2013-14 Illinois basketball preview: John Groce's squad needs big boost up front

USA TODAY Sports

If Illinois wants to return to the NCAA Tournament they will need to see massive improvement from an inexperienced and undermanned frontcourt.

John Groce was able to get the Illini back into the NCAA Tournament in 2013 after missing the tourney in Bruce Weber's last season here. Now Groce will look to continue his rebuilding effort in Champaign as he brings an extremely young team with only two eligible seniors on the roster. While youth and inexperience fills quite a bit of the roster, the frontcourt is easily the thinnest spot on the team. While Illinois returns starting center Nnanna Egwu, no one else in the front court has played a minute for Illinois if you don't count wing Joseph Bertrand.

This year's frontcourt will look quite a bit different from last season. The most notable loss would be Tyler Griffey, who started 21 games and averaged 21.8 minutes per game. In his limited minutes Griffey put up 7.2 points per game and was a capable shooter from outside. Also departing are Sam McLaurin and Myke Henry, two forwards that averaged a combined 31.3 minutes per game and provided depth for the Illini last season. Less noticeably would be the losses of forward/center Ibby Djimde, forward Mike Shaw and guard/forward Devin Langford. While none of the three played considerable minutes, they would have at least added some depth to the mix.

Starters

Nnanna Egwu will solidify the Illini at the five once again this season. The junior big man started 35 games last season and led the team in rebounds and blocks. While Egwu was the teams leading rebounder, he posted a surprisingly low 11.2% TRB. He fared a bit better on the defensive boards (13%) but recorded less than 10% of the team's offensive rebounds when he was on the floor. Simply put, that's not going to cut it this season with a thin frontcourt and Egwu will have to improve his rebounding effort considerably or else Illinois will lose on the boards during conference play.

Egwu will also need to improve his offensive efficiency as well. So far heading into the season there seems to be marked improvement but that could very well be the lesser competition guarding him. It's never a pretty sight when a team's center posts a 46% field goal shooting number and Egwu is also a below average free throw shooter at 63.6%. Egwu will be the key to Illinois's success down low and he'll need to step up his offensive effort (and rebounding) if Illinois wants to return to the NCAA Tournament in 2014.


Luckily for Illinois they were able to add senior transfer Jon Ekey to the team, with Ekey set to start at the four. Coming over from Illinois State, Ekey averaged 22.9 minutes per game last season and 6.4 points per game. He's a bit undersized for the four, measuring in at 6'7, but he's a decent rebounder that will add plenty of experience to an extremely young team. Ekey's biggest strength would be his shooting, as he has shot 36.5% from three throughout his career and shot 82.1% from the charity stripe last season. Ekey's ability to shoot the ball should allow Groce to spread the floor and clear out the lane for Egwu down low.

Back-Ups

Illinois's back-ups in the frontcourt are relatively few, with really only two actual options here. While the team does have an additional forward in Darius Paul, he will have to sit out the season after transferring in from Western Michigan. Joseph Bertrand could also see some time at the four, though the senior will likely either start at the three or be utilized as a sixth man.

Freshman Austin Colbert will likely be the back-up at the four spot. The four star, top 100 prospect could eventually work his way into the lineup over senior transfer Jon Ekey. If Colbert wants to see more playing time he'll need to be more involved in the offense and not be so passive on the defensive side of things. Of course each of these issues could be the result of being a freshman and he very well could get it together once he gets some playing time.

Backing up Nnanna Egwu at the five will be freshman Maverick Morgan. Morgan checks in at a hefty 6'10 and 250 pounds and averaged an impressive 24.7 PPG, 9.2 RPG and 2.9 BPG as a senior at Springboro High School in Ohio. The Ohio Division 1 player of the year was a three star recruit and could be a solid back-up for the junior Egwu. So far Morgan has looked a bit raw and passive offensively, but Morgan looks like he could be a legitimate shot blocker for the Illini.

Rounding out the frontcourt is Brandon Paul's younger brother, Darius Paul. As a freshman at Western Michigan Paul averaged 10.4 points per game and showed signs of being a promising four that could shoot and clean up on the boards. Since Paul is transferring into the program, the sophomore will have to sit out the season, but will have three years of eligibility starting next season.

Also it should be noted that 6'6 guard Joseph Bertrand could see some time in the frontcourt if Groce rolls with a smaller line-up. Bertrand gives Illinois a smaller option at the four and can shoot from outside, allowing Illinois to stretch defenses a bit more. The swingman will likely see most of his time at the three though and could be utilized in a sixth man role.

How Quickly Will the Freshmen Develop?

There's no denying the fact that the Illinois is a young team this season and that is extremely noticeable in their frontcourt. While the team returns Egwu at the five and adds a senior transfer in Ekey at the four, the team will have to rely on two true freshman to backup Egwu and Ekey. Both Morgan and Colbert seem to be competent blockers already, but besides that both players have yet to show they are ready for Big Ten basketball. Of course while experience will likely lead to considerable development/improvement, the truth is each guy is still far too raw on offense and slow on defense. The Illini will have to rely heavily on both guys, especially if Egwu averages only 25 minutes a night again, so their development could be pivotal when determining just how successful Illinois is this season. Morgan and Colbert's development will also be interesting to watch as Groce currently has two forwards in his 2014 class and the team will have Paul eligible next season as well.

Overall

Illinois is a young team and this holds true in their frontcourt. Groce was able to get Illinois back to the NCAA Tournament last season but the jury is still out on if he can do it again in 2014. If Illinois wants to match last seasons success they will need to see considerably improvement in the frontcourt. Egwu, while experienced, needs to step up for the Illini and turn into a more legitimate offensive threat, as well as improve on the boards. While Ekey brings much needed experience to the frontcourt, his role as the starting four could very well be the result of a team stretched too thin. Morgan and Colbert seem like each could develop into reliable options in the frontcourt, but their lack of experience currently makes them liabilities on both sides of the ball.

Of course Illinois could see Egwu step up and run a smaller lineup with wing Bertrand at the four, helping sidestep the issues in the frontcourt. Either way, Illinois will need to see the frontcourt improve and mesh quickly if they want to return to the NCAA Tournament this season. If Egwu doesn't improve and the rest of the guys struggle to step up, Illinois will likely struggle heavily in conference and could end up towards the bottom of the Big Ten if they're not careful.

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