It’s been quite a long drought for the Illinois basketball program and the Fighting Illini will definitely be feeling the heat this upcoming season. There hasn’t been much champagne flowing in Champaign since they made it to their last Final Four and National Championship game over a decade ago. As the season looms, let’s take a look at the biggest questions for a team looking to redeem themselves after a tumultuous year last season.
Will it be now or never for John Groce?
From 1978 to 1980, the Illinois basketball team failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament, but since then they hadn’t missed three straight tournaments for over 30 years… until these last three seasons. This is pretty embarrassing for a team with a very solid basketball history and one that has brought in very talented players over the years.
Of course much of the blame for these failures will fall directly on head coach John Groce. As the head man, plenty of the culpability should fall on him. But this program is one that has also been unlucky with numerous injuries to key players as well as a team with disciplinary issues causing would-be contributors to miss time.
Regardless, major college basketball is a business that doesn’t really tolerate excuses and one where winning is the only acceptable outcome. Illinois has a new athletic director in Josh Whitman and ADs like to select and hire their own coaches, so Groce is likely perched upon the dreaded (and probably cliched) “hot seat” and will need that elusive NCAA tournament berth at the very least.
Can a talented backcourt be more than just that?
Despite the inability to get past the regular season, Groce actually does a fairly talented team in Champaign. The recruiting has gone well and there have been plenty of offensive playmakers from Brandon Paul to Rayvonte Rice to Kendrick Nunn to now Malcolm Hill. What has killed this team are injuries and legal trouble.
Two years ago, starting point guard Tracy Abrams tore his ACL right before the season started and then sustained an Achilles injury the following year, and therefore has missed two whole seasons. In May, guard Kendrick Nunn, the team’s second leading scorer, was dismissed from the team after he plead guilty to charges stemming from a domestic violence incident.
These have been major blows to the Fighting Illini and the turmoil has caused various guys coming in and out of the starting lineup. And with Abrams finally back in and Nunn now out, the motion continues, but now there is also some talent in the backcourt. Last season’s leading scorer Malcolm Hill is back to pair with Abrams, who, if in form, can help lead a high powered backcourt.
Sophomore Jalen Coleman-Lands showed promise last season and was Deadshot from three point range as he shot 42.2%. If he can develop his game further into more than just shooting and if talented freshman point guard Te’Jon Lucas can show an ability to contribute, this will be a very solid backcourt, with a bright future as well.
Can this team stay healthy and out of trouble?
We already talked about Abrams getting hurt and Nunn’s run-in with the law but the issues don’t stop there. Forward Darius Paul was arrested and kicked off the team prior to last season, guard Jaylon Tate was arrested for domestic battery last March and suspended before being reinstated in May, and forward Leron Black received probation for misdemeanor aggravated assault and is suspended for the first four games.
Forward Mike Thorne Jr. tore his meniscus in his left knee last season, came back for one game, got hurt again and had to miss the rest of the season. And while injuries are pretty much an issue of luck, these disciplinary issues are not and will become even more reason for a coaching change if Groce can’t keep his players on the right path.
It is paramount that these talented players stay out of trouble and for Illinois to get a little lucky and stay healthy. Groce needs his team to take a major step forward this season, and this is not the year where he wants to rely heavily on young guys like Lucas and redshirt freshman Kipper Nichols if everyone else is hurt, suspended, or dismissed.