Illinois is in a tough spot. After missing the NCAA Tournament two consecutive seasons, the fate of the basketball program is on the edge, and the team, as well as the fan base, is in dire need of a return trip to the Big Dance. That being said, there are still a number of question marks revolving around head coach John Groce and the Fighting Illini Basketball program heading into the 2015-16 campaign. While Illinois may have the pieces to make a Tournament run, it's a matter of putting them together in the correct way to make something special happen. Here are three questions we still have regarding Illinois' upcoming season.
1. Who Will Play Point Guard?
With the recent injury of returning senior Tracy Abrams, Illinois' point guard problem just got serious. The senior Abrams was coming off an ACL tear, an injury that sidelined him for all of the 2014-15 basketball season, and right as it seemed he was ready to retake the role as starting point guard for the Illini, he tore his achilles in practice, requiring him to miss his second consecutive season.
Jaylon Tate looks to be the next man in line, but he can't take on the duty all by himself; Groce needs a reliable backup to play minutes at the point. Mike Latulip, though given limited playing time throughout his career, could be a liable back up point guard, but his recent decision to redshirt and eventually transfer out of the program has left the Illini on the ropes. Jalen Coleman-Lands, a highly-ranked incoming freshman and versatile guard, could fill the role, but a recent injury has sidelined him for the rest of the preseason, making it difficult for him to learn the position.
The answer to this question is obviously still unknown. Could we see Aaron Jordan or Kendrick Nunn (true shooting guards) take on the burden of running the point, or does Groce have another trick up his sleeve? It's all about innovation this year, and why not utilize all of your resources? Numerous sources has speculated the possibility of incoming freshman forward D.J. Williams taking on the position. Though it would be odd to see a guy at 6'7" running the point, it could give the Illini good size, and Williams reportedly has some experience playing the position in the past.
2. How Good Can Malcolm Hill Be?
With the departure of Rayvonte Rice, just about every Illini fan can agree on one thing: this is Malcolm's team now. The rising junior is arguably Illinois' best returning player, and will be a huge part of the Illini Basketball program next season. Malcolm Hill jumped from 4.4 point his freshman year, to 14.4 points his sophomore year, and without scoring options in Rice, Abrams, Egwu, Starks, or Cosby, expect him to score even more this next season. With recent recruiting woes and unfortunate injuries, Illinois has to put a lot of trust and faith in their star small forward. Malcolm has shown leadership and confidence over the past few seasons at the University of Illinois, and now more than ever, the Illini need for him to come up big.
When Rice was injured last season, Malcolm Hill and teammate Kendrick Nunn had a beautiful stretch of basketball in which they carried their team to some huge victories. With the senior back in the lineup, the two sophomores fell flat down the stretch. It will be very intriguing to see how the team plays without Rice in the lineup. Was Hill and Nunn's good play a fluke, or will the Fighting Illini shine without Rayvonte Rice on the floor?
So how good can Hill be? With the loads of opportunity he'll be given, probably pretty darn good. That being said, he needs to be a complete player if you really want to call him "good." In addition to scoring, Malcolm will need to be a good passer, rebounder, defensive player, and most importantly, team leader. The Illini should be thankful they have this guy, because he could be the real difference between an NCAA Tournament bid and a one-way ticket to the NIT.
3. Can Illinois' Big Men Keep Up?
The Fighting Illini were lucky enough to pick up Charlotte transfer Mike Thorne Jr. over the offseason, adding some much needed size to a relatively small lineup. With a true center on the floor, it looks as if Illinois will have a chance to compete in the frontcourt, but that being said, the Big Ten is no pushover when it comes to forwards and centers. Illinois has a collection of forwards that may or may not have what it takes; we don't know. Darius Paul and Michael Finke will see court time for the first time with the Fighting Illini, and whether or not they'll make an impact in the paint is yet to be discovered. Rising sophomore Leron Black showed loads of potential during his freshman campaign, but his scoring and defensive ability are still areas of his game that can be greatly improved. Incoming freshman D.J. Williams could have what it takes to be a strong power forward, but will we see him at the top of the key instead?
Luckily for the Illini, they have a number of big men that they can rotate in and out until they find the perfect combination. Having options is key, especially when post players run into foul trouble, and the Illini have plenty of options to work with. Just who will step up? We don't know, but it's pivotal that someone does if Illinois wants a chance to compete with guys like A.J. Hammons, Thomas Bryant, and Diamond Stone.
These three questions are crucial to Illinois' upcoming season. If Illinois can respond to the curveballs it has been thrown in a positive and productive manner, then it will find itself in great position come March, if not, the Fighting Illini could be in for another long season with a disappointing finish.