This year’s Illini may be great, for the same reasons they may not

Tracy Abrams, this year's Illini leader.

Tracy Abrams, this year’s Illini leader.

We’re now in the second year of the Groce era, but the 2013-2014 basketball team is still a questions mark. While Illini fans have placed their trust in Groce, it’s hard to relax knowing 10 of the guys on the 14-player roster will be new.

We’re looking at three (or two) transfers who will sit out (Darius Paul, Aaron Crosby, and Ahmad Starks – who may be able to play immediately if he earns a hardship waiver), an activated transfer who sat out last year (Rayvonte Rice), a transfer grad student (Jon Ekey) and 5 freshman (Jaylon Tate, Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, Kendrick Nunn, and Austin Colbert).

No one is sure what to expect, and the mystery lies in the fact that the reasons the Illini could have a breakout year are the same reasons that they could face a dismal season and miss the Tourney.

Down side: Paul and Richardson are gone
Last year’s leading scorers Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson have graduated. Paul averaged a team-high 16.6 points, while Richardson was second with 12.3. Paul was also second in rebounds (157) and assists (98). Richardson had the most 3’s of the year with 83, and Paul was close behind with 78. We’re going to miss their offense, as well as their experience. The duo wore orange and blue for four years, and playing in the Assembly Hall became second nature.

Up side: Paul and Richardson are gone
This isn’t the Assembly Hall anymore (say hello to the State Farm Center!), and every time a class graduates we get that much closer to dusting off the remains of the (second part of the) Bruce Weber era.  BW led us to the championship game in 2005, but that was a long time ago. By his last season things were ugly. Most of his final freshman class transferred, so after this year’s juniors graduate there won’t be a kid on the squad who played under Weber.nnanna_michigan

On their own admission, neither Richardson nor Paul really wanted to take on the roll of a leader. Paul was pretty adamantly against it, and tried to just lead by example. Richardson was a better candidate, but he often struggled with his own insecurities and shooting droughts, making it difficult to pull the team together. On that note, both had very unpredictable performances. Groce managed to reign Paul in a little, but he still led the team in TOs with 96 last year.

Down side: Abrams, Egwu, Bertrand and LaTulip are the only returning players
Only 4 out of 14 players on the roster have played for the Illini in actual games: Senior Joseph Bertrand, juniors Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu, and sophomore Mike LaTulip. And, LaTulip, played in just 16 games and averaged 2.4 minutes, so it doesn’t really count. Though at times Bertrand was a key component of the team, he had that Weber-esque habit of getting stuck in a slump.

Up side: Abrams, Egwu, Bertrand and LaTulip are returning
Abrams and Egwu showed a lot of growth between their freshmen and sophomore years, and if that continues, then they could both have really great seasons. Both of them served as starters for most games, and Egwu led the team in rebounds (175) while Abrams led in assists (121). They both bought into the Groce style of play, and they are the perfect candidates to lead the team. Abrams was essentially leading as a freshman, and now with no one above him, he can run the show. Egwu showed even more improvement than Abrams, and if he continues on that path he could prove to be something special.

Bertrand did some starting, but often came off the bench to give the team a boost. When he is playing to the best of his abilities, he is a beast. Groce did great work getting Paul under control, and if he can do the same with Bertrand then I’m guessing he’ll have a steady spot on the starting roster. If that’s the case, then three out of the five starters will be returning players. As a redshirt senior, Bertrand has been around Champaign a long time, and he can help the others adjust.

Down side: There are going to be 5 freshmen
Nobody worries when Kentucky has five freshmen on their starting roster; but we’re not Kentucky. Some our froshes were stars in high school (Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate) but the Big Ten is different. And the transition from high school to college is a tough one. Some of the guys may not adjust well (see most of the freshman class of 2011-2012). Freshman are young, stupid and expect them to make mistakes. When nearly half your team is made up of freshmen, it’s a scary prospect.

This is the Bertrand I want to see!

This is the Bertrand I want to see!

Up side: There are going to be 5 freshmen
We’ve got the #17 recruiting class in the country people! Five brand-new, bright eyed and bushy tailed freshmen will have stars in their eyes and Coach Groce there to guide them. This class is all Groce’s doing, and so now we can see what happens when he gets to pick his own recruits. Nunn is a four-star recruit ranked at #2 in the state, and the #14 shooting guard in the nation. Hill is ranked #4 in the state, and the 4-star recruit is the #16 shooting guard. The only guy from out of state, Colbert is a 4-star power forward ranked #4 out of New Jersey. Round it out with Morgan and Tate who both have 3-stars and you’re looking at a pretty awesome class.

Down side: Lots of transfers
A whole bunch of people will be joining the Illini from other teams. This has been a pattern lately with Sam McLaurin last year and Sam Maniscalco the year before that, and while Sam #2 was better than Sam #1, neither really did much to write home about. Ekey put in 3 years of eligibility with Illinois State, while Rice sat out last year after transferring from Drake. That’s two new guys in the mix with those five new freshmen. Lots of new guys learning a new system could equal a hot mess.

Up side: Lots of transfers
All I hear about Rice is that he is the most improved player out there, and he hasn’t even played yet! He is apparently kicking butt and everyone is pumped to get him suited up. And since he’s wearing my number (24) I’m pretty pumped as well. As for Ekey, perhaps the third time is a charm in those grad students? Also, Paul, Crosby and (maybe) Starks will be on the bench, but that means more experienced guys for the freshmen to face in practice.

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