Fact or Fiction: Illinois will make the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
Derek Piper, lead basketball reporter
Fact. Illinois is losing their second-leading scorer, clearly their second best three-point shooter and a guy who played more than 35 minutes per game last year. Nunn was set to be one of the top six returning scorers in the Big Ten. That's a sizeable blow. But Illinois is in a position to weather that storm. Depth will be a concern at the two-guard spot, but there's no doubt that Jalen Coleman-Lands can fill it up on a nightly basis. Malcolm Hill will be a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate. In addition, Illinois will have a potent frontcourt and big upgrades at the point guard position.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1672612-moving-forward-after... return of Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black are invaluable. The Illini were crushed on the glass and with points in the paint last season, and that had a lot to do with those two playing three games combined after November. If healthy, Thorne is up there with Thomas Bryant and Isaac Haas as the top centers in the conference. He and Black alone will transform the Illini into a top-half rebounding team in the Big Ten. When you factor in Michael Finke and Maverick Morgan, Illinois has arguably the deepest frontcourt in the conference with plenty of opportunity to mix and match lineups. That also allows Hill to slot in at the three, which is a natural fit for him.
Point guard play has been pretty crippling for the Illini over the last two seasons. The combination of Ahmad Starks, Khalid Lewis and Jaylon Tate was, well, not ideal in the slightest. That's why you saw John Groce use Hill at the point down the stretch last year. Now, Illinois is set to get Tracy Abrams back with his slam-dunk case for a sixth year. It's hard to tell how he'll look after two season-ending injuries in a row. But Abrams has already been a two-year starter in the Big Ten, he possesses the grit and leadership Illinois has sorely needed, and he is a capable scorer at the position. Four-star point guard Te'Jon Lucas will also come in with a chance to make an impact.
Health is a crucial and unpredictable factor. But barring major injuries, the Illini should like their chances. Groce has an experienced team, strong frontcourt, Big Ten-worthy point guards and an all-league star.
Ryan Easterling, recruiting reporter
Fact. Illinois IS a tournament team in 2017 despite the dismissal of Kendrick Nunn. But whether they will perform like a tournament team is a completely different story. Last year showed what a rash of injuries can do to a roster that otherwise was expected to be in the top-five or -six in the conference.
Malcolm Hill is back. Mike Thorne is back. Tracy Abrams is back. Those three alone form a great core to a team that otherwise has lacked strong leadership on the court. Jalen Coleman-Lands will need to avoid a sophomore slump and continue to shoot the ball like he did as a freshman.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1672642-projected-illini-bas... Aside from that group, though, a lot of the team's success will ride on the progress of last year's freshmen. Coleman-Lands was asked to play a lot of minutes as a freshman, despite battling a pre-season injury that limited his ability to properly prepare. Guys like Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams will need to improve significantly on the defensive side of the ball and grasp floor spacing better on the offensive end.
Maverick Morgan was one of the nice late surprises of last season. The big man who struggled through much of his freshman campaign stepped up in a big way after Thorne went down with the injury last season. With Thorne back, Morgan won't see the same workload as he did late last season, but that experience was invaluable in getting him to a higher level as a player.
The wildcards will be Leron Black and Jaylon Tate. Both saddled with legal troubles this offseason, how will they bounce back from the off-court drama and re-establish their reputations? Not to mention, both also suffered injuries last year that limited their action substantially.
Keep an eye on Kipper Nichols. He's maintained a fairly low profile, but could be a big time key to Illinois' success this winter. I don't think it's fair to expect too much out of Te'Jon Lucas as a freshman. Illinois has desperately needed a true scoring point guard for years now, and now that they have one, expectations need to be tempered to allow Lucas, who recovers from a pretty significant ankle and lower-leg injury, to regain his conditioning and comfort level on the court.
So.. getting back to the original question. Is Illinois a tournament team in 2017? The talent is there. The experience is there, but if Illinois isn't a tournament team in 2017, they might just have a new coach come 2018.
Jeremy Werner, publisher
Fact. I guess we're all homers. Plus, we're all assuming health -- a dangerous proposition given Groce's luck lately.
Nunn is a very good player. He is a huge loss for the Illini. He was the 12th leading scorer (15.5 ppg) in the Big Ten last season and finished fourth in the conference in steals (1.5 spg). He was going to be an All-Big Ten candidate this season.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1671949-illini-recruiting-lo... But Nunn has been a good player on a bad team. And to be honest, he was a frustrating player down the stretch of each of the last two seasons. As a freshman, he showed some tenacity on the court -- remember Nunn vs. D.J. Newbill? -- that we didn't see enough of the last two seasons. When the Illini needed leadership, he didn't respond. When the Illini needed him to be their go-to defender, he didn't respond. I'm not trying to pile on Nunn after his dismissal, and he wasn't the Illini's biggest problem the last two seasons. Far from it. But he isn't irreplaceable -- especially with Coleman-Lands on the roster.
But like Piper said, even without Nunn, the Illini roster -- yes, this is all assuming health -- is better than last season due to returns and additions, most of which you guys covered.
The returns of Thorne Jr. and Black give the Illini one of the deepest and most experienced frontcourts in the conference and should significantly improve the Illini's second-chance points and points-in-the-paint margins (both were bad last season). Abrams -- man, who doesn't want him to stay healthy? -- gives the Illini on-the-court leadership, a solid top-of-the-key defender and at least a threat to score.
Lucas gives the Illini depth at college basketball's most important position, and while he's more of a pass first point guard, he also is an improved threat to score. Don't forget about Kipper Nichols either. He's a strong, athletic, high energy wing with the potential to be a big presence on defense and on the glass.
Also, the sophomores (Coleman-Lands, Finke, D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan) should be stronger -- I'm a big fan of what strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher is trying to do -- and more prepared for Big Ten play.
The Illini are longer, stronger and deeper. Hill is an absolute star, and now he has some help around him.
I also think the schedule will help. First of all, all their home games will, you know, actually be at the State Farm Center. Second, the Illini will test themselves in the nonconference -- home game against NC State, neutral site games against BYU, Missouri, VCU and two of Florida State, Temple and West Virginia -- with the chance to help the RPI and maybe add a marquee win or two. Also, the Big Ten will be really competitive in the top-10 but it's not that strong at the top and really weak at the bottom.
The Illini likely won't be a Big Ten title contender. But even without Nunn, this roster -- again, assuming health -- should be in the NCAA Tournament. I'll predict an 8-9 game appearance.
If not, Illinois needs to have a new leader next season.