Illinois Basketball: 5 Bold Predictions for Illini Newcomers
For a team that only returns three players from last year's roster, a lot is up in the air for the 2013-14 Fighting Illini squad. After an impressive first season under coach John Groce, however, my faith has been restored in the program regardless of how many question marks there may be.
Groce was able to bring in a five-man recruiting class as well as bring in a handful of transfers, some of whom are immediately eligible, while others will redshirt this season but become eligible to play in 2014-15. Here's a look at these newcomers.
Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan Will See Plenty of Available Minutes
In 2012-13, the Illini had a four-man rotation in the frontcourt containing Nnanna Egwu, Tyler Griffey, Sam McLaurin and Myke Henry. With Griffey and McLaurin's graduation combined with Henry's transfer to DePaul, Egwu is the only returning player in the paint.
This leaves Jon Ekey, Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan as the only other big men on the roster. While it's feasible to think Groce will play a four-guard lineup at times based on demand, there's a chance he won't, as he never did in 2012-13 even though Bruce Weber did plenty the season before.
Colbert and Morgan may not put up gaudy stats in their first collegiate season, but they will get the playing time and experience that will benefit their careers in the long run.
Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn Will Be Counted on for Scoring Even off the Bench
Many believe Malcolm Hill could be one of or even the top Illini player and scorer as a true freshman. Based on the opportunity for Hill to get minutes immediately, he could even become an intriguing preseason choice for Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Kendrick Nunn has always been a winner, having played alongside Duke recruit Jabari Parker at Simeon. Nunn is a smooth left-handed player who will wear No. 25 at Illinois, a tradition for former Simeon players, as Benji Wilson wore that number during his prep career before he was killed in 1984.
Hill has received Kevin Durant comparisons and can score from deep or off the dribble. Hill could start at small forward, but if not, he will play plenty off the bench. Nunn should slot in as the backup shooting guard but could see minutes at the point if needed.
Jaylon Tate's Minutes Hinge on Ahmad Starks Waiver Passing
After weeks of anticipation, Ahmad Starks announced his intention to attend Illinois next season following Myke Henry's transfer. Though Henry and Starks play different positions, I was happy with the move.
Starks has plenty of experience playing major college basketball in the Pac-12 at Oregon State. He can be counted on for outside shooting and distribution and could be an intriguing duo alongside fellow point guard Tracy Abrams in the backcourt during certain situations.
Tate may or may not be eligible to play next season. Should Starks not be granted the waiver immediately, Jaylon Tate will fight with walk-on Mike LaTulip for minutes at the backup point guard position, though they will likely be minimal.
Jon Ekey Will Start at Power Forward
Though Ekey did not start at a redshirt junior at Illinois State, there's a great chance he'll be out there when the game starts for the Illini next season. Even with a deep and talented backcourt, I don't foresee Groce trying to play Malcolm Hill or Joseph Bertrand out of position at power forward.
That leaves Ekey and Austin Colbert as the only 4s on the roster. Though Colbert has the higher upside, he is also a work in progress. Ekey is a proven shooter who is deceivingly athletic and has been pegged as a rich man's Tyler Griffey.
If Ekey can hit as many clutch shots as Griffey did a year ago, I think we'll be alright. Ekey also brings in experience and leadership to a team that, quite frankly, doesn't have a lot of either. How Ekey reacts to the more physical Big Ten playing style, though, is yet to be seen.
Rayvonte Rice Will Lead the Team in Scoring
Another former Missouri Valley player will likely start for the Illini this season, this being ex-Drake player Rayvonte Rice. Rice is a local kid, hailing from Champaign, where he won a state championship for Champaign Centennial.
As a sophomore at Drake, Rice averaged 16.8 points on 44 percent shooting from the field. He also converted on 71 percent of his free throws, though more impressive is the frequency at which Rice got to the charity stripe at 6.3 times per game.
Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu are the team's top returning players, though I don't see either upping their scoring averages more than a few points. Joe Bertrand needs to be more assertive as a redshirt senior and Malcolm Hill could light it up as a frosh, but based on everything, I'd bet Rice leads the team in scoring next season.