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Illinois Fighting Illini (Last Year: 23-13, 8-10 in Big Ten)
2013-14 Projected Depth Chart:
F/C: Nnanna Egwu (Jr)/Maverick Morgan (Fr)
PF: Austin Colbert (Fr) or John Ekey (Sr)
G/F:Joseph Bertrand (Sr)/Malcolm Hill (Fr)
SG: Rayvonte Rice (Jr)/Kendrick Nunn (Fr)
PG: Tracy Abrams (Jr)/Jaylon Tate (Fr)
Gone: G-Brandon Paul, SG-D.J. Richardson, PF-Sam McLaurin, PF-Tyler Griffey, PF-Mike Shaw (transfer-Bradley), C-Ibby Djimde (transfer-Longwood), G/F-Devin Langford (transfer-Kentucky Weslyan), SF-Myke Henry (transfer-DePaul)
Entering just his second year as the Illinois Fighting Illini head coach, John Groce has hit the recruiting trail and transfer wire hard, already landing two top-50 recruits in the 2014 class and adding a few key transfers. However, this year will be filled with transition as the Illini lose eight players from last season’s team and bring in seven new faces.
Only three players return from last year, but all three played significant roles. Tracy Abrams ran the point even though he often deferred to Brandon Paul. Starting center Nnanna Egwu showed improvement on the offensive end with a more reliable mid-range game, while athletic wing Joseph Bertrand served as Illinois’ sixth man. Coach Groce can use Bertrand’s versatility in a number of different ways as he can slide to the power forward spot when the team utilizes a smaller lineup. That trio will shoulder the load for the young Illini this season.
The team also welcomes two, possibly three valuable transfers. Rayvonte Rice was a 2-year starter at Drake and is a physically imposing offguard who will help replace the losses of Paul and D.J. Richardson since Rice averaged nearly 17 points per game during his sophomore year. Former Illinois State forward Jon Ekey takes over the Tyler Griffey/Bill Cole roles of late as a stretch four. Illinois is still awaiting word on a possible waiver for Oregon State transfer point guard Ahmad Starks. He may have to sit out this season, but if the NCAA allows him to play right away, he will add needed experience to the roster.
The rest of the team is made up of five freshman with power forward Austin Colbert perhaps being the most important piece. He could end up starting right away at power forward. Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill figure to be valuable pieces off the bench as both guys are capable scorers. Nunn is a lefty combo guard, while Hill brings more length to the floor. Jaylen Tate will back up Abrams at the point if Starks isn’t eligible this season, while Maverick Morgan brings some physicality to the paint.
Groce also added Seton Hall transfer Aaron Cosby and former Western Michigan forward Darius Paul during the summer. Cosby is a combo guard who can stroke it from deep, while Paul was the MAC Freshman of the Year and Brandon’s baby brother. Both guys must sit out this season but will join what should be a very talented roster once they become eligible.
Anytime you have as much turnover on roster as Illinois, a grace period of sorts will be needed to figure things out. I wouldn’t rule out a trip to the NCAA Tournament, but it seems unlikely. I will say this though; I’ve already got my eyes on the potential for the Fighting Illini in 2014-15.
Player to Watch: Tracy Abrams, PG
The past two seasons, Abrams had the luxury of Paul and Richardson taking some of the pressure off him. That won’t be the case this year. Even with Rice joining the squad, Abrams will be the primary ball-handler and offense initiator. It will be interesting to see how he handles that responsibility.
Key Non-Conference Games:
Predicted Big Ten Finish: 8th
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