2015-2016 ITH Season Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

  • 09/22/2015 8:21 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.

The Hoosiers weren’t the only Big Ten team dealing with off-court issues this summer.

During the Illini’s foreign trip to Belgium, the Netherlands and France in August, Darius Paul was arrested for vandalism, public intoxication and resisting arrest in France. Head coach John Groce, after already suspending Paul for all of the 2014-2015 season for disciplinary reasons, had enough. He dismissed Paul from the team a week later.

Aaron Cosby also decided to leave the program after Groce suspended him near the end of last season.

Previously: POTB 086: Shannon Ryan on a tumultuous offseason for Illinois

Couple Paul’s dismissal and Cosby’s departure with the torn Achilles tendon point guard Tracy Abrams suffered in July which will keep him out all season, and the Illini are down a few bodies heading into the 2015-2016 campaign.

Gone too are seniors Rayvonte Rice, Ahmed Starks and Nnanna Egwu from a squad that finished 19-14 last season and lost in the first round of the NIT to Alabama. The trio accounted for 60 percent of the team’s possessions used last year.

Still, Illinois likely has enough talent on its roster to stay out of the basement of the league and compete in the middle of the pack. Malcolm Hill is back for his junior season as the team’s best returning 3-point shooter (38.9 percent) and top scorer (14.4 ppg). He figures to remain a focal point on offense.

Simeon product and fellow junior Kendrick Nunn returns as the team’s second-leading scorer (11.1 ppg). With Abrams out for the year, junior Jaylon Tate is in line to get the starting job at point guard. He sported the team’s best assist rate (25.7) and free throw percentage (84.3) among regulars. Sophomore Leron Black, a one time Indiana recruiting target, has the opportunity for more of a featured role after a freshman campaign where he averaged five points a contest.

The Illini also hit the grad transfer market and landed 6-foot-11 Mike Thorne from Charlotte. He averaged 10.1 points and 7.3 rebounds last season for the 49ers and should be an upgrade offensively in the post from Egwu. Thorne’s size is a major boost given how improved the league should be in the post this season with several freshmen McDonald’s All-American arriving.

Groce also welcomes a pretty solid recruiting trio to campus to help replace the departed. A pair of 247 Composite Top 100 players in shooting guard and Indiana native Jalen Coleman-Lands (No. 37) and small forward D.J. Williams (No. 78) join the team as does guard Aaron Jordan from Plainfield East.

Junior Maverick Morgan will provide depth up front.

Bottom Line: After a trip to the third round of the NCAA Tournament in his first season in Champaign, Groce’s last two years have seen consecutive trips to the NIT and some turmoil within the program. If the team is to return to the Tournament in Groce’s fourth season, he’ll need to find and grow the right mix of returnees and newcomers to replace the production of Rice, Starks, Egwu and Cosby.

Quotable: “It was really fun. We had a lot of really great tour guides …  It was fun playing the basketball games … It was really great for the team. We got to do a lot of team bonding. Playing against professional teams, it was different for us. So I think we got a lot out of it. ” –- Hill on the team’s European trip

Previously: Rutgers, Penn State, Northwestern, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa

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  • BillD

    I’m not a fan, but I think it should be

    Fighting Illini
    rather than

    Fighting Illinois

  • twarrior87

    At first I thought it was an article about internal fighting going on at Illinois.

  • N71

    When Illinois hired Groce I was worried but no more, he seems to be having problems. On paper Illinois should be much stronger in basketball and football for that matter but they just aren’t, not sure why. Illinois has 13M residence, the most in the Big Ten I think, yet they’re middle tier year in and year out. Their athletic department should be, in theory, on par with OSU but rarely if never are. Head scratcher.

  • Fixed.

  • Ole Man

    Watch out for Thorne. Had a chance to catch a few of his games down here in NC. He can and will compete in the Big Ten.

  • Donnie Vick

    They’ve won an NCAA championship more recently than IU and OSU.

  • Hardwood83

    That is as it should be. Illinois deserves to be mired in mediocrity and despair. You can’t blame people for being from Illinois, but you can blame them for not being ashamed of it.

  • N71

    Track & Field? OSU had a good year you’d have to admit.

  • GaHoosier

    Which sport? Not BBALL


    They have talent.. Hill and Nunn can score with the best of em… but they actually have to put the pieces together for once and they can finish Top half of the B1G.

  • curtis south

    Ya know i really dislike this from ITH! You guys are tuning this into a political game! I dont care for that at ALL!

  • curtis south

    figures my last post was never posted! GOOD job ITH!

  • Drew

    Uhhh what?

  • calbert40

    Of all the programs in the B1G, I think Illinois would be the worst one to coach (right up there with Iowa). The program has fan expectations, but outside of the once a decade team or two, they rarely have a chance of being a Top 5 team in the B1G. They recruit okay, but not as well as IU, MSU, OSU or even UM most seasons now. Nearly every year it seems that Illinois plays in the 8/9 game in the B1G tourney.

    They might be better this year, and for Groce’s sake, they better be. But I think a 7-10 finish is the most likely outcome for them again this year.

  • calbert40

    Illinois’ last national championship was in 2012 (men’s gymnastics). IU won in men’s soccer in 2013. OSU won football last year.

  • Donnie Vick

    You mean to tell me there are other sports that count other than basketball? This is news to me.

  • Jim

    I hope illinois has groce forever.

  • Bill Graham

    Just not sold on these guys. I’m not overlooking them…but I kind of feel that they will under perform this year.