Disclaimer: The following piece is strictly personal opinion and does not reflect the views of BTPowerhouse as a whole. That being said, enjoy.
Ever since the departure of Illinois' 2004-2005 national runner-up team, a cloud of gloom has hung over the program. Ten years have passed since the Illini's last appearance in the Sweet 16 and two have gone by without an appearance in the tournament at all. Sure, the university has had its fair share of good players come through over the last decade. Yet Demetri McCamey, Meyers Leonard, Brandon Paul and Rayvonte Rice have all failed at one thing: making the Illini great.
Three offseasons ago, athletic director Mike Thomas fired Bruce Weber, understanding the expectations that came along with Illinois basketball. That same year, John Groce entered as the guy who was supposed to return the Illini to the promised land, and maybe even the Final Four. But that was a long time ago. If the story were to end now, Groce would have failed. Recruits have shunned the program and NCAA tournament appearances have ceased to exist at the expense of poor play. Many critics even believe that it is time for Groce to go.
To save the Illini is no small task, but its now or never. With early projections having the Illini as ninth in the Big Ten, the immediate outlook doesn't look great. But in Groce there is promise. And despite all the evidence to the contrary, here is why Illinois won't fail next year. Agree or not, this how John Groce is going to take the Illini to the Sweet Sixteen and revive the hope of Illini basketball.
1. The Rise of the Newcomers
In the midst of heavy recruiting failures this offseason, Illinois may have gotten the biggest transfer in the nation; both literally and figuratively. Big man Charlotte transfer Mike Thorne Jr. (6-11, 257lbs) ducked out of discussion over the past month as Groce tried unsuccessfully to lure high profile recruits like Villanova guard Dylan Ennis and Morgan Park High School guard Marcus LoVett to join the program. Thorne, a senior transfer, provides the Illini with the flexibility to score in the paint, a presence the program has severely lacked since the departure of Leonard in 2012. Thorne has the big body and offensive ability (10.1 PPG, 7.3 RPG last season at Charlotte) to open up the post. A large frame is also important for Groce and Co. as it allows for the Illini to match up better with some of the conference's better big men including guys like Purdue's A.J. Hammons, Maryland's Diamond Stone and Northwestern's Alex Olah. This not only will give the Illini an inside option but will draw defenders, opening up more opportunities for perimeter shooting.
Over the years, critics have lauded Coach Groce as a failure in the recruiting field, especially when landing the big fish. However, according to 247sports.com, for the 2015-2016 season, Illinois has the second-best incoming recruiting class in the Big Ten. Headlined by Indianapolis based shooting guard Jalen Coleman-Lands (#34 in ESPN Top 100), it also includes 6-6 SF D.J. Williams, SG Aaron Jordan and the finally eligible F Darius Paul. This not to mention 6-10 F Michael Finke entering his first year of play after sitting out his freshman season due to being redshirted. All of these incomers, with the exception of Paul, thrive at shooting the basketball. Because of this depth at shooting positions, the Illini will consistently have options to go to from the outside. Last season when Kendrick Nunn got cold from the beyond the arc, guys deferred the ball to other players, often times landing the ball in the hands of Ahmad Starks who would hoist a three in the expiring seconds of the shot clock. This year, the Illini will have many places to go with the ball on the outside which will keep defenders honest. Considering Rice is the only consistently good three-point shooter the Illini lost, it would be no surprise to see the newcomers help this team shoot around 36.5% from beyond the arc. As seen with Duke during its championship run, three point shooting can win titles, and the Illini have a lot of it.
2. Empowering the Upperclassmen
John Groce's first recruiting class has so far been the best performing of any. Juniors Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn are not only primed for All-Big Ten seasons, they are ready to take control of this team. While senior Tracy Abrams remains at the point for a final season, Hill and Nunn are right now the two best scorers the Illini have. After averaging just 4.4 PPG in his freshman campaign, Hill had a breakthrough year, averaging 14.4 PPG and willing the Illini through much of the conference schedule. To win in the Big Ten and in the NCAA tournament, it is necessary to have that star player. Malcom Hill is that guy. His ability to shoot the three (38.9% on the season) and drive to the hoop make him a dangerous threat to any defender. Gone are the days of deferring to Rayvonte Rice, it's Hill's show now. This opens up the door for Hill to play like he belongs on first team all-Big Ten. It isn't outrageous to expect him to average 17.0 and 7.0 during the conference season.
Nunn's sophomore season was a slight regression from his freshman year, but now as an upperclassmen he has the added opportunity to lead by example. When his game is strong, Nunn can compete with any three-point shooter in the conference. With added options to draw the defense off, "Kendrick's Korner" should be hot throughout the year. Nunn is simply too talented of a shooter to not hit at least 38% of his threes this season. He has all the tools to be at least third team All-Big Ten.
When speaking of the juniors, it's also important to remember the lesser factors as well. Maverick Morgan, who was atrocious last year (2.5 PPG, 1.5 RPG), will now not have to play as many minutes as Thorne and Finke will get time. Morgan's inability to set legal screens and/or score the basketball makes him an absolute liability on the floor. The Illini will be better on the court this season when he's not on it. Jaylon Tate also made strides during last season, but will likely see less minutes with the return of Tracy Abrams. While the point guard positions is still a weaker spot for the Illini, a vocal veteran like Abrams 1) allows for strong leadership on the court 2) Gives the Illini a better scoring option than Tate and 3) Gives Tate an opportunity to learn from a better player than himself. Because Abrams is the only player on this roster to play in the NCAA tournament, he will be essential in leading this team back to not only the round of 32, but beyond. Despite his fallacies, Abrams is the one that will act as an extension of Groce on the court.
3. Skimming the Radar
As we all know by now, the Big Ten is going to really good next year. Really, REALLY good. Maryland is already the preseason favorite to win it all and Purdue got a heck of a lot better with the additions of Caleb Swanigan and Johnny Hill. Wisconsin , even while they lost their two best players in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, is likely a top 25 team. Even Northwestern is no joke. So how are the Illini going to get to the tournament through all this competition? Easy; by flying under the radar.
Many people forget that prior to their upset win over then #1 Indiana, the 2013 Illini were in a pretty bad place. In fact, entering that game Illinois was 15-8 overall and 2-7 in the conference. However, after Tyler Griffey hit a game winner to upset the Hoosiers 74-72, the season took an entirely new trajectory. The Illini proceeded to win five-straight, making their case for the selection committee.
Same goes for this year's Illini. It is highly unlikely Illinois is going to stick at the top of the rankings during Big Ten play. However, if they are able to get three quality wins in the conference, they should make it. In 2013 those three were #1 Indiana, #8 Ohio State and #18 Minnesota. This year it could look something like Michigan State, Indiana, Michigan, all of which are within the realm of possibility. By rolling with the punches that the Big Ten season offers, Illinois should have the potential to throw their own jabs and snag a key win here or there. Last season the Illini beat #11 Maryland by seven without Rayvonte Rice. With new additions and improvements, at least a couple of these wins are going to happen.
Also not to be overlooked is the non-conference schedule. Illinois will have a solid non-conference SOS this upcoming season when hosting Notre Dame in the Big Ten-ACC challenge (Dec. 2) and traveling to Florida to play in the Emerald Coast Classic, likely against Iowa State (Nov. 27-28). Both of these games will be huge resume boosters early, and John Groce has yet to lose in November as head coach. Last year Illinois won the Las Vegas Invitational and two years prior the Maui Invitational as well. Groce has a knack for these early season tourneys and the Illini will have a golden opportunity to get a big win or two before entering the conference season.
So say they make the tournament...
As everybody knows, once March hits anything is fair game. If the Illini are going to sneak into the field, they will be seeded anywhere between a #7 and #10 seed, depending on their success near the ladder half of the year. In the first round, I have them getting the win over an opponent from another one of the Big Six conferences. The 7-10 seeds historically consist of larger programs that finished in the middle to upper half of their conference, be it a team like Colorado (Pac-12), Xavier (Big East) or Oklahoma State (Big-12). One thing's for sure, the Illini want to avoid playing an ACC team in the tourney (see the 2015 bracket).
Due to the depth of the Big Ten, the Illini will have experience against stronger competition that other tourney teams won't. While a middle of the pack SEC team may have faced or beaten a team like Miami (FL), their inexperience against stronger competition will be an advantage for Illinois.
When Illinois makes it to the round of 32 is when John Groce comes into play. When the Illini lost to Miami in 2013, the game was about as close as can be. A missed inbounds call shifted the momentum in the waning seconds and the Canes were able to steal one. This time, that doesn't happen. The achievement that Groce has fallen back on for the past few years has been his leading of Ohio to the Sweet Sixteen in 2012. He did this by beating #4 Michigan and #12 South Florida, only to lose to #1 seed North Carolina in overtime. Given the opportunity, Groce will coach his players with pure heart. His emotional energy is contagious in important games and the players will only learn to further feed off his verbal stamina. In the NCAA tournament, games are often won based upon who wants it more, even within the coaching staff. Groce doesn't only want it, he needs it, which will make this team dangerous in March.
The round of 32 should feature the Illini playing either a #1 or #2 seed. In order to reach the Sweet 16, the Illini will need to play their best basketball of the year. My inner hope is that by some divine intervention we get an Illinois vs. Kansas second round matchup. Former Illini coach Bill Self attempting to duck embarrassment from his former program? I think yes. Truth is, Kansas has also faltered in NCAA tournaments as of late, getting upset in the second round by by #7 Wichita State and #10 Stanford in the past two seasons. As Dickie V would say, "Could the Illini make it a trifecta, baby?"
The Illini need this more than ever. John Groce needs this. The university needs this. The fans need this. This team has all the right pieces to make a run in the NCAA tournament. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments, even if you think my thoughts are preposterous. But this outlandish prediction may in fact be the precursor to something very, very special.