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.