John Groce's Fighting Illini had a major makeover following last season's round of 32 loss to Miami in the NCAA Tournament. Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin graduated, while an additional four players transferred out of the program.
This year's Illini squad contains five freshmen and five transfer players, though only two are currently eligible to play. This leaves only Joseph Bertrand, Nnanna Egwu, Tracy Abrams and walk-on Mike LaTulip from the 2012-13 team that finished eighth in the Big Ten, sporting an 8-10 league record.
This year's Illini team will need at least eight league wins to get back to the Big Dance after a disappointing loss in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge at Georgia Tech. The team quickly rebounded with a 19-point win over Auburn on Sunday and have tests against Oregon and Missouri upcoming.
Illinois' 2011 recruiting class contained six players: Abrams, Egwu, Myke Henry, Mike Shaw, Devin Langford and Ibby Djimde. Following their sophomore seasons, the latter four decided to leave the program, as they were not receiving the playing time they anticipated coming to U of I.
LaTulip was the lone freshman on last year's roster and Groce brought in five freshmen this season. Of those five, only Malcolm Hill committed to the program when Bruce Weber was head coach. Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate, Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan were all landed under Groce and are part of the team's future plan.
With only 10 scholarship players, everyone is getting playing time this season. Though all five freshmen come off the bench, each has stepped up in their reserve role. Tate has received the most PT, playing 18.1 minutes per contest and averaging a team-high 3.9 assists, while only committing 0.9 turnovers. Nunn, Tate's high school teammate, averages three points in 9.2 minutes, as a 36 percent three-point shooter.
Next comes Hill, who is averaging 3.6 points and 2.9 rebounds in 12.1 minutes. Hill has primarily played the power forward position in a thin Illini frontcourt. Also in that frontcourt are Morgan and Colbert, who combine for 4.3 points and 2.6 rebounds in 16.1 minutes. Each will be called upon when Egwu picks up two quick fouls, a regular occurrence last season.
Last year's Illini squad averaged 34 rebounds per game, while this year's team is currently pulling in 40 boards per night. Though that figure may appear deceiving against inferior competition, it is certainly a good sign of things going forward. Last year's Illini squad was perimeter oriented as well, though they had more experience and depth in the frontcourt.
Still, last year's team pulled in 427 offensive rebounds, while this year's team has already grabbed 124 boards on the offensive side of things. Illinois State transfer Jon Ekey has grabbed a team-high 24 offensive rebounds as a 6'7" stretch four. Guards Rayvonte Rice and Bertrand have also been effective on the offensive glass, grabbing 19 offensive boards apiece, while Egwu has totaled 19 offensive rebounds.
Though a small sample size, freshmen Morgan and Colbert have combined for 12 offensive rebounds, compared to only 10 defensive rebounds. Illinois, who isn't a particularly great shooting team, has given themselves second and even third chances on the offensive end, which has been a difference during their hot start.
Despite overachieving last season, one area that the Illini needed work in was passing the basketball. The team only averaged 10 assists per game and had one of the worst assist-per-basket ratios in the nation. To put that into perspective, the 2008-09 Fighting Illini squad averaged 18 assists led by Demetri McCamey and Chester Fraizer, while the 2004-05 team averaged 19 assists with the deadly trio of Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head.
This year's Illini team may not match the success of 2004-05 squad, or even the 2008-09 team, but they are making a point to share the basketball and not play as much isolation basketball. Through nine games, Groce's Illini are dishing out 13 assists per night. Backup point guard Jaylon Tate has led the way with 3.9 dimes, while starting point guard Tracy Abrams assists on 3.1 baskets each evening.
This year's team has more of an offense by committee than past seasons, where Paul and Richardson were high volume shooters. Rice could also fit into that category, though he is more aggressive attacking the rim and doesn't settle for as many three-pointers or jump shots as Paul or Richardson did. All five starters are capable of knocking down the long ball, however, leading to plenty of penetrate and kick opportunities.
Sam Maniscalco transferred to the Illini from Bradley to play for Illinois in 2011-12. After averaging over 13 points per game at Bradley as a junior, Maniscalco had a rocky redshirt senior season in Champaign. After a hot start, injuries slowed the 6'0" Chicago native, who finished the season averaging 6.1 points on only 37 percent shooting from the field, including 28 percent from deep.
Last season, Groce and company inherited Sam McLaurin, who averaged 10.0 points and 7.5 rebounds as a redshirt junior at Coastal Carolina. In his final collegiate season, McLaurin averaged only 3.8 points and 3.4 rebounds, though he did make crucial hustle plays for the Illini. While both Sam's transferred to play in more competitive conferences, there is a very noticeable decrease in their numbers at Illinois.
This year's Illini team starts two transfers, Jon Ekey (Illinois State) and Rayvonte Rice (Drake), who played against each other and Maniscalco in the Missouri Valley Conference. Both Ekey and Rice are off to their best seasons yet, despite playing against more talent. Rice averages 18.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.3 steals in 31.1 minutes, while Ekey contributes 8.9 points and 6.6 rebounds, while shooting 42 percent from three-point range in 27.0 minutes.
Ekey and Rice's success bodes well for a trio of transfers that are sitting out the 2013-14 season, but will be suiting up for the Fighting Illini next season. Darius Paul (Western Michigan), Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall) and Ahmad Starks (Oregon State) were all double figure scorers at their previous schools and will have a combined six seasons to prove they can play and be effective Big Ten players.
Last year, Illinois got off to a red hot start. They won the Maui Invitational and a road contest at Gonzaga, before being defeated by Missouri as their lone nonconference loss. Halfway through Big Ten play though, Illinois sat with a 2-7 league record and were about to face the top-ranked Indiana Hoosiers at home. The Illini won five straight games, including that buzzer-beating win over IU, helping get themselves back into the Big Dance.
The 2011-12 Fighting Illini got off to a similarly hot start, with a 15-3 record after Brandon Paul's 43-point performance against Ohio State. From there, the Illini lost 12 of their final 14 contests and finished with a 17-15 record, missing any postseason tournament. This also caused Bruce Weber to lose his job and made for an easy decision for Meyers Leonard to enter the NBA Draft.
Under coach Groce, those kind of meltdowns won't occur. Last month, point guard Quentin Snider decommitted from Illinois to play for Louisville. Just hours later, Cliff Alexander infamously snubbed the Illini program by picking Kansas, leaving the Illini faithful in disgust. An 8-1 start to this season and promising signs from younger Illini players has helped ease that pain.
Illinois also faced adversity when Starks' waiver was denied by the NCAA just before the season tipped off. Had Starks been granted eligibility, he would be playing the backup point guard role and receiving plenty of minutes on an inexperienced roster. Now, having Starks in Snider's absence will be a blessing. If Illinois can get back to the NCAA Tournament in this "rebuilding" season, Groce should get strong consideration for Big Ten Coach of the Year.