Illinois under John Groce has had two very similar seasons with two vastly different results. Each of the last two years, Illinois came out of the gates fast and furious with non-conference records of 13-1 and 11-2. What followed could be described as the January swoon; 13-1 turned into 15-7 by the end of January last year and 11-2 turned into 13-8 by the end of January this year.
Last year, Illinois used the momentum gained from a last second win against number 1 Indiana, to go on a five game winning streak, which coupled with a first round win in the Big Ten Tournament against another bubble team Minnesota, helped them secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament. This year the swoon lasted into February and was only halted when John Groce finally injected two freshman into the starting lineup. Kendrick Nunn and Malcom Hill brought new energy and a different breed of athlete, which immediately transformed Illinois into a different level of team. Illinois played like a team possessed and would have made the tournament two years in a row if they hadn't run into a dream killing Michigan team, both in the regular season and in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Both players were instrumental in Illinois' late season run, but Kendrick Nunn gave fans a preview of the type of athlete Groce is trying to make the prototypical Illinois player. If one play sums up Nunn for me, it would be the altercation between him and Penn states' DJ Newbill. On the play, Nunn made a very athletic slash to the basket for an easy two points. After the basket he turned and bumped into Newbill even though he could have easily avoided him. D.J. Newbill turned and shoved Kendrick Nunn in the head, stepping up to challenge Nunn. In the past Illinois had the type of player the shied away from a fight and would have been happy to let the refs sort it out. Nunn isn't that type of player and I love him for it. He did the exact opposite, and got right back up into Newbill's face, challenging him right back. Nunn is very savvy though and didn't retaliate, he simply showed he wasn't going to back down. The play resulted in Newbill being ejected from the game and Nunn only getting a Technical foul. Nunn showed the type of fight that Illinois fans have been begging for since the 04-05 team left town.
What does all this mean for the next years Illini team? Once Kendrick Nunn was in the starting lineup, he averaged 10.25 pts. per game, 51.78% from 2pt. range and 51.74% from three. Illinois was very one dimensional for most of the season and it wasn't until Kendrick Nunn started hitting the three ball did Rayvonte Rice stop pulling double teams the entire game. Kendrick made the defense respect Illinois all the way out to the three line and opened up driving lanes for the other guards. Illinois brings in two transferring guards that shot better 39% from three in their last seasons before transferring. This allows Illinois to spread the floor and forces the opposing team to guard a bunch of lethal three point shooters. Kendrick Nunn is going to be one of the biggest recipients of that new found space in the lane. While Nunn is a great three point shooter, he is also a great finisher at the basket and a great free throw shooter as well. Illinois will be at their best this season when they not only have Kendrick Nunn shooting the three, but also driving in and getting players into foul trouble.
Kendrick Nunn is also poised to have the sophomore leap that almost all great players have in college basketball. He comes from a great basketball school in Simeon Career Academy and he only got better as the season progressed with every minute that he spent on the court. Nunn was also great on defense last year and I would expect him to improve as he comes to fully understand the Illinois system. He creates instant offense through his creation of turnovers and is quite effective at getting teammates involved in transition. The off season should allow Nunn to improve his mid and long range shooting, while working to strengthen his right handed ball handling. If Nunn can make himself equally great going both right and left on dribble drives, he will make it almost impossible for defenders to stay in front of him.
I fully expect to see Kendrick Nunn's name listed in the All Big Ten honors at the end of the year. He was one of the best freshman in the league last year and will be one of the best overall players in the league this year.