Coming off a lackluster 2015-’16 season, Illinois is hoping to make real progress this year. The development of the team will be particularly important in the backcourt, where the Illini haven’t been blessed with stability in several years. Now, with Khalid Lewis and Kendrick Nunn departing and Te’Jon Lucas arriving, things will look quite different heading into next season.
When Tracy Abrams went down with a season-ending injury last summer (for the second year in a row), most figured the backcourt would become a major issue for Illinois. However, with the addition of Khalid Lewis, the team was able to get some production from the point guard position and the backcourt in general.
However, with both Lewis and Nunn departing this offseason, there will be a lot of pressure on the team’s returners and additions to provide productive minutes.
Based upon the returners and departures for Illinois, it’s pretty easy to project Abrams and Coleman-Lands as the starters in the backcourt for the Illini next season. Both have real and noteworthy flaws, but barring something surprising, they are the clear options.
With Abrams attempting to come back for the first time since the 2013-’14 season, there will obviously be questions about his readiness and durability. Realistically, one can probably guess that his minutes will be limited until the staff feels confident he’s fully ready. However, once ready, he should immediately become one of the team’s best passers. He led the Illini’s last NCAA Tournament team (2014) in assist rate among major contributors.
Alongside Abrams figures to be the team’s top sophomore in Coleman-Lands. Considering he shot an impressive 42.2 percent from three-point range and ranked No. 10 in the Big Ten in effective field goal rate, he should be one of the Big Ten’s better offensive players this season. If Abrams can feed him the ball, the offense could really hum for Illinois.
Behind Abrams and Coleman-Lands are returning seniors Alex Austin and Jaylon Tate and underclassmen Aaron Jordan and Te’Jon Lucas.
Considering Abrams’ injury concerns, it’s a fair bet that Tate and Lucas will gain substantial playing time at some point this season. Unfortunately, both still have plenty to prove. Tate gained a decent amount of time on the floor last year with Abrams out, but had just a 96.4 offensive rating and struggled with turnovers and shooting. Though Lucas could end up being good, he’s an incoming freshman (with a three-star rating) who still needs to develop.
At shooting guard, Austin figures to be the main guy since Jordan should spend most of his minutes on the wing due to the loss of Kendrick Nunn. Austin is another reserve who has played noticeable minutes, but hasn’t been all that productive. One good thing to note is that Austin was a productive defensive rebounder last season, which could help against bigger teams.
Illinois has a lot to like in its backcourt for the upcoming season. It has a proven commodity in Coleman-Lands and returns three other likely contributors with senior status. This is an experienced group that should show plenty of consistency this year.
However, there are still plenty of question marks. The injury issues for Abrams and the underwhelming track records for Austin and Tate look like potential hurdles. Plus, whether Coleman-Lands can go from a productive freshman to a legitimate star is something fans will have to wait to see.
The good news is that if Coleman-Lands can continue to improve and John Groce can find a stable and cohesive rotation at point guard, this looks like a highly functional backcourt group.