This past Monday night many Illini fans were shocked as Illinois blew a 10 point lead with three minutes to go against Winthrop, eventually falling to the Eagles 80-84 in overtime. For fans who have dreamed of another NCAA Tournament berth for the first time since 2013, this came as a huge blow.
The sky, however, is not falling for the Illini (although if they do not fix their rebounding problem, it might be). Despite the slow start, Illinois still has the potential to be a tournament team come March. The reality is that this is the most talented team Coach John Groce has had at Illinois and he should be able to guide them to a tournament berth.
Here are three reasons why the Illini will be in the NCAA Tournament when March rolls around in 2017..
1. The Return of Leron Black
After serving his suspension for pleading guilty to a misdemeanor aggravated assault charge in February, Black returned to action against Winthrop and scored 10 points.
Black will add some much needed depth to the Illini and could prove to be a solid contributor for Illinois, provided that he can stay on the court. At this point, hopefully Black has put his off-the-court issues behind him and can focus solely on basketball.
At 6’7’, Black can hopefully help on the boards and keep Illinois from being out-rebounded every game. When March rolls around, he could end up being a key piece to their tournament chances, provided he stays on the court.
As mentioned earlier, this is the deepest team that Coach Groce has had since becoming the coach at Illinois. In years past he has had to keep a tight leash on the rotation, but that does not look to be the case this year.
Although it is early, Illinois already has five players averaging in double figures and two other players averaging over seven points per game. The added depth could play a huge factor in what figures to be a grueling Big Ten schedule. If the team can improve their rebounding as a whole, the depth could be a key in securing a tournament birth.
After missing the tournament for three straight years, the depth of the Illini could be the reason for returning to the NCAA Tournament.
3. Malcolm Hill
Every team that is successful in conference play and in the NCAA Tournament has that one player who can put the team on his back when things are going poorly. Think of players such as Kemba Walker, Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis in years past.
Malcolm Hill is the Illini’s best player and best scorer and the person most likely to put his team on his back. Already averaging 20 points and 7 rebounds, Hill is on pace to have a career year.
The knock on the Illini is that they are not always successful in half-court offense, but if Malcolm Hill is scoring at a high level those concerns are not as pressing. When conference play rolls around, Hill is going to be needed to make big shots when the team hits a slump and if he can prove to score consistently, the Illini just might end their tournament hiatus.
Even with a loss to Winthrop, there is no need to hit the panic button just yet. The talent is still there and if everything comes together, the Illini could be dancing come March.