With a new college basketball season approaching, the time to begin anew for Illinois basketball can be felt in the crisp fall air. That, of course, is exactly what this program needs: a fresh start after an ugly, embarrassing and image-shattering 2015-16 filled with listless on-court efforts and countless legal troubles.
From avoiding legal issues to John Groce’s future to Malcolm Hill’s run at Illinois greatness and getting to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013, there are a bunch of storylines to look toward for the upcoming season. Here now is just a sampling of three of them.
John Groce’s Seat Getting Warmer
Through only four years as head coach for Illinois, adequately judging the tenure for Groce is a pretty difficult task. Yes, the Illini have only had one NCAA tournament appearance under Groce, missing the tournament the last three seasons with players he recruited. For most coaches at a supposedly big-time college basketball program, missing the tournament three consecutive seasons and having four players arrested is a death knell.
Fortunately, for Groce, he has proven to be an expertly skilled recruiter. So far for the 2017 recruiting class Groce has managed to secure commitments from four 4-star recruits—the most coveted being power forward/center Jeremiah Tilmon. The program has also succeeded in drawing interest from five-star recruits Brian Bowen and Kris Wilkes. If it weren’t for Groce’s ability to recruit, he would likely be gone by now.
Simply as a product of the success Groce has had in recruiting for next season, his job is likely safe for the next two seasons. Nonetheless, it is imperative that he cool down his seat for the future by coaching Illinois to at least a tournament appearance. Not having a player get arrested would also be a step in the right direction.
Malcolm Hill, Big Ten Player of the Year
In an otherwise forgettable season, the play of the junior guard was a verifiable bright spot for the Illini. Averaging 18 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists, Hill did all that he could last season in attempting to guide Illinois to the tournament. It turned out to not be enough, though he certainly cemented himself as one of the conference’s best players heading into his senior season. Hill has continually improved every season since he arrived in Champaign, so expect his numbers to improve once again. He has all the reason in the world to average at least 20 points in his final season.
Hill only shot about 31 percent from three-point range last season and if he can get back to his 39 percent clip as a sophomore, he will become an even more high-volume scorer. If Illinois can make a tournament run, Hill will certainly be in the Big Ten Player of the Year discussion. Being a lottery pick next June is a real possibility as well.
If Illinois can finally break their tournament skid, Malcolm Hill will be the biggest reason. Heck, if he replicates his scoring total from last season he will become the third leading scorer in program history.
Avoiding injuries, finding depth
Injuries are, of course, just a part of the game. That being said, last season Illinois had more bad luck with injuries than most teams. The list included losing the perennially-injured Tracy Abrams for the season with an ACL tear and losing Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black to surgeries. Luckily for Illinois all three players are back and healthy, with Abrams and Thorne being granted one more year of eligibility. If Abrams can stay healthy for the first time in two seasons he will be a great source of depth for an already talented backcourt of Hill, Jalen Coleman-Lands and Jaylon Tate.
For Illinois to be a more balanced squad this season the production of the frontcourt has to improve. The return of Thorne, a guy that averaged 12.9 points and 8.5 rebounds last year, will certainly give the frontcourt a boost in terms of scoring and rebounding. It is equally important that fellow frontcourt player Maverick Morgan replicate his 8.3 points per game average. The controversial Black is the unknown wildcard for the Illini, especially if he gets named as a starter.
One of the other potential X-factors for Illinois this season will be the contributions from true freshman guard Te’Jon Lucas. At this point the role the four-star recruit out of Milwaukee will play on the team is unknown, though he is a talented young player that can easily find himself playing important minutes this season.
If Illinois can find a combination of reserves in both the frontcourt and backcourt to support Lands and Hill, this is certainly a tournament caliber team. Not only is it imperative that the team stay healthy, it is equally important that John Groce push the right buttons in motivating certain players to produce.