With a new college basketball season approaching, BTPowerhouse will continue to preview the 2017-18 season. This time, featuring the Illinois Fighting Illini.
The Fighting Illini program fired John Groce after a mediocre 2016-17 season. Groce and the Fighting Illini finished with a record of 20-15 last season, qualifying for the NIT. The team made some noise in the tournament, but exited after losing to UCF in the quarterfinal.
Now with new head coach Brad Underwood, Illinois will get a fresh start this season. Lets take a look at three storylines coming into the new season.
Who in the backcourt will separate themselves to earn more playing time?
The Fighting Illini have plenty of depth in the backcourt this season even though Te’Jon Lucas is the only guard returning who has played meaningful minutes this past season. But the new additions of Trent Frazier, Mark Smith, Da’Monte Williams and Mark Alstork make for an interesting battle for playing time.
Lucas will likely be the guy to earn playing time because he performed well last season in limited playing time. Lucas made a significant impact on defense, ranking fourth in the Big Ten in steals -which is impressive considering that he didn't get a ton of minutes. Lucas also led the team in assists, averaging 3.1 per game. Lucas’ quality of play was impressive considering that he contributed 4.8 points per game in only 20 minutes during his freshmen season.
Besides Lucas, the status of playing time between graduate transfer Alstork and three freshmen in Williams, Smith and Frazier will be up in the air. I would lean Alstork’s way because he obviously has the most experience in the group. But if things go south for Illinois in the midst of the season, look for Underwood to give more minutes to the young guys in order to gain value experience in their first year.
Who will be the starting center?
Will Underwood go with the undersized athletic Leron Black or will he turn to freshmen Matic Vessel? Vessel is extremely long and thin at 6-foot-9, 215-pounds. Does he have enough size to battle with fellow Big Ten big men Nick Ward and Reggie Lynch? It would be surprising to see Vessel get a starting position in his freshman season. He will most likely get pushed around in the paint due to his lack of weight and strength.
Underwood is likely to roll with a combination of Black and Michael Finke. Finke is one of most versatile forwards in Big Ten, with the ability to play in the pick and pop game. Finke is also a reliable spot-up shooter, shooting 41% from three last season. In the past, Underwood’s teams like to play with pace. Finke fits that up-tempo style.
Will the Fighting Illini make it back to the NCCA Tournament in Underwood’s first season?
Although the improvement from Groce to Underwood is immense, I don’t see Illinois getting back to the Big Dance in Underwood’s first season. The lack of experience on the overall roster will cause some growing pains that can’t be afforded for a team that doesn't have as much experience as other teams in the Big Ten
It’s unlikely that this team will get off to a hot start in the Big Ten. That makes for an uphill climb the rest of the conference season - something this young team can’t afford when getting acclimated to a new system.
I do think the Fighting Illini will be battling for another NIT bid. That’s not what the Fighting Illini faithful want to hear, but the good news is that there is only one senior and one graduate transfer on the roster. If Underwood is able to bring back the majority of this roster and is able to add more talent from the recruiting trail, then this team could be poised for a Top 5 conference finish in the 2018-19 Big Ten season.