After a 19-14 season which ended in a first round NIT loss to Alabama, the Illinois Fighting Illini are left to pick up the pieces of a major loss in the backcourt. Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate and Rayvonte Rice were major fixtures amongst the starting lineup for the Illini last season, and the departure of Rice leaves a gaping hole in the backcourt for the 2015-16 season.
Let's take a look at Illinois' backcourt for the upcoming season.
The Fighting Illini started three guards - sometimes four -- throughout the 2014-15 season, and could very well do that again this season. Groce felt it necessary to surround former big man Nnanna Egwu with playmakers on the perimeter to help space the floor and allow for opportunities for Egwu on the low block. The Illini could look to form a relatively backcourt starting with Tate and Nunn.
Tate was on and off in the starting lineup, and shared point guard duties with Ahmad Starks. The 6'3, 170-pound junior could be in line for a major minutes increase, as his minutes went from 12.2 his freshman campaign to 20.4 last season. After averaging 3.6 points per game last season, Tate should improve upon that mark, but will need to become more of a threat attacking the rim or pushing his jump shot out to the three point line. Tate averaged a little more than two free throws attempted per game, and will need to be more aggressive in order to take pressure off of fellow guards.
Kendrick Nunn - the former running mate of Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker—will be solidified as a starter this season. The 6'3, 190-pound junior averaged a solid 11.1 points per game last season while hauling in three rebounds a game. Nunn is a tough, physical guard who is a capable shooter from three point range, as he shot 36% from three last season. Taking care of the ball was one of Nunn's specialties, as he only averaged one turnover per game while averaging 30 minutes each outing. With a solid arsenal of offensive skills and full assumption of leadership responsibilities, look for Nunn to have a very impactful year in the Big Ten.
With the season-ending Achilles injury to senior Tracy Abrams, the Fighting Illini could look at two true freshmen and a graduate transfer for immediate contributions off the bench.
According to ESPN, Williams was a four-star freshman coming out of high school. Williams could very well start at some point in the season for the Illini should Groce lean towards playing four guards. Williams comes into Champaign at 6'7 and 200 pounds. His length and athleticism will make him a viable option for worthy minutes on offense for fast break opportunities and attacking the rim. Defensively, Williams can make an impact using his length to disrupt passing lanes and contesting jump shots. The Simeon (IL) product is a major commitment for Groce as the Illini strive to keep the Simeon to Illinois pipeline alive.
Although he may not be ready for the season opener next month per Scout.com, four-star guard Jalen Coleman-Lands is expected to be a big-time scorer off the bench. Coleman-Lands is coming off a stress fracture in his lower left leg but is making steady progress towards returning to the hardwood. The 6'4 guard averaged over 14 points a game at La Lumiere his senior year and was essentially a scoring machine at the high school level and AAU circuit. Groce and his staff are taking it slowly with Coleman-Lands, but once a full recovery is reached, watch for immediate offensive production.
Former La Salle point guard Khalid Lewis will also be counted on to make an impact spelling Tate at the lead guard position. The 6'3 guard committed to the Illini over the Baylor Bears in August after visiting Champaign. Lewis averaged six points and two assists per game.
The Illini will have one of the more experienced backcourts in the Big Ten with presumably three juniors with significant playing time under their belts. With the unfortunate loss of Abrams for the season, Tate and Nunn will have to pick up the offensive output on the perimeter, especially Tate.
Nunn will be looked upon for defending the opposing team's point guard while also being asked to increase his scoring production and facilitation duties. A good indication on how his season could go defensively is how he fares against potential national player of the year and Providence point guard Kris Dunn on November 18. If the Illini can find a capable replacement for Nnanna Egwu to go along with the trio of Tate, Nunn and Hill, the Illini could find themselves back in the NCAA tournament in 2016.