At the beginning of the season BTpowehouse put out preview articles for each team describing their depth chart at every position. In my previews, I highlighted a number of battles that would be occurring for Illinois. So far through 10 games most of the battles have been pretty good, with Illinois showing depth at those positions or a lack of a dominate options, depending on your viewpoint. Let's take a look at each position and see which battles have already been won and which ones are just now heating up.
Point Guard: Jaylon Tate Vs Ahmad Starks
Starks has started every game this season, which would lead you to believe that he is the best point guard option for Illinois this season, but Tate is making it a tight race. Tate is really the only pure point guard that Illinois has on its roster. Starks is a combo guard that looks first to drive or shoot rather than hitting an open team mate. Below is a quote from coach Groce back in 2012 describing the perfect point guard for his system.
"Other teams that see our guy (at the point) might say, 'He plays like a combo (guard) more than he does a pure point. He needs to be able to score at a certain level. If he doesn't, then guys don't guard him. He has to be a dangerous scorer. Then, because of the speed that we play at - that up-tempo, up-and-down-the-court style - that guy also has to be able to make decisions at different speeds and gears. I think that's the tough one. That's what separates guys that fit us the best. He has to be a strong, confident decision-maker. And get in the lane. He has to have that get-by or blow-by ability to get in the lane. Some guys call it go-go ability. Those are the basketball aspects that we look for."
The above description doesn't really match either player by himself but rather aspects of both players. In fact if you could meld the two guys together, I think you would have what Groce is looking for. That sums up this battle in many ways, Tate is doing some of what the coach wants, while Starks does the rest. Currently Starks because of his experience is getting the more playing time, around 6 more minutes per game. But, Tate is getting better with almost every game, and most games the offense seems to flow much better while he is on the court, mostly because his top priority is distributing the ball. Because Groce needs both aspects of his perfect point guard, shooting and distributing the ball, he will depend on both interchangeably. This really is no longer a battle but more a point guard by committee.
Shooting Guard: Aaron Cosby Vs Kendrick Nunn
Up until two games ago it looked like Groce was content having Nunn come off the bench to not only serve as a nice scoring threat but also an energy booster. Cosby in many ways caused that plan to have to be emended, mostly because he did not live up to his previous seasons shooting numbers. Currently on the season Cosby is now shooting 28% from FG and 33% from three point range. This percentage is made to look even worse when you see that he has been putting up far more shots than Kendrick Nunn even though Nunn is shooting 47% from FG and 47% from three. Nunn has hit 13 more shots than Cosby on 8 less attempts this season. Cosby has hit only four more threes than Nunn even though Nunn has attempted almost half the number of threes as Cosby. If you look just at shooting, Nunn is the hands down winner of this battle. If you look at the other stats, Nunn also has Cosby beat. Both players average just about 2 assists per game but Nunn has only turned the ball over 8 times vs Cosby's 19 turnovers. Kendrick has 14 steals on the year vs Cosby's 3 and he also chipped in with two nice blocks, both preventing fast breaks.
Nunn is running away with this battle. He has already stolen the starting spot and he is currently in the process of stealing a chunk of Cosby's minutes. For Cosby to get back into it, he needs to stop taking shots out of the flow of the offense and make sure to elevate on his jump shots, since he has such a low arc on his release. Illinois will need both players to be 10+ point scorers in Big Ten play if they hope to push near the top tier of the league. Nunn is already there, hopefully Cosby can break out of his slump.
Wing: Rayvonte Rice vs. ????
This never was a battle. Rice is the best player that Illinois has and they will go as he goes. They will need him to be a little of everything to win against better teams and he will be expected to deliver at a very high level. No one is taking his place until he steps off the court at the end of the year.
Small Forward: Malcolm Hill vs. Leron Black
Many Illinois fans hoped that Leron Black would be able to come in as a true freshman and play like so many of the highly rated freshman you see on dominate teams around the country. Black will be a great player for Illinois, he has shown flashes of aggressive nastiness in the post that we haven't seen in many years, but right now he is just a freshman. He doesn't know how to not foul almost every second that he is on the floor, and more experienced big man take advantage of his cluelessness on defense. The only real bright spot this season so far has been his outstanding rebounding, and is relentless motor.
Malcolm Hill might only by a sophomore, but he was really good at the tail end of last season and he has taken a huge sophomore leap. On most nights Hill is actually Illinois' most complete player. He can get the ball in the post and draw fouls, hit a mid-range jumper or light it up from outside. He has also become a pretty good defender, whose length allows him to guard multiple positions. He along with Rayvonte Rice have been the steadiest players for Illinois, leading the team in scoring per game and shot attempts. Hill is currently averaging 25 minutes per game, but those numbers will increase as Big Ten conference play gets underway.
Center: Nnanna Egwu Vs Maverick Morgan/Austin Colbert
This battle was also DOA from the start of the season. Everyone hoped that Morgan or Colbert would make a huge leap during the off season and give Illinois a true post player, but that never happened. Right now Egwu is Illinois only option in the post most nights. When he is out of the game Illinois looks lost on defense and in the games they lost, early fouls by Egwu really hurt them. Egwu is averaging the second highest amount of minutes on the team at 27, and those numbers would be much higher if he hadn't been in foul trouble during a number of games. If Illinois hopes to compete with the better teams in the Big Ten, Egwu will need to stay out of foul trouble, or Morgan or Colbert will have to make a magical leap in ability very quickly.