Last season Illinois finished with a 20-15 record (7-11 in the Big Ten) and earned a berth to the NIT where they won their opening round matchup with Boston U and fell to Clemson in the second round in the final seconds.
Illinois has a strong group of seniors from which they will draw leadership this season. Nnanna Egwu has really stepped into even more of a leadership role. He is joined by fellow (redshirt) senior, Champaign native, and last year's leading scorer Rayvonte Rice. Rice has played a lot of basketball in his career, and the local product has one more year to leave his mark on his hometown program. Joining those two is the now-eligible Ahmad Starks, who sat last season after transferring from Oregon State.
An unfortunate and untimely knee injury to senior-to-be Tracy Abrams derailed his plans for being on the floor this season, but he has still stayed very involved in practices vocally and is providing leadership for the team off the court.
The New Guys:
The two-man 2014 class of Leron Black and Champaign's own Michael Finke helped to fill in a need in the front court for the Illini. Finke, known mostly for his prolific perimeter shooting, provides Illinois with a stretch four who picks up the role carved out by former Illini Tyler Griffey and Jon Ekey. Black, on the other hand, is a grinder from both the high and low post who scraps for rebounds and plays with a motor that doesn't slow down. One thing that will help Black earn minutes early is his rebounding ability, which usually carries over well from high school. His offensive game will need time to adjust, but Black should see some minutes off the bench sooner rather than later.
Though he was around all of last year, there's a lot of buzz surrounding Seton Hall transfer Aaron Cosby. The combo guard originally from Jersey brings a real threat from the perimeter and has the ability to create his own shots. Cosby can handle the ball when tasked with it. He, along with guys like Nunn, Rice, and Starks, make Illinois a far more dangerous team from deep than they were last season. Also, walk-on transfer Alex Austin, a former Eastern Illinois Panther, gives Illinois a viable guard off the bench and is no stranger to playing against (and even with) numerous Big Ten hoopers.
Last Year's New Guys:
The class of 2013, made up of Jaylon Tate, Kendrick Nunn, Austin Colbert, Malcolm Hill, and Maverick Morgan, all played last season, and got valuable experience. By the end of the season, Nunn had earned a starting role at shooting guard, and Hill played starters minutes in a number of games. Nunn was hampered a bit with a knee injury this offseason but should be good to go. If he can continue to tap into his bountiful potential, he will be a real problem for opponents.
With Tracy Abrams going down with his injury, Jaylon Tate will split more time at the point guard role. Primarily a backup last season, Tate has been lauded for being even keel with the ball in his hands and has matured quite a bit this offseason. Physically, he looks more mature and is no stranger to winning. If Tate can consistently play well, it should make the whole team better as he orchestrates the offense.
But of that class, the guy who has seemingly made the biggest leap this offseason is Belleville native Malcolm Hill. Hill, who is very young for his class, has really filled out his frame and looks the part of a Big Ten basketball player. He added upwards of 20 pounds this offseason (nearly all muscle) and has become more athletic and improved his ball handling. Hill's skill set makes him a huge matchup problem for opposing teams. If his defense has progressed as well as his offense, it will be hard to keep him out of the starting lineup.
PG - Ahmad Starks
With Abrams out, Starks steps into the starting PG role and brings both a scoring threat and three years of experience to the table. He played with and against some of the guys on the team back in high school and has proven he's ready to play.
SG - Rayvonte Rice
Rice is the main man for this team. Last year's leading scorer is a physical force at the guard position and is the best on the team and one of the best in the conference at getting penetration into the lane and finishing through contact at the hoop.
SG - Aaron Cosby
Normally I'd slate Kendrick Nunn at this spot, but with Nunn still coming off the tail end of his injury, Cosby likely gets the nod here and hits the ground running. He was voted most improved player following his sit-out year due to the transfer, and he's ready to get back in the game and make some noise.
PF - Malcolm Hill
Malcolm Hill isn't really playing a traditional "power forward" role, but with three other guards in, he slides to the four position, which he played in much of his action last year. Offensively, he's going to have advantages, but he will need to hold his own on defense against bigger opponents when at the position.
C - Nnanna Egwu
Egwu is one of the best defenders in the Big Ten and with a solid season, might even get his name in the conversation with some of the best in the country. Egwu is a natural shot blocker with an evolving offensive game. The key for him will be staying out of foul trouble and staying on the floor.
- First of all, the goal is pretty clear for this team: Make a run in the NCAA tournament. Last year's NIT berth gave the team some extra practice time, but at the end of the day, this team has too much talent and a strong enough group of seniors that not making the big dance would be a huge disappointment.
- The sophomores have to step up. Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill played considerable minutes last season, and Tate will get his minutes at the point. But to truly be a deep team, guys like Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan have to continue to develop and make the most of their minutes on the floor, especially with a lack of experienced depth in the post.
- Freshmen can't have the mindset of freshmen. Leron Black and Michael Finke obviously have their adjustments to make as they adapt to high-major college basketball, but by the time Big Ten play rolls around, those two guys will be counted upon as role players. The minutes are there for the taking, and if either one proves they are hungry enough and do the right things, they will get on the court.
- A strong start to the Big Ten goes a long way. Illinois has struggled early in Big Ten play each of the last two seasons, including a couple of losing streaks that tested the resolve of the team. Getting off on the right foot in Big Ten play would be a huge confidence booster for this team and would prove that Illinois is returning to contention in the top half of the Big Ten.
Illinois vs. Baylor or Memphis (November 28, Las Vegas)
Illinois at Miami (December 2, Miami)
Illinois vs. Villanova (December 9, New York - Madison Square Garden)
Illinois vs. Oregon (December 13, Chicago - United Center)
Illinois vs. Missouri (December 20, St. Louis - Scottrade Center)
Illinois at Michigan (December 30, Ann Arbor - CONFERENCE OPENER)
Illinois at Ohio State (January 3, Columbus)
Illinois vs. Indiana (January 18, Champaign)
Illinois at Michigan State (February 7, East Lansing)
Illinois at Iowa (February 25, Iowa City)