At this point in the fall, any self-respecting Illini fan has been dripping with hoops anticipation for weeks. Most (if not all) have Google-searched and Illinois-Loyalty lurked their way into dozens of ideas about this team and this season. But what’s interesting is no matter the level of dedication and research, it’s tough to find two people in agreement about where Illinois stands in relation to the Big Ten Conference, and what it’s capable of come March. So far all we have to go on is the Illini All-In open practice, but tonight is opening night (of sorts), and player-by-player we’ll have a lot more to support any outrageous educated guess.
For the first time of the Groce era, Illinois possesses a team with the depth and skill to put his vision to work. Don’t jump the gun; this isn’t the premium model of his (and our) dreams, but it’s certainly much more complete than his first two years. If you throw away last year’s hodgepodge of misfit toys (no offense to the roster, but it was scorched earth after Weber’s likeness was removed with fire), this team compares favorably to year one of the Groce era.
D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul were very good players in 2012-2013, but still both shot under 40% from the field and 34.8% and 33.3% respectively from 3. Very modest prognostication suggests this year’s roster could have four or five players exceed the shooting numbers of the two best from that year. Year one finished a Shane Larkin shot away from a Sweet 16, and if you’re telling me on paper this team is deeper and more skilled, then what is this year’s ceiling? Well, I don’t know yet. But I know how I’ll figure that out.
Tonight Illinois opens with its first and only exhibition against Quincy. Although the Illini will outclass its opponent at every position, it’s still possible to start extracting details about where this team will land. Here is what I’ll be watching for from each player. (For the purpose of this exercise, and to avoid sounding like I’m degrading any walk-ons, I’m going to stick with guys that could get minutes in February. And to avoid tipping my hat before ever seeing a live game, I’ll work up in seniority order.)
Michael Finke, 4/5 – While Finke committed as a skinny project of a stretch-4, he’s now a perfectly suited and skilled 4/5. From the limited practice it appears that Finke translates a high basketball IQ into a strong grasp of his offense’s moving parts and easily facilitates via passing or moving without the ball. It’ll be interesting to see how effective he is at moving the offense and finding his spots to shoot against a team that doesn’t know the scout. I also want to see if he can get hot from range – more than likely he’s still a year away of training from being a rotation guy, but if he can get hot from range he could win a game or two off the bench.
Leron Black, 4 – Everyone is looking forward to watching the debut of a guy that earned the nickname “Savage”. Reportedly, Black has owned his contribution to the team: rebounding and energy. He put these two things on display in the practice, and it’ll be even more fun watching him ravage a team not wearing orange from a wider lensed camera (I want to track where he’s coming from). I want to see if Black plays within himself, even against Quincy, and sticks to what he does well as a freshman.
Austin Colbert, 5 – If you’ve seen X-Men: First Class, the best analogy I can come up with for Colbert is Beast. Until he took those shoes off and owned his powers, he was holding himself back. Until Colbert acknowledges he’s 6-10, built like a condor, and just flies around like a wild man, he isn’t going to help this basketball team. Get on the court against Quincy, and just be longer and more athletic than anybody else. People marvel at the physical transformations that Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill have made in the same time, so Colbert’s gets forgotten. And because he’s still very thin, he might not get the credit he deserves. But it does appear that Colbert made incremental gains to his frame since his freshman year.
Maverick Morgan, 5 – Tonight is big for Morgan, because he played about 6-5 in the scrimmage. But in all fairness to him, he played about 6-5 last year in the Orange and Blue Scrimmage when it was Morgan v. Egwu. Similar to Colbert, Mav needs to own his strengths. He’s big and wide and has nice touch around the basket. Against a smaller Quincy frontcourt, Maverick needs to move people and create space for his shot and rebounds. If he can’t bully Quincy, we’ll probably be seeing a lot of Finke at the 5 (which has a nice ring to it).
Jaylon Tate, 1 – He’s bigger and stronger than last year, and at times he was more than serviceable off the bench (think Ohio State game). All I want to see from Tate is a made basket. Start by going to the hoop, get a fast break layup, maybe absorb a little contact with that newfound 180-pound body, and then for an encore hit a 3-pointer. Come on, I know you can do it!
Malcolm Hill, 3/4 – I hope the coming out party isn’t against Quincy, because I’d like to see Hill go wild against Nova in The Garden, but I think it’s a good sign if Hill (now a grown man at 19) starts to enforce his will against lesser mortals. Tonight I’d like to see Malcolm continue to be economical, while being a playmaker alongside the guards. While Illinois does have more options this year, if it’s going to take a step towards the top of the conference it’ll need Malcolm Hill to make his teammates better. No player has me more excited for the future than Malcolm Hill.
Kendrick Nunn, 2/3 – It’s selfish of me, but I just want to see him. The coaches insist he is healthier than last year, but if he keeps sitting out of live contests it’ll enlarge whatever Orange and Blue ulcer I’ve got coming later in life.
Aaron Cosby, 2/3 – Seton Hall University is about 2.3 miles from the house I grew up in, so I’ve seen a lot of Aaron Cosby. Tonight I’m looking for Aaron Cosby to show the rest of Illini Nation what he’s going to add this year. He was generally passive during Illini All-In, making a couple nice passes from the top of the key, and making a lay-up on a run out (yes!), but if he watches a couple of his shots go through the net tonight we could be looking at a 20+point performance. If you remember the way you used to feel about Rich McBride when he made his first shot of the night, Cosby will give you similar experiences.
Ahmad Starks, 1 – Deron Williams, Luther Head, Demetri McCamey, Brandon Paul. Since I came to Illinois in 2002, those are the four guards that could create their own shot off the dribble. Ahmad Starks could/should be the fifth, and because it’s such a rarity, I’m itching to see it. Starks was unfortunately redshirted last year, but in the case of the 2014-2015 season, his denial took a fortuitous bounce. Watching a 5-8 jitterbug push the tempo and create space for a near 40% 3-point shot is fun. I also would like to see Starks grab someone’s jersey to move them in the offense, and get in someone’s jock defensively. But for Quincy, I just want to have fun watching.
Rayvonte Rice, 1/2/3 – A person could argue that Rayvonte Rice wasn’t Illinois’s best player, but they’d be hard pressed to win that battle. As a fifth-year senior, Rice probably is what he is offensively and defensively, and that’s a great college player and a beast. But what I want to see from Rice, with new shooters available in the corner and on the wings: Will he pass the ball when he’s drawn a defense? Rice is a 235-pound beast of an athlete, and when he puts his head down and goes to the hoop the defense sucks in on him. Last year he mostly forced the action because he had to, there weren’t many reliable outlets that were better options then forcing the shot and drawing contact. This year there are, and if he has it in him to draw and kick, Rice and Illinois will both be better for it.
Nnanna Egwu, 5 – Much like Rice, we know everything there is to know about Egwu. Those dreaming of him executing up-and-under moves from the block are doing just that: dreaming. What is possible for the senior big man this year? We’ll see tonight if he’s any more comfortable with that little hook we saw in the scrimmage. Egwu is always going to prefer facing up, but if he can just hone that little hook a little over one of his wide shoulders, he’ll see an uptick in scoring as defenses press out on shooters like Starks and Cosby.
Yeah, I’m looking for a lot, but this roster has me excited. I’ll report back with my findings. And if you want to have your own included, keep it under 140 characters and tweet me @Einsane or leave some comments below.