Big Ten Summer Check In: Illinois Fighting Illini

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on July 20th, 2012

Illini Nation awaits the 2012-13 season with mixed feelings. Even though most of the fans are relieved to see Bruce Weber leave after nine seasons, they are not overly excited about his replacement, John Groce. The Orange Krush and the majority of the fans expected (hoped?) Illinois to land a high-profile name such as VCU’s Shaka Smart but the coaching search was met with a couple of rejections before Groce was lured away from Ohio University. Nonetheless, everybody is eager to see how the former Ohio State assistant under Thad Matta will do in Big Ten country as a head coach.

Can John Groce bring Illinois back into the top half of the Big Ten?

Evaluating Last Year: Weber’s last season in Champaign can be described using one word - tiring. Even though top recruit Jereme Richmond left the program early for the NBA in spring 2011, there was still enough talent left on the Illini to finish in the top half of the conference last season. The emergence of Meyers Leonard as a formidable force in the paint (13.6 PPG) along with the return of versatile guard Brandon Paul (14.7 PPG) indicated that Illinois wouldn’t have any trouble on the offensive end. Despite their scoring talent, though, Illinois finished 11th in the conference in terms of offensive efficiency, at only 0.97 points per possession. Weber’s offense was not efficient, especially in the second half of the conference play, which led to 12 losses in the last 14 games. They shot only 29.5% from beyond the arc, but still took 35% of their total shots from deep. Weber lost complete control of the team down the stretch and the loss to Nebraska on the road by 23 points was definitely the lowest point of the season. Players looked dejected and there were numerous signs pointing towards Weber’s exit barring a surprising turnaround. Illinois ended with a 17-15 record after starting the season 15-3, which resulted in the coaching change.

State of the Program: A decade ago, Illinois fans couldn’t have been happier about the overall direction of their program. It came off an Elite Eight and a Sweet Sixteen appearance in consecutive seasons and Bill Self brought in three incoming freshmen named Dee Brown, Deron Williams and James Augustine. These players became legends in the Illinois history books as they led the Illini to two Big Ten titles and a National Championship game in the first half of the 2000s. All of that success is a distant memory because Illinois has only managed two more postseason wins and no conference titles since then. They clearly lacked leadership over the past couple seasons, both on and off the court. Despite recruiting consecutive top 25 classes, Weber couldn’t figure out a way to tweak his offensive system to maximize the athletic talent on the roster. Even though Paul (33% 3FG) and D.J. Richardson (35% 3FG) were not consistent from beyond the arc, the offense still revolved around taking deep shots. For example, both players combined for roughly 360 shot attempts last season! Even Weber admitted that he didn’t instill toughness into his squad during their losing streak. Missing NCAA tournaments and consistently being on the bubble in March is not what Illini fans expect from their basketball team. Even if the new coaching staff doesn’t recruit Chicago-land talent immediately, it should be able to develop the existing roster and move back to the top half of the Big Ten standings in due time.

Players Not Returning: Meyers Leonard was a lottery pick in the NBA Draft and his departure creates a huge hole in the paint. Leonard’s 8.2 RPG will need to be replaced, but his defensive presence (1.9 BPG) will be missed even more. The Illini don’t have any big men coming back who can protect the paint like Leonard. Sophomore forwards Nnanna Egwu and Mike Shaw will get some minutes but neither is very experienced to hold their own against top centers like Cody Zeller of Indiana or Michigan’s Jordan Morgan. Guard Sam Maniscalco also will not return but his minutes were fairly limited due to injuries last season and there are plenty of guards on the roster to step up in his absence.

Immediate Needs: There are several needs for this team — rebounding, defensive presence in the paint, and consistent shooting from beyond the arc are just a few of them. But Illinois’ biggest need for next season is toughness. They need a clear leader on the floor who can control the players and bring everybody together during close games. Under Weber, Illinois’ shot selection was poor during the final minutes of games because it mainly included long-range shots. No player took charge and looked for alternative scoring options when the three-ball didn’t fall. Their lack of toughness was displayed in a low team free throw rate — it was only 32% and ranked ninth in the conference last year. Illinois needs the returning guards — Paul, Richardson, Joe Bertrand and Tracy Abrams – to consistently look to get into the paint rather than settle for jumpers.

Key Player(s) to step up: Every player needs to step up next season to turn this program around, but the single most important person will be on the sidelines – John Groce. Groce needs to let the team know that there is a new sheriff in town. He needs to simplify the offense and maximize the talent available to him in Champaign. The guards on the roster are not great shooters but they are very athletic and should be able to push the tempo. Groce holds practice with a 24-second shot clock to execute a faster paced offense. Recruiting is a big deal for the alumni base but there is plenty of talent returning that can produce immediate results if he can motivate them. Bertrand showed some excellent offensive moves last season, specifically a nice looking floating jumper in the lane; Abrams showed great maturity as a freshman point guard; and, Myke Henry is a freak athlete just waiting to bust out of his shell. Groce needs to instill confidence and toughness into these wings and the results will follow.

Conclusion: Illinois fans’ expectations at this point may be unrealistic but they are a passionate group, and the program has been described as a hidden gem in the college hoops landscape by several experts. The turnaround might not be as quick as expected but the pieces are in place again with leadership at the top provided by Groce. It is only a matter of time before Illinois becomes a force in the Big Ten again but their fans need to remain patient.

Deepak Jayanti (241 Posts)


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