In the weeks leading up to the 2016-’17 college basketball season, BTPowerhouse will be releasing its preview series breaking down each Big Ten team. These will come in a set of series previewing the overall team, the team’s backcourt, wings, and big men, and the team’s schedule. Each post will take a look at its top in-depth and give predictions on the upcoming season.
Today’s edition of the ‘BTPowerhouse Preview Series’ will focus on the backcourt for Illinois. The Illini may have one the most talented players in the conference in wing Malcolm Hill, but if head coach John Groce can’t get solid production out of both his backcourt and frontcourt, that could go to waste in another disappointing season.
BTPowerhouse Preview - Illinois Backcourt:
Key Departures: Khalid Lewis, Kendrick Nunn
Additions: Te’Jon Lucas
Top Player: Jalen Coleman-Lands
The Illini backcourt has had some issues as of late, with one of those being the inability of point guard Tracy Abrams remaining healthy. The Chicago native averaged 10.7 points and 3.2 assists per game in his last season as a starter, but that was back in 2013-14 as the guard has missed the past two seasons with injuries. That of course has left Illinois thin in the backcourt, having to rely last season on grad transfer Khalid Lewis and Jaylon Tate to help cover the point.
While not terrible, both players weren’t prominent scoring threats, averaging a combined 5.7 points per game over 40.7 minutes. Mix that with both being terrible three point shooters (25% and 18.2% respectively), and you had a considerable amount of limitation with who was running the show. Of course the team still had Kendrick Nunn and Jalen Coleman-Lands, as well as the previously mentioned Hill at the three, but now that Nunn is no longer with the Illini program the team will have to hope for a healthy Tracy Abrams to return to form this season.
The point guard position should go to Tracy Abrams without question, as long as he can stay healthy. Past that Jalen Coleman-Lands should also see time in the starting rotation and will be a major weapon for the Illini offense. In his freshman season Coleman-Lands went on to average 10.3 points per game in around 26 minutes. Of course he didn’t do very much outside of score the ball (1.9 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.6 steals per game in 26.2 minutes) and most of his shots were three pointers (206 of 279 field goal attempts), but when you hit 42.2% of your threes, that’s perfectly fine.
The sophomore may be limited to being a three point specialist, but when you can hit over 40% of your threes when you’re averaging six plus attempts a game, then that’s perfectly fine. Especially when someone like Malcolm Hill can score both inside and out and you have another option to run the point. Coleman-Lands may not be the most versatile player out there each night, but he has a specific skillset and has excelled at his job. Considering Illinois was 201st in the nation in scoring and one of the worst teams in the Big Ten when it came to field goal percentage, his ability to effectively hit from deep should be a major asset.
Now Groce just has to hope that Tracy Abrams can finally stay healthy for a season. The point guard isn’t the most prolific outside shooter, hitting only 26.9% of his three pointers, but he can get to the rim and score when need be and has averaged over 10 points per game in his last two active seasons. His field goal percentage has unfortunately dropped the last two years, something to keep an eye on considering his health issues, but he’s still a notable upgrade on offense compared to Tate and Lewis. Also, his last season starting saw his turnovers drop from 3.6 turnovers per 40 minutes down to 2.5 turnovers.
There is some turnover for the Illini here and that will leave the depth a tad thin in the backcourt. Fortunately, though, they do return Jaylon Tate. Tate hasn’t set the world on fire, recording 231 points and 231 assists in 1578 minutes the past three seasons, but injuries have led to the guard to see some considerable playing time and now he’s at least a well experienced option on the bench to provide some depth for Abrams at the point.
Also returning in the backcourt are guards Alex Austin and Aaron Jordan. Austin was a decent three point shooter at Eastern Illinois, but in limited minutes last season for the Illini he only hit 6 of his 28 three pointers. As for Jordan, he was a solid three point shooter last season, but didn’t do much else the past season in a backup role. Whoever can emerge as the more prominent three point shooter could see some time behind Coleman-Lands this season.
Joining the fray is Te’Jon Lucas, a three star guard that is the only 2016 commit for the Illini this season. It took Groce quite some time to finally a land point guard and considering the offensive limitations for Tate, if Lucas can get up to speed quickly then he could see plenty of time early on for the Illini. Considering the issues Abrams has had with injuries, the quicker they can get Lucas up and running the better.
The Illini have been plagued with roster turnover and injuries the past few seasons and the backcourt has definitely been negatively effected the last few seasons as well. That trend somewhat continues into this season with the dismissal of Kendrick Nunn, but the Illini finally getting Tracy Abrams back should help out quite a bit.
With a solid three point specialist in Coleman-Lands, an experienced point guard in Tracy Abrams and a dynamic wing in Malcolm Hill, there’s plenty to be excited about from the Illini guards. And while the 2016 recruiting class is thin, it does add a talented point guard in Te’Jon Lucas, while the 2017 class includes a pair of four-star guards (Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams).
If Illinois can stay healthy and avoid off the court problems, the unit should see a considerable improvement this winter.