USA Today // Matthew O'Haren
1. Tracy Abrams
Total points: 10 (Piper 1st - 5, Werner 3rd - 3, Easterling 4th - 2)
Piper: Abrams is the leader that this team has sorely missed at a position that has been seriously lacking on the roster the last two years. Here you have a three-year Big Ten starter who hasn't played a game since March 2014. How will he look after coming back from two consecutive season-ending injuries? How much different will the team look with him out there? The results on the practice court have been positive thus far, but everyone is anxiously waiting to see it in game action. With him turning 25 this season, Abrams is one of the most intriguing stories in college basketball.
Easterling: Two years in a row, Abrams has sat on the bench, often in a button-down shirt or a sweater -- not a jersey. But seemingly he's back. How much will he be able to contribute? Will he ever play with the same aggressiveness he once did? Mentally, I think Abrams won't have any toughness issues, but he'll have to be careful not to overdo it so that his body can hold up for him.
Werner: List of people younger than Tracy Abrams: Blake Bortles, Kyrie Irving, Bryce Harper, Miley Cyrus and Meyers Leonard (by three weeks). Abrams is a man. He's also a pretty good basketball player when healthy. Though most of us probably forgot exactly what he does well on the court. He of course brings a lot of intangibles the Illini have missed, but he also is a very good distributor who had drastically cut down on his turnover rate year to year. He's not a good shooter (but at least a threat) and attacks the basket well, getting to the free-throw line a lot. Of course, we have no idea if he still can do those things well.
2. Kipper Nichols
Total points: 9 (Piper 2nd -- 4, Easterling 2nd - 4; Werner 5th -- 1)
Piper: The Illini man of mystery. There is intrigue written all over Nichols. Everyone has heard about him but few have actually seen him play. Even then, no one has seen him play a game of college basketball. Nichols is athletic, strong and he looks like he can contribute right away. He has to sit out the first semester, which will have people wondering even more. In a similar fashion to Abrams, Nichols' last game was in the high school state tournament back in Ohio in March 2015.
Easterling: The guy Derek dubbed "The Illini Man of Mystery" is just that. A transfer who never played a game at Tulane but has all the physical tools to do what Groce wants out of his wing players. Nichols is a bit of a wild card and brings things to the table that some of the other guys don't. What intrigues me most about him is his versatility, so I'm anxious to see how many different ways they use Nichols.
Werner: We receive more questions about Nichols than any other Illini player. I get it. He looks like a specimen we see in the NBA. Groce loves his demeanor, toughness and physicality. But barely any of us have seen him play. I rated him lower because he will miss about the first 10 games due to NCAA transfer rules and is playing behind the Illini's two best scorers (Malcolm HIll and Jalen Coleman-Lands). Nichols will play a role, adding defense and rebounding. But I'm not expecting a massive impact this season.
3. Mike Thorne Jr.
Total points: 8 (Werner 1st -- 5, Piper 3rd 3, Easterling n/a)
Piper: Talk about another crazy story. The Illini lured Thorne away from Kansas and Kentucky on the transfer market. Thorne showed his value immediately by posting 25 points and 14 rebounds in the opener. He's a presence in the paint, and he is a very good back-to-the-basket scorer. He only played in seven games last year before tearing his meniscus, though, and he came back for a game in January before going down again. That seemed to nix his shot at another year in Champaign, but the NCAA surprisingly ruled in his favor. With that, the Illini went from losing him this year to having one of the best centers in the Big Ten.
Werner: This is why he's No. 1 for me. If Thorne is healthy all season -- and that seems a big if consider he's a huge human on a shaky knee -- I think Illinois definitely will be an NCAA Tournament team. Thorne changes the way Illinois plays. He's a space-eater and one of the nation's elite rebounders. On the glass, he prolongs Illinois possessions and ends opponents' possessions. When receiving touches in the post, he causes defenses to collapse -- opening up the offense for the perimeter players. Besides Hill, no one on this team has a bigger impact on how Illinois plays -- and thus, no one has a larger impact on Illinois' level of success this season.
T-4. Leron Black
Total points: 6 (Werner 2nd -- 4, Piper 4th -- 2, Easterling n/a)
Piper: Black was primed for a breakout year last season after learning some important lessons as a freshman. In August 2015, Black was the most productive player on Illinois' trip to Europe. But he also suffered from a torn meniscus, which limited him to seven games on the season. He was then arrested in February for pulling a knife at a club, and he will be suspended for the first four games of the regular season. There are high hopes for Black within the program, while some on the outside tend to forget him as one of the major contributors.
Werner: For you South Park viewers, 'member when Leron Black was a top-50 recruit? Oh, yeah, I 'member! 'Member when Leron Black was the best Illini player during last summer's European trip? Yes, yes, I 'member, I 'member! Last season's injury (and how poorly he played in his minimal minutes early in the season because of that injury) has made most of us forgot the height of Black's ceiling. He's a phenomenal rebounder with tenacity (too much sometimes), athleticism and a decent face-up game that is expanding. He must control that tenacity for good and also must improve his defense (cut down on fouls), but he can be the type of versatile post presence we normally see at Michigan State.
T-4. Te'Jon Lucas
Total points: 6 (Easterling 1st -- 5, Piper 5th -- 1, Werner n/a)
Easterling: Probably the most intriguing if not the most important to me. Malcolm Hill is this team's best player, and I'm not sure anyone doubts that, but Illinois will likely need to rely on some production from Lucas, and between his injury and the fact that he's a true freshman, I'm curious to see how much of a contributor he becomes this year.
Piper: After completely missing on point guards in the 2014 and 2015 classes, Illinois finally got one in Lucas in the 2016 class. He was fairly under the radar up until late in the AAU season, but he turned out to be a four-star talent before all was said and done. Lucas was putting together a stellar senior season last winter until he made a trip to Champaign against Centennial, which was supposed to be a showcase game for him in front of the home Illini fans. Instead, a dirty foul on a breakaway layup broke Lucas' ankle in two places. Lucas is just now getting back to full-go on the practice court. His progression is important this year, as he and freshman-to-be Trent Frazier will be the point guards in 2017-18.
Others receiving points:
D.J. Williams (3 - Easterling 3rd): Williams showed a few glimpses of what he can do toward the end of his freshman season as his playing time increased, but after seeing him in high school, I want to see if he's able to shake off some of the inconsistency and become a reliable contributor on both ends of the ball. He has a ton of potential, but this will be a big year for him to actually reach it.
Jalen Coleman-Lands (2 -- Werner 4th): JCL's broken hand really bums me out. Sure, he should return around the start of the season (just like he did last season after sitting out most of his freshman summer with a stress fracture in his lower left leg). I have no doubts the sophomore sharpshooter be effective and really good when he returns. I just think he can be special. And two more wasted months may hinder his development (especially that attack-the-basket game) further. Still, he's the next star on this team and his development will be intriguing to watch.
Maverick Morgan (1 -- Easterling 5th):Illinois was fortunate to get another year for Mike Thorne, but the guy that really intrigues me in the post is Maverick Morgan, mainly because I want to see what this offseason of working with S&C coach Adam Fletcher has done for the big fella. Word is he's made significant improvements, especially to his jumping ability. So if Morgan has developed any explosiveness at all, he could make a big leap this year (no pun intended).