The Fighting Illini finished their season Friday afternoon with a 89-58 loss to Purdue in the Big Ten Tourney quarterfinals. It marks the end of a disappointing and injury-plagued season in which Illinois went 15-19 overall, totaling the most losses in one season since the 2007-08 season. It also marks the third season in-a-row in which the Fighting Illini have missed the NCAA tournament. Here's a brief recap covering Illinois' 2015-16 year.
The Fighting Illini came into this season cautiously optimistic. Although they had lost key starters Rayvonte Rice and Nnanna Egwu, Illinois' roster looked as it if was going to be talented enough to warrant a look from the selection committee. However, even before the season, the injury bug was hitting hard. Tracy Abrams was deemed out for his second straight year, Kendrick Nunn was sidelined for a month with a broken thumb, Leron Black had a torn meniscus and Jalen Coleman-Lands was returning from a leg fracture. Still, in our BT Powerhouse season prediction for the Illini, we had them projected to finish 9th overall in the conference.
To say that the Illini started the non-conference flat would be a massive understatement. In their first game of the season, Illinois was upset by North Florida in Springfield. This was a difficult blow, considering the Illini were projected to win significantly. While they were able to bounce back with a win over North Dakota State, they then fell on the road to Providence in what would have been a solid non-conference win.
Their second bad loss came against Chattanooga, again in Springfield. The Illini then barely escaped Chicago State on a buzzer-beater from JCL, sending them packing for the Emerald Coast Classic in Niceville, FL. There, Illinois beat UAB and took Iowa State into the second half, but Mike Thorne Jr. left the game with a torn meniscus, shattering any hopes the Illini may have had for the game, or the future. A loss to Notre Dame followed in the B1G/ACC challenge, the inaugural game for the renovated State Farm Center.
However, Illinois won their final five non-conference games, including the Braggin' Rights game against vaunted rival Missouri. The team entered the Big Ten schedule with a sub-par record of 8-5.
Three straight losses to Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State marked the start of the conference season. Illinois took the Buckeyes to the buzzer, but was unable to prevail with a win.
The surprise of the season came when the Illini upset #20 Purdue in Champaign behind 30 points from Malcolm Hill. It was Illinois' first win over the Boilermakers since 2013. However, the Illini soon regressed, dropping back-to-back games to Nebraska and Indiana. A couple games later, they took conference winless Rutgers to triple-OT where they won 110-101. Believe it or not, that would have been Illinois' worst loss of the season by far.
The Illini got one more win in the conference, a victory over the dismal Minnesota Golden Gophers. Overall, they finished the Big Ten schedule with a record of 5-13, and 13-18 overall.
It will be interesting to see what becomes of three key players this offseason: Tracy Abrams, Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black. The first two have applied for medical hardship waivers and will attempt to play for their sixth seasons as college student-athletes. Black, on the other hand, was suspended for the rest of the year after he pulled a knife on a bouncer at a club. His status as a member of the team is pending review.
The good news is that next season Illinois returns a strong senior class. Headlined by Hill and Kendrick Nunn, it also features Jaylon Tate who will in all likelihood be the starting point guard. Maverick Morgan progressed significantly in the latter portion of the season and will be back for his junior campaign. The freshman to-be sophomore class now also had a lot of experience under its belt. Jalen Coleman-Lands and Michael Finke both are strong players that really have the potential to develop into All-Conference talents. Guys like D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan still have some work to do.
It will be interesting to see if John Groce explores the transfer market once again. If Black leaves, then the Illini will have an extra scholarship available and will be able to explore potential fifth-year players around the country. However this all remains to be seen this summer.