Illinois is not a good basketball team right now. Sure, you could blame injuries to guys like Tracy Abrams, Kendrick Nunn, and Jaylon Tate. But the Illini have way too much talent to be losing to North Florida and Chattanooga (and barely scraping by Chicago State). Let's take a look at what John Groce needs to do on the recruiting trail to help fix this program.
The biggest signing that Groce has secured for next year is point guard Te'Jon Lucas, who I've already written about here. Just recently Groce added the signing of former Tulane commit Kipper Nichols, who will be eligible second semester of next year. Khalid Lewis, a graduate transfer from LaSalle, will be gone, but the rest of Illinois' backcourt should return in 2016. The one question mark is Tracy Abrams. Abrams would likely be eligible to come back for a sixth year, but whether or not he wants to come back remains to be seen.
Even if Abrams doesn't return for a sixth season, the Illini will have Lucas, Nunn, Tate, Malcolm Hill, Jalen Coleman-Lands, D.J. Williams, and Aaron Jordan to fill the backcourt. And plenty of perimeter talent will remain on the roster.
Mike Thorne, the team's leading rebounder and second leading scorer, will exhaust his eligibility at the end of this season. However, Illinois will have a surprising (for Illinois) amount of frontcourt talent returning. Freshman forward Michael Finke has been a very pleasant surprise so far, and Maverick Morgan and Leron Black will provide additional muscle up front.
The problem is, that's it. As is often the case for Illinois, the Illini will have a few talented frontcourt players, but no depth to speak of. At the very minimum, Groce needs to get one more big man who can make an instant impact. One of the constant gripes about Illinois is that the school is unable to get the state's top talent. And although the high school class of 2016 in Illinois is less talented than is typical, the Illini once again whiffed on all the top prospects. The top two big men, Barret Benson and Rapolas Ivanauskas, both committed to in-state rival Northwestern. Nick Rakocevic, the top unsigned forward in the state of Illinois, has already eliminated the Illini from his list. Groce will have his work cut out for him if he wants to quickly bolster his frontcourt.
Barring another barrage of injuries, Illinois' backcourt is loaded for next season, with or without Abrams. But unless you're a team like this year's edition of Gonzaga, it's nearly impossible to get away with having just three legitimate frontcourt players. Therefore, Groce needs to focus most of his efforts on securing a big man for next season and beyond. Because Illinois has missed on all of its high school targets in this category, Groce will have to play the market in another way. By either nabbing a JUCO player or graduate transfer, Groce will give his 2016-17 team a much better chance to be successful, and in doing so may buy himself more time at the school. If not, we should get used to seeing Illinois struggle.