It’s hard to know what to expect from Illinois in 2015-16. Coming off of a 19-14 season that included a NIT appearance, the Fighting Illini lost key contributors like Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Crosby to graduation, before enduring a tumultuous offseason that saw point guard Tracy Abrams suffer his second consecutive season-ending injury and forward Darius Paul get dismissed from the program. Still, coach John Groce has proven players like Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill around and plenty of depth at his disposal.
A lot of that depth is thanks to the Illini’s six new players. With three new freshmen joined by a trio of eligible transfers, Illinois' new talent has a good mix of youth and experience. While not all of them will be starters, it’s likely that each will contribute next season. Let’s take a look at each guy and see who has the best chance to make the biggest impact.
One of the biggest challenges on Groce’s plate was always going to be fielding a sold front court, especially after the graduation of Nnanna Egwu. That challenge was made a lot easier with the arrival of Thorne, a graduate transfer from Charlotte. Last season for the 49ers the 6’11", 250-pound center averaged 10.1 points and 7.3 rebounds in 26 minutes a game. He’ll obviously face tougher competition in the Big Ten, but Thorne brings size and toughness to a lineup that desperately needs it. The only other true big men on Illinois’ roster are redshirt- freshmen Michael Finke and junior Maverick Morgan, and neither brings much experience to the table. That doesn’t mean Thorne is guaranteed to start, but he does have the inside track on the job and will play quality minutes regardless.
Arguably the Illini’s highest rated new recruit, Coleman-Lands is a 6’4", 185-pound combo guard with terrific shooting ability. While his range from deep should get him on the court regardless, the Indiana native is a good all-around player who can handle the ball and has impressive quickness. The only question is how exactly Groce will use him in his first season. The Illini are set at the wing with Nunn and Hill, and while Coleman-Lands could still be good contributor off the bench, the team’s hole at point guard might entice Groce to give him a look there. Still, Coleman-Lands does project to be more of a two than a one. Although he might run the point at times this season, it’s more likely he’ll be one of Illinois’ first guards off the bench. He'll also have to bounce back from a stress fracture in his leg sustained this summer, but he should be ready by the start of the season. If he is, expect solid production.
In July Illinois fans heard the devastating news that Tracy Abrams would miss another season after tearing his Achilles. A few weeks later, the blow was softened when Lewis, a transfer from La Salle, committed to the Illini. While Lewis isn’t nearly as good of an offensive player as Abrams (he averaged 6.0 points and 2.2 assists on 37 percent shooting last season), he is a very good defensive player who brings experience to the lineup. He’ll have to battle with junior Jaylon Tate for the starting job, but Lewis will get minutes for his presence on defense regardless. Don’t expect him to light up the scoreboard, but the 6’3" guard has enough skill to contribute.
A 6’7", 200-pound tweener forward, Williams is an athletic 4-star recruit who can shoot and play in transition. Although he’s talented offensively, he needs to work on his rebounding, which will be instrumental in helping him get increased playing time. Although Illinois has good wing players, there is some uncertainty at power forward, where 6’7", 220-pound sophomore Leron Black is back after a decent freshman campaign. Black will probably start off the bat, but Williams can get on the court if he proves he is capable of being a small-ball four. However things shake out, Groce will probably find a role for Williams as a sub.
Another highly touted wing recruit, Jordan is a 6’5", 190-pound guard who can light it up from the outside. Like his new teammate Coleman-Lands though, Jordan is not a one-trick pony. The in-state product is a very good ball-handler who has great quickness and can shoot in traffic. He doesn’t attack the basket as much as some guards his age, but Jordan is a talented player whose development is huge for Illinois’ future. He’ll have to come off the bench next season, but expect Groce get him on the court.
The Illini’s final eligible transfer, Austin sat out last season after arriving from Eastern Illinois. For the Panthers, the 6’4" guard had a solid freshman season (9.3 points, 46 percent shooting) before struggling as a sophomore (7.0 points, 38 percent shooting). At Illinois, he’ll won’t be expected to start, but he should get time off the bench. He’s been a solid three-point shooter so far in his career (34.7 percent) and that could get him on the court.
This one is really tough. Coleman-Lands, Williams and Jordan are big parts of the program’s future, but Thorne and Lewis play positions of bigger need. I’d say Thorne makes the biggest impact right off the bat because of the Illini’s void at center, but the trio of freshmen will make a splash as well.