Illinois Basketball: Why the Future Looks Bright Despite Current Struggles

Todd ThorstensonAnalyst IFebruary 24, 2014

Feb 9, 2014; University Park, PA, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Kendrick Nunn (25) guards Penn State Nittany Lions guard Tim Frazier (23) during the second half at Bryce Jordan Center. Illinois defeated Penn State 60-55. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

It's been a tough year for fans of Illinois Fighting Illini basketball as they have watched their team plummet to the bottom of the Big Ten standings after a promising start.

With only one returning senior, five freshmen and two transfers on the roster, not much was expected out of the Illini this year. However, after a start that saw them go 11-2 in non-conference and 2-0 in the Big Ten, it appeared that maybe this team could prove everyone wrong.

People were starting to believe that despite the lack of superior talent and depth, they could grind out wins purely on heart and desire.

Instead the team proceeded to lose 10 of their next 12 games, which includes an eight game losing streak, the longest in 40 years for the Illinois program.

Now the hot start seems like a distant memory and the idea of reaching the NCAA tournament seems like a cruel joke.

And it hasn't just been the losing that's frustrating to fans, but how they're losingthey simply can't score.

It's been downright painful to watch as the team goes long stretches without scoring and no matter how well they play defensively, they just can't seem to score enough. 

The Illini are currently 11th in the Big Ten in scoring (65.7), field goal percentage (.407) and three-point percentage (.316), ahead of only Northwestern in all three categories.

Conversely, they have been pretty strong defensively allowing only 63 points per game, which is second in the league behind only Ohio State.

The problem is that they just don't have enough guys that can put the ball in the hoop. Unfortunately, that's a fairly important part of the game of basketball.

Illinois does have one of the top scorers (16.2) in the conference in Rayvonte Rice, but even he has slowed down after a hot start and hasn't gotten any consistent help all season long. At times, Rice has even seemed to be trying to do too much offensively to carry the team, which has actually led to an already stagnant offense becoming more stagnant.

Bottom line—there just haven't been enough guys doing their part to carry the load offensively.

Seniors Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey have been disappointing as they struggle with consistency throughout the season along with juniors Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu. These were the guys that were expected to carry this otherwise young Illinois team, but it just hasn't happened.

Typically a team will only go as far as their upperclassmen take them and in the case of Illinois it appears that won't be very far.

Now, some good news.

Amid all of the losing, a few of the freshmen have begun to develop and look like they may be solid contributors over the next few years.

Kendrick Nunn seems to be making the biggest strides as he has recently entered the starting lineup. Since becoming a starter, Nunn is averaging 13 points per game and his confidence seems to be growing. In the recent victory over Minnesota, Nunn knocked down five of seven three-point attempts and played his usual tough defense. It appears that he is quickly becoming the second scoring option that the Illini have been searching for all season.

Malcolm Hill is another freshman who has recently been inserted in the starting lineup and has also shown flashes of big-time potential. He still needs to improve defensively, but has begun to look more comfortable on the offensive end.

The play of Nunn and Hill along with the potential of big man Maverick Morgan should give the Illini faithful hope for the future. Rice, Abrams and Egwu will return as seniors next season and there is more help on the way. Transfers Ahmad Starks, Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul will be eligible next season and they will add both talent and depth. Lastly, the Illini will add a two-man recruiting class for 2014-15 that includes Leron Black and Michael Finke. Black is a big talent who could possibly crack the starting lineup as a freshman and should bring some toughness in the paint to an Illinois team that could use it.

For those that don't know much about Black, you will soon.

And though the 2015 recruiting class is not complete, John Groce is off to a good start landing two Top-100 players, both from the state of Illinois, in DJ Williams (Simeon HS) and Aaron Jordan (Plainfield East HS). So the once bare cupboard is beginning to fill up for Groce and the Illini.

But first, this year's team will try to finish up the current season on a positive note and that task certainly won't be easy.

They will face a recently surging Nebraska team on Wednesday and then finish the season with a brutal three-game stretch against the top three teams in the conference. They will play Michigan State on the road, come home to take on Michigan and then finish up at Iowa.

After that it's on to the Big Ten tournament where the Illini will try to make some noise as a heavy underdog, a position they are not really familiar with when it comes to the Big Ten tournament. In the 16-year history of the tournament, the Illini have only been seeded lower than fifth five times, which includes 1999 when they finished dead last.

That season, the 11th-seeded Illini won three games to reach the tournament final where they eventually lost to Michigan State, but it was a heck of a run from a team that had only won a total of three conference games all season.

If this season were to end right now, the Illini would again be an 11-seed and would have to win four games to reach the NCAA tournament. It can happen, but there's not much to indicate that this team is capable of winning four games in four days against Big Ten competition.

So it would seem likely that this team is on its way to the very prestigious NIT tournament (maybe), which isn't really something that any Illini fan cares about. The only thing that is important to Illini fans is that their team becomes relevant again, not only in the Big Ten, but nationally. They long for the days when reaching the NCAA tournament was an automatic and the only question was what seed the team would get.

The hope (and there is reason for hope) is that this season is just a bump in the road for a program that is seemingly on the rise and should be on their way to the point where making the NCAA tournament is a given and competing for a Big Ten championship is once again a legitimate goal.

See the light Illini fans, see the light.