Illinois basketball has seen mixed results under head coach John Groce. The team made the NCAA Tournament in Groce's first season and nearly made the Sweet Sixteen, but Groce was unable to replicate that success in Year 2 and instead ended up in the NIT. For Illinois fans, expectations may not have been met in the first two years, but here are a few reasons to think 2014-15 will be different.
Five Reasons To Be Optimistic About Illinois In 2014-15
#1 - Illinois Wasn't Nearly As Bad As They Seemed In 2013-14
Look, Illinois was not a great team in 2013-14. We all know about how they struggled during conference play and how they dropped some pretty embarrassing games (Northwestern, Purdue) last season. However, we also have to accept that Illinois probably wasn't that far away from being a good team and having a pretty successful season. Illinois went 20-15 overall and finished at #49 in KenPom. Yes, 2 of those wins came in the NIT and they played a relatively weak non-conference slate, but it's not like Illinois was getting run over either. Outside of some rough losses to Michigan and Wisconsin during the regular season, Illinois was in most of their games and if they had gotten just a little more offensive production, they probably would have pushed - and beaten - a lot more Big Ten teams. I'm not here to claim that Illinois was somehow a few wins away from being a Final Four contender, but they probably were a few wins away from being in very serious consideration for the NCAA Tournament. In fact, there are some who believe they would have been right on the bubble if they had beaten Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament. That might be a bit of a stretch, but it implies how close Illinois was to meeting expectations last year. It would be one thing if Illinois was trying to rise from the basement in 2014-15, but they don't have far to go to be a real contender for the NCAA Tournament and beyond.
#2 - Illinois Returns A TON
A lot of teams like to claim they are returning a lot from the previous year, but Illinois is one of the few teams that can actually back it up. Not only do their return their top 3 players from last season in minutes, but they also return a bunch of quality depth players like Kendrick Nunn - who played a ton of minutes late in the year - and return Rayvonte Rice - who was pretty clearly the team's best player last season. Rice was a full 1.7 win shares above any other player on the team and 5th overall in the conference. Just think about it this way. Malcolm Hill and Jaylon Tate could very well play this season off the bench. Hill was rated as a 4* recruit in high school and Tate was pretty well regarded himself. Not only is Illinois bring back their best statistical players from last season, but they're also returning a bunch of young talent on their bench. That's a pretty combination if you want to improve.
#3 - Kendrick Nunn Should Take a Big Step Forward
The Big Ten was absolutely loaded last year and featured some of the best freshmen in the country, but Illinois true freshman Kendrick Nunn still was a bright spot. In all honesty, if Noah Vonleh - selected #9 in this year's NBA Draft - was not in the conference, Nunn could very well have won Big Ten Freshman of the Year. However, what could be more significant is that Nunn continued to improve during last season. In fact, many credit Nunn's emergence as the thing that allowed Illinois to recover from their dreadful Big Ten losing streak and there's probably some truth to that claim. During Illinois's 8 game losing streak, Nunn averaged just over 17 minutes a game. However, in the next 9 games, Nunn played 30+ minutes in every game and Illinois 6-3. Obviously, there's more to the story than just Nunn's increased play, but there's certainly a correlation there. If Nunn can build off his freshman season and play like he did later in the year, he could very well be the piece that takes Illinois to the next level.
#4 - John Groce Has Won Before
Often, when a team struggled in the preceding season, we discuss how the coach needs to instill a winning culture and get his system to work with the team's players. Those kind of discussions don't really apply here. Sure, Groce had the benefiting of inheriting some pretty solid players, but he not only made the NCAA Tournament in 2013 with Illinois, but he also had a lot of success while coaching at Ohio (2 NCAA appearances) and had a boatload of success while coaching under Thad Matta at Ohio State. If Groce did not have the background of success that he brings to the table, there might be more concern, but John Groce brings a reputation for winning and the results to back it up. Last season may not have gone as some hoped, but the pieces are there for success.
#5 - Illinois Can't Lose 8 Big Ten Games In A Row Again ... Right?
Last season's Illinois team was like a play with three acts. The first act was pretty solid with a few bright and low spots, the second act was a complete disaster, and the third act was good with a bit of an underwhelming finish. If the play failed to meet expectations, it would be pretty easy to point out the area that struggled. For Illinois, it was the 8 game losing streak in January and February that doomed their NCAA chances. Just look at the back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Purdue. If Illinois just avoids those two losses, they end the regular season at 20-11 and are tied with Iowa for the #6 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Talk about a change in situations. You only have to flip two very winnable games and suddenly, Illinois looks like a pretty solid NCAA contender. Not a single team in the Big Ten lost 8 conference games in a row last year other than Illinois. Northwestern and Purdue came close, but even they cannot match Illinois' horrid winter stretch. The point here is that those kind of streaks just don't happen very often. Again, the Big Ten was awesome last year, but an 8 game conference losing streak is just crazy, especially considering that Illinois had winnable games at home. If Illinois simply matches what they did last year and avoids another January stretch like they had last season, they should be in much better shape.
Illinois does not look like it will be the best team in the country or even the conference, but there are many reasons to be optimistic about Illinois' chances in 2014-15. However, these are just 5 reasons to be optimistic. What do you think are some reasons to be optimistic about Illinois next season? Let us know in the comments.