One of the biggest strengths for Illinois this season will be their starting Center, but the team's biggest weakness, will the players that will serve as his backup. Nnanna Egwu returns this season and should be even better than he was last year. It becomes questionably once you go to the bench who will fill up the remainder of the minutes this season. Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert will have to make a huge leap from last season if they want to make an impact.
Nnanna Egwu was one of the best defenders in the country last year. He might not have won any award, much to the chagrin of head coach John Groce, but he did a little of everything for Illinois last season. He averaged 6.9 points 6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. He ranked number one in the Big Ten for offensive rebounds and number two in the Big Ten in blocks. Egwu is not your typical center, he feels more comfortable peeling out of the paint for short jumpers than he does with his back to the basket. But on the defensive end he does was all coaches want their centers to do, he effects the way the other team plays. Opposing players have a hard time getting to the rim, since Egwu is very quick to block shots, and is far more maneuverable than most big men. He extremely smart when it comes to running Groce's defense, and he doesn't get caught out of position often on switches and screens. This season Nnanna will be a captain and since Tracy Abrams is hurt, he will be the main voice on the floor. Look for Egwu to increase his numbers across the board, and push to average close to a double-double every game.
Maverick Morgan will probably be the first player off the bench to give Egwu a breather. Morgan averaged only 7.1 minutes last season and showed brief glimpses of a player who can hold his own in the paint. He is more of a prototypical back the basket big man, and in his limited minutes showed an ability to find open shots, shooting 58% from FG range on the season. Nothing has come out of off season workouts to make you believe that he will have a major breakout season, and this could be another season with him receiving limited minutes. Sometimes though players play great in practice and it doesn't translate to games, and sometime the opposite is true. Hopefully he will have a "turning on the light bulb" type of moment this season, and use it to establish himself as the primary backup to Egwu.
Austin Colbert only played in 22 games (11 during the Big Ten season) last year averaging 5.5 minutes per game. While I think that he will see the floor for almost every game this season, I don't think he will see many more minutes. The 6'9" forward was a four star recruit out of high school, and chose Illinois over Miami and Seton Hall. He was very raw on the offensive end last year, showing brief glimpses in the paint, but was not consistent enough to make it into the regular rotation. Although he was limited on offense, his work on the defensive end, is what really kept him on the bench. Colbert won't see consisted playing time until he can be counted on to guard opposing centers, and I can't see that happening this year.
Michael Finke was listed in my preview of the wing position for Illinois, but he might get some playing time at center as well. He will have the same disadvantage that Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert had last year; his size and strength level won't allow him to compete in the Big Ten quite yet. Look for Finke to get playing time at the 5 when Coach Groce wants to experiment with a lineup that can shoot the three from all five positions.
Overall Grade: C
Illinois has a very solid starter in Nnanna Egwu but if he fouls out or gets hurt, they will be in for a long season. Hopefully Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert can make a huge sophomore leap to provide Illinois with viable backup options. Looking to the future, it will be interesting to see if Michael Finke ends up being a forward or a center during his time at Illinois.