On Tuesday, Illinois finally got word on Ahmad Starks' hardship waiver status from the NCAA. Unfortunately for Starks and the Fighting Illini, the decision was not in their favor. He will have to sit the 2013-14 season and will be eligible to play as a redshirt senior in 2014-15.
The first problem with the waiver denial is that John Groce's team will only have 10 scholarship players eligible to play this coming season. Along with Starks (Oregon State), transfers Darius Paul (Western Michigan) and Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall) will have to sit this season, per NCAA transfer rules.
Illinois only returns three players from last year's team in Nnanna Egwu, Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand. Those three should be joined by two more transfers in Rayvonte Rice (Drake) and Jon Ekey (Illinois State).
The remaining five scholarship players for the Illini will all be true freshmen. Not only would Starks have been a versatile guard to have off the bench, as he could play both point and shooting guard, but he would have brought veteran leadership and experience to the court.
Here is the current depth chart for the Fighting Illini this season:
PG: Tracy Abrams, JR/Jaylon Tate, FR/Mike Latulip, SO
SG: Rayvonte Rice, JR/Kendrick Nunn, FR
SF: Joseph Bertrand, SR/Malcolm Hill, FR
PF: Jon Ekey, SR/Austin Colbert, FR
C: Nnanna Egwu, JR/Maverick Morgan, FR
Latulip and Tate will fight for minutes as Abrams' backup. Latulip is a sophomore walk-on who saw some minutes last season, while Tate is the lowest rated of Illinois' five recruits. Nunn and Hill are the two most highly-touted, though Illinois' backcourt is their strength.
Though Groce was strongly opposed to using four-guard lineups a year ago, the Illini just don't have enough proven depth in the frontcourt to at least not try using Bertrand, Hill or Rice at the four position on occasion.
The second problem with Starks' denial is that Illinois is now officially oversigned for the 2014-15 season, which hopes to be a promising one. With Starks, Illinois now has 14 scholarship players, though they are only allotted 13.
Illinois is also still in active pursuit of Cliff Alexander, a five-star power forward from Chicago's Curie. Landing Alexander would make the Illini a Final Four contender, but it would also mean that they have 15 scholarship players and would have to cut two.
All three incoming freshmen, Quentin Snider, Leron Black and Michael Finke, are guaranteed their spots, unless one decides to decommit, attend prep school or Groce says that they may not receive playing time.
There is the small chance that someone steps up and pays their way as a walk-on for the 2014-15 season, though U of I is not cheap, even as an in-state school. Otherwise, someone from this year's roster won't be back a year from now.
Starks will have the option to transfer following this season and play immediately next year somewhere, though it would seem pointless to come to Illinois just to sit out a season.
There's a chance Egwu has a season good enough to make him forgo his senior season and enter the NBA Draft. Basically, there are a ton of scenarios that could occur between now and next season. I still believe the denied waiver is more of a current problem than it is one for 2014-15.
Should Groce shock the college basketball world and get Alexander to commit to the Fighting Illini on Homecoming weekend three weeks from now, here is the 2014-15 depth chart with 15 scholarship players listed:
PG: Tracy Abrams, SR/Ahmad Starks, SR/Quentin Snider, FR/Jaylon Tate, SO
SG: Rayvonte Rice, SR/Kendrick Nunn, SO/Aaron Cosby, JR/Mike Latulip, JR
SF: Malcolm Hill, SO/Leron Black, FR
PF: Cliff Alexander, FR/Darius Paul, SO/Austin Colbert, SO/Michael Finke, FR
C: Nnanna Egwu, SR/Maverick Morgan, SO
Tate and Finke are the two players listed fourth on the depth chart that are scholarship players, while Latulip is a walk-on. Tate hails from Simeon in Chicago, where Groce is currently building a good repertoire with high school coaches.
Finke is a local product, coming from Champaign. If either Tate or Finke get cut, it may not be good for future relationships with players from those areas. Colbert comes from New Jersey, though he is projected to be a raw talent.
This Illinois roster above truly is as deep as I've ever seen in Champaign. To think that a kid who decommitted from Louisville (Snider) and a double digit scorer in the Big East (Cosby) could be third at their respective positions is amazing. The Illini would have to play plenty of three guard lineups.
Obviously, plenty can change over 12 months, and you'd hate to see a kid asked to transfer out or be told that the best interest in his basketball future is elsewhere. Thanks to the NCAA, Illinois is now in this predicament. It will all work itself out in the end, though how it will happen is still unknown.