2014-2015 ITH season preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

  • 09/26/2014 8:45 am in

With the start of college basketball season on the horizon, we’ll be taking a long look at the conference at large as well as Indiana’s roster over the next month. Today, we continue our look at the Big Ten with the Illinois Fighting Illini.

As John Groce enters year three in Champaign, an intriguing mix of talent allows for some cautious optimism about a return trip to the Big Dance.

After losing seniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson off his first-year squad that advanced to the round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament, the Illini suffered through an eight-game losing streak during conference play last season. But it rebounded to finish out the season a respectable 6-6 — a record that included an opening round victory against Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament and one against Boston University in the NIT.

And while the team took a hit earlier this month when senior point guard Tracey Abrams suffered a season-ending injury (torn right ACL), there are a pair of transfers available to pick up the slack.

With Abrams out at point, Oregon transfer Ahmad Starks — who averaged 10.4 points per game in 2012-2013 — could step up and take the starter’s role. Aaron Cosby, a transfer from Seton Hall, will also be eligible to play this season and has the ability to give minutes at the point guard position as well.

The duo will be joined in the backcourt by Simeon product Kendrick Nunn. Nunn emerged towards the end of his freshman campaign, as Groce gave him more minutes during the team’s final 12 games. Nunn finished the year as the team’s second-most efficient scorer (54.1 eFG) and scored in double-digits seven of the team’s last 12 games after failing to do so once before the final stretch.

Wing Rayvonte Rice, who sat out Groce’s first year as a Drake transfer, was the team’s top scorer as a redshirt junior a season ago (15.9 points) and also led the team in minutes played (32.7). Rice could stand some shooting and efficiency improvement (48.0 eFG percentage /29.5 percent from 3-point range), but figures to be the team’s top returning offensive threat along with Nunn.

Senior Nnanna Egwu anchors the center position. While his offensive game still lacks, Egwu’s length, size and instincts on defense made him one of the best shotblockers in the league as a junior (8.31 block percentage, 7th). Sophomore Maverick Morgan (58.3 eFG percentage) will spell Egwu.

Sophomore Malcolm Hill could find himself in the starting lineup after starting 12 games as a freshman, but talented newcomer Leron Black — a one-time Indiana target and the No. 43 recruit in the country according to the 24/7 Composite — will challenge.

Bottom Line: While Groce missed out on elite prospects like Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander in the class of 2014 that could have put the Illini more firmly in the mix for the tournament, a wide-open Big Ten after Wisconsin should give the team plenty of opportunity to stack wins. If Black is able to make an immediate impact, he, along with potential starters Nunn, Rice, Starks and Egwu will make a strong five-man unit.

Quotable: “Along with Simeon swingman D.J. Williams and Plainfield East shooting guard Aaron Jordan, Jalen Coleman-Lands — considered one of the best three-point threats in the country — gives the Illini a 2015 class that’s already a near-lock for a top-10 ranking. Point guard Jawun Evans and power forward Elijah Thomas, elite players from Texas, both continue to have Illinois high on their lists. The potential is there for Groce to corral what would instantly be considered the No. 1 class in program history.” — Steven Greenburg of the Chicago Sun-Times on the recent commitment of Jalen Coleman-Lands

Previously: Rutgers, Penn State, Northwestern, Purdue, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota

Filed to:

  • VAHoosier

    Illinois will be a tough team, but not very deep, which was exacerbated by Abrams going down. They’re going to have 6 or 7 guys getting a whole lot of minutes.

  • CreamandCrimson

    I really like what Egwu brings as a center. He generally knows his role, rebounds pretty well and defends pretty well. If Hanner Perea could be 90% of Egwu, I’d be thriled and I think we’d be set for a really good season. That’s a big “if” though because while it sounds simple to “just rebound, play defense and get a few put back dunks”, it’s not an easy task to do it consistently.

    Anyway, losing Abrams is a blow. I thought he was a steadying force for them and if I remember correctly, he was a pretty tough perimeter defender. If Ahmad Starks ends up being an adequate replacement for Abrams, Rice improves his efficiency, Nunn makes “the jump” in his play from his freshmen to sophomore season and Leron Black plays up to his recruiting hype…they are probably a top 5 B1G team and finish better than us (as most publications are picking). I think that’s a lot of “ifs” though and I think we’re better than the Illini.

  • Alford Bailey

    We have been better than the Illini the last couple of seasons. Sadly that hasn’t kept them from beating our butts.

  • Alford Bailey


  • TomJameson

    Ouch, good point.

  • Alford Bailey

    No really, I must say I expected big things outta Groce when he got the Illinois job and unfortunately he is about 1 legit big man away from having the Illini back on top.

  • CreamandCrimson

    I think Groce is doing a good job and I don’t entirely disagree with what you are saying but IU fans could say the same thing….I think many of us feel we are “one legit big man” from being back on top of the B1G. Illinois is in good shape for the future, no question about that but I think they need to finish in the top half of the conference (or even finish above .500 in the league) before I worry about them being at the top of the league.

  • Alford Bailey

    Did you see what they have coming in 2015? Add Thomas to that list and I’m scared. They should be as good as anybody next year. My thing is we couldn’t beat them the last couple years when we shoulda whats gonna happen when Groce has some real talent on the roster?

  • Alford Bailey

    I’m not in the “we need a legit big man” camp. We have had that the last couple of years and didn’t really go anywhere. I’m excited to see what we can do with elite guard play. Other than Yogi we haven’t had really good guards in the CTC era til now.

  • CreamandCrimson

    You’re asking if I read about their recruiting…yes, I did. In 2012-2013, we beat them 80-64 in the B1G Tournament. Last year, we lost in OT in Champaign, beat them 56-46 (in a game that was brutal to watch) and then lost in the B1G Tournament. So, that’s 2-3. Worse than we should have done but I don’t agree with saying “we couldn’t beat them the last couple years”. It’s entirely possible that they are the best team in the conference in 2015-2016, no question about that. However, they are losing Rice and Egwu after this season and we know that hyped recruiting classes can underwhelm. Anyway, that’s a long way from now and I’m not denigrating Groce or his program, I just don’t think they’ve done all that much yet to strike fear into the hearts of the rest of the conference. They’ll be an interesting program to keep an eye on, no question about that.

  • HoosierGrampy

    Watched a little of Leron Black in the Derby Festival and Max took him to school a couple times on baseline drives. Not saying he cannot play solid “D”, but he’s got lots to learn before he becomes a contributor at that end of the court. Good young man who would have looked better in stripes.

  • HoosierGrampy

    Players named: Benson, Bouchie, Tolbert, Turner, Kitchel, Anderson, Garrett, Thomas, Henderson, Haston, Jefferies, White, Zeller & Vonleh have put & kept me in the “We need a legit big man camp” through the years.. Granted, the focus of today’s game centers on guard play and ballers who can knock down the “3” w/consistency–in part because there are very few legit big men in the mix today. That doesn’t mean that the focus couldn’t or wouldn’t return to the big man if there were more bigs available or willing to do the work in the paint & on the glass. I look forward to seeing how (and with whom) CTC plans to: defend the area from the rim out to 8-10 ft; lessen the number of turnovers; and, use the skills which these elite guards (who do bring a lot to the table) possess to our advantage.

  • mdtreat

    Is Victor Oladipo not a guard or not elite? I guessed I missed the memo on that either way…

  • Zach

    Just seeing Groce’s face makes me mad. That being said, I think the Illini have a solid squad this year and much like us, if all goes well they could be in the top 5 of the B1G

  • calbert40

    If there is one team outside the “favorites” that I believe will be a total handful this year, it is Illinois. They don’t have much depth, but their first 6-7 players are really solid. I don’t think many teams will win in Champagne this year. The question for the Illini is can they win with any consistency on the road. No real stars, but a good amount of quality players.

  • SCHoosier

    Groce is a good coach and will get it done at ILL (that is if his head doesn’t blow off first) Needs to calm down a little on the sidelines.

  • Alford Bailey

    Lol, yea total brain fart on my part.

  • CreanFaithful

    Mo Creek – tough break, but came in elite.