Illinois had one of the better Big Ten duos in their backcourt last season thanks to Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. The two were capable scorers and led the team back to the NCAA Tournament in Groce's first season as coach, but now are both gone and leave a backcourt looking for potential replacements. The Illini do return point guard Tracy Abrams, as well as wing Joseph Bertrand, but their success in the backcourt will likely rest on the shoulders of Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice and a trio of freshman.
The only returning starter in the backcourt for the Illini is point guard Tracy Abrams. Abrams has been the best option at the point for awhile here but there's definitely room for improvement if the junior wants to make the next step for a depleted unit. Abrams biggest issue as a point guard is he doesn't always run the offense efficiently, committing 94 turnovers last season compared to only 121 assists. Also, he's a sub-40% shooter that has never shot over 27.2% from beyond the arc. If Abrams wants to help lead the Illini back to the NCAA tournament he'll need to trim down his turnovers and shoot better from the field. With Ahmad Stark's waiver being denied, Abrams should have free reign at the starting role but the team's success will be heavily tied to how much Abrams improves throughout the season.
It'll be interesting to see how Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice handles the Big Ten slate after playing his first two seasons in the Missouri Valley Conference. Last time we saw Rice was back in 2012 and while he led his team in scoring and the entire conference in steals, he was a poor three point shooter (24.1%) and struggled a bit as a volume shooter (43.6%). If Rice wants to see similar results in the Big Ten he'll need to shore up his shooting and work on his jumper, though his defensive game could prove to be a major asset in conference play. Rice also slimmed down around 30 pounds and appears to be in the best shape he's ever been.
While Joseph Bertrand will likely have the first crack at the starting lineup ahead of several freshman, if Hill can get off to a quick start Bertrand could be relegated back to a sixth man role. Last season Bertrand played almost 23 minutes per game and was a solid offensive weapon from the perimeter. The wing also showed signs of being able to go up and grab rebounds on the defensive side of things, but was largely absent on the offensive glass. Possibly his biggest strength is his versatility, allowing Bertrand to be a stretch four and help assist with the Illini's thin frontcourt.
Malcolm Hill is a four star wing that could very well be starting for the Illini before the beginning of Big Ten play. What he lacks in experience compared to Rayvonte Rice and Joseph Bertrand he more than makes up for with his ability to score from all over the court. Hill has potential to become a deadly offensive weapon and should likely slide into the starting lineup once he gets seasoned enough to limit youthful mistakes. This would also allow the Illini to slide Bertrand back to a sixth man role he's been accustomed to.
Four star Kendrick Nunn, like Malcolm Hill, will be in contention for immediate playing time. While Rice and Bertrand might have the edge at the beginning of the season, Nunn should see plenty of playing time in the near future. Nunn needs to step up his defensive game if he wants to crack the starting lineup. While his defense is in question, Nunn's offensive skill from the wing should at the very least earn him some considerable playing time off the bench if he can't work his way into the starting lineup.
The Illini also added a three star point in Jaylon Tate. Tate will have an opportunity to spell Abrams, but the freshman's youth could limit his playing time. That and he'll be battling with a few freshmen for playing time. If Tate can limit turnovers and develop his game offensively a bit, he could become a viable option behind Abrams. He showed more than enough potential during Illinois's first exhibition game, making his 2013-14 season pretty intriguing to see how he develops behind Abrams.
Unfortunately for the Illini, the NCAA denied Ahmad Starks waiver for eligibility this season and he will have to sit out. Besides potentially creating a sticky scholarship situation next season, Starks would have brought significant experience as he would have been the third senior on the roster. Starks transferred from Oregon State and would have been a legitimate weapon from the perimeter. Last season Starks shot 39.5% from beyond the arc for the Beavers and also thrived from the free throw line.
Also sitting out will be Aaron Cosby, a junior that transferred in from Seton Hall. Cosby, like Starks, can absolutely light it up from outside (40% from 3 last season). Cosby can be a bit sloppy with the ball, but he's a good shooter and can distribute the ball effectively. Even with all of the talent coming in under Groce, Cosby should have plenty of opportunities to contribute when he becomes eligible.
Rounding out the backcourt is Mike LaTulip, an in-state sophomore that played 38 minutes in 16 games last season. LaTulip was a preferred walk-on that saw limited minutes and will likely see more of the same this season.
How Will Illinois Replace Paul and Richardson?
The Illini's two leading scorers last season were guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. The backcourt duo was one of the better combos in the Big Ten and were extremely pivotal to Illinois's success. This of course was even truer for team leader Brandon Paul who will leave a crater sized void on the Illini roster. Illinois should suffice at the point with Tracy Abrams, but the question is who will step up elsewhere in the backcourt. Rayvonte Rice, originally from Drake, and Joseph Bertrand should get the first crack at helping out in the backcourt, but neither have the potential to match the production of Paul and Richardson. In all likelihood, Illinois's success in the backcourt will come down to how quickly Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn develop and if they can live up to the hype.
Illinois will not be able to replace Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, but they have plenty of talent on the roster to at least partially fill the void and field a competitive and skilled roster. Hill and Nunn both seem to be on their way to solid careers here, but their inexperience means there's no guarantee on how well they will perform. Other Big Ten teams (think Purdue) have had to rely heavily on freshman recently and ended up struggling with inconsistency and turnover prone basketball. If Hill and Nunn make some noise alongside wing Joseph Bertrand and former Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice, Illinois could make some noise in the middle of the Big Ten and possibly put themselves into the running for a NCAA Tournament bid.