Illinois Basketball: 5 Adjustments Illini Should Make in 2013-14
Illinois has gotten off to a 5-0 start during the 2013-14 season, with victories over Alabama State, Jacksonville State, Valparaiso, Bradley and Chicago State. While those aren't the most demanding opponents, John Groce's team has looked impressive in there hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament.
This season should technically be a rebuilding one for the Fighting Illini, as three starters graduated and an additional four players transferred out of the program at the end of last season. Only three scholarship players from the 2012-13 squad returned, though promising newcomers have eased those losses.
The schedule will get tougher for the Illini as they travel out to Las Vegas to face UNLV on Tuesday night. Power conference schools Georgia Tech, Auburn, Oregon and Missouri all remain on their nonconference slate as well, giving U of I plenty of opportunities to pick up wins before the gauntlet of the Big Ten.
Get Freshmen Involved
Illinois only has 10 active scholarship players that can suit up, five of whom are freshmen. Despite a starting lineup of only juniors and seniors, the backup at each position happens to be one of these five freshmen. Early in the year, there is a noticeable drop off between the starters and reserves.
Despite being the lowest-rated player of the freshman class, Jaylon Tate is receiving the most playing time at 19.6 minutes per game. Tate is averaging a team high 3.6 assists, while only committing 0.8 turnovers. He is also adding 4.4 points per night and allowing Tracy Abrams to play off the ball when they play together.
Malcolm Hill is the only other freshman reserve to receive double-digit playing time, at 14.0 minutes per game. Hill is contributing 4.8 points and 3.6 rebounds per game, though he has struggled shooting the ball at a 22.2 percent clip. Hill is able to play small forward or the stretch four role when Jon Ekey is benched.
Kendrick Nunn, Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan round out the freshmen class. Nunn is a streaky guard, though he has looked more under control in recent games. Colbert and Morgan are projects up front, combining for only 17 minutes between them. They'll need to step up when Nnanna Egwu is in foul trouble.
Better Three-Point Shooting
As a team, Illinois is connecting on only 33.3 percent of their looks from behind the arc.
Walk-on Mike LaTulip is a deadly three-point weapon, though he has only played 5.6 minutes per game to this point.
Malcolm Hill, proclaimed as a pure scorer, has yet to make a single three-point field goal.
Nunn is not afraid to launch the triple as an instant offense-type player, though his shot selection could land him on the bench for extended periods. His teammate at Simeon, Tate, came to Illinois touted as an above-average outside shooter, though he has yet to knock down a triple either.
Joseph Bertrand is more of a mid-range shooter than three-point guy, though he is able to step out behind the arc when needed.
Tracy Abrams and Rayvonte Rice are shooting 23 and 24 percent from long range, respectively, which are incredibly low numbers for the team's starting point and shooting guards.
This leaves Jon Ekey as the team's best perimeter shooting, as evidenced by his 48.1 percent success rate from behind the arc. Ekey, a fifth-year transfer from Illinois State, made 41 percent of his three-point attempts as a sophomore at ISU. Ekey is a better shooting and more athletic version of Tyler Griffey.
Establish a Low-Post Presence
Despite not being a particularly good shooting team, Illinois has relied on the long ball—maybe too much.
In 2012-13, Illinois lived and died by the three, with seniors Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson and Tyler Griffey unafraid to launch from anywhere on the court.
What the Illini lacked was a low-post presence on the offensive end, leaving them to settle for too many jump shots. Despite very different personnel from last year's team, Nnanna Egwu will once again be the team's top option to score from the low block.
Egwu has worked on his body and put on plenty of muscle since arriving in Champaign two years ago, though he still prefers to play as a face-up shooter at the center position. Egwu must realize his 6'11", 250-pound frame and use it to his advantage.
Maverick Morgan's and Austin Colbert's offensive skill sets as true freshmen need improvement. When they're in the paint, their teammates do not trust to throw them the ball to get a hoop. Colbert's offensive game consists of dunks, while Morgan has only scored five points in five games.
Figure out Situational Lineups
With a starting five of Abrams, Rice, Bertrand, Ekey and Egwu, Illinois actually has a decently sized lineup, with those five players standing 6'2", 6'4", 6'6", 6'7" and 6'11", respectively. Abrams, Rice and Egwu will all be back in 2014-15, while this is Ekey's and Bertrand's last go around as collegiate players.
Abrams started midway through his freshman season, when he was the team MVP.
Egwu started as a sophomore, while playing behind NBA lottery pick Meyers Leonard as a freshman.
Fellow junior, Rice, redshirted a year ago after transferring from Drake, building a rock-solid frame during that time.
The two seniors, Bertrand and Ekey, are both fifth-year seniors, as they redshirted as true freshmen.
This leaves Coach Groce with a very experienced starting lineup, but the inexperienced bench leaves question marks. Though raw, Colbert and Morgan will need to provide rebounding, defense and fouls in B1G play.
Illinois is likely to play smaller lineups, with Tate and Hill as the two key reserves to this point. As previously mentioned, Tate and Abrams allow Groce to have two floor generals on the court at once, as Tate is a more natural point guard to Abrams' scoring-guard role.
Hill has also put on muscle since arriving to Champaign and will need to play more power forward than expected. Bertrand also played the 4-position as a redshirt sophomore under Bruce Weber. Illinois will be looking to push the ball up the court, needing quick lineups with good shooters to overachieve again.
Set the Foundation for a Promising Future Under Coach Groce
As mentioned in the opening slide, this season should be a rebuilding one, based on what this squad lost to graduation and players transferring out. Sure there are five transfers on the current roster, but three must sit this season, which is the main reason for the team's lack of depth.
Darius Paul, Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks are those three transfers, all of whom should be called upon to start and/or play significant minutes a year from now.
All that being said, Illinois shouldn't take much of a step back this year. In fact, there's a good chance they match the success they found a year ago.
Although the 2014 recruiting class didn't go exactly how Groce and company imagined, they still picked up a 4-star forward in Leron Black and local sharpshooter Michael Finke. Groce has also landed Simeon wing D.J. Williams from the 2015 recruiting class and is in active pursuit of local prep stars.
There is no doubt that Groce has this program on the rise. Illinois was once again picked in the bottom-half of the deep Big Ten, though a seventh- or eighth-place finish could still land the team in this year's March Madness. Big Ten titles, Sweet Sixteens and Final Fours are not far away for the Illini program.