Coming off a less than stellar first round NIT loss, Illinois will look to recoup and make it back to the NCAA tournament this coming season. As BTPowerhouse continues its Mile Out Preview series, we take a closer look at three players for the Fighting Illini who will play a key role this season. They may, in fact, determine whether or not Illinois goes dancing, or faces yet another disappointing year with nothing to show. Without further ado, here are the three key players for Illinois this season.
Malcolm Hill SG/SF, Junior
The best all-around player on this team, Malcolm Hill will look to build on a breakthrough sophomore season. As it's been well documented by now, Hill upped his PPG to 14.4 from 4.4 his freshman season, all but taking over during Rayvonte Rice's nine-game suspension. Now, with Rice gone for good, it's Malcolm's team to take over.
While this team's scoring attack will look to be more balanced, there will be times during the season that Hill will have to take matters into his own hands. His above average athleticism and strong build allows him to cut into the lane against bigger defenders, which partners great with his consistent jumpshot. However, one thing he can improve upon is his vocal leadership. Normally a quiet guy, there's no reason Hill should be deferring to anyone else on the floor based on seniority or play making ability. He has the potential to be All-Big Ten once again, and his individual performance night-to-night will be essential if the Illini want to go anywhere this year.
Mike Thorne C, Senior (Transfer)
Thorne was a huge land for John Groce this offseason. After missing out on a couple big name 2015 recruits (Elijah Thomas, Carlton Bragg), Illinois finally got their answer at the 5 position, at least temporarily. Thorne comes from the Charlotte 49ers as a senior transfer with one year of eligibility, a year many hope will have significance for a team that's arguably lacked a big post presence since the loss of Meyers Leonard in 2012. While the graduated Nnanna Egwu was a solid interior defender throughout his career, he failed to present a offensive threat in the paint. Thorne, who averaged just over 10.0 PPG and 7.0 RPG in his junior season, hopes to give the team what Egwu could not.
A big frame at 6-11 270 lbs, his size in very conducive to battling down low with some of the giants in the Big Ten, specifically guys like Purdue's A.J. Hammons and Iowa's Adam Woodbury. Thorne's playing time also gives room so bench players like Maverick Morgan don't have to log major liability minutes in big games. The non-conference schedule will be a good metric as to how effective he can be long term. Illinois needs him to perform this season.
Jaylon Tate PG, Junior
Prior to the Tracy Abrams injury, Jaylon Tate was an afterthought on this Illinois roster. A less hailed part of that stacked 2013 Groce recruiting class, he split time at the point last season with senior transfer Ahmad Starks. With Abrams initially slated to return to the starting lineup this year, it was assumed that Tate would resume his Illini career coming off the bench. However now that Abrams is gone for the second straight season, a lot of pressure falls on Tate's shoulders. With the graduation of Starks, redshirting of Mike Latulip and loss of Abrams, Tate is the only true point guard remaining on the active roster. While Groce is still in talks to land an immediately eligible transfer, it looks as if Jaylon will have to take over as the on-the-court signal caller for the foreseeable future. This makes him a key player for obvious reasons.
It's reasonable to assume Tate won't do too much shooting this season (he's a measly 8.3% from three, and can't shoot the jumpshot), but his contributions as a distributor will be very important. The additions of freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands and Aaron Jordan give added shooting for the Illini, and consequently present more passing options on the floor. Tate will need to work this offseason to up his team-leading 3.0 APG in 2014-2015. It's boom or bust for the young fella when we tip off in mid-November.