Illinois Fighting Illini head coach John Groce doesn't have any hair left to lose, but if he did, one could assume this season might have caused him to rip the rest out. Illinois has had worse seasons than this, but the team's streaky play may have contributed to more than a few ulcers in Champaign over the last several months.
Talent was not the issue for the Illini this season, it was getting that talent to show up on a consistent game-to-game basis. Illinois earned a top 25 ranking with a 13-2 start to the season, proceeded to lose 10 of their next 11, then recouped to finish 4-1 over their last five regular season games.
Not the recipe for a smooth season.
The Illini lost just one more conference game this year than last -- Groce's first season at the helm -- when they went 8-10 in the B1G and played their way into the NCAA Tournament's Round of 32. Unfortunately a 1-7 record against RPI Top 25 teams, paired with a distinct lack of any marquee non-conference wins (that one-point win over Missouri looked much better on December 21 than it does now) did not provide Illinois with any substantial NCAA Tournament resume boosters.
According to NIT Bracket Project Illinois is set to enter the NIT as a 3-seed, one of three B1G teams currently projected to wind up in the field. While Groce and his team will be playing in the ugly step-sister of the NCAA Tournament this March the value of closing the season on a high note is not lost by those in the program.
"We’d love to keep playing," junior forward-center Nnanna Egwu told reporters, echoing the sentiment shared by everyone from Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas to last man off the bench Mike LaTulip. A deep run in the NIT could serve to further fuel the momentum built up by Illinois near the end of this season.
For those in Champaign, Ill., the 2013-2014 season will be viewed as a stepping-stone on the path back to national prominence for a program once regarded as one of the nation's best during the early years of the new millennium.
Despite the inconsistent, fitful season turned in by Illinois, Groce and his team will return next season more battle-tested, more mature and better prepared.
Late season victories over three NCAA tournament-bound squads -- Nebraska, Michigan State, and Iowa -- paired with a one-point B1G tournament quarterfinals defeat to regular season conference champion Michigan, provided Illini fans with a glimpse into a potentially fruitful future.
Despite several sentiments from the Illini fan base -- most notably during an eight-game conference losing streak -- suggesting otherwise, this team is set at the head coaching position. The young men in this organization want to play hard for John Groce. If that was all you knew about Groce's coaching style, it would be enough.
However, Groce is more than merely a motivator. He is a gifted defensive mind with the ability to compel an entire team to wholeheartedly buy into his system. He has shown the ability to adapt and adjust his strategy on the fly when needed -- Groce's stubborn refusal to stick with zone at the end of the Michigan game in the B1G tournament, which could have cost the Illini a possible run to the championship, notwithstanding.
Next year the Illini stand to benefit from very little turnover within the program. Expectations in Champaign will be higher, but this group should be fully prepared for what lies ahead.
It all starts in the backcourt, with junior duo Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams both coming back for one last go-around.
Rice displayed just what an offensive weapon he is capable of being throughout his first season in the B1G. Rice led the Illini with 15.5 points per game and was second on the team with 6.0 rebounds per game. Expect his shooting percentages -- 41 percent from the field, 30 percent on three-point field goals -- to improve during his senior season in Champaign.
Can Rice improves his effectiveness in B1G play?
Abrams will return to the backcourt as the Illini's leading helper, averaging 3.2 assists per game to go with 11 points.
This potent guard combination has the ability to combine for 35-plus on a given night. Another off-season of work together should produce even greater chemistry between these talented soon-to-be seniors.
Along with Abrams and Rice, junior big man Nnanna Egwu will be back ooping any alley's, snagging rebounds and prompting opponents to reconsider entering his post.
Joining the senior trio will be several highly-regarded newcomers. Incoming transfers Ahmad Starks, Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul should be more than up to the task of filling the nearly 16 point hole being left by by graduating senior Joseph Bertrand and departing fifth-year senior Jon Ekey.
Whiile Illinois didn't have a particularly strong recruiting season Groce still managed to sign Leron Black -- ranked 41st overall in the Class of 2014 and recently honored as Tennessee Class AAA Mr. Basketball. Black should prove to be a versatile offensive weapon coming off the bench in his first season for the Illini.
Factor into the equation the continued growth of freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill and, with all of these positives, it is easy to see why there is a building anticipation towards a successful 2014-2015 season for the young men in orange.
Illinois was awarded a #2 seed to the NIT. They will face Boston U.