For today's countdown piece we'll take a look at Illinois and Minnesota as they're both currently overseas on exhibition trips. They also have a few other similarities, with both teams being talented enough to make the NCAA Tournament, but failing to do so the last two seasons. While Pitino's slow build in Minneapolis still has quite a bit of optimism surrounding it, John Groce (who surprisingly made it to the NCAA Tournament in his first season at Illinois) is starting to pick up some criticism and could be on the hot seat if he has another disappointing season in Champaign.
With both Groce and Pitino trying to get their teams back to the big dance, both hope that there exhibition trips this month can help their teams come together and find a way to get it done. With both teams having quite a few new faces on the roster, the trips will also allows both coaches to start working out the kinks in potential rotations as they find out what they have now that their incoming recruits are officially on the team.
The Illini's overseas trip to Europe has definitely been interesting so far. The recent news of Tracy Abrams suffering a torn Achilles and missing another season was a major blow for depth at the point guard, especially with the reality that Jaylon Tate struggled last season and is a major liability on the offensive side of the ball. While the Illini did manage to land senior transfer Khalid Lewis, the incoming point guard didn't make the trip. That left Illinois thin at the point and the ability to experiment a bit with their lineups as, while Lewis brings some much needed experience, he faces many of the same limitations Tate does on offense.
Remember how I mentioned that Tate was an offensive liability for the Illini? Well so far through two games this exhibition trip Tate has played 52 minutes, missed all six field goals, scored two points and has seven assists compared to four turnovers. Not exactly the most promising start for Tate as it has been indicative of what we've seen from him in the past. Tate ended up splitting playing time last year when Abrams went down with a season ending injury and it looks like that's a realistic possibility once again this season.
That being said, it was reported that John Groce was actually going with 6'7" freshman D.J. Williams as the starting point guard, showing that Illinois might be trying to find a fit that helps their offense the most instead of sticking with a more natural point guard. The Illini were a miserable 276th in field goal percentage last year and will need to find a more consistent offense if they want to avoid missing the NCAA Tournament. The idea of Groce landing on the hot seat isn't so foreign anymore and if he can't get Illinois to make a step up, especially after a disastrous NIT appearance last winter, then things could get tense in 2016-17. It doesn't exactly help that the team just got blasted by the Dutch National Team, losing 54-81 in a game where they shot 32% from the field, 25% from three and committed a whopping 18 turnovers.
Tomorrow the Illini will take on Bretigny Select in the early afternoon before finishing up their schedule against AMW Select on Sunday. Wrapping up the trip will be a two day tour of Paris to continue the sight seeing they've also participated in, with the team recently visiting a number of sites:
An important moment for Coach @JohnGroce today as he toured Omaha Beach. Groce’s grandfathers fought in World War II. pic.twitter.com/KvFhqnEugW— Illini Basketball (@IlliniMBB) August 14, 2015
Excellent 2-hour walking tour of Ghent today for the #Illini highlighted by a stop at the Gravensteen castle. pic.twitter.com/Y2whJPOM5p— Illini Basketball (@IlliniMBB) August 10, 2015
The Gophers, like Illinois, are also currently overseas for an exhibition trip. Things have gone a bit smoother for Minnesota, though, winning both of their games in relatively easy fashion and coming off of blowing out the Barcelona All-Stars by 23 points. I already detailed some of the information pertaining to the trip a few days ago, but Richard Pitino could definitely use a positive overseas trip to help unite his team and build towards something better in his third season in Minneapolis. While Pitino was able to win the NIT in his first season in the Big Ten, last year saw some regression as Minnesota struggled heavily to win in close games. When everything was said and done Minnesota had the talent to be a NCAA Tournament caliber team, they just happened to find far too many ways to blow winnable games.
Either way, Minnesota will be spending the next few days traveling Spain before taking on the Torrejon All Stars on Monday. If you're interested, Minnesota has posted a short blog on their athletic site detailing the trip.