With November rapidly approaching, it means that the college basketball season is almost upon us, and for me it means that it is time to start talking Illinois Fighting Illini hoops.
There has been a lot of excitement surrounding the Illini hoops squad recently and for good reason. Head coach John Groce has Illini Nation dreaming of bigger things after a successful first season that saw his Illini go 23-13 and reach the third round of the NCAA tournament.
That may not sound like a huge accomplishment, but it was a step in the right direction for a program that had been struggling in recent years after a run in which they were considered among the nation's elite.
As many Illini fans are already aware of, prior to Groce arriving, the Illini had only won two NCAA tournament games since going to the National Championship game in 2005 and missed the tournament entirely in three of those seven seasons.
They were no longer in the conversation of the top teams in the country and certainly needed a change.
They got what they needed when Groce came to town. He brought energy and passion back to Illini hoops, and it has revived the program.
The success of last season, coupled with the influx of talent on the horizon, has certainly brightened the outlook for the fans of the orange and blue.
With an incoming freshman class that has been rated as high as 15th in the nation (per ESPN insider) and next year's class that has already been rated as high as ninth (per ESPN insider), it's easy to see why the buzz is back in Champaign.
Of course that ranking for next year's class could jump into the top five should big man Cliff Alexander decide to join the Illini. Alexander is among the top five recruits in the nation and has narrowed his list to five schools, including Illinois. All eyes will be on his announcement, which will come next month. He will make his official visit to Champaign this weekend and has said all along that Illinois is a possibility.
In the meantime, the focus is on this season and how this young Illini team can build on last year's success.
And the truth is, it's going to be tough.
Gone are Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey, which leave the Illini short on experience and scoring options. The trio accounted for about 36 points and 12 rebounds per game, which is a lot to replace.
Also gone are Sam McLaurin, who was another big body inside, and Myke Henry, who surprised many when he decided to transfer to DePaul after last season. Henry certainly would have provided Illinois with another scoring option and more than likely would have been in the starting lineup.
The Illini also lost forwards Mike Shaw, Ibby Djimde and Devin Langford as all three decided to transfer due to lack of playing time.
So if you're counting, that's eight players from last year's roster who won't be back.
The lone returning senior will be fifth-year Joseph Bertrand who will have to lead the way for this young Illini team. He will be joined by graduate student Jon Ekey, who transferred in from Illinois State for his final year of eligibility.
Both of them project to be in the starting lineup this season and will be called upon for their experience and knowledge.
The Illini also return juniors Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu along with transfer Rayvonte Rice, who played his first two seasons at Drake before sitting out last season due to transfer rules.
After that it's mostly freshmen off the bench for the Illini, and they will need to grow up quickly in order to help contribute by the time the Big Ten schedule comes around.
It will be a challenging year for Groce and his Illini with their lack of experience, but the groundwork has been laid for future success.
Here's a look at the projected starters and backups at each position for the 2013-14 Illini.
Projected Starter: Tracy Abrams (6'2" Jr.)
Off The Bench: Jaylon Tate (6'3" Fr.), Mike LaTulip (6'1" So.)
There's no doubt that John Groce will rely heavily on junior point guard Tracy Abrams to lead this young Illini team.
Abrams was third in scoring on last year's team, averaging 10.6 points per game, to go along with 3.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists, which led the team.
He was up and down as a sophomore, but he is a tough kid who has shown that he isn't afraid to mix it up and isn't afraid of big situations. He penetrates the lane well and can get to the rim and finish.
The hope this season is that he can elevate his game by improving his shot from beyond the arc (27 percent in 2012-13) and also distribute the ball more efficiently.
Look for Abrams to be a floor leader this season. He will be one of the top scorers for this Illinois team and will likely want the ball in his hands at crunch time.
When the NCAA decided not to grant a hardship waiver to transfer Ahmad Starks, the Illini took a major hit to their depth for this season. Starks, a Chicago native from Whitney Young High School, had played his first three seasons at Oregon State and was hoping to transfer and play immediately. He will now have to sit out and wait for next season.
Without Starks, the Illini will turn to freshman Jaylon Tate and sophomore walk-on Mike LaTulip to back up Abrams. Tate is one of two Illinois freshmen that Groce grabbed from powerhouse Simeon High School in Chicago, and he should see some significant time now that Starks is out of the picture. However, he will have to fight for minutes with LaTulip, who was impressive in the annual Orange and Blue scrimmage this past week.
Projected Starter: Rayvonte Rice (6'4" Jr.)
Off The Bench: Kendrick Nunn (6'3" Fr.)
There's no doubt that losing a guy like D.J. Richardson hurts, but the sting may not last long.
Junior transfer Rayvonte Rice will take over for Richardson at the 2-guard this season and brings a lot of experience with him. The 2010 runner-up for Illinois Mr. Basketball from Champaign's Centennial High School, Rice played two seasons at Drake where he averaged 15.4 points and 5.4 rebounds.
He is a bulky 6'4" guard who can create his own shot and likes to get to the rim, which is a contrast in style to Richardson, who was more perimeter oriented. However, much like his running mate Abrams, he needs to improve upon his perimeter shot as he only knocked down 27 percent of his three-point attempts in his two years at Drake.
Rice will find a way to get his points, and it wouldn't be at all surprising to see him lead the team in scoring. He and Abrams should form a pretty solid tandem in the backcourt.
With the lack of options off the bench it seems that freshman Kendrick Nunn will be the primary backup to Rice at the 2-guard. Nunn is the other Simeon High School product recruited by Groce and is the highest-rated player in this freshman class.
He has a nice left-handed jump shot and a quick first step, but just like all the other freshmen he will have to adjust to the speed of the college game quickly in order to be a solid contributor by the time the conference schedule arrives.
Projected Starter: Joseph Bertrand (6'6" Sr.)
Off The Bench: Malcolm Hill (6'6" Fr.)
Joseph Bertrand returns for his final season in Champaign and will be called upon for leadership, as he is the only returning senior on the roster.
He is coming off shoulder surgery last spring and missed most of the summer workouts but is said to be 100 percent going into the season. Bertrand has tremendous athleticism and a terrific mid-range game to go along with an improving three-point shot (32 percent in 2012-13).
The expectation is for him to improve upon his 7.3 points and 4.1 rebounds from last season. He should have the ball in his hands more often with opportunities to score since his buddies (Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson) are gone. If his perimeter game has improved and can complement his ability to get in the lane and finish, Bertrand definitely has a chance to score in double figures.
It will be tough for him to replace Paul in terms of scoring ability, but he is the most electric player on the roster and it's his final season donning the orange and blue, so I would expect good things from Joe B.
Malcolm Hill is yet another freshman who should see some significant minutes off the bench, as he will be the primary backup to Bertrand. Hill, along with Nunn, will be expected to contribute right away.
He is a versatile player who can score in a variety of ways, according to Groce, and that is something the Illini will need this season, as they lose several of their scoring options from last season. It wouldn't be surprising if Hill managed to have the biggest impact of the freshmen this season.
Projected Starter: Jon Ekey (6'7" GS)
Off The Bench: Austin Colbert (6'9" Fr.)
Jon Ekey is expected to take over for Tyler Griffey at the 4 position and in many ways is similar to the former Illini big man.
Ekey transferred in from Illinois State as a graduate student and has one year of eligibility remaining. At ISU he was known for his ability to knock down threes (35 percent as a junior and 41 percent as a sophomore) and block shots (ranks sixth in ISU history with 110).
A somewhat smaller version of Griffey, Ekey will fill the role of a stretch 4 just as Griffey did but should bring a little more athleticism to the position. With the lack of proven three-point threats on the roster, he will certainly be counted on to give them some production from beyond the arc.
I would expect Ekey to be a solid contributor all season and be the steady leader that a senior should be.
Playing behind Ekey at the 4 will be freshman Austin Colbert who, along with Nunn and Hill, was the third top-100 recruit of this class. He is a long and athletic guy who seems to fit the profile of what Groce is looking for in his offense. Colbert can get up and down the floor well for a big man and is a solid rebounder and shot blocker. The key for him will be to develop his post game, as he is currently more of a face-up type player.
Projected Starter: Nnanna Egwu (6'11" Jr.)
Off The Bench: Maverick Morgan (6'10" Fr.)
Nnanna Egwu is the only returning big man on the Illini roster and will have to carry the load down low. He is a tireless worker who has improved his game tremendously over his two seasons in Champaign, and the hope is that he will take another step this season.
Egwu is coming off a sophomore season where he averaged 6.5 points and a team-leading 4.9 rebounds per game. As he is the only true post player returning for the Illini, Egwu will need to step up his game in the post. He showed good touch last season from mid-range but does need to show that he has improved his footwork in the paint and can be a presence for this Illinois team inside.
Because Illinois will rely so heavily on Egwu, he also needs to stay out of foul trouble, which is something that has plagued him over his first two seasons. I would expect Egwu to improve both his scoring and rebounding numbers this season, as he will have increased scoring opportunities. If he can have a big year, the Illini could make some noise in the Big Ten.
Coming off the bench behind Egwu will be the big freshman Maverick Morgan. Morgan is another freshman who will probably see extensive minutes due to the lack of options off the Illini bench.
He will need to toughen up quickly in order to be ready for life down low in the Big Ten. The book on Morgan is that he will bang down low, but he's not a particularly great athlete and needs to improve his rebounding, which is an area that Illinois will need help.
This Illini team certainly lacks big men and the hope for Morgan is that he can provide them with some quality minutes in the post and develop his game. The more time he gets this season only helps him down the road.
John Groce made a statement last season by coming in and leading the Illini to a 23-win season and actually winning an NCAA tournament game, which had become very elusive in recent years.
Now everyone is wondering, can he take that momentum and build on it?
Well, based on his recruiting efforts, it certainly appears he is headed in that direction. As I mentioned earlier, he has put together two outstanding classes in his first two years on the job. Not only that, but it seems that his players buy into his system and enjoy playing for him, which cannot be overstated.
He is a very intense, but upbeat guy who believes in his system. He knows what he wants to do and he knows what type of player he needs to do it.
With that said, he will certainly have to do some coaching this season with the lack of experience on this Illinois roster. Only four guys return from last year's roster and one of them is walk-on Mike LaTulip, so Groce knows he has some work ahead of him.
At the conclusion of last week's Orange and Blue team scrimmage, he acknowledged that his guys did some good things, but they still have a long way to go before they're ready for the season. That season begins on November 8 against Alabama State.
In order to get back to the NCAA tournament this season, guys like Abrams, Egwu and Bertrand will need to bring their games up a notch and play consistently. Also, they will need to get a lot from their two newcomers in the lineup, Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey. Both of them have plenty of experience, and the Illini will need it. Rice will need to provide them with some scoring punch and Ekey will hopefully give them a solid three-point threat. Both are areas of need.
Off the bench, they really just have to hope that at least a few of their freshmen can develop quickly and contribute right away.
With a stacked Big Ten conference, the road will certainly be tough for Illinois, but I still expect them to finish at or near 20 wins and in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. If they can find a way to remain near the .500 mark in conference play and get to 20 wins, they have a solid shot to get back to the dance.
Regardless, Groce is building a foundation for the future, and it would appear that good things lie ahead for Illinois basketball.