Illinois 2014-15 Record: 19-14, 9-9 in the Big Ten
Key Players Lost: Ahmad Starks, Rayvonte Rice, Nnanna Egwu, Aaron Cosby and Austin Colbert
Key Players Coming Back: Malcolm Hill, Tracy Abrams (RS), Jaylon Tate, Leron Black, Maverick Morgan and Kendrick Nunn.
New Recruits: Mike Thorne Jr., Darius Paul (transfer from Western Michigan), Jalen Coleman-Lands, Aaron Jordan, D.J. Williams and Michael Finke (RS).
For the second straight year, the Fighting Illini were close to making the NCAA Tournament, but not close enough as they had to settle for an NIT bid once again.
If star senior guard Rayvonte Rice had not missed nine games midway through the year with a broken hand, the Illini’s fate could have been different. Not to mention, it hurt from the start to miss starting point guard Tracy Abrams all season with a knee injury.
Illinois had a good enough start racing out to a 10-3 non-conference record, while beating the likes of Baylor along the way. Then they hit Big Ten play and hit a bit of a lull.
The Illini dropped their first two games to Michigan and Ohio State. It was in the Ohio State game where Rice got injured. While the Illini fared well in his absence, going 6-3 in his stead, Rice was missed in losses to Minnesota and Nebraska in that stretch. Also, losing your leading scorer midway through the season will break up continuity.
Illinois fumbled their chances at securing a spot in the NCAA Tournament by losing five out of their last seven games, while ultimately settling for said NIT bid. And perhaps despondent about not heading to the NCAA tournament, the Illini came out uninspired in their loss to Alabama in the NIT, losing 79-58 in the first round.
Individually, both Rice and sophomore forward Malcolm Hill had solid seasons.
Rice ended his season averaging 16.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game while shooting .471 percent from the floor, .807 from the free-throw line and .436 percent from three-point range. Hill had a fine sophomore campaign after averaging 14.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game while shooting .443 percent from the field, .781 percent from the free-throw line and .389 percent from three-point range.
Both Rice and Hill were named Honorable Mention all-Big Ten. Senior big man Nnanna Egwu also had a solid season, especially defensively, as he was named to the all-Big Ten Defensive team.
2015-16 Look Ahead:
With Hill and Kendrick Nunn (11.6 points per game on .360 shooting from three-point range) providing a nice scoring punch, head coach John Groce has a good foundation to work with next season. Add in the return of Abrams and things are looking up for the Illini.
Hill in particular is ready to break out next season, and he’ll have a legitimate chance to make all-Big Ten next season. He has a fascinating, versatile all-around game and expect him to only get better.
The return of Abrams at point guard will prove to be huge for Illinois next season. As a seasoned veteran and leader, his return will help the Illini’s engine run more smoothly. His absence loomed large this past season.
Nonetheless, the Illini will still have to absorb some major personnel loss, as Groce will lose four of his top six scorers in Rice, Egwu, Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks.
That’s not to say Illinois will have it rough. As I said, they have a nice duo in Hill and Nunn to lean on. Plus, players like Jaylon Tate, Leron Black and Maverick Morgan showed a lot of promise last season.
To boot, Groce is bringing in a great recruiting class led by Jordan Brand All-American Jalen Coleman-Hands (noted for being a dead-eye shooter) and D.J. Williams, both of who are top-50 recruits; as well as and high-end transfer in Darius Paul from Western Michigan. Paul should make an immediate impact in the post.
Between the returning talent and the newcomers, Illinois has a chance to move up the ladder in the Big Ten this coming season. The Illini have the ingredients of returning back to the dance. If they don’t, Groce could feel the pressure in keeping his job.