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Saying goodbye to Illinois’ seniors

Individual improvements never led to increased wins

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

The Illinois senior class extended their careers as far as they could this March. The six-player class led the Illini to the NIT quarterfinals, prior to suffering a 68-58 loss at UCF on March 22.

That brief run through the NIT helped wash away some of the sour taste that was following the Illinois program after several middling years culminated in the firing of head coach John Groce on March 11.

When the final buzzer sounded against UCF, the Illini were 20-15 on the season, including 8-10 in the Big Ten. The buzzer also signaled the end of six careers in Champaign. It was a bit of an odd bunch, including three members of Groce’s first Illinois recruiting class, a member of Illinois’ 2011 recruiting class, and two transfers.

Malcolm Hill will leave the most lasting legacy of the group. The 6-foot-6 guard was named second-team All-Big Ten after averaging 17.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.2 steals per game as a senior.

Illinois’ offensive focal point for much of the last three years, Hill went out gunning. He scored 29 of Illinois’ 58 points against UCF, shooting 6-of-12 from behind the arc while adding six rebounds and three steals.

After a tough showing in the Big Ten Tournament loss to Michigan, Hill showed exactly what he could do in the NIT, averaging 22.3 points per game in three outings. It was a good way to go out for a three-time all-conference player who was a top-75 recruit coming out of high school. Hill, one of the lone bright spots during the Groce era, could single-handedly keep the Illini afloat in games.

However, Hill wasn’t the longest-tenured member of the Illini. That honor went to Tracy Abrams, a sixth-year senior who missed the last two seasons with ACL and Achilles injuries. Nobody knew what Abrams would provide this season, but he put together a solid year. The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 8.2 points, 2.3 assists and 1.0 steal per game while shooting 40.2 percent from the 3-point line.

It’ll be a different look without Abrams on the bench next season. He played in 32 games as a freshman, then averaged 10.6 points, 3.4 assists and 1.4 steals per game as a sophomore and 10.7 points, 3.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game as a junior before his career was derailed with injuries. 2016-17 was a bit of a victory lap for Abrams, who showed he could still get it done in the Big Ten after two full years off.

Maverick Morgan departs after averaging 9.9 points and 4.5 rebounds per game on 54.0 percent shooting as a senior. The 6-foot-10 big man saw his numbers increase every year, having averaged just 1.5 points in 7.1 minutes per game as a freshman. Morgan broke out as a junior, playing 21.1 minutes per game and scoring 8.3 points per game on 56.4 percent shooting.

Jaylon Tate played at least 12.2 minutes per game all four years, but never really took on a bigger role, averaging just 2.4 points and 2.8 assists per game as a senior.

Mike Thorne Jr. will move on after averaging 5.2 points, 3.4 rebounds on 54.7 percent shooting this season. The 6-foot-11 senior spent two years in Illinois after transferring from Charlotte. Thorne was granted a sixth year of eligibility after playing just eight games in 2015-16 due to a knee injury.

Alex Austin also graduates after spending the tail end of his career in an Illinois uniform. The 6-foot-4 guard spent three years in Champaign after transferring from Eastern Illinois prior to the 2014-15 season. Austin carved out a role in his junior season, seeing action in 32 games and making six starts. Austin’s role dipped this year, however, as he averaged just 0.4 points in 2.0 minutes per game.

Hill, Morgan, Tate, Austin Colbert and Kendrick Nunn made up Groce’s first recruiting class at Illinois. While Colbert and Nunn didn’t spend four years in Champaign, pressure was put on this group to get things moving in the right direction at Illinois.

As the only class to play their full careers under Groce, they will be remembered for not being able to turn the program back into a winner. The 2013 recruiting class never made the NCAA Tournament, failing to reach the dance after Illinois made it in Groce’s first season at the helm in 2012-’13.

The administration gave them time to turn things around, but it never came together for a team that continually failed to compete near the top of the Big Ten. However, forgetting players like Abrams and Hill won’t be easy. Even with the struggles, those two and the others represented Illinois with pride, win or lose.