Illini basketball struggles to find rhythm on season

By Nicholas Fortin

The Illini came into the season with optimism, as the team looked like it would be led by a senior-heavy starting lineup that was hungry for a run in the NCAA Tournament.

Illinois’ optimism took its first blow before the first tip-off of the year — senior guard Tracy Abrams was lost for the season to an ACL tear during fall practice. As the year progressed, the Illini dealt with other problems, including the injuries and suspensions to both Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby as well as sub-par play from both seniors and younger players alike. ss

The Illini started the season 6-0, beat Baylor and rose to No. 24 nationally before the team got its first taste of reality. Illinois lost to Miami and dropped two of its next three to tough competition. ss

The team put together a three-game winning streak to end the nonconference portion of its schedule before the downward portion of an up-and-down season struck again at the beginning of Big Ten play.

In conference Illinois’ play fluctuated just as much as it had done earlier in the year. The Illini knocked off Michigan State at home but lost to Nebraska on the road. Illinois’ inconsistency was reflected in its 9-9 mark in the Big Ten.

Even after all the ups and downs the Illini still had a chance to make the Big Dance if Illinois could knock off Michigan in the Big Ten tournament. Although head coach John Groce talked up his team’s stellar practices leading into the game, the Illini were dismantled by the Wolverines and ended up losing the game 73-55.ss

“I didn’t see that one coming at all,” Groce said after the game. “That one blindsided me. We expected to play well today and just didn’t.”

After the game, sophomore guard Malcolm Hill was candid about Illinois’ chances of making the NCAA tournament after such an embarrassing loss.

“I mean, I don’t like to say we’re about to play in the NIT,” Hill said. “But we just have to do our best in that, I guess.”

Just as had been the case all season, the Illini weren’t able to find their rhythm in their lone game in the NIT. Illinois was blown out by host Alabama in a game that was never close: The Crimson Tide won 79-58.ss

The Illini will see the graduation of Rice, Nnanna Egwu and Ahmad Starks.

Illinois will return three starters and a number of juniors who will hope to make next year’s Illini a deep team. Abrams will be back to contribute for the team. The Illini will also welcome in several new freshmen faces as well as senior center transfer Mike Thorne Jr. from Charlotte University.

Thorne will replace the hole in the frontcourt left by Egwu. He will have one year of eligibility remaining.

Groce is also still in the process of recruiting another guard, incoming freshman Marcus LoVett from Morgan Park high school, who would make an already deep backcourt even deeper.

This season will leave a sour taste in the team’s mouth, and the three departing seniors will leave a large void both in leadership and production. With the experience of next year’s team and the year-to-year movement in the Big Ten, the Illini will look to be a contender as long as they can find their rhythm first.

[email protected]