Next season is a big one for Illinois. The Fighting Illini have gone 21-34 in the Big Ten over the last three seasons, and the record needs to move in a better direction, particularly after last year’s 5-13 league mark. (Only Minnesota and Rutgers had worse conference records.)
John Groce’s recruiting has been promising, particularly in-state. However, the roster’s been in flux, partly due to off-the-court issues. Groce received a vote of confidence from his new boss in March; the support came after three player arrests: Jaylon Tate, Leron Black and Kendrick Nunn. Tate’s been reinstated after the charges in his case were dropped; Black is also back but suspended for four games; Nunn however was dismissed from the program and has decided to transfer to Oakland.
Nunn’s dismissal appears quite justified, but it leaves a void. (He played 35 minutes a game, and averaged 15.5 PPG.) Malcolm Hill and Maverick Morgan are still on the roster, and Jalen Coleman-Lands has great potential, especially after a very impressive freshman season.
Last week, Illinois also picked up a couple walk-on reinforcements. Drew Cayce and Clayton Jones have joined the Fighting Illini. How much they’ll contribute is unknown, but they’re both intriguing prospects.
Cayce walked on at Creighton last seasons, after playing for a top-five high school team.
He can really shoot. His shooting stroke is odd, but quite effective. (He shoots the ball from the right side of his head. Think John Stockton, but maybe even more dramatic. Or, just watch the clip below.)
He’s 6’1” and athletically, he needs time to get comfortable playing against athletes at the next level. If he can defend a little, his shooting may get him on the floor. It’s a bit unclear how he is off the dribble, and may not be a good enough athlete to beat Big Ten defenders off the dribble. So, offensively he’ll be a bit one-dimensional.
Jones is the brother of Verdell Jones, who played at Indiana. The younger Jones spent last year playing junior college basketball. Like Cayce, Jones will walk on and try to earn some minutes.
Jones, a lefty point guard, is a playmaker. He can shoot and take people off the dribble. When he gets to the rim, Jones’s is creative. He finishes in a variety of ways.
And, he’s a threat to pass; his vision is also impressive off the dribble. On the pick-and-roll he can find people, or when he’s probing the lane.
Making the leap from junior college to the Big will be an adjustment, but he has potential and the pedigree.
These two are nice additions for Illinois. Not sure that they’ll instantly contribute, or ever be the stars. But, for a program trying to clean up, solidify its roster with basketball players and quality people, both Cayce and Jones check the box. (Probably most importantly, they seem to be good teammates and locker room guys.)
Arrests and dismissals (Darius Paul and Nunn) have plagued Illinois and the record hasn’t been moving in the right direction. Groce has a new boss, Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman. Whitman made a quick decision to fire Bill Cubit as Illinois football coach (and hire Lovie Smith).
Recruiting-wise, Groce’s had a great off season. Now, it’s just a matter of putting it together on the court.