The 2012-13 Fighting Illini squad was a senior led one, with the likes of Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson running the show, while Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin served as valuable role players. Those four are now gone, as are four others who transferred following their sophomore seasons. This year's Illini squad is full of new faces, as only three players return from last year's roster.
Tracy Abrams, Joseph Bertrand and Nnanna Egwu are those three players and should start at point guard, small forward and center, respetively. Missouri Valley transfers Rayvonte Rice (Drake) and Jon Ekey (Illinois State) should round out the starting five.
Then comes the bench. Ahmad Starks was denied his waiver to play immediately by the NCAA, while Darius Paul and Aaron Cosby also must sit this season. This leaves the Illini with five scholarship players on their bench, alongside sophomore walk-on sharpshooter Mike Latulip. All five of the projected backups happen to be freshmen.
While no freshman on this year's roster should have to be a superstar right away, there will need to be contributions from each and every one of the 2013 recruiting class. Jaylon Tate will battle it out with Latulip for the right to back up Abrams at point guard. Tate is the lowest rated of the five recruits, though he brings a winning attitude having been on Simeon's past two state title teams.
Kendrick Nunn is slotted to back up Rice at shooting guard, though I wouldn't be surprised to see Nunn attempt to handle the ball with Abrams on the bench. Nunn teamed with Tate at Simeon and is an explosive weapon that John Groce could utilize off the bench.
Malcolm Hill is the projected backup small forward, behind Bertrand. Hill and Nunn are the two most highly touted incoming freshmen. Hill will need to be an instant offense player for Illinois. He is a lanky wing who has a smooth stroke, but could add some muscle in the physical Big Ten.
Austin Colbert should be Ekey's backup. Ekey appears to be the biggest question mark of the starting five, though I think he'll provide similar if not better production than Griffey did last season. Colbert is a raw talent from New Jersey, but will need to learn and develop quickly.
Finally, Maverick Morgan is the backup center behind Egwu. Egwu was limited to 25 minutes per game as the starting center last season, due to a knack for picking up cheap fouls. Morgan could see minutes earlier than anticipated and will need to rebound and defend when called upon.
As mentioned before, Illinois' top two recruits of this class were Nunn and Hill, both perimeter wing players. As it stands, five of the Illini's top seven players are non-post players. Ekey is the prototypical stretch four, leaving Egwu as the only true accomplished big man on the roster.
While Colbert and Morgan will improve as the season goes on, there will be growing pains in the beginning. Though I hope it to not be the case, with Illinois oversigned for the 2014 recruiting class, there's a chance either Colbert or Morgan won't be back as sophomores.
In 2011-12, Bruce Weber often played four guard lineups with Meyers Leonard as the lone post player. Leonard would usually be joined by Abrams, Richardson and Paul, while Bertrand played the four position. Bertrand played well in that role, something I'd like to see happen again.
Last season though, Groce never played four guard lineups, even with nearly identical personnel from the previous season, only moving Egwu in for Leonard. If Ekey or Egwu go down with two early fouls, where does Groce turn?
My guess is that in early season play, he'll stick to his guns and continue to play kids in their natural positions, which means Colbert or Morgan is the answer. As the season goes on, his thoughts could change on the subject, though they may not either.
If Groce decides to play Bertrand, Rice or Hill at the four position, how would they matchup against Mitch McGary, Branden Dawson or Melsahn Basabe there? As highlighted before, freshman play will be critical, though it'll be the veterans' play that dictates how much of the freshmen we will see on the court.
Ability to Shoot From Deep
Last year's Illini team lived and died by the three-point shot. While it may not be as prevalent an option this season, with the fast pace that Groce's team play, expect the Illini to still hoist up a good number from deep.
Richardson was a four-year sharpshooter, while Paul was streaky but capable of knocking down triples. Griffey was a true stretch four, while power forward Myke Henry also preferred to stand behind the arc on offense.
Abrams shot only 27 percent from three last season, while Bertrand connected on 31 percent of his looks from there. Rice shot 30 percent from deep as a freshman, but only 24 percent as a sophomore. Ekey also declined from long range, going from 41 to 35 percent in his sophomore and junior years.
Rice has put in plenty of work on his perimeter game during his redshirt season. Ekey's numbers dipped with a decrease in playing time and new offense after Tim Jankovich left ISU. Bertrand played on a bum shoulder the second half of the season, which caused his shooting numbers to fall off as well.
Tate and Nunn are capable shooters, though not at the college level, which makes the loss of Starks hurt even more from the backup guard position. Hill can be best compared to NBA star Kevin Durant, so expect to see him launching from the perimeter when on the floor.