Brandon Paul is gone. So is D.J. Richardson. And Tyler Griffey. As well as Sam McLaurin.
Or in other words, this will be a completely different team than the unit last year that made it back to the NCAA Tournament in Groce's first season. Without the teams most prominent weapons in the backcourt and frontcourt, as well as several underclassmen transferring out, Illinois will field a thin roster with plenty of questions. Groce will likely try to fill the holes with two transfers in Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey. While both guys have potential and some upside, but both have serious question marks on how well their game will translate in the Big Ten.
Groce does bring plenty of freshmen into the mix, with Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn both likely to see major action this year. Unfortunately for Illinois, their two freshman forwards still look a little too raw to contribute come conference season and Groce may need to rely on true freshman Jaylon Tate to spell Tracy Abrams. If the freshmen can come out swinging and contribute immediately, this Illinois team could make some noise. If they struggle to piece everything together? Well the NIT has its benefits.
Tracy Abrams: Abrams is the lone returning starter from last year's backcourt and will be key to how successful Illinois is in 2013-14. Last season Abrams struggled quite a bit all over the place and now that the backcourt is without Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, that simply won't fly. While Abrams was the Illini point guard last season, he created few assists and committed almost as many turnovers. Mix that with a poor year shooting from outside and you have plenty of question marks for Abrams. Now that the offense will run through him he'll need to step up and make better decisions with the ball. A turnover prone Illini team doesn't have the players to get back to the NCAA Tournament so it'll be interesting to see how Abrams develops in his junior season. Groce will likely have to stick with him since Ahmad Starks isn't eligible this season and freshman Jaylon Tate might be a little raw for Big Ten play.
Rayvonte Rice: Transferring over from the Missouri Valley Conference is Rayvonte Rice, who will start the season off at the two. Prior to joining Illinois Rice was a volume shooter at Drake and led his team in scoring. Rice will need to improve his shooting as he shot poorly from outside, but he can make some noise inside. Rice's defense could also be key as he was consistently forcing turnovers in his first two seasons. Of course Rice could see four star freshman Kendrick Nunn push him for playing time, though Rice will get the first crack.
Joseph Bertrand: While the three spot will likely be Bertrand's job to open up the season, look for Groce to turn to freshmen Malcolm Hill and/or Kendrick Nunn if they get it together early on in the season. Both Hill and Nunn are highly touted recruits and show a ton of potential, especially Malcolm Hill, a threat to score from anywhere on the court. It's not all doom and gloom for Bertrand, though, as he's an effective wing that will eat up minutes in Groce's rotation. Last season he was utilized heavily as a sixth man and by the time Big Ten play comes along he could likely be in a similar role.
Jon Ekey: Another transfer set to start for the Illini, Ekey is an undersized four that is a modest rebounder and can hit from outside. Ekey's offensive game will allow Groce to spread the floor with a smaller lineup, though he may be a liability against larger lineups. The thin Illini frontcourt and raw freshman behind Ekey could be the reason he holds the starting spot throughout the season, though, as his ability to produce against Big Ten talent isn't guaranteed.
Nnanna Egwu: Leading the team in blocks and rebounds last year, Egwu looks to improve his game as the Illini's starting center. Egwu did lead the team in rebounds but his rebounding percentages were surprisingly low and he'll need to improve his physicality to improve on the boards. Egwu's not the most prominent offensive threat, either, and with the Illini having an extremely thin frontcourt, his success down low will be key to the team's overall success.
The future. As weird as it sounds to say, the Illini's biggest strength is the future. The teams starting lineup consists of two transfers, a point guard and center that have struggled in the past and a wing that's been utilized as a sixth man previously. Their point guard is capable but struggles with his decision making and shooting. Their center isn't dominant on the boards, has struggled scoring efficiently and anchors a frontcourt with no other legitimate options at the five. And in between you have two transfers (likely starting solely because of experience) and a modestly talented wing. On the flip side, you have two potential breakout freshmen in Hill and Nunn that could become viable options by January. You also have some talent in waiting with Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby gaining eligibility next year, as well as a growing 2014 class that should be another strong group of recruits compiled by Groce. While Illinois may struggle this season, the team will get better. And it'll happen very soon.
Experience. This Illinois team is slim on upperclassmen and has plenty of holes. The departures were plenty in the offseason and now they'll have to rely on a duo of transfers to fill the holes in the lineup. Even worse, it puts considerable pressure on Abrams and Egwu, two guys that already had their own issues they needed to fix. With both guys struggling when they had legitimate weapons around them, it could create considerable problems now that they'll anchor the starting lineup. Now that Abrams and Egwu will be two of the key guys, there's very little room for error and one has to question how both will respond to the situation. If Illinois struggles early this season Groce may very well turn to his freshman and that could lead to a plethora of growing pains.
This preview makes it seem like the 2013-14 season could be doom and gloom for a thin Illini squad, but I'd expect quite the opposite. For every growing pain associated with youth and for all of the issues Abrams and Egwu could have this season, I still expect Illinois to win a decent number of games and to compete throughout conference play. John Groce is simply that good of a coach and this Illinois team will be dangerous at home regardless of how the roster comes together. Even with all of the flaws, I'd expect Illinois to entertain the idea of a NCAA Tournament at-large bid.
This new look Illinois squad is building towards the future and will suffer growing pains this season, but the same thing was expected last season and Groce got them back to the tournament. This team will likely fall a little bit short, but it should still be in contention for an at-large bid throughout February. If the Illini see improvement at the point from Abrams and if Egwu steps up, this team could trend up towards the upper half of the Big Ten and sneak into the postseason. If not, then Groce could use the NIT as a launching pad for 2014-15.
Prediction: Fringe NCAA team, likely NIT bid