college basketball player. The lanky wing player has above-average ballhandling skills and the physical ability to play multiple positions. Langford will likely transfer closer to his Alabama residence.
Mike Shaw's minutes during his two seasons in Champaign were limited, though I will always remember his defensive effort and energy at Wisconsin this past season that sparked U of I. Shaw has decided to take his talents nearby, over to the Missouri Valley's Bradley in Peoria, Illinois.
Ibby Djimde saw the court even less than Shaw, though I will always remember when Djimde matched up against Gonzaga's Robert Sacre (now an L.A. Laker) as the rest of the Illini big men were in foul trouble. Djimde's only other Division I offer coming from Mali was to Old Dominion, though his next destination is still TBD.
Aaron Cosby left Seton Hall after two seasons in the Big East and will be eligible to play for John Groce's squad in 2014-15 and 2015-16. Cosby is a combo guard who could very well slot alongside Tracy Abrams in the starting backcourt. Cosby is the outside shooter the Illini need, though he's capable of tallying assists as well.
The other transfer that will become eligible to play in the fall of 2014 is Darius Paul, younger brother of formerly mentioned Illini star Brandon Paul. Darius is a 6'8" forward who holds a different skill set than his older brother, though he'll be very valuable to this team.
Paul, a power forward, won the MAC Freshman of the Year award at Western Michigan this past season.
For the third straight season, Illinois has added a fifth-year transfer who can make an immediate impact without having to sit a season. Jon Ekey comes from Illinois State and has been compared to Tyler Griffey, as both are stretch 4s that can knock down the three-pointer. Ekey is expected to share minutes with Myke Henry at power forward this season.
Expectations for Rayvonte Rice, a transfer from Drake, are incredibly high. Rice, who is originally from Champaign, is a bruising guard who has no problem attacking the basket and drawing fouls. He sat out the 2012-13 season and should slide into either the starting shooting guard or small forward position from day one. Rice has two years of eligibility remaining.
Rumors are also flying that Ahmad Starks, an Oregon State transfer, will be coming to Illinois. Starks played his high school ball at Whitney Young and has been a double-digit scorer each of the past two seasons playing in the Pac-12.
Starks, a point guard, will need an NCAA waiver for medical hardship for his ailing grandmother to become eligible immediately. He has not signed with Illinois, as the team is currently out of scholarships for 2013-14.
John Groce and Illinois have five incoming freshmen for the upcoming season, one at each of the five positions. Pictured above are Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn, the point guard and shooting guard from Simeon's 2013 state championship team along with Jabari Parker.
Tate should be used sparingly this upcoming season, while Nunn could be an instant-impact scorer off the bench. Malcolm Hill, a small forward from Belleville, Illinois, has the highest upside of this recruiting class. Hill has a Kevin Durant-like build and is a natural scorer who will score his buckets in bunches.
Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan are the power forward and center of the class, both coming from out of state (Colbert-New Jersey, Morgan-Ohio). These two will likely fight for minutes behind the foul-happy Nnanna Egwu at the center position.