The Illinois Fighting Illini finished near the very bottom of the Big Ten conference a season ago, collecting just five wins within the 14-team conference. There were issues across the board for John Groce and this club, ranging from injuries to arrests to players being kicked off the team. Groce claims the remaining roster is galvanized as a unit and ready to move "onward and upward." More so than moving past such off-court issues, Illinois will benefit greatly by simply getting guys back healthy for the 2016-17 basketball season.
Tracy Abrams is back for a sixth season after missing the past two with knee and Achilles injuries. Mike Thorne Jr. is also back for year number six after dealing with his own knee injury. Leron Black has a pending suspension but should be healthy when that expires. Abrams and Thorne especially help form an incredibly veteran group that could start as many as four seniors.
Expectations are high for the backcourt this season, led by Abrams and freshman Te'Jon Lucas, as well as leading scorer Malcolm Hill. Hill's 18.1 points per game ranked third in the Big Ten. A healthy frontcourt made up of Thorne, Maverick Morgan and Michael Finke could also be intriguing with the versatility that trio possesses. This has all the makings of a real bounce-back season for Illinois.
But the Big Ten does nobody any favors. It is a very deep and talented league. As much as half the league could find itself ranked in the opening Top 25 poll of the season, and a few others won't be far off from that threshold. Nine schools won at least 20 games last year, with Illinois falling a far cry from that grouping. It has now been seven years since the Illini finished above .500 in the conference.
Fortunately for them, the 2016-17 schedule offers a few quirky reprieves in-conference. They only play the Wisconsin and Michigan State once apiece, and the games will be at home. That is a lucky break for Illinois, as Wisconsin and Michigan State are arguably the two best teams in the Big Ten.
Illinois also only faces Indiana one time as well, though Illinois will have to travel for that matchup. Things did not go well for it in Indiana last season as the team allowed a season-high 103 points to the Hoosiers in a regulation game. Illinois was just 2-8 in true road games last season.
The Purdue Boilermakers also make just one appearance on the Illinois schedule, though also a road game. Out of the five or so top teams in the conference, Maryland is the only one that Illinois plays twice, with the home-and-home taking place within a three week stretch at the end of December and beginning of January. The four other schools Illinois is scheduled to play twice this year are Michigan, Iowa, Penn State and Northwestern. They all finished above Illinois last season and, outside of Penn State, won at least 20 games. Penn State finished at an even 16-16. Again, the Big Ten is never easy, no matter the scheduling alignment.
Ordinarily, Illinois would be the team others look at as a chance to grab a win. However, the return of healthy players like Abrams and Thorne throw a variable into that. This isn't going to be the team that fans saw last season; it should be much better. Good enough to challenge near the top of the conference remains to be seen. There are a lot of minutes that will need to be taken up by guys who haven't played in quite some time, and the first few conference games do not offer the team a chance to acclimate itself. The opposition is difficult right from the jump.