So far during my tenure at a writer for BTpowerhouse I haven't had to make many predictions for the future. I discuss the current happening for a team, and analyze past events. What follows is my version of a shot in the dark so to speak. A few of my predictions are me drinking the "orange Kool aid" frequently spoken of on many fan forums and the rest are educated guesses based on my view of the future.
Prediction 1: Illinois finishes in the top 4 in the Big Ten
Illinois finished the 2013-2014 season tied for 8th in the Big Ten. The season started with a promising two wins against Indiana and Penn State. Then the Fighting Illini jumped off a cliff and lost 10 of the next 11 games. During that stretch the played the top half of the Big Ten minus Michigan but they also lost two unforgivable matchups to Northwestern and Purdue. How did John Groce finally pull the Illini out of their tail spin? He injected two freshman players, Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill. Last year's team had nine new players including both freshman and transfers. This year's team returns 4 out of 5 starters and includes only two new freshman. Illinois replaces the promise of heralded freshman with the experience of While Illinois did lose Senior Tracy Abrams to injury, they brought in Ahmad Starks to fill in at point guard. Illinois also brought in a great shooter in Aaron Cosby, who shot 40% in his last season at Seton Hall. The roster is the deepest most talented roster that Groce has had to work with since he got to Champaign. The talent and experience will allow Illinois to not suffer the losing streaks that hindered the last two seasons and allow them to surge past teams that have lost players injury and graduation.
Prediction 2: Leron Black wins Big Ten Freshman of the year award
Leron Black is the highest rated recruit that John Groce has brought in during his time at Illinois prior to the 2015 recruiting class. The Memphis White Station product is considered a four star prospect ranked 43 overall by most services. What makes Black special for Illinois and provides him the opportunity to be great, is that he brings a skill set that Illinois hasn't had for long time. He is a beast inside, going for rebounds and causing havoc to other teams post players. He has garnered the nickname "Savage", amongst his teammates. He doesn't care about anything but getting the ball on every possession and will sacrifice his body to accomplish that goal. The past two freshman that led the Big Ten in rebounds Noah Vonleh from Indiana and Greg Oden from Ohio State, both won Big Ten freshman of the year. While Black doesn't have the height of either player, he does have a "nose of the ball", which will allow him to fill up the stats sheet. Look for Leron to take a little time to get going, like most freshman in the Big Ten, but by midseason break into the starting lineup. His play during the months of February and March will cement his status as the best freshman in the Big Ten.
Prediction 3: Illinois goes from one of the worst 3 point shooting teams to one of the Best in the BIG Ten.
The number one reason that anyone will be able to knock Michigan off the podium for the best three point shooting team, is that Nick Staukus left for the NBA. If he had stayed, I don't think that any team would catch Michigan. Illinois was downright dreadful from beyond the arc last year. Every time an Illinois player started to shoot a three, you could hear a groan from the crowd. They might not have been the worst three point shooting team in Illini history, but they were that far off. This year's team is stacked with shooters. Starks and Cosby, who both become eligible this season, both shot close to 40% there previous season before transferring. Kendrick Nunn and Malcom Hill come into the year as experienced sophomores with the ability to fill it up from outside. The freshman class might actually have the best shooter of the bunch with 6'10" Michael Finke, who is a perfect example of the stretch four that Groce loves for his offense. Illinois will also see very improved inside play from Senior Nana Egwu and freshman Leron Black which will allow them to stretch out defenses and provide open looks at the basket. It will also help to be able to use Rayvonte Rice inside the arc rather than needing him to toss up threes. John Groce's offense is tailored to provide a lot of three point opportunities, and now Illinois has the players to make open shots.
Prediction 4: Illinois beats Villanova in the Jimmy V Classic
Illinois will be playing in the Jimmy V Classic to replace Maryland, who backed out due to a scheduling issues. For most, I think Illinois is viewed as a team chosen because they have a great traveling fane base, rather than because of their marque status. I am sure most experts will pick Villanova to win by double digits. The interesting story line for this game is that 2015 recruit Jalen Brunson chose Villanova over the Illini and I am sure the Illinois' coaching staff would love to get a little payback. Villanova will start the year ranked, and it wouldn't surprise me if they were in the top ten leading into this game. They play VCU on Nov 24th which is their only true test before the Illinois game, and they will not have played in a game on a neutral floor. Illinois on the other will have already been tested on a neutral court playing Indiana State followed by either Baylor or Memphis in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational. Illinois will also have to travel to Miami for the Big Ten ACC challenge. By the time Illinois faces Villanova they will be a battle tested group of players ready to face the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. Look for Illinois to come in hungry and shooting lights out from beyond the arc.
Prediction 5: Illinois in the Sweet 16
Illinois has made it into the Sweet 16 eight times in the modern era of the NCAA Tournament. That puts Illinois just outside of the top ten for the most Sweet 16 appearances, which is a very impressive list. In John Groce's first year, Illinois came 4 points and one terrible call away from making the Sweet 16, coming up just short to Miami. This year's team has a senior point guard in Ahmad Starks instead of sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams. They are a much deeper team with the ability to stretch the floor and hit open shots. Groce has always hung his hat on defense first and foremost, and this year's team will continue the trend of stellar defense. For the first time though, Illinois will be able to put it together on both ends of the floor, which will allow them push their way into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.