Illinois Basketball: Getting to Know Fighting Illini's Stud Transfers
The 2013-14 Fighting Illini featured only three returning players from John Groce's first Illini squad, those being Joseph Bertrand, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu. Last year's team included two eligible transfers, five true freshmen and three transfers who had to sit due to NCAA regulations.
After falling only a win or two short of the NCAA Tournament this past season, expectations for the Illini program are on the rise. Not only will the 2014-15 bunch return five starters, they also add two freshmen as discussed in this article.
On top of that, Ahmad Starks, Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul are eligible to suit up and take the court, after having to watch from the sidelines a year ago. Each of these players were double-digit scorers at their previous school and will be instant impacts to the program.
Starks adds another veteran presence to the Illini roster, having sat out the 2013-14 season after the NCAA denied his medical hardship waiver to be closer to his ailing grandmother. Starks, a 5'9" point guard from Whitney Young in Chicago, transferred to U of I after three seasons at Oregon State.
There, Starks averaged 12.1 points, 2.7 assists, 2.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals, while shooting 88 percent from the free throw line in 31.1 minutes of action as a sophomore, before slight dips in those numbers as a junior. He did, however, connect on 39.5 percent of his three-point attempts during his last season as a Beaver.
The addition of Starks moves soon-to-be sophomore Jaylon Tate to the third slot on the depth chart at point guard. Starks will compete with the inconsistent Tracy Abrams for the starting point guard slot. Like Starks, Abrams is a senior who has started since midway through his freshman season.
Though I expect Abrams to win the starting job, there will be games where Starks plays just as many minutes, as well as separate instances where the two point guards are on the floor at the same time.
After reaching the midway point in his collegiate career, Cosby decided to leave Seton Hall in favor of Illinois. During his sophomore season in a Pirate uniform, the 6'3" Cosby averaged 12.6 points, 3.0 assists and 2.5 rebounds on 40 percent shooting from deep, while notching 31.2 minutes of playing time per night.
Cosby is a big-time scorer at the shooting guard position, where he will compete with Kendrick Nunn, who finished last season by being named part of the Big Ten's All-Freshman Team. Cosby chose the Fighting Illini over fellow transfer gold mine Missouri. Those two squads will match up this December in their annual rivalry game.
Though Cosby has more NCAA experience than Nunn, I cannot see Nunn being relegated to the bench after being arguably Illinois' best player the second half of the season, before struggling in the Big Ten Tournament and NIT to close out his freshman campaign.
Cosby is versatile in that he can play either of the other two backcourt positions. With so many talented guards, I anticipate this team going small on occasion next year. All in all, Cosby is a welcomed and needed scorer for the orange and blue.
Though Paul's career as a Western Michigan Bronco was brief, it was certainly noteworthy. Paul won the MAC Freshman of the Year award in 2012-13, after averaging 10.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 24.8 minutes of playing time.
Paul's older brother, Brandon, graduated from Illinois following that same season. Groce quickly reloaded with another member of the Paul family by adding Darius, though Brandon's shoes will be hard to fill. As a junior, BP3 scored 43 points in an upset win over Ohio State and later scored 35 points as a senior at Gonzaga.
Darius' game is different from Brandon's, as he stands 6'8" and will see minutes at both the power forward and center positions. My early indication is that Malcolm Hill will retain the starting power forward slot, with freshman Leron Black as his backup and Paul as Nnanna Egwu's backup at center. Hill, Black and Paul would all be deserving of starting at PF, so that battle is certainly one worth keeping an eye on.
Illini fans will be fortunate enough to see three more seasons of a Paul playing at the State Farm Center.