On February 15, 2014, the Illinois Fighting Illini set the game of basketball back 30 years. In a 48-39 loss to Ohio State, the Illini shot a mere 28.3% from the floor and recorded only 0.66 points per possession. Among Power 5 conference teams, only Washington State, Texas A&M and Northwestern had a worse PPP average in any game last season.
Such flailing wasn't an isolated occurrence, either. Nine times in Illinois' final 19 games last season, the Illini failed to score 60 points. The offensive impotence was largely responsible for a 1-10 stretch that all but torpedoed Illinois' chances at an NCAA bid, but it didn't end when the Illini started winning again. A team that couldn't shoot straight and showed little inclination to attack the tin and draw fouls needed an offensive spark.
The cavalry has arrived this season in the form of transfers Ahmad Starks (ex-Oregon State) and Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall), both former 40% three-point shooters for major-conference schools. Sophomores Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill and Jaylon Tate are set to assume bigger roles from the start of the season. All-Big Ten swingman Rayvonte Rice has hopefully returned with a more diverse offensive game, since his effectiveness flagged when opponents sat on his right-handed drives to the rim. Freshman Leron Black (Memphis, Tenn.) may be the program's best out-of-state recruit since Deron Williams arrived from Texas back in 2002.
The pieces are in place for Illinois to return to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons under coach John Groce. To do so, however, they've got to avoid the midseason sinkholes that swallowed what could have been very promising seasons (3-8 in 2012-13 and the aforementioned 1-10 last year). Groce has a much more experienced core this year after entering 2013-14 with only three players who had ever donned an Illinois jersey. If everyone plays like they've been there before, the Illini should have a much more consistent season ahead.
Projected Starting Lineup
PG Jaylon Tate (6'3", 170 lbs., Soph.)
SG Kendrick Nunn (6'3", 190 lbs., Soph.)
SF Rayvonte Rice (6'4", 230 lbs., Sr.)
PF Leron Black (6'7", 220 lbs., Fr.)
C Nnanna Egwu (6'11", 250 lbs., Sr.)
While Ahmad Starks will likely begin the season manning the point, he was never a true distributor during his career at Oregon State. His shooting will be invaluable for the second unit, but if the Illini want to get off to good starts, they'll need to create good looks for Rice, Nunn and Black. Tate's pass-first style will get the offense on the good foot, especially if he's improved his own shot (a sickly 26% from the floor as a freshman).
What to Watch For
There is a very real possibility that Illinois rolls through its non-conference slate undefeated. A trip to Miami for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and a date with preseason No. 12 Villanova at Madison Square Garden are the only major stumbling blocks aside from the annual Braggin' Rights throwdown with Missouri. Baylor or Memphis await in the Illini's second game at the Las Vegas Invitational, but both of those programs could be down from their usual standards this year. Illinois has lost only three early-season games in its first two years under Groce, but that's proven more a function of soft scheduling than team power. By Championship Week, this slate could prove just as flabby as the last two.
One note of interest in a game that could otherwise get ugly: The Dec. 13 battle with Oregon at the United Center in Chicago will be a chance for Illini fans to get a look at my pick for the national scoring crown, Mighty Joe Young. After all the attrition and drama Oregon endured in the offseason, Young may have to score 25 a night just to keep his team competitive.
Who to Watch For
Aaron Cosby - Transfers who've played well enough in their year of residence to cop a share of Illinois' Most Improved Player award have done some big-boy things when they hit the court. If you need evidence, just consider Rayvonte Rice, who earned a share of the honor in 2012-13 while sitting out. Cosby got a piece of last season's award, and he'll get an opportunity to spark the offense off the bench. For a comparison, think ex-Illini guard Trent Meacham, a double-digit scorer in his final two seasons. Cosby's sophomore year at Seton Hall looked a lot like Meacham's senior season in Champaign, as seen here.
Malcolm Hill - Hill, another co-recipient of the 2014 Most Improved Player award, is a 230-pound forward with some guard skills. At 6'6", he's a bit undersized for the power forward role he frequently filled last year, but he'll be a very capable fill-in on the wing when Rice takes a breather. Hill's offensive versatility in the exhibition win over Quincy was impressive, as he made 2-4 from behind the arc, 6-7 from the foul line and 6-10 overall from the floor for a team-high 20 points.
Maverick Morgan - Speaking of fill-ins, Morgan has to prove himself as a capable backup for Egwu. At 6'10" and 245 pounds, he's much more physically able to battle in the post than classmate Austin Colbert or freshman Michael Finke. Morgan committed more than seven fouls per 40 minutes last season, drawing more whistles than he pulled rebounds. If Morgan isn't the guy, the Illini may be resigned to getting pushed around by some of the more capable big men in the Big Ten.
Illinois should spend some time in the Top 25 by the end of its non-conference slate. Its game with Miami will be one of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge's most underrated affairs, but Illinois should win if Egwu rules the paint and Illinois' point guards can make life difficult for veteran floor general Angel Rodriguez. The Illini will likely bring an 8-0 record to New York City for their battle with Villanova. The more experienced Wildcats will be favored, and their fierce defense will be unlike anything else Illinois will have faced to date.
By Dec. 20, Missouri's group of freshmen and transfers will be settling into their roles, making the Braggin' Rights game one to circle on the calendar. Seven of the Tigers' expected top 11 producers will be making their Mizzou debuts this year, and new coach Kim Anderson will be hard at work stitching a roster with underrated talent into a cohesive team. Anderson never played in a so-called Braggin' Rights game in his career at Missouri, but the Tigers were 6-4 against the Illini during his two stints as an assistant to Norm Stewart. He'll have his team ready, but the Illini should still prevail in a close one, leading to a 12-1 non-conference record.
Illinois doesn't have the harshest Big Ten schedule, but it's not easy by any stretch. Just look at the four single-play road games: Ohio State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Ouch. Add to that double-plays with Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska, and there's 10 very possible losses off the bat. Doubles with Purdue and Northwestern may help, as will home singles with Indiana, Penn State and Rutgers.
Ken Pomeroy projects Illinois to sweep at home and lose everything on the road for a 9-9 conference record, but the home tilts with the Michigan schools and the game at Northwestern are virtual toss-ups. I'll be a bit more generous and project 11-7, with losses in all four of those single-play road games, plus the away games against Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue. Couple that with yet another strong non-league record, and that leaves the Illini at 23-8, which should be enough for a 6 or 7 seed in the NCAA tournament.