Big Ten Team Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on October 22nd, 2012

Throughout the preseason, the Big Ten microsite will be rolling out these featured breakdowns of each of the 12 league schools. Today’s release is the Illinois Fighting Illini. 

Where we left off: The last two months of the 2011-12 season were just an absolute mess for the Illini. After beating Ohio State at home on January 10, Bruce Weber’s team ended the season in a major slump (2-12) to finish with a record of 17-15. Weber clearly had lost complete control of his team and was fired after the Big Ten Tournament. The Illini did not even get invited to play in the NIT amidst the chaos and the coaching search created even more negative press coverage for the program. VCU’s Shaka Smart reportedly rejected the job offer and rumors about Brad Stevens’ interest in the opportunity were squashed immediately. Nonetheless, the Illini hired an excellent young candidate, former Thad Matta assistant John Groce from Ohio University. Groce brings a much-needed positive attitude to the program and hopes to instill some new energy, and more importantly, toughness into the program.

Will the Illini buy into John Groce’s direction in Champaign?

Positives: Bruce Weber recruited quality talent to Champaign over the past three seasons. Guards Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams were all top 100 recruits in their class coming out of high school. Weber did not fully utilize Paul’s athleticism but the junior exhibited his offensive versatility as he averaged a team-leading 14.7 PPG last season. John Groce’s success at Ohio has been driven by an up-tempo, guard-oriented offense and requires a backcourt who can not only shoot the ball but also consistently attack the basket. Paul and Richardson’s experience will be helpful if they can buy into Groce’s system which is not as stringent as Weber’s motion offense that revolved around several set plays. Abrams only averaged 4.3 PPG last season but showed his maturity during the season of turmoil. Illini fans have been waiting for an offense that will let the guards facilitate drives to the hoop and make plays rather than adherence to drawn plays that revolve around the perimeter.

Negatives: Implementing a dribble-drive offensive scheme which requires every guard to push tempo can backfire if the players lack great ball-handling skills. This is a concern for Groce because Abrams is the only true point guard on the roster who can contribute offensively. Paul, Richardson, Myke Henry and Joseph Bertrand are offensively diverse but none of them are very comfortable handling the ball consistently. Pushing tempo using these players could cause too many turnovers and this could be a major hurdle for the Illini during the upcoming season. Groce has been stressing ball movement during early practices but there may not be enough time until the team feels comfortable with the new system. Paul and Richardson can certainly stand to improve their all-around games but they’ve both focused more on shooting the ball within Weber’s offense. Rebounding will be another concern for the Illini, especially after Meyers Leonard’s departure to the NBA. Even with Leonard anchoring the front line last season, the Illini’s offensive rebounding rate was not great and their lack of size will this year will continue to be a problem. Senior Tyler Griffey is more of a jump shooter who can benefit from pick-and-roll situations but he does not rebound the ball very well either. Sophomore Nnanna Egwu needs to add more weight (currently 235 lbs) if he wants to compete in the rugged Big Ten. Senior transfer Sam McLaurin averaged 7.5 RPG last season and might be the immediate and best hope for Illini fans in the paint.

Best Case: All Illini fans should expect this season is to compete and consistently improve with every game. Change is here but the players need to buy into Groce’s direction. There were too many games over the past few years where Illinois folded during the last five minutes of the game — they never punched back when they were down, rather, they often looked dejected and gave up. This group of players needs to believe that they can compete with the top half of the Big Ten, especially at home in front of the Orange Krush. If they learn to push the tempo without turning the ball over too much, the wins will come. Winning around 20 games and on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament in mid-March will definitely be the best case for the Illini this season. With a couple of solid wins at home against ranked teams, they might be able to sneak into one of the play-in games of the NCAA Tournament.

Worst Case: The non-conference season is key for a new coach to establish a winning attitude within the program. If Groce’s guards appear to be confused with his new system and the big men get dominated regularly in the paint, the Illini will have a long November and December. They may not be expected to beat Missouri or win the Maui Invitational (UNC, Butler, Marquette and Texas await), but they should win the games that they are supposed to. All of the new energy around the program will lose steam if they lose more than four or five games before conference play even begins.

Projected Lineup:

  • PG – Tracy Abrams (So)
  • SG – D.J. Richardson (Sr)
  • SF – Brandon Paul (Sr)
  • PF – Sam McLaurin (Sr)
  • C – Nnanna Egwu (So)

Key Reserves: Joseph Bertrand (Jr, G), Myke Henry (So, F/G), Tyler Griffey (Sr, F), Mike Shaw (So, F), Ibby Djimbde (So, F)

Lineup: Three-guard lineups have been common in Champaign and that trend will continue this year under Groce. Rotating guards will not necessarily be an issue but there is no backup point guard to Abrams. Abrams basically cemented himself as the point guard after last season and should continue to take on that responsibility under Groce. Either Paul or Richardson will handle the ball in the half court when Abrams takes a breather. Paul is certainly capable of playing point but will be more effective playing without the ball as a combo guard. The power forward position will lack depth as well because Mike Shaw (7.0 MPG) and Djimbde (3.6 MPG) have barely seen any playing time at this point in their careers. Early foul trouble for McLaurin or Egwu could force Groce to play a four-guard lineup with Bertrand or Henry filling that role as needed. Henry has enough size to be considered a forward, so he might see more playing time at that position. Lack of depth in the frontcourt will be a challenge all season but the experienced wings should help fill the void.

Deepak Jayanti (270 Posts)

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