Illinois Basketball: Strengths and Weaknesses of 2014-15 Fighting Illini Roster
The 2013-14 Illinois Fighting Illini squad posted a 20-15 record, including a 7-11 mark in Big Ten play. John Groce's bunch had their highs and lows, but the season ultimately ended with a 50-49 loss at Clemson in the second round of the NIT.
Last season was considered a rebuilding year by many accounts, yet the Orange and Blue only fell short of the NCAA tournament by a win or two. The team only had 10 active scholarship players, seven of whom wore the Illinois jersey for the first time.
The 2014-15 Illini should enter this coming season with higher expectations, as they return five starters, add three stud transfers and bring in two recruits. Look for Illinois to be an under-the-radar sleeper, with the potential to finish in the top four of the B1G.
Last season, only six Illini players averaged over 14.1 minutes per contest. In 2014-15, expect that figure to be nine. Even Malcolm Hill, who started the second half of the season, averaged 14.1 minutes as a true freshman, as redshirt senior Jon Ekey saw the lion's share of the minutes down the stretch.
By season's end, Groce went with a starting lineup that consisted of three juniors and two freshmen. Even in the event that Nnanna Egwu, Hill, Rayvonte Rice, Kendrick Nunn and Tracy Abrams maintain their starter status, look for the bench to be used earlier and more often.
Ahmad Starks will be in direct competition with Abrams at point guard, while Aaron Cosby will provide a deep shooting threat that Illinois lacked last season. Leron Black and Darius Paul are expected to surpass Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan as the team's backup big men. Expect Jaylon Tate to play less than his 12.1-minute average as a frosh and for Michael Finke to take a redshirt season, as there simply aren't enough minutes to go around.
Weakness: Interior Play
After losing six frontcourt players from the 2012-13 Fighting Illini, Groce's first season as head coach, Nnanna Egwu was instantly a focal point as a junior. Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin had graduated, while Myke Henry, Mike Shaw, Ibby Djimde and Devin Langford all transferred from the program.
This left Egwu, Illinois State transfer Jon Ekey and a trio of freshmen in Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert as players who stood 6'6" or taller on last year's roster. Egwu is always a defensive force, but he lacked toughness in the paint at times and couldn't be counted on to score.
The slender 6'6" Hill was forced to play out of position at power forward, but he grew up quickly. Hill has since bulked up and gained muscle and has the sweet stroke that makes him an ideal stretch 4. Morgan showed a soft touch around the hoop, while Colbert was the lone scholarship player to miss games because of a coach's decision.
Darius Paul, a Western Michigan transfer and brother of former Illini Brandon Paul, could see time at both frontcourt positions. However, Paul was recently suspended indefinitely following an on-campus arrest. Freshman Leron Black, a McDonald's All-American snub, should add toughness at the power forward position that Illinois has lacked since Roger Powell Jr.
While Illinois' guards are more of a strength than their bigs, it should be an improved unit from a year ago. Look for Paul to back up Egwu upon his return to the team and for Hill and Black to see similar minutes at the 4 spot.
Strength: Guard Play
Illinois returns their starting backcourt, while also adding two upperclassmen who averaged double-figure scoring at their previous schools. No one's spot in the rotation is safe with this sudden depth at the guard positions.
The oft-criticized Tracy Abrams had an up-and-down junior season. Abrams carried Illinois to victories over Missouri and Indiana but was nowhere to be seen in other contests. Still, Abrams finished second on the team in scoring and will not easily relinquish the starting point guard spot that he has held since midway through his freshman season.
Kendrick Nunn, a Big Ten All-Freshman honoree, went from defensive stopper to big-time scorer in a matter of weeks as a freshman. After replacing Joseph Bertrand in the starting lineup, Nunn carried Illinois to road victories at Penn State and Minnesota. This hard-nosed lefty has a bright future ahead of him and is a true two-way player.
Rayvonte Rice was Illinois' best player last season. The Champaign native lost weight during his redshirt season but is built like a brick wall. Rice is a tough slasher who finished one rebound behind Egwu for the team lead, despite standing only 6'4".
Starks, who transferred from Oregon State, is quicker and a more capable shooter than Abrams. Cosby is a pure scorer who had two impressive seasons shooting the rock at Seton Hall. Look for Groce to almost exclusively play three-guard lineups, with Rice holding down the small forward spot.
Weakness: Postseason Experience
Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu played in two NCAA tournament games as sophomores. First, Illinois overcame a horrific scoring drought in their opening-round win over Colorado in the 2013 NCAA tournament, escaping with a win over the Pac-12's Buffaloes.
The Illini then faced off with the second-seeded Miami Hurricanes and ACC Player of the Year Shane Larkin. Larkin's step-back three-pointer, coupled with a late blown call, sent the Illini packing in the round of 32, thus ending the careers of Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey.
Abrams and Egwu are the only holdovers from that squad, other than walk-on Mike LaTulip. As Illinois just missed making the field of 68 this past March, none of the other 11 players have any NCAA tournament experience. Sure, the five sophomores gained experience by playing in two NIT games, but lack of big-game experience will be something to keep an eye on with this squad.