Ahmad Starks and the Fighting Illini were not given the message they wanted to hear from the NCAA last week, when Starks' medical hardship waiver was denied leaving him unable to play in the 2013-14 season. With Darius Paul, Aaron Cosby and now Starks having to sit out due to transfer regulations, only 10 scholarships and one walk-on will be able to suit up for John Groce's squad this season. Here is a look at each player, starting with the team's best.
1. Rayvonte Rice
In two years as a member of the Drake Bulldogs, Rice scored 983 points with a 15.3 point average over that span. Rice is not just a scorer though, as he also averaged 5.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.8 blocks in his underclassmen years at Drake. After sitting out last season, Rice has cut some baby food and turned it into muscle, boding well for chances to be successful in the B1G. Rice is a slasher, who went to the foul line over six times per game as a sophomore, though he does need to improve on his outside shooting. Despite minimal experience playing major conference schools, Rice, a Champaign product, has the toughness, as well as skill, to be a big-time player in the nation's top league.
2. Tracy Abrams
After upping his scoring average by 6.3 points from his freshman to sophomore seasons, Abrams proved he can be a Big Ten point guard, despite questionable decision making at times. Without Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson beside him, as they were during his first two seasons, Abrams will need to be a better distributor of the ball, as the Illini were one of the nation's worst assist-per-basket teams in 2012-13. Abrams' 3.4 assist to 2.6 turnover ratio is alarming, but should improve with less of an isolation type offense. Look for Abrams to increase his scoring slightly and his minutes drastically.
3. Nnanna Egwu
Of all the players on the current Illini roster, Egwu has the best chance at making a living playing basketball in the NBA. While he is still raw, Egwu put on 30 pounds from this time last season, making him a more physical presence in the rugged Big Ten. Egwu blocked 1.4 shots a year ago and could be an All-Defensive Team performer as a junior. Egwu has a nice mid-range stroke, though he needs to become more assertive with the ball in the paint. Egwu needs to work on his hands and stop picking up cheap fouls, but the sky really is the limit with him.
On a team full of fresh faces, Bertrand is the team's veteran as a redshirt senior. After a redshirt season and an additional year and a half riding the pine, Bertrand came into his own midway through his redshirt sophomore season as an efficient scorer who had the ability to take over games. He is a freak athlete who can score off the dribble and in transition, while also possessing a nice touch on the baseline. Bertrand had shoulder surgery this past offseason, which should help him be more comfortable and aggressive on both ends of the court in this his final year in Champaign.
5. Malcolm Hill
The first non-projected starter to make the list is Hill, a freshman from Belleville, Illinois. Hill has a lanky frame at 6'6" and is a pure scorer with a smooth outside stroke. Hill finished third in the Illinois Mr. Basketball voting in 2013, a competition that has become difficult for non-Chicagoland players to win recently. Hill should see plenty of minutes at either wing position and will be needed to be an instant offensive player when he's called off the bench.
6. Jon Ekey
Bertrand has another fellow redshirt senior in Ekey, though this will be Ekey's first season as an Illini. Ekey is familiar to the area, playing in Normal at Illinois State before transferring to Illinois for graduate school and becoming eligible to play immediately. Ekey should be the starting power forward, filling the void that Tyler Griffey left as a stretch four. Ekey is a better athlete and defender than Griffey while still possessing an excellent outside shooting touch.
7. Kendrick Nunn
The second of five Illini freshmen on this list is Nunn, who comes to U of I from Simeon in Chicago. Tate will wear #25, a tradition for Simeon players that played at Illinois to wear after the tragic death of Benji Wilson in 1984, as he donned that number. Nunn is a sharpshooting lefty who also has the bounce to create off the dribble. Nunn may have ball-handling duties depending on the situation, but like Hill should see plenty of opportunities to play and perform off the Illini bench.
8. Austin Colbert
Here comes the point in the list where there are a lot of question marks. Of the previous seven players, three were key returning players for the Illini, two were proven transfers and two were highly touted incoming freshmen. Not to short Colbert, but he has been described as raw. While that term can be thrown around loosely, it's not necessarily a negative description, as I also used it while highlighting Egwu earlier. Colbert will see minutes out of necessity, as the Illini frontcourt is lacking. If Colbert can be a poor man's Mike Davis, who played for the Illini from 2007-11, that would be a success. Colbert can bring energy, rebounding and defense. With that, the offense will come eventually.
9. Maverick Morgan
At 6'10" and 250 pounds, Morgan certainly brings size that the Illini have lacked in recent years. Morgan will play backup to Egwu, who as previously mentioned has a knack for getting in foul trouble. Similar to Colbert, Morgan won't be needed as a scorer, but rather as a minutes eater who can stand his ground in the paint against some skilled big men, rebound and defend the basket.
10. Jaylon Tate
Like Nunn, Tate hails from Chicago powerhouse Simeon, where he was a part of two state championship teams after transferring in from De La Salle midway through his prep career. Tate is a pass-first point guard who will bring toughness. Tate has also been described as playing with a chip on his shoulder, as Tate was passed over as a recruit in favor of teammates Nunn, Jabari Parker (Duke) and Steve Taylor, Jr. (Marquette).
11. Mike LaTulip
The team's lone walk-on, Latulip actually saw the court 16 times as a freshman. LaTulip was ahead of multiple scholarship players on the depth chart a year ago and is in the best shape of any player on the team. LaTulip has a year of college basketball under his belt and knows the Illini offense, which should make the backup point guard competition between he and Tate an intriguing one. LaTulip is also a three-point shooting threat, something the Illini may currently lack.
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