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2016-’17 Illinois Fighting Illini Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Illinois Fighting Illini and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2016-’17 season.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Day Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016-’17 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2016-’17 season with analysis on each program's previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team's starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local "insider" who covers said team.

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I don’t know where I’m goin’

But I sure know where I’ve been

Hanging on the promises in songs of yesterday

An’ I’ve made up my mind, I ain’t wasting no more time

Here I go again

Here I go again

For those of you who are under the age of 40 or just don’t like classic rock, those are the opening lines to “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake. It might seem odd that I’m quoting an 80s hair metal band in an Illinois basketball season preview, but I think those lyrics tell a lot about what Illini fans are feeling heading into this season.

I believe this because for the third season in a row, Illinois enters the year with more enticement and mystery than any other unit in the Big Ten. The team is talented and has enough pieces to not only make the NCAA Tournament, but compete for a conference title, but lacks even one iota of certainty.

Illinois is essentially Door No. 3 on your favorite game show.

Who in the hell knows what we’re going to get.

That mix of emotions is going to make for an incredibly interesting season for Illinois. If the team hits the ground running, this could be the start of something special in Champaign, but if things turn south, don’t be surprised if John Groce is given the boot next spring.

It’s every emotion and situation combined into one. And with that, here’s a look at what to expect this year.

BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast

Along with reading BTPowerhouse's season preview post for the Illinois Fighting Illini, make sure to check out the site's podcast preview of the Illini, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and Champaign Room Contributor Brad Repplinger breaking down the Illini roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2015-’16 Season Performance

  • Record: 15-19 (5-13)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #125
  • RPI Rating: #151
  • Postseason Appearance: None

Depending on your viewpoint, Illinois either had a horrible season unworthy of the program’s standards or a respectable performance given the circumstances. While the Illini failed to make the postseason and recorded just two regular season wins over top 50 KenPom opponents, there’s no debating that the long string of injuries and off court issues prevented the team from doing better during the year.

And really, that’s what was so perplexing about last season. The team showed it could get up for games in matchups against NCAA Tournament teams in Iowa, Purdue and Yale, but was so inconsistent and lackluster most of the year that the majority of those performances were forgotten. Two losses that really sting came against Chattanooga and North Florida when the roster was largely at full strength.

Whether you’re on #TeamUnderwhelm or #TeamInjuries, the truth is that fans will never know what Illinois could have done with a full strength roster. Perhaps the team continues its non-conference momentum into Big Ten play or maybe it falters just like it did anyway. There’s no telling, which is what makes projecting Illinois into this season so intriguing and so difficult.

Highlights of the season included non-conference wins over Missouri and Yale and upset wins over Purdue in regular season play and Iowa at the Big Ten Tournament. Low points of the season included non-conference losses to Chattanooga and North Florida and a near loss against Rutgers.

Individual statistical leaders were Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, and Mike Thorne. Hill led the team in minutes, points, rebounds, assists, steals, and total win shares. Morgan led the team in blocks. Thorne led the team in usage.

2. Offseason Exits

Generally speaking, Illinois avoided much of the attrition seen elsewhere in the Big Ten since the start of last season. Illinois lost four players, but only one looks like a major loss. These players like Mike LaTulip, Khalid Lewis, and Kendrick Nunn. Two of these players transferred and Lewis graduated.

The only major loss among this group figures to be Nunn. While one can debate as to how Nunn’s behavior off the court influenced Illinois during his career, there’s no debating his numbers on the court. He averaged 15.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game last season and ranked second on the team in minutes and field goal attempts. Finding a suitable replacement for his will be one of John Groce’s biggest challenges this fall.

Lewis can’t compare to Nunn’s numbers from last season, but he’s a notable loss in his own right. He ranked fourth on the team in minutes last season and served as the team’s third rotating guard. If there weren’t such clearly ascertainable replacements (discussed below) for Lewis, this could be an underrated departure. However, since those replacement options exist, this isn’t a huge loss. Finally, LaTulip transferred from the program after redshirting for the duration of the 2015-’16 season. His lost contributions will only be felt off the court.

Illinois isn’t the only team in the Big Ten that’s returning a lot this season, but the team is certainly right up there with anybody else. Although Nunn won’t be easy to replace, the rest of the lineup returns and the only depth loss (Lewis) should be filled in by some of the new contributors available this year.

3. New Additions

This season, the Illinois will be adding one recruit and one transfer. The recruit is Te’Jon Lucas and he is rated as a three-star recruit by 247Sports. He comes out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and is rated as the No. 3 player in the state and the No. 28 point guard nationally.

Even if Lucas is ready to play when he gets on the floor this season, his minutes will likely be limited due to the team’s significant guard depth. Illinois has Tracy Abrams and Jaylon Tate at point guard and Jalen Coleman-Lands at shooting guard. The Coleman-Lands offseason injury might give him an opening to get a few more minutes of playing time, but it’s hard to see him getting too much behind all that experience.

Along with the recruiting addition, Illinois will also be adding a transfer in the form of Kipper Nichols. Due to NCAA transfer rules, he will be ineligible for the first semester of this season. As such, he should be eligible to play right around the end of non-conference play.

Nicholas was rated by 247Sports as a three-star while a recruit and committed to Tulane. However, he got cold feet early on and opted to transfer to Illinois. He’s an athletic wing with plenty of size that projects pretty well long-term. The question will simply be as to how ready he is to contribute early in his career. Like Lucas, it’s going to be an uphill battle for playing time due to the team’s depth on the wing.

4. Team Strengths

There are a few areas where Illinois is set to be strong this season. Perhaps the most notable will be in the team’s passing and ball control, but the team should also be a decent outside shooting unit and could be set to improve massively on the boards.

During last season, Illinois was already one of the best teams at controlling possessions. The team ranked No. 12 in offensive turnover rate and No. 25 in offensive steal percentage. Even if the team struggled in other areas, this was one where it thrived. This was largely due a talented backcourt and a wing group (notably Malcolm Hill) that did a great job with their possessions.

While the loss of Kendrick Nunn is going to be a hit to the team’s ball control, the return of Tracy Abrams and addition of Te’Jon Lucas should help to make up that loss. Plus, Jalen Coleman-Lands has already shown he has a great handle (12.8 turnover rate) and with most possessions, he should put up some impressive numbers as well.

Illinois also stands to be a solid perimeter shooting team with the return of Coleman-Lands and Hill and could take a step forward on the boards as well. In particular, the return of Mike Thorne (16.3 offensive rebounding rate) could do wonders for the team’s offensive rebounding, which ranked No. 344 nationally last season.

5. Team Weaknesses

Despite those strengths, there are also some major reasons for concern this season for Illinois. Perhaps the most significant will be on the defensive end and particularly, within the paint and around the rim. The team didn’t show much consistency in either area last year and will look to improve in each this season.

Although Illinois did finish at No. 135 overall in defensive efficiency last season, it was largely due to Illinois forcing teams inside and avoiding fouls. After all, it’s pretty hard to finish outside the top 300 in defensive effective field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and block rate and finish with a top 150 defense. Perhaps Illinois can continue what it did last season, but that could be a tall task, especially with new players entering the lineup.

Arguably the biggest concern on the defensive end will be the team’s play around the rim. Illinois finished at No. 333 nationally in defensive block rate and could be set for more struggles this year. That’s because Mike Thorne will likely be taking most of the minutes at center and he isn’t a particularly great shot blocker. Even if he does improve things a bit, this will still be an issue for Illinois this season.

One final area that will be interesting to watch is how the loss of Kendrick Nunn impacts the offense. While I still expect the offense to be productive, Nunn accounted for a hefty workload with 25.8 percent of shots taken while on the floor for Illinois. That was the same rate as Malcolm Hill and will be difficult to replace. There’s plenty of talent returning to fill those possessions, but it won’t be an easy task.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, most fans had a pretty good idea as to who would end up being the team’s best player. Barring a surprise, it would be Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn, or Mike Thorne. That, of course, came to fruition with Hill and Nunn dominating the team’s statistical numbers over the course of the season and Thorne showing up very well over the early games before suffering from injury.

Things will look relatively similar heading into this season with Hill and Thorne both returning. Although Nunn won’t be back, it’s pretty easy to think the team’s best player will be one of these two. Hill averaged an impressive 18.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 3.3 assists and will look to continue that success this year. Thorne only played in eight games, but averaged an impressive 12.9 points and 8.5 rebounds a game.

Along with Hill and Thorne, the biggest contender for the team’s best player will be Jalen Coleman-Lands. He had a great freshman campaign last season and should be set to make a big step forward. He has a solid handle and an impressive three-point shot. If he can maintain his efficiency with more possessions, he could make some real noise.

Three wildcards to watch will be redshirt sophomores Leron Black and Michael Finke and redshirt freshman Kipper Nichols. All three have talent and could be set to surprise. Admittedly, none of these three look like safe bets to start, but they are players to watch in this regard.

7. 2015-16 Schedule Breakdown

  • 10/30 - Washington U (Ex.)
  • 11/4 - Lewis (Ex.)
  • 11/11 - Southeast Missouri State
  • 11/13 - Northern Kentucky
  • 11/15 - McKendree
  • 11/18 - Detroit
  • 11/21 - Winthrop
  • 11/24 - West Virginia (Brooklyn, NY)
  • 11/25 - Florida State/Temple (Brooklyn, NY)
  • 11/29 - North Carolina St.
  • 12/3 - VCU (Miami, FL)
  • 12/6 - IUPUI
  • 12/10 - Central Michigan
  • 12/17 - BYU (Chicago, IL)
  • 12/21 - Missouri (St. Louis, MO)
  • 12/27 - at Maryland
  • 1/1 - Ohio State
  • 1/7 - at Indiana
  • 1/11 - Michigan
  • 1/14 - Maryland
  • 1/17 at Purdue
  • 1/21 - at Michigan
  • 1/25 - Iowa
  • 1/28 - at Penn State
  • 1/31 - Wisconsin
  • 2/4 - Minnesota
  • 2/7 - at Northwestern
  • 2/11 - Penn State
  • 2/18 - at Iowa
  • 2/21 - Northwestern
  • 2/26 - at Nebraska
  • 3/1 - Michigan State
  • 3/4 - at Rutgers

Illinois has once again put together a pretty intriguing non-conference slate. According to KenPom, Illinois is set to face three top 50 teams, five top 150 teams, and eight top 200 teams during non-conference play. That’s a good depth and variety of games, especially with none coming on the road.

The biggest games will come in the stretch between Winthrop and VCU. Illinois is set to have five games in a row against top 150 competition and could have four games in a row against top 50 opponents if Illinois faces Florida State in Brooklyn. The Illini will likely be underdogs in most of those games and will have to hope for some fortunate bounces to come out with some wins during that run.

That schedule will become more difficult during conference play. Illinois has an incredible 17 (!!!) conference games against top 100 opponents and its first seven (!!!) games against top 50 opponents, including road trips to Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, and Purdue. Considering that Illinois hasn’t won in any of those venues under Groce, that’s a pretty challenging slate.

If Illinois can make it through that brutal opening stretch, there should be some signs of hope. Illinois gets Northwestern and Penn State twice and games against Minnesota, Nebraska, and Rutgers. Add in two 50-50 games with Iowa and there are a lot of potential wins there. The tricky part will be avoiding a meltdown in December and January to take some momentum into those matchups.

8. Projected Startling Lineup

  • PG: Tracy Abrams (Rs. Rs. Sr.) - 60%
  • SG: Jalen Coleman-Lands (So.) - 90%
  • SF: Malcolm Hill (Sr.) - 95%
  • PF: Leron Black (Rs. So.) - 55%
  • C: Mike Thorne (Rs. Rs. Sr.) - 95%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

The Illini backcourt should be set for an intriguing situation. Both Khalid Lewis and Kendrick Nunn departed this offseason, but with the return of Tracy Abrams from injury and the addition of Te’Jon Lucas, there are some pretty interesting pieces to work with this season. However, the likely starters will be Jalen Coleman-Lands coming off a great freshman campaign and Abrams coming off a series of injuries.

Two other guys that are worth mentioning as well are Aaron Jordan and DJ Williams. Although neither was outstanding last season, each came in with a fair amount of recruiting hype and should be on pace to compete for a starting role heading into the 2017-18 season. Neither is likely to start this year, but could if some of the players on the wing aren’t quite ready for a starting spot.

On the wing, the majority of the minutes should be taken by Malcolm Hill and a combination of Leron Black and Michael Finke. Hill is likely the team’s best returning player and both Black and Finke showed enough flashes of quality play for fans to think they could be decent options this year. One other wildcard to watch here will be Kipper Nichols, who is talented enough to push for starting minutes by the end of the game.

There shouldn’t be too much drama upfront. With the return of Mike Thorne from injury, he figures to be the clear starter heading into this season. Maverick Morgan should get some decent minutes behind him in relief, but unless Thorne thoroughly underwhelms, it’s pretty unlikely anybody else will be in contention to start at center.

9. Team Perspective From Brad Repplinger of the Champaign Room

"Coach John Groce is looking to turn around last year's 15 win season with a healthy roster in 2016-2017. Speculation about Groce's tenure with the Illini was quickly dismissed as new AD Josh Whitman gave his support for Groce and his coaching staff back in March. Since that time, Groce has built the 3rd best recruiting class for 2017 by landing 5 star Jeremiah Tilmon, 4 star Trent Frazier, and 4 star DaMonte Williams. While the future looks bright, fans look to a healthy Illinois roster to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 3 seasons.

The Illini enter the 2016-2017 campaign with one of the oldest rosters in college basketball.

Mike Thorne Jr. returns to the front court this season after a devastating injury sidelined him last season, and he is surrounded by RS Sophomore forwards Michael Finke and Leron Black who are coming off a great year. Tracy Abrams returns to the back court after back to back ACL tears in 2014 and 2015. Preseason All Big-Ten Senior Malcolm Hill will be a popular target for Abrams and freshman Te'Jon Lucas will look to be a budding star under Abrams' tenure at PG.

With a healthy roster and an eye on the future, Illinois should fall in the 20-22 win range this season. The first major hurdle comes against the West Virginia Mountaineers in the NIT Season Tip Off in Brooklyn NY, with a tough game 5 days later against NC State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Throw in a 9-10 win season in conference play, and the Illini should be dancing in March." - Brad Repplinger.

10. Overall Season Outlook

Illinois heads into this season with a veil of mystery surrounding its roster and postseason hopes. John Groce has yet to show much over the last few years of his tenure, but could be set up with his most talented roster yet. The pendulum could realistically hang between a losing record and a top four Big Ten finish.

Literally, everything is possible this year.

And that’s what makes things so intriguing. Illinois has a returning star in Malcolm Hill, a player coming off a great freshman year in Jalen Coleman-Lands, and two potential stars in Tracy Abrams and Mike Thorne. However, the roster of the roster is an unknown, nobody can be sure as to how much Coleman-Lands improved and both Abrams and Thorne are coming off injuries. There’s no telling how that sorts out.

For every good thing, there’s a bad thing. For every hopeful scenario, there’s one just as crushing. This Illinois team could go in a thousand different directions and it holds Groce’s head coaching career in Champaign in the balance. The pressure will be immense and it should make for a wild year from start to finish.

But even with all that uncertainty, this still seems like a roster that will finish toward the bottom of the Big Ten without some marked improvement from the roster. Barring some surprises from some of the younger returners or additions, this looks like a team is headed for another underwhelming finish.

Big Ten Prediction: 10th Place