It's no secret that last season was a failure for Fighting Illini basketball. A .500 finish in conference play coupled with crushing exits from both the Big Ten tournament and the NIT were less than ideal for the boys from Champaign. However as we transition to this coming year, there's hope that this season won't offer the same disappointment as the last. Because of this hope, Illinois has the opportunity to do some serious damage this fall and revive the faltering basketball program. But how? Without further ado, here are the five reasons to fear the Fighting Illini this coming season.
1. BIG-time changes
Nnanna Egwu leaves the Illini program as one of the greatest defenders in Illinois basketball history. However, there is reason to be optimistic now that he's gone. One of Egwu's greatest fallacies was his inability to provide consistent rebounding inside the paint. During his four year tenure in Champaign, Egwu failed to average anymore than 6.0 rebounds per game over the course of a whole season. For a man with a 6-11 stature, that's not too impressive, especially considering his numbers in rebounds, as well as points per game regressed during his senior year.
Now enters Mike Thorne Jr. A 6-11, 270 lb graduate transfer from Charlotte, Thorne will look to provide the Illini with an inside offensive presence they have been ever so lacking. In comparison to Egwu, Thorne is twenty pounds heavier and significantly more agile around the hoop. Last year with the 49ers, he averaged 10.1 PPG and 7.3 PPG, elevating his stat sheet significantly from the previous season. While his game is not conducive to that of a low post bruiser, his solid jump hook allows him to create separation from defenders and finish inside. With some added attack-the-hoop aggression and smart coaching this offseason, Thorne has the opportunity to grow into an important contributor to John Groce's offense.
2. Elevated Perimeter Shooting
What the Illini lose in Ahmad Starks they gain three-fold with the addition of top-notch shooting guard Jalen Coleman-Lands. A product of the Indianapolis area, Coleman-Lands, or JCL for short, is ranked nationally as the 34th best prospect in the 2015 class by ESPN.com. Part of what makes him so good is his ability to shoot the three-pointer. In his junior AAU season, JCL shot 46.3% from downtown, averaging 14.4 PPG. Considering Groce enjoys centering his offense around perimeter shooting, Coleman-Lands should fit perfectly into the Illini system. Here's a look at his mixtape from his senior season at La Lumiere (HS) and with his AAU team the All Ohio Red.
While it appears JCL will be the standout among the 2015 Illini class, Aaron Jordan can also play in his own right. Jordan is a 6-4 guard out of Plainfield East in Illinois and also shoots the ball very well. While Jordan is not in the ESPN top 100, he cracks Rivals.com's list at #95. The scouting website also rates his shooting skills as "outstanding" as evidenced by his highlights here.
3. Loving the line
Strangely enough, Illinois was the best free throw shooting team in the Big Ten last year. Scratch that, in the entire nation. As a team they shot an excellent 79.4 percent from the line, a school record. Given this was a team effort, not an individual feat, the Illini have much carry over into this season. Even though Rayvonte Rice was one of Illinois' better free-throw shooters at 80.7%, the Illini still retain Jaylon Tate (84.3%), Kendrick Nunn (81.7) and Malcom Hill (78.1), this not including the incoming freshman.
However, one area where the team could take a step forward is in its ability to get to the line. Take a look at how the team stacked up in FTRate in a chart compiled by our own Thomas Beindit, which measures a player's ability to get to the free throw line.
2014-15 Big Ten FTRate Stats:
These guys will look to be more assertive when attacking the rim in order to draw contact and get to the line. If free throws are an Illini strong suit, which they are, then driving to the rim should and will be an A1 priority for all guards on the floor. This has the opportunity to decide many close games throughout the season.
4. The Veteran Factor
After what seems like an eternity in an Illinois uniform, Tracy Abrams will officially enter his final year as starting point guard for the Fighting Illini. An ACL tear kept Abrams out for the entirety of the 2014-2015 season, which could have given him the time him to develop stronger leadership in an assistant coach type position. With him on the court this fall, the Illini should be smarter and better equipped to play in high pressure situations. Despite his occasional blunders, Abrams has been key in many situations past for Illinois, be it sinking the final free throws to beat Missouri in the 2013 Braggin' Rights game or being the only active Illini to have played in the NCAA tournament.
Illinois also returns experienced players for their first seasons as upperclassmen. The heralded junior class of Hill, Nunn and Tate now has two years of Big Ten experience under their belt, all the better helping the Illini get through the difficult stretch that is the conference schedule. As we saw from the Wisconsin team this past year, experience is key, especially when deep in the season. Illinois is grooming their vets for now and the future.
5. Groce is on the hot seat
After missing the NCAA tournament for back-to-back seasons, John Groce is under serious pressure to get the Illini back to the Big Dance. Many speculate that a third straight NIT appearance would come at the price of Groce's job, warranting only further motivation to lead Illinois to the promised land. Part of the reason that Illinois is going to be dangerous this fall is that a new sense of urgency has arisen both within the program and the fanbase. With the #13 nationally ranked 2015 recruiting class finally here, Groce will have no excuses for failure this time. As far as we know, the Illini enter the offseason injury free, an issue which plagued them throughout the 2014-2015 campaign. Groce and the Illini have a lot to fight for, and this will lead to some top notch showdowns throughout the season.
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