Alright Illini friends, let's just get all of the negativity out of the way, shall we? You know, the whole "rip it off like a band-aid" thing so we can get to the positive stuff? Ok, let's do this (deep breath): Rayvonte Rice graduated and four of the teams Top-5 scorers from last year are now gone. Tracy Abram's achilles heel is now his "Achilles Heel" forcing him to miss the 2015-16 season. Jalen Coleman-Lands (my beautiful combo-guard) has a stress fracture that made him miss out on the teams European trip (which may not have been a bad thing) and could potentially spill into the season. Speaking of the European trip, Darius Paul was arrested in France for public intoxication and vandalism and was later dismissed from the team (some people just can't handle Europe).
There was also that whole thing with the women's basketball and football team which could lead to a new Athletic Director coming to town who could potentially hire a new head basketball coach (read: his own guy) if Groce doesn't win quickly (talk about a hot seat). The Illini haven't been to the tournament in two years. And of course, they were one of the most inconsistent offensive teams in the conference last year.
Phew... now that that's over, let's all sit down together, Indian-style (get it?) and get our Don Draper on while we take a look at the (Positive) Top Three Storylines for the 2015-16 season:
1. Watching a Top-25 recruiting class develop this season
See, we can do this Krush!
Coach John Groce and his Illini staff pulled in the 17th best class in the nation. All four of these players should make immediate impacts. But it's the true freshman that make me excited to watch.
Coleman-Lands is the combo-guard that will make your jaw drop with the things he is able to do. D.J. Williams is an athletic, "five tool" stretch four type of player, who will be used a ton in small-ball lineups for Groce. Aaron Jordan (who is from my hometown of Plainfield, Illinois) will absolutely torch dudes from outside. He is that score first, second and third type wing who also has fantastic ball-handling skills.
There three players are going to be so much fun watch develop with the likes of Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate and Leron Black. I really hope we see some minutes that feature Coleman-Lands and Jordan as the one and two with Hill at the three. It may not happen a ton because of defensive liabilities, but it would be extremely difficult for their opponents to guard. There is no hiding on one of them defensively.
2. The important roles the incoming transfers will fill
Alex Austin is now eligible to play for the Fighting Illini after sitting out all of last season after transferring in from Eastern Illinois. While he did take a little bit of a dip his sophomore season, there is potential there (especially off the bench as a three-point shooter that creates spacing) to play some important minutes in the front court.
Khalid Lewis, a graduate transfer from La Salle will step in and contend for the starting TRUE point guard position left behind by Abrams injury. While he isn't the scorer that Tate and Coleman-Lands are, he is strong defensively and has that all but important attribute that only comes with time: experience. He's also very creative in the pick and roll, which should earn him brownie points with Groce and his offensive style.
Mike Thorne may be the most important of the three. From BTPowerhouse author, Matt Allibone:
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.
3. Malcolm Hill and what he'll do next
Hill was a huge signing for John Groce a few short seasons ago and he has been a revelation. While he wasn't leaned upon much during his freshman campaign, last year he became a focal point due to injuries and other off the court issues. He led the team in percentage of minutes played and used 24.3% of the teams possessions on his way to averaging 14.4 points, 1.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds and a shooting percentage of 44%. He's also one of the most creative and ballsiest (Ballsiest? Yup, ballsiest.) slasher I've seen in the Big Ten.
If that weren't enough, Hill was selected to participate in the U.S. Pan America training camp this summer. While he was ultimately cut, being one of 21 players selected is no small feat. There is little question that Hill is the most important player for Groce and this Illini team this year. If he can remain consistent from the floor, get a little better at getting to the line when the offense is in a funk while becoming a leader to this young and inexperienced team, an All-Big Ten honor is easily in his future.
And lest we forget how talent this kid really is:
That is not an easy angle folks.
There are a ton of pieces scattered about this roster for John Groce to tinker with. And while I don't know if it's necessarily fair that he's sitting on some sort of hot/mild/luke warm seat, it seems like Groce needs to make the most of this lineup if he wants to remain in Champaign. He doesn't have the best hand at the table, but if he can somehow make this Illini team compete night in and night out while somehow adding to last years win total (19), he should get the time he deserves to see these young, talented and exciting players mature in his system.