After failing to even reach the NIT in 2011, not much was expected from coach John Groce in his first year as Illinois head coach. The word “rebuild” is often mentioned in any conversation regarding the Illini squad. Under the tutelage of Groce, seniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson soared to new heights and led the team past a rebuild season and back into the NCAA tournament. Illinois reached the 3rd round of the NCAA tournament and came within five points of clinching their first Sweet 16 since 2005.
This season Illinois will be without the dynamic scoring duo of Paul and Richardson, who are 8th and 13th scoring all-time for the Illini, respectively. In addition to the losses of Paul and Richardson, big men Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin graduated, leaving the Illini with only four returning players. With a revamped roster of nine newcomers, rebuild is once again synonymous with Illinois basketball.
The lone senior on the roster, shooting guard Joseph Bertrand doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think it’s a rebuilding year,” Bertrand said. “We lost a couple of guys but we got some new guys who are also talented. We’ve always been working hard to get the team going this year so I don’t think of it as a rebuilding year at all.”
Some of the skepticism surrounding the team revolves around their ability to sustain Groce’s three point heavy offense without Paul, Richardson and Griffey. Tracy Abrams made the most three pointers among the returning players with 31 three pointers made last season. The offense also leaned heavily on Paul’s creativity when no one else could score or at the end of close games. Despite concerns, what the team lacks in star power it makes up in depth.
Groce added top 100 recruit shooting guards Kendrick Nunn from Simeon Career Academy (ranked 61st on ESPN) and Malcolm Hill from Belleville East High School (ranked 66th). The Illini add three more recruits to the roster. Possibly the most important newcomers for Illinois came from the transfer market. After joining the team last season, Drake transfer junior Rayvonte Rice will be eligible to suit up for the Illini. Illinois also added power forward Jon Ekey, a graduate student transfer from Illinois State. With less core players, a bigger rotation may be in store.
“I always like to play 9 or 10,” Groce said. “Players play players, I don’t play them. They grade out, if they can earn minutes, they’re good enough to play and help us stay competitive and I can count on them to do what they’re supposed to do—I’d like to play that many guys.”
A bigger rotation allows Groce the flexibility to play faster and more aggressive. No matter how big Groce’s rotation becomes, Rice will be a huge part of it.
Groce called Rice “the poster child for strength and conditioning,” as he’s lost 36 pounds and cut his body fat percentage by 7% since joining the team. Rice impressed the coaching staff so much that he was named the team’s Most Improved Player last season without stepping on the court.
“I’ve been doing it now 19 going on 20 years as an assistant coach and head coach, and I don’t know if I’ve seen a guy who’s sitting out on a transfer make the number of strides that [Rayvonte Rice] did in the year that he was out,” Groce said.
Rice is only 6’4”, but Groce plans to play him anywhere from point guard to power forward. He’s a huge athlete that draws foul and finishes strong. He thinks his outside game isn’t too shabby either.
“Coach made us make 11,000 shots. So yeah, I think it’s improved a little bit,” Rice said.
After averaging 16.8 points and 5.8 rebounds in his sophomore season at Drake, Rice leading the team in points and rebounds isn’t out of question.
Rice along with other newcomers will join returning starters senior guard Joseph Bertrand, junior point guard Tracy Abrams, and junior center Nnanna Egwu.
Abrams, Rice and Bertrand should carry the brunt of the offense, implementing more of a dribble drive game than the outside game of last year’s team.
Abrams found success running the Illini offense in his sophomore season, showing improvements in both the passing and shooting department. His offensive game was still erratic and he had far too many turnovers, but his defense and intensity never wavered.
Bertrand is a smooth player with a unique skillset, incorporating a sweet in between game with a slick floater. Bertrand will need to improve his ball handling and be more aggressive this season, but he’s proved to be a violent finisher when he gets to the rim.
The projected starting lineup for Illinois is Abrams at point guard, Rice at shooting guard, Bertrand at small forward, Ekey at power forward, and Egwu at center. Groce said Illinois will utilize more small ball lineups to get a speed and athletic advantage on the opponents.
Despite the major changes, Egwu believes the team has already developed its chemistry.
“On the court it took a while trying to get used to our playing styles,” Egwu said. “I think we progressed over the summer we progressed in the fall, right now we’re really getting to the point where everyone knows what we’re gonna do. The ball moves around, chemistry is really growing so I think the basketball part of it took time but right now it’s really picking up.”
There is hardly anything left of the Illinois team that went 17-15 two seasons ago, but that doesn’t mean Illinois is safe from the possibility of another rebuild season.
Last season the Illini took a step in the right direction, but with a totally revamped team, Groce wants to push his team even further this year.
“Last year certainly I thought our team—as much as any team I’ve ever coached—reached or even went a bit higher than their potential,” Groce said. “But, we got high expectations and high aspirations here of what it means to be Illini basketball. We got a long way to go.”