The ‘2015-16 BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2015-16 season with analysis on each program's previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team's starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local "insider" who covers each team.
The Illinois program and head coach John Groce are in a bit of an uncomfortable situation at the moment. After reaching the NCAA Tournament in Groce's first season, the Illini have regressed in each of the last two years. Many are still hopeful that Groce's solid recruiting and defensive coaching can get things back on track, but this is a huge year for the program.
Things certainly haven't been terrible under Groce. After all, the Illini reached the NCAA Tournament in 2013 and the NIT in 2014 and 2015 under Groce. Unfortunately, this is still below the high expectations in Champaign. In fact, when Illinois missed last year's NCAA Tournament, it was the first time that the program missed back-to-back NCAA Tournaments since 1993. Regardless of how close Illinois was, that's a frustrating stat.
Unfortunately, offseason departures and injury developments have made things even more challenging this year. Not only did Nnanna Egwu, Rayvonte Rice, and Ahmad Starks graduate this offseason, but the team also saw Trace Abrams go down to injury for the upcoming year, incoming recruit Jalen Coleman-Lands be sidelined for the summer, and Leron Black be sidelined for the early portion of the schedule.
It's been one hit after another.
The good news is that Groce still has a lot to work with. The team returns several key pieces including Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn and is also adding a very talented 2015 recruiting class. Whether these players are enough to overcome the offseason departures and injuries is unknown, but there is talent to work with for Groce.
On paper, it looks like another stressful season in Champaign that should have Illinois in pursuit of a trip back to the NCAA Tournament yet again. Whether the Illini will actually make the cut seems tough to predict, but with so much riding on the line for head coach John Groce, it's going to be an incredibly interesting ride.
With that, let's take a look at the Fighting Illini.
BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast
Along with reading BTPowerhouse's season preview post for the Illinois Fighting Illini, make sure to check out the site's podcast preview of the Fighting Illini, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and Champaign Room Contributors Graham Hooten and Grant Labedz breaking down Illinois' roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.
1. 2014-15 Season Performance
- Record: 19-14 (9-9)
- KenPom Team Rating: #69
- RPI Rating: #73
- Postseason Appearance: NIT
Last season was an underwhelming one for Illinois. Even in hindsight, preseason expectations didn't seem unrealistic for the Illini. Most fans were simply looking for an NCAA Tournament appearance and by March, Illinois had itself in bubble range. Unfortunately, the team fell short at year's end.
The primary reason Illinois fell short is because it couldn't take care of business in winnable games, especially when the team had to play away from home. The loss to Oregon in Chicago during non-conference play and the road losses to Michigan, Minnesota, and Nebraska are particularly frustrating. If Illinois even splits those games instead of going 0-4, the team would probably have been in pretty good position to make the big dance.
In my 2014-15 Big Ten Recapitulation Series, this is what I wrote about Illinois:
The storyline of Illinois' 2014-15 was one of elusive potential. The Illini were a solid team this season and got very close to breaking through on multiple occasions. However, success was like smoke to Illinois in 2014-15. It was something they could never quite catch or quantify. At points, they looked like a national contender, but at other points, they looked like a fringe NIT team and a bottom-tier Big Ten team.
Unfortunately, due to the team's inability to close the deal in winnable games and to keep key contributors on the court, the Illini could never live up to their potential and get on the right track. Ultimately, the team ended up in the NIT and might have had one of the roughest ends to its season in the conference. For a team that was so close, but always a step behind, it was a frustrating season for fans.
The season was far from a complete failure and the team put forth quality performances on many occasions, but all said, it was a relative dud for fans hoping for a return to the Big Dance. In fact, for the first time since 1992, Illinois failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about last season for Illinois is that when Aaron Cosby and Rayvonte Rice left the lineup in midseason, the Illini just never seemed like the same team afterward. The absence of these two players coincided with several of the most disappointing losses of the season and if Illinois had been able to take care of business, perhaps things end differently in March.
Highlights of the season included a non-conference win over Baylor and wins over Maryland and Michigan State in Big Ten play. All three teams were nationally competitive and added a lot to Illinois' resume. Low points of the season included a loss to Oregon (in Chicago) after being in position to win, losses to Michigan, Minnesota, and Nebraska in Big Ten play, and blowout losses to Michigan and Alabama in the postseason.
Individual statistical leaders were Nnanna Egwu, Malcolm Hill, Rayvonte Rice, and Jaylon Tate. Egwu led the team in rebounds and blocks. Hill led the team in minutes, points. Rice led the team in steals, usage, and total win shares. Tate led the team in assists.
2. Offseason Exits
During the offseason, Illinois lost a total of seven players for various reasons. These players were Austin Colbert, Aaron Cosby, Nnanna Egwu, Darius Paul, Rayvonte Rice, Ryan Schmidt, and Ahmad Starks. Four of these players graduated, two transferred, and one was dismissed from the team. Of these six players, the most significant losses come from Egwu, Rice, and Starks. Neither Colbert nor Schmidt saw any significant time last season and didn't play for the final two months of the season.
Though Rice missed a good hunk of last season, it's pretty easy to see his impact In fact, when all the factors are calculated, he could very well have been the team's best overall player. Just consider that he led the entire roster in total win shares and played just 54.2 percent of the team's minutes. To even be in the top group playing those kind of minutes is pretty impressive.
The losses of Egwu and Starks are certainly not as significant from a talent perspective, but these were both players that played starter minutes last season. Egwu was pretty easily the team's most utilized big man and was a really good defensive force inside the paint. Starks received most of his minutes after Tracy Abrams went down due to injury, but he was a solid passer that avoided turnovers.
Along with essentially losing three starters from last year's team, Illinois will also have to replace a depth option in Austin Colbert. He was Egwu's primary backup, which will add even more questions to the frontcourt. As mentioned, the losses of Cosby and Schmidt are relatively limited, but Colbert did at least see some time on the floor consistently. Paul was also dismissed in the offseason, but played no time before leaving due to transfer rules.
The tough thing about these departures for Illinois is that every positional group takes a hit. The backcourt loses its starting point guard in Starks, the wing loses a very talented player in Rice, and the frontcourt loses a starter in Egwu and a backup in Colbert. Even if one doesn't believe these losses are that significant, it's going to take more than just a player or even a few players to make up for these departures.
Overall, Illinois is seeing some pretty significant losses this offseason. The Illini should still have plenty of talent and enough depth to succeed next year, but replacing these players is not going to be easy. Some of these players were in and out of the lineup last year, which should make the transition easier, but it's not hard to see why these as big departures. After all, Illinois is losing its team leaders in rebounding, blocks, steals, usage, and total win shares.
3. New Additions
This season, the Illini will be adding three new recruits and two transfers. The recruits are Jalen Coleman-Lands, Aaron Jordan, and DJ Williams. All three are rated as 4-star prospects by 247Sports. Coleman-Lands is a combo guard, Jordan is a shooting guard, and Williams is a small forward.
Despite the rankings, there is little doubt that Coleman-Lands is the prospect that is receiving the most attention this offseason. Not only is he generally regarded as the highest rated prospect by the scouting services, but what's also notable is that he has the potential to help address major losses thanks to the injury of Tracy Abrams and the departure of Rayvonte Rice. He is an outstanding shooter, has a great handle, and is a pretty good athlete as well.
Though Jordan and Williams will probably have more of a fight on their hands to get serious minutes this season, it's not hard to see these two getting some serious playing time as well. Both could potentially compete for that small forward role depending on how things shake out and at least should provide valuable depth on the wing. It will be pretty difficult to take minutes from Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn, but it's pretty likely at least one of the two will become a serious bench option.
Along with the recruiting additions, Illinois will be adding two transfers in Khalid Lewis from La Salle and Mike Thorne, Jr. from Charlotte. The great news is that these players will be eligible immediately since Lewis and Thorne are graduate transfers.
Both Lewis and Thorne are expected to see serious playing time this season. With the injury to Tracy Abrams, there is no proven starter at point guard and Lewis will certainly get at least a shot at the role. Similarly, with Austin Colbert and Nnanna Egwu out the door, there is a huge void in the frontcourt and Thorne is projected by most to fill in for those two at center this season. Of these two players, Thorne is widely considered to be the more significant addition due to his great ability to score inside and hit the boards.
For some reason, Illinois doesn't seem to getting a ton of attention regarding its additions this offseason, but this is a really talented and deep group. Not only are there players that bring experience to the table, but also true freshmen that could start immediately. The Illini are really going to need this group to be effective, but there are a lot of signs to imply that this is a pretty good group.
4. Team Strengths
Though the Illini may not be in line to be an elite team this season, this should still be a unit with plenty of strengths that will be a tough matchup for most teams. Some areas where Illinois looks strong this season is in the team's rebounding, ability to avoid turnovers, and in its free throw shooting.
The interesting thing about last year's Illinois team was its rebounding discrepancy. Illinois was ranked #44 nationally in defensive rebounding rate, but just #195 nationally in offensive rebounding rate. There are plenty of theories on why this occurred, but the best explanation is due to Illinois relying on wing and backcourt options to boost its rebounding. On offense, these players would be too far from the hoop to grab boards, explaining the discrepancy.
Of course, the loss of Nnanna Egwu is going to be a huge hit on the boards. However, with the return of many of those solid wing rebounders like Leron Black and Malcolm Hill, this should still be a pretty good rebounding team. Plus, with the addition of Charlotte transfer Mike Thorne, Jr., there is at least one good big man rebounding option. The level of competition was obviously different for Thorne at Charlotte, but his rebounding rates were actually better than Egwu's last season. As such, expect Illinois to continue to be a pretty good team in the boards.
Another area where Illinois thrived last season was in ball handling. In fact, the Illini ranked #8 overall in offensive turnover rate nationally. There's no debating that Rayvonte Rice and Ahmad Starks were big pieces of this, but Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn were also huge here as well. Plus, Jalen Colman-Lands has a really nice handle and would seem to help in this area as well. Some drop-off is likely, but this should still be a strength.
Finally, an area where Illinois should continue to be strong is in free throw shooting. In fact, Illinois led the entire nation in free throw shooting percentage last season. The team didn't get to the line that often, but when it did, it converted at an incredible rate. The loss of Rice will be a hit here, but Hill and Nunn should both be great here again and keep Illinois high in the rankings.
It's hard to calculate just how much the loss of Rayvonte Rice will impact some of these categories, but by most measures, Illinois should still be a pretty good rebounding team, good at avoiding turnovers, and really efficient at the free throw line. If so, these should allow Illinois to be competitive in most games this year.
5. Team Weaknesses
Of course, even though Illinois should have some strengths this season, there are also some red flags for the Illini. Particularly, Illinois' interior offensive game and frontcourt defense will be major issues. These were not necessarily the biggest issues for the team in 2014-15, but should be concerns this year.
Although it's hard to calculate the impact of Rayvonte Rice's departure generally, there are actually some pretty good indicators of what to expect to be hit on Illinois' roster from Rice's departure. Rice was injured for portions of last year, so there is at least some data to use to see how the Illini adjusted.
Unfortunately, things didn't look great.
The biggest area hit by Rice's absence was the team's interior offensive. Rice was one of the few Illini who could consistently create for himself and get inside for Illinois last season. When Rice went down, Illinois took a massive hit and it was largely felt inside. Just look at Illinois' two point field goals last year.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that when Rice was sidelined, Illinois pretty much collapsed in its ability to consistently score inside. The chart above is adjusted for what opponents were typically allowing inside, so there is actually some schedule strength adjustment. Even with the adjustment, the collapse was still pretty prevalent.
Unfortunately, this was really just a symptom of a bigger Illinois issue, which was getting inside at all. One of the more important statistics is how often a team can get to the free throw line. Not only does this give a team a clear opportunity to score, but it also gives the opponent another foul to deal with for the remainder of the game. It's certainly not the only important stat, but it's usually a solid one and often, indicates how a team is getting opportunities inside.
Getting to the line was an area where Illinois was not good last year. As mentioned earlier, Illinois was an excellent free throw shooting team, but the Illini was pretty bad at actually getting to the line. Efficiency doesn't mean all that much if the team is never getting opportunities to use that efficiency. Considering that Rice was one of the team's best at getting to the line as well, this is even a bigger concern this year.
Along with the potential interior scoring issues facing Illinois this season, frontcourt defense is also going to be a major concern. Nnanna Egwu may not have been an All-Big Ten caliber player, but he was a heck of a defender. He not only led Illinois in block rate last season, but actually finished sixth in the entire Big Ten among contributors. Those are not going to be easy numbers to replace.
Unfortunately, unlike in rebounding, Charlotte transfer Mike Thorne is not a clear replacement here. In fact, his block rate last season was significantly behind Egwu's numbers and he certainly faced easier competition. As such, it's hard to think he can simply replace this aspect of Egwu's game. Illinois had a pretty good defense last season, but finding a few guys who can provide quality defense inside will be essential.
None of these issues are set to derail Illinois by themselves, but each represents a pretty big challenge. Illinois needs to find a way to score inside consistently on offense and defend inside as well. There are options on the roster and whether these areas are addressed should be pretty telling on the direction of Illinois' season this year.
6. Top Player
Heading into last season, most assumed that Rayvonte Rice would simply continue his high level of play and to lead the Illini as the team's best player. He definitely was a big contributor and might have been the best minute-to-minute player for Illinois. However, in a broader sense, Malcolm Hill may actually have been the team's most productive player. As such, he came in at #10 in the BTPowerhouse preseason Big Ten player rankings and for good reason.
Again, Hill may not have been Illinois' best player on a minute-by-minute basis last year, but he may have been the most consistent and productive on the roster. Plus, with Rice departing, there is a pretty big opening available for Hill. He was a really nice offensive player last year that could shoot from outside, inside, and converted when he did got to the free throw line. One has to wonder about how much more he can reasonably take on this season, but considering his efficiency last year, there's probably still some room to expand his role
Outside of a player completely redefining his game this offseason, the only real contenders to challenge Hill in this area appear to be Jalen Coleman-Lands and Kendrick Nunn. Both are set to be really nice offensive options and effective shooters. Of course, Coleman-Lands dealt with an injury this offseason and Nunn was a pretty good hunk behind Hill last season.
The Illini appear to have several contenders for the team's best player this season, but when all is considered, HIll appears has to be the frontrunner. He is one of the better players in the Big Ten and if all goes right, might even be able to get onto the All-Big Ten team.
7. 2015-16 Schedule Breakdown
- 11/8 - Illinois-Springfield (Exhibition, Springfield, Illinois)
- 11/13 - North Florida (Springfield, Illinois)
- 11/15 - North Dakota State (Springfield, Illinois)
- 11/18 - at Providence
- 11/21 - Chattanooga (Springfield, Illinois)
- 11/23 - Chicago State (Springfield, Illinois)
- 11/27 - UAB (Niceville, Florida)
- 11/28 - Iowa State/Virginia Tech (Niceville, Florida)
- 12/2 - Notre Dame
- 12/5 - Western Carolina
- 12/9 - Yale
- 12/12 - UIC
- 12/19 - South Dakota
- 12/23 - Missouri (St. Louis, Missouri)
- 12/30 - Michigan
- 1/3 - at Ohio State
- 1/7 - at Michigan State
- 1/10 - Purdue
- 1/16 - Nebraska
- 1/19 - at Indiana
- 1/23 - at Minnesota
- 1/28 - Ohio State
- 1/31 - Wisconsin
- 2/3 - at Rutgers
- 2/7 - Iowa
- 2/13 - at Northwestern
- 2/16 - Rutgers
- 2/21 - at Wisconsin
- 2/25 - Indiana
- 2/28 - Minnesota
- 3/3 - at Maryland
- 3/6 - at Penn State
Illinois actually has a really well designed non-conference schedule for where the team is projected to be this season. There are challenging games, but nothing that looks too far out of reach. Plus, there appear to be plenty of winnable games that should offer resume boosts to the Illini.
The significant games on this non-conference schedule include the road game at Providence, the neutral site matchups with Iowa State or Virginia Tech and Missouri, and the home games against Notre Dame and Yale. With the possible exception of Iowa State, the Illini look to have at least a pretty good chance to pull off wins in all of these games next season.
To start, Missouri, Providence, and Virginia Tech look to be dangerous to solid teams, but none of those teams exactly looks like a Final Four team. Kris Dunn should be a monster for Providence, but there just isn't a ton around him on that roster. Iowa State and Notre Dame look like good teams, but with the games on neutral and home courts respectively, it's not crazy to think that Illinois can pull off an upset. Yale looks like a decent team, but frankly, Illinois should be better, especially at home.
Now, Illinois will probably drop a game or two in non-conference play simply due to some dangerous matchups, but it's not that hard to see an 10-3 or 11-2 record as pretty reasonable. Illinois will have to play well at home and beat one of the teams like Providence, but it's not that hard to imagine.
Of course, as with just about all the Big Ten teams, conference play is a whole different story. In total, Illinois will play 15 of its 18 conference games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year, are in top 25 consideration this season, or are on the road. There will not be a lot of gimme games.
Nonetheless, there are wins on the table here for Illinois. For instance, double-plays with Ohio State and Wisconsin would have been insanely difficult last year, but this year, those appear to be a lot more manageable. Along with that, Illinois gets road games against Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State, and Rutgers. Even if some of those teams are improved, none of those games seem like sure losses, even if the games are on the road.
There is going to be some variation for Illinois this year with a lot of 50-50 games on the slate, but overall, this looks like a Big Ten slate which will allowed the Illini to put together a performance in the six to twelve range. Realistically, it's probably going to be right around the .500 record the team had last season.
Overall, this is a challenging slate for Illinois, but a manageable one. This does not appear to line up for any type of murderer's row type of scenario or a bunch of locks for wins. There's a lot of flexibility here, but obviously, a lot of that will depend on the team the Illini can field with so many newcomers.
8. Projected Startling Lineup
PG: Jaylon Tate (Jr.) - 60%
SG: Jalen Coleman-Lands - 55%
SF: Kendrick Nunn (Jr.) - 90%
PF: Malcolm Hill (Jr.) - 95%
C: Mike Thorne, Jr. (Sr.) - 75%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
The backcourt is set to be particularly interesting this season. With Ahmad Starks out the door and Tracy Abrams down thanks to a season-ending injury, there should be plenty of opportunities for playing time. Jaylon Tate appears to be the likely starter at point guard with Khalid Lewis set to come off the bench. Lewis certainly has a chance to overtake Tate, but considering that Tate probably has a better overall skillset, look for him to start.
Alongside Tate, Jalen Coleman-Lands appears to be the primary candidate for the starting gig. A lot will depend on his recovery from injury, but if he is at 100%, his skillset should earn him starter's minutes. Incoming freshman Aaron Jordan could also be a wildcard here. However, if the wing position proves to be deep and effective, there's a decent chance that Nunn starts at shooting guard, but this probably isn't the preferred option.
On the wing, Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn are basically locks to start. The only question will be whether these two start at the forward spots, or slide down to shooting guard and small forward. This will almost entirely depend on which of the newcomers is ready to play and the status of sophomore forward Leron Black. Incoming player DJ Williams could also get some time here. Of course, having said that, Hill and Nunn are essentially locks to be in the lineup somewhere.
The battle at center should be between Maverick Morgan and Mike Thorne, Jr. Though Thorne has yet to play a minute for the Illini, he is a pretty safe bet to lock down the position. He was a solid player during his time in Charlotte and though Morgan has some potential, he was buried on the depth chart last season. Morgan blocked shots well, but if he wants more minutes, he will have to improve his rebounding. Needless to say, look for Thorne to start at center.
Outside of the point guard position, Illinois actually has enough pieces to put together a pretty good lineup. The great thing is that because of the diversity and depth on the wing, the team can also shift players around. This can help if a player is struggling or in the event of injury. Unfortunately, the point guard position is undoubtedly going to be an issue and the depth upfront is a concern given that neither Morgan nor Thorne is a proven option.
Nonetheless, if Illinois can get some production from the newcomers, there is a lot to like about this lineup. As mentioned, point guard is a huge red flag and frontcourt depth is an issue, but with players like Hill and Nunn on the wing with plenty of depth behind them, this should be a dangerous team.
9. Team Perspective From Graham Hooten of The Champaign Room
"Entering his forth season as head coach at the University of Illinois, John Groce may be on the hot seat. After a tumultuous offseason of injuries, graduations and departures, the Fighting Illini will try to regroup and make a run at their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013. When the team tips off its regular season opener against North Florida on November 13th, they will be without projected starters PG Tracy Abrams (torn ACL, done for season), SG Kendrick Nunn (torn thumb ligament, return late December), PF Leron Black (torn meniscus, return early December) and SG Jalen Coleman-Lands (return late November).
One of the big focuses this season will be around the performance at the point guard position. The Fighting Illini have faced more than their fair of struggles at the point over the past couple years, losing Abrams for two season in a row and being unable to get a PG commit out of high school. Late in the summer, LaSalle PG Khalid Lewis transferred to Illinois to fill a void at the 1. While not a prolific scorer, he will attempt to provide some stability for this team in his one year of eligibility. Junior Jaylon Tate, however, will likely be the day one starter at point. He had to grow up fast last season with the Abrams injury, so he should be more accustomed to his role as a pass-first, vocal leader this year.
The backcourt is rounded out by freshman shooting guard Aaron Jordan (a four-star outside shooter), Alex Austin (transfer from Eastern Illinois, third stringer), Nunn and Coleman-Lands. Much of the Illini offense will be run by the wings, specifically junior Malcolm Hill, the best all-around player for Illinois this season. He took huge leaps last year and will be an important leader on and off the court. At 6-6, he has the ability to drive the lane or pull up from distance. I really like what he offers, and think he has the potential to be second-team All-Big Ten. Freshman DJ Williams is also a solid option on the wing and is the latest in the Simeon-Illinois recruiting pipeline.
As far as the front court goes, Mike Thorne Jr. is a huge addition for the Illini. A graduate transfer from Charlotte, Thorne is 6-11, 280 lbs and has a killer jump hook. After going 15 and 15 in the most recent Illini scrimmage, he's proven he can be a huge threat down low. While different than graduated center Nnanna Egwu, Thorne is a much better scorer and rebounder. He also adds a new option for guards, getting the ball into the paint. His presence cannot be overstated.
Leron Black and Michael Finke will also play big minutes for the Illini. Black is much improved from this offseason and will hopefully stay out of foul trouble. Finke, a hometown boy from Champaign, is 6-9 and can shoot and pass very well. His high basketball IQ will be important when running the offense on the floor this season.
Illinois will likely be in the middle to lower part of the Big Ten this season. Given the injuries along with the strength of the conference, it will be difficult for them to make the NCAA tournament. However if they can stay healthy during conference play, they have enough talent to warrant a look from the selection committee come March." - Graham Hooten.
10. Overall Season Outlook
Illinois is at a fork in the road of the John Groce era. The Illini have regressed in each one of Groce's seasons and for a proud program like Illinois, another NIT bid is probably not going to cut it. Groce has faced plenty of adversity during his tenure and his recruiting has been good, but this is a year where he needs to show some serious progress on the court if he's going to convince fans to buy into another year with him at the helm.
The good news is that there is talent to work with this season. Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn are both back after really nice years, the Illini are adding a few transfers expected to contribute immediately, and Illinois has one of the Big Ten's best recruiting classes for 2015. Regardless of how fans view this season for Groce and Illinois, the roster is in good shape to be competitive all year long.
Of course, that doesn't mean this is a perfect team without issues. The losses of several key players like Nnanna Egwu and Rayvonte Rice will be big hits to the roster and injury issues with players like Tracy Abrams have been big hits to the roster. The interior game on both sides of the court looks concerning and though Charlotte transfer Mike Thorne should help there, how much he will help is vital to this season.
Overall, this is a talented roster for Illinois that can make some real noise. However, with the attrition, youth, and major issues at point guard, there will be some major challenges. This team should have a shot at getting back to the NCAA Tournament, but when all is said and done, it looks like a roster that will fall just short. Again.