After a surprisingly good season in 2012-13, John Groce has restored faith in the Illinois basketball program. Though the Illini have lost Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson among others, and only return three scholarship players from a year ago, expectations are once again high in Champaign.
My projected starting lineup for 2013-14 is Tracy Abrams, Rayvonte Rice, Joseph Bertrand, Jon Ekey and Nnanna Egwu, all of whom are upperclassmen and two of which are transfers. Though the Illini are bringing in five talented freshmen, I expect coach Groce to give the older players the benefit early on.
In this highlight, point guard Tracy Abrams finds his fellow junior Nnanna Egwu for an early-game alley-oop that sparks the Illini in this must-win game against Purdue. Egwu and Abrams came to Champaign with four other class of 2011 recruits, but the other four decided to transfer out this past offseason.
As an upperclassmen, Abrams will be the Illini's second-most experienced player. Abrams is always a lockdown defender, but at times he has lags in his offensive game. Illinois was one of the nation's worst assist-per-field-goal teams in 2012-13, meaning this season needs more easy buckets and less isolation.
This highlights Rayvonte Rice in a game against now-NBA draftee and former Detroit star Ray McCallum Jr. Rice intercepts the pass in the paint before taking the ball coast-to-coast for an uncontested dunk. Rice is a big-time scorer, who always thinks of attacking the basket rather than settling for jump shots.
The big-bodied Rice lost weight during his redshirt season, after playing two seasons at Drake. Rice needs to improve his outside shooting, but he has no trouble drawing fouls and getting to the charity stripe. Rice is a local kid, hailing from Champaign, where he won a state championship as a junior.
Out of the Illini's projected starters, Bertrand had the most highlight-worthy plays, thus making this video just one of his many breathtaking aerial displays. In this video, Bertrand retrieves a steal before taking it all the way and jumping over a Georgia Tech player while taking contact for an and-1.
This play came during Bertrand's take over of this Big Ten-ACC Challenge matchup, where he nearly single-handedly brought the Illini back from behind. Bertrand is currently recovering from a shoulder surgery, but will need to be the team's leader as a redshirt senior.
In this video, Illinois' four recent transfers Ahmad Starks, Jon Ekey, Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul are highlighted. Both Cosby and Paul must sit out next season, while Starks' eligibility is still unknown. Ekey, however, will be needed to fill an immediate void at power forward following Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin's graduations, while Myke Henry and Mike Shaw decided to transfer.
As evidenced by the Ekey segment, which starts at 1:37, is the fact that Ekey can beat you offensively on the inside and outside. Ekey is a stretch 4 knockdown shooter, but has deceiving athleticism and can finish above the rim. Ekey may need to play more physical in the rugged Big Ten, though I think this redshirt senior will be up for the challenge.
Similar to Tracy Abrams' video on the first slide, the two Illini juniors Abrams and Egwu hook up for an easy dunk, this time on the road at Michigan State. Egwu slips past the Big Ten's top frontcourt mates in Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix, as Egwu often plays to the level of his competition.
Egwu is accustomed to getting in foul trouble, something that needs to change in 2013-14 as Egwu is the team's only returning big man. Egwu could have a future in the NBA if he continues to improve at the same rate he did after his freshman year. Egwu has also bulked up and now weighs in at 250 pounds.