In 2012-13, expectations were surpassed by first-year head coach John Groce and his Fighting Illini program. After an overachieving season that ended in a controversial NCAA Tournament third-round matchup with second seeded Miami, expectations are no longer tempered in Champaign.
While Coach Groce lost four seniors, three of who were starters, and a handful of outbound transfers, Illinois is still expected to compete in 2013-14. The team only returns three members of last year's roster, but adds a few transfers of their own, while also bringing in a top-notch recruiting class.
The three returning players, Tracy Abrams, Joseph Bertrand and Nnanna Egwu, are expected to start alongside transfers Rayvonte Rice (Drake) and Jon Ekey (Illinois State), who previously battled in the Missouri Valley Conference.
After a freshman campaign where point guard Abrams earned the team's Most Valuable Player Award, he took on a bigger role in his second season. Not to say that Abrams didn't deserve the MVP award former head coach Bruce Weber and staff gave him on their way out, but there were more talented players on that Illini team roster.
Meyers Leonard and Brandon Paul are the two most obvious that come to mind, though Abrams most likely received the honor as the team's leader and the lone player that didn't give up by the season's end even as a true freshman point guard starting in the Big Ten.
As a sophomore, Abrams improved but may need to take an even bigger jump following the departures of Paul and D.J. Richardson who played alongside him in the Illini backcourt for two seasons. He proved he can score by notching 10.6 points per game, but needs to improve upon his 3.4-2.6 assist to turnover ratio.
Abrams needs to average over four assists per game and should see that turnover figure dip closer to two. Illinois was one of the worst assist-basket teams in the nation last season, though with less isolation play this upcoming season that stat should improve.
Rayvonte Rice is no stranger to Champaign or even Assembly Hall (the newly named State Farm Center). A redshirt junior, Rice grew up in Champaign and played at Centennial High School where he won a State Championship.
When he was a freshman at CHS, I saw Rice play at the Shootout at the Hall, an event to showcase potential and incoming Illini recruits as well as give local teams a chance to play on the big stage. After two seasons at Drake, Rice will now have his chance to play on that same court I saw him on five years ago.
Rice averaged 13.8 and 16.8 points per game respectively during his two seasons as a Drake Bulldog. If he can match his career 15.4 point average, Illinois could see even more success than they did a year ago.
Rice is a career-42-percent shooter from the field and 70 percent from the charity stripe that he frequents, but needs to improve upon his 27 percent shooting from behind the arc. Rice was awarded the team's Most Improved Player during this past redshirt season, so hopefully that shows on the court.
Last season Bertrand finished fourth in scoring behind Paul, Richardson and Abrams. Similar to the three players mentioned above, Bertrand is a guard and was the team's sixth man. The previous season saw Bertrand playing the 4 position often, though he is more of a natural 2 or 3.
Athletically, no one on the Illini roster can match this redshirt senior. Search Joseph Bertrand on YouTube and you'll be sure to find some jaw-dropping dunks and proof of his incredible leaping ability. Now the question is, can Bertrand finally put it all together?
He had shoulder surgery during the offseason and no longer has to play behind other guards his own age, though he is the most experienced player on the Illinois roster. Standing 6'6", Bertrand averaged a respectable 4.1 rebounds in only 22 minutes as a redshirt junior.
If all goes right, a Rice-Bertrand duo on the wing could be an even more explosive punch than the Paul-Richardson duo that graced Champaign for four seasons. Not only will Bertrand leave his legacy during this last season, he could even be selected in the second round of the 2014 NBA Draft.
On paper, and maybe even in person, Tyler Griffey and Jon Ekey seem similar. Both are from Missouri and were Class-of-2009 recruits. Both are stretch fours and stand 6'9" and 6'7", respectively. The main difference is that Ekey will suit up for the Illini in 2013-14 and Griffey will not.
Griffey only started as a senior, averaging 7.2 points, 3.5 rebounds and had a 35 percent shooting average from deep. He delivered a game-winning three-pointer against Gardner-Webb and an epic wide-open layup to knock off the top-ranked Indiana Hoosiers. Ekey redshirted as a true freshman at Illinois State, making him immediately eligible to play following his transfer from nearby Normal.
Ekey's best season came as a redshirt sophomore, when he averaged nine points and 4.9 rebounds. He has averaged 1.1 blocks per game over the course of his career, while Griffey only averaged 0.3. You can make the argument that Griffey played against stiffer competition, which is true. However, I expect Ekey to play better this upcoming year than Griffey ever did.
Griffey was an incredibly streaky three-point shooter and was soft in the paint. Ekey will be more consistent from deep and is more athletic attacking the rim and dunking the ball. He's also a better defender and will benefit from John Groce's fast-paced game plan. Ekey's competition in the frontcourt are freshmen Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan.
As a sophomore, Egwu played just over 25 minutes per night as the team's starting center. Egwu averaged 3.1 fouls during his playing time and often found himself seated on the bench after picking up two early first-half fouls. Fortunately, the Illini had bigs Griffey, Sam McLaurin and Myke Henry to fill in, a luxury the team will not have this season.
Frontcourt depth is the most glaring problem on the roster, as Egwu is the team's lone big who has ever suited up for the orange and blue. If Egwu stays on the court and out of foul trouble, he could be due for a huge junior season. The 6'11" junior scored 12 points and pulled in 12 rebounds during the season finale against Miami while playing 31 minutes and picking up zero fouls against a stout Hurricane frontcourt.
At times, Egwu looked raw offensively and small matched up next to other Big Ten centers. After a concerted effort to put on muscle this past offseason, we hope to see Egwu banging in the paint more this year while still popping out and hitting his mid-range shot.
If Egwu can average 11 points and seven rebounds this season, I would be happy. Meyers Leonard averaged just 13.6 points and 8.2 rebounds before making the leap to the NBA lottery following his sophomore season, numbers that seem reasonable for Egwu to reach in 2014-15 and will help make the NBA a possibility for himself.