Brandon Paul, the 2012-13 Fighting Illini MVP, will no longer be suiting up in Champaign-Urbana this season, after a successful four year career that landed him a professional career in Russia. In fact, last year's senior class took home a good portion of the season-ending awards at the team banquet. Listed below are Illini players and the award(s) they received a year ago.
Nnanna Egwu, Illini Rebounding Award; D.J. Richardson, Ralf Woods Free Throw Trophy and Kenny Battle Leadership Award; Tyler Griffey, Orange Krush 3-Point Shooting Award; Joseph Bertrand, Sixth Man Award; Tracy Abrams, Egwu and Rayvonte Rice, Most Improved Player; Kevin Berardini, Lou Henson Courage Award; Sam McLaurin, Matt Heldman “Matto” Award
As mentioned in the previous slide, Brandon Paul was last year's team MVP. Fellow guard Tracy Abrams won the team's MVP award following his freshman season in 2012 and is a candidate to win again as a junior, as are returning upperclassmen Nnanna Egwu and Joseph Bertrand.
Instead, I believe newcomer and redshirt junior Rayvonte Rice will be the team's top player and MVP in 2013-14. Rice should lead the Illini in scoring, as he is a natural slasher who draws contact, but has also worked on his perimeter shooting with his year off.
Rice will be among the team's top three in rebounds, assists and steals as well, making him the most well-rounded player on the roster. While some may believe his numbers from playing in the Missouri Valley may not translate to the rugged Big Ten, I believe having last season off to improve his game and frame will ensure Rice not miss a beat.
Last season, Abrams, Egwu and Rice shared the award for the team's most improved player. Both Abrams and Egwu stepped into bigger roles as sophomores while Rice was a surprising pick as he wasn't even eligible to suit up and play due to transfer regulations.
In 2013-14, I expect a repeat candidate in the form of Egwu to win the award. Egwu averaged 6.5 points and 4.9 rebounds as a sophomore, though those numbers should climb to roughly 10 to 12 points and seven to nine rebounds per game.
Egwu has plenty of upside and hasn't quite tapped into his full potential. Defensively, he will continue to be a monster and could very well be an All-Defensive team member. Offensively, he will continue to hit the mid-range jumper, but also become more assertive in the paint, as he now weighs 255 pounds with added muscle.
This year's Illini squad should start five upperclassmen and have five true freshmen as each of their backups. This makes top notch freshmen Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn the likeliest candidates to be the team's top reserve.
After winning the award as a sophomore and junior, Joseph Bertand's role should expand to starter as a redshirt senior, leaving Hill and Nunn the only other options. Hill is a lanky 6'6" and will be asked to score when John Groce calls for him off the bench.
Hill can play either wing position and has a smooth stroke from the perimeter. Hill will need to add on muscle eventually, though my comparisons of him to Kevin Durant are never a bad thing. Expect Hill to be one of the team's top five scorers and top three long range shooters.
This award, named after former Illini great Kenny Battle will go to Tracy Abrams in 2013-14. Abrams is a born leader and was the lone Illini player to not give up during Bruce Weber's final weeks as the team's head coach in early 2012.
Abrams' effort and leadership that season won him the team's MVP award as a true freshman, despite only starting half the season and having mediocre statistics. With Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson no longer beside him in the backcourt, Abrams is the most experienced player other than Bertrand.
This season could be a challenging one for Abrams and the Illini. Abrams is expected to see extended minutes, as his backups are Jaylon Tate, the team's lowest rated freshman, and Mike Latulip, a walk-on. Abrams' drive on the court and in the locker room will be important not only for this season, but for the future, specifically the promising 2014-15 campaign where he will have competition at point guard with Quentin Snider and Ahmad Starks slated behind him.
Egwu is the team's only returning big man and should grab the lion's share of rebounds. Rice is fearless and will have no problem challenging B1G forwards and drawing fouls. Ekey is a stretch four who will expand the floor with his range and fill Tyler Griffey's role from a season ago.
Bertrand has gone through ups and downs during his five years in Champaign, but should be exciting as ever following a shoulder surgery this offseason. As previously mentioned, Abrams is a leader who will dive on the floor for loose balls, take charges and do the little things it takes to win ballgames.