Illinois Fighting Illini basketball took a hit on Friday. First, John Groce and company lost Quentin Snider to Louisville in the morning. Snider had committed to Louisville, reopened his recruitment and verbally committed to Illinois, before backing out last minute and choosing to sign with the Cardinals.
Then in the afternoon, Chicago's own Cliff Alexander pulled the bait and switch, faking fans by picking up the Illinois hat, before choosing Bill Self's Kansas Jayhawks. The immature move on Alexander's part, coupled with losing a five-star recruit to Illinois' former head coach, made for a rough day as an Illini.
Contrary to what many believe with these losses, Illinois basketball is in great shape. In just 20 months, John Groce has completely revamped the program. In 2011-12, Bruce Weber's Fighting Illini didn't even qualify for the NIT, despite having a seven-foot NBA lottery pick in Meyers Leonard on the roster.
Without Leonard, Groce got the Fighting Illini into the NCAA Tournament and was a play away from reaching the Sweet Sixteen. After graduating four of the team's top seven players and having an additional four transfer out of the program, this year's Illini team has a completely new look.
Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu and Joseph Bertrand are the only recognizable names for a casual Illini fan. Local product and Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice is the team's go-to-guy however, while Illinois State transfer Jon Ekey has been spectacular in his stretch-four role, starting alongside Egwu up front.
Other than sophomore walk-on Mike LaTulip, the team's bench is all newcomers in five freshmen. Bigs Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan are both raw and the least ready for Big Ten basketball, though they will be given chances to play in a slim frontcourt.
Kendrick Nunn appears to be a streaky sparkplug, while Malcolm Hill can play either forward position as he has put on muscle since arriving in Champaign. Most impressive of the group has been Jaylon Tate, who despite being the lowest rated of the recruits, is the team's sixth man and leading Illinois in assists.
Then, toss in a trio of transfers sitting out this season, and the future of Illini basketball looks very promising. Ahmad Starks (Oregon State), Darius Paul (Western Michigan) and Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall) have all been double-digit scorers at their respective schools and will be big a year from now.
While the Big Ten should be as strong as ever in 2013-14, Groce is looking to get the orange and blue back into the field of 68 this March. Through four games, the NCAA Tournament seems like a reasonable goal for this group. Here is a look at next year's depth chart, with only Ekey and Bertrand gone.
PG: Tracy Abrams (SR), Ahmad Starks (SR), Jaylon Tate (SO)
SG: Aaron Cosby (JR), Kendrick Nunn (SO), Mike LaTulip (JR)
SF: Rayvonte Rice (SR), Malcolm Hill (SO)
PF: Leron Black (FR), Darius Paul (SO), Michael Finke (FR)
C: Nnanna Egwu (SR), Austin Colbert (SO), Maverick Morgan (SO)
The Illini should be deep at guard, as Snider would have had minutes to fight for at point guard and likely would have been low on the depth chart there. Alexander would have filled a need in the frontcourt, though Black is capable of playing either forward position and could slide in as an immediate starter.
Though a natural power forward, Colbert could serves as Egwu's backup if Groce employs small lineups with Black or Hill at power forward. Brandon Paul's younger brother Darius should also fight for the starting power forward spot and brings a different game than his older brother did while in Champaign.
Illinois is noticeably deep at point guard, likely giving Abrams opportunities to play off the ball when either Starks or Tate is handling the rock. This team will be the deepest Illinois has had in quite some time, speculating LaTulip, Finke and Morgan/Colbert be the only non-regulars on the 14-man roster.
Not only should the 2014-15 team be Groce's best one yet, but he has already recruited for the future. Groce was able to land his third Simeon player since arriving here, landing class of 2015 small forward D.J. Williams. Groce is also trying to land Williams' friend, five-star shooting guard Charles Matthews.
With the loss of Snider, Illinois will be in hot pursuit of landing a 2015 point guard. Stevenson star Jalen Brunson seems like an obvious candidate to me, having seen Brunson play firsthand during last year's supersectional win over Rockford Boylan. His father, Rick, played at Temple and in the NBA.
This just leaves Groce needing a big man to fill the shoes of Egwu upon his graduation. Groce could go for a home run with players like Diamond Stone and Carlton Bragg or grab a local product up front. Regardless of how Friday turned out, I trust Groce to get Illinois back into the national landscape soon.
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